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Eudora Welty, A curtain of green (Review)

December 31, 2016

This week I received the Library of America’s annual email in which they list their “Top 10 Story of the Week selections of 2016″. I’ve only read eleven of their selections this year, but two – Kate Chopin’s “A pair of silk stockings” (my review) and Willa Cather’s “Enchanted bluff” (my review) – are in their Top Ten. More interesting to me though is that it contains another writer I like, Eudora Welty. I read her book One writer’s beginnings and what is probably her most famous short story, “Why I live at the P.O.”, before I started blogging, so I decided to read this Top Ten story, “A curtain of green”.

weltycurtainofgreenWelty was a short story writer and novelist who wrote mostly about the South. She won the Pulitzer Prize in 1973 with her novel The optimist’s daughter and, according to Wikipedia, was the first living writer to be published by the Library of America (LOA)! “A curtain of green” was one of her early stories. It provided the title for (and was included in of course) her first published collection of short stories (1941), which also includes “Why I live at the P.O.”

However, before I get to the story, I want to share a little from One writer’s beginnings. This book originated in a series of lectures, the inaugural ones apparently, she gave in 1983 at Harvard University, the William E Massey Sr. Lectures in the History of American Civilisation. The cover of my 1984 edition claims that it was on the New York Times Bestseller List for 46 weeks! Pretty impressive for a series of essays I think. She was born in 1909 in Jackson Mississippi, the eldest of three. From the opening pages of the book she tells us how her growing up contributed to her writing.

For example, in the first paragraph she mentions growing up “to the striking of clocks”. She’s not sure whether it’s because of her father’s Ohio family “having been Swiss back in the 1700s” but her family were all “time-minded” all of their lives:

This was good at least for a fiction writer, being able to learn so penetratingly and first of all, about chronology. It was one of a good many things I learned, almost without knowing it; it would be there when I needed it.

Surely there’s a little bit of the tongue-in-cheek in her reference to the Swiss origins? Anyhow, two pages in, and she’s talking about her parents’ respective reactions to the weather, his father’s caution regarding storms for example and his mother’s rejection of that “as a character failing”:

So I developed a strong meteorological sensibility. In years ahead, when I wrote stories, atmosphere took its influential role from the start. Commotion in the weather and inner feelings aroused by such a hovering disturbance emerged in dramatic form.

And so the book continues in this delightful manner, sharing her childhood with affection, perception and a wonderful sly wit … but now to “A curtain of green” in which meteorological conditions do, in fact, feature!

“A curtain of green” is about grief, but it starts

Every day one summer in Larkin’s Hill, it rained a little. The rain was a regular thing, and would come about two o’clock in the afternoon.

One day, almost as late as five o’clock, the sun was still shining …

It tells the story of Mrs Larkin whose husband had died the previous summer in a terrible accident – a tree, “a fragrant chinaberry”, had come crashing down on his car as he was arriving home. She had seen it happening, had believed her love would keep him safe. And so now, while the other women of the town sit inside “fanning and sighing, waiting for the rain”, Mrs Larkin is out in her garden, where she is now all the time, because “since the accident in which her husband had been killed, she had never once been seen anywhere else”. It’s a fertile garden, needs “cutting, separating, thinning and tying back” to keep the plants from “overreaching their boundaries and multiplying out of all reason”. But, Mrs Larkin is deranged with grief. She does none of this, just works incessantly, obsessively, planting

thickly and hastily, without stopping to think, without any regard for the ideas that her neighbours might elect in their club as to what constituted an appropriate vista, or an effect of restfulness, or even harmony of colour. Just to what end Mrs Larkin worked so strenuously in her garden, her neighbours could not see …

She doesn’t offer flowers when they’re sick or die, for example. I love how the language in this story just piles on, driving us forward this way and that, just like Mrs Larkin’s grief does to her. The garden, to the neighbours who had initially tried to support her, “had the appearance of a sort of jungle, in which the slight, heedless form of the owner daily lost itself”. It’s oppressive to us, but Mrs Larkin has isolated herself behind her “curtain of green”. The only person she tolerates in this garden, and then only occasionally, is Jamey, “the coloured boy who worked in the neighbourhood”.

At this point in the story, which is told third person, the perspective shifts from omniscient to subjective, to Mrs Larkin’s point-of-view, that is. We are now in the garden with her as her memory returns her to the day of the accident. Suddenly all is still, “everything had stopped again, stillness had mesmerised the plants …” Jamey infuriates her, with his “look of docility”, of being “lost in some impossible dream of his own”. She watches him – her hunger for his innocence suddenly overtaken by a fury at his youthfulness, at his being able to be lost in this, to her, “impossible dream”. She’s overwhelmed by the unaccountability of accident, of life and death, by the meaningless of it all, and wants to smash his innocent absorption – but then comes the rain. There are two more pages in the story after this, but I’ll finish here.

This story was written in 1938 – quickly written and easily published, according to LOA. LOA also tells us that in 1931, Welty and her mother had been present when her father died of leukaemia, and they quote Welty’s biographer Suzanne Marrs as saying that her mother “discovered solace in gardening”. She spent hours in her garden, most days, often with Eudora by her side. Welty, says Marrs, wrote in an unpublished essay that “its [the garden’s] peace and fragrance are soothing to frayed nerves when we are weary from contact or perhaps conflict with the everyday world.” This memory clearly informed her story of the grieving Mrs Larkin.

“A curtain of green” is a great read, for its exploration of how grief can derail you, making you, temporarily at least, a little mad; for its evocative writing which captures that sense of derailment, taking you right into that garden with Mrs Larkin; and for its resolution which offers hope without being simplistic about it. After such a year as this has been, it seems just the right story to end on. Happy New Year everyone!

Eudora Welty
“A curtain of green”
First published in: Southern Review (Autumn 1938).
Available: Online at the Library of America

17 Comments leave one →
  1. carmelbird permalink
    December 31, 2016 1:59 pm

    A Curtain of Green is such a brilliant story. Thank you for reminding me. I love the way you so often bring back to consciousness the great writing of the past. Happy New Year!

    • December 31, 2016 2:02 pm

      Ah Carmel, as I was writing this I was wondering whether you’d read it. It felt like something that would appeal to you. So glad I was right! I love exploring older writing amongst the new, but it’s a challenge balancing it all. Happy New Year to you too.

  2. December 31, 2016 4:09 pm

    A fellow Eudora Welty fan here, Gummie. Happy New year to you too.

  3. December 31, 2016 9:15 pm

    I love all three authors – Eudora Welty, Kate Chopin and Willa Cather – I’ve done my duty by Chopin and Cather but should really read more by Welty. A Curtain of Green sounds like a good place to start up again. (Or The Collected Stories).

    • January 1, 2017 12:16 am

      Yes, Bekah, I’ve read more of the other two than Welty. This collection would be a good start – as would One writer’s beginnings. But of course Collected stories wouldn’t go astray either. I haven’t read any of her novels. Should them one day too.

  4. January 1, 2017 10:37 am

    Three of my favourite writers too, Sue. Loved One Writer’s Beginning and also The Awakening by Kate Chopin. Years ago read Willa Cather but right now trying to work out how I can get a copy of a Georgia Rivers novel. Too dear to buy through their print method which is $16.50 per 50 pages. Wish I lived near Hay on Wye feel certain I could find an interesting book or two there, lol.

    • January 1, 2017 11:02 am

      So glad Debbie that I have a few sharers in the love for these three. I guess we should add Wharton to them?

      I agree that The awakening is a great book. One of the few non-Austens I’ve read more than once. Haha re Hay on Wye!

  5. January 1, 2017 5:17 pm

    While unpacking books I had in boxes in storage and replacing Penguins on the shelves I came across a large Welty book with many stories. Will look for this as I haven’t read it. Sounds good. I couldn’t open your link at beginning (annual email) but went to LOA webpage and signed up to get their emails as I hadn’t before. I love American Lit (probably bc I grew up there and it is very different to Aus Lit. I laughed at the obsession about time. Americans seem to like to know what time things are, what it is now along with population of places and of course weather. All American speakers usually mention one of these three things (I have noticed when attending conferences- lol)

    • January 1, 2017 6:03 pm

      That’s fascinating Pam. I’ll try to take note of that.

      And will check that link too. I only read a few of their stories but over the years I’ve subscribed I’ve read some great works. My John Muir ones are among my top posts.

      • January 1, 2017 10:04 pm

        I don’t know John Muir. Will look him up. Next time you go to a lecture somewhere by an American academic or anyone really, see if they mention where they come from without telling you the population. If it happens you will have to suppress a laugh. It was actually an Australian academic who pointed it out to me at a national conference. She said the woman would do that, I said, no she wouldn’t and sure enough she did. With a map to illustrate. We cracked up laughing (quietly of course.)

        • January 1, 2017 10:23 pm

          That’s really fascinating. I sure will try to remember.

          As for Muir, you must have come from the midwest or east, then? If you came from the west you would surely, I think, have known Muir. Just go to Yosemite and you hear about him, and there’s also John Muir Woods on the northern edge of San Francisco that we visited around 1992.

        • January 1, 2017 10:26 pm

          Yes I grew up in a very large corn field in the middle of Michigan, about as mid west as one can get.

        • January 1, 2017 10:49 pm

          Guessed as much! Muir is an icon out west, particularly in terms of saving the giant sequoias.

  6. January 3, 2017 5:07 am

    Sounds like a good story! I’ve read the same Welty’s as you have but for this one. My garden is a jungle and I don’t have grief as an excuse. I have heard Welty was a fabulous gardener.

    • ian darling permalink
      January 5, 2017 2:47 am

      I think I might have the same big collection of Welty’s short stories as Travellinpenguin! Must read some of these stories. I really admire those writers who are such masters of the short story – like Welty and the marvellous Irish writer William Trevor who died late last year.

      • January 5, 2017 8:11 am

        Oh did he Ian? I missed that. I’ve read a couple of his.

        I don’t have that big collection of Welty’s but I have her Golden apples one, bought, again, over 20 years ago. Where do the years go?

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