Though I’d like to say my Sunday Salon post is late because I’ve been so busy reading, I’m afraid I’m unable to do so. Actually, the day has been spent as many Sunday’s here are – in church for the morning, at brunch with friends, then errands and visits to elderly relatives in the afternoon.
There has been extra reading time this week (thanks to the holiday) and I’ve been immersed in two books which, while seemingly quite different, both illustrate an interesting similarity about writers and their work – Eudora Welty, a Biography, by Suzanne Marrs, and Straight Man, by Richard Russo.
Much of Eudora Welty’s fiction is set in southern towns, much like her own hometown of Jackson, Mississippi. For her, and for many, if not most, writers, place becomes an integral part of their work. And it’s more than setting or location, really, it’s a deep seated, almost unconscious sense of being imbued with the characteristics of a place, a way of life, of the people and history of a location and time, a passion for the sensory aspects of the place, its times and seasons.
“Place,” Welty would write in a lecture presented at Cambridge in 1951, “provides the novelist with his raw material and helps him to make the world of his novel credible; place grounds him, provides him with roots and perspective and with a point of view.” Yes, this sense of place might come from the writer’s very own hometown, but Welty acknowledges that “there may come to be new places in our lives that are second spiritual homes – closer to us in some ways, perhaps, than our original homes.”
I began thinking, then, about all the writers I’ve read this year for whom “place” is so important…from the Bronte sisters and Jane Austen, to Alice Munroe and Jhumpa Lahiri, each uses place almost as a character within their work – from the wildness of the Bronte’s moors, to the English country parlor in Austen; the small Canadian towns Munroe transports us to, and the cultural adaptations with which Lahiri’s Indian/American characters must come to terms.
Then I picked up Richard Russo’s novel Straight Man, and I was immediately aware that here again we have a writer for whom place is key. For Russo, it’s the decrepit and dying midwestern town – in this novel, it’s Railton, Pennsylvania, which is practically the same as Thomaston, New York (Bridge of Sighs) or Empire Falls (Empire Falls). Every novel has a town like this and a character who has “believed…all of us, like Scuffy the Tugboat, that we were made for better things. If anyone had told us twenty years ago that we would spend our academic careers at West Central Pennsylvania University in Railton, we’d have laughed. We’ re not laughing now though, and the thought of growing old together is not pleasant, though there’s nothing else for us to do.”
I’m sure it won’t suprise you to learn that Russo grew up in just such a town – Gloversville, New York. In an interview with NPR, he had this to say regarding his roots:
“I’ve always had the feeling that part of me left (Gloversville). I mean, the Richard Russo who grew up and became a novelist is one person. But I’ve always had the distinct feeling that there was a ghost version of myself still living back in that place that’s still so real in my imagination and that I’ve been telling fibs about all this time.”
So ~ place seems to be a vital ingredient in a writer’s work, and its influence on theme and character appears rather large, if not downright enormous. Naturally, this begs the questions…if you write, how does place figure into your work? If you’re not a writer, how does place effect your reading? Are you drawn to writers whose sense of place is very evident in their work? If so, why? And what “places” speak to you most?