- Welty on the Interstate:Mobility and Mass Culture on I-55 and the Natchez Trace
Through travel I first became aware of the outside world; it was through travel that I found my own introspective way into becoming a part of it.—Eudora Welty, OWB 918
This is the story of two roads, the Natchez Trace and I-55, and the separate ways in which these roads foster mobility in and into the South. Their point of convergence is Jackson, Mississippi, the lifelong home of Eudora Welty. The Trace only crosses two interstates, I-55 and I-20, over its entire length, both just outside Jackson, making the southern capital the locus of the old and the new, the haunted Trace and the modern city.1 My aim here is to deconstruct these roads, to peel back the asphalt and discover what regional and national ideals and assumptions built them. More to the point, I want to contemplate how the coexisting ideals of mobility and stasis that animate Welty's work shape and are shaped by these southern thoroughfares.
"Should one decide to draw up a map of Eudora Welty's fictional countryside," writes Ann Masserand, "one might safely assert that a road would run through it" (39). It is very likely that, as is the case for so much of Welty's fiction, Masserand's hypothetical road would be named the Natchez Trace. In such celebrated stories as "The Wide Net," "A Worn Path," "A Still Moment," and, most prominently, The Robber Bridegroom, the Trace emerges as the most storied and significant of Welty's roads, a place of living legend where vernacular southern stories bump elbows with classic myths. Each of these works re-inscribes the mystic elements of the thoroughfare in subtly different ways: the forest and its inhabitants become monstrous obstacles in "A Worn Path"; "A Still Moment" brings together three living legends of American history; and "The Wide Net," as Nancy Anne Cluck has argued, structures itself around classical patterns of heroism, testing, and reward.2 All of these encounters unfold against the backdrop of the Trace.
The Trace was, for Welty, a distinctly southern answer to the myth-saturated landscapes of the Old World, an avenue for elevating regional cultures to legendary status. The Robber Bridegroom uses both folktale fabulism [End Page 55] (birds and disembodied heads have the power of speech, magical disguises are donned and shed, the laws of physics are regularly bent) and environmental cues to portray the Trace as replete with legendary significance.3 Perhaps a single example will suffice: the hurried flight that accompanies the abduction and rape of the innocent Rosamond by Jamie Lockhart.
Birds flew up like sparks from a flint. Nearer and nearer they came to the river, to the highest point on the bluff. A foam of gold leaves filled the willow trees. Taut as a string stretched over the ridge, the path ran higher and higher. Rosamond's head fell back, till only the treetops glittered in her eyes, which held them like two mirrors. So the sun mounted the morning cloud, and lighted the bluff and then the valley, which opened and showed the river, shining beneath another river of mist, winding and all the colors of flowers.(RB 32–33)
Though, strictly speaking, there is nothing "magical" happening in this passage, the superabundance of luminous language, which it shares with the description of Natchez in the book's initial scene and with Clement Musgrove's account of the wilderness in the novella's closing chapters, broadcasts the mystical valences of the landscape. The trees "glitter" and "foam" with leaves, matching the "sparks" of the birds and the "shining," multihued river. The setting is suffused with light, even in the predawn hours, creating a scene that seems alchemical, transforming mundane features into objects of significance. The environment gives an impression of motion, yet the horse, rider, and abductee remain still—the portrayal invokes the rape of Europa, commonly represented in art as a moment of frozen movement, deepening the mythic resonances of Welty's description.
The above is one instance of many from The Robber Bridegroom. Throughout the novella, the Trace...