It’s difficult to relate to stories about imaginary characters who lived their lives in different time zones and earlier eras, especially if the situations they face don’t ring true.
Perhaps that’s why Eurdora Welty’s “Ladies in Spring” and Mary Flannery O’Connor’s “The Artificial Nigger” didn’t touch me as deeply as they did Richard Ford. Ford selected both stories for Granta’s second collection of American short stories. In his introduction, Ford makes it clear that he not only considers O’Connor and Welty master storytellers, but he also finds the women courageous for raising uncomfortable issues with their fiction.
Short stories by nature are daring little instruments and almost always represent commensurate daring in their makers.”
For me, both stories were worth reading, but primarily due to their mind-opening portrayal of earlier settings rather than the morality they expressed. O’Connor’s examination of racism passing through the generations was clearly an act of bravery, but it didn’t ring true. Welty’s Ladies in Spring might promote womens’ rights, since its main male characters accomplished little while the women in the story take care of their communities efficiently, but if that was it’s point, it was subtle. The scenery descriptions were the most compelling elements in the story.
“Ladies in Spring” features a male child who skips school to fish with his father. The two layabouts meet the terribly efficient postmaster sometimes-rainmaker and her spirit-like niece performing miracle after miracle.
Then the lady turned around and disappeared into the trees.”
The men ignore calls, fish, fall asleep and get angry and excited over practically nothing, leaving important actions and decisions to women. As the story unfolds, the scenery, a bridge and the spring itself take on more colour and personality than either of the men.
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In contrast, O’Connor’s story features two much stronger characters clearly going through a journey of pain and redemption. Her ability to display an uncomfortable love between a grandfather and his grandson seemed super accurate. Short dialogue and clear actions emphasized her character’s thoughts, the similarities between them, and the emotional turmoil their relationship put them through. Unfortunately, she created strong characters I really disliked, so the story wasn’t pleasant to read.
Consider the following example:
‘I heard you,’ the boy muttered. ‘It’s no use in you yelling’ and he sat down and turned his head to the glass. There he saw a pale ghost-like face scowling at him beneath the brim of a pale ghost-like hat. His grandfather looking quickly too, saw a different ghost, pale but ginning, under a black hat.”
What a perfect way to emphasize the man’s satisfaction at hurting the boy, supposedly for his own good. Such incidents occurred over and over throughout the story making me uncomfortable at so much cruelty. Afterwards, I realized that my discomfort with the main characters was exactly the author’s intention so as to carefully put illogical hatred to shame.
The two stories read very differently, but they were published only a year apart. Ladies was published in 1954, while Artificial first came out in 1955.
Eudora Welty was already in her mid forties by then and her prime would be many years later. It would be almost twenty years before she would write her most famous work, The Optimist’s Daughter, which gave her the Pulitzer’s Prize for fiction in 1973. By the time of her death in 2001, she would have an email software program, a society, a foundation, and a library all named after her. The Jackson home her father built for the family at 1119 Pinehurst Street has since been designated as a National Historic Landmark and welcomes public touring.
O’Connor was only thirty years old when she wrote Artificial Nigger, but she felt like she was living on borrowed time. Six years earlier, doctors had diagnosed her with lupus, a disease they estimated would take five years to kill her. Despite her illness, she wrote two novels and 32 short stories, plus more than a hundred book reviews and commentaries before dying in 1964.