A Post in Observation of the 105th Birth Anniversary of Eudora Welty
A couple of years ago I did a read through of her complete short stories, something I highly recommend to any lovers of the form. Recently I read a review copy of a very interesting book Notes on Living to Read and Reading to Live by Peter Orner in which the author talks a lot about short stories he loves and writers he adores. He totally loves the stories of Welty, he has been to her house museum on a literary pillgrimage. Orner tells us that some of Welty's stories are kind of quaint, like "Why I Live at the P. O". In order to understand southern Gothic writers one must face the regions history of slavery and the legacy of this travesty. "Burning", as Omer correctly states, deals directly with slavery in Mississippi circa 1864. The collection in which this story is published is dedicated to Welty's good friend, Elizabeth Bowen. She spent quite some time in Bowen's castle in Ireland. From interviewing a 100 or so Irish writers, I know Welty is highly admired by Irish readers and authors.
It is 1864. We are in a plantation mansion outside of Jackson, Mississippi. A technically freed slave woman, Delilah, rushes to tell her mistresses, Miss Myra and Miss Theo that a Union Soldier has entered the mansion on his horse, accompanied by another soldier. Outside the house an unruly group of ex-slaves are milling about. On the orders of the Northern General Sherman, the Union soldiers are their to burn down the house of the sisters. But first the ex slaves and union soldiers loot it.
The two men grab the white women, their father and brother were both lost in the war. It was very chilling when one of the white women offered up their faithful servant as a substitute. In these lines we see the depth of contempt in which slaves were held and the hatred for Yankess in the souls of the southern ladies.
""Is it shame that's stopping your inspection?" Miss Theo asked. "I'm afraid you found the ladies of this house a trifle out of your element. My sister's the more delicate one, as you see. May I offer you this young kitchen Negro, as I've always understood—"
Miss Theo is offering up a young woman who knows no other life but serving as a family slave as a rape substitute for her sister. Of course the offer is a thinly veiled gross insult to the soldiers.
The house is burned. The sisters, accompanied by the faithful exslave Delilah, go into the nearly burned to the ground Jackson, Mississippi. They walk about pointing out what used to stand in the ashes. Their world is destroyed. As the story closes the sisters hang themselves, as their last act they stand on the back of their servant, using her as a stool to stand on from which they can kill themselves by having her move once they have ropes around their necks.
There is a plot line about a very young boy of mixed racial ancestory who dies in the fire. One sister claims the boy was her child, her sister hushes her and says no it was our brother's son, perhaps with Delilah.
I have now read the story three times, once two years ago and twice this week. I think it requires rereading as it is structured almost entirely through dialogue, sometimes in regional dialect.
"Burning" is truly a great short story.