- “The whole solid past”:Memorial Objects and Consumer Culture in Eudora Welty’s The Optimist’s Daughter
Ever since the Civil War, elite white Southern women have played an integral role in the South’s problematic relationship with the past, acting as a central symbol of Southern ideology, but also charged with the task of reproducing this ideology through the work of mourning. Edward A. Pollard’s The Lost Cause (1876) claims, “The war has left the South its own memories, its own heroes, its own tears, its own dead. Under these traditions, sons will grow to manhood, and lessons sink deep that are learned from the lips of widowed mothers” (751). Pollard charged Southern women with the task of fostering a reverence for the past in new generations of Southerners. Women of the South answered this call, creating a Southern material culture of mourning as evidenced in the work of the late nineteenth and early twentieth-century women’s memorial associations. The Ladies Memorial Association and the later United Daughters of the Confederacy created this culture of mourning through the construction of cemeteries, monuments, and even museums dedicated to memorializing the past (Cox 130-34). In the early twentieth century, however, this memorial work accomplished more than just honoring the Confederate dead, providing an ideological structure that supported the reiteration of social hierarchies based in race and class. According to Grace Elizabeth Hale, “Old South nostalgia … culturally anchored the authority of a rising white Southern middle class” (53). This investment in Old South culture, constructed by the memorial efforts of white Southern women, naturalized the privilege of the new Southern elite.
As the South moved into the postwar era, however, the role of the Southern woman began to change. New Deal agencies such as the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, the Civil Works Administration, and the [End Page 137] WPA worked to create jobs for women of the South. The advent of World War II prompted even more women to join the workforce to supplement labor shortages:
As many as 4 million women worked outside the home in 1940 and by 1945 as many as 5 million did so. That national percentage of women in the workforce leapt from 24 percent before the war to 36 percent by its end. In the South, about the same percentage of women entered the workforce.(Turner 206-7)
Southern women, no longer primarily concerned with mourning for the past, became participants in the industrial economy, helping to build the future. These changes coincided with the rise of a new consumer climate that altered Southern women’s relationships to the material environment.
Eudora Welty’s The Optimist’s Daughter, a work centered on mourning, memorialization, and funerary ritual, depicts a South undergoing social change as a growing consumer culture offered new opportunities for self-creation and social climbing. In this new consumer climate, identity became less defined by lineage and more by what could be bought. The novel foregrounds the designation of the work of constructing a family history that legitimizes social standing in the South as part of women’s work of domestic reproduction through its depiction of the matriarchs of Mt. Salus who guard their world of privilege against lower-class interlopers. Though times had changed, these women still turn to the past as a means of enforcing the social order of racial and class hierarchy. As Laurel McKelva Hand returns to her childhood home to oversee her father’s funeral, she confronts a house full of objects which embody the past. She is caught between her need to move past her losses and the imperative to memorialize the past that is her duty as a Southern woman. Her struggle is offset by Fay whose engagement with consumer products works as a means of self-creation unencumbered by the past. Welty uses the object world of the novel to dramatize the struggle of the white Southern woman to adapt to social change. Through its investigation of the ways in which objects can work both to concretize class boundaries by enshrining the past and transgress those same boundaries, Welty’s novel suggests the need for the Southern woman to find...