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Letter from Sister--What We Learned at the P.O.
I have a theory--perhaps unformed and, without question, unsubstantiated--that most bad Southern writing is descended directly from Eudora Welty's "Why I Live at the P.O." Welty's story smacks of a certain now-familiar sensibility, rife with caricature, overstated eccentricity, and broadly drawn humor, that has come to represent Southern writing and, through that representation, the South itself.
It would be difÞcult, if not impossible, to read much Southern Þction and not come upon story after story faithfully cut from our landscape and culture, using the template provided by Welty in 1941. The characters in "Why I Live at the P.O." possess the prototypical, colorful Southern names that, in the musical sound of their regional speciÞcity, have come to promise colorful Southern doings: Papa-Daddy, Uncle Rondo, Stella-Rondo, Shirley-T., Sister. They eat green-tomato pickle and, on the Fourth of July, sport about in thesh-colored kimonos while impaired by prescription drugs. They live in Mississippi. They grow long beards and illegitimate children and mismatched sets of breasts.
In delicious, honey-coated accents they utter the delicious, honey-coated statements, void of any real importance, that fall sweetly on the ears of book-buying lovers of stereotype everywhere. "Papa-Daddy," Stella-Rondo says, when she's looking to stir up trouble, "Papa-Daddy! . . . Sister says she fails to understand why you don't cut off your beard." Uncle Rondo, after he has donned Stella-Rondo's thesh-colored kimono and illegally ingested God knows what prescription narcotic (he's a pharmacist), cries, "Sister, get out of my way, I'm poisoned."
So faithfully have the conventions of "Why I Live at the P.O." been copied by succeeding generations of writers, so dominant has the regionally identiÞed literature laid out by the story become, that Welty might well have titled it "How to Exploit the People of the Nation's Poorest Region and Get a Really Big Book Advance." All of which is at least shameful, if not artistically criminal, because "Why I Live at the P.O." is a bona Þde work of genius, not only one of the best short stories produced by a Southern writer, but one of the best stories by any writer, anywhere.
The genius of "Why I Live at the P.O." lies not in the story that the narrator, Sister, tells us--which is, without question, broadly told, colorful, eccentric, and side-splittingly funny--but in the story Sister does not know she is telling us. In her hysterical attempt to win us over to her side in a seemingly inconsequential family dispute, Sister inadvertently reveals the emotional and spiritual burdens that she and the members of her family must pull through their lives. Stella-Rondo has been abandoned by a traveling salesman who might or might not be her husband, leaving her to raise a daughter who might or might not be illegitimate. Uncle Rondo is a shell-shocked veteran of World War I who once had a breakdown because one of his nieces broke a chain letter from Flanders Field. Mama is a tired woman--a widow, one presumes--who knows that she must spend the rest of her days caring for and keeping peace among, the rapidly aging daughters she can't marry off; her senile father; and her shell-shocked, drug-addled brother. Papa-Daddy's rages are directed not so much at Sister, but at what a colorful writer who wasn't from around here famously called the "dying of the light" (Sister tells us he's "just about a million years old").
And Sister, poor Sister. She thinks she is simply justifying to us her reasons for choosing to live in the second smallest post ofÞce in the state of Mississippi. But what she doesn't know she is telling us is that she is horribly alone, that she realizes she will spend the rest of her life in a tiny, tiny place, with no chance of escape, unloved and unmarried, dependent upon the charity of her family. Her monologue to us, unbeknownst to her, is at once a comedic tour de force and a heartrending cry in the wilderness.
While these aren't new critical insights, they are, I think, important ones. The bright surface of "Why I Live at the P.O." is so extraordinarily attractive that it is easy to see why it has been so often imitated. But it is also easy to see why, if only the surface of Welty's story is imitated, the result is but a shallow and often exploitative parody of a great work of art. It is easy to make up characters who live in double-wide mobile homes, wear beehive hairdos and feed caps, never put a g on the end of a participle, have sex with their cousins, voted for George Wallace; who squint and spit whenever an out-of-towner uses a polysyllabic word; who aspire only to own a bass boat, scare a Yankee, have sex with their cousins again, burn a cross, eat something fried, speak in tongues, do anything butt nekkid, be a guest on a daytime talk show, and make the next payment on a satellite dish that points toward Venus and picks up 456 separate channels on a clear day. What is difÞcult is to take the poor, the uneducated, the superstitious, the backward, the redneck, the "trailer-trash," and make them real human beings, with hopes and dreams and aspirations as real and valid, and as worthy of our fair consideration, as any Cheeverian Westchester County housewife.
While I can forgive our brothers and sisters from other parts of the country for taking pleasure in, or even creating, a Southern literature based on stereotype, I Þnd it harder to forgive Southerners who do the same thing, particularly if they are capable of writing with greater understanding but choose not to. What Welty's more cynical impersonators* choose to ignore is that the eccentricities portrayed in "Why I Live at the P.O." are character-speciÞc and not indicative of any larger pattern of regional or cultural behavior or belief. The humor in the words Uncle Rondo arises not from the words themselves, but from the way Sister says them.
While the sound of Sister's voice has become the matriarch of all the shrill, self-absorbed voices we hear in Southern Þction, yammering on about nothing at all, we should remember that her voice is also one of agenda and calculation. Sister wants to make her family look bad; she wants us to believe that they are stupid and that, in their stupidity, they have treated her unfairly. What worries me is the possibility that Sister's voice, with all its layers of complexity, will become lost in the din raised by its imitators, and that din will become, if it hasn't already, the only voice we hear in our heads when we think about the nature of the word Southern.
I am often asked if I consider myself a Southern writer, and, to be honest, my answer depends on--to borrow a line from Owen Wister's Virginian, one of the most famously one-dimensional Southern stereotypes--whether or not my questioner smiles when he calls me that. If he means, do I make fun of my characters because they are Southern and because there is a bottomless market for that sort of thing, then the answer is no. But if he means, do I consider myself someone who at least attempts to portray the people of my native region in all their complexity and diversity and Christ-hauntedness and moral ambiguity, the answer is yes, I consider myself a Southern writer.
And as a Southern writer--even one who tends to be as thin-skinned, testy, and self-righteous about this issue as I am--I have been tempted to lower the IQs of my characters, name them Something-or-Other Bob, and stick their illiterate backsides to a Naugahyde La-Z-Boy in order to make myself popular and sell some books. The real danger arises when too many of us at once give in to this invidious urge. In creating our own literature, a Southern literature, we often go for the quick laugh, the easy buck, the cardboard character. When we do that, we eat away the foundation of that literature from the inside. My fear is that, eventually, because of our willingness to feed on, without replacing, the tenets and traditions and subjects given to us by our predecessors--Welty, Flannery O'Connor, and William Faulkner most prominent among them--Southern writing will collapse and bury all of us, leaving only kudzu, grits, and a certain vaguely familiar voice to mark the spot.
Excerpted from New Stories from the South by Shannon Ravenel Copyright © 1986 by Shannon Ravenel. Excerpted by permission.
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