Eudora, Elvis and Faulkner
They are names that resonate with a power that transcends even the basest elements associated with the Magnolia State. One wrote fiction that defied belief and acted in ways that fostered disbelief. Another was a slick-haired rebel, sneering and sneered at for his pelvic "obscenities." And the third grew slowly on the consciousness of the country, a lady far above and beyond the belles.
You couldn’t squat in Oxford for more than a day without encountering some mention of William Faulkner. And yet, it wouldn’t take you another day to realize that while the town and university played him up for benefit, they not-so-secretly looked down upon him…and not because “Billy” was height-challenged.
Faulkner was not one to go through life rounding off his sharp edges. He once upbraided his daughter, who hassled him about his drinking, with “No one remembers Shakespeare’s daughter!” A drunkard of epic proportions in a land that considers drunkenness a weekly rite (and right), Faulkner skewered his surroundings and its people with bone-slashing observations that, couched in mellifluous and overwrought sentences, dared to reveal more than they concealed.
His words adorned the Ole Miss Library; the Yoknapatawpha Conference was an international hit and his home was a tourist attraction. And yet, you got the feeling that if Faulkner vanished from memory, the collective sigh of relief would have drowned the tinkle of steady money.
Elvis was born in Tupelo and that’s as much of Mississippi as he or anyone else cared about. The Great State, as so many laughingly call themselves, had little to do with his eventual power as a cultural icon. That Elvis strode the earth like a giant, almost single-handedly remade American society and gave us an iconoclastic 20th century Greek tragedy of a life is hard to ignore.
Mississippians don’t ignore it. They talk around Elvis, close to Elvis, make references to Elvis and sometimes even talk through Elvis, but in the end, they pointedly downplay Elvis. Until that moment—and it always comes—when they drawl with ill-conceived and badly-misplaced hubris: “You know, he was born in Tupelo.”
Eudora Welty is not a Nobel Prize winner nor is she an American icon. She was a writer, one of the great ones from a land that produces writers like royal families produce inbred feebs. Her prose was—is—clean and simple, with consistent flashes of insight and charm. She wrote for decades, her works defined by both quantity and quality and the ability to blend in with, not shake up, society.
She was gracious where Faulkner was abrasive; real where Elvis was fantasy. Eudora Welty was never as famous as the other two, but she was easily the more admirable, the friendly one who never soured her name or that of others, who cherished herself to a long and worthy life. She scaled no great heights, but she never descended from her scaled steps.
I heard too much about Faulkner there in his hometown and wished I’d heard less about Elvis. But not once did I hear a word about Eudora Welty. If the good die young around the world, the good die unremarked in Mississippi.