The Southern Literary Journal 35.2 (2003) 128-132
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Do Ellen Gilchrist and Jill McCorkle Have Anything to Say?
The Fiction of Ellen Gilchrist. By Margaret Donovan Bauer. Gainesville, FL: UP of Florida, 1999. 256 pp. $55.00.
Understanding Jill McCorkle. By Barbara Bennett. Columbia, SC: U of South Carolina P, 2000. 208 pp. $34.95.
One of the best courses I ever took in graduate school was a seminar on John Updike who, at the time, had published only a half-dozen or so books. He was most critically revered for his creation of Rabbit Angstrom in the short story "Ace in the Hole" and the novel Rabbit, Run; he was most critically reviled for his potboiler, Couples. Nobody yet knew how seriously to take John Updike's fiction. One of the typical charges made in print about him was "does John Updike have anything to say?"
I remember being enthralled by the Updike seminar because our professor made us students feel like explorers. John Updike was new, unsettled, certainly controversial and possibly dangerous territory. All contemporary American literature in those days (has this changed?) was treated by the academy as the brainchildren of lesser gods. Our teacher seemed to be as much in the dark about Updike as we were. This was a new experience for me: to observe that professional scholars flailed about uncertainly in their efforts to comprehend and evaluate the latest literary upstart. Our classroom had the sizzle of experiment rather than the cool mechanics of autopsy. The term had not been invented yet—literary scholarship still strained at the stranglehold of New Criticism—but our teacher, Professor Ellis, introduced us to the value of intertextual reading. [End Page 128] He assigned each of us supplementary books by any philosopher or theorist whom he deemed a crucial influence in Updike's intellectual evolution: authors whom Updike gave evidence of having read. I myself was asked to plow through a good-sized chunk of Kierkegaard from which I may have never recovered.
Because I write fiction, because I know first-hand that a writer's work is influenced by everything he or she reads, overhears, witnesses, dreams or speculates, I was pre-disposed to appreciate Margaret Donovan Bauer's illuminating intertextual analysis of Ellen Gilchrist's work. I also happen to be a longtime fan of Gilchrist's writing and enjoyed reacquainting myself with many of the stories and novels Bauer cites. Although she frequently cites scholarship that has preceded her own, Bauer's literary sleuthing struck me as impeccable and original and reminded me that writers, consciously or not, leave clues about their influences throughout their texts. It is the shrewd critic who is capable of finding not simply the sources of those influences but of discerning their subtle thematic entwinements and strategies over the course of an author's entire career. Bauer notes that in recent work Gilchrist has become more intratextual, influenced more (in her expansion and refinement of her prototypical characters) by what she—not others—has written previously.
Does Ellen Gilchrist have anything to say? I happen to believe that she's a major American writer, and I was surprised to learn that Bauer's book is the first exhaustive examination of her opus. Bauer limits herself to intertextual exegesis, focusing on the reader's role in recognizing Gilchrist's debt, conscious or not, to Hemingway, Faulkner, Porter and Chopin. "I treat these earlier texts . . . as existing together with the new texts by Ellen Gilchrist within the reader's literary history, and I show how the reader's knowledge of these earlier texts affects one's reading of Gilchrist's work and . . . leads one to re-view the work of her more established forebears," Bauer writes.
I found Bauer's chapter on Gilchrist's deconstruction of the Hemingway hero smart and enlightening. Like Hemingway, with his series of Nick Adams stories, Gilchrist creates a cycle of stories around Rhoda Manning, her most admittedly autobiographical character. Rhoda, featured over the course of many story collections, becomes an author...