Friday, April 8, 2016

A Curtain of Green

Eudora Welty (1909–2001)
From Eudora Welty: Stories, Essays, & Memoir

Detail from Work out in Mississippi Grove, c. 1900, oil on linen, by American artist Kate Freeman Clark (1875–1957). See the full image at The Athenaeum.
After completing a one-year advertising course at Columbia University Graduate School in New York, Eudora Welty found her new career stymied by the lack of job openings, and so she returned to Mississippi in 1931. Soon after she arrived home, her father became critically ill with leukemia and, with Eudora at his bedside, died while receiving a blood transfusion from her mother. While working at a series of jobs, Eudora consoled her mother who, as biographer Suzanne Marrs notes, “discovered solace in gardening.” With her daughter as helpmate, Chestina Welty spent hours in her garden, nearly every day; she wrote in an unpublished essay (quoted by Marrs) that “its peace and fragrance are soothing to frayed nerves when we are weary from contact or perhaps conflict with the everyday world.”

Seven years after her father’s death, Eudora transformed her mother’s grief into a story. Rather than a source of therapeutic comfort, yardwork in “A Curtain of Green” becomes an unhealthy, almost destructive obsession. (One can only wonder what Chestina thought of the autobiographical elements of her daughter’s story.) Mrs. Larkin’s isolation is not only social but also physical—the “hedge, high as a wall” forming a curtain of green between her and her neighbors. In a recently published appraisal of Welty’s fiction, literary scholar Sally Wolff examines the themes of this story and writes, “In the painful balance between loving and losing, Welty asks the most probing questions about life without love.”

Years later Welty admitted that she wrote her earliest stories, including this one, “with a great deal of ease” and didn’t subject them to a vigorous process of revision. When she finished “A Curtain of Green,” she rushed it off to Southern Review editors Robert Penn Warren and Cleanth Brooks, who accepted and published it immediately in the Autumn 1938 issue. (Compare this experience with Warren and Brook’s initial rejection of “The Petrified Man,” described in a previous Story of the Week introduction.) The following year it was selected for the annual Best Short Stories collection.

When Welty’s first book appeared in 1941, “A Curtain of Green” was the title story. Four decades later Welty was asked how it became the lead selection of the seventeen stories in an extraordinary collection. She explained that it was the only story whose title none of her publisher’s employees objected to and recalled her editor joking that her subsequent books could be called “A Curtain of Red” and “A Curtain of Blue.” The book was greeted with glowing reviews and has since become a favorite among readers, yet (surprisingly) the initial release sold only 3,000 copies—and it sold fewer than 7,000 copies in its first thirty years. Nevertheless, in spite of a decade filled with odd jobs and Depression-era scarcities, Welty often recounted the relatively good fortune of her early successes, telling Martha van Noppen in an interview, “I had good luck getting things published from the start, not in selling things which took quite a while, but in getting accepted by small magazines which did not pay, but which published.”

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