Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1202
Shirley Ann Grau 1929-
American short story writer and novelist.
The following entry presents an overview of Grau's life and career through 1998. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 4 and 9.
An accomplished novelist and short story writer, Grau has been described as a “fictional anthropologist” for her authentic portraits of the people and atmosphere of the American South. Although early in her career Grau was classified as a regional writer, she has since been recognized as an author of much wider scope. Critics typically compare her favorably to other southern writers such as Carson McCullers, Eudora Welty, and William Faulkner. Grau has been publishing work since the 1950s, winning the Pulitzer Prize for her novel The Keepers of the House (1964). The thematic strains of home, gender, race, and ethical concerns play strong roles in Grau's work, and she is well regarded for her skill in developing character and setting, which she uses to endow her material with universal and mythic overtones.
Grau was born in New Orleans in 1929 to Adolph and Katherine Grau. She was raised primarily in Louisiana and later moved to Montgomery, Alabama. As a high school senior Grau returned to New Orleans to attend the Ursuline Academy. She eventually pursued literary studies at Sophie Newcomb College at Tulane University, where she obtained her B. A. Grau began graduate studies at Tulane, with the ambition to become an English professor. However, after learning that the head of Tulane's English department refused to hire female teaching assistants, Grau abandoned her teaching aspirations and began to focus on her writing career. She published her first collection of short stories, The Black Prince and Other Stories, in 1955. Soon after, Grau married James Kern Feibleman, a professor of philosophy and writer. The Black Prince was a critical success, and Grau followed the collection with three novels, The Hard Blue Sky (1958), The House on Coliseum Street (1961), and The Keepers of the House, the last of which earned Grau the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1965. During this period Grau spent a considerable amount of time traveling, living in New York City for a short while, but primarily moving between Metarie, a New Orleans suburb, and Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts. Grau took a hiatus after The Keepers of the House but resumed her career in 1971 with the publication of the novel The Condor Passes. Over the next two decades, Grau continued to publish works, including the short fiction collections The Wind Shifting West (1973) and Nine Women (1986), and the novels Evidence of Love (1977) and Roadwalkers (1994).
Much of Grau's fiction is concerned with themes of gender, familial power structures, and the race dynamics that characterize southern society. It is also noted for its use of symbolism and multiple points of view. All of these elements are present in The Keepers of the House, which examines three generations of the Howland family in rural Alabama. As she traces the history of this family through the eyes of Will Howland, his black mistress, Margaret, and Abigail, Will and Margaret's daughter, Grau explores the different attitudes that southern culture has developed towards miscegenation and the pursuit of prosperity. Grau also uses varied points of view in The Hard Blue Sky, which is narrated by several different members of a poor fishing community on the small island Isle aux Chiens in Mississippi; The Condor Passes, which explores the racial dynamic in the relationship between Stanley, a black servant, and his employer, wealthy patriarch Thomas Henry Oliver; and Evidence of Love, which investigates how several women attempt to assert their personal identity and strive to find a place for themselves in a patriarchal society. Also known for her use of symbolism, Grau often uses the images of a “house” or “home” as a major recurring symbol in her prose. Critic Anthony Bukoski has noted that Grau frequently uses the house as the “center and substance of [her] fictional world.” In The Keepers of the House, the image of the Howland's home is brought up repeatedly, and houses are used as a point of focus in The Condor Passes and Roadwalkers, two novels which, like The Keepers of the House, center on generational sagas and explore issues of race. Roadwalkers, follows Baby, a six-year-old black girl, as she and her orphaned siblings wander the countryside in search of food, clothing, and shelter in the Depression-era South of 1934. Grau vividly describes Baby's difficult years growing up in an orphanage, but eventually shifts the focus of the book to Baby's daughter, Nanda, who was raised into a life of privilege.
Although Grau's novels are seen as significant achievements in the genre, her short stories are equally well regarded, and in some circles, are considered to be superior to the novels. There is a definite relationship between Grau's short fiction and her novels. The short story “Stanley” from The Wind Shifting West elaborates on narrative material first published in The Condor Passes, and the story “The Patriarch,” from the same collection, was the basis for Evidence of Love. Like her novels, Grau's short stories often explore issues of race and gender. The stories in The Black Prince describe the world of rural Mississippi and the struggle of its black and white inhabitants to survive and coexist. The Wind Shifting West expands upon the descriptions of Mississippi life presented in The Black Prince, with stories that feature characters from a variety of social classes and settings. Grau's collection Nine Women follows the life of nine different women who live in widely disparate worlds.
Critical reaction to Grau's fiction has been varied, with some critics appreciating her subtlety in handling social history in a mythic fashion, and others seeing her prose as a superficial, predictable reworking of southern stereotypes. Grau's debut work, The Black Prince and Other Stories, has received almost uniform praise; Paul Schlueter has described its reception as “little short of adulation.” Grau has often been compared to southern writers such as Flannery O'Connor and Eudora Welty, but critic Linda Wagner-Martin has also compared Grau to Paul Bowles and Albert Camus, particularly due to the descriptions of “a nature oblivious to its creatures” inThe Hard Blue Sky. Grau's thematic material is primarily concerned with issues relevant to the American South, and several commentators have praised Grau for her examination of southern culture. L. Elizabeth Bryant lauded Grau's “keen insights into … racist minds and heart,” while D. T. Max has applauded Grau's “uncondescending view of the South's poorer black and white residents.” Critics have been widely split regarding Grau's narrative structure and use of multiple viewpoints. Merle Rubin has observed that “narrative sequence does not flow easily in her work,” using Roadwalkers as his primary example. Other reviewers have taken issue with Grau's constant shifting of narrative voice, but some critics have argued that this technique is a major contributor to the success of The Keepers of the House. Wagner-Martin has agreed that narrative method is “one of the most problematic areas of critical response” to Grau's work, but has asserted that Grau's importance lies in her “relentless, if subtle” concern with “non-white culture” and “the way that culture impinges on the patriarchal matrix that seems to dominate Southern life.”
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 45
The Black Prince and Other Stories (short stories) 1955
The Hard Blue Sky (novel) 1958
The House on Coliseum Street (novel) 1961
The Keepers of the House (novel) 1964
The Condor Passes (novel) 1971
The Wind Shifting West (short stories) 1973
Evidence of Love (novel) 1977
Nine Women (short stories) 1986
Roadwalkers (novel) 1994
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 528
SOURCE: “Bleak Generations,” in Christian Science Monitor, Vol. 63, No. 253, September 23, 1971, p. 21.
[In the following review of The Condor Passes, Gardner raises questions about Grau's style and fictional depictions of the American South.]
When is a cliché not quite a cliché? When it is cloaked in a novel by Shirley Ann Grau and redeemed by her versatile prose.
The Condor Passes, Miss Grau's first novel since her 1964 Pulitzer-prizewinning The Keepers of the House, comes dangerously close to being a 421-page cliché. Its Southern setting, conjuring up images of murky bayous, wide, sleepy streets, and Spanish moss dripping from live-oak trees, is the stuff stereotypes are made of. The plot—a poverty-to-prosperity saga encompassing three generations—is nothing that particularly warrants yet another retelling. Even the ending leaves an aftertaste of clichés: “Money isn't everything.” “Money can't buy happiness,” etc.
Yet, in an odd way, all this brinkmanship works. There is, after all, something to be said for a good, direct story—no gimmicks, no sassy smartness, no oblique references or heavy-handed philosophy. Miss Grau does fall back on some rather forced symbolism—a black servant is the figurative condor of the title—but the story could stand nicely without it.
The novel's theme seems an update of Wordsworth's “… getting and spending, we lay waste our powers.” “Getting” started early for Thomas Henry Oliver. From the time he left his Ohio River home at 13, nothing was off-limits if it smelled of money. Burglary, pimping, smuggling, bootlegging—he tried them all before settling down to mostly respectable enterprises. Everything was carefully calculated, directed toward specific goals: “Someday, he promised himself—in his rented room on Music Street—someday everybody will know who I am; they will see me walk along the street and they will say: There goes Mr. Oliver …”
THE LIFE OF A LATTER-DAY MIDAS
How could they miss? Business magnate, patriarch of an often flamboyant family, owner of “the best house in New Orleans,” the Old Man is a latter-day Midas. At 95 his touch remains as golden and insatiable as it was half a century before—and his heart as unfeeling.
He is not the only one given to excesses, however. Referring to the Oliver house, daughter Margaret proclaims triumphantly that “There isn't a single thing in it that's not overdone.” The same could be said of their lives. Margaret goes overboard on sex. Her sister Anna does the same with religion, while Anna's Cajun husband develops a penchant for women and drink. It all seems destined to “Lay waste (the family's) powers,” but no matter. “There is nothing you cannot smooth with money,” the Old Man believes.
Shirley Ann Grau is too good a writer to settle for formula novels. “Southern” does not have to be synonymous with “typecast.” There is nothing really wrong with the strictly representational art she employs in The Condor Passes. It is just that some of her earlier, richer pieces—the backwater folk tale “The Black Prince,” for example—show how much more colorful she can be when she works in a slightly abstract vein. And at the moment contemporary American fiction needs all the color and subtle intensity it can get.
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SOURCE: A review of Evidence of Love, in West Coast Review of Books, Vol. 3, No. 3, May, 1977, p. 32.
[In the following review, the critic identifies praiseworthy qualities in Evidence of Love.]
Three of the sections of Grau's new novel [Evidence of Love] are written in the first person by two men—Edward Milton Henley (old, rich and crudely self-indulgent), Stephen Henley (his heir, obsessed with obscurantism, a tight and dour religiosity), and again, Edward Milton Henley (now ancient, wanting and welcoming death). And one section is Lucy's, the wife-widow of Stephen. The style is remarkable in many ways, in the seemingly surface probing of each of the characters. Lightly, flittingly, Grau succeeds in really fleshing her people so well that we feel them, touch them, smell them. And yet at no time in her writing do we really forget that it is a woman who is writing, even though she is writing in first person for each of these people. The self-portraits, wide in scope, tight in style, emerge in their examination of their lives and loves. The novel lazes from the Philadelphia in the 1880’s to Europe at the turn of the century, from the steppes of Africa to American coal towns, from London to a modern Chicago condominium, and then to a retirement area in Florida in the 1970’s. Grau writes with grace, patterns her new novel with flair and the result is highly readable and memorable.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1631
SOURCE: “‘So Distinct a Shade’: Shirley Ann Grau's Evidence of Love,” in Southern Review, Vol. 14, No. 1, January, 1978, pp. 195-98.
[In the following essay, Rohrberger explores the psychological world of Grau's characters.]
Evidence of Love, Shirley Ann Grau's fifth novel, is told through the viewpoint of three characters. Words spoken by Edward Milton Henley begin and end the novel. The middle sections are spoken by Henley's son, Stephen, and by Stephen's wife, Lucy. Grau uses a similar point of view in the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Hard Blue Sky (1958) and in The Condor Passes (1971). But whereas the earlier novels are tied to place and time, Evidence of Love operates like much contemporary fiction on a plane where space and time are intrareferential, turning back on themselves. In addition, though we hear voices and through them a story is told, the meaning of the novel derives not so much from the voices or the story but rather from the silences between the voices and from the gaps in the story. It is in these silences and these gaps that various shadows reside as they are projected from and reflected in recurrent motifs that cluster in montage patterns providing the novel with its underlying structure.
Grau uses a quotation from Wallace Stevens’ “Le Monocle de Mon Oncle” to suggest the course the novel will take;
… I pursued, And still pursue, the origin and course Of love, but until now I never knew That fluttering things have so distinct a shade.
At surface the novel is an embodiment of the various characters’ search for love. Edward Milton Henley buys lover after lover, provides gifts for his son and finally independence for his son's widow. Stephen, depleted early in his life of sexual desire, pursues Lucy, also depleted, and their marriage becomes for Stephen a “visceral sympathy of acquired identity.” Lucy marries Harold Evans (her first husband) for love, but instead of union comes isolation, and instead of completion and its concomitant freedom comes a dependence which she abhors. Love, finally, is seen as misconception, and evidence of love illusory. Lucy comes to understanding: “There is no one I care about, no one I need worry about.” For the first time in her life she is content.
The search for love turns out to be a quest for order and understanding that can only come through an apprehension of shadows, which in this novel are presented as reflected and reflecting images. The theme is caught early in the novel. Henley is an aged man. Set in juxtaposition with his sixty-year-old son, his age gives him mythological proportions, and his life documents his myth. Coming “ass-first” into this world, his birthing so traumatizes him that it provides material for recurring nightmares. Henley's demands on life start with his birthing, and it is fortunate that his father can provide him with the wealth to buy the love he seeks and ironic that he should know it. Irony turns on itself to become sardonic amusement but not until he is old enough to sublimate his real needs in sexual encounters and self-indulgence. Until then and for a short time afterward, his life is filled with shades. Forgotten by his parents for his first ten years and in his loneliness, he is drawn to a shimmering display of lights cast by kerosene lanterns which, he tells us, echo through his life. These lights whisper to him in a Babel of voices intimations of a knowledge forgotten or yet to be known. They beckon him into a clearing and become the basis for recurring dreams. In his tenth year he almost dies, but the sickness is not unpleasant: “I talked a lot, complete gibberish. The Gift of tongues, my mother said.” Here, also, he reveals another recurrent dream—that he is already dead.
In Paris to begin his education, death continues to pursue him. A tannery, operated by cousins, enrages him, and later he finds a sanatorium a barbarous world where people wait for death. At nineteen he enters his father's business, munitions manufacture, and stumbles into civil war in Belgrade. The situation there is insane—“like being in a madhouse whose rules you don't know.”
Eschewing Christianity and in an effort to order his life, Henley assumes the role of Dionysus, a role which accounts for his choosing a stranger to incubate a child who must “burst forth from the brow of Jove or rise like Venus from the sea foam.” For his son he builds a greenhouse as a tropical jungle, a special exotic world in which Stephen quietly plays.
Stephen, though, is not what Henley expects. In his relationship with his son there are black holes. At school Stephen has two framed mottoes: “Know Thyself” and “It is a terrible thing to fall into the hands of a Living God.” The former provides motivation for Stephen—a reverse image of his father—to keep a set of journals in which he plans his life; the latter accounts for Stephen's rejection of his father whose mythological dimensions he understands but dimly. This rejection of his father sends him in two directions—to atheism and, ironically, to the Unitarian ministry. As minister, he is continually called to dramatic action, even violence, which acts as a projection, a reflection, a shadow of his own anger which he sublimates in orderly plans, gentle living, and scholarly behavior. His rejection of sexuality is also a rejection of his father. The seduction of Constance, arranged by Stephen in a way that his father could not have bettered, depletes Stephen. At the moment of orgasm, he feels the whole world gather in him. Later, when he recognizes that all desire is gone from him, there is an echoing surge: “a ghost of a shadow of the beginning.” Stephen's devotion to his books is cast in sexual terms. They seduce him. In his study he is king in his harem. Stephen's retirement party, planned by his father, is a Dionysian rite staged in a kind of hothouse, “presided over by an ancient man, while midwinter fires burned in circles, and alcohol released people followed their sexual impulses.”
The move to Florida reinforces the hothouse image and brings the greenhouse in which Stephen spent his childhood into a cluster of images that will later be given microcosmic proportions. In Florida, Stephen and Lucy live in the midst of battle. They slip back in time. Their house is surrounded by a magic white circle, a voodoo circle of poison. If he had spent two years in a sanatorium as his father did, Stephen might have noticed his own preparations for death. He withdraws into his study—insulating himself from the outside world. At sundown he gets uncomfortable; he won't go out after dark; he covers the living room windows with paper. Perhaps Lucy guesses that the one intersecting line he needs to end his life is knowledge of his mother. If she does, then she delivers him to death as surely as she helps his father by giving him the Seconal he desires. Stephen dies in a closed room. At the moment of his death he shines his flashlight on himself to cast his shadow on the glass, but he cannot see his own reflection.
As Henley has been associated with light and air and Stephen with fire, Lucy is associated with earth and water. Her birthplace, Africa, is a gigantic hothouse, attuned with the natural life and death cycle, primitive, and amorphous, and timeless. In Africa the voodoo circle of poison is not just around the larger structures, but around smaller structures, beds, whose legs stand in saucers of kerosene to ward off insects. But Lucy is aware that the insects out-number and triumph. This knowledge is tied to her death fantasy, the spread of decay, an overgrown garden. Lucy is an adventurer, a traveler in life. She is attracted by the tension embodied in Harold, a tension with which he finally cannot cope. And she understands his desire to take her to the grave with him. She finishes Harold's book, furnishing him with grave goods. In a sense, she delivers all the men—Harold, Stephen, old Henley, her sons, Paul and Thomas—by refusing to encumber herself with them. Standing on the Gulf of Mexico, she walks the world. In time, she is timeless; she is the unknown incubator pictured in the painting Paul finds; she is earth mother, the Termite Queen, the black widow spider. For Lucy, life is watching dust spin in a fall of sunlight; death an inevitable outcome of living. About death, she is simply curious.
The novel ends with a cogent restatement of theme where Grau repeats the montage patterns. Plunged back into Henley's voice and consciousness, the reader finds time and space convoluted, life and death merged. “‘Things,’ Henley says, ‘become one and the same.’” He thinks of himself as curling like a leaf “as it disappears into dust.” But the natural cycle is not enough. He seeks the transcendent. Once, when he was younger, he had a drug-induced vision of heaven, where he “danced with the gods” and was “perfect, complete. Like a circle.” It is this heaven that he sought and continues to seek in death. While Henley dies, Lucy sits reading House and Garden. The old man moves in and out of consciousness: “I am I suppose, flickering like a lightbulb.” As Henley dies, a greenish light in thickening glow sags down from the ceiling like a mosquito net.
Evidence of Love is a finely crafted, tightly woven, and powerful novel by a major American author whose works deserve far better treatment than they have received in myriad reviews. Shirley Ann Grau won't be confined, and as Evidence of Love indicates, her novels are the better for it.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7465
SOURCE: “Shirley Ann Grau and the Short Story,” in Southern Quarterly, Vol. 21, No. 4, Summer, 1983, pp. 83-101.
[In the following essay, Rohrberger provides a detailed assessment of Grau's skills as a short story writer and identifies thematic threads in the writer's work.]
The problem with Shirley Ann Grau is that she has consistently refused to stand still and conform to the stereotypes critics and reviewers have created for her. The problem of course, is not hers but ours, for we have consistently failed to understand the complexity of her statements and the excellence of her forms. Rather than try here to treat the corpus of her fiction, I have decided to examine the short stories, starting with the earliest and coming to ones she is currently working on for collection in a new anthology. My hope is to demonstrate not only her extraordinary skill in the short story genre, but also the development of that skill, and by so doing to stimulate a continuation of the recent flurry of scholarly activity devoted to the examination of her work.
Had critics and reviewers been familiar with Grau's first published stories, their initial judgements concerning her proper métier might have been different, for the stories published during her college years exhibit a range more in line with catholic than regionalist tendencies.
“For a Place in the Sun” appeared in April 1948 in Surf, an intercollegiate magazine published by Tulane University. Grau was then a nineteen-year-old sophomore at Newcomb College. The protagonist of the story, a young man named Dan, has been injured by a falling crate and is unable to take a job driving a large van. The job signifies for him escape from his cramped and penurious circumstances, but it also signifies the advent of manhood and the assumption of a power role.
Dan is his mother's favorite son and subconsciously he seeks comfort in and from her. At the same time, he wants her approval and her admiration. Though injured, he is trapped not by his body but by his state of mind. The fuzzy whiteness in the form of tiny puffs of clouds that he hallucinates, the blades of grass he tears from the ground and scatters, his throbbing pain replicated in the landscape, the fog and marshes and odor of decay are all correlatives of his inner being.
His mother is also of two minds. Torn between her desire to care for her first born and her knowledge that she must at least try to motivate Dan to activity despite his injury, she speaks to him cautiously and fearfully. Struck by what she says but unable to deal with it, he escapes to the barn, to a milking stool where he sits breathing heavily and gazing vacantly at a row of milk cans. His vacant gaze is similar to the painful void and the dank hollows he wants to escape. Enshrouded by fog and blinded by his own egoism, seeing only shadowy forms, Dan opens the gate to the pasture lot, knowing the animals’ escape will prevent his brother Will from taking the job Dan believes is his.
Although the plan to thwart his brother succeeds, Dan does not prevail. Will realizes what has happened; moreover, the knowledge does not bother him. Secure in himself, he is neither annoyed nor angry, and he has no need to tell his mother or to lash out at Dan. In the end, Dan stretches his leg in the sun to case his pain, but “not even the clear yellow rays that seeped through the cloth could ease it or warm the cold loneliness within him.”
This remarkable story is told in fewer than two thousand words. Nothing is stated overtly; everything is related indirectly through image patterns. The notable skill of the storyteller is evident from the first image of expected pain to the cyclic return to pain at the end of the story. The details of setting and action function to reveal the psychologic makeup of the characters as well as their inner conflicts. Modern in form with an in medias res beginning and lack of complicated plot, the story ends with an epiphany that embodies the entire experience.
The first issue of a new literary magazine, Carnival, published at Tulane in May 1949, contains a second story, “So Many Worlds,” a short-short story, less than one thousand words. This time Grau handles a different kind of people, a different social class, and uses a somewhat different form. In “So Many Worlds,” two people enter a restaurant and are seated by a waiter. The young wife, clothed in fur and diamonds, clearly dominates and manages her confused and gesticulating husband. A short paragraph moves the couple to the outside. It is after a rain, and he points to a puddle: “Look, a world at your feet.” “That,” she says, is the “other side of the looking glass,” the “upside-down world.” As she hurries him away, his glance falls back to the puddle of blackness where “their two reflections lay bent and grotesque, and made a single pattern.” In “So Many Worlds,” rising action moves to what in a traditional story would be climax. But instead of climax a transitional paragraph begins the pattern of images that builds to the epiphany.
The December 1949 issue of Carnival provides another story, “The Shadowy Land,” not long by any means, but better than twice as long as anything Grau had done before. The story's more complex plot is arranged in a traditional order—exposition, conflict, complication rising to climax and falling then to denouement. With more characters and a mingling of social classes, this story is Grau's first “Southern” story. Set in New Orleans during the Mardi Gras, the story contains white “masters” of French extraction and black “servants.” Her skill at handling dialect at this early stage in her career is evident here, as well as in the speech of the poor whites in “For a Place in the Sun” and the speech of the moneyed class in “So Many Worlds.” The protagonist is a white girl child named Barbie, who is dressed for the Mardi Gras as a “little southern lady” (in the words of a passing drunken Yankee) and is carried about for most of the day on the shoulder of her “faithful servant” John. John, whose own little boy is left behind, is called into service because Dilsey, Barbie's black nurse, refuses to take her. Dilsey, with wide white apron and knife strapped to an inner thigh, is going out to look for her husband who has left her, and she means to kill him. Barbie, in her role of naive protagonist, is carted about all day, while the drama of the chase takes place just outside of her immediate consciousness. But Barbie is not entirely innocent. Indeed, it is in this ambiguity that the power of the story resides, for no costume or role can hide the thrill the child experiences when she feels the knife on Dilsey's thigh and understands its purpose or the fear she experiences over that which she is too young to analyze. Barbie wakes into a shadow land in which the shadows are never dispelled, and her day is peopled by antic figures acting out grotesque patterns replicating nightmares. Nor is there hope of spring awakening consequent to the penitential fasting. At the end of the story, still being carried on John's shoulder. Barbie drowses while the cold wind blows the tears on her checks.
As a college senior, Grau published two more stories in 1950 in Carnival, in the October and December issues. Another four-thousand word story, “The Lonely One” focuses on a black family, particularly on Cissy, who believes her lover Brett is not coming back to her. Brett, the very model of a machismo figure of legend who drinks more, fights better and loves stronger, does however come back, and of course kills Cissy's new friend Sam. Based more in simple irony of circumstance than in the power of image, “The Lonely One” is the least successful of Grau's early stories, though her evocative skill is still evident in such descriptive passages as the first paragraph, where she speaks of the “hemlock shoulder of the ridge,” or in the descriptions of the dancing couples or the trumpet player “wailing great mistakes.”
“The Things You Keep” is also based in irony of circumstance. May's lover comes home to their small apartment to tell her he is leaving her. At the end of this very short piece, May stands before a mirror watching herself cry. Not as simple as this summary indicates, the story is carried forward on two levels—the overt level of linear plot resulting in the man's leaving and a covert level composed of patterns indicating that trouble spots should have notified her long before he did. Both levels come together in the final paragraph.
The last story published by Grau in Carnival appeared in the October 1951 issue at a time when she had entered graduate school and was working on a master's thesis. She never finished the master's thesis but during this period she began to write the stories that would appear in The Black Prince.
“The Fragile Age” is like nothing she had done before. It is a comic piece, a carefully controlled satire on literary study and the vagaries of the university. Mrs. Perse has disappeared into the library for four days before her husband realizes her absence and takes his problem to the dean. The ineffectiveness of the dean, the creeping and laborious working of Perse's aged mind, and the tottering Mrs. Perse, whose excitement at locating a source which can result in the birthing of a lifetime dream, generate sufficient energy to delineate and define the objects of satire and lead to the story's humorous climax. In the vaults of the library, at the far end of one of the corridors, Stravos and Michaels, two graduate assistants, find Dr. Perse illuminated by a lamp and glowing with inner light. His wife is absent, but her manuscript is there on a desk. She has, Perse exclaims, located the source of Beowulf! Her pursuit has not been in vain. Concurrent with Perse's announcement, Stravos and Michaels find in the center of the polished seat of the library chair a “little pile of grey dust.” Evidently, like the one-horse shay. Mrs. Perse goes off all of a piece—“all at once and nothing first,” her excitement acting like an orgasm sufficient to shatter her into particles of dust but not great enough to scatter the particles and disperse them into the air. In locating the source of Beowulf she finds her own source, too, in the little pile of grey dust. The title, “The Fragile Age,” seems perhaps too restricted in its application if it is taken to apply only to the actually aged, but if as metaphor it is attached to the whole academic community whose pursuits are dry as dust, the story takes on considerably more meaning. The metaphor, of course, can be carried further, but Grau makes little attempt to do so, seeming content in this story lightly to skim surfaces.
The Black Prince, published by Knopf in 1955, contains nine stories, three of which were published earlier: “Joshua” in The New Yorker; “White Girl, Fine Girl,” in New World Writing and “The Black Prince,” in The New Mexico Quarterly. Several differences are apparent among the stories published in Carnival and the stories published in The Black Prince: the later stories are considerably longer; more fully developed plots follow either the traditional or the epiphanic line; more characters are involved and they are developed in more complex ways. Despite the additional complexities made possible by the additional length, however, basic devices remain the same. The writing style remains poetic and evocative, images still cluster into patterns, subsurfaces function in analogical modes.
In the move to longer stories, Grau's effort was toward a more careful and precise rendering of the experiential, while at the same time holding to that rich suggestiveness made possible by symbolic structures. The distinction to be made is not exactly between the romantic and the realistic or the intuitive and the empirical. That would be too easy. Rather, it is more between the direct and the subtle. What Grau was aiming for was a realistic rendering of a total experience, but only if “total experience” is taken to mean a meshing of the affective and the cognitive. Grau makes the point herself in her comment on “The Black Prince” prepared for an anthology of literature:
Fiction, as I see it, is basically and always realistic. What else can it be? I know nothing beyond my experience and the experiences of people like me. If my expression becomes too personal, my symbols too intimate, my readers no longer understand. The demands of communication force me—partially at least—into the common mold of thought. I find myself dancing around the edges of meaning, trying to cut off a bit of the truth here, a bit there, trying to express, to shake the limitations of experience, above all to communicate my vision of the world. And, like most writers, I sometimes lose patience and abandon the reasonable realistic paths for the simple direct truths of myth-making.1
In this comment made thirteen years after the publication of The Black Prince, Grau was not suggesting that “The Black Prince” is easier to understand than stories which do not partake of the quality of legend. She uses both the words “direct” and “oblique” to describe her method and she is talking about means of communicating.
I should like to extend her points by suggesting that the “college” stories in their brevity and concentration on essence, are marked by a common analogical mode. Indeed, most of the stories in The Black Prince collection are closer to the dream mode than to the realistic. Five of the stories portray black characters in situations common to folk ballads. The other pieces of the collection, with the exception of “Fever Flower,” are initiation stories, told in the first person by a white adolescent (two female and one male). But even these in one way or another partake of the stuff of legend. There is a pattern whereby Grau moves increasingly toward the more realistic, but we need to remember that the stories in The Black Prince are also early stories. And though movement can be seen away from the college stories, similarities persist.
In “White Girl, Fine Girl,” the opening story in The Black Prince, the voice of a storyteller is clearly evident; the tone is conversational, the overt purpose descriptive, the style imagistic, subtly rendering areas of thematic concern. Just released from prison, Jayson Paul Evans tests his manhood and his will. When he leaves the road to enter a field, he moves at a jogging trot, taking long steps and swinging his arms, testing his “flight.” It is difficult to avoid identifying Jayson with jay birds. The first clue appears when Jayson talks to a “dusty black crow” that is scratching on the “bare red earth.” Aggressive and boastful, Jayson wants to drive away other “birds,” throws stones and has stones thrown at him, sings a song without either rhyme or meter, steals food, “borrows” a skiff from two boys by the force of his size and determination.
Jayson is determined to seek out Aggie, the woman for whom he went to prison, and to assume the authoritative role not only in her and her daughters’ lives but also in the reestablishment of his former business. But Jayson has reckoned without Aggie, who will have nothing to do with him, and he has not counted on his daughter acting out a stereotypical female role. His acceptance of the “Jax Poster” girl who is “white or nearly white” as a substitute for Aggie satisfies for the moment his need to prove himself and to assert the dominance of his position. Trusty lieutenants await his wishes; the girl of his dreams is his. His triumphant entry into town is completed, his masculinity restored. How long it will last is a question providing ironic overtones for the end of the story. Similarly, the title of the story sets the irony at the beginning, and image patterns throughout the story reinforce the irony, identifying town and prison, Jayson freed and Jayson trapped. Jayson as potent force and Jayson as impotent, the rebellion of the women and their submissiveness, white girl, fine girl and the Jax beer poster.
Many similarities exist between Jayson Paul Evans and Stanley Albert Thompson, the black prince of the title story who “comes walking out of the morning fog.” Both men are associated with jays (as is Jay Mastern, who impregnated Maggie Mary Evans); both exude virility; both use songs in their association with women, though Jayson's songs are harsh and sometimes scolding and Stanley Albert Thompson's song is soft and melodious: both have superior muscle prowess and “win” their fights. There are, however essential differences. Stanley Albert Thompson is a real figure of myth, a supernatural power, a force so seductive he can attract all women and enrage all men, a dispenser of death and of everlasting life, a successful wooer of the woman he chooses—Alberta. The seduction scene where Stanley Albert Thompson woos Alberta is one of the most memorable in all of Grau's writing—chiaroscuro joins with rhythms of sound and meter arranged in circular patterns to lead to the night flight of the betrothed couple. Alberta is a fitting mate for Stanley Albert Thompson, a woman made to his specifications to fit the role of princess of the night. Filled with devil lore (the flight through the air, the silver bullet, the alchemy, the play on the name—S.A.T.A.N.), the story has the dimensions of legend, being at once powerful and lyrical in its effect.
“Miss Yellow Eyes” presents a variation on the theme of the perfect couple. Where Stanley Albert Thompson and Alberta are purely black, Chris and Lena have had their color so mixed with white that their skin is light enough for them to pass over the color line, and this is their ambition. They will go to Oregon where it is easy to pass, and they will be white. They are a handsome couple—Lena, all gold colored with light brown hair and ivory skin and eyes flecked with yellow, and Chris, with pale blue eyes and a suntanned face and brown gently waving hair. The narrator of the story is Lena's younger sister Celia, who calls Chris the handsomest man she has ever seen, and says she is more than half in love with him herself. For Celia, Chris becomes a model of conduct and stature whose actions are honest and straightforward and noble. Called into the Army during war time, Chris believes he has an obligation to go. Pete, brother to Celia and Lena, has a different opinion. He is angry and frustrated over the segregated life he is forced to lead, over the fact that the country drafts black men as well as white men but allows black men few other equalities.
Three other characters, two actually present in the story and one not, complete the cast of persons: the old gris-gris woman whom Lena goes to in time of despair (after she goes to a priest); Lena's mother, a cook in “one of the big houses on St. Charles Avenue”; and the absent father whose presence is marked by a photograph. The missing husband and father becomes a symbol for all the men unable to function in a society that takes away their manhood. The war kills Chris. Pete, whose effort to cut off his finger to save himself from the draft results in his cutting off his hand instead, is left maimed and too angry and bitter to function. Only the women are left—the mother, still working as a “fancy” cook; Lena, broken and empty in spite of her prayers to supernatural forces; and Celia, her good sense and moderate responses replaced by the hysterical outbursts of the closing scene.
With Chris dead, Pete believes himself justified, and he taunts mother and sister:
“But me, I'm breathing. And he ain't. … Chris was fine and he ain't—breathing. …”
“Chris boy … you want to cross over … and you sure enough cross over … why, man, you sure cross over … but good, you cross over.”
Unable to take anymore of Pete's taunting, Lena attacks him, and accidentally hits him on the stub of his arm. Missing his footing, he falls, screaming softly to himself: “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.”
Pete's call on Jesus, together with a motif of “crossing over,” strongly suggests the image of Moses leading his people across the waters and, as in the spiritual, a cry to the Pharaoh: “Let my people go.” Moses, a prototype of Christ, is successful: but Chris (a modern Christ?) is unsuccessful in leading his people to freedom.
“The Way of a Man” and “Joshua” complete the roster of stories about black people. The former, a heavily ironic story of the initiation of a young man into a world of crime and debt, contrasts with the latter, another initiation story, but one whose protagonist finds through his initiation some positive values.
In “The Girl with the Flaxen Hair,” Grau uses a first person narrator, the young girl Lily, who tells the story from an adult perspective. The point of view is particularly useful both in the presentation of the voice of the protagonist and in the perspective provided, for time, memory, and voice are major themes. Lily, a “tomboy” type, has a mother enamored of a misty Southern past and a down-to-earth dentist father who tries to keep “reality” in the forefront of his life and that of his wife and daughter. The Ramond family that moves nearby is a reverse image of the first family. There is a father who apparently cannot cope with reality, a mother attempting to live a lie, and a daughter Rose, a “sheltered” type, who accepts the lie. It is in the interaction of the two families and the conflict that arises that the tension of the story lies. Images also participate in the counterpoint—the wounded limbs, for example. Lily's cut hand ripped open by a splinter that she virtually ignores and her mother does not even notice, and Rose's wasp stings that create chaos and confusion and that are still wrapped long after the ache is gone; Lily's father's slow moving hand wounded by the bite of a child who was having his teeth examined and Mr. Ramond's hands moving so fast over a piano keyboard that they become a blur; Lily's black hair and sun-tanned skin and active life and Rose's yellow hair and fair skin and languid movements; the mother's real possessions which she values less than Mrs. Ramond's imagined ones; Rose's dream vision of a fairy tale marriage to a phantom groom and the coffin in the baggage car she lies in for her ride back to Jefferson City; and most important of all the real father whom Lily forgets and so makes disappear and Mr. Ramond who actually disappears.
“The Bright Day,” also told in the first person, is the slightest story in the collection. Charlotte, a young woman recently married, finds herself caught in a moral dilemma that threatens to break up her marriage. Unable to stand firm against the family, she gives in, and although she halfway realizes that timber and brick and cement do not create a home, she will not let herself come to complete realization. When she feels faint because of her subconscious recognition of the truth, she blocks that recognition and attributes her condition to the heat of the day.
If “The Bright Day” is the slightest story in the collection, “Fever Flower” is the best. On first perusal the opening paragraph seems innocent of symbolic overtones, but, as the story continues, patterns emerge, and one can be shocked to discover (so easy is the reading) that the images presented in this paragraph will later coalesce to form the major metaphor of the story, extending it beyond local significance to microcosmic proportions. A single word “Cadillacs” in the first paragraph carries over to the second, where locale magically becomes particularized as the modern South and limited even further to the affluent members of that land together with their servants. Before long, however, locale is identified with artificial growth, forced feeding, tropical gardens and attitudes that create tropical gardens, hot houses where children can only writhe and burn. The fever flower of the title refers both to the hot house orchids, blooms forced to grow outsized and defying normal time patterns, beautiful, exotic, and soon used up, and to Maureen, small daughter of Katherine and Hugh Fleming, who will be formed beyond her years and so distorted, her normal growth perverted by the environment in which she lives.
Identification of Katherine and Maureen is skillfully made by means of the orange juice both mother and daughter drink and spill and by Katherine's vision of the proper kind of room appropriate for a child of three—not a nursery, but a young girl's room with vanity table and mirror and perfume atomizers and ruffled organdy. Another device Grau uses to establish identification is the montage, a kind of voice-over projection into the future, typically presented as inset or parenthetical passages. In these we learn what will happen when mother and daughter, both used up, both not quite human, settle into lives of narcissistic display.
The sexual base of the forced growth is suggested throughout the story but comes to climax at the story's end, which identifies Annie's vision of torment and destruction prior to the apocalypse with the child's burning up with fever. Annie is the child's Irish nurse who desires the child for her own and hates both mother and father for their interference and for their lusts. A Bible reading woman, she prefers the New Testament to the Old. But her preference for the Epistles marks her fixation on lusts of the flesh, and though she thinks she cannot understand the Apocalypse, she creates her own vision of torment: “Joy. The lusts of the flesh. The chaff which shall be cast in the fire. Hell Fire. Which was like summer sun, but stronger seven times.”
Annie's vision for Maureen resides in a Gaelic song: “A love to have … And strong arms to carry you away.” Perhaps Annie does not realize that the man she summons for Maureen is called too soon, though the little lady appears in her feverish sleep already to have received him. Her hair is damp and sticks to her skin, her cheeks are flushed, her color is high. Shadows give her face the illusion of age. At the end her crying has stopped and she lies there “beautiful and burning.”
“One Summer” is an initiation story told in the first person by an adolescent boy who finds that the death of his grandfather miraculously propels him into the role of a man. With his new status come realizations frightening in their implications as the boy experiences his first presentiment of death. Like the other stories, the surface of this one is gloss, so smooth and effortless to read that the rendering of the texture of the experience seems its only purpose. But beneath the surface, underpinnings of image patterns made clear by means of repetition and juxtaposition point to meaning worth reaching for.
At its publication The Black Prince received rave reviews from all of the right critics and places. But though the critics wrote in superlatives, the superlatives were based in initial impressions, and no one went further in an effort to analyze the stories to see just where their merits lay. Indeed, the major impression that the critics seem to have taken away with them was that the stories were written by a young Southern woman and that she would carry on the tradition of Southern writers, especially women, and take her place among other Southern regionalist writers of the time. Novels followed the publication of The Black Prince, all published by Knopf: The Hard Blue Sky (1958), The House on Coliseum Street (1961), the Pulitzer Prize winning The Keepers of the House (1964), The Condor Passes (1971)—each succeeding one better than the last, though it was becoming more and more difficult for reviewers to make their assumptions about Grau's work jibe with the work she was producing. And all the while she continued to write short stories, publishing them regularly both in the popular magazines and in the literary journals. A number of these were collected in the volume, The Wind Shifting West (1973).
Stories in The Wind Shifting West demonstrate many of Grau's mature interests, as well as her continuing and remarkable narrative skill in the genre of the short story and her ability to handle forms and points of view extraordinary in their range and gradation. A fiction that can loosely be classified as a “ghost story” (“Three”) or one in the “science fiction” mode (“The Last Gas Station”) take their place in the same collection with pieces of topical interest (“The Other Way,” “Eight O'Clock One Morning”), with stories that circle back to Grau's earlier interests typified in The Black Prince (“Pillow of Stone”), to those that adumbrate novels to come (“The Patriarch,” anticipating Evidence of Love, 1977, and “Stanley,” The Condor Passes), and with stories, including several of the above, that demonstrate a continuing effort to hide the technical and formal underpinnings in a dazzling and seemingly effortless surface display. The volume also exhibits virtuosity in perspectives employed. Whereas point of view in The Black Prince was basically limited to children or primitives, viewpoint in The Wind Shifting West extends to include people of all ages, both sexes, and different social classes in a variety of settings.
“The Wind Shifting West,” the title story, is set not on a Southern coast but on one in the Northeast; point of view is third person focused through the protagonist, Caroline, a woman approaching middle-age; and nothing more spectacular happens than a first infidelity. Caroline and Robert Edwards, with their nine-year-old son Guppy, have for ten years been joining the rest of the Edwards family in their summer houses on the coast. Routines are so well established that people and actions fit into their places as easily and neatly as Mrs. Edwards, the matriarch of the family, fits words into her Double Crostics. Though it is very early in the season. Robert is enthusiastically preparing to sail across the sound in a visit he makes annually. Caroline stays home to tend the geraniums and then visits the home of her mother-in-law where other members of the family have gathered, including Giles van Fliet. Half English and half Dutch, with his continental ways and speech patterns, Giles seems even more out of place in the Edwards family than does Caroline. Both are physically different: both ostensibly accept the Edwards pattern of living but, consciously in Giles case and subconsciously in Caroline's, secretly despise it, both are in-laws, unrelated to each other.
Caroline's dissatisfactions seem trivial—displayed as they are in an array of small incidents which begin as soon as the story does. In ten years of marriage she has not learned the right terms for the accouterments of a boat: in ten years she has not succeeded in diminishing the use of her son's nickname or in influencing her son to her own point of view; in ten years she has never really fitted into the family or its interests: and in a year and a half she has not kissed her husband goodbye because Robert does not want to embarrass their son. Caroline's preoccupation with her age is another indication of her frame of mind. The “little twinge” in her back is also a “twinge in her soul”; she responds with annoyance to her nephew's pleasure in her physical appearance, to her mother-in-law's blunt comments, to Giles’ cool presence.
A ship to shore call begins the intensification of the conflict. A mast has been ripped from Robert's new boat, and he and Guppy are stranded at their friend's place. The ship to shore conversation between Caroline and Robert acts as an objective correlative for their growing estrangement. Robert is annoyed because she does not know the procedures necessary for communication. He and Caroline talk at the same time and at cross purposes with neither hearing the other. When Giles takes the phone, he begins a pattern of action to which Caroline acquiesces as the story continues. Giles’ obvious admiration for his mother, whose fidelity to her husband he comments on, is in stark contrast to his own behavior. When Caroline realizes that he keeps bathing suits in a variety of sizes on his boat for the women they will accommodate, she questions him about his marriage. His response makes it clear that his own infidelities are kept separate from his marriage and in his own mind have no bearing on it.
Giles, who handles his power launch with the same skill he apparently handles women, is set in counterpoint to Robert, the “sailor who has just lost his mast.” Ironically, Caroline uses Robert's symbolic “unmanning” as part of her rationalization for her behavior and eventually her acquiescence. In the end, however, it is she who is diminished, as she half realizes. The anchor with some weed attached and still wet from the staying of the boat is the only mark (besides the salt dried on their skin) of their action. Already a cynic, Giles comments: “There isn't ever much left when it's done.” Perhaps Caroline will come to know finally that she has made nothing better; she has simply exchanged partners in a power struggle. The wind having blown from the south, now blows from the west, but the south wind will come again as it always does and, with it, more fog.
Grau writes with such compassion for characters and understanding of their situations that it often comes as a surprise that the world she creates is usually negative in its aspects—the characters being enshrouded in fog a whole lot more than they bathe in sunlight. “The Beach Party,” another story set on the Northeast coast, makes the point effectively. Frieda, the youngest member of the beach party, feels out of place, not only because of her age but because she does not “know the symbols.” She finds herself frustrated and annoyed, feeling “just the way she had when as a child, she found a floating bottle and a message too blurred to read.” At the ocean, she is afraid. She knows that her fear has to do with the dark color and with the sound and the motion of the surf. The “unknown opaque distances of the ocean” frighten her. By the end of the story, Frieda has learned to read the symbols. A boy has drowned, but it seems no more horrible than everything else—than live lobsters steamed to death, than the evidence of dead creatures in the sea wrack all around, than the press of a male body, than the releasing of sperm and the process of ovulation that is simply a part of the movement of life toward death. But knowing the truth does not make it easier to accept. She makes her way back home grateful for the radio, “safe inside its tinny shell.” In the end, the beach party in all of its aspects is a symbolic representation—a prelude for death. “The Land and the Water,” another story in the collection, makes essentially the same point. Water, symbol for life, is also symbol for death. In the story, as the sky darkens overhead, the water becomes a lead-colored gray.
The two stories from which novels emerged—“The Patriarch” and “Stanley”—are among the most fascinating in the collection. The Condor Passes, into which “Stanley” grew, was published in 1971 and so actually preceded the publication of The Wind Shifting West. In the short story Grau goes back to a favorite image—the green house, an artificial environment, created to house and nourish plants not ordinarily grown in the real environment and birds not ordinarily kept in captivity. The green house provides an environment helpful to the old man in that it aids in his breathing and provides a springboard for his memory of South America where he made his fortune. There is now nothing left of the South America he knew except the old man's memory of it, for he has outlived all of his contemporaries.
The old man is clearly presented in bird images. Stanley's responsibility to rid the bird cage of dead birds every morning is tied to the old man's need to be sheltered from a recognition of his coming extinction. When the old man identifies the hawk that flies low over the green house as a condor, he foreshadows his own death, for with his death, the condor passes. There is nothing left of him but memory and that only in the minds of the people who actually knew him. When they are gone he will be extinct—as we all will be.
“The Patriarch” seems a mature reflection on and restatement of “The Black Prince” of the earlier collection. Edward Milton Henley, aged eighty-eight, is another and much more fascinating “black” prince, who could indeed be a real son of the morning, for if “truth lies beyond fulfillment of desire, in satiated appetite, then the conventional wisdom of western morality” is, indeed, the “sobbing end of shabby gentility,” and paradise lost was actually gained.
Evidence for the identification of Edward Milton Henley as the patriarch is abundant. He is the “father,” a mirror image of his own father, whom he sometimes thinks looked at him as through the “wrong end of a telescope.” Named after John Milton, he grows up at a time when life is a preparation for paradise and death entry thereto. His father's house is gothic and its talisman is a rainbow lantern. Virtually ignored by his parents, the high point of his young life is the time he nearly dies; but he enjoys the experience, the sensation of floating in the air or swimming in water. Even in health, one of his recurring dreams is of being dead. During his illness he talks constantly—“in tongues,” his mother thinks. In his desire for darkness, the covenant for him becomes not everlasting light and life but its underside—the dark side, in other terms, the irrational and hedonistic as opposed to the rational and ascetic.
As an adult Henley eschews dualities, the base of western philosophy, preferring to think of life as a stage parade where one role is exchanged for another by a simple change in costume: and what he ironically describes as perhaps “a senile astigmatism” is more a statement of his metaphysics. Along with dualities, Henley rejects “twos” in his later life, saying he is haunted “by that absurd number.” Indeed, he rejects “twos” even in denying the life-sustaining role of women, creating as he does a situation as near as he can get to fathering a son without a woman. The various women in his life, including his four wives, are simply conveniences, there for his physical pleasure or objects of his mental titillation, the subjects of taunts. Nor is he bound by a need for women, a fact he proves in the four years he spends with Guido.
At the end of the story, shifting abruptly from first person to third (a feat hardly ever tried in a short story), Grau focuses on Anthony, already an old man, who is watching his father talking to his grandchildren in the grape arbor. The scene seems dramatic, unreal, reminding Anthony of an illustration of a patriarch or prophet in a book of Bible stories. And when his father raises his hand in a greeting to him: “It was, the Reverend Henley thought with a shudder, altogether like a blessing.”
Given the tantalizing and complex nature of the subject matter of “The Patriarch,” it is easy to see why Grau extended it to Evidence of Love. Indeed, in extending it, she put “the flesh on the bones and the skin on the skull.”
Grau is now putting together a collection of short stories consisting of newly written pieces. At my request, she sent me “Summer Shore” and “Letting Go.” It seems hardly fair to readers to comment on pieces not yet published, but the temptation is great, especially since the collection will be ready for publication, the author says, sometime this year.
“Summer Shore” seems, at first reading, a simple narrative about a couple comfortable with themselves and each other, married thirty-two years, and content in and with their family rituals. The story takes place, however, not at the beginning of a season but at its end. Image patterns of wintery blasts, approaching age, sudden death, imminent changes, and threatening transitions overpower signals of calm and sun, false in their implications. The people, regardless of how compassionately treated and understood, prove at close look to be insular, opinionated, parochial in their views, cliquish, provincial, bored—a backside presentation, what Katy sees when she looks at the aging summer crowd all facing toward the sea. Katy sees but will not allow herself to understand. She hides inside her house, her wooden shell, protected by her role as wife of the “ranking male member of a tribe” and by her family surrounding her. “How can it end,” the poet Donald Davie asks, “This siege of a shore that no misgivings have steeled, / No doubts defend?” Grau uses these lines for epigraph. In Christian terms, one thinks of the apocalypse and of destruction before the raising of the new Jerusalem. Is this why Katy thinks suddenly: “Next year in Jerusalem”?
Lines from Emily Dickinson begin “Letting Go” as well as provide its title: “As freezing persons recollect the snow— / first chill, then stupor, then the letting go.” In the story Mary Margaret needs to run to keep from letting go into the “comfortable silences” provided by her parents and their home. Although she believes she hates the pattern of the parents’ lives; still, in growing up and in marrying, she patterned her own life in basically similar ways. She has accepted the idea that regular habits and moral behavior ward off troubling thoughts. She has conformed to expectations. At twenty-three she was secretary to a senior vice-president and on her way to being executive assistant. At twenty-four she married, and though her parents disapproved of the match, still she did not basically change the pattern of her life. She worked and carefully tended the apartment and regularly, every Wednesday, visited her parents to attend with them the Perpetual Novena, even after her husband Edward refused to go with her. When she and Edward decide to divorce, she wonders whether she already has had all her parents have—apparently comfortable lives. They are so used to each other that they never quarrel; indeed they have never showed emotion to her, not even when she was growing up. But they do care for her; they are simply inarticulate people who behave as they have to. Mary Margaret's acceptance of a job in Oklahoma City is an effort to escape, to put the old patterns behind, to seek for something else, but the temptation to stay behind is so great that she needs to invent a fearful beast to guard the doors of her parents’ house to keep her from reentry. She does not know that crowded highways, exhaust-filled air, and the bustle of city life form their own patterns that in time can also, like the Perpetual Novena, provide protection—at least up to a point.
As a short story writer, Grau's talent is immense though not revealed by a simple surface reading; for what is beneath the surfaces and interacting with them is what is characteristic of the short story genre, and Grau has mastered the genre. Southern female writer she is, by accident of birth and genes. Southern regionalist writer, she is not. Nor are her skills confined to revealing and commenting on “the genuinely native particulars of a scene” in time, as Frederick J. Hoffman would have it.2 Rather, like that of other important writers, her work transcends particulars, excellent as she is at rendering them.
See Mary Rohrberger, Samuel H. Woods, Jr., and Bernard F. Dukore, An Introduction to Literature (New York: Random House, 1968), 320–21.
See The Art of Southern Fiction (Carbondale: Southern Illinois Univ. Press, 1967), 28.
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SOURCE: A review of Nine Women, in Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 62, No. 3, Summer, 1986, p. 92.
[The following review provides a brief account of the characters and situations in the stories collected in Nine Women.]
[Nine Women] is Shirley Ann Grau's second collection of stories, offering an interesting assortment of characters ranging in age and social position—daughters, mothers, widows, lovers, friends, businesswomen; two of the stories deal with black characters. There is a woman who's the sole survivor of a plane crash that killed her family, and spends her life flying from place to place, courting death; an ambitious realtor and her female lover who wants to have a child—theirs; a housekeeper whose employer dies mysteriously. Ms. Grau writes with a graceful simplicity, and she's good at evoking a dreamlike atmosphere. Her conception of dramatic situations is engaging, varied, full of possibilities she doesn't quite realize—perhaps the novel is really more her style. In all of these vignettes, one wishes for a bit more energy and for conclusions with more impact and intensity.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 769
SOURCE: “Short and to the Point,” in Women's Review of Books, Vol. 3, No. 11, August, 1986, p. 12.
[In the following excerpt, Rich offers descriptions of the stories in Nine Women, and comments on Grau's treatment of themes.]
After poetry, short fiction is the most exacting form of literature. There is time and space, within the pages of even the slimmest novel, to explore and expand character and plot, and should one chapter disappoint, the author may be redeemed in the next. No such dispensations are bestowed upon short story writers. Each word must “tell.” The time-frame is finite, as is the forbearance of the reader, who has every reason to expect that the turning of the last page will produce some altered state of awareness. The litmus test of a story's value may well lie in how long such a modification lasts, how long the reader views her world in a light different from that which shone before her brief literary immersion. …
It's been eight years since Shirley Ann Grau's last book—a novel, Evidence of Love—and although her fans have grown edgy, this latest collection of stories was worth the wait. Nine Women is Grau at the top of her considerable form: the prose spare, the characterizations deep.
In “Hunter,” we meet Nancy Martinson, a happily married matron with two daughters. Through pure chance, she survives a plane crash which wipes out her entire family, along with everyone else on the plane. Survivors of such tragedies go through a particular type of grief-guilt. Why were they spared? What could they have done, perhaps, to save the life of another? But a time comes when they come to terms. When they go on with what is left of their lives.
So does Nancy. She takes up traveling, to court not new experiences, new sights, but death. A reunion with her family.
… As always, her heart began to sing with joy and expectation and secret knowledge: Maybe this time. She was getting so tired. It was taking so very long. Still, maybe now. She smiled at the sky and the trees, at the neat flower gardens, at everything. And she turned down the road to the airport.
This is a chilling story, saved from the macabre by the quality of the writing.
Then there is Mary Margaret, dutiful daughter in “Letting Go.” She visits her parents every Wednesday night for a tuna fish casserole supper and Novena services at the church. Her husband doesn't accompany her on these excursions.
“‘Hello,’ Mary Margaret said. ‘You're here,’ said her mother. Her father waved the tip of his pencil at her and went on reading.” At story's end, Mary Margaret has an amicable separation from her husband, and is on her way to Oklahoma City. The prognosis looks good.
In “Ending,” we witness the dissolution of a 25-year-old marriage. Barbara and Henry, a wealthy black couple, call it quits after the marriage of her daughter, and when Henry walks out the door, Barbara turns to her television set, but not for consolation. “She did not turn on the sound. She was content to watch in silence.” Barbara, too, will do just fine.
Grau shows us two sides of widowhood in “Widow's Walk” and “Housekeeper.” The former captures, with devastating economy, the crushing loss of identity and displacement which often accompanies that state; the latter, its possibilities for the unexpected.
Perhaps the most poignant story among the nine is the simply titled “Home.” Angela is a successful business woman who left her husband and child for a young student, Vicky. Now, fifteen years later, she is shaken out of the comfort and security of their life together when Vicky announces that she wants to have a child. Fortified with brandy, the younger woman drops this bombshell into the quiet of the night.
“Go to sleep, Vicky.” And stop talking, let me alone for a while anyway. Before something I can't imagine or control happens …
“You're going to love the part that's me, and I'm going to hate the part that isn't you.”
“Vicky, you are terribly drunk. You're not making sense.”
“I want your child,” Vicky said. “A child that's you and me. Now tell me why that's so stupid.”
After a long and sleepless night, Angela reaches a decision. She will make an offer for a house she had already been considering, but now because its “small walled garden would be a lovely safe place for a child to play.” Reading “Home” brings a new appreciation of how much love limits one's options. And the ways in which this isn't all bad.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5309
SOURCE: “A Conversation with Shirley Ann Grau,” in Southern Quarterly, Vol. 25, No. 2, Winter, 1987, pp. 39-52.
[In the following interview, Grau and Canfield discuss the author's handling of Southern setting and theme, as well as exploring ideas about the craft of fiction.]
The publication of her first book of short stories in 1955, The Black Prince and Other Stories, launched Shirley Ann Grau's career with great promise. Critical acclaim was abundant—perhaps even hyperbolic—providing a challenge for the young author. Now, more than thirty years after she published her first book of short stories, Grau's credits include five novels, three books of short stories and numerous essays and reviews. To most critics, winning the 1965 Pulitzer prize for fiction for her novel The Keepers of the House ranks as her most impressive accomplishment.
Grau's latest collection of short stories, Nine Women, was published by Alfred A. Knopf in January, 1986.
[Canfield:] I've heard people call you a regionalist, a southern writer, and label you in various other ways. I'm sure you have thought about this. In what category do you put yourself?
[Grau:] Well, any label you think of for anybody is always at least half wrong. I've also been called an anti-feminist, a southern woman writer, which is probably meant more insultingly than anything else, including the anti-feminist label. You've got to file people under something, but take it with a big grain of salt. Also, I think if you label, you're going to have to change the labels as time goes on, because no writer sits still. Reynolds Price has definitely changed, for example. I think I started out pretty much in the fashion of the times. And that's important, because writers are conditioned by their times. Occasionally a writer will leave the past, but it's awfully hard to change the way that the novel is done. Hemingway and Faulkner did that back in the '30s, but since then I think the novel has been moving by little terms rather than big. But I think I probably started out in the fashion of the late '40s and '50s as more or less a regionalist with heavy, heavy emphasis on place as dominating character.
Why do you think that was? Why did place interest you so much?
I have no idea. See, I'm not introspective at all. What I'm interested in is what is said on a page, not how the print got on the page. So I really don't know that at all. But when you do a novel about the rural South, it's rather hard to get away—particularly if you put it back in time, back to the '30s—it's awfully hard to get away from the feeling that climate and place motivate the people and that this is what makes it regional. But then you move on … for example, I don't think my House on Coliseum Street is regional at all. I think it has a very light background, and it certainly isn't southern in the sense that the deep South is southern. But in my later novels the backgrounds have gotten very light. Evidence of Love isn't southern at all. It's Florida, if you can call retirement Florida southern, but the background is faded and the people have come up, so it's a total 180-degree turn.
Why did you move out of the South in Evidence of Love?
In that book, I don't think climate and place and the mores of the place have much to do with it. I think the characters are motivated by things within themselves. I mean, no outside pressure moves them around. Now in Keepers [The Keepers of the House], the outside pressure is the source of conflict—in this case, the black/white thing. There's no black/white thing in Condor [The Condor Passes.] And the southern mores do not affect it. The source of the conflict comes from within the characters. It does not come from a society impressing itself on them. I think that's the difference.
So with The Black Prince and The Hard Blue Sky are you saying that nature or place motivates the characters and has a dominant effect on their lives?
I think so. That started their actions. After all, the whole Keepers turns on race discrimination, basically, and that is the law of the area. It's not something the characters plan. It's a problem that the characters must deal with. It's a problem from outside impinging on them. By the time you get to Condor, it's reversed. There is no force directing the way those characters live their lives. Because first of all, they've got too much money. They do exactly as they please. The conflict comes because of the conflict of personality, of wills, of goals, but it's them reacting among themselves. It's not society expressing something that they reject. It's a kind of flip-flop.
In a work such as The Hard Blue Sky, in which simply surviving the natural elements is a number one concern, would you say that this struggle to survive motivates the characters?
Yes. Their conflicts among themselves are very mild. The environment motivates them. The Isle aux Chiens is pretty much Grand Island in the '30s, and a rougher, harder life didn't exist. Fishing and shrimping are precarious ways to make a living, and when you add a depression, it's far from any agrarian ideal. The source of the struggle—and I think every novel is a struggle, essentially—for the islanders comes from outside. I mean, the hurricane is going to blow them away; the fishing is going to be poor; so it's conflict from outside impinging on them. Now by the time you get to Keepers, the motivation has been shifted a little bit. It isn't nature any more in that sense. It's customs, laws, rules, but man-made this time. But because those rules only exist in one setting—the South in the '30s—that's where the nature part comes in, but it fits one step back. It's not as direct. Nobody there really has to worry about food for the next day. They're worried about essentially moral problems. Their morals are in conflict with the official morals of the area. Now, if you go one more step, I think you'll find that the motivation has shifted again with the people not in conflict outside of themselves at all—I mean not with a society around them, they're not in conflict. They are in philosophical conflicts perhaps. They're pursuing what they assume to be a desirable goal. But you see, it's come around. Society doesn't push them around.
So, in essence, the black/white conflict in The Keepers of the House is as much a source of elemental struggle as nature is in The Hard Blue Sky? It dominates perhaps both the blacks and the whites?
And then that just vanished. I think probably on a purely practical level, we all got so darn tired of the black/white issue. It just sort of exhausted itself. There are precious few people writing about it now. It's not really an issue any more, unless you're going back to do an historical novel. It's been worked and worked and worked, so we need a breather … and then perhaps somebody else will take another look at it and come up with something that has a vital statement to make.
What motivated you to write The Keepers of the House? Is it social criticism?
Basically, the answer to that lies somewhere back in why people write at all. But, I think most novels have a degree of good/evil conflict in them. It's the best conflict you can have from a dramatic point of view. But that's purely technical. It is an awfully easy way to set up a story. And it still keeps readers interested. Above all you want to hold your reader. Many, many writers forget this. If you lose the reader, you're in trouble. You've lost. I mean, it's communication—first, last and always. But why did I write Keepers? Well, I think, like most writers, you have any number of stories floating around in your head—always. You know, writers are sometimes, I think, just very inefficient computers. Everything goes in and sometimes they can pour it out. So you have acquired over the years any number of stories from a million sources. Newspapers and obituaries are marvelous, because they make it very succinct. But not front pages—back pages of newspapers. Also, people tell you stories, family stories and the like. It comes from everywhere. My students occasionally ask how you start that, and I don't know anybody else who knows either. I don't know, but somewhere very early a writer starts filing stories, bits and pieces, settings, ideas. Now, some people keep journals and notebooks, and some don't.
Have you done that sort of thing?
I used to. I find that the older notes are worth nothing because you change. An idea that was great fifteen years ago say, unless it's awfully, awfully basic, won't work. For example, for years I've said I was going to write a murder mystery and the plot is listed upstairs. But those plots don't change; who-done-its have been the same since Poe, I guess. I don't know why; I think it's largely self-taught. But writers start filing away things and then for other reasons that I don't understand either, one particular thing will pop up and demand to be heard. I don't mean anything mystic by that. It's just your attention turned a little. Then you begin locating it and fleshing it out and tinkering with it, and you begin filling the characters out and becoming acquainted with them. And then at some point, again, I don't know why, it's ready. And then you write it. I've read half a dozen psycho-analytic analyses of this, and I don't think they make a bit of sense. It's just that at some point—there it is.
Well, why The Keepers of the House specifically at that point in time? I'm sure you got the phone calls about your treatment of the black/white conflict.
It was the issue—it's hard to believe now—but that was a very big issue then. And, oh sure, there were the crank calls and the cross burning on the lawn. But in a way I suppose it was the cheapest excitement anybody ever had. My friends don't like me to say this, but it gives you the thrill of being the good guys against the bad guys. There was never any doubt who was going to win. You know, there's no equivocation from the federal government, and the local things you just want to get solved fairly quickly. So it was an awfully cheap ego trip. Not that it wasn't exciting—how often in one's life can you be a good guy? My friends would all disagree violently at that analysis. After that, of course, the civil rights movement skipped largely into black hands, where it ought to have been in the first place.
Were you trying to make a definitive statement on the relationship between southern blacks and whites? Does it get back to good and evil manifesting itself in the terms of the black/white conflict?
First of all, that was the conflict of the decade. So I think that's probably the basic reason it popped up. I've always been fascinated by, to quote Russell, “the harm that good men do”—an action from the best motives proving to be the worst possible thing. So those two just happen to come together. It also has a lot of family story in it. The thing just presented itself, I think, stimulated by the issue of the day. A lot of family stories fitted themselves together and I was able to move them that way. Not definitive black/white—when you write a book, you don't think beyond the terms of the book. See, that's the other thing. You want to tell a story, and the fact that you selected that story, I'm sure, is due to outside influences.
Why did you choose to write about miscegenation in The Keepers of the House?
It was common as dirt. After that book, I can't tell you how many people called me up and said (anonymous calls), “How can I change my birth certificate?” In a little town down in Plaquemines Parish there are pages of the birth register missing. You could just rip it out and there goes that. So it's terribly common. In my experience, nobody thought much about it.
Especially in South Louisiana?
Yes. You see, that's the Catholic influence. When you get the rather extreme Protestant churchgoer, then you get a heavy dose of hypocrisy. And this seems to just set it off, you know. The French and Italians, they didn't seem to think that way. If you look at, say, the English colonies in Africa in the nineteenth century and the French, the French blended in very nicely and settled down and were part of it. The English did their darnedest to stay separate. South Louisiana doesn't have that attitude—all of the people in The Hard Blue Sky are probably of mixed blood. They certainly should be, if I didn't make them, but unless somebody comes up with sickle cell anemia, there's nothing—it's not an issue.
So you took the issue of miscegenation and presented it in a geographical area—I understand to be South Alabama—which would not tolerate it?
That's Lowndes County, Alabama, and they were emphatically not willing to accept it. But I think really the Catholic/Protestant thing made a tremendous difference in the attitudes of color. Well, also the country of origin. Those English/Scotch in the central South are pretty uptight about many, many things. They seem to see evil lurking behind every door, as far as I'm concerned, and the New Orleans French and the New Orleans Italians just don't see it that way. The southern Protestant boozes like mad, but in secret. Those dry towns, for goodness sakes. When I was little, there was always like a second kitchen, and it always had a bar. The ladies drank in the backroom, the men drank in the summer kitchen, but not in the front room, of course. Now by the time you get to Louisiana, there is a mixture of South Europeans and everything else. Children drink wine. It's just an attitude toward pleasure that is unlike the South and so it's more relaxed: the world is good to you here. I think in the middle South, the world is a place with evils to be avoided. It's just a totally different attitude.
You started out with blacks as primitives, especially in your first book of short stories, then you moved to Keepers, where your black character, Margaret, is fully realized. Can you explain the movement?
I'm trying to remember the stories in any detail. The answer might be as simple as there's more space in the novel. In The Black Prince I was trying to create a kind of legendary, mythological time, a non-real approach, a storytelling in the legendary sense of storytelling. That's something I still want to do because I think the realistic story has rather sharp limits. Perhaps myth-making is the way to go. Certainly, in The Black Prince, there is no realistic attempt, that's pure myth-making. For years I've played around with the black myth. I think that is probably why they're primitive: they're exaggerated characters out of a legend rather than realistic people. I mean they're not people, they're symbols—certainly with The Black Prince. I very much like the idea of the non-realistic short story. It's devilishly hard to do. There's a very good technical reason for selecting blacks for that role: they're larger than life and brighter colored anyway. It's easier to focus on them as fixed stage figures. I think that's what's there. I've only attempted that non-realistic myth-making once again, in “The Last Gas Station.” Of course, you're looking at stories for content, and I see them as a series of technical constructions. This is why I say so often that I've never thought of that. Until now, I hadn't realized that the blacks in the early short stories were primitive, but I think they're mythical characters.
Sometimes critics try to read too much into fiction, but I wondered if you were mirroring society's view of blacks, in moving from the early primitive black to the more fully developed character.
Well, first of all, I think that writers inevitably reflect the society. You just can't help it. You're a creature of your time and place. Part of the difference, I guess, is just moving from the short story to the novel. But, I think also the critics’ view and yours and my view are at loggerheads most of the time, because I would never see a spread like that. I would never see that connection, but you see, that's what fiction is supposed to do. That's my other theory—and I have theories about almost everything. I think a writer's job is to put it out there and let it mean—there is not one meaning to it. It means whatever the reader sees in it. You can't put meaning in it any more than anybody else, any other reader. It means different things to different people, which is of course why you can go back and read it over and over again. Sometimes I go back and read. I read Jean Rhys's novel the other day, and I was amazed at how much I hadn't seen the first time. It changes. I really believe that what a writer meant to say isn't relevant. It's what is out there, so that whatever you see in it is truly there.
When did you discover that you seriously wanted to write?
I've been writing stories for a very long time. When I was a tiny child, I remember printing my stories so they looked more like print than handwriting. There is never a place in anybody's life when you say, O.K. this is it, I'll do it. You drift, openings come to you, and you take them. You end up in places you never dreamed you'd end. Chance plays a great part. For example, I started out very much wanting to be a classics scholar. The school in Montgomery started Latin about the fourth grade and you started Greek in about the tenth, but when I popped out into the real world, I could see that the university system could absorb about one classics scholar a year in their teaching ranks, so that had to go—purely practical. Because I like universities and I like teaching, I thought, I'll get a Ph.D. in English and teach and write. It seemed like a good idea. I think it would not have been. But, anyway the head of the department said no women would be teaching assistants in his department. And then I said, well I can't go into a thing until I've tried it. I can't try it here, and I don't see a reason in the world to beat my head on that. I didn't like the rules of the game, so I quit. Just about then my free-lance pieces began to show. So I said, O.K., follow where the doors open. It's a long way from classics, isn't it?
You've said you want to be in the Carson McCullers tradition of southern literature. Why is that?
You mean, why not Faulkner?
Why McCullers, not even as opposed to Faulkner.
Oh, she's grossly underrated right now. She has that element of legend-making that I find so attractive. All her novels have strong non-realistic qualities, you can almost call them surreal. She, more than anybody else, makes legends. Her characters are always bigger than life. Flannery O'Connor tries to do very much the same thing, but I think in her case the theological input kind of overloads it. It's so concentrated that the symbols pile on top of each other, and it kind of wastes itself. But, McCullers is a really first-rate legend-maker. That's what I admire about her.
Do you think we southerners have more of these kinds of grotesque characters and are more willing to accept them?
The South has its share of any leftover Gothic, but any small town anywhere has its share of grotesqueness, whether it's people or performances or anything. In the summer I live in a small New England town, and we've got them. It doesn't seem to have occurred to New England writers, though, to think them interesting enough to write about.
Why is that?
I don't know. I've read a few books on southern writing, and really they always seem to me to miss saying anything. Why does the South value its eccentrics? I don't know. Do we put a special value on individuality?
We like storytelling much better in the South, don't you think?
Much more. Perhaps because the South was the last one into the modern world. I think it lags quite far behind. And if you tell stories, the stranger the characters, the better the stories. You might even link it to the verbal storytelling of the South. I think it's just because we were late in the modern world, so we still tell stories. I don't think it's true anymore, by the way. No one sits down and does what they did when I was small, just sit down and tell stories to children. Everybody told stories, the cook and the yardman and my grandfather. The way to keep a child amused was to tell stories. I can remember going hunting with my grandfather and his missing any number of shots because he was storytelling at the time. He was just walking around talking. I think southerners talk more, which is odd for Scotch-Irish, who are supposed to be dour.
How about a sense of the past? Do you think southerners are more tied to the past? For instance, in The Keepers of the House the past seems to burden the characters.
We have been. Again, I think if you talk about the South today, no. If you talk to a freshman in college, they do not seem to have any sense of the past—I know my children don't, so I think there may have been a profound change between the generations right there. I guess that means the South has gone into the modern world, where we value only the immediate past. But it certainly was not true, and southerners to this day have all sorts of characteristics not shared with the rest of the country. Despite all the travel and everything else, they talk more. They have an approach to life that is still regionally distinguished. You can tell, quite apart from accents, you can tell by attitude, who's where. But I hate to guess the future.
Do you think there is uniquely southern writing?
I'm trying to think what would be unique in southern writing today. A basic Gothic question, because I think, again, that's over-emphasized. Well, who would southern writers be? Welty?
William Styron, I guess.
Styron left the South entirely in his last book. You see, there's a real movement that way now. If you're talking about present-day South, there is almost no young writer whose reputation I can think of. Now, Styron is a bit older than I am. What did set him apart when he was writing about the South is probably subject rather than the race thing. But, again, I simply can't think of any young southern writers right now. I mean, I know plenty of writers who live in the South, but they do not write about the South in that sense at all, or they write very bad imitation Faulkner and we can forget that. That's not interesting.
How about yourself, for example, moving from your last novel, Evidence of Love. Where do you think you'll go from here?
The novel I've got right now is the story of a successful black family.
Will you go back to the South, then, for place?
This novel is set in New Orleans, so, yes, but I think after that—and again it's subject to change—I want to do one based on Martha's Vineyard. That would be fun. And you always must change the geography because people will sue.
You've worked a great deal with such technical devices as differing points of view. What technical experiments do you plan for the future?
Point of view—let me back up to answer that. Any writer has a constant fight with material, a constant fight to communicate. To improve communications, we're constantly trying different tricks. One of them is point of view, one is the back and forth pattern of shifting time planes. One is narrative, one is multiple narrative, that omniscient third-person narrative. They're all to bring to bear—they're all tricks to communicate more. The most difficult, and the most rewarding, is the use of symbols. Symbols say so much more than the words: if you can get a set of overlapping symbols, each generating the overtones, almost like a count in music, there are multiple overtones. I think this is the difference between mediocre novels and good ones. The symbols and their overtones play one on the other, and the construction is almost musical. All of that you can lump under technique and come up with, you hope, improved communication. You start off saying I have an idea, and then you have to say at some point that I may have it, but does anybody else have it, and how can I get it through.
In The Keepers of the House you used multiple points of view. What were you trying to communicate with this technique?
Reality, it seems to me, is never the product or possession of one person. There are always multiple ways to look at anything. If you tell a story with different voices, in theory at least you get the different facets of the thing. Though I've never done it—I've never told the same story three times and come up with three different stories—I've used point of view to explore the ramifications of a narrative. I tend to use it to move the narrative along. The drawbacks are that unless you make your change very marked, you're going to lose your reader, and you can't change very often. But, of course, sometimes you can. I can't remember who wrote this short story, but once I saw multiple narratives in a short story, distinguished only by italics. It worked beautifully. It was very quick.
When you read, do you read for technique as much as for anything else?
Usually I read only for the technique, which is why I end up liking very bad writers. I mean William Eastlake is a very uneven writer, but he is so brilliant in his use of symbols and I think he uses them better than anyone else, so I read everything he puts out. Most are very bad, but any one of them will have one or two manipulations of symbols that are so brilliant that you'll find yourself saying, my goodness, it was worth it. There'll be one very brilliant part in a very bad book. Most books are, as a friend of mine says, all vanilla. Most books are not bad, not good—not anything. So I tend to read books for that flash, that one flash.
The symbolism was one of the main things that the critics harped on when The Condor Passes was published, and I know you're tired of explaining it, but do you think it was successful symbolism?
For years I've been putting little phony bits of information in blurbs of jackets, and it's amazing how that little mistake turns up in the critics. They read the jackets. It marks interest, so it's sort of a stained droplet. It's, of course, not a well-paid profession. They have to review too many books. So, except for a few, I pay very little attention. Well, in the Condor, things change, they turn, they twist, they go this way and that way. In the beginning, the condor, with his feathers full of gold, is Oliver, the predator, but then in the last it turns out to be the black butler, so the issue is who preys on whom. Symbols should hold stories together. When you've got a long wandering story like this, they are a way of running a string through it.
Are there technical areas in which you wish you were more adept?
In everything. I mean that you're never, never satisfied. It seems to me that writing as a craft has gotten much more solid, much more flexible. You can do things that Faulkner couldn't do, or even poor, dear F. Scott Fitzgerald. In the last ten years or so it's become more flexible. It can draw characters so neatly, or it can characterize a whole group of characters with just a few little quick strokes. As a matter of fact, the only thing that seems to be lacking right now is the ability to think. Incredible technique doesn't seem to produce incredible results. As a matter of fact, a writer like Louis Auchincloss is really awfully good. He's hurt by creaky technique. And then there are others who are very technically good. Welty is an example. My, my, my, she's good. But then, when it's all over, you wonder where you've been or why you went there.
What part do you think environment plays in the creative process? For example, your environment as a mother, a woman, and a wife living in fairly financially secure surroundings?
Well, everything filters through everything else. It's all mixed up. I think we're rapidly getting away from the stereotyped feminine book. As a matter of fact, most of the female romances I know of right now are written by men. But a hack writer can write anything. But I think we're getting away from the feminine types of novels—just as well, I guess. Everything bears on it. I think education counts for far more than anybody thought a generation ago. Because you can sit down at the typewriter and bang away. It seems simpler than it is. They would never try to make jewelry that way. Everybody thinks that it takes no skill or no training to write. So perhaps we really kind of undervalue the technical part, and that is undoubtedly why I make such a point of technique. Also, I think quite apart from the writing course training, there is a general culture level that's absolutely required. That has nothing to do with sex or economic bracket or anything else. The writer has to first of all think of something that is worth putting down. So in this sense, technique is secondary and it's the difference: the better writers think better—it's just that simple. That is a matter of education in the traditional sense. There's no getting away from it. In fact, every writer is saying to the reader, listen to what I have to say. And having said that, you darn well better have something rewarding to say. So I think, and this is asking an awful lot, you have to have excellent techniques, a message that's worth communicating, and a feeling of sympathy for your characters. It's the philosophical content, I would think that makes or breaks the book. In the last analysis, a writer stands or falls by the richness of his visions.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6662
SOURCE: “The Burden of Home: Shirley Ann Grau's Fiction,” in Critique, Vol. 28, No. 3, Summer, 1987, pp. 181-93.
[In the following essay, Bukoski demonstrates how Grau uses “the house” as the center and substance of many of her works.]
In Shirley Ann Grau's fiction, houses provide a loci for the psychological and emotional lives of families.1 Her fictional houses alienate, however, when they become representative of the failure of the family to provide direction to its members. This, I believe, partly answers the critics who see in Grau's work the “absence of … unifying symbol, or theme, or resolving incident.”2 When social and emotional life turns inharmonious inside a house, the sense we get of the place changes. In “Fever Flower” from The Black Prince and Other Stories (1955), the house becomes “very quiet and empty” (177)—an emotionally and psychologically safe place—when the child Maureen's parents are out and she is left with the maid. With her parents’ return, however, the house changes. In a flash-forward, Grau shows us the result of their handiwork, the child as “a middle-aged, strikingly handsome woman” (178), three times divorced, who now lives in an expensive apartment for one on the west coast. Raised by a mother who was “not quite human. She [the mother] did not need anyone” (172), Maureen is marked for life by the charged emotional atmosphere of her childhood home. A similar scene occurs in “Ending” from Nine Women (1985), Grau's newest short story collection. When Barbara Eagleton's husband leaves for good, she can actually feel the empty house settling itself for the night. “She felt a sigh of relief run along beams and floors” (122). Grau's fictive landscapes often generate from such houses and their families.
Shirley Ann Grau wrote to me in April of 1984 that she does not think “at all abstractly about [her] fiction” (Letter). In a recent Louisiana Literature interview, she also says, “I never think in classifications. I just don't. That's not the way my mind works” (Parrill 7). Because in Grau's fiction the houses that shelter inhabitants are so regularly a party to, and a symbol of, the inhabitants’ psychical, emotional, and physical distress, one must conclude that her patterns of imagery and symbolism, or at least her house symbols, derive from the subconscious. In five novels and many of her stories, characters fight the constricting regimen of domestic life and the houses which project it.
In The Condor Passes (1971), for example, young Anthony Caillet, shortly before his death, feels trapped in his mother's house. Its walls moving toward him, he fears he will be caught inside forever. When the boy's grandfather dies, Grau speaks of the old man's trapped spirit as escaping as the animal inside him might find “endless doors opening on echoing corridors, wind-swept walks, ultimate distances” (40). House walls also press in on Lucy Roundtree Evans in Evidence of Love (1977). To avoid complete dependence on her first husband, she runs imaginary errands and spends hours driving around when he is home. As she swings open the garage door, she feels pleased and relieved to be out. Late in life, her second husband, Stephen Henley, feels similarly claustrophobic. Finally having become as much prisoner as sheltered, he dies trying to open a door to the darkness outside his Florida retirement home. Only when his wife returns does his soul “stream … toward freedom” through the door she has opened (141). After his death, she herself feels as though she is “smothering” in the empty air of the place. Finally, in “Letting Go” from Nine Women, Mary Margaret MacIntyre flees the constricting regimen of her parents’ lives and home, while in “Ending,” Barbara Eagleton escapes her mother's questioning by fleeing outside only to feel “almost panicky” in the foggy night air (107).3
Shirley Ann Grau once described a house as “like a myopic vision” (Evidence 205). Because of its size and shape and the dimensions of those surrounding it, that house demanded from passersby a sort of near-sighted view of itself. Seen interiorly, one could think of the inhabitants as “nearsighted” in the sense that they were totally absorbed in their affairs. For characters not so enthralled by the home place, houses become symbols of isolation and alienation where domestic problems are exacerbated to the degree that characters as “inhabitors” have no alternative but to “disinhabit” their houses. Such walls project for the exile his or her loss of the emotional, even spiritual life, of the family.
I want to deal with this central motif or situation in four novels, The Hard Blue Sky (1958), The House on Coliseum Street (1961), The Condor Passes (1971) and Evidence of Love (1977), each containing a dispossessed character and a disinhabited house. Though some critics consider The Keepers of the House her best novel—it was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1964—I have chosen the other four because near the end of each, a character is separated from his or her house in ways more dramatic and convincing than in The Keepers of the House, where Margaret Carmichael's leaving one-third of the way through lacks the intensity of Annie Landry's leaving at the end of The Hard Blue Sky, Joan Mitchell's at the end of The House on Coliseum Street, Stanley's at the end of The Condor Passes, or Edward Milton Henley's and his son Stephen's leaving at the end of Evidence of Love.4 All are logical outgrowths of the disharmony plaguing the lives of the people inside. Forced outside, these characters (and Margaret Carmichael from her great-grandmother's house) fail to establish a sense of identity, that narcissistic sense which often attends between a house and its inhabitants. They see and hear someone else inside the house's walls, not themselves or their reflection; yet, to remain psychologically whole, they must leave. Nothing can be gained by staying. In Grau's fiction, characters do not come home to a house as often as they flee in an attempt at psychological self-preservation.
The Hard Blue Sky, Grau's first novel, is set on an island off the Louisiana coast. Returning from the convent in New Orleans where she has gone after her mother's death, Annie Landry roams the island, increasingly disaffected with life there. Following her first sexual encounter, her alienation grows, especially with her father's house, whose walls seem to center and enclose all that bothers her. Trapped by the island's social and geographic boundaries and by the familial boundaries of Al Landry's house, “sometimes, when it was bright moonlight, she would wake up … and she would stagger up and pull open the door and send it slamming back into the wall before she could catch her breath again” (112). Other times in dry weather, she avoids the house entirely and finds private hiding places among the trees and grasses. Her first lover, Perique Lombas, does the same, though Annie's feeling of being trapped is more extreme and even increases when her widowed father marries a woman from Port Ronquille.
Annie spends the night of the wedding party roaming around outside. When she can no longer stand up, she sneaks in, thus avoiding the party in the front of the house. She liked the house empty, Grau writes, especially of the new stepmother Adele. “The whole house … she's got such a musky smell. You can tell it even on the front porch; you could tell it anywhere. If it wasn't raining I could stay out” (352).
The feeling of being hemmed in bothers others, too. At night, the grocer Julius Arcenaux can feel his wife's body filling the whole room, so that sometimes he ends up sleeping on the linoleum floor. Henry Livudais seeks room to breathe in the swamps and bayous where he elopes with a girl from Terre Haute, a neighboring island, in the process setting off inter-island warfare. The stepmother Adele herself has escaped Port Ronquille where her family frowned on her going with a fisherman. Finally, Inky D'Alfonso of the Pixie, a sailboat put in at Isle aux Chiens, suffers the heat and boredom of shipboard and island life as he awaits the sailboat owner's return.
Annie, however, is the character most circumscribed by her environment. Her father's house fails to provide her the emotional closeness she desires nor does she find it with Perique, who virtually turns his back on her. Her room “making small tight circles,” she thinks, “Now … either I put my stuff in a suitcase or I don't. It's that simple. Now. Only when I look back on it tomorrow, I'll see that it wasn't. …” (360). Eventually, the house becomes increasingly remote to her. On one of her last stops, “she was a little surprised when she saw the house in front of her—the gray house where she'd been born and where, except for one year, she'd always lived. She walked all around, staring as if she'd never seen it before” (368). In the afternoon, she leaves with Inky.
Annie's abandoning the house is indicative of some larger abandonment of island custom, or perhaps of the culture as a whole. She takes not only an outsider as her lover but aids an islander from Terre Haute, whom she discovers hiding with a broken leg in a slough, thus symbolically renouncing Isle aux Chiens. Her father's house ceases to be the focus of her universe. No longer identifying with it—the house failing her in some way and she it—she heads for New Orleans, or Iberville where Inky knows someone who “always can use a man at the bar” (379). Sailing off, she foresakes her father's house but retains the memory of Perique, for “if things were ever really rough, she could tell the children about the man who nearly was their father” (381).
As Annie Landry prepares to leave her father's house on the island, Mamere Terrebone, perhaps the island's oldest resident, prepares for winter by laying in supplies and fixing her house. In contrast to Annie Landry, who flees out of self-preservation, Mamere Terrebone preserves herself another way: by building inward, fixed and rooted to one place. She relishes her house as the last defense against death, whom she has been fighting for the last ten years and who, she fears, might manage “to slip through a crack somewhere with the winter cold” (391). She buys food from the grocery and puts up the shutters. Finally, she locks the windows and places a heavy bar across the door. Like Mamere Terrebone, some of Grau's other characters are equally house-centered. In “One Summer” from The Black Prince, in The Keepers of the House (where Abigail Mason Tolliver defends the Howland estate from intruders), and in “Widow's Walk” and “Home” from Nine Women, the house represents a vital light to its inhabitants.
More often, however, the human spirit, weary of light in Grau's fiction, inclines toward darkness, loneliness, or worse, extinction. Annie Landry is so inclined in The Hard Blue Sky. By isolating herself from others and their houses, she, in turn, is isolated. So is Joan Mitchell in The House on Coliseum Street. Her problems, like Annie's are psycho-sexual. Both characters are incapable of connecting with others on any physical, emotional, or psychological plane. Alwyn Berland has written that not only in Annie Landry's “initiations into sex … [but] in a number of other ways [she] prepare[s] us for the central character of … The House on Coliseum Street” (81–82).
Through that house's doors go Aurelie Caillet and her daughters, each born while Aurelie was married to a different man. Joan Mitchell, oldest daughter and the novel's protagonist, appears most harmed by a home environment where Aurelie routinely takes new husbands and where Joan's half-sister, the household's reigning beauty, competes for the younger men of New Orleans. Neither socially active like her mother, nor beautiful or athletic like Doris, Joan lives mentally and emotionally detached. She works in the campus library and takes university classes, which she often skips. When she is overcome with fear of her emotional and physical needs, fear of that ancient demiurge that provides “the oleander bushes … glossy thriving poisonous leaves” and makes “the grass and vines [grow] so frantically you could see them move—the way you could see the heavy white moonflowers open on summer nights” (7), she rides streetcars. During these hour-long rides, she finds the stability that is lacking at home.
Her father's and Aurelie's latest husband's conditions have paralleled Joan's own. One became estranged from the house years ago, a few months after Joan's birth, and the other gradually withdraws to the third floor of the house, happy to be left alone. Then there is the tramp who one day appears from the slums along the levee. He makes his way to the neighborhood only to fall down on the uneven sidewalks, where he remains “directly in front of the Caillet house. His outflung hand … a few inches away from the wrought-iron pillar that supported the iron gate.” The street, says Grau, “close[s] up on itself” at sight of him, “the windows that looked out on the front porches (the windows that were nearly always kept open for a cross breeze) … closing”—except Joan's (24–25).
To her, the house on Coliseum Street built by her great-great-grandfather provides little emotional succor. At first, emotional, then physical walls exclude her. Metaphors of displacement and alienation may sometimes be found in a character's unmet expectations of a house's decor, for houses become “home” as a result of personal associations; houses enclose life's more personal moments as they exclude the less-valued, the disordered, the impersonal. In time a house projects the owner, who sees him or herself reflected in its decor. In this way—whether in the real house or in the house as it is imagined in fiction—one enters a kind of narcissistic relationship with his or her surroundings. Some characters, however, must seek their identity beyond what should be the repose and safety of home.
Even as a child away at summer camp, Joan Mitchell does not miss her mother's house. Later, at her aunt's on the Gulf where she goes to have an abortion, she again realizes how little Aurelie's house in New Orleans means to her. She remembers hating her mother's “bronze lamp with the fringed shade” so much that as a child “she had carefully worked away at it until the tiny glass beads were all pulled off” (44). Home again, she goes upstairs in the house on Coliseum Street but regrets having returned and remembers, even as a child, how she wanted to go away. She is trapped, she thinks, just as she was four months earlier. Even her room's decor, the cracked dull finish of the mahogany furniture, seems alien, a reflection of her dissatisfaction with self and others. Missing is the sense of repose in a familiar, psychologically inviting place. In an effort to express herself in her surroundings, she thinks of doing over the room to suit her tastes. To do so would be to create, or to attempt to create, a new, more habitable emotional and psychological environment, one truer to her self and her experience. As is, the room does not reflect her anymore than her family does. “The good things are all down[stairs] or in Aurelie's room” (45), she thinks. In time—having made no attempt to change her domestic situation, not even her room's decor—she finds herself isolation from humans and from the walls they build around themselves and from their excluded families.
Aside from her car, she finds safety sitting at a hard steel desk on the next-to-highest floor of the library. With only the dust and carbolic odor of bindings surrounding her, she rests one-third of each day six floors above the earth. Joan chooses a place nobody else will work because it lacks air conditioning. Heretofore, the library staff tossed coins to see who would work where Joan Mitchell, the library's newest staff member, now goes willingly. Sometimes she ascends to the next level, a place without windows and whose faint yellow bulbs cast hardly any light. On the seventh floor repose uncataloged items. High above the earth, she retreats to these windowless, cement rooms. Unlike the rooms in Aurelie's house, which Joan is dissatisfied with, the rooms on the uppermost library floor hold no associations for her and thus are suited to her psychological and emotional state. Ambivalent in her feelings toward her mother's house, she finds these rooms inviting, as they remind her of nothing in the past. Their concrete brick walls are unpainted; the rooms remain empty.
Throughout the novel, Joan senses the importance of rooms and heights. Her dislike of, or dissatisfaction with, rooms in the house on Coliseum Street is a manifestation of something deeper: perhaps fear of Aurelie's and Doris's attraction to men and her own sexuality. Heights provide distance from the fecundity of plant and human life below. On one of her nights spying on Michael, her former lover, “it seemed to her … that the whole dark was full of couples, the building, the bushes, the shrubs, the trees, even the leaves overhead. Soft wet sounds” (185). High up in the library, she peers through a single window on the west side and at home sees the tramp from twenty feet up. Though Shirley Ann Grau may not think abstractly about her fiction, she is undoubtedly aware here of the spatial worth of a house. In The House on Coliseum Street, she uses heights and the opposition between inside and outside places richly and evocatively. The dark center space of Joan's aunt's house, for example, becomes a kind of objective correlative of the psyche when Grau writes: “[going] down the long halls and the stairway” of her aunt's on the morning of the abortion, she, Joan, was “surprised to see how dark the center of the house was. She had never noticed it before” (138).5
Not long after her abortion and subsequent harassment of Michael, and having forgotten her key one night, she finds herself locked out of the house on Coliseum Street. She stands looking at the balcony across the second floor and at the glow from deep inside the narrow house. She stands where the tramp stood, or fell, on the broken sidewalks the summer before and thinks how, once the family knows she has caused Michael to lose his university teaching job, she will have to leave. Moving a chair “to the spot the sun would strike first … she curled up, huddled inside her … sweater, and waited” (242). For her, the tangible and intangible elements that make up the ethos home are missing. She is displaced. What she offers in emotional terms has been rejected by Aurelie, Doris, and Michael, so that finally, whether in the car, the library, or her house, Joan not only disinhabits places but becomes a disembodied spirit herself. “She wanted to move without anyone knowing she was moving. She wanted to slip like a ghost through walls” (182).
In an interview, Shirley Ann Grau once said that she “intended to emphasize the redemption theme” in the last chapter of The House on Coliseum Street (Schlueter 44). Joan's being huddled in the fetal position at the sun's rising suggests the possibility of rebirth and redemption. But redemption and acceptance into the house must come, if at all, only after Joan's exile. “I'll have to go away now,” she thinks. “Once they know what I've done, I couldn't stay in the house. But I can go. It's only a question of where. My father knew I would have to leave some day. And he fixed it so I can go … she bowed slightly to the crisp busy figure on the other side of the grave” (241).
A “house full of bitches” (171), her half-sister Doris calls it. The house on Coliseum Street—a house which Paul Schlueter says is “totally lacking in roots and family security”—has in the past provided Joan little respite from the unsettling world. Now she finds herself completely shut out. “A lock is a psychological threshold,” the philosopher Bachelard has written (81). Though not intentionally set, the locked door here serves as a metaphor of dispossession. Increasingly withdrawn from the universe inside, Joan now finds herself closed out physically as well. To be excluded is to be turned loose into a world now less familiar because of lacking the referent home. Such befalls Anthony Mitchell, whom Aurelie found too quiet and dull. Another husband, Herbert Norton, gradually disappeared from their breakfast table, then from their lives. Others before Joan were also deemed unfit to join house and family. This is a not uncommon occurrence: the character who turns away, or is turned away, from the emotional and psychological life of the family as it is represented in the house loses part of himself, loses himself perhaps. So estranged is Joan Mitchell from the family and the house on Coliseum Street that in the end, the world outside its walls could hardly be more foreign. Though her leaving may prove redemptive, whether it results in a return to the house on Coliseum Street is another matter.
Stanley, the black factotum in The Condor Passes, also preserves himself by leaving a house. Here, again, Grau relies on the motif of displacement and flight; only in The Condor Passes, enclosed places and spaces are presented in a somewhat different manner. It is a tribute to Ms. Grau's art that her houses and houseless wanderers never seem redundant. She accomplishes this by modifying her unifying symbol (as in The Condor Passes), by introducing it at a different time in the narrative (as in The Keepers of the House), or by varying the depth and intensity with which she examines this symbol. Sometimes, to borrow the visual imagery she often uses, she views a house “myopically”; at other times, she draws back, viewing a house and its inhabitants in broader terms. Unlike Grau's other fictions, the inhabitants of the Old Man's, Thomas Henry Oliver's, house in The Condor Passes are incapable of fleeing either the real, physical structure, or the genealogical “house” when things go wrong. Because Stanley is black and no family member, he survives. Trying to remain invisible, he hears or sees nothing, he says, just performs his duties.
Those remaining in the house lack the courage, strength, and perseverance to continue the Old Man's work. Where Robert Caillet, Anna, and Margaret (virtually anyone in the Old Man's family) have been corrupted, Stanley has remained intact, freer of sin and guilt; thus Grau changes her motif slightly. Stanley walks out into the rain only moments after the Old Man's death and as the drunken Robert and the daughters Margaret and Anna rush to the house—actually to the huge conservatory where the Old Man sits. “He [Stanley] took the limousine key from his pocket and dropped it on the counter. … He opened the door; the east wind pulled it from his fingers and slammed it inward. He did not bother closing it.” After several decades of service, he leaves the family cold: their houses, cars, planes. He walks away from the house.
Behind him he could still hear the shouting, voices strung out on the wind. … He didn't listen. Like the Old Man, he was finished here. … Rain poured into his eyes, blurring his vision. … It would be strange not coming back, not coming this way again, a little bit like being dead.
Not so much an emotional or psychological part of the house as the others, he calls himself the “secret thief” of the things learned in their employment. Neither he nor his wife want any part of the real suffering of the house, however, any part of “their ghosts or their hauntings” (384). Just as have Joan Mitchell in The House on Coliseum Street, Margaret Carmichael in The Keepers of the House, or any number of Grau's characters, Stanley survives by leaving. Sometimes such figures are morally wrong to do so. The father in “The Man Outside” from The Wind Shifting West (1973) abandons his family, for instance. But those in The Condor Passes cannot escape. They are inextricably bound to the ethos of the house, to the air and spirit of Oliver history. To leave becomes impossible. Paying for their and the Old Man's indiscretions, their final punishment—like the characters in Sartre's No Exit—is each other and themselves. Anna and Robert live with the memory of their son Anthony's suicide-by-drowning in the Gulf, for example. Stanley says that he, Stanley, sees a grassy slope, then the beach and the water when he looks out from the porch at Porta Bella, but not so Anna and Robert. She stays on the other side of the house away from the porch and the lawn as though there's “something here she doesn't want to see.” On the other hand, Robert goes to the beach when he is drunk. Stanley once sees him “shouting at the empty water” (383). The Old Man himself sits in the humid air of his tropical greenhouse, staring at the shiny leaves.
These characters’ various houses represent them in different ways. The Old Man's house in New Orleans, Stanley says, is in “perfect shape, not a speck of rust, not a crack, not a dent, not a heel mark on the polished floor … like the house was built of stacks of dollar bills” (6–7). Reflected in its walls is an insistence upon order and detail; nothing there can be changed. Anna has her house before she even leaves the convent school. She sees it once, and the next day her father buys it. She spends the next several years remodeling and designing it. “Open the door,” she thinks, “key heavy and cool in my hand. Lovely door, oval leaded glass, cut facets to catch the light. I like the door most of all about the house.” She has little doubt that “people could see [her] reflection in these things” were she to die (171). And Margaret's various dwellings represent her personality.
But characters flee these houses, too—Robert flees his wife Anna's; Anthony, who drowns himself, his mother's. Only Stanley survives by not falling under the Old Man's power. Stanley holds his self in reserve. Through it all, he maintains a sense of his own worth, never losing perspective on the family. Because he has managed to stay apart from them, in the end the house holds no power. He has escaped the Old Man's claims in a way others cannot.
In Evidence of Love finally, characters abandon not only a physical, architectural dwelling, but sometimes the house as it is rendered metaphorically as the human body. The motif of the character removed from his or her house appears on the first page when Edward Milton Henley's father moves to his club to avoid his wife's noisy irritability during her pregnancy. “A man maintained his own home, his own cave, in his own city,” Grau writes. “Though he might never set foot inside during the long summer months, he knew his house waited for its master” (18). Though seeing to his son's financial security, the senior Henley neglects the boy's emotional and psychological well-being. Consequently, Edward Milton Henley grows up lacking a sense of rootedness to place, or to anything permanent for that matter. His life becomes a series of physical entanglements, some with men.
Whereas Edward Milton Henley follows his Dionysian energies, seeking in them some evidence of love, his son's life takes an opposite course. A Unitarian minister, the younger Henley pursues his interests in the classics, sometimes to the exclusion of all else. Having lived with his wife in the same house in Pennsylvania for over thirty-four years, he still cannot recall its color. Though he notices beauty in the world, he has little interest in anything else, even the house which has protected him from the elements these many years. When he retires to Florida, however, he begins to appreciate how a house can protect him psychologically from the encroaching dark, as Mamere Terrebone in The Hard Blue Sky is aware of her house. Not wanting to see his reflection outside the house at night, Stephen Henley draws the curtains to feel more secure. Eventually his surroundings control him. He complains of the Florida heat, the light, the tropical insects, all of them external enemies. “Our house was surrounded and protected by a magic white circle,” he says, “a voodoo circle of malathion crystals carefully renewed each week” (107). Behind drawn curtains, with the air conditioning and electric lights on, he feels “insulated and completely apart” (109). Trapped by the house, by his many years, and by the changes he has suffered moving south, he fails in the same way his house does. Where the house is ventilated by louvers in the doors, windows, and roof—he calls his house a mechanical house and “a wind-up toy” (109)—so has his life been precisely ordered. Early on, he says, “I began carefully writing down a complete plan for my life. A timetable [which] I have managed to keep quite closely to …” (93). One night as the mechanical house fails during a power blackout, so does his body. In his agony, and desperately seeking in logic some solution to his problems, some evidence of love, he even forgets his wife's name. Returning from a meeting, Lucy Roundtree Evans finds him dead inside the house. Until she opens the door, thus freeing his spirit, she can feel it trapped within “hissing and singing” (141). She herself stands fifty feet away from the house to await the police.
Lucy serves Stephen's father, the wheelchair-bound Edward Milton Henley, in a similar way. Earlier Edward Henley's fourth wife, who heretofore rarely left their house, one day simply walks out, leaving the front door open. Now it is his turn to leave. “Locked inside” a crumbling body, he likens his ribs to the collapsing roof timbers of a deserted house—the house-body metaphor. In a final act of mercy, his daughter-in-law gives him extra Seconal tablets to hasten his death. As she waits for his soul to free itself from the house of the body, she reads a magazine, ironically called House and Garden.
For those who find in houses evocative symbols, “house-holders,” a few other human symbols are so significant. Bachelard observes that, “Without it [a house] man would be a dispersed being. It maintains him through the storms of the heavens and through those of life. It is body and soul … the human being's first world. Life begins well, it begins enclosed, protected, all warm in the bosom of the house” (Bachelard 7). An integrating force, a house holds the promise of physical and psychological well-being; it promises safety and respite from trouble.
Exploring the history or decor of Shirley Ann Grau's fictional houses is less productive than exploring her use of the spatial value of a house and her examination of that missing narcissistic sense that a house reflects none other than oneself. For Grau, the house is center and substance of each fictional world. Relying upon spatial values, she succeeds in gathering characters and readers about an ancient symbol of sheltering places and spaces. Her houses can represent the final hope of those struggling against the outer dark like Mamere Terrebone in The Hard Blue Sky and Abigail Mason Tolliver in The Keepers of the House. More often they represent an often-destructive shelter from which to escape. Annie Landry in The Hard Blue Sky, Joan Mitchell in The House on Coliseum Street, the young Margaret Carmichael in The Keepers of the House, the child-suicide Anthony and Stanley in The Condor Passes, Edward Henley and his son Stephen with his Florida retirement home: all forsake the walls of a house because they are not mirrored in them. Finding not gratification but threat therein and torn by the life they find, they look elsewhere.
From The Black Prince, her first book, to Nine Women, her most recent, Shirley Ann Grau has found resonance and meaning in the image and symbol of houses and in the motif of the character displaced from them. Her comprehensive house-consciousness—her using interior places and spaces, heights, and the disordered impersonal world just beyond the threshold—all suggest a writer deeply aware of the symbolic nature of houses in her own and her characters’ lives. Her fictional houses have provided her work with a unifying symbol and incident, an organizing pattern which critics of her work have failed to notice. Her readers share the human core both of those who must build inward in order to survive and of those who must leave such inwardly leaning or inclining walls to go outward.
Some of the ideas in this paper appear in my review of Grau's Nine Women in Louisiana Literature, Vol. 3, no. 2.
More than twenty years ago, Alwyn Berland found Grau's three published books “less achieved than promising” and complained that Grau's work generally ended “with a kind of meaningless inconsequence: the sum of the parts should have been more substantial than the whole” (78–79). Berland, perhaps already sensing Grau's house consciousness, used metaphors of architecture to explain what she saw as Grau's aesthetic shortcomings. “[I]t is an architectural defect which Miss Grau's talent suffers from.” Missing in Grau's “construction,” which is often “done in beautifully polished stone … is the keystone … the firm center, the center of a vision, and hence the conviction of why her characters behave as they do” (81–84), Berland wrote.
Louise Y. Gosset also found Grau's fiction to be “largely without a dominant theme” (193). And Ann Pearson has asked, “What, if any, overall purpose does this talented writer have in her fiction” (47). Pearson continues: Grau's “only definable vision of the world lies in her perception of the ever present closeness of nature, that ‘hard blue sky’ which rules the lives of her character. Thus, nature is her vision, the focal point of her best fiction” (47–48). In his comments on Grau in Contemporary Novelists, Chester Eisinger also sees her lacking “the complex vision that enables her both to see around and to penetrate deeply into her subject” (515). Remarkably, not one of these critics has paid attention to the house-as-focal point of Grau's fiction, especially as houses and their inhabitants’ reactions to them comprise a major part of Grau's fictive universe.
Grau's houses signify differently depending upon the context of the fiction. In “One Summer” from The Black Prince a young man, attempting to accept the difficult loss of his grandfather, wanders the neighborhood at night instead of participating in the grandfather's wake. In a kind of epiphany, “Mac” Addams recalls seeing the old man two days earlier. “He'd just been sitting there, waiting. … And I understood then. … Why old people wanted to be left alone. … One day I'll be that afraid.” By avoiding human company—because “loneliness is more bearable than company … it's a kind of preparation for that coming final loneliness”—Mac for the first time confronts his own mortality. “All the hot noisy outside had come down to this: our green-painted clapboard house. … But somehow I couldn't go inside” (252–54).
In another story, “The Way of a Man,” William kills his father and has to sleep out in the fog: “[M]ost nights he would not have minded that,” Grau writes. “But tonight … the fog would be cold and the night was going to be long” (208). In “The Man Outside” from The Wind Shifting West (a story originally entitled “Stranger at the Window”), a wanderer returns to find the doors of his own house barred to him. An outsider also figures in “Homecoming” when the protagonist refuses to allow a dead soldier's memory to become part of her house and in so doing makes him a sort of spiritual exile shut out form both house and memory.
Margaret Carmichael's leaving is not meant to be climatic, thus its position earlier in the novel. Because she is only partly black, she is forced out by the black family in her great-grandmother's house. Finding shelter in “a hollow tree trunk, up the slope about a mile,” Margaret stays away from the house as much as she can, while keeping alive some notion of home:
She always waited until the steady dripping of the night ice ended, then she stopped feeding her fire and watched it go out. She never once stomped the coals—somewhere in the back of her memory was a warning never to kill a fire on your hearth. Way back, from a story long ago—she did not think about it, did not question or wonder, she merely obeyed. The same way she never put a hat on a bed, nor entered and left a house by anything but the same individual door.
Finally leaving for good, she lives with a white man and, years later, secretly marries him, at which point she tells the great-grandmother: “I buried my blood with you. … I'm using only the other half now” (103). Eventually, Will Howland's granddaughter defends the house against the night riders who have found out about his indiscretion. “The Howland they wanted was dead. His Negro wife was dead. Their children disappeared. And so they were wrecking the only thing that was left of him, of them. First the barn and then the house.…” (285). Abigail Mason Tolliver embraces the house, however. Her history as well as her grandfather's lives inside. When Will Howland was alive, Grau writes, “[S]ometimes he felt the age of the house, felt the people who had lived in it peer over his shoulder, wondering and watching what he was doing. … It seemed to him to … that he could hear their breathing, all of them, dozens of them, breathing together, deep and steady, the way they had when they were alive” (133–34). The Howland house is a place of collective human endeavor, a locus of the collective psyche of the family.
Whether in fact or fiction, attics and cellars often signify differently; so, likewise, do thresholds, center spaces of houses, and backdoors convey meaning, and gates, doors, locks, latches and still smaller interior places and spaces like drawers and chests. Grau betrays her awareness of the psychologically resonant places of a house when she mentions the “dark center” of Joan's aunt's and has Margaret Carmichael in The Keepers of the House cherish her makeshift hearth, the “heart” of the house in the tree trunk.
Grau appears even more interested in heights, especially as they appear in The House on Coliseum Street and Nine Women. Bachelard calls the attic a place of “detachment, privacy, and rumination” (17). Joan Mitchell feels detached in her second floor room and upstairs in the library. So, too, do the girl, “the young black female of illegitimate birth” (17) in “The Beginning” and Myra Rowland in “Widow's Walk,” both from Nine Women. In the latter, Myra Rowland succumbs to a kind of ecstasy as, high atop the house, she “watched the constellations swing up and out of the ocean and traced the twin bands of the Milky Way.” The only human sounds are “filtered by distance,” Grau writes. Up on the widow's walk—and, presumably, closer to her dead husband—Myra Rowland would “fall asleep … waking only to the first light and bird cries, her hair drenched and dripping with dew and night fog, her lips smiling with quiet joy” (79).
Bachelard, Gaston. The Poetics of Space. Boston: Beacon, 1969.
Berland, Alwyn. “The Fiction of Shirley Ann Grau.” Critique 6 (1963).
Gossett, Louise Y. Violence in Recent Southern Fiction. Durham: Duke Univ. Press, 1965.
Grau, Shirley Ann. The Black Prince and Other Stories. New York: Knopf, 1955.
———. The Condor Passes. New York: Knopf, 1971.
———. Evidence of Love. New York: Knopf, 1977.
———. The Hard Blue Sky. New York: Knopf, 1958.
———. The House on Coliseum Street. New York: Knopf, 1961.
———. The Keepers of the House. New York: Knopf, 1964.
———. “Letter to the Author.” 5 April 1984.
———. Nine Women. New York: Knopf, 1985.
———. The Wind Shifting West. New York: Knopf, 1973.
Parrill, William. “The Art of the Novel: An Interview with Shirley Ann Grau.” Louisiana Literature, Spring 1985.
Pearson, Ann. “Shirley Ann Grau: Nature Is the Vision.” Critique 17 (1975).
Schlueter, Paul. Shirley Ann Grau. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1981.
Vinson, James, ed. Contemporary Novelists, 3rd ed. New York: St. Martin's, 1982.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8094
SOURCE: “Shirley Ann Grau's Wise Fictions,” in Southern Women Writers: The New Generation, The University of Alabama Press, 1990, pp. 143-60.
[In the following essay, Wagner-Martin examines several facets of Grau's work, identifying southern themes, feminist undercurrents and stylistic habits.]
As every reviewer of Shirley Ann Grau's fiction points out, she was born in New Orleans in 1929 and spent her childhood between that city, which her mother preferred, and Montgomery, Alabama, the location her father liked. She was educated in the now defunct Booth School, receiving much training in languages, and then, because Booth School was not accredited, transferred to Ursuline Academy for her senior year. She wanted to attend Tulane University but, being female, was accepted instead into Tulane's women's division, Sophie Newcomb College, which she describes as “a kind of finishing school.”1 While there, however, she enjoyed creative writing classes and announced her intention of becoming a professional writer. Her professor in the writing program, John Husband, remembers her initially as a student more diligent than talented, though she quickly became one of his best students.2 Evidently, despite the clear signals Grau was receiving about the kind of life a Southern woman should be preparing herself to lead, she had already determined what her direction would be.
Grau began publishing her fiction soon after graduation from college in 1950. Part of this need to publish resulted from her father's conviction that writing was not “doing anything” and that she needed to find real work. She was able to appease him only by being published in prestigious places. That Grau won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction only ten years after her first book appeared (in 1965, for The Keepers of the House) was evidence of her dedication and professionalism. By 1965, Grau had given birth to three children, with a fourth to arrive in 1967. Her household, in a suburb of New Orleans and, in summer, on Martha's Vineyard, has never been the scene of monastic calm or attention focused on Grau-as-writer.3 But with what seems to be typical equanimity, she continues to write and work in the directions she early established.
By virtue of her birth, education, life experiences, and residence, then, Shirley Ann Grau could clearly be labeled a “Southern” writer. And in her fiction, she not only uses the South as setting and cultural milieu, but she also focuses attention on some of its most striking characteristics and finds her central themes in its current and pervasive concerns. The issue with Grau's writing is not so much whether she is a “Southern” writer—that she obviously is—but whether or not she is working in strains of “Southernness” that in some way either enhance or diminish her art.
Frederick J. Hoffman, in his classic The Art of Southern Fiction (1945 and 1967), identifies some of the characteristics of the mode, to that time. Southern fiction often attends to history and is an “act of considering, staring at, brooding over the past-as-legend.”4 Such a constant interest, according to Hoffman, stems in part from a sense of both “self-awareness” and “guilt”5 and, at its worst, may lead to self-justification—and to ultimate falsity. The interest may also lead to repetitious themes and characters: one wonders how many times the Civil War can be the subject of great fiction (obviously, many).
More often, however, as John Stewart points out, the Southern writer is less concerned with the facts of history than with the use made of that history by the culture: “the gesture of trying to distinguish between legend and actuality is in itself a major preoccupation with Southern fiction.”6 Such motivation places emphasis on the way stories are told, on the process of telling. Hoffman defines a Southern “rhetoric” as being “the style of the folk tale, the story told and retold, filled out by hazard and guess.”7 And for the Southern writer—who may be shying away, even if unconsciously, from the guilt and grief of the Southern past, with its freight of both slavery and defeat/destruction—the most compatible method of narration is that based on concrete images. Southern fiction includes less authorial intervention; it relies frequently on metaphor (and often on metaphors of the land).
The Southern writer, ultimately, benefits from all of this sense of history and concern with the past because, through it, the writer is forced to acknowledge tradition, and the Southern tradition, as Hoffman points out, usually included “a complement of ceremony, belief, and dynastic observance. Those were forms of behavior that were regionally distinctive.”8
Grau's fiction meets most of these criteria. The most noticeable departure is that it seldom focuses on history per se (many of her narratives take place in the present time, or close to it) but her characters are often concerned with Southern history and its traditions. They may be fighting to preserve what is best from it (Abigail Howland in The Keepers of the House), or they may be intent on amassing property as a means of self-identification (many of her male characters). In some cases, their very practical ignorance presents an escape of sorts from history's weighty burdens (the primitives of her early fiction, for example).
And when her characters are obsessed with the past and its effects on their lives (as occurs in only some of her work), their focus is less on the past as past, for itself, than it is on their immediate lives, on bringing themselves to fruition and self-understanding. A reader will become much more involved in what is happening to Annie, to Joan Mitchell, to Abigail than in what has happened to their families in some relatively remote past. Grau's approach tends much more often to be that of Faulkner as he presents Joe Christmas—a life fully realized, though not explained, through detail and image—than that of Faulkner as he works, and worries, the character of Quentin Compson, whose life and death are inextricably part of the reconstruction of Southern history.
Grau's highly stylized method of narration (having a named character tell his or her own story through parts of a novel) blunts the sense of her method as being “the style of folk tale,” but in many ways it is that. One of the most problematic areas of critical response to Grau's work lies in her choice of narrative method: the charge that she has too objective a tone, too great a “distance” from her characters, can be answered through attention to her choices of structure and perspective. The other trait of the Southern writer's method, reliance on concrete image and scene, is integral to Grau's fiction, but then this method has been so much a part of nearly all modern writing that describing it as characteristic of Southern work may be misleading.
One of Grau's most distinctive traits is what Hoffman defines as an interest in ceremony, in ritual, as if these external forms were in themselves images of the larger “meaning” of the lives portrayed. Grau's fiction is rife with rituals of holidays, births, marriages, and, especially in her last novels, death; in fact, the novels move almost from one scene of ritual to another. Ritualized interaction and the departures from the expected interaction constitute many of Grau's “plots.” And this narrative focus also provides a means for Grau to go beyond concentration on the forms of the white aristocratic life, which often is the dominant setting of her fiction, to include the rituals and ceremonies of the Cajun and black cultures. It is perhaps this latter area of interest that makes Grau the important novelist she is: her consistent concern with non-white culture, its traditions and rituals, and the way that culture impinges on the patriarchal matrix that seems to dominate Southern life. Grau's best fiction deals, relentlessly if subtly, with that impingement.
Because it does—and because this thematic focus is relatively rare among Southern writers, even today—it seems necessary to consider Grau as not only a Southern writer but also as a woman writer. One way of doing that is to compare her with other Southern women writers. In background and family life, she is much like Ellen Glasgow, whose fiction was tolerated by the family that felt real outrage at her choosing to be “independent.” The protected Southern woman, kept from “doing” anything, elevated to pedestals and proprieties, is surely as alive in Grau's adolescence as it was during Glasgow's in the 1980s. In these respects (the lack of independence, the presence of an ultimately censoring shelter), both writers must have at least known what Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar have called “the anxiety of authorship.”9 For these important critics, most women writers had to push through so many barriers, psychological as well as physical, that the act of coming to write was already perilous. Their feelings of inadequacy, of sheer guilt, led women writers to revise the genres male writers worked in easily. Because the stories they had to tell were so different, were so much their own, women writers could not simply copy male forms. But because they carried such anxiety about their narratives, they usually were forced to disguise what they were actually about. It is rare, then, that a woman writer will tell a woman's story in identifiable terms. Often, a woman's novel seems to be “about” a male protagonist, with a strong secondary protagonist who is female. Or the structure of a novel will be layered, one story juxtaposed against another, “palimpsestic” as a means of what Gilbert and Gubar term “necessary evasion.” And in their earliest works, most women writers are careful to imitate the forms and themes of successful fiction written by men.10
Anne Jones, in her recent Tomorrow Is Another Day, claims that the Southern woman writer may have less anxiety than woman writers who work from a shorter tradition (there have been a great many Southern woman writers throughout history), but she admits readily that the South did its own kind of disservice to the literary profession. The Southern patriarchy accepted literary pursuits, to a certain extent, but it succeeded in relegating literature to the category of a frill. In Jones's terms, the South equated “women, beauty, literature, and irrelevance.”11 And finally, the essence of the South was “a rigid southern patriarchy that subjected women, blacks, children, and nonslaveholding white men to the control and authority of the slaveholding men. If only in his subculture, he ruled patriarchally.”12 In fact, one might point out that a man who feared his real standing (given the defeated South, the indefensible practice of slavery, the sense of imminent loss the Southern male would be privy to) might be an even more oppressive “master.”
A study of Shirley Ann Grau's fiction suggests that far from being an autonomous, successful, modern woman writer, she too has felt the same kinds of anxieties Gilbert and Gubar identify. She has, however, managed to write, consistently, and not fall prey to Tillie Olsen's “silences.”13 She has managed to produce a body of work that shows developing patterns, characters, insights, themes—a true oeuvre that is characteristic of Shirley Ann Grau. In her comparatively short career, such an accomplishment is an achievement.
But Grau's work has also received unexpected critical reaction. It has frequently been misread. Grau shares this kind of uneven response with other writers such as Glasgow, Cather, Wharton, O’Connor, and Welty, women whose works have become important to the canon of American fiction in spite of the reception those works have had. (Response may be positive and still be misleading, as when Louise Y. Gossett claims that all Grau's best work is about “primitives,” into which category she places blacks as well as bayou people, and that because of the primitive quality of these people, Grau's fiction is filled with violence.14) This essay will not attempt to correct these misreadings, but the fact that they exist in such quantity proves once again the separateness of women's writing, its relative inaccessibility so long as it is approached only through established literary categories and perspectives.15
Grau's first novel, The Hard Blue Sky, was published in 1958, four years after her first collection of stories, The Black Prince and Other Stories, had been well received. Reminiscent of the fiction of Paul Bowles and Albert Camus, The Hard Blue Sky attempted to create an environment of disinterest, of a nature oblivious to its creatures, and to suggest the powerlessness of any human culture. But in this book, as in her later fiction, Grau quickly let the real force of the narrative rest on a single character, that of the sixteen-year-old maturing but neglected Annie Laundry. In this role, Annie foreshadows Grau's concern with Joan Mitchell, protagonist and central consciousness of The House on Coliseum Street, the 1961 novel that was considered a great departure from her earlier fiction. But if the stories in The Black Prince and much of her first novel are seen to be explorations of the unknown, the emotional, the unreasonableness of life, as they well might be, then Grau's focus on the lonely young Mitchell as she faces an abortion is less a departure than it is an extension.
One key to the development between Grau's first novel and the second lies in the titles of the respective books. The Hard Blue Sky suggests the impersonality of natural forces, and the novel accordingly traces relatively meaningless deaths (in the course of the opposing families’ feuds) and relationships. The mood of the novel is one of impoverished emotions, of people taking what they can find and can get quickly, before even that acquisition is taken from them. These are placeless people, Grau's bayou families, belonging to one of the several islands that chain the Gulf of Mexico. Flooded annually, subject to death-dealing storms at intervals, these pieces of earth are, ironically, havens for the fishermen who live on them. And Annie, with the street knowledge of the very poor, knows that her only real way of escaping the island malaise is to leave, which she does with Inky and his boat.
The House on Coliseum Street, in contrast, images a relatively settled society. In the house, Joan's mother—five-times married but still in possession of both property and five daughters, one from each of her marriages—rules, as she does in parts of the city's society. Whereas Grau's structure in The Hard Blue Sky emphasized the randomness of life patterns, her tactic in her second novel is to emphasize the ravages of time. The four-part structure suggests the kind of division she tries in her third novel, each section named for the narrating character, a device that allows her to pay less attention to chronology and to focus more steadily on creating a mood that can become identified with respective characters. But in The House on Coliseum Street, the sections—“June,” “End of Summer,” “House on Coliseum Street,” and “Winter”—are evocative of not only time (and for the newly pregnant Joan, months and seasons are crucial) but also of changes within the protagonist's psyche. Joan as she is in “June” is a very different woman than she is by “Winter.” In effect, Grau's named sections do present a different character in each segment.
But central to the novel, to Joan, and to the pattern of Grau's fiction remains the house of the title. The opening preface, which is spoken by Joan just after she returns from her abortion and marks the midpoint of the book, is entitled “House on Coliseum Street,” as is the third, and turning, segment of the novel. In that section, Joan discovers that the effects of her abortion cannot be forgotten, washed away, or celebrated, as in the haunting dinner scene with Michael. Permanently scarred by her experience, Joan is forced to accept her own position in her mother's house: the oldest, and therefore first abandoned, child; the observer of all her mother's lovers and children; the real victim of the chic, inhuman life-style. And in that knowledge lies the seed of self-destruction. Grau draws the distraught Joan carefully and plausibly, and when she turns her self-destructive impulses to anger and is able to blame Michael for her pregnancy (to the dean, costing Michael his position at the college), the reader breathes a sigh of relief. Joan is safe, at least for a while. The quick move to the last scene of the book, with Joan locked out of the house but willing to wait in the cold, huddled in a borrowed sweater, allows Grau to express, even if somewhat didactically, the source of Joan's personal strength—her identity as “keeper of the house,” here the house on Coliseum Street: “I’ll own it some day, she thought, because I’m the oldest and Aurelie will leave it to the oldest, whether she likes me or not. … Maybe I can come back to it. And maybe I won’t even want to. Maybe. But I’ll have to go away now.”16 Grau's progression through Joan's consciousness takes her to her incredible, angry loneliness, and the loss of the child who might have been company for her (“ghost child”), to the thought of her father's money, here a positive gesture: “I’ll have to go away now. Once they know what I’ve done, I couldn’t stay in the house. But I can go. It's only a question of where. My father knew I would have to leave some day. And he fixed it so I can go …” (241).
In her first two novels, Grau used almost opposing techniques to create her structure. The Hard Blue Sky includes a list of characters as a preface page, identified as though a drama were to be acted. Structure is time oriented, with setting presented first, Inky introduced through the appearance of his boat, and lines of conflict carefully, if busily, set up. The reader can almost see Grau's charts of characters and actions being implemented, as chapters alternate between the “rivalry” plot and the “Annie-Inky” plot. Thematically, however, the novel is filled with children who are parentless, with adolescents making mistakes in life because of so little adult direction or concern, with images of the loveless culture that affects every action on the islands. One might be tempted to blame the tragedies on fate, the force of nature, the existential position. But when seen from the perspective of Grau's later work, most of the tragedies even here result from lack of love, as Annie says when she goes to her former boyfriend to talk about leaving for New Orleans:
“Thought you want to go to New Orleans, me,” he said.
“Maybe,” she said automatically, “maybe not.”
She swung her body forward catching her weight on her hands. “I’m not sure.” She sounded miserable; she knew it. And she knew she hadn’t intended to. …
Perique shrugged. “What's keeping you?”
She didn’t believe it. She just didn’t believe it. Even when she knew she should stop, she tried again: “You want me to go?”
“Maybe you got a taste for New Orleans now.”
“You don’t want me to stay?”
Perique was smoothing his left eyebrow with his right finger. “None of my business.”
Annie got down from the rail. She stood at the top of the steps. “I reckon you won’t miss me,” she said. “I don’t reckon nobody will.”17
A word from Perique would have made the difference, but his doctrine of noninvolvement (under the guise of her “freedom”) prevented his statement. Although this is a long and somewhat slow scene in its entirety, Grau catches the temper of the uncommitted character.
Buried in detail and scenic blur, the structure of The Hard Blue Sky ends with a sprawl of oddly named characters, so many that keeping track of them is difficult for even the most interested reader. In contrast, The House on Coliseum Street errs in being so singly focused. Unless Joan Mitchell becomes the most fascinating woman since Emma Bovary, Grau has little chance of holding our attention through the novel. Part of the difficulty is that Joan, in her present circumstances, has very little idea who she is herself; the novel is a coming-to-understanding, a bildungsroman for Joan as protagonist. But Grau chooses to handle narrative from an objective point of view, rather than from a more impressionistic, personal perspective. Because it is focused only on Joan, and because Joan herself has trouble deciding how she feels about any of these experiences, the novel moves slowly and seems oversimplified in its execution. As one of the earliest fictions about the abortion experience and its effect on the woman undergoing it, this novel could have been an important statement, a central evocation of many of the issues involved in the ongoing abortion controversy. It is an interesting novel, and one that deserves to be “rediscovered,” but it pales in comparison with her third novel, The Keepers of the House, published in 1964.
In this, her best novel, Grau manages to combine the multiple characters and the panoramic scene of The Hard Blue Sky with the masterful mood of The House on Coliseum Street. She also draws back into her own sense of the past as she creates characters heavy with the weight of history (whereas the characters from her first novel were defiantly oblivious to history of any kind, of themselves or of their country). As Grau has said, discussing writing fiction, “Aspiring writers must learn that writing is making a structure, and it is putting thoughts into that structure for the total effect.”18 The most important change in The Keepers of the House is Grau's use of the part structure to order both the chronology and the various sets of moods and characters integral to the novel's action. The Keepers of the House builds in an amazing way to a culminating scene that works perfectly to realize not only the plot of the novel but, more importantly, the theme.
Like The House on Coliseum Street, The Keepers of the House begins with a short preface section, this one entitled “Abigail,” which occurs later in the ostensible action. The tone of these first four pages is peacefully rigid, dulled by what might have been excessive emotion: “November evenings are so quiet, so final. This one now. It is mistfree; you see for miles in all directions. …”19 Sometimes in Grau's short fiction, the pace and sound of her words create tone poems, but this is the first novel to be grounded so consistently in a single tonal base. As Abigail continues reminiscing, we understand that this soliloquy takes place at the end of all the novel's action, that the reasons for her behavior throughout the story are explained here: “I was a child in this house once too, rushing through those halls and up and down those stairs. It was not as nice as it is now—that was before the war, before my grandfather made his money—but it was the same house. For them, for me. I feel the pressure of generations behind me, pushing me along the recurring cycles of birth and death” (5). Grau saves the preface from oversimplification by taking Abigail immediately from this monologue to the taut, image-centered paragraph that follows, leaving the reader with many questions: “They are dead, all of them. I am caught and tangled around by their doings. It is as if their lives left a weaving of invisible threads in the air of this house, of this town, of this country. And I stumbled and fell into them” (6).
The other three parts of the novel, which are its major divisions, trace the lives of William Howland, Abigail's maternal grandfather, and Margaret Carmichael, his second wife, who is part Negro, part Choctaw (and their children, Robert, Nina, and Crissy, who are sent North to school to assume white lives and never return), as well as Abigail's own life as the wife of an ambitious politician. The segment entitled “William” gives the history of the Howland fortunes and land, the land Abigail comes to claim. It recounts the life of the hardworking man, his first courtship, and his wife's death soon after the birth of their second child. Alone, Howland rears his daughter (the second child dies). Once she is married, he then finds the arresting young Margaret, “earth-colored … her hair black as her skin.” Impulsively, thinking she is the demonic black Alberta, lover of Stanley (from Grau's story “The Black Prince”), Howland offers her the job of housekeeper, and they are soon lovers. The dignity of the relationship is maintained throughout the narrative, as Grau closes this first section with a coda: “That was the way it began. That was how he found Margaret, washing clothes by a creek that didn’t have a name. She lived with him all the rest of his life, the next thirty years. / Living with him, she lived with us all, all the Howlands, and her life got mixed up with ours. Her face was black and ours were white, but we were together anyhow. Her life and his. And ours” (78).
In the second major section, entitled “Margaret,” Grau describes the Freejack way of life, the need for the daughter, at eighteen, to find her own existence, and her years with the Howlands (married secretly, they live as housekeeper and master, and their children are her children). Her implicit mysticism colors Grau’s accounts of her realizing that she will need to leave her family and move away, that Howland’s offer is “sent,” and that she has no recourse but to become his wife. Margaret’s proud serenity is well established in this short section.
With the third segment, “Abigail,” the ostensible narrator takes over from her own perspective. Abandoned by her father, she and her mother, another Abigail, return to the Howland place and learn to care for, and be cared for by, Margaret. After her mother’s death, Abigail really does depend on Margaret, who acts as buffer between her and her grandfather, as well as stable support, though unobtrusive, throughout her life. Her marriage to John Tolliver takes her away from the Howland place, and as he rises politically, she assumes the wifely duties expected of her—having children, running a good home, never complaining about his many absences. But in the course of her life, her grandfather dies, and Grau takes this occasion to draw on her belief in the inexplicable and to clarify the man’s real worth. Howland appears to Abigail as she drives out to Freejack territory to visit Margaret, who has returned home now that her husband is dead. At the close of their drive, Abigail thinks to herself (and the theme of male/female dominance is finally established, as it needs to be for Grau’s denouement):
He’d protected and cared for so many females in his life, that he just looked on us as responsibilities and burdens. Loved, but still burdens. There’d been his wife, the vague little bumbling girl, who’d been so lovely and who’d died so young. There’d been my mother, who’d read poetry in a summerhouse and married a handsome Englishman, who’d come scurrying home, heartbroken, with another girl. She’d lingered around the house and around the bed until she died. And there was me, the orphan, and my two daughters.
Sometimes he must have felt that he was being smothered in dependents. There hadn’t been a man of his blood in so long. And that must have worried him too.
All those clinging female arms. … And then there was Margaret. Who was tall as he was. Who could work like a man in the fields. Who bore him a son. Margaret, who’d asked him for nothing. Margaret, who reminded him of the free-roving Alberta of the old tales. Margaret, who was strong and black. And who had no claim on him.
Or so Abigail thinks, at this point in the novel. The revelation of Howland’s marriage to Margaret, of course, is the provoking action: it loses John Tolliver his election and turns the white “friends” of the Howlands into raging avengers who burn the barn, kill their stock, and are poised to fire the house when Abigail single-handedly turns their anger into fear.
The great irony of the novel is that the Howland son, Margaret’s Robert, has been reared in the North and has forgotten the ways of Southern righteousness. When Robert reveals his parentage and also, and most importantly, the fact that Howland had married Margaret, he intends to destroy only Tolliver’s political career. He in fact destroys the Howland name and property and the life his mother has sacrificed to give him. Not the Howland son, but rather the Howland daughter—Abigail—saves the family home, and she saves it from none other than Robert Howland, the only son.
And in the teeming action, one of the best depictions of class and race prejudice in modern fiction, Abigail turns from the pampered, mindless Southern wife to a vindictive woman of proud courage, who delivers her best weapons at fashionable tea parties and then returns home to live out the life she has chosen for herself, as a Howland, alone.
Grau succeeds in telling Abigail’s story so deftly, with so much involvement in the tale of the Howland family and its traditions, that the reader is hardly aware that The Keepers of the House is a feminist novel. She is able to achieve this partly because of the book’s structure. As it is organized, Abigail inherits the stories of both her grandfather and Margaret; the information in them, the tone of their characters and their relationship, become part of our knowledge about Abigail. Were we to have been told only Abigail’s story (as we were told only Joan’s in The House on Coliseum Street), we would know far too little to understand—her husband’s hypocritical nature, Oliver’s loyalty. And Abigail, through most of the novel, would not have been capable of explaining the layers of complexity the book reveals; she is, in much of the book, a childlike narrator.
Part of Grau’s skill accrues in the fact that the motivating action, the denouement of the Howland story, comes at the end of Abigail’s section, so that she is narrating it even while she is innocent of its far-reaching consequences. We thus are caught up in the events; we are experiencing them with Abigail. Her rage as she realizes what is going to happen, her capacity to act in the face of that lonely outrage, is also ours.
And so too is her peace, her sense of calm resolution, when the attack is over: “I circled the house, slowly, finding nothing else disturbed. When I was sure of that, when I was quite sure that I had checked everything, I stood—with the shotgun held crosswise in my hands and my scratched and torn legs aching feebly under me. … I looked briefly at the house behind me, lit dimly by those two distant fires; it was white and smooth and lovely and unruffled. It would belong to my children. It would come to them the way it had come to me. Howlands were not run out, nor burned out” (289). Abigail does not need the reassurance of her grandfather, but he, and a host of other Howlands, appear to her at the close of this scene: “‘You didn’t think I could do it,’ I said. … You do what you got to do, he answered me” (290).
Grau succeeds in giving us the impression that Abigail is well launched. She acted when she needed to act, of her own volition. Her family spirit was of no material help, except in helping her nurture her own spirit. As a Howland, Abigail will go on doing what she knows is right, despite the petty prejudices of the community; she will, in fact, avenge their wrongs as she withdraws the family wealth from the area. In times as muddled and sinister as the epigraph from Ecclesiastes suggests, humankind deserves punishment rather than help.
Grau’s next two novels, The Condor Passes (1971) and Evidence of Love (1977), continue the theme of the decaying society that needs guidance, again using “the old gentleman” as central character. Her success with the William Howland figure in The Keepers of the House and the dying patriarch in “One Summer,” a major story from The Black Prince collection, evidently led her to attempt to use the character of the rich, powerful, but aging male as the focus for a number of relationships in both these novels. The books differ, but in structure and assortment of characters, they are surprisingly similar.
The Condor Passes hints that the black bird of Mr. Oliver’s imagination has a connection with his black valet, Stanley (whose name echoes that of the “black prince” of Grau’s early published story). Working for Oliver for twenty years, both Stanley and his wife, Vera, have been well paid; they are wealthy and look forward to retirement. Divided into named sections, as was Grau’s third novel, The Condor Passes opens with a Stanley section, in which he explains the family, the financial genius of the Old Man, and his solace in the specially built greenhouse, complete with birdcage and collection of birds. The second section that concerns Stanley is entitled “The Secret Thief.” It advances the present-tense plot (much of the novel flashes back to Oliver’s rise to wealth) and also incorporates what seems to be a key image, as Stanley ponders: “I been thinking that I was the big black hawk spying on people’s lives. But now it looks like there was a skinny sparrow right up under my nose, watching everything, watching me. Who’s fooling who? The Old Man. It’s always the Old Man.”20
In the “Old Man” segment, Grau traces the childhood and life of her protagonist and also creates some effective brushes with death for the aging, weary man. His grief at the time of his wife’s death is another evocative scene. But Grau’s real interest lies in the character of Robert Caillet, a Cajun. Oliver adopts him in spirit (and marries him to his older daughter, Anna, in order to have the son he would himself choose). In the third part of the book, Robert’s development into the completely amoral man he will become begins. Part of his anger at the Old Man, his benefactor, stems from his poverty and misuse as a child, Grau suggests, but she draws Robert as such an unpleasant character that feeling any sympathy is difficult.
She creates a detailed description of Anna, Oliver’s daughter, in the section titled for her, but she is so completely absorbed by her role as wife that she too becomes unreal. Hardly a parody of the adolescent reared to think only in terms of Cinderella and charming princes, the character of the adult Anna is frightening.
Margaret, Anna’s younger sister and supposedly her foil, is both frightening and appealing as Grau presents her. Hungry for sexual experience, Margaret becomes involved with many men, including her brother-in-law, but never gives up her own wily perspective. Seeing the relationship with Robert become more and more tawdry, the reader comes to have more sympathy for Anna, and to see that Oliver has devalued his own child to try to create some fantasy relationship for himself. The Condor Passes is a double narrative: the story of Oliver’s disillusion with his chosen “son” and of Anna’s disillusion with her chosen life. To be a wife and mother, when neither husband nor child appreciates that role, leaves only bitterness and regret: Robert’s many affairs and her son’s withdrawal, final illness, and suicide leave her numb with her wasted sacrifices.
Grau alternates sections between Robert and Margaret, as their affair changes through the years. The denouement of Robert’s obsession with sex occurs when he begins to need adolescent girls, and Margaret finally realizes that his indiscriminate taste is venal. Because we have so little concern for either of these characters, much of the later part of the novel moves slowly, and Grau’s return at the end to Stanley, observing the Old Man’s death, does little to confirm earlier directions in the novel. Stanley’s renunciation of the remaining family—with Robert vomiting out on the lawn and the women oblivious to their father’s death—may be positive, but it seems strangely added on. If The Condor Passes is Grau’s The Sound and the Fury, describing the fall of what might have been a great and powerful Southern family, it is disappointing. The immensity of the cultural forces displayed in The Keepers of the House in this novel reach only to Robert’s perversity, Anna’s self-centeredness, and Margaret’s insatiable appetites. Racial issues are not important, even though the Old Man adopts for himself both a black man and a Cajun, and all characterizations seem both flat and predictable.
Evidence of Love (1977) is marred by some of the same qualities. Again, named sections portray characters we care little about. The novel opens with a segment about Edward Milton Henley, scion of a very wealthy family, and the second segment portrays his son, Stephen, a minister. For all the difference in occupation and life-style, both men are distant, manipulative, and self-centered.
In Evidence of Love, Grau uses her by now commonplace structure for a new ironic effect. In both The Keepers of the House and The Condor Passes, the patriarchal male wants desperately to produce a son. Supposedly, the son would both continue the family name and husband the inheritance. In each of these novels, the chosen son and heir is an utter disappointment. So too in Evidence of Love, Stephen Henley is a vapid, pretentious, and judgmental son, who, in effect, chooses a life-style to spite his father. But his father, Edward, has earlier committed the most loveless act in the book, when he hires a woman to be a surrogate mother rather than having the child with his legal wife. Edward is not only going to create his own dynasty; he is—singly—going to create his own line. In Edward’s words:
I knew that my child must, so to speak, burst from the brow of Jove, or rise like Venus from the sea foam. It must be mine alone, it must have no blood attachment to any of my wives—by then I could predict, quite accurately, a series of them.
Within two months of my sister’s death, I found the perfect incubator for my child. A young Irish girl, of no importance whatever. She met all my requirements: she was quite young, sixteen, intelligent, a virgin. She was very well paid for her trouble, which can’t have been all that onerous to a young healthy woman. …21
(From the tone of this excerpt, one can see why many critics, not realizing that this is precisely Edward’s pomposity and has nothing to do with Grau as author, have objected to the tone and voice that prevails in Grau’s fiction.)
The famed male line does continue through Stephen’s sons, Thomas and Paul. Thomas, an affable “user” like his grandfather, will get along, hurting his wife and defiling his other relationships, but the conscience of the family exists in the younger son, Paul. He has, in fact, managed to find the “lost” mother, the woman who gave birth to Stephen, now an old artist whose self-portrait, as well as her early paintings of a young boy, resemble Stephen. Grau’s scene between Stephen and his son Paul, as the latter explains his collection of Mary Morrison Remick’s work, characterizes the two men perfectly. It is a long passage and comes to this ending as Paul speaks:
“And do you know why her portrait looks familiar to you? That’s yourself you’re seeing. That’s your mother.”
“Look at it.”
I sat down, propping the small piece of canvas against the flower-filled silver centerpiece. Red anemones peeped around the frame.
“Well, Paul, I suppose that is possible.”
“So you see, she was all right after all. She was a talented painter, she had a fine family, and they all did very well. She wasn’t hurt by you.”
Hurt by me? I had never thought of it that way. … “I hardly think bearing a single child could hurt a healthy young woman, Paul.”
“But giving him up. …”
I became impatient. “When it is possible to have many more children, one is not so important. There is a story of Catherine Sforza on the ramparts of Bologna, when the city was under siege and the enemy held two of her children as hostages. …”
“I know the story, Father.”
“Do you? Paul, you are remarkably well read.”
“You aren’t interested, Father!”
It was a cry of pain. No less. From a thirty-three-year-old man. My stomach lurched.
The scene continues, with Stephen wondering, “Was the presence of blood so important to him? What strange evidence of love was this?” (125). All Stephen’s reasons that it does not matter who his mother was force the reader to adopt the silence of the son who does recognize love, values, the stuff of immortality—and has given years of his life and his resources to finding the lost woman, his grandmother. Grau’s method works through that silence, while the reader closes ears to the rationalizing verbiage of both Stephen and his father, Edward.
In this novel, as in The Keepers of the House, the moral center of the story appears late and goes almost unnoticed. After the segments titled for the father and the son, Grau introduces “Lucy.” A strong, quiet woman, Lucy marries Stephen several years after her first marriage has ended with her husband’s suicide, and her own near-murder. That relationship had been one of frightening passion, and in the creation of Lucy, Grau achieves what she may have been aiming for with Margaret in The Condor Passes. (One dimension of the proper Southern lady was surely her disinterest in sex: Anna is a cold illustration of that quality. But both Margaret and Lucy find sexual pleasure a necessary part of their lives as women.)
Like the structure of The Keepers of the House, that of Evidence of Love builds toward a final, defining act. Here Lucy offers her father-in-law, Edward, a killing dose of Seconal, to free him from the life he hates. It is an act of courage that saves “the house” in much the same way Abigail saves hers under very different circumstances.
There is little question that these two later novels are less successful than The Keepers of the House, but then Grau has consciously chosen to work with the archetypal Southern theme—the creation of a dynasty that burdens its creator until it is “handed down,” handed down to sons. A patriarchal theme, one that pervades much fiction in a country where material prosperity still remains the only important kind of achievement, Grau manages to treat it with new insight each time. It should be noted that in each case the patriarchal plan fails. Either no heir worthy of the inheritance exists, or the patriarch himself cares only about dying.
So much attention to the act of dying is also unusual. Writers have seldom tried to show the movement from the dying consciousness into death, but Grau seems fascinated with that image. From the moment the black prince made his appearance in her short story, his eyes like silver pennies, it was clear that Grau was intrigued by folk legend and fantasy, and that she would use those subjects throughout her fiction. Her treatment of death—the mystic, the fantastic, and always the elusive and unknowable—seems to illustrate that interest.
Throughout her fiction, Grau seems to be trying to present human consciousness as it exists. In The Hard Blue Sky, Annie must choose between leaving “home” (accepting the fact that no one cares whether or not she stays) and going to New Orleans with a man who may or may not love her. Romance is secondary to survival: a hard lesson for a sixteen-year-old to learn. In The House on Coliseum Street, Joan must decide whether to accept her abortion as her responsibility, with its resultant guilt, or to feel anger, toward both the father of the child and the society, represented by her mother, that created such death. In The Keepers of the House, choices become both more complex and simpler. White men do not marry black women, but when they do, society knows nothing but vengeance. Sympathy, compassion, love—the virtues women are taught to cultivate—have no part in the real, patriarchal world. In this novel, Grau’s female protagonist operates, finally, with a full range of resources. Abigail is a capable woman, drawing on knowledge she has never realized, strength she has never tested, and a moral position her society would have preferred to deny.
Grau’s most recent book, entitled simply Nine Women (1985), continues the themes, and some of the characterization, of The Keepers of the House. Nine separate women protagonists survive everything from a plane crash that kills all survivors except the one woman, to divorce (celebrated at the only daughter’s fashionable wedding), to crisis in a lesbian relationship, to self-discovery. Understated, drawing for their effect on cool, plot-oriented narrative, the fictions convey tones that often jar with the cataclysmic events occurring in them. But the basic tenor of the collection—equanimity, poise, peace—accrues from the narrative pace that draws each story into the fabric of calm. Exemplary, these stories could almost be examples. Women such as these have endured, another Southern tradition, and have done so with quiet acceptance of what kinds of acts might be necessary.
“The Beginning,” Grau’s first story, introduces both theme and method: “‘You are,’ my mother would say, ‘the queen of the world, the jewel of the lotus, the pearl without price, my secret treasure.’”22 The unmarried black woman nurtures her illegitimate daughter with such loving praise, steals clothing for her, and creates from her beauty a prosperous livelihood in designing clothes for her. That the child has had no childhood and no identity other than as her mother’s model seems a small price to pay for the survival that drives the woman throughout her life. Here reverence for a female child motivates all action, contrary to the obsessive male demands for sons.
Self-sufficiency is the mode of each of these women’s lives, none more so than the strangely remote protagonist of the closing story, “Flight.” The account of a woman’s death, this story retells her modest, impoverished life, the few moments of satisfaction, the images that visited her during her last hospital stay. In an ending that is tranquil and composed, Grau depicts the stasis of relinquishment, the shadowy ease that leads to actual death: “She was flying, alone, complete. She saw rushing toward her, rushing past her, everything. Leaves uncurled, people rose from their beds. Cats crouched, claws tearing fur across backs. … She saw bitches strain in birth and puppies born like chains of pearls. She saw suns rise and stars dance in their paths across the seasons. She saw ants and oceans and curving endless space. She saw her house, the one she had lived in all her life …” (202).
A fitting conclusion to the nine stories of struggle and victory, “Flight” also suggests death as reward, repose. As the protagonist, Willie May, says at one point in her hospital stay, “My world grows smaller, the edges peel back, an orange shedding its skin” (201). In Grau’s lexicon, the journey from life to death is natural, just one of the recurring cycles she is wise enough to recognize and to chart, through her steady fiction, in her miraculous sense of detail and her equally miraculous understanding of women’s lives.
Shirley Ann Grau Bibliography
The Hard Blue Sky. New York: Knopf, 1958.
The House on Coliseum Street. New York: Knopf, 1961.
The Keepers of the House. New York: Knopf, 1964.
The Condor Passes. New York: Knopf, 1971.
Evidence of Love. New York: Knopf, 1977.
Nine Women. New York: Knopf, 1985.
Short Story Collections
The Black Prince and Other Stories. New York: Knopf, 1954.
The Wind Shifting West. New York: Knopf, 1973.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5659
SOURCE: “The Keepers of the House,” in Louisiana Women Writers, Louisiana State University Press, 1992, pp. 169-82.
[In the following essay, Oleksy presents a comparative study of Grau's The Keepers of the House and Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind, focusing on traits shared by the central heroines.]
Gone with the Wind (1936) is Margaret Mitchell's only surviving work of fiction; The Keepers of the House (1964) is Shirley Ann Grau's most ambitious, and in many ways most successful. Although the popular appeal of Mitchell's record-breaking classic far surpasses that of The Keepers, the books are oddly similar. Both won the Pulitzer Prize; the writers both have been praised for their storytelling skills. Perhaps least apparent, but meriting special attention, is the affinity between the books’ dominant themes: gender and racial relations.1
In an interview conducted by Kay Bonetti in April, 1989, Shirley Ann Grau expressed her admiration for the “magnificent narrative line” of Gone with the Wind. At the same time, she criticized the book's more technical aspects, such as the lack of “subtlety and interesting symbols.” Grau considers Gone with the Wind as standard an example of mass-market melodrama as one can find. But she also assumes a condescending attitude toward The Godfather, the book that, as Paul Schlueter convincingly argues, inspired Grau's own The Condor Passes.2 Despite Grau's similar opinions of these novels—even if those opinions can be taken at face value—Gone with the Wind, at least, has recently attracted critical attention, not only on account of what Elizabeth Fox-Genovese calls the “immediacy with which it engaged the American imagination,” but also by virtue of its special position on the issue of gender.3 Although, undeniably, The Keepers of the House is a more skillfully constructed novel, in terms of technique, than Gone with the Wind, the issue of technical superiority is not my concern here. Rather, my focus falls on the kinship between the central heroines of both books: on Abigail Howland's and Scarlett O'Hara's development in the respective narratives; on those characters’ embodiment of certain southern stereotypes; and, above all, on the authors’ attitudes—best captured by that trite epithet ambivalent—toward their created protagonists.
The retrospective sections of both narratives begin at approximately the same time. Abigail, the narrator of The Keepers of the House, traces the family history to the first William Howland, who, seduced by the beauty of the land, settled in the book's imaginary territory somewhere between Atlanta and the Mississippi River (reminiscent of Grau's “divided loyalties,” for her childhood was split between New Orleans, where she was born, and Montgomery, Alabama). It is 1815, shortly after the battle of New Orleans: “He saw endless stretches of trees, the pines and hickories, big-leafed magnolias and huge live oaks. He saw how plants bloomed in the warmer soil, how they grew double their usual size with no wind to cut them down: dogwood and redbud, flame azalea and laurel” (11). The Keepers's geography can be puzzling. Grau has explained that she “went very carefully through the novel and scrambled [its] geography. It's no one place. It's a bit of everything.”4 By saying that The Keepers is set in an imaginary territory between New Orleans and Atlanta, I do not mean to imply that it is set somewhere in Mississippi or Alabama. New Orleans and Atlanta, however, are consistent points of reference in the novel: William Marshall Howland sets out from New Orleans when he looks for the site on which to build the house, and his granddaughter, the second Abigail Howland, like Scarlett O'Hara, goes to New Orleans on her honeymoon; but Abigail's grandfather meets his future wife in Atlanta, and when Abigail's mother returns home with her daughter after her short-lived marriage to Gregory Mason, they take an overnight train from Lexington, Virginia, stop for a couple of hours in Atlanta and then take a local train to Madison City. The latter, which is presumably the closest town to the Howlands’ estate, does not exist in any of the four states. It could, of course, stand for Madisonville, Louisiana, across Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans; but William Howland buys his liquor from the Robertsons of Madison City, and their stills are supposedly situated in Honey Island Swamp, which lies farther east, on the Louisiana-Mississippi border. Other allusions in the novel similarly tend to negate any specific inferences.
Whatever the location, it is on this fertile land that William Marshall Howland starts a plantation, which grows steadily with each succeeding generation. The house Howland builds, at first a primitive structure, develops with the influence of ensuing Howlands, especially women (one of them a rich Catholic heiress from New Orleans, Aimée Legendre), into a home where “even the interior began to have touches of elegance—harmoniums, and inlaid tables and shelves full of china figures” (12).
Gerald O'Hara arrived in America in 1822, but the narrative chronology of Gone with the Wind really begins in 1844, when Gerald wins a piece of land in a game of poker, names it Tara, and in less than twenty years turns idle soil into one of the most successful plantations in the county. It takes Scarlett more than sixteen years and the traumatic experience of witnessing the fall of Atlanta to glimpse what her father saw when he first went to estimate the value of the land he had won: “the long avenue of trees leading toward the road … twin lines of somber trees … the abandoned lawn, waist high in weeds under white-starred young magnolia trees. … uncultivated fields, studded with tiny pines and underbrush, that stretched their rolling red-clay surface away into the distance on four sides” (47).
Like William Howland, Gerald O'Hara builds a house that has “no architectural plan whatever,” but, Mitchell adds, “with [his wife] Ellen's care and attention, it gained a charm that made up for its lack of design” (57). In both books, then, a house built by a patriarch and serving as the major site of events survives because of the love and courage of its women.
Houses constitute a major metaphor in Grau's fiction. In general, the settings of her novels and short stories are as significant as the characters. In particular, she often uses houses as a metaphor for the female body. In “Ending,” from Grau's collection of short stories Nine Women, Barbara Eagleton is relieved to see her husband leave for good, and Grau records the corresponding change in the house itself: Barbara “felt the house, empty and quiet now, settle itself at last for the night. She felt a sigh of relief run along beams and floors.”5 Likewise, in the opening chapter of The Keepers, Abigail's feelings of emptiness and loneliness find their echo in the description of the house. The emotional wound becomes physical when evoked in details of torn turf and broken fence. Wishing to hurt others as much as the house has been “hurt,” Abigail intends to keep the destruction unrepaired as a reminder.
If Grau's fiction testifies to the physical relationship between a house and the woman inhabiting it, the “keepers” of Grau's houses are typically male. In the story “The Householder,” Harry kills a burglar with the gun his father gave him. Remembering his father's conviction that “every householder's got to have a gun,” Harry kills not in self-defense, but because the burglar invades his house and breaks his furniture. Relationships between men and women are likewise in a man's keeping, and more often than not are doomed to failure. The failure is unsurprising given the fact that most of Grau's women are either conveniences (as, for example, in “Patriarch” and “The Housekeeper”) or nuisances (as in The Keepers). The only lasting heterosexual relationship in The Keepers is the one between William Howland and his black housekeeper, Margaret Carmichael—the sole woman in the novel for whom William has genuine respect. The only healthy relationship in Nine Women is between the lesbian couple portrayed in the story “Home,” in which a woman is in charge of both the house and the relationship.
Grau's mature women are “women alone.”6 Their maturation has been all the more painful through being obstructed by the women's attempts to conform to the culture's expectations. Nowhere is this phenomenon more evident than in The Keepers, where Abigail's growth is thwarted by her compliance with the role of the southern lady.
Although a good deal of Grau's own family history seeps into the Howland saga (the very name “Howland” belongs to her family, on her mother's side), neither of the maternal figures in the novel resembles Grau's mother. In the interview with Bonetti, Grau's recollections of her mother bring to mind Ellen Robillard: very beautiful, very tall, with black hair, gray eyes, and “dead white” skin. Katherine Onions Grau, in her daughter's words, “subscribed firmly to the dictum that respectable married ladies do not work.” Grau hastily adds, however, that “had [her mother] been wealthier or poorer, it would've undoubtedly been better for her; wealthier—she wouldn't have cared what people thought; poorer—she wouldn't have had a choice.” This is only one of the many instances when Grau's words testify to her ambivalence about gender identity and gender role, the issues that in The Keepers reach the proportions of schizophrenia.7
The development of Scarlett O'Hara and Abigail Howland interestingly coincides with the process that Jung called “individuation.” What merits particular attention in Jung's model is that, unlike other psychoanalytical developmental models, it identifies the beginning of the process of individuation with adult, rather than childhood, experience. Further, it pinpoints the start of this process as the moment the adult becomes conscious of what Jung calls a “persona,” a role in society to which that person is expected to conform. Defiance of these expectations marks the next stage in the process of individuation. The following stage is the adult's confrontation with the “shadow,” which Jung defines as the “unrecognized dark half of the personality.”8 All these stages can be traced in Scarlett's and Abigail's path to self-awareness.
Individuation, as Jung and other psychoanalysts emphasize, can be initially obstructed by the absence or unreliability of the mother figure. Indeed, both Abigail and Scarlett lose their mothers early in life—Abigail at sixteen, Scarlett at eighteen. Abigail's mother is weak, withering, and unimportant except perhaps as a model of traditional southern feminine behavior. As Abigail confesses, “My mother was a lady and a lady is unfailingly polite and gentle to everyone” (149)—a clear echo of Scarlett's assessment of Ellen—but this role is precisely what Abigail eschews at the novel's conclusion. Scarlett, at least initially, feels obligated to “reproduce” (to borrow a word from Jane Gallop) her mother.9 Ultimately, however, she comes to believe that everything her mother had told her about life was wrong. Both protagonists derive strength from their relationships with black women who function as surrogate mothers. Mammy is the only female character in Mitchell's novel who profoundly understands Scarlett. Margaret Carmichael, a real stepmother through her secret marriage with William Howland (as Abigail anticipates at one point, “This was my mother, she had raised me, my grandmother too” ), sees in Abigail the qualities of character others do not perceive: strength, courage, and moral integrity.
In a further parallel, both protagonists marry men who fail to meet the standards of their society. Scarlett's third marriage, to Rhett Butler, violates the norms of her class because, as several of the novel's personae point out, Captain Butler is “no gentleman.” John Tolliver, Abigail's husband, comes from the “northernmost county with the darkest, bloodiest past in the state” (194); Grau has said that in the language of the Old South, he would be called a “wool-hat” or “white trash.” Although Rhett, an outcast of a renowned Charleston family, has a far different social background from John's, he too is a self-made man, and similarly is associated with “white trash” through his affiliations with scalawags and carpetbaggers.
Rhett and John share several other traits. They are attractive to women, with the same kind of dark handsomeness. Even though Rhett is plainly a war profiteer and a renegade at heart, there is a brief period in his marriage with Scarlett when for their daughter Bonnie's sake he pursues a political career. He enlists in the Klan; so does John, albeit for a much less noble motive. Yet in both cases we observe the same lack of moral integrity; both men are unscrupulous opportunists, turning everything to their advantage. And the “fierce intensity” that Abigail detects in John also characterizes Rhett.
Whereas critics have tended to treat John Tolliver as a villain, Grau claims to admire his “incredible determination” and says that he was intended not as an evil character, but rather as “a sympathetic picture of a man from a hardscrabble farm, for whom success is absolutely everything.” Grau defends Tolliver's reaction to what she calls Abigail's “betrayal.” She supports his hypocritically cynical acceptance of what he thinks is William Howland's illegitimate relationship with his black housekeeper, and she finds him absolutely justified in feeling betrayed at the news of their marriage. Grau claims that “if I were to write a sequel, he will have survived very nicely. … He will simply adjust himself to suit to whatever society demands.”10
The problem a critic faces with the characterization of John Tolliver in the novel vis-à-vis Grau's opinion of him is strictly one of intended versus achieved meaning. If Grau intended to model John on Rhett Butler, she failed to give him Rhett's complexity. Rhett has always appealed to the feminine imagination because he combines traditional male qualities (physical strength, assertiveness, boldness, among others) with unconventional traits (recognition of women as sexual beings and sympathy for their desire to “do” something with their lives), together with traits that tradition has associated with women: a desire for verbal and emotional, as well as physical, communication; love for children and family; a strong urge to nurture (he is much more of a mother figure than Scarlett); lack of embarrassment about crying; and a delicacy regarding others’ feelings. In him we find a synthesis of strength and tenderness, hence his appeal.
John Tolliver possesses none of these characteristics except the purely “masculine” ones, and yet he is much like Rhett. Mitchell constructed Rhett's character to a broad measure. As appealing to the feminine imagination as he is, Rhett also repels with his grasping opportunism and his cynicism. Grau draws strongly upon these latter traits in her characterization of John Tolliver. John is a cynic not only in his political facade, but also in his private life. At one point he explains to a bewildered Abigail the mechanisms of his hard-won campaign for the state senate: “The Negroes figure I'm not old Judge Lynch himself—and I've tried my damndest to see that they get that message straight. And everybody in the district pretty much knows about your grandpa's bastards. That counts for something, I guess. As for the white people, well, they think I'm for just about whatever they're for. And I've told'em that myself” (231–32). When Abigail asks John what he “privately” thinks about the Negroes, he cynically responds, “Love'em dearly. … Like your grandfather” (211).
A paradox of both novels is that although the central consciousness in each is that of a woman, only men (Rhett and Ashley, William, and John) are given the ability to think in terms of abstractions. For this reason alone, Anne Goodwyn Jones considers Mitchell's voice in Gone with the Wind to be essentially “masculine.” The same holds partly true for The Keepers. Even though the point of view is exclusively feminine throughout the narrative, for the major part Abigail sees herself through men's eyes: her grandfather's and her husband's. As the narrative unfolds, Abigail resembles the Everywoman of Hélène Cixous’ “Sorties”: “the nonsocial, nonpolitical, nonhuman half of the living structure … tirelessly listening to what goes on inside—inside her belly, inside her ‘house.’” Abigail lives from one childbirth to the next, giving birth to four children (and not three, as Schlueter reports), minutely recording the physical changes accompanying each pregnancy.11 Grau's indisputable achievement, however, lies in conveying precisely the moment when Abigail develops a voice of her own.
The authors’ highly ambivalent attitude toward their female protagonists merits particular attention. Much has been written on this aspect of Mitchell's novel, and the arguments need not be rehearsed here. Suffice it to say that inherent in Scarlett's character is an absence of reflection and analysis. Mitchell once admitted to having conceived Melanie Hamilton, not Scarlett, as the real heroine of the book. Scarlett, however, somehow got out of hand and took over the narrative. And this for good reason: Scarlett's crude instincts are counterbalanced by her vivaciousness and effervescence. All are part of the same general trait of energy and vitality, part of the novel's larger theme of life, struggle, and completion versus death, surrender, and depletion—a theme that structures not only characterization, but also the treatment of the novel's historical matter.
That Grau is ambivalent toward her protagonist is perhaps less obvious but becomes apparent once we consider the following details: Abigail's early sources of informal education (her college years seem extraneous to her overall development) are her mother, the neighborhood ladies, and the Bible. She says, for instance, that “listening to the ladies talk,” she learned her first skill—that of detecting “signs of Negro blood.” That skill enables her to identify the Negro in the Carmichael-Howland children, all of whom are considered white (and not black as Schlueter, among others, assumes). “It's a southern talent, you might say,” Abigail adds (143). Another southern talent inherited from her mother is her utter conformity to expectations concerning her gender. Abigail does not find irregular, and certainly is not offended by, systematic male patronizing, whether it be by her grandfather, her husband, or Margaret's son Robert. As she notes, “There are lots of southern men who treat their ladies that way,” and, “It's quite pleasant, really” (190). Commentary on the novel seems oddly silent on this aspect of Abigail. Critics instead emphasize the traits Abigail exhibits during and after the dramatic events near the end of the novel. Grau, by contrast, in the interview with Bonetti, bluntly castigated Abigail on all fronts—as not “the brightest” character, and tiresome to boot. To the interviewer's protest that Abigail grows in the course of the novel, transcends her initial ignorance, and “sees things clearly” at the novel's end, Grau responded with the question “Does she see correctly?” What Grau implies here, Mitchell explicitly states about Scarlett—namely, that “what [Scarlett] understood was written down; what she did not understand—and there were many things beyond her comprehension, they were left to the reader's imagination.” Although both writers claim to have little tolerance for the type of woman Mitchell once called “weak-minded,” their claims do not withstand even a cursory reading of their novels. Mitchell, as Fox-Genovese has argued, “confused her own identification with Scarlett and had trouble differentiating her function as presenter of Scarlett's vision from her function as commentator on Scarlett.”12 In The Keepers, not only does Abigail carry the weight of the entire narrative, but the evolution of almost every character in the novel is also mediated through her consciousness.
The tendency among women to internalize the repressive male constructs that marginalize them informs Grau's text.13 In fact, all of Margaret and William Howland's three children, including the son, suffer from “a good deal of self-hatred,” Grau admits, and Abigail herself is not devoid of self-denigration. She is expected—a word firmly rooted in Grau's vocabulary, and indicating that Grau is setting a character within a framework of ready-made “feminine” identity—expected to conform to the stereotype of the southern lady, with its notions of inherent scatterbrainedness, nonintellectuality, and dependence, and she squarely realizes this prefabricated “ideal.”14 During her brief courtship with John, she is impressed by his organized and highly authoritarian style and confesses that “since no one had ever told me what to do before, I liked it immensely” (197). When William Howland disappears, and Margaret, John, and Abigail await the news of his death, John tells Abigail that he has offered a monetary reward to the finder. Abigail contends: “I would never have thought of that, but then I never thought of anything” (213). When Margaret delivers her first baby for her, Abigail, squatting on the floor, can think of nothing except: “How silly. I can't do anything right. I can't even get to the hospital in time for a baby” (205). Afterward, Margaret pleads with Abigail not to tell anybody that the baby girl was born on the floor: “White ladies don't squat down to drop on the floor” (206). Abigail never mentions the circumstance, and “everybody assumed that the baby had been born on a mattress, proper and decent” (206). This may remind one of Mammy's misgivings about Scarlett's rapid recovery after her first child is born, which Mammy thinks is “downright common—ladies should suffer more” (132). Yet it is the same Abigail who single-handedly defies the entire city and saves the family home from burning by a gang of hoodlums even though, as she admits, “all my life I had been trained to depend on men.”
Firmly inscribed in the category of the lady, and one of its most neurotogenic points, is the expectation that a lady never experiences sexual desire or pleasure, much less admits doing so if she has. Both Jones and Fox-Genovese have written on this point in reference to Scarlett, emphasizing the fact that her sensuality surfaces only with a man who can dominate her. In the only erotic scene of the novel, Scarlett's orgasm is conveyed as the “ecstasy of surrender.” In her two passionate encounters with Ashley, one during his furlough in Atlanta, the other in the orchard at Tara, Scarlett promises Ashley that she will slave for him in return for his favors. She says in the former: “I'd cook for you and polish your boots and groom your horse—Ashley, say you love me!” (277), and in the latter: “I'd work for you. … I'd do anything for you” (531). Similarly, Abigail recalls the evening, apparently the last in her symbiotic relationship with John, when he tells her, “Woman, … let's go to bed.” She thinks then that “he was still the most attractive man I'd ever known. I remember that night, even now. I always think of it as the end of the happy times” (232). If both women sound like happy slaves (the point Jones makes in reference to Scarlett), they should. Even the few erotic fantasies Abigail cherishes are linked with her desire for what Jones calls “benevolent paternalism.”15
The turning points in the narratives, at which both women achieve what might be called an inner vision, are remarkably similar. Abigail recollects the car ride from Madison City to the Howland house: “I suppose I've made the trip two hundred times, but now that it is all over, I find that I only remember one. Out of all that, only one” (243). Both like and unlike the vision connected with houses in Grau's other works, this is what Grau (in Evidence of Love) calls a “myopic vision.”16 The house first looms indistinct in the early morning fog, and Abigail has a short-lived sensation that “it would not be there, would have disappeared like a ghost.” As she drives closer, however, she sees the house “vague and indistinct in the fog, but there, just the way it had been for the last five generations. It looked very very large in this light, and empty. Fog covered the fields beneath it, so that it seemed to float without solid ground, just exactly like those fairy castles in a child's story book” (246). Later still, when she goes into her house and closes the door “firmly” behind her, she thinks that “there'd been a message of some sort.”
The imagery of delusion in this passage, against which Grau projects the clarity of an attained insight, reminds one of an analogous scene in Gone with the Wind, where Scarlett's nightmare of running in the fog both becomes reified and takes on a metaphorical meaning near the novel's end, as she finally comprehends that the haven of safety is in Rhett's strong arms. But Rhett doesn't give a damn, and Scarlett, for once, feels defeated; even her old charm (“I'll think of it tomorrow”) will not help to direct her thoughts to another channel—until, that is, she thinks of Tara and gathers new strength from her visual recollection of the family estate. In Grau's and Mitchell's descriptions, the image of the house triggers the recognition of familiarity and safety. Abigail sees the blooming azaleas, the yard “familiar and safe … full of known things. … Empty clothes lines, cords frayed and fluttering” (246). Scarlett remembers “small things”: cape jessamine bushes, “the avenue of dark cedars,” fluttering curtains. Neither of the two women admits total defeat, even, as Mitchell says, “when it stare[s] them in the face.”
It thus appears that the family house is the only place where each woman can find a sustenance independent of the vagaries of human relations. Although I doubt that either Mitchell or Grau wanted to emphasize this point, it nonetheless emerges as an important one at the conclusion of each novel. Both women lose their husbands as they mature and became independent. If Rhett says that he is proud of having a “smart” wife, he at the same time makes it clear that he is in charge of the family. He tells Scarlett during their honeymoon in New Orleans that “there's never going to be any doubt in anybody's mind about who wears the pants in the Butler family” (859). By that time, having made the plantation function after the war and having expanded Frank's business in Atlanta into a thriving success, Scarlett has abundantly proved that she can take full charge of the well-being of the family. But Rhett does not need a wife, he needs a child. He tells Scarlett—albeit not entirely convincingly—during their tempestuous conversation at home following Ashley's birthday party that he does not want her body, but her mind. But he also makes it clear that the mind he covets is the mind of a child. He tells Scarlett during their last conversation in the book: “I wanted to take care of you, to pet you, to give you everything you wanted. I wanted to marry you and protect you and give you a free rein in anything that would make you happy—just as I did Bonnie. … I wanted you to play, like a child” (1030). Rhett's unguarded love for Scarlett surfaces in the scenes where he acts like a protector of a child (in New Orleans, when Scarlett awakens from her nightmare, and when she tells him that she is pregnant). In both scenes he takes Scarlett on his lap and comforts her the way one comforts a child. The irony of Scarlett's situation is that when she wakes up from her dream of running in the fog and from her romantic dream of Ashley, and emerges as a mature woman, she confronts another dreamer—for Scarlett was as much a part of Rhett's dream as Ashley was of hers.
Moreover, Scarlett is not a child. In fact, Mitchell records the first major change in her heroine at Tara, after the fall of Atlanta; she says that “the girl with her sachet and dancing slippers had slipped away and there was left a woman … to whom nothing was left from the wreckage except the indestructible red earth on which she stood” (490). Whenever the well-being of Tara is at stake, Scarlett responds as a mature woman. This is precisely where the two protagonists are most alike: defenders of the family estate, women with spines of steel. Abigail, a subdued woman for the major part of the narrative, declares her independence when she takes full control of events in the climactic scene in The Keepers. There is something heroic in this scene, in which Abigail, having dispatched others to a safe hiding place in the woods, remains alone in the house and confronts the entire city with a gun in her hand, much like Scarlett when the Yankee intruder invades the house. Abigail says: “I'm not afraid. … I know what to do, I can handle things” (294).
The endings of both books have elicited debate. In The Keepers, Abigail, who has taken arms against a sea of troubles and defended the family house from a gang of racists, is visited by the ghosts of her approving ancestors. She says to them, “I bet you didn't think I could.” By this marvelous sleight of hand, Grau makes her point explicit, even as she invites another parallel with Gone with the Wind. After the fall of Atlanta, Scarlett returns to Tara to discover that her mother has died and Gerald turned senile, and her mind, spinning with fatigue and the whisky she has drunk on an empty stomach, summons a host of forefathers who “were whispering wordless encouragement to her.” She tells them, “Whether you are there or not … good night—and thank you” (421). We hear the voices of Scarlett and Gerald O'Hara and of William Howland and his black wife when Abigail thinks the unspoken truth, meant for her courageous first daughter, Abby, to hear, but never uttered aloud: “Child, … you don't even know it's possible to love a house and land that much” (274).
Both books’ final paragraphs, which draw the past into the present, suggest a number of meanings. Scarlett reminisces about the comfort of Mammy's “broad bosom”; she “wanted Mammy desperately, as she had wanted her when she was a little girl” (1037). And the book concludes with Scarlett's old formula, “Tomorrow is another day.” Abigail, like Joan in Grau's The House on Coliseum Street, huddles “fetus-like against the cold unyielding boards” (309). The regressive longing for home and mother conveyed in these images is characteristic of écriture féminine in more than one sense. They suggest what Cixous calls a “preoedipal,” or “prelinguistic,” form of communication wherein, before acculturation, femaleness is conveyed through a mother-infant relationship. Thus is, Janet Todd contends, “the place of jouissance crudely defined as the re-experiencing of the physical pleasures of infancy before separation from the mother.”17
The concluding passages of both books also testify to what Susan Winnett calls “beginning itself,” or the “frightening sense of the beginning of a new life,” characteristic of female narratology. (Similarly, in the story “Ending,” the actual ending is, ironically, only the beginning of the new life for Barbara.) This image of the literal conclusion as a figurative beginning is a recurrent one in Grau's narratives, and brings to mind the regressiveness of final images in the writings of another southern writer associated with Louisiana through her fiction, Kate Chopin.18 Grau uses the device to conclude The Keepers of the House (another book with the house in its title), and a number of short stories.
There has been much discussion as to what concept ultimately “wins” in Gone with the Wind. Fox-Genovese, for instance, maintains that it is Atlanta and urban culture. Conversely, Jones attributes victory in Mitchell's novel to the “old days.”19 My conviction is that if we have to look for a winner at all in either book, it is the woman—or, as Grau puts it, “the keeper of the house.” Both writers, each in her own way, argue the inadequacy of the concept of the “lady.” Each claims that a woman's aspirations to that role obstruct her growth. And in both books, the woman's survival depends upon her strength—her will and ability to “keep” the house.
Margaret Mitchell, Gone with the Wind (16th rpr.; New York, 1936); Shirley Ann Grau, The Keepers of the House (New York, 1964). Hereinafter these novels are cited parenthetically by page number in the text.
Kay Bonetti, “Interview with Shirley Ann Grau,” American Audio-Prose Library (Columbia, Mo., 1989); Paul Schlueter, Shirley Ann Grau (Boston, 1981), 69–71.
See Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, “Scarlett O'Hara: The Southern Lady as New Woman,” American Quarterly, IV (1981), 391–412. For other treatments of this subject, see Anne Goodwyn Jones, Tomorrow Is Another Day: The Woman Writer in the South, 1859–1936 (Baton Rouge, 1981), 339–50, and Blanche H. Gelfant, Women Writing in America: Voices in Collage (Hanover, N.H., 1984), 181–89.
Carlton Creemens, “An Exclusive Tape Recorded Interview with Shirley Ann Grau,” Writer's Yearbook, XXXVII (1966), 22.
Shirley Ann Grau, Nine Women (New York, 1986), 122. For more on the significance of houses in Grau's work, see Anthony Bukoski, “The Burden of Home: Shirley Ann Grau's Fiction,” Critique, IV (Summer, 1987) 181.
See John Canfield, “Women Alone,” Southern Review, n.s., XXII (1986), 904–906.
C. G. Jung, Two Essays on Analytical Psychology (Princeton, 1966), 96.
Jane Gallop, The Daughter's Seduction: Feminism and Psychoanalysis (Ithaca, 1982), 113.
Jones, Tomorrow Is Another Day, 347; Hélène Cixous, “Sorties,” in Hélène Cixous and Catherine Clément, The Newly Born Woman, trans. Betsy Wing (Minneapolis, 1986), 66; Schlueter, Shirley Ann Grau, 57.
Schlueter, Shirley Ann Grau, 55; Richard Harwell, ed., Margaret Mitchell's “Gone with the Wind” Letters, 1936–1949 (New York, 1976), 102; Fox-Genovese, “Scarlett O'Hara,” 410.
See, for instance, Joanne Blum, Transcending Gender: The Male/Female Double in Women's Fiction (Ann Arbor, 1988), 4.
Bonetti, “Interview.” See also Jacqueline Boles and Maxine P. Atkinson, “Ladies: South by Northwest,” in Southern Women, ed. Caroline Matheny Dillman (New York, 1988), 127–40.
Fox-Genovese, “Scarlett O'Hara,” 414; Jones, Tomorrow Is Another Day, 345.
Grau, Evidence of Love (Boston, 1988).
Janet Todd, Feminist Literary History (New York, 1988), 53. Although écriture féminine is usually associated with a style that seems alien to both Mitchell and Grau, I would still argue that it pertains to the endings of both texts. Moreover, Grau's identification of the female body with the house throughout her fiction suggests a specifically feminine style of writing.
Susan Winnett, “Coming Unstrung: Women, Men, Narrative, and Principles of Pleasure,” PMLA, III (1990), 505–18. For this context and also for Chopin's “ambivalences,” which likewise resemble Grau's, see Barbara C. Ewell, Kate Chopin (New York, 1986), 78–79, 104–105.
Fox-Genovese, “Scarlett O'Hara,” 397–98.
New Orleans Gambit, September 12, 1981.
New Orleans Times-Picayune, March 13, 1989, January 20, September 28, 1991.
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SOURCE: “Upwardly Mobile,” in Women's Review of Books, Vol. XI, Nos. 10-11, July, 1994, p. 48.
[In the following review, Levinson outlines the plot of Roadwalkers and comments on the novel's successes and failures.]
With Roadwalkers, Shirley Ann Grau has written a distinctly unfashionable book. In an era of identity politics, she is a white woman writing from the perspective of two black women; at a time when no belly-button goes unscrutinized, she offers a novel nearly devoid of psychological musings or insight; and in defiance of every writing teacher's mantra, she tells her tale with little interest in showing action or interaction. It is a high-wire act to warm the hearts of readers who relish broken rules, and one that she pulls off with varying degrees of success.
“In 1934 this is the way it was,” Grau begins this, her ninth work of fiction and the fifth since her 1965 Pulitzer Prize. “Homeless people were moving in a steady flow across the southern part of the country. … Sometimes the groups were children. Just children. … They were called roadwalkers.” Among them is Baby, a tiny black girl bereft of parents and home, who wanders the countryside with a rapidly diminishing band of siblings, foraging, begging and stealing food and shelter.
What Baby's world lacks in comfort and continuity it returns ten-fold in feral magic: the rhythm of light and dark, the texture and slope of the earth's surface beneath her feet, rain, fire, bits of animal fur and carcass. “She had seen them, all of them. The signs and ghosts and marvels,” Grau tells us in the book's first and most tantalizing section. Here, in a triumph of imaginative sympathy, she renders a believably created life in spare and fleet-footed prose.
Then Baby's trajectory intersects with that of Charles Tucker, a white man whose family history and childhood comprise the book's second section, and her fate is changed forever. Charles has become the manager of Aikens Grove, a sprawling and prosperous plantation where provocations erupt mysteriously: first small brush fires, then whole ridges set aflame, next a brick through his window. Their origin is a young black boy—Baby's brother. Charles, only a few steps removed from the children's deprivation, recognizes the boy's fury at those who know comfort, and sees with arresting clarity that this is war.
In one harrowing night, Baby's brother escapes the hunting party Charles organizes, but she is captured and bought by Charles for five dollars, for reasons he only partly understands. Baby ends up in an orphanage, where the third of the novel's five sections takes place. Here she is renamed, tamed and transformed, eventually to become an ambitious fashion designer and mother of Nanda, whose story occupies the novel's final parts.
Nanda, speaking directly to the reader, announces that she is an inhabitant of her mother's magic kingdom. “You are the queen of the world, the jewel of the lotus, the pearl without price, my secret treasure,” her mother tells her. Unfortunately, she believes it.
Nanda is selected to integrate an exclusive private school up North, where she wields her considerable intelligence, talent and beauty to become the classmate who does everything better than you. None of it gives her much pleasure, though. Narrating her experiences in a mixture of brag and whine, she is an injustice collector, mean-spirited to those who would befriend her—though her own catalogue of insults and cloddishness is substantial.
She has inherited her mother's resilience and self-containment, but without the charm of Baby's vision these traits turn brittle; Nanda's accomplishments seem a sad diminution of her mother's promise. This isn't helped by Baby's fade-out when Nanda takes over the narration. Baby remains a central figure in the story, but (writing teachers take note) we no longer see her or see through her eyes, and this, I think, is where Grau's narrative methods fail her.
The novel moves at a steady clip with little sustained dialogue, almost no irony and less notice of why the characters, who spill from the pages, do what they do. This is democratic storytelling—it offers no judgment, favors no one person or choice over another—and it beguiles like a spoken tale, burnished in time. But it also skates on the surface—of interracial relations, mother-daughter feeling, Southern history, success in America—all the things Roadwalkers is about.
So ultimately, it disappoints. The imagined reality at the beginning is so much more stunning than the experienced, domesticated one at the end. Where Baby once represented a threat to order, to people who own things, she and her child have turned into those people with a vengeance. All the wild enchantment of Baby's kingdom, I found myself asking, and this is what it's come to? Yet this too is a credit to Grau, who has created characters vivid enough that I argue with their version of fulfillment and wish for them a different fate.
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SOURCE: “The Road from There to Here,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, July 31, 1994, p. 2.
[In the following review, Max presents a detailed synopsis of Roadwalkers, while placing the novel in the larger context of Grau's oeuvre.]
Pulitzer Prize-winner Shirley Ann Grau's ninth work of fiction [Roadwalkers] begins promisingly as a sweeping social novel in the no-longer-fashionable fashion of John Steinbeck:
In 1934 this is the way it was. Homeless people were moving in a steady flow across the southern part of the country, back and forth across the surface of the earth, seaweed on a tide that ebbed and rose according to seasons, following rumors and hopes, propelled from place to place by police and sheriffs and farmers with shotguns, and closed doors and locked gates. … They were called roadwalkers.”
Early on in her nearly 40-year career as a writer, Grau established a reputation for leavening her expertise regarding debutante New Orleans with an uncondescending view of the South's poorer black and white residents. In this book she quickly zeros in on a small stunted black child known only as Baby. Baby begins life as one of six siblings in a small-town family “with four pecan trees in the yard.” But in a flash all she has vanishes. About the time she is born, her father deserts the family for another woman. Her mother departs shortly thereafter. The children find Aunt Rosie in a nearby town, but Rosie, overwhelmed, practices a heartless triage, abandoning Baby with two of her siblings by the side of the road when she heads off with the other children toward a relative who works as a Pullman porter in Atlanta. In a few short, blameless years, Baby has sunk to being a roadwalker.
With her brother Joseph as her tutor, Baby drifts from town to farm. They steal eggs from henhouses and milk from unwatched cows. Here Baby's tiny size is a virtue: “What she could do was this: she could wriggle through the least crack in a fence or window and open it wide for them to come back to later.” These pages, which chronicle Baby's feral existence, her constant exposure to disease and fear of a shotgun blast, are beautifully imagined and written. But soon Roadwalkers loses its footing and begins to feel like an oddly matched set of novellas joined along exposed seams.
Baby is “captured” by the employees of an idealistic plantation owner, who sends her, mute and barely housebroken, to a school run by nuns. There she is considered a hopelessly wild child until she demonstrates an unsuspected talent for drawing bright, evocative religious images. Re-christened Mary Woods by the nuns, Baby is enraptured by African gods invisible to her Christian handlers.
Then Roadwalkers shifts abruptly now into the first person, becoming the account of Nanda Woods, Mary's daughter, who at 36 years of age narrates her childhood retrospectively. Much has changed in the interim: Mary has become a successful New Orleans couturier. Nanda is her model, and the two are famous enough to be featured in Newsweek (this strange turn of events is actually an expansion of Grau's short story, “The Beginning,” from her last book, Nine Stories). Nanda faces the challenge of integrating an eastern Catholic boarding school.
For a novel that has begun with the grand impersonality of The Grapes of Wrath to reach suddenly for the autobiographical intensity of Lorene Cary's Black Ice or Jill Nelson's Volunteer Slavery is tricky enough. But Nanda, drawn as a thoroughly whiny and ungiving young woman with resentment as deep in her blood as art was in her mother's, makes this improbable retooling yet harder.
Though Nanda excels academically, she despises the tokenism that has brought her to this nameless, prestigious school. She acts this anger out through minor mischief from experimenting with bisexuality to rejecting those who accept her. Ultimately she graduates from college with an attitude problem and a Phi Beta Kappa key. … Fast forward again as she finds a young black doctor with an anarchic streak—an ideal groom for an open marriage. The time scheme of the novel now seems to have reached the swinging '60s. The novel concludes limply in the present with an epiphany from the adult Nanda: She and her husband “smile at each other, cautiously, warily, as we walk across the worm-infested lawn. … And so alone I came into my kingdom. My portion neither more nor less.”
Writing a novel is more like driving a train than a car—once it runs off the rails, recovery is rarely possible. Roadwalkers probably is doomed from the moment Baby is saved. But one wonders at Grau's troubles with the latter part of the book. After all, she made her name in part through the expertise with which she brought alive women of Nanda's age, albeit mostly white and rich women, like the manipulative Joan Mitchell in Grau's wonderful The House on Coliseum Street (published in 1961). Yet in Roadwalkers the author's first novel in 18 years, Grau appears to have lost access to the feel of young adulthood, which she once grasped so well.
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SOURCE: “The Life Journey of a ‘Roadwalker,’” in Christian Science Monitor, Vol. 86, August 1, 1994, p. 13.
[In the following review, Rubin discusses the features of Grau's style and craftsmanship in Roadwalkers.]
Roadwalkers is Shirley Ann Grau's ninth book. Her first, The Black Prince and Other Stories, came out in 1955. Three books and 10 years later, she won a Pulitzer Prize with her novel The Keepers of the House. Following her 1977 novel, Evidence of Love, there was a seven-year hiatus before the appearance of her story collection Nine Women, and nine years have intervened between that book and this new one.
A writer who only speaks when she's sure she has something to say? A conscientious craftswoman who takes time to polish and refine her work? Shirley Ann Grau would seem to answer to both descriptions. But the rate at which her books appear also seems connected to a sort of slow-motion, freeze-frame quality in her storytelling. Narrative sequence does not flow easily in her work: Characters seem caught up in a motionless present, only to be hit with abrupt changes that alter the course of their lives yet leave their essential natures intact.
Roadwalkers begins in the Great Depression. The scene is set with an almost Biblical simplicity and restraint:
In 1934 this is the way it was. Homeless people were moving in a steady flow across the southern part of the country, back and forth across the surface of the earth, seaweed on a tide that ebbed and rose according to the seasons. … They were called roadwalkers. … Sometimes the groups were children. Just children.
One such child is a little black girl named Baby. In the first and most powerful section of the novel, we see the world through the eyes of this phlegmatic, resourceful girl, and learn how she and her siblings lost, first, their parents and home, and later, one another on the road. The next section relates the history of a white family, the Tuckers, who find Baby on their land and send her to a Roman Catholic orphanage, where she is christened Mary Woods. The following section describes Mary's stay there from the viewpoint of a young nun assigned to her case.
In the novel's second half, the story is taken up by Mary's daughter, Nanda, the cherished “princess” of her mother's “magic kingdom.” Half black, half East Indian, Nanda is raised as an exotic, proudly wearing the exquisite clothes her mother makes for her. In time, Mary establishes herself as an exclusive “modiste,” with separate shops for blacks and whites.
Nanda is sent to a prestigious Catholic girls’ school, where for awhile she is the sole black student. Graceful, imperious, self-sufficient, she excels at whatever she undertakes—with the exception of friendship. Uncomfortable with whites, she also feels estranged from the black girls who later join her at the school. Her coldness does not seem to stop her from going on to romance, marriage, and a materially successful life.
This novel loses its peculiar beauty and intensity once Baby is discovered by the Tuckers. The section providing their family history seems beside the point, while the chapter on Baby's schooling, though more relevant, is standard wild-child-meets-civilization. Nanda's narrative is compelling, but not very moving.
It is easier to sympathize with Baby's quiet bravery than with her daughter's chilly petulance. Perhaps this is part of the story Grau wants to tell: the unforeseen effects of one generation's experience on the next. But each chapter that takes us further from our arresting first encounter with the “roadwalker” also takes us farther from the vitality of the novel's original vision.
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SOURCE: A review of Roadwalkers, in Belles Lettres, Vol. 10, No. 2, Spring, 1995, p. 86.
[In the following review of Roadwalkers, Bryant describes Grau's skill in evoking the narrator's viewpoint.]
Time is an indeterminate factor in this new novel by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Shirley Ann Grau. Roadwalkers begins with the story of Baby, a homeless and abandoned black girl whose early nomadic life struggle leaves her with a wispy memory, and forces her to approach life with stunning inventiveness. This first section of the book is appropriately and beautifully ethereal: events recalled in the language of a child who has never known a definitive context, and so creates her own. This device which initially underscores the plot becomes occasionally murky and not quite believable, however, as the novel is laid out in fits and starts. Soon after we learn about and become invested in Baby, Grau jolts us with the long history of Charles Tucker, the white plantation manager who positively changes the course of Baby's life. It is only after a lengthy detour into his past that we discover his significance to the plot, and find ourselves delivered to the thick of the novel.
Nanda, the eccentric and refreshingly confident daughter of Mary (Baby's adult name), is the best storyteller by far in this novel, which unravels rather than unfolds with its various voices. Her keen insights into the racist minds and hearts of the white students and nuns surrounding her at boarding school are on target; a credible display by a white author writing a black protagonist into a predominantly white environment. Nanda grows with no more of a context or community to see herself reflected in than her mother had, and so learns in quite the same way as Baby to take into herself bits of the world, fashioning a life like the filigree and fancy work of her mother's brilliant dressmaking business. Though the timelessness detaches us somewhat, Nanda's sparklingly original response to life is inspirational.
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SOURCE: “Roadwalker in the Magic Kingdom: Shirley Ann Grau,” in Literary New Orleans in the Modern World, Louisiana State University Press, 1998, pp. 123-35.
[In the following essay, Richardson looks at the context of critical commentary on Grau and lists some observations of his own about Grau's fiction.]
Shirley Ann Grau's connections to New Orleans seem to be well established. She was born in the Crescent City in 1929, and she graduated from high school at Ursuline Academy. Her college years were spent at Sophie Newcomb, where she finished in 1950 and where she edited Carnival, the campus literary magazine in which her first stories appeared. Her early writing for Holiday magazine was about New Orleans society and included features on Mardi Gras and Galatoire's restaurant. She married James Feibleman, the chair of the philosophy department at Tulane, in 1955, and she and her family have continued to live part time in Metairie. Much of her best-known fiction is set in New Orleans, including The House on Coliseum Street (1961) and The Condor Passes (1971), as well as several excellent short stories in The Black Prince (1955), The Wind Shifting West (1973), and Nine Women (1986). Her most recent novel, Roadwalkers (1994), is set largely in New Orleans.1
Thus Grau's ties to New Orleans are deep and abiding. Yet her life and work are not completely focused there. As all of her biographers note, she also lived as a child in Montgomery, Alabama, where her father had connections and where she studied classics at the Booth School. Most of her first stories collected in The Black Prince focus on African American characters in the rural South or on the Gulf Coast, outside New Orleans. Grau's best-known and most highly regarded novel, The Keepers of the House (1964), for which she won a Pulitzer Prize, is set in the rural South somewhere between New Orleans and Atlanta (both cities are mentioned in the story), and her first novel, The Hard Blue Sky (1958), is set on an island off the Louisiana coast. As her family has grown, she has divided her time between her home in Metairie and a summer home on Martha's Vineyard, a world where a number of her later stories in The Wind Shifting West and Nine Women are set. If a large part of Roadwalkers is set in New Orleans, an equally significant part is set elsewhere—in the rural South during the Depression, where homeless children wander alone, and in a boarding school for young women outside the South.
Naturally, perhaps, critical commentary on Grau has taken the importance of New Orleans in her work for granted. Paul Schlueter, the author of the Twayne book on Grau (1981), says in his essay in Fifty Southern Writers After 1900 that Grau is “a regional writer akin to Sarah Orne Jewett and Willa Cather, not a writer who uses ‘Southern’ atmosphere, characters and settings for superficial local color narratives.” In the essay collection Louisiana Women Writers, Elzbieta Olesky focuses on The Keepers of the House, comparing it to Gone with the Wind. In probably the best single essay on Grau's work, “Shirley Ann Grau's Wise Fictions,” Linda Wagner-Martin surveys the broad thematic concerns of Grau's work in relation to the contexts of the book in which her essay appears—Southern Women Writers: The New Generation. She points out, quite rightly, a variety of ways in which Grau's work is defined by her understanding of women's lives, especially as these women relate to the “patriarchal matrix that seems to dominate Southern life.”2 In addition, she suggests that Grau's consistent concern with nonwhite culture is set against patriarchal southern life as well.
Wagner-Martin's sense of profound contrasts in Grau's work is correct, and those contrasts seem to extend beyond the theme of women versus patriarchy. Certainly, the conflicts—between men and women, blacks and whites—are the place to start, but they can be expanded. For example, as Anthony Bukoski has noted, the presence of houses and homes in Grau's stories provides insight into her fiction, but those houses and the shelter they represent are defined against the wanderers, as in Roadwalkers, or in Grau's repeated motif of “a man outside,” where a vagrant or thief stands outside various houses and is seen by the people inside.3 Another noticeable contrast in Grau's work is between the rich and the poor. If her early work is concerned with primitive characters, as in The Black Prince and The Hard Blue Sky, then much of her later work in The Wind Shifting West and Evidence of Love focuses on the wealthy, and both A Condor Passes and Roadwalkers offer main characters who move from being very poor to being very rich.
The contrast in Grau's own biography between her lives in New Orleans and in Montgomery is apparent, but the contrasts offered the artist within New Orleans culture itself are extreme. Lewis P. Simpson has speculated on why reasonably few writers stayed in New Orleans long term (Whitman, Dos Passos, Anderson, Faulkner, among others); he thought that perhaps New Orleans was so far removed from the reality of living in America that it offered no enduring metaphor for the American writer—that it was too exotic.4 In my work, I have suggested that the vivid contrast between “the city of day” and “the city of night” was stimulating to Tennessee Williams, and the exotic quality of New Orleans set against its materialism was useful to his work. In viewing New Orleans as a city of differences, one might contrast the Vieux Carré with the Garden District, or the tourist culture with housing projects. One might also note the contrasts in New Orleans history—comparing the Creole culture before the Louisiana Purchase to American society after 1803—or set Mardi Gras high society against the homeless wanderers in the streets around Jackson Square. Or one might note the fantasy of Bourbon Street at midnight (a world that escapes time) as well as the reality of the same street in the early morning light (a world in which aged buildings and decaying signs show the ravages of time).
Grau's preoccupation with aging and death in her various stories extends the sense of history and time in New Orleans. In her introduction to George Washington Cable's Old Creole Days, Grau notes especially Cable's interest in the mutability and transience of the old Creole community, as well as his insight into its self-destructive pride. Many of Grau's own characters are overtly self-destructive in much the same way some Creoles were, bringing families and communities down with them, others defining themselves as women alone, set against the culture and time.
A brief survey of Grau's New Orleans work should begin with her early travel pieces for Holiday, continue with “Miss Yellow Eyes” from The Black Prince, focus on The House on Coliseum Street and The Condor Passes, comment on “The Thieves” and “Stanley” in The Wind Shifting West, and conclude with “The Beginning” in Nine Women and its extension into Roadwalkers, where Grau attempts to bring some reconciliation to her world of contrasts and her sense of time.
Grau wrote several pieces for Carnival, but she says that the writing she produced for Holiday in the mid-1950s offered her experience and money. Among several articles that featured houses on the Mississippi River and scenes on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, two focus on New Orleans and indicate that Grau not only knows the city intimately but has an “inside” perception of society. The first of these discusses the merits of Galatoire's restaurant, especially its appeal to New Orleans folk. The descriptions of Galatoire's history, atmosphere, and food are interwoven with family anecdotes about Grau's uncle, who has eaten at Galatoire's “once or twice a week for fifty years.” Grau notes the recent influx of tourists: “An old woman in her seventies, tall, thin, and very much the lady, who has been going to Carnival balls since she was fifteen and can tell you the name of every queen of Comus for the last half-century … laments that you can go into Galatoire's and not see one person that you know.” A later article depicts New Orleans society in Mardi Gras season. Grau describes the Mardi Gras social whirl as experienced by the young and beautiful Queen of Rex, but she also notes the strong family traditions associated with the balls and the parades. For the young queen, “today was the triumph of her life” as a debutante, and she not only remembers dreaming of Mardi Gras as a child but knows too that her grandmother had been carnival royalty and her great-grandfather as well. Accompanying the article are pictures of the cream of New Orleans society, but Grau also notes the “seamy underside” of Mardi Gras. In addition, in a manner reminiscent of Cable, Gayarré, or Grace King, she mentions the carnival activities of the New Orleans Creoles, those descendants of early French and Spanish settlers who “are acutely aware that they are descendants of a brilliant, dashing group.” Now, however, time and lack of money has “left them little more than memories.”5
Among Grau's early stories in The Black Prince, the only one with a clear New Orleans setting is “Miss Yellow Eyes.” It is among her best stories of racial conflict. Told by Celia, the fourteen-year-old black sister of Lena, a girl with golden eyes who can pass for white, the story tells of Lena's romance with another light-skinned black, Chris, and their plans to move to Oregon, where they can “become” white. Their plans are destroyed when Chris is killed in Korea and Lena is left to cope with her dark-complexioned brother, Pete, a militant black who belongs to an all-black club with a sign on the door that reads “white entrance to rear.” Grau's use of colors in this story is detailed by Paul Schlueter, but the contrasts in the story are clear. The background of racial complexity in New Orleans is well known, given the history of quadroons and les gens de couleur libre. In “Miss Yellow Eyes,” all avenues lead to despair. Not only is Lena left alone after Chris's death, but Pete, who loses his arm in a switchyard accident, becomes increasingly violent and bitter about Lena and Pete's hopes. In Pete's eyes, Chris has died for nothing, just as their own father had died in an earlier war. Schlueter also notes the religious overtones of death, sacrifice, and names in “Miss Yellow Eyes,” but the racial complexity and contradictions in the story are inextricably connected to New Orleans community and history. Here is a nineteenth-century quadroon story set in the mid-twentieth century, in which no sentiment or happy ending is possible.
Much of the critical commentary on Grau's first novel, The Hard Blue Sky, and on the early stories in The Black Prince, pictures Grau as a “fictional anthropologist,” a distant observer, perhaps even callous in her depiction of the forces of nature and of the primitive people who struggle to survive in a violent world. According to Ann Pearson, in Grau's work “nature is the vision.” Such commentary might apply as well to The House on Coliseum Street, one of Grau's best-known New Orleans novels, in which her objectivity is, as Chester Eisinger suggests, “little short of chilling.” As Linda Wagner-Martin points out, The House on Coliseum Street emphasizes the “ravages of time” with its seasonal structure: June, End of Summer, The House on Coliseum Street, and Winter.6 Joan Mitchell's affair with one of her sister's boyfriends is followed by an abortion on the Mississippi Coast, then her obsessive behavior after the abortion as she returns to the house on Coliseum Street, where her family has lived for generations. Joan is indeed a “woman alone” as she rejects the various members of her family and friends around her—her sister Doris; her mother, who has been married five times and has a daughter by each husband; her suitor, Fred Aleman, who would marry her at any time; and finally Michael Kern, whose career she destroys by reporting their affair and the abortion to the dean at the local university. Her settled life on Coliseum Street was hardly settled, given the nature of her mother's family (the last husband still lives alone in the attic), but it is clearly shattered by the abortion and the events that ensue.
On the morning of her first phone call from Michael, Joan observes an aging wino stumble into Coliseum Street and sees the “street close up on itself” before the police come to pick him up. A harbinger, perhaps, but of what? Men, aging, time? Standing where the tramp stood, Joan will remember this event at the end of the story, and she will compare the fact that he disappeared, leaving no trace, to the baby she has lost—“there wasn't anything left of it” (241). When she sees the tramp for the first time, she is looking at him from the security of her bedroom, twenty feet up on the second floor. As the book ends, Joan returns to the house, and while she is locked out in the early morning hours, she identifies herself as the owner of the house, the oldest child, the one with money, but it is a slight victory in the face of her anger, loneliness, and self-destruction. In Walker Percy's The Moviegoer, a novel published the same year as The House on Coliseum Street, Binx Bolling faces the existential dilemma posed by the meaninglessness of modern existence, but he has the contexts of southern stoicism and Catholicism as guides, and he has a healthy sense of the absurd. The House on Coliseum Street is a much darker book, and the ending offers little hope, in spite of Joan's fetal position and what we assume will be a new life for her.
Grau's next book, The Keepers of the House, establishes a stronger link between the generations of a family in the rural South and the property that they hold. Again, there is the broad theme of destruction related to miscegenation in the family that is not entirely resolved by the young woman who becomes “the keeper” at story's end. She is, certainly, a much stronger and less self absorbed character than Joan Mitchell, and her concerns are wider, in keeping with the novel's multigenerational story of southern history of which she is a part.
The Condor Passes has not been as highly regarded as The Keepers of the House, but the story it tells about aging, the disintegration of a wealthy family, and the destructive effects of money is readable enough that it qualified as a Book-of-the-Month Club selection. It is largely set in New Orleans and, as various critics have pointed out, has been unfairly compared to Mario Puzo's The Godfather, published two years earlier. Grau's story focuses on the Mafia-like empire of a New Orleans crime boss, his rise to power from poverty, and his influence on his family and estate, even as a ninety-five-year-old man. In his book on Grau, Schlueter quotes Grau as saying that you can't live in New Orleans and not know many Italian families who've made it big with a start as rumrunners (70). Grau tells the story from multiple perspectives, a technique that she used successfully in The Keepers of the House. The first section, “Stanley,” is told from the point of view of a black valet who has grown wealthy working for “the old man.” As it turns out, the black condor (the symbol of the estate) is associated not only with the old man's death but also with Stanley, especially in the setting of the aviary and greenhouse that opens and closes the book. At the end of the story, Stanley is seen as the condor, with arms that flutter like wings, when the old man dies. Stanley's point of view is useful in describing the family, its wealth, and especially the power of the old man, and his section of the story is reprinted, in a different form, as a story in The Wind Shifting West.
The second section, “The Old Man,” tells us more about Thomas Henry Oliver and his rise from poverty to immense wealth. Born poor in a river town in Ohio, he leaves at age thirteen and makes money immediately in small-time crime—as a burglar, pickpocket, pimp. He went to sea at seventeen, “dealt with everything that could be smuggled,” and is faithful in sending his mother substantial money. He comes to New Orleans after jumping ship in the coastal marsh to escape smallpox, and he soon builds his empire through interests in gambling, real estate, and bootlegging. After his marriage into a respectable family, his family expands to include two daughters, Anna and Margaret, and a Cajun boy, Robert, whom he grooms to be his successor and son-in-law. However, the broad pattern of the novel is not to emphasize the world of wealth/society/respectability versus the world of crime/poverty/violence, though such clearly exists both in the novel and in New Orleans. The strength of the old man is that he has been able to bridge the gap, to revel in the life of the streets while he amasses his fortune. As noted earlier, however, the emphasis in The Condor Passes is on destruction of the various members of Oliver's family, and the various sections of the novel show their individual disintegration. The family, then, will not continue to future generations. The old man's powers are great but shallow, and time and age bring him to a vision of the condor, the bird of death. The Condor Passes shows us that Grau knows quite well the patterns of time and history in the Big Easy.
Wagner-Martin notes that “the immensity of the cultural forces displayed in The Keepers of the House in this novel reach only to Robert's perversity, Anna's self-centeredness, and Margaret's insatiable appetites.”7 In comparison with The Keepers of the House, that is, The Condor Passes is a less substantial novel. Wagner-Martin's point is well taken, but the failure and the weakness of these characters in The Condor Passes is Grau's judgment on them as well as our own. In their failure she demonstrates something of the modern world's perversity, certainly as she sees it in New Orleans.
The Wind Shifting West includes one story clearly set in New Orleans, “The Thieves,” as well as “Stanley,” a different version of the black valet section in The Condor Passes. “The Other Way” is a school desegregation story that focuses on a Cajun French-speaking black family, but whether it is set in New Orleans or some other part of Louisiana is not clear. “The Thieves,” set in the French Quarter, tells about a young woman trapped by loneliness. Her parents have returned to Sicily, and her lover, Steve, is a suitor of empty promise. In the action of the story, she spots a burglar in the courtyard below her window, hiding from the police, and she spontaneously whispers to him the way of escape. Later, when Steve arrives to tell her that he is marrying someone else but hopes to continue their relationship, she is able to dismiss him. As Schlueter points out, she realizes that the silence was no emptier after he had left than it had been with him there.8 Here is another of Grau's women alone. Sheltered, perhaps, in one world, she sees the predicament of the burglar in the other, “street” world below. By helping him, she somehow finds new strength. His escape from the police parallels her own move to freedom. In The Wind Shifting West, various women, old and young, are faced with problems that focus on their loneliness and the conflicts of one world impinging on another.
Evidence of Love is an extended version of “The Patriarch,” a story in The Wind Shifting West. According to Jean Ross, it is a story of “rootlessness” that is set in several places, all outside the South. She sees it as “losing touch with the Southern settings and characters which are the strengths of Grau's best writing.”9 Again, though, the broad problems of aging and time are much in evidence here, as they are in New Orleans stories. Here, the aging male who dominates the action is very much like the old man in A Condor Passes, given the estrangement of his “contrived” family—a son through a surrogate mother. Though the son and the father both lead self-absorbed and ineffectual lives, the daughter-in-law, Lucy, does show “evidence of love” in assisting the old man's choice to die.
Nine Women includes one New Orleans story, “The Beginning,” an early version of the longer story in Roadwalkers. The story establishes direction not only for the rest of the collection but for the novel as well—the strength and determination of women. “The Beginning” announces that the child who tells the story is seen by her mother as “the queen of the world, the jewel of the lotus, the pearl without price, my secret treasure.” The mother is a wonderfully creative and talented black seamstress who gradually builds her trade among the African American community in New Orleans. The child's father was an Indian merchant, a shoe salesman, a “seller of Worthington pumps”; but the mother sees the child, and the child comes to see herself, as an Indian princess. She is the live model on which her mother's creative fashions are displayed. “The Beginning” describes the bond between mother and daughter as well as how the mother steals expensive cloth from the Perfection Cloth Shop. She opens her shop as a modiste in rooms above LeConte's drugstore, a “castle” complete with tower and turret.
The real beginning of the story, however, is told in Roadwalkers, and it reaches much farther back in the life of the mother. We learn in the opening section that the mother had been a homeless child who wandered the roads of the rural South during the 1930s, during the Great Depression. Abandoned by mother and father and left with a grandmother who died, she is the youngest of six children who struggle to survive on the road until only two are left, Baby and her brother Joseph. They survive winters, summers, days, nights, hunger, and breakbone fever. Baby is finally captured on the Aikens Grove plantation, after Joseph's anger becomes so great that he begins to destroy property and kill livestock.
In the second part of Roadwalkers, attention shifts to the story of the man who captures her. He is Charles Tucker, one of “the people of Clark County,” the title of this section. The story of his childhood, while certainly more secure than Baby's, tells us that he is the sort of person who can understand Baby as well as the anger of her brother. He had known something of being left alone himself, before his sister took him in, and knew poverty and hard work. We are able to establish a connection between Charles Tucker and Baby, and we understand something of the larger southern world that brings these two together. In several instances, Charles is fortunate to be in the right place at the right time, as when he establishes a market for his sister's produce with a wealthy family, and in his marriage to the daughter of the manager of Aikens Grove, the position he inherits when her parents are killed. Baby turns out to be a marvelously talented fashion designer, and she does not look back to her childhood. But Grau tells us that Charles Tucker was important in her life. For once, she had the luck to be part of his good fortune.
After Charles captures Baby, he takes her to a Catholic home for children in New Orleans and assumes financial responsibility for her. This section, “The Kindness of Strangers,” focuses on Rita Landry, sixteen and not yet a novice, who is given charge of the black waif brought to the convent. She is a young Acadian woman from the river country outside New Orleans. We learn briefly about her family, her mother's work for the local priest, and the mother's decision that Rita will be a nun. Rita gives Baby the name Mary Woods, and she begins the hard task of teaching her and caring for her. At first, Baby's eyes, “metallic eyes like a knife blade left out in the cold,” remind Rita of eyes she had seen in caged animals at the circus. As the years pass, Rita becomes Sister Celeste, and Mary Woods expresses herself first through silent play, then through wildly extravagant and creative art. At the conclusion of this section, Mary is asked to return to Clark County to work for the household at Aikens Grove, but she disappears mysteriously from the convent. Again, as in “The People of Clark County,” we see the circumstances in Rita Landry's life that bring her into the life of Mary Woods. Though Mary does not ever return to visit Sister Celeste, we establish the connection between them, as well as understand that ultimately the church does not touch Mary Woods. Her spirit had been defined much earlier, as a road-walker.
In the sections that follow, the voice in the novel shifts and becomes that of Nanda Woods, now the thirty-six-year-old daughter of Mary Woods. The section “The Magic Kingdom” includes “The Beginning,” an expanded version of the first story in Nine Women, and a sequel, “The Middle Kingdom.” As the child model in “The Beginning,” Nanda learns from her mother “the greatest enchantment of all: how to walk like a princess in kingdoms of our own making” (181). They live, she says, in two kingdoms—one a fantasy where the mother was queen and the girl was princess, the other, a reality, based on “money and property and the logic of commerce” (182). Nanda wins a scholarship to St. Catherine's, a boarding school run by the Ursuline nuns, some “832 miles about straight north of New Orleans.” Nanda is black in a world of white, and to some degree, she survives because her journey there replicates the journey of her mother, the roadwalker, those many years ago. She has been taught to be a princess, and she somehow insulates herself in “the magic kingdom” against prejudice, patronizing behavior, and noblesse oblige. In Roadwalkers, Nanda Woods succeeds where other young black women fail. The key to her success seems to be her insulation. She knows that she is invisible to some and a symbol to others, but she maintains tight control.
After graduation, Nanda returns to New Orleans to attend college and continues to work with her mother in her shops. In the concluding section of Roadwalkers, “The Promised Land,” both mother and daughter “arrive,” so to speak: the roads that they have walked come to a kingdom that is both magical and real. The mother is financially secure. Her expensive shop, catering to whites, is elegant and successful. She marries a long-time suitor, and they buy a house in the suburbs, complete with brick barbecue, large lawn, and brand-new furniture selected by the daughter. The daughter does well at the university (Phi Beta Kappa) and meets a young black pre-med student whose father is also a doctor. They marry and settle down to a well-to-do life of travel and luxury apartments and finally, at the end, to a home in the suburbs.
What is Grau telling us here? The ending of Roadwalkers has been criticized by those who say it offers an easy and superficial accommodation to materialism and suburban life by two women whose early lives should make them remarkably different. Have they been roadwalkers all this distance just to come to a brick barbecue, and to come to it so easily? Any assessment of “The Promised Land” section, must not, however, be so quick to rush to pass judgment on these two women or on Shirley Ann Grau. For Grau, the mere presence of houses and marriages does not make the promised land, though they are important, as we know from the emphasis on houses and shelter throughout her work. There is more, and she knows it. The tone that pervaded Nanda's voice when she was an “invisible” student at school, or when she was her mother's princess in the magic kingdom, continues here. After Nanda completes her final exams at the end of her freshman year, she takes fried chicken and champagne and “intrudes” at the home of a white art professor at the university, where she learns once again what it means to be black in a white world. She also learns the limits of marriage, since she and her husband have both had affairs that they can “number.” At the end of the novel, though, she does have a moment with her husband—“something between us, something that hovered in the air between us. A thread, frail, thin, to be measured in millimeters, but there nonetheless. For that one instant, it seemed I could see it—fine as a spider's web, shimmering with all of the colors of crystal—then it was gone. We smiled at each other, cautiously, warily, as we walked back across the worm-infested lawn” (292). So, she says, she comes into her kingdom alone.
This “moment” is a wonderful thing, one of the things in the promised land that really matter, but it is transitory, as we are made to see. In her remarks on Grau's various novels and stories before Roadwalkers, Linda Wagner-Martin suggests that “so much attention to the act of dying is unusual”; she is thinking especially about the aging and dying patriarchs in The Condor Passes and Evidence of Love, among others, and about patriarchy in general.10 Grau's women, in contrast, are survivors, though they are frequently death-haunted. The “worm-infested lawn” Nanda and her husband walk across at the end of the novel is one more symbol for the roadwalker of the terms of the journey; death is ever present. Grau's promised land is material, but it is magical as well; it has to do with Nanda's understanding her own self-sufficiency in the face of death and time and how she translates her magic kingdom into reality—her “portion, neither more or less” (292).
New Orleans has a great deal to do with Grau's art beyond providing specific settings. It offers a stimulating world of contrasts—black/white, rich/poor, day/night—that are sometimes difficult to reconcile. It also juxtaposes two kingdoms, one real, with money and property, and the other a fantasy, a world of carnival and magic. As Nanda Woods realizes, however, both are “kingdoms of our own making” (181). In Grau's early New Orleans work, such as The House on Coliseum Street and The Condor Passes, her characters struggle to glimpse any magic at all. New Orleans and history, as well as the current setting, are constant reminders of the need for insight into the issues of aging, death, time, and self-destruction. Grau's use of New Orleans helps us see that all of her characters are roadwalkers, as are we, though they and we are rarely as fortunate as Nanda Woods, able to turn the magic into reality.
All of Shirley Ann Grau's works of fiction were published by Alfred A. Knopf, New York. Page references for quotations are inserted parenthetically in the text.
Paul Schlueter, “Shirley Ann Grau,” in Fifty Southern Writers After 1900, ed. Joseph M. Flora and Robert Bain (New York, 1987), 225; Elzbieta Olesky, “Keepers of the House: Scarlett O'Hara and Abigail Howland,” in Louisiana Women Writers: New Essays and a Comprehensive Bibliography, ed. Dorothy Brown and Barbara Ewell (Baton Rouge, 1992), 169–82; Linda Wagner-Martin, “Shirley Ann Grau's Wise Fictions,” in Southern Women Writers: The New Generation, ed. Tonnette B. Inge (Tuscaloosa, Ala., 1990), 145.
Anthony Bukoski, “The Burden of Home: Shirley Ann Grau's Fiction,” Critique, XXVII (1987), 181–93.
Lewis P. Simpson, “New Orleans as a Literary Center: Some Problems,” in Literary New Orleans, ed. Richard S. Kennedy (Baton Rouge, 1992), 76–88.
Shirley Ann Grau, “Galatoire's of New Orleans,” Holiday, XX (October, 1956), 66; Grau, “New Orleans Society,” Holiday, XXIII (March, 1958), 119.
Ann Pearson, “Shirley Ann Grau: Nature Is the Vision,” Critique, XVIII (1975), 47; Chester Eisinger, “Grau, Shirley Ann,” in Contemporary Novelists, ed. James Vinson (New York, 1972), 515; Wagner-Martin, “Shirley Ann Grau's Wise Fictions,” in Southern Women Writers, ed. Inge, 148.
Wagner-Martin, “Shirley Ann Grau's Wise Fictions,” in Southern Women Writers, ed. Inge, 156.
Paul Schlueter, Shirley Ann Grau (Boston, 1981), 130.
Jean Ross, “Shirley Ann Grau,” Dictionary of Literary Biography (Detroit, 1978), 11, 213.
Wagner-Martin, “Shirley Ann Grau's Wise Fictions,” in Southern Women Writers, ed. Inge, 158.
Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 107
Canfield, John. “Women Alone.” Southern Review 22, No. 4 (Autumn 1986): 904–06.
Canfield discusses how elements of Grau's previous work are further developed in Nine Women.
Combs, Maxine. “Grau Shows Spirited Women.” New Directions for Women 15 (September/October 1986): 14.
In this review of Nine Women, Combs identifies some of the significant features of Grau's heroines—which include strength and passion.
Additional coverage of Grau's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 89–92; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 22 and 69; Contemporary Novelists; Contemporary Southern Writers; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 2; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th Century Writers, Edition 1; and Short Story Criticism, Vol. 15.
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