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| 131 [ ] RECLAMATION [ ] The Laughter Downstairs: Nancy Hale’s “The Earliest Dreams” ann beattie Nancy Hale was married to the eminent critic and classics editor Fredson Bowers and living in Albemarle County when I went to the University of Virginia to begin my first job after graduate school (a one-year position). I was twenty-seven. I wore funny T-shirts and often took my dog to class with me. Early on, I met Staige Blackford, the new editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review . He saw to it that I was introduced to Nancy and Fredson. Nancy liked me immediately when I wrongly assumed the flashy sports car in the driveway was hers, the more generic car his. I doubt that I wore a T-shirt and jeans to the Bowers’, but I wouldn’t swear to that. Nancy wore a silk dress. Fredson tapped out a bit of snuff, which he inhaled from the dimple between thumb and first finger . The most amazing moment—not at all funny when it happened—was when my then husband heard wrong, and mistook Fredson’s mention of Bernard De Voto as a remark about the car, the DeSoto. Some hilarity ensued. Nancy and I realized why they were talking at cross-purposes before they did. How extremely kind she was: I was the new young thing at the New Yorker, where I had published a half dozen short stories within the past year, and would go on to publish more than forty others. But I may never catch Nancy, who had published upwards of seventy in the New Yorker by that time. And would have published more if they’d been willing. But there was little talk of that. Writers don’t talk about their own writing. Also, extra manners were required because it was the South. Tea with lemon, or cream? There are as many stories about childhood as there are autumn leaves. Sometimes the dryness results in unexceptional colors; other times the rain turns the leaves brilliant. Either 132 | ecotone way, as Barbra Streisand sings, it’s always autumn. Metaphorically, of course. Nancy Hale used metaphor as well as any other talented writer. And long before the now-popular, much-­ overimitated use of second person in Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City and Lorrie Moore’s Self-Help, she used the direct address in “The Earliest Dreams,” the title story to her 1936 collection. The first sentence seems to set up the story as a fairy tale: “That was long, long ago.” The repetition lets the reader know that the writer knows that what will be told is a Story; also, that the writer doesn’t want us to read this sentence neutrally and straightforwardly . If no echo—a literary wink of the eye—was needed, one “long” would have sufficed. So, in the first sentence, we readers are reassured (which in fiction almost always signals the opposite effect), and then “our” mind is read. The bed you or I slept in isn’t the bed we begin to hear about, but we also know that we’re expected to become the character : providing details reassures us. But since it isn’t, of course, our childhood bed, there are two stories: our personal story (which, once conjured, acts as background), and the tale being told. The storyteller is convincing. Even polite enough—human enough—to admit to a bit of confusion (“What was it you wanted so?”), whereas in real life, things proceed on the bizarre assumption that everyone knows, generally, what everyone else thinks, a notion that persists in spite of our lives filled with inevitable rude awakenings, strange revelations, unpredictable behavior. Still, the idea is sacrosanct: we know what our husband is thinking; he more or less knows our attitude toward Jon Stewart and whether Pommard is worth the expense. We know whether a friend prefers cats, dogs, both, or neither. (And just look at the times we’ve been confounded: the great dog lover buying a bird! And didn’t you think Malcolm was allergic to cats?) This takes me far from the world of this story, but expresses my notion of why readers are so often...


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