The most obvious testimony to Shirley Ann Grau’s (July 8, 1929 – August 3, 2020) success is the Pulitzer Prize for fiction that she received in 1965 for The Keepers of the House. Significantly enough, the same novel appeared in condensed form in Ladies’ Home Journal. Thus, one sees evidence of one of the distinguishing characteristics of much of Grau’s fiction: the ability to appeal simultaneously to two often opposed audiences, the person looking for the “good read” and the literary sophisticate. Not many contemporary writers have published stories in both McCall’s and The New Yorker. In Evidence of Love, Grau seems to have made an attempt to shed any vestige of her image as a “housewife writer” or yet another southern regionalist. While Evidence of Love is rather straightforward, even in its effective use of three overlapping narratives, it nevertheless makes few concessions to a reader looking for the conventional melodramatic staples of sex or violence. Evidence of Love also silences the critics who, after the disappointment of The Condor Passes, sought to dismiss Grau as a one novel writer. The one recurring criticism of Grau’s later work—that her characters seem bloodless—seems less relevant after the success of other novelists with similar ironic visions—Joan Didion, for example.
As is true of all but a handful of contemporary writers, Grau’s achievement cannot yet be fully measured. Evidence of Love suggests that she has shifted her emphasis away from the engaging plot to the creation of a cool, ironic vision of psychological intensity. While Roadwalkers contains all the ironic vision of Grau’s earlier novels and emphasizes the psychological, it represents another technical feat for Grau in a reemphasis on and experimentation with plot. Here Grau interweaves the impressionistic tale of Mary Woods with the separate histories of Charles Tucker and Rita Landry but ends the novel with the rather straightforward narrative of Nanda Woods. In the process, she has kept those elements of style—the brilliant sensory images, the directness of language, the complex heroines— that have given vitality to all her work.
Shirley Ann Grau shares a fate common to many contemporary writers not yet admitted to the pantheon. They are the object of a handful of critical studies, often short and incomplete, that make only a slight effort to detect what vision, if any, gives continuity to the writers’ works. At first glance, Grau’s novels do seem to defy any attempt to find even a connecting thread. Until the publication of Evidence of Love, the label of “southern regionalist” gave some of Grau’s reviewers comfort. Readers familiar only with her last three novels could not avoid the recurrence of semilegendary patriarchs in possession of great wealth.
Revenge at one time or another consumes such heroines as Joan Mitchell in The House on Coliseum Street and Abigail Mason Tolliver in The Keepers of the House, but an equally strong woman such as Lucy Henley in Evidence of Love possesses no such motive. Alwyn Berland (in his essay “The Fiction of Shirley Ann Grau”) suggests that Grau’s heroines favor the hallucinatory over the real, tend to be passive, and have ambivalent responses to sex. Berland’s observation is helpful, but the title of Grau’s 1977 novel, Evidence of Love, gives the clearest clue to the sometimes elusive vision that informs her fictional world. While most of her male characters mechanically pursue money, sex, power, or ironclad order, the heroines seek some evidence of love. Their failure to find it renders both sexes solitary, and their subsequent sense of futility and despair makes their money and power meaningless. What saves the novels from an almost Jamesian pessimism is the possibility of redemption and rebirth. Both Joan Mitchell and Abigail Tolliver are last seen in literal fetal positions, as if awaiting resurrection. Their possibly temporary withdrawal resembles that of the wives of the fishermen in The Hard Blue Sky, who passively await the passing of the hurricane that may or may not destroy them.
In the development of her vision, Grau reveals considerable technical skill. Her sense of place is compelling. Equally convincing are such dissimilar scenes as William Howland’s atavistic incursion into Honey Island Swamp and Harold Evans’s drift into suicide in his meager and bare house in Princeton. As Paul Schlueter has pointed out, few novelists are as successful as Grau in manipulating sensory images, particularly the olfactory. Most satisfying technically is her ability to treat the melodramatic with a cool, analytical detachment. The embattled house that Abigail defends and keeps is above all else a house, not Tara or Sutpen’s Hundred. While Edward Milton Henley in Evidence of Love is capable of grandiose, operatic gestures and appetites, Grau’s sardonic humor and sense of irony keeps him in the orbit of the real.
Grau steadfastly refuses to sentimentalize. Grau’s occasional limitations are perhaps most noticeable in characterization. At times her characters lack emotional depth; the rich are not inherently interesting. In spite of lurid, exotic pasts, characters such as the Old Man in The Condor Passes lack the complex humanity necessary to be convincing. Further, her characters’motivations are not always clear. Even the sympathetic reader is not entirely sure, for example, why it is that Abigail so intensely dislikes Margaret’s children.
The Hard Blue Sky
Prior to 1964, Grau published two novels that anticipated her technique and vision in The Keepers of the House. The first, The Hard Blue Sky, revealed her ability to capture the world of southern Louisiana in stunning detail. Her plot consists of two different but connected stories that take place on islands along the Gulf Coast. The first story concerns the youthful Annie Landry’s affair with Inky D’Alfonso. When she ultimately marries Inky, Annie is able to leave the islands for what may be a better life in New Orleans. Annie bears little resemblance to Abigail Tolliver: She has neither the wealth, the sense of family tradition, nor the consuming desire for revenge that drives Abigail.
It is the second story that contains the violence and the revenge motif that will appear in The Keepers of the House. Rival groups on two different islands attempt to burn one another out after the disappearance of young lovers from the opposing families. Neither story ends with a clear resolution. It is not clear whether Annie’s marriage will be a success, nor does one know if the feud will end, especially since both factions are threatened by a hurricane. Thus, in her first novel, Grau struck what became a crucial and familiar note in her fiction: Her characters are left in a state of uncertainty as they face potential harm or destruction.
The House on Coliseum Street
Grau’s second novel, The House on Coliseum Street, has a much sharper focus than does her first. Joan Mitchell, the protagonist, anticipates Abigail Tolliver in several significant ways. Her relationship with men is disastrous. She is engaged to a businessman named Fred Aleman, whose rather passionless demeanor leaves her vulnerable to a young college professor, Michael Kern; their passionate lovemaking leaves Joan pregnant. After an abortion and Michael’s abandonment, a guilt-ridden Joan becomes obsessed with destroying him. She does so by exposing him to his college dean. Like Abigail, Joan brings down her antagonist, but more significantly, she may have destroyed herself emotionally in doing so. That, however, is only a possibility: The House on Coliseum Street ends with Joan, having forgotten her key, unable to enter her family house. She is last seen in a fetal position, just as one sees Abigail at the end of The Keepers of the House. The possibility of rebirth and redemption is not excluded. Thus, The House on Coliseum Street, like The Hard Blue Sky, served as a preparation for the greater achievement in The Keepers of the House. In both, Grau was able to find sensory images that render the physical world immediate. More important, these early novels introduced Grau’s evolving vision of a world with little clear evidence of love or community.
The Keepers of the House
More than forty years after its publication, the reader can see more clearly the truth of Grau’s own commentary on The Keepers of the House:
The novel is about the whole human plight of how do you cope with evil? Do you fight back? The people are living in the South but they’re just people facing the eternal human problem. I wanted to show the alternation of love and evil, which has always fascinated me. And if there is a moral, it is the self-destructiveness of hatred.
If Grau sees the novel’s significance in general moral terms, its popularity nevertheless was rooted in its then explosive characterization of southern racial attitudes.
The novel’s narrator, Abigail Tolliver, granddaughter of William Howland, who himself is one of the “keepers of the house,” finds herself in almost complete isolation. She and her husband are getting a divorce, two of her children have been forced to go away to school for safety’s sake, and she has alienated the citizenry of her hometown, Madison City. Her desolation, mythic in intensity, is tragically linked to the discovery that her grandfather had married his black housekeeper, Margaret Carmichael. While the white community could cavalierly accept a mere sexual liaison, even one that has produced three children, marriage gives legitimacy. Thus, the men of Madison City attempt to burn the Howland estate in retaliation. The discovery of her grandfather’s clandestine marriage destroys Abigail’s marriage with her amoral, politically ambitious husband. The novel’s evil is therefore easy to locate, as is Abigail’s vengeful, Medea-like response. She not only burns the cars of the men who come to destroy her house; she also exercises her option to destroy the entire community financially. Yet difficult questions remain when one recalls Grau’s own assessment of her work. How convincingly is the love that alternates with evil portrayed? How strongly felt is her “moral”—the self-destructiveness of hate?
Grau will never be accused of sentimentalizing love. Characters rarely, for example, confuse love with sex. When Abigail loses her virginity, she says,
I found that it wasn’t so hard . . . nor painful either. . . . There’s only one night like that— ever—where you’re filled with wonder and excitement for no other reason but the earth is beautiful and mysterious and your body is young and strong.
Her courtship by and marriage to John Tolliver are presented just as dispassionately. Tolliver, like Stephen Henley in Evidence of Love and the Old Man in The Condor Passes, subordinates love to ambition. Grau’s sexes mate; they rarely love. Neither does there seem to be affection between generations. Abigail bears four children, but they remain abstractions. More mysterious, more horrific is the relation between the black woman, Margaret, and the children she bears William Howland. Half white herself, Margaret sends each child off at the age of eleven to be educated in the North. She refuses to see them thereafter. She is particularly hostile and unyielding toward her oldest daughter, Nina, who returns to the South with her black husband. A certain curiosity exists between these racially mixed children and their mother, but there is no evidence of love.
The possible exception to this bleak vision of human existence is the thirty-year relationship between William Howland and Margaret. After the death of his first wife and the marriage of his daughter, Howland discovers the eighteen-year-old Margaret Carmichael washing clothes at a spring. She comes to him as a housekeeper and ultimately marries him. Both William and Margaret are characterized by Grau in terms larger than life. Howland is heir to the frontier tradition, in which men wrenched a living, indeed an immense fortune, from a hostile environment. Prior to meeting Margaret, he makes a solitary journey into the mystery and danger of Honey Island Swamp, where he at one point strips himself naked and submerges himself into the primordial slime. When he returns to find Margaret at the spring, she appears to him as if she “had folded herself into the earth.” Her stride is “a primitive walk, effortless, unassuming, unconscious, old as the earth under her feet.” Like gods, apparently, William and Margaret possess the strength and the indifference to violate the most sacrosanct of southern codes. Yet their love, if it exists, is concealed. The only evidence Abigail ever sees of their love is a single embrace.
Until Abigail’s epiphany at the novel’s end, Margaret is the character most cognizant of evil, particularly the evil inherent in racism. Her own white father abandoned her black mother, who in turn leaves Margaret to search for her missing lover. Margaret further realizes that it is necessary to send her white-appearing children out of the South, a tragic gesture that Abigail alone understands. It is a sacrifice that ends in alienation between parent and child, between white and black.
Grau states that the moral of the novel is the self-destructiveness of hatred. Is she suggesting that the South is destroying itself with its racial hostility? The attack on the Howland farm clearly does not go without destructive retribution. The local bigots have cut their own throats, because Abigail Tolliver owns almost every business in town. Yet her revenge, just as it may be, seems minuscule compared with the sure election of a staunch segregationist as the next governor—the most far-reaching consequence of the exposure of William Howland’s marriage.
Of more visceral concern to the reader, however, is the effect of hatred on Abigail. Not only has she decided to destroy Madison City, but she also has chosen to terrorize Margaret’s vengeful son, Robert, by threatening to reveal his black origins to his white California wife. Stripped of compassion, devoid of love, Abigail at the conclusion of the novel has not yet taken the step that transcends hate. Her fetal position as she lies weeping in her office offers a possibility of rebirth, but the overriding vision of the novel is one of utter alienation and despair.
The Condor Passes
In the thirteen years between the publication of Grau’s novels The Keepers of the House and Evidence of Love, one other novel appeared. Ironically, The Condor Passes received the worst reviews while posting the highest sales of any of Grau’s works. The novel, a family chronicle, depicts the ninety-five years of Thomas Henry Oliver, who during his long life has amassed a huge fortune through such nefarious enterprises as prostitution and bootlegging. The novel bears only superficial resemblance to The Keepers of the House. As Grau herself has suggested, it is not concerned with the primitive. Survival is no longer a question. Instead, the characters seek to find a sense of identity in the presence of vast wealth. The novel, however, is wedded thematically to Grau’s other works in its despairing vision. One senses that the male figures may have gained the whole world but lost their own souls. The Old Man’s daughters are more complex, but their attempts to find enduring love are frustrated. They each have one son, but one dies and the other becomes a priest. The family therefore awaits little more than its own extinction.
Evidence of Love
By contrast, Evidence of Love is one of Grau’s most successful novels. It, too, is a family chronicle, but its construction is still tight and sharply focused. Again the wealthy patriarch appears, but Edward Milton Henley possesses a sense of irony and self-awareness denied to earlier Grau patriarchs. Set outside the South, Evidence of Love frees Grau from often invidious comparisons with William Faulkner and allows her to concentrate on what has been one of the central concerns of all her novels, the need for some sign of love.
While the novel traces the lives of four generations of the Henley family, the voices of Edward Henley; his son, Stephen; and his daughter-in-law, Lucy, dominate the narrative. Paul Schlueter maintains that “nowhere is there any ‘evidence of love.’” He sees each character “seeking his own form of satisfaction to the exclusion of others.” What in fact gives focus to each of the three stories is the pursuit of some apparently reasonable alternative to love. Because he chooses to relate his story in a satiric, ironic mode, it is not always easy to locate in an exact way Edward’s feelings. The evidence of paternal love, he tells the reader, is the wealth his father gave him. If his mother, who is both literally and figuratively distant, did not love him, she at least imparted to him a sense of propriety and morality—which Edward chooses to ignore. These parents were, he says, happy. Himself physically and emotionally transient, Edward rather cavalierly dispenses with wives and male lovers. Yet he never indulges in self-pity. “I prefer to see my life as a pageant. Or a processional. Like that wonderful march inAida.” Through the elder Henley, Grau presents her paradox. About this old man, who still dreams of recapturing the drug-induced paradise he once experienced in Mexico, there is a considerable vitality. Edward’s audacity, his iconoclasm, and his rather mordant humor do not diminish life. His suicide is neither cowardly nor tragic. His life has been long and in its way full—even without the presence of love.
Edward says of his son, “Stephen was quiet and totally self-contained.” Stephen is a Gatsby stripped of illusion and romance. As a young man, he makes a detailed plan of his life, a schedule that he unflinchingly follows. His marriage to Lucy Evans is as rational, as free of either anguish or passion, as is his commitment to the ministry without believing in God. Here is a potential monster, but Grau does not ask the reader to see him as such. He does at least have some awareness of his own condition. For Lucy, he says, “I felt a sudden flood of feeling . . . not lust, not love. Something deeper, something older, something asexually human. The sympathy of blood for blood, of aching chalky bone for aching chalky bone. . . . The visceral sympathy of acquired identity.” If what Stephen feels for Lucy is only kinship, it perhaps explains why he is confused by the passionate intensity of his youngest son, Paul.
Quite by chance, Paul discovers, he believes, the identity of Stephen’s mother, the young Irish woman Edward had paid to bear him a son sixty years earlier. Stephen wonders, “Was the presence of blood so important to him? What strange evidence of love was this?” The inability of yet another generation of Henleys to understand—or love—another is thus assured. Given Stephen’s emotional isolation, one senses the inevitability of Stephen dying alone. Even death cannot shake his detachment. There has been no exhilarating pageant. Knowing he is dying, Stephen thinks, “I hardly cared. It didn’t matter. Nothing did.”
Although they seek refuge in quite opposing activities, both Stephen and his father rather straightforwardly eschew love. With Lucy, Stephen’s wife, the case is more ambiguous, more complex. As in her earlier novels, Grau gives her female character a roundness that her males often lack. When Lucy recalls the sexual pleasure and pain she experienced with her first husband, she remarks that “All that was evidence of love.” Because Lucy does not indulge in irony, the reader accepts her assessment. Her openness to physical love is reinforced by her enthusiasm for the lushness of Florida, although Lucy has reservations: When Harold makes love to her, she thinks, “I don’t like this….I don’t like having feelings I can’t control.” Perhaps the fear of feeling paradoxically allows her to live comfortably for thirty years with Stephen. After his death, she states that “Old women are supposed to quake with an excess of emotion—perhaps love—and start talking to animals and birds and flowers on the windowsill. I didn’t.”
At times, she seems even more alienated than either her husband or her father-in-law. When her worried son, Paul, phones her, she thinks to herself that “Love between the generations was a burdensome chore.” She hopes to be saved from such love. In her way, Lucy proves as evasive to the reader as she does to her son. Ironically, her last appearance in the novel proves in a perverse way to be evidence of love. She hands Edward Henley the Seconal he wants to end a life grown exceedingly tiresome. Lucy’s ambiguous complicity in his death is an appropriate action to close Grau’s best work. As Edward’s voice dies out, it says, “The taste of paradise, the perfect union. It must be here, Here.” Grau teases the reader into thought. Paradoxes abound. Indeed, the novel has presented little if any conventional evidence of love, but one senses the value of the lives presented. In its own characteristically ironic way, Evidence of Love is just that. The vision is bleak, but here is her most affirmative work.
Roadwalkers once again chronicles a family, but the family here is very nontraditional and certainly not wealthy, at least not until the end of the novel. Mary Woods and her daughter, Nanda, women of color—Mary is black and Nanda’s father was from India— exhibit what Susan S. Kissel calls an “inner strength” unknown to Grau’s white heroines, a strength that “empowers and enriches their lives.” This strength ironically stems in many ways from Mary’s early years as a “roadwalker,” a child abandoned by her parents and left to roam the countryside of the South during the Depression years, accompanied first by her sister and brother, then by her brother, and finally, alone. In the description of the early years of Mary, or Baby, as she is then called, Grau produces some of her most poetic writing as she recounts the myriad sensations that make up the small child’s life: “Her days were like a hoard of bright-colored beads, their connecting thread broken, lying loose, single, jumbled.” The early part of the novel is impressionistic, organically written to mimic the experience that Baby is going through where day follows day unconsciously, and growth is measured only by the alternating cycle of heat and cold and the gradual accumulation of life-sustaining skills.
The progress of the novel itself can be gauged in terms of a symbol that many critics previously have noted to be central to Grau’s fiction, the house. From homelessness to a shack built of license plates and Coca-Cola signs to a convent and, finally, to a mansion purchased with the profits of her own talent, Mary Woods’s story parallels the rise of displaced African Americans to places of eminence in American society. In her movement from “feral” child to haute-couture designer, Mary encounters hatred, racism, and paternalism, yet somehow comes out of the experience self-assured and happy.
Married at the end of the novel to an alderman who is thinking of running for state representative, Mary spends her days working in her garden, in her own soil, at her own home. The first pages of the novel claim that
[s]he knew the surface of the earth. Head down, hour after hour, she studied it as she walked. She knew all its forms: dry and blowing with each of her steps; wet and oozing through her toes with a sucking sound. And the grains of the earth: sand fine as sugar; soil black and oily.
At the end, Nanda says of her, “she seems to love the feel of dirt. I’ve seen her rub light friable soil into dust between her palms and then toss it into the air, solemnly, like a priest dispensing incense.” In the meantime the novel recounts the struggle that Mary undergoes to make the world her own from the moment she is ripped from her license-plate shack by the well-meaning Charles Tucker and delivered to the Sister Servants of Mary Home for Children and then focuses on the similarly painful but more typical battle of her own child to excel in a racially charged atmosphere.
Nanda’s life resembles her mother’s in its struggles. Her struggles are not as much for survival as for acceptance, and they, too, are symbolically mirrored in her places of abode. Unlike the disconnected days of her mother’s early life, Nanda recalls her mother’s “light high whisper threaded through all my days, linking them tightly together,” and her moves are from apartment to apartment and apartment to house rather than on the dusty roads and byways of the roadwalker. “We had passed through a series of lodgings,” Nanda says when they move into their first house, “but we had finally gained our castle, the one we had been searching for.” She trades this safe haven, however, for a scholarship to the mostly white St. Catherine’s and then to college, where she must forge the way for other African Americans. As she returns to her mother’s home in the summer, she notices “a change in my mother’s world. Black and white were reversing themselves,” and she realizes that Mary, a successful clothing designer having “conquered the black kingdom,” is now entering “new and dangerous territory on voyages of conquest and discovery.”
By the end of the novel the conquest is complete for both Mary and Nanda. Nanda and her husband, Mike, in a happy, if somewhat open, marriage, are free to travel the world at will. Only in the final pages of the book is Nanda settled in a home of her own. Throwing away the basket of toys that had accompanied her through her own nomadic childhood, she says triumphantly, “alone I came into my kingdom. My portion, neither more nor less.” The love sought by Grau’s previous heroines is found here in mother-child love, in mature husband-wife love, and most significantly and victoriously in Nanda’s ability to love herself, thus making Roadwalkers the first of Grau’s novels to end on an obvious note of triumph and true affirmation.
Short fiction: The Black Prince, and Other Stories, 1955; The Wind Shifting West, 1973; Nine Women, 1985; Selected Stories, 2003.
Kissel, Susan S. Moving On: The Heroines of Shirley Ann Grau, Anne Tyler, and Gail Godwin. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1996.
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O’Neal, Susan Hines. “Cultural Catholicism in Shirley Ann Grau’s The Hard Blue Sky.” Louisiana Folklore Miscellany 10 (1995): 24-36.
Pearson, Ann. “Shirley Ann Grau: ‘Nature Is the Vision.’” Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction 17, no. 2 (1975): 47-58.
Perry, Carolyn, and Mary Louise Weaks, eds. The History of Southern Women’s Literature. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2002.
Richardson, Thomas J. “Roadwalker in the Magic Kingdom: Shirley Ann Grau.” In Literary New Orleans in the Modern World, edited by Richard S. Kennedy. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1998.
Schlueter, Paul. Shirley Ann Grau. Boston: Twayne, 1981.
Wagner-Martin, Linda. “Shirley Ann Grau’s Wise Fiction.” In Southern Women Writers: The New Generation, edited by Tonette Bond Inge. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1990.
Yardley, Jonathan. “Shirley Ann Grau’s House, on the Street Where You Live.” The Washington Post, March 8, 2005.
Source: Rollyson, Carl E., and Frank N. Magill. 2000. Critical survey of Long Fiction. Pasadena, Calif: Salem Press.