Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer All In The Family

By Leonard Gill

SEPTEMBER 21, 1998: 

Truth: Four Stories I Am Finally Old Enough To Tell
By Ellen Douglas, Algonquin, 221 pp., $18.95

It was in 1962, on the eve of her first published short story (for The New Yorker) and her first published novel (for Houghton Mifflin), that Josephine Haxton took the pen name Ellen Douglas. She did it so as not to offend. Her two aunts in Natchez, Mississippi, according to the author, would never forgive her if they saw their lives reflected “in what might seem to them as frivolous entertainment for the curious.”

The word frivolous, however, hardly describes Douglas’ work or the honors she’s received for it over the past nearly 40 years – six novels and one collection of short fiction, two “Year’s Ten Best” listings from The New York Times, finalist for the National Book Award in 1973, Literature Award from the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters in 1979 and 1982, and in 1989 the Hillsdale Award for Fiction from the Fellowship of Southern Writers in recognition of her entire body of work.

For the curious, Josephine Haxton is now 77, and in her latest book, Truth, she turns for the first time to nonfiction and to four stories she feels herself “finally old enough to tell” – old enough because, finally, family, loved ones, and friends who could in any way be hurt by them have died.

In the first, she gives us her husband’s uncle, his years of illness, the woman who cared for him, and the strange circumstances that attended his death. In the second, she delves deep into family history, hometown allegiances, and centuries-old prejudices (of the Protestant vs. Roman Catholic kind) in an effort to uncover the nature of a relationship between cousins of a previous generation. In the third, she tries to know and knows she’ll never know her grandmother’s patient servant, Hampton Elliot. And in the concluding section, she returns to a topic that has haunted the author for years: a slave uprising in Natchez believed planned in 1861 and the resulting, never officially reported torture and then execution of 30 or more blacks. Douglas’ renderings are highly personal, highly moving, and more than occasionally the very stuff of William Faulkner, and yet...

“It is impossible to make sense out of stories that purport to be true,” Douglas writes in frustration, when memory, her own or that of relatives, will not serve, when records or references will not add up. “Something is always missing. To give them form, extract their deepest meaning, one has to turn them into fiction, to find causes, or if, as is usually the case, causes are unfindable, one has to invent them.”

And so midway into Truth, Douglas admits: “I know that I put words in the mouths of people who did not speak them. I imagine scenes at which I was not present. I know that this is my world and no one else’s – my stories, my history. Or myth, perhaps, one among the myths that form the lives of families and sometimes of larger worlds.”

Call what Douglas does here stories, then, or call them history, myth. But what she displays are in truth shadows, and their cast is long.

An aged, bed-ridden, half-blind, distant relative, in the presence of the author, once regarded the television and announced, “Shadows, nothing but shadows. What are they doing? What are they saying?” Ellen Douglas’ great effort in Truth is to recall her very own and answer those very questions.

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