Losing Battles


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On the first Sunday of August, three generations of Granny Vaughn's descendants gather at her home in Banner, Mississippi, for a reunion in celebration of her 90th birthday. The action covers two days, but in memory many decades, for the members of the family, are recounted.

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Sep 21, 2017

Winning While Losing

Published in 1970, "Losing Battles" was the fourth of Eudora Welty's (1909 -- 2001) five novels and her first since 1954. Welty worked on and off again on this novel for fifteen years, with long periods of inactivity to care for her mother and brothers. Unlike her other novels, "Losing Battles" is lengthy. When her publisher demanded substantial cuts and edits to the text, Welty took her manuscript elsewhere and had the book published as she wanted it. The novel received great critical and popular acclaim upon publication.

The book is set in 1931, the midst of the Depression, in the hills of northeast Mississippi near a town called Banner. The scene for the book is a hardscrabble farm which is the site of a family reunion in celebration of the 90th birthday of the family matriarch, Elvira Jordan Vaughn or "Granny". Within the year, Granny's husband had died and her children also are dead. Granny's six living grandchildren (one is deceased) and their spouses attend as do five of Granny's great grandchildren of her granddaughter Beulah and Beulah's husband, Ralph Renfro. Many other guests attend the reunion, some uninvited and by surprise. The major character in the book is Beulah and Ralph's oldest son Jack. Jack had been serving two years at the notorious Parchman prison and escaped one day ahead of his release to attend the reunion. Jack has a young wife, Gloria, who had been teaching school and a two year old baby daughter, Lady May Renfro, who Jack meets for the first time at the reunion and instantly adores.

The book consists of a series of short stories told by the family about themeselves and others. The stories are full of detail and recounted in dialogue. The stories develop the many characters and their surroundings intimately and closely. Welty presents these poor characters and their difficult lives unsentimentaly but with love. The reader grows to love them as well. Many interrelated themes appear throughout the book rather than a developed plot. A major theme is Jack returning from Parchman and attempting to establish himself. His wife Gloria, raised in an orphanage and of uncertain parentage, struggles with her feelings for Jack's family. She realizes that much of her life will be devoted to trying to keep Jack out of further trouble. A good deal of the book concerns a character who does not appear, a long-time and rigorous schoolteacher, Julia Mortimer, who characterized herself as Saint George trying to slay the dragon of ignorance in Banner. County Judge Oscar Moody, who had sentenced Jack to Parchman, and his wife Maud Eva also find their way unwillingly to the reunion.

I found an exchange of letters between Welty and her longtime friend and editor William Maxwell good in characterizing and understanding "Losing Battles." In a letter to Welty dated August 10, 1969, Maxwell described the book as "a comic masterpiece". Maxwell wrote:

" One of the things that moved me particularly is how rich they all are in their poverty. I believed in the poverty, all right, but the effect seemed to be that everybody shone with Everlasting Grace, which they would not have had if they hadn't been so poor. And how they got to be poor -- That series of losing battles -- is also haunting. They are on the way down, so far on the way, that they are also on the way up.... Their troubles are I feel sure as immortal as they are endless. They are in for a long space of being loved by people they can't know anything about, who know everything there is to know, practically, about them. How did you do it?

Welty's August 15, 1969 reply to Maxwell also helps understand the novel. After recounting the lengthy period of time it took to write the novel, Welty wrote:

"But more than that (the time) is the reality of that central element in the people that live in rural Mississippi -- it's there to be seen by all -- that character of the relish of life and its tales in the face of poverty and all it's done to them, and, heaven knows, relish of ignorance on some parts along with pride and zest.... I really love these people -- the real ones and the story ones -- even when I sometimes want to shake them and beat them on the head as fellow Mississippians."

This book is full of Welty's sharp eye for detail, masterful storytelling, and comedy in the pathos of the everyday. With the close detail and full description of short scenes and incidents, the book, in spite of its length, suggests that Welty's gifts were more in the direction of the short story and short novel. Portions of this book drag, although Welty was right to insist on her text without large cuts. Some of the stories lack the subtlety and shades of meaning of Welty's other novels. But the book is easier to read than most of Welty's shorter novels. While rooted in its place, it captures something of the shared experiences of people. With patience, reading this book will be a joy.

The quotations from Maxwell and Welty in this review are derived from a collection of the Maxwell-Welty correspondence, "What there is to Say we have Said" edited by Suzanne Marrs.

Robin Friedman

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