- Reviewed by
Sacred Groves and Ravaged Gardens is a feminist treatment of three Southern women writers, Eudora Welty, Carson McCullers, Flannery O'Connor, chosen, it seems, because they grew up in the modern South within easy driving distance of each other. The first sixty-four pages lay out generalizations about procedures to be followed, assumptions about women, a tradition of women's fiction, and, especially, the barriers said to have prevented Southern women from following a smooth path to maturity. Among these alleged barriers are the dominance and self-indulgence of Southern men, particularly their preference for black women, and the code of ladyhood (which, having been foisted upon Flannery O'Connor by her mother, is said to have resulted in the unfavorable and unfair treatment of mothers in O'Connor's fiction). Only Eudora Welty, in Westling's view and for reasons unknown, fully escaped the blight that usually descends on Southern womanhood.
To the skeptical mind these introductory pages raise more questions than they answer. If cultural forces are so decisive in a writer's formation, how is it some writers escape their negative effects? These three writers are said to be inheritors of a tradition of Southern women writing that begins with diaries, letters, and oral histories, most of which have only recently been published, and none of which is shown to have actually influenced these three writers. Westling admits that McCullers and O'Connor were both influenced almost entirely by male writers but claims it is dangerous for girls to read fiction written by males because having had "the male experience of physical adventure," they must then return to the "real" world where they are not permitted to act on these adventures. One wonders whether Westling thinks that boys live in a world where the adventures they read about are "permitted." One would like to ask also how Westling's theory of the dangers of vicarious adventures squares with the more popular view that vicarious adventures are an emotional safety valve. Finally, is there some norm of feminism to which female writers must adhere or be condemned, as Virginia Woolf said Charlotte Brontë was, to write "deformed and twisted books?" Must all writers, male or female, be required to write in a manner appropriate to their sex? Who decides what is appropriate? Should Henry James have written like Mark Twain, or Mark Twain like Henry James?
Westling believes that of these three authors, only Eudora Welty managed to write suitably feminist fiction. McCullers identified with a masculine point of [End Page 749] view, and O'Connor never matured sexually. Given this bias (Westling denies that she has one), it is not surprising that the best parts of Sacred Groves are those dealing with Eudora Welty. The chapters on McCullers are fair enough. Least satisfactory are those on O'Connor. Even if O'Connor suffered from sexual immaturity, as Westling claims, criticizing her stories from the standoint of how fair she is to widows and mothers is a stupid way to approach any writer. When Westling takes the view that Mrs. MacIntyre (of "The Displaced Person") is just a "poor widow" trying to withstand the "predatory forces" about to engulf her, she not only misses the point of the story but commits a critical fallacy inexcusable in a sophomore. One shouldn't treat characters in fiction as though they were actual people. Art, it seems necessary to insist, isn't life.
In the Prologue to her study of Walker Percy, Patricia Lewis Poteat sets out her thesis with admirable clarity: as a novelist, Walker Percy is a brilliant storyteller-analyst of modern spiritual woes, but as a formal theorist about man, he is a flat...