Sister Honey

It’s currently thirty-one degrees in New Orleans, and I suspect it is close to that here in my office in the Lost Apartment. My fingers are tingling with cold as I type, and my space heater is going full roar close to my chair. I have on a T-shirt and a sweatshirt, a blanket wrapped around my sweatpant-clad legs. At some point I have to venture out there to go to the grocery store and pick up the mail, and still later I have to go to the convention center for a panel on villains. It was so cold this morning I didn’t want to get out from underneath the five blankets on the bed until slightly after ten o’clock. It’s only supposed to be this weather this weekend; Monday it’s back in the sixties and then next week we are back in the seventies again.

Crazy New Orleans weather.

As Short Story Month continues, yesterday I curled up in my easy chair with Collected Stories of William Faulkner. I’ve not really read much of Faulkner’s short fiction; but I do love Faulkner. Reading Faulkner is never an easy task, and I often think to myself that I should not only revisit some of the novels of his that I have read–Sanctuary, The Sound and the Fury, Light in August, As I Lay Dying–but should also try to read more of his work. I read Sanctuary when I was in high school, and read the other three novels when I was in college–but not for a class; I read them for pleasure. The Sound and the Fury is one of my all-time favorite novels, and every time I read something of Faulkner’s–or think about him and his work–I get inspired to write about Alabama. It was during that period that I was reading Faulkner that I wrote most of my Alabama short stories, and whenever I dip back into that well, I don’t know, I can see the Faulkner influence on them. (I am very aware how pretentious that probably sounds; Faulkner was a great writer and comparing ANYTHING I write to him is the ultimate in pretension and arrogance.)

I had not read “A Rose for Emily” in a long time; if it isn’t my favorite short story of all time (and it probably is), then it is definitely one of them. It’s the perfect story, really; the way it’s worded, the use of language, the rhythm of the words, and the story itself, which is grim and dark yet very matter-of-fact. Small Southern towns, whether the Jefferson, Mississippi of the story or the Maycomb of To Kill a Mockingbird, are no different than any other small American town; Peyton Place with a magnolia-scented accent. I have created an entire county in Alabama, along with a county seat–a small town–and have written a lot of mostly unpublished short fiction set there. (It also made a brief appearance in Dark Tide; it was where my main character was from) Every so often I think I should focus more on my Alabama fiction, and rereading Faulkner certainly has that effect on me.

When Miss Emily Grierson died, our whole town went to her funeral: the men through a sort of respectful attention for a fallen monument, the women mostly out of curiosity to see the inside of her house, which no one save an old manservant–a combined gardener and cook–had seen in at least ten years.

It was a big, squarish frame house that has once been white, decorated with cupolas and spires and scrolled balconies in the heavily lightsome style of the seventies, set on what had once been our most select street. But garages and cotton gins had encroached and obliterated even the august names of that neighborhood; only Miss Emily’s house was left, lifting its stubborn and coquettish decay above the cotton wagons and the gasoline pumps–an eyesore among eyesores. And now Miss Emily had gone to join the representatives of those august names where they lay in the cedar-bemused cemetery among the ranked and anonymous graves of Union and Confederate soldiers who fell at the Battle of Jefferson.

Alive, Miss Emily had been a tradition, a duty, and a care; a sort of hereditary obligation upon the town, dating from that day in 1894 when Colonel Sartoris, the mayor–he who had fathered the edict that no Negro woman should appear on the streets without an apron–remitted her taxes, the dispensation dating from the death of her father on into perpetuity. Not that Miss Emily would have accepted charity. Colonel Sartoris invented an involved tale to the effect that Miss Emily’s father had loaned money to the town, which the town, as a matter of business, preferred this way of repaying. Only a man of Colonel Sartoris’ generation and thought could have invented it, and only a woman would have believed it.

Isn’t that a stunning opening?

I first read “A Rose for Emily” for an American Lit class in college. Unlike almost everything else I was ever forced to read and talk about in a class/write about for class, I actually loved this story (I am actually planning on rereading some of the stories I was forced to read and hated this month; to see if I still hate them: “The Minister’s Black Veil” by Hawthorne, “The Girls in their Summer Dresses” by Irwin Shaw, etc.), and have gone back to reread it any number of times. There is so much truth in this story; this is exactly what small Southern towns and the people who live in them are like; and almost every small town seems to have that strange, eccentric spinster who is the last of a good family living in a crumbling once-proud house.

As you can see by the opening, the story takes place after Miss Emily has finally died; the narrator–whose name we never know, and we never learn anything about other than he is a resident of Jefferson–then proceeds to relate the sad story of Miss Emily, or rather, what the townsfolk know about her. This is all casually pieced together from years of observation and town gossip; the story is told (with incredibly beautiful language) in the tone of someone sharing a good story across the kitchen table, with sweating glasses of iced tea and a bowl of wild blackberry cobbler.

Miss Emily never had a prospect for a husband, other than Homer Barron–who, the people in town viewed as not worthy of a Grierson; he wasn’t a local and moreover, he was a day laborer, brought in to supervise the installation of cement sidewalks. No one really knows what happened between Miss Emily and Homer; but there was a lot of talk. And then he vanished, from town and from Miss Emily, never to be heard from again.

Until now.

Rereading the story, I caught something I’d never noticed before, this particular passage:

When she had first begun to be seen with Homer Barron, we had said, “She will marry him.” Then we said, “she will persuade him yet,” because Homer himself had remarked–he liked men, and it was known that he drank with the younger men in the Elks’ club–that he was not a marrying man.

Emphasis mine.

First, it surprised me that I’d never noticed that throwaway line of Faulkner’s before–really, if you aren’t paying attention, you wouldn’t really notice it as anything more than what it says; Homer wasn’t a marrying man. But the combination of sentences: “he liked men” and “he was known to drink with the younger men in the Elks’ club” in combination with him not being a marrying man–well, it may not have been intended that way in Faulkner’s mind, but those are codes for ‘gay’ in the Old South; no one ever said the word ‘homosexual’ but instead said things like “not a marrying man’ or ‘confirmed bachelor’.

As you can imagine, this has caught my curiosity.

Faulkner is often called a ‘Southern Gothic’ writer, along with Carson McCullers, Erskine Caldwell, and Flannery O’Connor, among many others; but I’ve always felt that some of his fiction, and this story in particular, certainly can be considered noir, or noir adjacent. The story doesn’t really answer any questions, but if it was told from another point of view, rather than unknown narrator–her black manservant’s, for example, or even Miss Emily’s herself–the story would definitely become something else than what it is.

But as it is, it is perfect: beautifully written, painfully honest and real, and macabre.

I’ve always wondered if the story inspired the songs “Delta Dawn” and “Angie Baby,” both recorded by Helen Reddy; both songs always make me think of the story, as does “Sister Honey” by Stevie Nicks.

Something to think about, I guess.

And now, off to the spice mines. Here’s a hot Southern guy for you:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s