Eudora Welty's Sylvan Spell
An occasional series in which The Post's book critic reconsiders notable and/or neglected books from the past.
Eudora Welty started out fast. Her first book, a collection of short stories called "A Curtain of Green," was published in 1941, when she was 32. It included an admiring introduction, "A Note on the Author and Her Work," by Katherine Anne Porter, whose reputation was then at its height. Reviewers and readers shared Porter's admiration for this unknown young writer's fiction. Small wonder, when one considers that among the book's 17 stories were "Petrified Man," "Why I Live at the P.O.," "Death of a Traveling Salesman" and "A Worn Path" -- every one of them instantly recognizable as an American classic.
A year later her second book was published, a novella called "The Robber Bridegroom." It too was received with much enthusiasm, but it was a very different piece of work. Though written with the same grace and humor as the short stories, it was wildly fantastic, part fairy tale and part folk ballad, set along the Natchez Trace in the antebellum South and containing a cast of characters virtually all of whom were larger -- far larger -- than life. As Welty's career unfolded, it became clear that "The Robber Bridegroom" was unique among all her works, a startling and winning departure for a writer whose fiction mostly is deeply rooted in the realities of 20th-century small-town Southern life.
No doubt the critical and popular esteem that Welty now enjoys, five years after her death, is largely attributable to the short stories and the major novels -- "Delta Wedding" (1946), "Losing Battles" (1970) and "The Optimist's Daughter" (1972) -- but for me "The Robber Bridegroom" occupies a place in her work, and in American literature, that is all its own and that has grown, rather than shrunk, over the decades. I read it many years ago as a young man and was enchanted by its humor, its magic and its romance. Now, after my umpteenth reading of it, I remain under the spell of all those attributes, but it is Welty's prose that draws me in most powerfully and leaves the most lasting impressions. Consider, by way of example:
"New Orleans was the most marvelous city in the Spanish country or anywhere else on the river. Beauty and vice and every delight possible to the soul and body stood hospitably, and usually together, in every doorway and beneath every palmetto by day and lighted torch by night. A shutter opened, and a flower bloomed. The very atmosphere was nothing but aerial spice, the very walls were sugar cane, the very clouds hung as golden as bananas in the sky. But Clement Musgrove was a man who could have walked the streets of Baghdad without sending a second glance overhead at the Magic Carpet, or heard the tambourines of the angels in Paradise without dancing a step, or had his choice of the fruits of the Garden of Eden without making up his mind. For he was an innocent of the wilderness, and a planter of Rodney's Landing, and this was his good."
The language of that paragraph is exquisite, and so too is the delicate balance between the exotic settings so precisely evoked and the ordinary, decent, plodding innocence of the planter Clement Musgrove. He is in search of his beautiful daughter, Rosamond, whom he believes to have been kidnapped by a bandit. What he does not know is that she has gone to her gentleman bandit of her own free will, lured by love and passion even though she does not even know his name, which is Jamie Lockhart. She lives with him and the bandits in the deep woods, and another extraordinary passage leaves no doubt why she freely and gladly does so:
"The trees were golden under the sky. The grass was as soft as a dream and the wind blew like the long rising and falling breath of Summer when she has just fallen asleep. One day Jamie did not ride away with the others, and then the night was day and the woods were the roof over their heads. The tender flames of the myrtle trees and the green smoke of the cedars were the fires of their hearth. In the radiant noon they found the shade, and ate the grapes from the muscadine vines. The spice-dreams rising from the fallen brown pine needles floated through their heads when they stretched their limbs and slept in the woods. The stream lay still in the golden ravine, the water glowing darkly, the colors of fruits and nuts."
It is difficult to imagine a more deeply, ardently erotic passage than that, yet its eroticism is almost wholly within the imagery of nature and the woods. It reminds us that Welty, who never married and whose own amatory life remains an apparently unsolvable (and essentially unimportant) mystery, wrote often about sexual passion and desire, and though she did so with the utmost discretion and taste, one also senses her own longings not far beneath the surface. It is a characteristic she shares with Anita Brookner, who in almost all other respects is utterly unlike her but conveys the same impression of deep but perhaps unfulfilled yearning.
Certainly there can be no question that sexual matters are at the very core of "The Robber Bridegroom." The story begins with Clement Musgrove arriving at Rodney's Landing on his way back from New Orleans with the sack of gold he has been paid for his tobacco. He puts up at an inn and immediately is thrown in with two rowdy fellows, one of whom is the legendary Mike Fink, "champion of all the flatboat bullies on the Mississippi River," the other a "yellow-haired stranger" who, after saving Clement from a cruel scheme of Fink's, identifies himself as Jamie Lockhart. Clement overflows with gratitude for his kindness and promises him an introduction "to my daughter Rosamond, who is so beautiful that she keeps the memory of my first wife alive and evergreen in my heart."
Echoes of Cinderella, for Rosamond has a stepmother, Salome, "as ugly as the night" and as jealous as she can be -- the wicked stepmother to end all wicked stepmothers. She aims to kill off Rosamond with the help of a lout named Goat, but instead she drives Rosamond into the forest, where a bandit with a face stained berry-red -- Jamie Lockhart in disguise -- merrily orders her to remove all her clothes, then sends her home "as naked as a jay bird." Later he finds her in the woods, swoops her onto his horse Orion, and takes her away in "the fastest kidnapping that had ever been in that part of the country." Then:
". . . the red horse stood stock-still, and Jamie Lockhart lifted Rosamond down. The wild plum trees were like rolling smoke between him and the river, but he broke the branches and the plums rained down as he carried her under. He stopped and laid her on the ground, where, straight below, the river flowed as slow as sand, and robbed her of that which he had left her the day before."
She does not know that her robber/lover is Jamie Lockhart; he does not know that she is Clement's cherished daughter Rosamond: "Sometimes she would wake up out of her first sleep and study his sleeping face, but she did not know the language it was written in. . . . The only thing that divided his life from hers was the raiding and the robbing that he did, but that was like his other life, that she could not see, and so she contented herself with loving all that was visible and present of him as much as she was able."
Still, curiosity eventually gets the best of her, and she is able to see him without the stain that disguises him. He is furious. "Good-by," he says. "For you did not trust me, and did not love me, for you wanted only to know who I am." Soon enough she learns his name, but she also learns "that names were nothing and untied no knots." Her lover has gone, and she is left to reassemble the pieces of her life; though if she ever again sees him she has, thanks to all that happy activity on "grass soft as a dream," good news to impart to him.
Well. "The Robber Bridegroom" is a fairy tale, and fairy tales usually have happy endings. This one is no exception, which is as it should be. There can be no question that Welty wrote the tale in high spirits, and she certainly wasn't about to punish these two handsome young people whom she had so lovingly brought to life by keeping them apart from each other. Still, she puts them through a few adventures and disappointments before reuniting them, and she permits them -- and us -- to meet some of the Mississippi River's more outlandish characters in the process.
The Mississippi and the Natchez Trace, "that old buffalo trail where travelers passed along and were set upon by the bandits and the Indians and torn apart by the wild animals," are as vividly brought to life in this novella as are any of its characters. Place was of central, abiding importance to Welty, and she loved no place on Earth more than the Mississippi landscape she inhabited and the great river that ran through it. This is evident in much of her other writing -- "Delta Wedding" and "Losing Battles" most particularly -- but nowhere does she convey her affinity for it with more sureness and intimacy than in this lovely miniature. "The Robber Bridegroom" probably is not Welty's best book -- that distinction must be bestowed on "A Curtain of Green" -- but it is the one that I love most.
"The Robber Bridegroom" is available in a Harvest paperback ($11).
Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address firstname.lastname@example.org.