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Invention and Truth, Ellen Douglas and Truth

ISSUE:  Summer 1999
Truth: Four Stories I Am Finally Old Enough to Tell. By Ellen Douglas. Algonquin. $18.95.

The title of Ellen Douglas’s latest book—Truth— might seem arrogant, were it not for the word “stories.” That tension between truth and invention, knowing and imagining, has shaped Douglas’s career. In her first novel—A Family’s Affairs— she wrote of her autobiographical persona: “Far from forgetting or transforming the painful moments that children are generally supposed to suppress, she could never forget them.” Nor could she stop imagining other moments; for, in her family, story-telling was a virtual puberty rite.

Later, story-telling became a vexed maturation rite for this author. In Greenville, Mississippi, in the early 1950’s, Josephine and Kenneth Haxton and an artist-friend bet on which of them would actually finish writing a short story. The artist quickly went back to painting, but Josephine and Kenneth kept on writing, so, Douglas says, “I suppose we both won.” Writing her story reminded Josephine of family tales and sketches she had written in her late teens and early 20’s. She resurrected them and found that they formed the core of a novel. Then, while raising three sons, conducting research for Hodding Carter’s The Angry Scar, and writing occasional book reviews for Carter’s The Delta Democrat-Times, Josephine Haxton reworked those tales. When she had passed her 40th birthday, she gathered them together and asked a novelist friend to tell her what he thought. He so liked her manuscript that he in turn passed it on to a publisher.

Then Josephine Haxton had the sort of fairy-tale experience that writers dream about. An editor called asking her officially to submit her book to Houghton-Mifflin. Fantasy, however, collided with reality, as Josephine realized that publishing this book would violate family privacy. She declined. But then the editor called back to tell her she had won the Houghton-Mifflin/Esquire award for the best first novel if she would only submit her manuscript to him.

Josephine consulted with her aunts, central characters (though under disguised names) in A Family’s Affairs, They consented to publication, but, at their request, Josephine agreed to publish under a pseudonym. She chose “Ellen Douglas,” a name whose work presumably no one would connect with her. This ruse, however, lasted a only few weeks. The Hodding Carters placed a call from Maine person-to-person for “Ellen Douglas.” In an elevator in the New Orleans Hibernia Bank (a detail remembered for family associations), a Mississippian said to her uncle, “Heh, I’ve been reading that novel about your family.” To her uncle’s startled response, the man replied “Well if that isn’t your family I don’t know whose it is!”

Having chosen art over loyalty, expression over suppression, Josephine continued publishing as Ellen Douglas. Her origins in Natchez, Mississippi, Hope, Arkansas, and Alexandria, Louisiana, have placed seven books: A Family’s Affairs (1962), Black Cloud, White Cloud (1963), Where the Dreams Cross (1968), Apostles of Light (1973), The Rock Cried Out (1979), A Lifetime Burning (1982), and Can’t Quit You Baby (1988). In The Magic Carpet and Other Tales (1987), a book handsomely illustrated with Walter Anderson’s linoleum block-prints, Douglas retells classic tales with wit and irony, making the princesses active, not passive, witty, not bland, shrewd, not sweet.

Though Ellen Douglas’s first two books were listed as among their years’ best fiction titles by The New York Times and she has won an O.Henry prize and a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, Douglas’s honors come mostly from the South. The University Press of Mississippi held a symposium last April devoted to her works. She is presently Eudora Welty Scholar at Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi. Her other posts as writer-in residence have been at Southern schools, including Virginia.

That Southern exposure is a logical outgrowth of subject matter. Excepting the fairy tales, all Douglas’s books offer a strong sense of place and of complicated family relations. They illustrate the intertwining of past and present, the hazards of sexual repression, the tensions between community and individuality, and the difficulties of overcoming the legacies of slavery and segregation. Ellen Douglas brings such issues to bear in perplexing tales in Truth: “Grant” relates the mysteries of her uncle-in-law’s life and death; “Julia and Nellie” questions her stern Presbyterian grandmother’s loyalty to a friend who was openly living in mortal sin; “Hampton” probes the history of the man who worked for that grandmother as “director of the household, butler, chauffeur, mechanic, gardener, and handyman”; and “On Second Creek” investigates an 1861 slave uprising.

In Truth Douglas risks having her people (I can’t call them characters for she has refused to disguise actual persons) critique her. She repeats Gold Smith Sr.’s accusation: “”the rest of that story, when you wrote it down for a book, you made it up. Had nothing to do with me.”” And he says, “”You wrote down something else, didn’t you? . . . How come you to do that?”“—an interrogation Douglas’s characters ask of themselves.

In The Rock Cried Out, Douglas successfully adopts the perspective of a young white man confronting his present and his past during the civil rights struggle in Mississippi. The narrator of A Lifetime Burning is a woman so torn by sexual rage she becomes a blatant liar and admitted fabricator. Can’t Quit You, Baby is about the relationship between Cordelia, a white women of privilege, and Tweet, a black woman, endowed with only personal gifts. Here Douglas enters Cordelia’s mind but lets Tweet speak for herself. Though comfortable, this method was also appropriate because, as she explained in a recent interview, “Cordelia would never talk about her life.” Tweet, on the other hand, “deliberately used her stories to establish herself as a person and to call all white people to account.” Douglas’s tour de force experiments in point of view include “About Loving Women,” a story told by a teen age boy confronting sexuality and school integration.(Douglas gave such a dynamite reading of it at Louisiana State that my teenage daughter exclaimed, “She got it all right—even the cuss words!”)

In Truth, however, Douglas insists on the limits of what she can get right. After reading Winthrop Jordan’s book Tumult and Silence at Second Creek, an historical investigation of a minimally documented 1861 slave uprising and the subsequent murder of 30 or more slaves, Douglas considered writing a novel from the perspectives of the participants in the uprising. She says, however, “I couldn’t write that novel. In fact it would have been an act of terrible hubris to try to enter the minds of those men.” I reminded her that she has no trouble entering the minds of invented characters, even men and boys and crazed women. Douglas clarified: “It’s like the reservations almost all writers have about writing about the Holocaust. It is so terrible it should be left to the people who were there or whose people suffered there, who don’t have to invent.” I told her that our mutual friend Ann Goethe has had a friendship with a Holocaust survivor, whose recollections she taped. Now she’s writing his story in his voice, inventing descriptions and shaping a coherent story. “That’s a little bit different,” Douglas said. Indeed, that approach parallels her own method in Truth, where she admits “I have been debating how to make it clear, to put you on notice, so to speak, that every single detail of my story is not true.”

In “On Second Creek,” Douglas juxtaposes what she can discover about the 1861 probable uprising and certain murder with events in Mississippi in the 1960’s. Douglas dedicates the book to two black men, Gold Smith, Sr. and Gold Smith, Jr. She explained to me that their bravery and

particularly Gold Jr.’s heroism during the civil rights struggles—resonated with the heroism of Obey and the other slaves who died [in 1861] without speaking. And of course the slave who jumped into the river and drowned himself rather than go back with our ancestor and be hanged, as the others were, resonated again in an even more complex connection. . . . I didn’t make up those connections, they are there. The thing I needed to do—my job—was to arrange them with each other so that those connections were clear. And that’s what I tried to do.

With a title like Truth and references to her own family and its history, Douglas fears this book will be reviewed as autobiography or some variation on new journalism. But new journalism assumes that facts speak for themselves. Douglas knows better. Of the slave uprising itself, she writes “there happened (or did not happen) . . .a conversation among the slaves of several planters [including her ancestors] who lived along the banks of Second Creek. The talk, if it occurred, concerned a projected uprising to coincide with the imminent coming of Mr. Lincoln and the Yankees.” Such are the vagaries of history (especially habits of suppression and denial), however, that neither the historian nor the novelist can be absolutely certain that the plan for an uprising actually existed. Even as she authenticates some information and despairs of finding more, Douglas insists that Truth is fiction. It is so because she, as writer, has invented and altered, shaped and ordered, making an artistic whole. As she says, her job was “to arrange.”

When I asked Douglas how she saw her writing’s progression over the course of 36 years, she spoke about its circularity: from autobiography to invention back to autobiography. The two grandmothers in A Family’s Affairs, for example, reappear here, though their prominence is reversed. And in Truth family members carry their real names.

Aside from the retuni to autobiography, Douglas’s fiction moves from exposing the known to acknowledging the limitations of both knowledge and the imagination. She broached these themes in A Rock Cried Out, explored them in A Lifetime Burning, developed them in Can’t Quit You, Baby. Then she made them the subject matter itself of Truth. Because the people she writes about in this new book are all dead, with her paternal grandmother’s moral honesty, she puts “true in quotation marks. I can’t honestly say I am telling the truth—not for sure—and there is no one left to correct me if I’m wrong.”

Ellen Douglas’s writing balances one grandmother’s morality with the other’s funmaking. Her paternal grandmother lost her fortune when the Hibernia Bank closed in the 1930’s but hardly altered her style of living, certainly not her morality. To young Josephine, she explained the sudden departure of a young cousin by saying that he’d gone on vacation and then accepted a position in New Mexico. But the maternal grandmother told Josephine that “he and his lady friend had gotten drunk one evening in the cemetery—a lovely spot to share a drink, the loveliest cemetery in Mississippi—had stripped off their clothes to make love among the tombstones, and had been arrested for committing a public nuisance—whereupon he left town in disgrace.” Douglas’s delight in such different versions of aberrant events leavens the sad and horrific stories in Truth, just as one grandmother’s legacy leavened the other’s.

Douglas is deeply aware that meaning is never absolute, language is arbitrary, solutions are evasive, originality is an illusion, and the writer and reader necessarily engage in a joint exploration. If that sounds more like a description of the concerns of Vladimir Nabokov, John Earth, William Gass, or Thomas Pynchon, than those of a soft-voiced Southern grandmother, it is meant to be. For though they rarely escape the South, I think her investigations, at least in her last books, rival those of our most avant-garde writers.

William Faulkner’s skill at writing dialogue and his vision of the world influenced Douglas, but his orotund voice did not. Faulkner’s awareness of the elusiveness of truth, as in Absalom, Absalom!, has impacted Ellen Douglas’s work. But a more recent influence is a Czechoslovakian. Milan Kundera’s story of the Czech official whose photograph was airbrushed out of Communist photographs after he was hung for treason has parallels in Truth. Not only did the slave-owners not pass on the tale of their cruel vengeance, but ex-slaves and their descendants in WPA interviews Douglas researched made no reference to the fatal events of some 70 years before.

Like Kundera, Douglas takes her interrogations beyond narrative into deep history. It just happens to be her own family’s history. Furthermore, like the Canadian Alice Munro, whom Douglas has read probably “more than any other writer of fiction in the last 15 years,” Douglas concentrates complex, whole lives into short stories. Like Nabokov, she finds, in nature and art, enchantment and puzzlement.

If she’s as good as I say she is, an obvious question is “why isn’t she better known?” Feminists have largely ignored her work, probably because her female characters, however strong, are more domestic than militant, more privileged than oppressed. And they are Southern.

Non-Southerners can forgive Faulkner’s complicated family trees, names repeated over generations, and the weight of history, but they have little patience for these complications in post-Faulknerian writers. Furthermore, when they refer to a writer as “Southern,” the word itself seems to qualify even a laudatory review (see for example the NYTBR of Jan.19, 1999). “Southern” also is too often equated with “Gothic,” though Douglas says “you know I’m anything but Gothic.” And the academician’s categories like “Southern woman writer” tend to shift attention away from the brilliant juxtapositions in Can’t Quit You, Baby and the post-modern questionings of narrative voice in her late fiction.

In her subtitle and several times within Truth, Douglas refers to herself as an “old” woman. She laughs to think that the integrated story form may suit her because “at my age and stage in life, the shorter form is better for me. Maybe my short term memory works better” with it. But she also acknowledges that the story was her natural form from adolescence and then from the bet with her husband and friend.

If age in a writer means being old-fashioned, or rigid, or weary, Douglas doesn’t write like an old woman. But if age means understanding, vision, and freedom to experiment, Ellen Douglas writes with the wisdom of her years. Like other women writers of her generation (Maxine Kumin and Eleanor Ross Taylor come to mind), she just keeps on writing and keeps on getting better. As she says, “writing is what I want to do. I always feel “antsy” and anxious, when I’m not working.” Such a matter-of-fact name for her art—work— protects Douglas from arrogance or hubris or sloth. It suggests that this most avant-garde of grandmothers will continue surprising us with her brilliant and honest fictions and truths, work that transcends easy labels.


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