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Not All That Separate: Welty and Warren, Medusa and Perseus

From: Eudora Welty Review
Volume 4, Spring 2012
pp. 135-151 | 10.1353/ewr.2012.0012

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Both Eudora Welty and Robert Penn Warren introduce an explicit ekphrastic reference to Perseus and Medusa into their work decades after having begun, in multitudinous fragmentary ways, to allude to the myth. In Warren’s 1961 novel Wilderness, the protagonist Adam Rosenzweig can see in Aaron Blaustein’s apartment a “great bronze of Perseus meditatively holding the head of Medusa” (67). In 1977, the narrator of A Place to Come To sees a youth who has just attacked an old woman to steal her purse “drift with ineffable, slow, floating godlike grace … to the hood of the nearest halted automobile, to stand beautifully balanced there with the purse—like Medusa’s head hanging down from the hand of Cellini’s Perseus in Florence…. I thought how all the world was justified in that moment” (387). Perhaps all the earlier references in Warren’s poetry and fiction to Perseus and Medusa were justified in that moment, too. In Welty’s “The Wanderers,” Virgie Rainey recalls that Miss Eckhart, with whom she had studied piano in Morgana,

had had among the pictures from Europe on her walls a certain threatening one. It hung over the dictionary, dark as that book. It showed Perseus with the head of the Medusa…. [T]he picture … sometimes blindly reflected the window by its darkness…. The vaunting was what she remembered, the lifted arm. Cutting off the Medusa’s head was the heroic act, perhaps, that made visible a horror in life, that was at once the horror in love, Virgie thought—the separateness.

(GA 554)

The theme of separateness in love had already appeared in an earlier Welty story, “A Still Moment,” that involves the chance encounter of three men on the Natchez Trace: the evangelist Lorenzo Dow, the outlaw James Murrell, and the naturalist and painter Jean-Jacques Audubon. A white heron appears and the three men for a moment—the still moment of the story’s title—remain still, frozen almost, as they gaze upon it. After the encounter, Dow reflects:

suddenly it seemed to him that God Himself, just now, thought of the Idea of Separateness. For surely He had never thought of it before, when the little white heron was flying down to feed. He could understand God’s giving Separateness first and then giving Love to follow and heal in its wonder; but God had reversed this, and given Love first and then Separateness, as though it did not matter to Him which came first.

(WN 239)

Warren quoted from this passage (beginning with “He could understand”) in the epigraph to his essay “Love and Separateness in Eudora Welty,” which appeared in the Spring 1944 issue of the Kenyon Review. Charlotte Beck writes, “Warren took his title from a line in [his poem] ‘Revelation,’ in Eleven Poems on the Same Theme (1942): ‘In separateness only does love find resolution’” (52). While it is true that the terms appear in Warren’s poem, it seems more likely that he took his title from the book he was reviewing, The Wide Net and Other Stories, which contains “A Still Moment.” Nevertheless it is a curious coincidence. “A Still Moment” was published in American Prefaces, Spring 1942; “Revelation” first appeared in Poetry in January 1942.1 By then the Southern Review had ceased publication, and while seven of the seventeen stories of Welty’s first collection, A Curtain of Green, appeared there, none of those in The Wide Net did, and I would guess that Warren had not read “A Still Moment” when he wrote “Revelation.” But then neither had Welty read “Revelation,” for according to Ann Waldron she finished revising “A Still Moment” in 1941 (133).

On December 17, 1943, Warren wrote to Cleanth Brooks about the process of writing his article on Welty, which was a review of her second short-story collection The Wide Net (and a defense of it against Diana Trilling’s criticism of it not having enough to do with the real world):

Welty is an extremely interesting gal. I’m not inclined to think that she has gained ground in her last book, but she has plowed the same ground a little more deeply. I’ve been...

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