- The Maid of Orléans at the Palace of Pleasure: Welty’s “The Purple Hat” and the Emblematic Nature of Violence
Violence in Welty is … so normal a part of women’s every day experience as to be practically unnoticeable, so normal that we have for years simply folded it into, perhaps hidden it behind, the larger picture we have been pleased to call her essentially comic vision. But violence is everywhere in her work; it forms the mortar which holds a good deal of everything else together. It seeps into everything else through incident, through language … and through narrative vision, which works violence so completely into the fabric of feminine normality that we who operate from “fat … cosy and prosperous” catwalks may not notice how omnipresent it, or the threat of it, is in women’s lives especially.—Noel Polk, “Domestic Violence” 185
When I originally conceived this essay in the spring of 2016 for a special Eudora Welty Society panel honoring the late and deeply missed southern literature scholar Noel Polk, I did so in appreciation of the nurturing kindness he always bestowed upon new, burgeoning scholars entering the field and to celebrate the unbridled enthusiasm he had for innovative and daring approaches to the literatures of the American South. My first published essay on a little-known Charleston poet was made possible thanks to Noel’s commitment to that ethos, and his work on “The Purple Hat” had recently inspired me to take on Welty’s arguably most baffling, under-studied story and a quirky, fomenting idea that I might have otherwise faintheartedly put away. Proposing it and pulling it off, I was viscerally reminded, were entirely two different things, and tackling Welty’s supposed ghost at the Palace of Pleasure, as it turned out, gave me no pleasure of my own. Serious daring may very well start from within, but I was adrift on her Royal Street and ready to throw in the proverbial towel. It was then, in sheepishly pondering the best route of retreat, that I thought of Noel Polk and the last exchange we had had a few years earlier.
Noel was on a much-deserved vacation visiting Mt. Rushmore at the time, but he could not resist responding to my inquiries about an essay he was editing for the Mississippi Quarterly. Noel had recently taken a chance [End Page 13] on me. I was a newly minted PhD writing on not just an under-studied author, Beatrice Ravenel, but on an unpublished poem unearthed through my archival sleuthing. He had asked me a week earlier to move some footnotes into the body of the essay, and I was hesitant, afraid of what those few provocative assertions might draw from more seasoned critics. Noel, a champion of archival research and taking bold intellectual risks, not only encouraged me to push further, he insisted. He wrote, “Hi Rebecca, greetings from Mt. Rushmore, where I’m fighting my way through thousands of obese bikers to get to the bar! And, if I can do that, you can certainly own your seat at the table” (Message).
Later, as I struggled with The Wide Net’s move from “The Winds” to “The Purple Hat”—and that fat man at a bar in New Orleans—this exchange with Noel began to resonate deeply. So, I sought him out in the way that I could now, through his scholarship. His essay “Domestic Violence in ‘The Purple Hat,’ ‘Magic,’ and ‘The Doll’” and its focus on transmogrified desires and controlling, defining visions sent me back to Welty’s text, thinking about the cultural condemnations of women who step outside of the norm, and of the men and women who work, as Noel states, “in service of the culture to insure that” they “do not do so without suffering for it” (183). Where Noel pushed me, like those obese bikers blocking him from the bar, I had not quite expected: thinking about Josie’s drawing of Joan of Arc in “The Winds,” the coveted vial of the holy ampulla, and the chimes of St. Louis Cathedral whose somnambulant sounds interrupt the fat man’s misogynistic rant in “The...