Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Although heavily dependent on the rural area of the eastern Kentucky mountains, “Melungeons” is not a conventional regional story, complete with phonetic spelling of dialect words and a heavy emphasis on rural folkways. Nor is it a political story about social injustice or rural poverty. It is less realistic than it is stylized and classical in its structure and rhythm. The story does not exist to exploit regionalism but is meant to be a story about the nature of tragic inevitability and thus is told in the restrained classical tones of a mythic story. Offutt tries to capture the life of the people of the mountains of eastern Kentucky, not by realistically depicting their everyday lives, but by penetrating to their universal humanness. He understands and respects his characters and does not exploit them as trendy exotics or revel in their local color quaintness.

Consequently, rather than trying to present a tape-recorded reproduction of mountain speech, Offutt tries to capture the simple, almost sixteenth century rhythms of that speech. The restrained style of the story also gives the three characters a sense of dignity that makes them larger than life. Deputy Goins is a man of few words, living very much alone amongst people he has know for years but has never really known. Haze Gipson has returned from his exile, knowing that he will probably be killed, but resigned and dignified as he waits in jail for the inevitable. Beulah Mullins is presented as a silent implacable avenger of past wrongs. When she visits the jail and waits for Goins to let her in Gipson’s cell, her eyes are slow and patient, as if she could wait a month without speaking or moving, “oblivious to time and weather.”

Some critics may accuse Offutt of not focusing sufficiently on the poverty-stricken status of mountain folk, presenting them too poetically. However, as “Melungeon” suggests, Offutt is not a modish socialist with a multicultural message about marginality, but a carefully controlled craftsperson who knows how to use language to reflect the essential humanness of his characters. In this story, he aligns himself more with the lyrical beauty of Eudora Welty than with the coarse cruelty of Erskine Caldwell. He is not a sociologist playing back a tape recording or illustrating political abstractions, but an artist, transforming mere external reality into poetic meaning.