Table of Contents
2. Biography of Shirley Ann Grau
3. Socio-cultural Background
4. Textual Analysis
4.3. Analysis of Characters
4.3.1. Main Characters
188.8.131.52. Susan’s Mother
4.3.2. Minor Characters
184.108.40.206. Harold Carter
220.127.116.11. Susan’s Father
18.104.22.168. The Bensons and the Watkins
4.4. Themes and Motifs
4.4.1. War/The Vietnam War and Trauma
4.4.3. The Porch as a Place of Storytelling and Stability
4.5. Narrative Technique
“Through sheer numbers, women writers have dominated the contemporary literary scene in the South – that is, since World War II” (Bennett 987). Among them is the talented Pulitzer Prize winner Shirley Ann Grau, who sheds a fresh, new light to common southern themes incorporating them into narratives touched not only by her personal perspective, but also the collective southern heritage and consciousness. The subject matter of my paper will be one of Grau’s short stories entitled “Homecoming”. In this short, yet meaningful account of everyday life in the American South during the Vietnam War Grau unearths a string of relations between life and death, the present and the past, remembering and forgetting, pride and honor as well as patriotism and egoism. She focuses mainly on what remains, but never forgets to neglect what has gone. The strongly southern theme of nostalgia for the lost past is questioned in “Homecoming” as the protagonist struggles to detach herself from the memory of all those who failed to come home. In this paper I would like to primarily focus on the importance of memory as a factor shaping the southern identity.
2. Biography of Shirley Ann Grau
In order to fully understand the writings of Shirley Ann Grau it is worth gaining background autobiographical knowledge on the author.
“[She] was born on July 8, 1929, in New Orleans, La.,and was raised both there and in Montogomery, Ala., where she attended Booth School” (Weaks 165).
Since an early age Grau evolved her love for writing and literature. Newcomb College at Tulane University was where Grau’s first writing attempts took place. Here she wrote stories for an undergraduate literary magazine. In 1950 she received a BA in literary studies and then enrolled in a graduate program in literature. However, gender discrimination policies at the University’s department forced her to abandon her academic career and pursue a new one in fiction writing (see Literature Online biography ) . Racial and cultural tensions as well as individual psychological portraits became popular subjects of exploration in Shirley Ann Grau’s early works. Her first book The Black Prince (1954) is a collection of short stories focusing on racial prejudice before the Civil Right’s Movement.
In 1955 Grau married a Tulane philosophy professor called James Kern Feibleman, with whom she later had two sons and two daughters (see Weaks 165).
Three years later her first full-length novel entitled The Hard Blue Sky appeared.
“In her second novel, The House on Coliseum Street (1961), Grau turns her attention to the struggle of Southern women to achieve equal status in an intractable, patriarchal society” (Literature Online biography ).
Yet perhaps Grau’s most famous novel is her third one called Keepers of the House, for which she received the very prestigious Pulitzer Price. Linda Wagner-Martin argues that:
The Keepers of the House (1964), brought together the earlier strands of Grau’s technical brilliance and her theme of southern lives caught in the social matrix of history, convention, and religion. [It] is Grau’s most traditionally southern novel. Fascinated with the image of the house as a trope for the standing or the place of the southern family and its lineage, many authors of the South have shaped narratives around this image. (527)
A few years later she wrote two other novels entitled The Condor Passes (1971) and Evidence of Love (1977) which focus on either racial or gender issues. In 1985 Grau published Nine women, a story collection which deals with such concepts as family history, wealth and honor in relation to the nine female protagonists (see Wagner-Martin 528). Roadwalkers (1994) is Shirley Ann Grau’s most recent novel whose focal point is a family saga revolving around “an orphaned young African American girl who wanders the Deep South with her siblings during the Great Depression” (Literature Online biography ).
This very successful southern writer is an important voice of the Sunbelt, a voice which confronts hypocrisy, de-mythisizes and de-romanticizes popular southern stereotypes, reminds Americans about their history and place, looks at the past through the eyes of the present and most importantly it is a voice which questions the various states of the human mind and heart making Shirley Ann Grau, as John Nerber put it in the New York Times Book Review, “one of the chief literary discoveries of recent years” (Literature Online biography ).
3. Socio-cultural Background
Before we proceed to the textual analysis of “Homecoming” one must be aware of the socio-cultural background of the narrative. The story takes place in the early 1970s, which is also when Shirley Ann Grau wrote “Homecoming”. Thus, it is a result of her observations at the time and a reflection of the current socio-cultural problems.
As Gilman points out, “Southern writers seem particularly intrigued with the prospect of locating the Vietnam War within the construct of their region, instead of treating the event as if it were something that did not belong in their history” (933). This may be due to the fact that “the [Vietnam] war had distinctly southern overtones” (Gilman 670). Apart from the enthusiastic involvement of young volunteers in the war, the South felt that it had many geographical similarities to the conditions that were in Vietnam (see Gilman 670-671). “Many southern bases built mock Vietnamese bases for training soldiers in the ways of war, Vietnam style. In this endeavor the climate of the South contributed significantly, giving trainees a feel for the heat, humidity, and other discomforts to be encountered in combat” (Gilman 671). According to Gilman, “several novels do a fine job of measuring the Vietnam War against the backdrop of family life and relationship to the land” (934). In chapters 4.2.3. and 4.4.1. we will further explore the significance of the Vietnam Conflict in connection to the protagonists of “Homecoming”, the American South’s role in the war as well as the posttraumatic stress disorder.
4. Textual Analysis
“Homecoming” is not just another story about courageous fathers and sons not coming back home after a war. It is also not about the atrocities young American boys had to face on a daily basis during the Vietnam War nor about the posttraumatic stress disorders they struggled with long after the war. It is a story about not those you went away, but rather those who stayed.
“Homecoming” has one main plot, however Mr.Benson’s story about the Korean war may function as a subplot.
The story begins rather innocently when a telegram is placed in the middle of the table in the dining room. This is immediately noticed by the main character of the story, Susan, who briefly inquires why her mother did so.
“It’s something to be proud of,” (159) is her mother’s answer. The reader is then informed that Susan’s mother is expecting a rather large amount of guests. Further on in the story Grau gives the reader clues concerning the reason of this gathering e.g. “black dress”, “The army told Harold’s parents”, “…pain in my heart…”, etc. (159-161). It is important to note that Grau simultaneously confuses the reader by giving signals of joy and pride such as “white shirts”, “ice bucket and a bottle of sherry and two bottles of bourbon”, “flowered dresses”, “faint flower scent”, “wedding band”, “piqué dress” (159-162). Thereby, at the beginning of the narrative the reader does not really know what to expect. He/she does not know whether the guests have come to celebrate or grieve. Even when inspecting the telegram later on in the story Susan comes to the conclusion that it is “like a wedding invitation […] Only just the opposite” (167).