by Sarah Reardon
The study of history – American history in particular – has become poisoned by hopelessness in our postmodern era. The 1619 Project and its prevalence provides one example of this, but even beyond such popular projects of deconstructionism, the American people no longer know history or long to learn it. One look at the regular operation of an American public school will certainly testify to this.
Years before public education and the 1619 project declared doubtful, distorted perspectives to be orthodox, Russell Kirk recognized disturbing tendencies in our attitude towards our own past. Kirk wrote in the The Conservative Mind against the urge to revise history out of resentment for the past: “Men cannot seek to improve society by setting fire to it: they must seek out its old virtues and bring them back into the light.” Along similar lines, T. S. Eliot expressed in his Four Quartets that those seeking escape from history and truth are not “redeemed from time, for history is a pattern / of timeless moments.” A redeemed life, Eliot held, comes not in escape from time but in submission to it.
An alternative to our day’s doubtful historical attitude, then, is a spirit that humbly seeks out and calls attention to what is good. Those of us who wish to embody such a spirit do well to look to thinkers and writers such as Kirk and Eliot who teach and model this attitude. We must look for cultural sources that help us to stand against our day’s arrogant distrust of the past and its virtues. Eliot, for example, especially in his work Four Quartets, exemplified a humble approach to history. A humble approach to history involves honoring tradition and accepting its relation to the order inherent in the universe.
The conservative tradition gives us many greats, such as Kirk and Eliot, to mirror in our thinking. But outside the typical conservative greats, one little-recognized voice of redemption resounds from Eudora Welty’s The Optimist’s Daughter. Welty’s work represents the tragic beauty of confronting a stark past and yet glimpsing grace.
Especially among her Southern counterparts, Welty’s redemptive work is atypical: Welty’s fellow Southern writers, such as William Faulkner, rarely match the restoration presented in The Optimist’s Daughter. The novel’s humble approach to history offers modern readers an example of a redemptive vision of time, a tangible hope of reconciliation between past, present, and future.
The short novel centers on Laurel McKelva Hand, the titular character, who, after building her own life in Chicago, returns to the South as her dying father undergoes eye surgery. Her stepmother, Fay, joins the pair. Fay typifies impatience: hungry for freedom from the troubles of her husband, Fay fatally yanks him from his hospital bed.
Fay’s impatient, querulous spirit only grows stronger while she returns with Laurel to Mississippi for her husband’s funeral, where Laurel is encircled by her late Mother’s friends and bridesmaids and Fay is visited by her rowdy Texas family. Laurel faces the grief for and memory of her parents while struggling against Fay’s bitterness. While Laurel seeks to harmonize herself with her home and familial history, Fay reflects well the modern forces of resentment that work against such harmony. Fay, loud in false grief and frivolous action, opposes Laurel, composed and introspective. Laurel, as such, is repeatedly “wrenched into idleness” at the onslaught of Fay. Just as it is easy for us to grow idle and apathetic amid our postmodern culture instead of steadily facing the distortion around us, so it is easy for Laurel to slip into apathy.
The story cycles through images and metaphors – most central is the metaphor of vision. Both Laurel’s parents died from complications with vision, and both Laurel and Fay falter repeatedly in their capacity for proper vision of the Judge, the past, and each other. Laurel must first face her father’s faltering perspective of her as he dies; she then must allow herself to acknowledge and yet see past her father’s failure in marrying Fay. Laurel grows to see, too, her solitude amongst the still-sightless bustle of the book’s other characters, especially Fay, who, Laurel realizes, cannot see life or “death in reality.” Laurel must look upon her past realistically but seek, too, in Eliot’s words, to “redeem the time.”
Yet Laurel’s childhood home, where she is surrounded by tangible memories of her past, provides a place for Laurel to truly redeem time. In her parents’ garden, Laurel can begin to see the world once more in color, not merely in shades of black and grey. It is in her parents’ home that Laurel sheds her apathy and learns that “memory ha[s] the character of spring.” Memory enacts new life. Memory impels Laurel to release the burden of self-reliance and bitterness that she has carried across the novel, and as Laurel remembers her family, she finally releases such burdens in recognition of the “continuity of love.”
As a New York Times reviewer wrote in 1969, when Laurel remembers her heritage, “A rural world of innocence comes flying into the imagination as pure as a primary color; its arrival is real, not romantic, and gives genuine weight to a way of life Laurel must eventually abandon.” Laurel must abandon the weight of resentment and take up what she has been learning: the way of redemption.
Welty’s ending signals that memory may illuminate truth and that humility, not stubborn selfishness like Fay’s, may reconcile people and families. Welty writes that Laurel’s own history, like her hope for the future, must dwell in “hands, pardoned and freed, and in the heart that can empty but fill again, in the patterns restored by dreams.” Proper memory is restorative and freeing.
Cultural memory can be a restorative force in our educational climate, if students are taught to marvel at the history of their country and adults are sustained in such wonder-driven consideration. But as Eliot once wrote, “humankind cannot bear very much reality.” Eliot’s determination accords with the clouded modern experience: those who seek to undermine history, truth, and tradition show that they cannot bear reality.
But we, too, show that we cannot bear reality we grow apathetic to such attempts. Hence our need for stories like Welty’s, which allow slivers of reality to settle like stain-glass shafts of light onto us: Welty reminds us of the grace and goodness of memory.
The Optimist’s Daughter thus births not foolish optimism but tender hope like that of Laurel McKelva Hand’s in its readers. Welty’s novel paints proper vision of history as a product of humility. For it is a humble person who, as in Laurel’s case, returns home and seeks to know the past.
But to apply Welty’s story – to learn from it in truth – requires us to do more than adapt a posture of humility towards the past. A central ingredient in Laurel’s particular humility is her return home. She enacts fidelity to place and family by returning to her childhood home, and it is only out of this fidelity that her memory begins to restore her. It is not enough for us to be generally receptive of the past and its traditions: we ought, as Laurel does, to seek to understand our own familial pasts and traditions through physically being present with our families in their places.
This is why Eliot addresses both humility and home in his Four Quartets, writing that “Home is where one starts from.” Eliot closes his Quartets, too, with the notion that all our journeys will end “where we started” and we will finally “know the place for the first time.” Memory alone is not able to accomplish the restoration that true return may. In order to reinvigorate the study of history in America, we ought to seek out the wonder and beauty of our families and places in the past and present, in addition to the wonder and beauty of our country’s past at large. Such work is, perhaps, a start on the path to “bearing” our reality as Americans with joy instead of resentment.
- What is the relationship between humility and home? What are the things that keep us humble?
- Why does Welty seem to put so much emphasis on the ability to see?
- How do technology and mobility affect the sorts of virtues that the author seems to celebrate?