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“A sure terrain, . . . a permanent landscape of the heart”: Ron Rash’s Poetics of Textual Space

Gérald Préher
p. 89-107


À partir de trois nouvelles, “Hard Times”, “Into the Gorge”, et “Something Rich and Strange”, cet article montre comment Ron Rash, suivant les traces d’écrivains tels que Erskine Caldwell ou Eudora Welty, devient un “mythographe” du Sud. Les images qui sont convoquées dans ces textes rappellent des situations mises en mots par d’autres écrivains qui ont cherché, comme le suggère la narratrice d’Elizabeth Spencer dans “A Southern Landscape”, à trouver une stabilité dans un monde qui change et disparaît. En manipulant ses textes, en retravaillant des images marquantes pour leur donner d’autres formes, Rash rejoue un thème central dans la littérature du Sud, celui de la hantise, de la prégnance du passé dans le présent. Cependant, il y a souvent chez lui une lueur d’espoir, une lumière que le lecteur est invité à suivre pour découvrir la richesse de l’étrangeté.

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Ron Rash
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In fiction, as in real life, a person’s character is often best revealed in extreme situations. . . . My hope is that the pleasure of the language helps counter the darkness. . . . Even in the midst of darkness, something beautiful is being transmitted.
Ron Rash, “Countering the Darkness” 10.

  • 1 Rash echoes Josephine Humphreys who has encouraged southern writers to “continue to write about dev (...)

1In numerous interviews, Ron Rash echoes the closing words of Marilee Summerall in Elizabeth Spencer’s classic story “A Southern Landscape.” After revisiting her past through the prism of her memories, Marilee concludes: “There have got to be some things you can count on, would be an ordinary way to put it. I’d rather say that I feel the need of a land, of a sure terrain, of a permanent landscape of the heart” (52). The use of the pronoun “you” implies the inclusion of both the narrator and the reader; it points to a universal need that anyone has for stability and permanence. The ternary rhythm used in the final sentence makes it clear that the self is defined by place but also defines it through affect. More largely, this suggests that writing—telling one’s story—enables a placing of the self in a defined space—both physical and textual. Commenting upon his own habits, Ron Rash similarly confesses: “what I love to write about is the kind of fusion you have in the Appalachian mountains . . . I tend to write about things that are vanishing or gone. . . . my imagination seems obsessed with images of loss, things vanishing.” Thus, if as Rash puts it “[w]e’re at a time where you’re seeing what made the South distinctive disappear . . . literature is going to be one of the ways we preserve that” (Interview by Shuler 12, 13). Just as Marilee’s landscape will live on in her story and in her heart, giving her a space of her own, Rash’s Appalachia will remain intact in the memories and in the words of his characters who keep it alive through story—when in reality it might be gone or on the verge of disappearing.1

  • 2 In her essay “Writing Short Stories,” O’Connor notes that “[b]eing short does not mean being slight (...)

2Ron Rash has often pondered on the importance of the Appalachian landscape which continually feeds his imagination so that his work can be read, to borrow the subtitle of Shelby Foote’s Jordan County (1954), as “A Landscape in Narrative.” Paul Carmignani, reflecting on the significance of the expression that has ironically disappeared in some editions of Foote’s book, notes that it “highlights the essential interrelatedness of a landscape that is brought into being by writing and of a narrative that brings to light its secret and partially repressed history” (93). Southern writers as different as Foote, Rash or Ellen Douglas, to name but a few, have emphasized the role of the writer as a witness. Douglas, who chose “Witnessing” as the title of her last collection of essays, sees that book as “the fruit of a long ride. It is, in fact, a kind of record of the scenery and the stops along the way, an individual personal slant—moral, political, and literary—on the history of a large piece of our America—the South” (x). Her selection of words to define Witnessing is telling: the “fruit” that has become ripe enough to be served, the “record” which is not quite one but nonetheless evocative of certain sights, both broad and specific… Memories and impressions of days gone by will forever remain on paper, the way they were witnessed—in a past that the –ing form invites readers to see as forever present. This also seems to be the case when reading Rash’s work, influenced as it is by his “peculiarly historical consciousness,” as Zackary Vernon calls it: “Rash has taken the responsibility upon himself to record the changes that he has observed [in Southern Appalachia]” (“The Role of the Witness” 19). Like Douglas, Rash is set on presentifying an absence, keeping it real, somehow, in the pages of his books. Throughout his work, Rash turns Appalachia into a “sacred space” echoing Katharina Schramm’s idea that “[d]eclaring something sacred means to remove it from the everyday realm, giving it special attention and symbolic value and, at least ideally, deeming it indisputable” (7). Because a short story is, by definition and quite obviously, brief, the images it conjures up are more likely to remain vivid in the readers’ minds. Rash has defined the short story “as a dispatch . . . because of its brevity and the way a story—a good story, at least—pulls us into it, there is a sense of urgency, the sense that something needs to be conveyed with a degree of quickness” (Something Rich and Strange interview 303). Where Flannery O’Connor talked about shock,2 Rash seems to be suggesting a flash, a sudden vision, conveyed to the reader and meant to bring about new awareness.

3Richard Gray has defined some Southern writers as “mythologizers,” explaining that “the mythologizer [is] the man who looks at history for the structure of metaphors and concepts it may supply” (106). For Gray, the work of writers like Erskine Caldwell “bears direct witness to the tension between rural myth, how the agrarian life should be, and rural reality, how the agrarian life nowadays is; and it is from this tension, and the ways in which these writers try to deal with it, that the various strengths and weaknesses of their work derive” (106). Rash’s approach to writing, at least from a thematic point of view, is close to Caldwell’s and it is surprising that the connection between those two writers is hardly ever made—Randall Wilhelm is one of the rare critics to have drawn any form of parallel in an essay on Rash’s Eureka Mill. When reading Rash’s story “Hard Times,” any reader familiar with Caldwell’s fiction will be reminded of “Kneel to the Rising Sun,” “Daughter,” or “Rachel” as it seems to combine their most shocking moments. If Eudora Welty’s name often comes up when Rash is interviewed, the essays that have appeared on a possible influence do not mention the worn path that Rash’s Jesse treads in the story “Into the Gorge.” By analyzing the two stories in the light of Caldwell’s and Welty’s texts, this article means to reflect upon the haunting power of Rash’s fiction—this “something rich and strange” he chose as a title for one of his stories, which incidentally provides a fine definition of his art. Ultimately looking at the textual manipulations Rash has operated on this particular story in relation to his novel Saints at the River will make it possible to better understand the writer’s poetics.

Landscapes of Poverty: The Caldwell-Rash Connection in “Hard Times”

  • 3 Randall Wilhelm sees the story as “emblematic of the entire collection [Burning Bright] and of Rash (...)

4Reviewing Rash’s Burning Bright, Carmen Rueda-Ramos notes that “[t]he issue of poverty is center stage in Appalachian literature, which has since its beginnings dramatized the lives of the poor” (118). Having devoted much of his career to what Sylvia Jenkins Cook has called “the fiction of poverty,” Erskine Caldwell offers a nice point of comparison when reading Rash’s work. In one of his interviews with Frédérique Spill, Rash explains that “Hard Times” holds a special place and that he intentionally placed it as the opening story in both Burning Bright (2010) and Something Rich and Strange: Selected Stories (2014): “I think what I wanted with that story is to plunge the reader as quickly as possible in my world. That’s because the story is so short. I hope this is a story that resonates all the way through the collection. To me, it’s almost like planting a flag in the ground: this is my world; you’re in it now” (Something Rich and Strange interview 311). Rash makes it clear that brevity can be used the way O’Connor plans her “shocks of recognition,” and he means for “Hard Times” to have such an impact on the reader that it will reverberate in the stories that follow it.3 Spill, in a discussion of Something Rich and Strange, takes up the idea of “planting a flag” and notes that the opening sentence of “Hard Times,” “[b]oth laconic and bluntly informative . . . powerfully creates a sense of place . . . while planting the narrative perspective in the [main character’s] gaze” (32). The focus is indeed on the character’s eyes—“Jacob stood in the barn mouth and watched Edna leave the henhouse” (Burning 3)—and on immobility, as if to stress that Jacob is a victim of circumstances, that he has become a spectator of life. The plot is set into motion with the second sentence as Jacob’s wife is described: “Her lips were pressed tight, which meant more eggs had been taken” (3). Both sentences include references to facial attributes: the mouth and the lips. Spill notes that “the ‘barn mouth’ epitomiz[es] the rural environment . . . , the dark cavern of the ‘mouth’ of sorrow” (32). The parallel hinted at when Edna’s lips are mentioned suggests that not only do they (and her facial expression) reveal her state of mind—without her needing to say anything—but also that words coming out of her mouth are likely to have special weight. This is confirmed quickly when she accuses the neighbor’s dog of being the egg-sucker—“Maybe she wasn’t trying to be accusatory, but the words sounded so” (Burning 7). Hartley, the neighbor in question, reacts in a most surprising way:

He pulled a barlow knife from his tattered overalls. He softly called the hound and it sidled up to him. Hartley got down on one knee, closed his left hand on the scruff of the dog’s neck as he settled the blade against its throat . . . the blade whisked across the hound’s windpipe. The dog didn’t cry out or snarl. It merely sagged in Hartley’s grip. (7-8)

  • 4 In her monograph, Frédérique Spill notes that “the dog’s silent acceptance of his fate . . . sugges (...)
  • 5 When Edna explains that it “‘wasn’t [her] intending’” (9), Jacob is quick to draw a parallel betwee (...)

5The violence of the scene is undeniable and it is reinforced by the quick succession of actions leading up to the dog’s death, which is presented in minimalist fashion.4 Yet, as often in Rash’s fiction, such scenes are intended to help the reader understand the characters better. In an interview, Rash declared: “When there is violence in my work, the goal is not to titillate but to reveal character. It reveals the mask of that person, and we see who he or she really is when that mask is dropped. I see almost all of my characters as doing the best they can with what they’ve been dealt” (“How I Write” 48). Hartley, as it becomes clear afterwards, is too proud to beg or to accept anybody’s charity, even though he and his family “are made to appear as the epitome of loss” (Spill, “Rewriting” 254). The poor condition of the main characters in the story has also had nefarious effects on their behavior as is the case of Jacob’s wife. Jacob longs to see Edna return to being the one she once was; in the morning: “[h]e glimpsed the younger, softer woman she’d been twenty years ago when they’d married” as “her face [had] not yet hardened to face the day’s demands” (Burning 17). The echo of the story’s title in the adjective “hardened” reinforces the idea that it is life’s hardships that turned the character into someone different. If, in the past, Edna’s “whole face would glow, as if the upward turn of her lips spread a wave of light from mouth to forehead” (4), the light now seems extinct and only darkness comes out of it, as the outcome of the episode with Hartley indicates.5

6Erskine Caldwell also resorts to violence quite often because, to him, “violence and cruelty have been part of Southern existence for a long time. . . . they’re probably caused by the hardship of life itself” (“A Writer First” 167). The idea that violence results from one’s condition is hinted at in Rash’s story and it is perceptible in Caldwell’s “Kneel to the Rising Sun” which also features a memorable scene that relates to a dog. Although the story is more focused on the symbolic meaning of mistreating an animal, Caldwell similarly makes the reader uncomfortable as his narrator describes the way Arch Gunnard cuts a dog’s tail to assert his power over the sharecroppers working on his land. To the black workers watching the scene, of course, the message is clear: should they complain about their plight or try to rebel, their genitals will be cut. Unlike Rash, Caldwell plays on suspense—the reader cannot help but wonder if someone will interfere each time Arch asks whether any of them objects to his plan. Just like the men witnessing the scene, the reader is speechless and knows that there is nothing s/he can do. The reader’s emotional response to the situation has to do with the format of the story—it is clear from the start that even if the finale is delayed, it will not be so for very long. Justine Murison notes that “in its very shortness, a short story often depends upon affective loops and leaps in place of exhaustive detail” (Roundtable 168). By not saying too much, the author introduces tension—“[a] short story,” as Caldwell observes, “is usually one incident or maybe two related incidents” (“Art of Fiction” 112) and those incidents dictate the way the plot develops. The irony and cruelty of the episode in “Kneel to the Rising Sun” come out of the reaction of Nancy, Lonnie’s dog, who thinks Arch means to play when he actually wants to hurt:

Nancy acted as if she thought Arch were playing some kind of a game with her. She turned her head around until she could reach Arch’s hand to lick it. He cracked her on the bridge of the nose with the end of the jackknife.

. . . Arch laughed, watching Lonnie’s face, and jerked Nancy to her feet. The hound cried out in pain and surprise, but Arch made her be quiet by kicking her in the belly.

. . . Pulling with his left hand and pushing with his right, Arch Gunnard docked the hound’s tail as quickly and as easily as if he were cutting a willow switch in the pasture to drive the cows home with. The dog sprang forward with the release of her tail until she was far beyond Arch’s reach, and began howling so loud she could be heard half a mile away. Nancy stopped once and looked back at Arch, and then she sprang to the middle of the road and began leaping and twisting in circles. All that time she was yelping and biting at the bleeding stub of her tail. (Stories of Life 167-69)

7What initially appears as a game turns out to be an agonizing moment for Nancy—unlike Hartley’s dog who dies on the spot, she survives the ordeal and will suffer until the wound has healed. The scar that will form will leave its trace and act as a reminder of Arch’s power and of their helplessness to all those who saw what he did. The way Arch treats Nancy mirrors the way he behaves with his sharecroppers: to him, they are mere puppets he can manipulate at will. Like Nancy, they may “look back” at him but they know they cannot fight back.

8With such a scene, Caldwell paves the way for the lynching that occurs at the end of the story. One night, Lonnie’s father disappears and Lonnie decides to ask his black friend, Clem Henry, for help in order to find him. References to the hogs “grunting and squealing” (173, 174, 175) attract the reader’s attention before Clem realizes that the animals have found themselves a dinner—Lonnie’s father fell in the pen and when his body is found, “[t]he face, throat, and stomach had been completely devoured” (177). The dehumanizing process at work in the story is stressed by the use of a definite article. Because Arch leaves his sharecroppers to starve, they are “‘shrunk up and weak’” and, like Lonnie’s father they “‘look[] like [their] skin and bones [can’t] shrivel much more’” (174)—another description reminiscent of Rash’s Hartleys in “Hard Times.” Clem decides to wake up Arch and show him the harm he has caused: “‘A man who short-rations tenants ought to have to sit and look at that till it’s buried’” (177). The black Christ Clem Henry is made to incarnate then confronts Arch and seals his fate—he will be violently killed by Arch’s friends. The murder scene employs another image that relates to animals: “The crumpled body was tossed time after time, like a sackful of kittens being killed with an automatic shotgun, as charges of lead were fired into it from all sides” (187). The comparison to helpless animals may suggest that white men are trying to prevent the spread of black people in the South but, more importantly, it shows that some have power and some do not. The men’s continuous shooting at Clem’s body though he is undoubtedly already dead illustrates Erik Bledsoe’s ideas about the Rough South as “a world of excess” (9), a world where violence never comes to an end.

  • 6 The story exemplifies C. Hugh Holman’s idea that, “[a]t the heart of Caldwell’s portrayal of his wo (...)

9In “Hard Times,” set during the Great Depression like many of Caldwell’s Southern stories, the reader’s attention is also drawn to the characters’ immense poverty and constant fear that, after losing most of their possessions, “the banker and the sheriff were coming to take the rest” (Burning 5). The Hartleys are presented as “the poorest of them all” (5) and, because they are introduced soon after the stolen eggs have been mentioned, the reader is not completely surprised to find out that one of them is indeed guilty for the theft. Jacob sets up a trap using a fishhook and catches Hartley’s daughter “huddled in the corner [of the henhouse], the line disappearing into her closed mouth” (15). The Hartleys’ poverty and need for food is suggested early—they are shabbily dressed and “even the [father]’s voice had been worn-down to a bare-boned flatness” (7). As for the mother and daughter, their state of exhaustion shows in their faces which are “blank as bread dough” (7). The Hartleys’ lack of energy certainly relates to their hunger—they appear as ghostly figures haunting a landscape of poverty. Like Caldwell’s story “Rachel,” “Hard Times” “delivers a fable of economic misery” (Matthews 215). Just like the Hartley girl who is “so light it was like lifting a rag doll” (Burning 16), Jacob realizes when he takes her in his arms, Rachel struggles to find food—she eats people’s leftovers in their garbage cans. Both stories emphasize the extreme poverty in which children find themselves but if Caldwell’s Rachel dies at the end of the story, the girl in “Hard Times” does not. When Jacob reflects upon what to do after discovering the identity of the egg-eater, “he remembered the dog” (16) because, somehow, “the image of Hartley’s knife opening the hound’s throat had snared in his mind” (13). He thus decides not to tell Hartley that the girl is guilty and hides the truth to Edna. Another Caldwell story, “Daughter,” provides an alternative ending for it describes a father who, tired of his daughter’s complaints that she is hungry, decides to kill her—“‘Daughter said she was hungry, and I just couldn’t stand it no longer. I just couldn’t stand to hear her say it’” (Stories of Life 135). Instead of condemning the father for such an act, the townspeople prove understanding and urge the sheriff to free the culprit. Thus, as Amélie Moisy explains, Caldwell “shows the working-class responding to a landowner’s injustice by refusing what they call ‘the State’s . . . grudge against Jim’ and taking the law into their own hands, not to lynch the murderer but to free him” (86).6 Letting Hartley’s daughter go, Jacob warns her that if she comes back, he will tell her father—and what Caldwell describes in “Daughter” could well provide the blueprint for the sequel.

An Appalachian Worn Path: “Into the Gorge”

10Rash’s “Into the Gorge” may also be read along another text, Eudora Welty’s “A Worn Path.” Rash often mentions Welty in interviews, quotes from her essays in various places and he ranks Welty’s story among his favorites together with Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find” (see Something Rich and Strange interview 303). Like Welty and O’Connor, Rash sees writing in relation to mystery: “it is not so much that I create a story but that it is something found. It really feels like that and the more I write the more mysterious it is. I don’t know where stories come from; I don’t know why an image gets into my head. It just happens. There’s something inexplicable about it” (307). The writer is, like a painter, bringing life to an image in the space of the page and it is always a particular moment that a reader remembers because as Welty puts it, “[e]very good story has mystery—not the puzzle kind, but the mystery of allurement. As we understand the story better, it is likely that the mystery does not necessarily decrease; rather it simply grows more beautiful” (“Reading” 164). Welty’s comment finds a nice echo in the title of Rash’s collection Burning Bright which includes stories whose mysteries linger long after they have been read.

  • 7 She chose to discuss two stories from Chemistry and Other Stories (“Flouridated Water” and “Their A (...)

11If, as Mae Miller Claxton suggests in the subtitle of her article on Rash and Welty, the two writers are “walking the same worn path,” and, as she goes on to show they present “a landscape of myth an ancient mystery” (116), “Into the Gorge” seems a fitting example to support some of Claxton’s intuitions.7 Indeed, Rash has explained in a short note published along the story in The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories: The Best of the Year 2020 that it derives from an actual event turned into myth:

In the early 1930s, an elderly woman wandered off her mountain farm into a sparsely populated gorge called “The Dismal.” My grandfather, her neighbor, led a search party into the gorge. Two days later they found her, sitting with her back against a tree as if waiting for them. I grew up hearing the story, and two years ago I matched that factual story with an image that had come to me of an older man running, though from what I didn’t know. (“Writing” 435)

12Echoing Rash’s very words, his narrator reflects upon how the main character’s great-aunt was found after disappearing for a day, “her back against a tree as if waiting for the searchers to arrive” (Burning 135). In order to introduce a sense of mystery and attract the reader’s interest, the narrator describes the unexpected sight: “But that was not the strangest thing. She’d taken off her shoes, her dress, and her underclothes” (135). The initial version of the story, featured in the Southern Review, is more detailed, making the subsequent publication in Burning Bright read, in comparison, as if Rash were stripping his character further, making the items trivial and insisting, through the use of ternary rhythm, on the automatic quality of the action: “But that was not the strangest thing. She was completely unclothed, her gingham dress and undergarments cast around her, shoes and bonnet found up the ridge” (628-29). Introducing “strange” episodes early in the story paves the way for other odd happenings but, since the narrative opens with a reference to the great-aunt that focuses on her relationship to place, the reader’s attention is drawn to such an association. This is reinforced when the narrator elaborates on it: “Knowledge of the land was the one memory that refused to dissolve” (Burning 134) at a time when “her mind ha[d] wandered into a place she could not follow” (133). It is the very idea of wandering that makes Rash’s story akin to Welty’s “A Worn Path”: both Jesse, Rash’s character, and Phoenix Jackson, Welty’s, are journeying in time but also in space.

13Welty’s story about Phoenix Jackson, an old African-American woman on her way to Natchez to collect medicine for her grandson, includes a moment when the character, after reaching the clinic, does not seem to know what her journey is all about:

“Now, how is the boy?” asked the nurse.
Old Phoenix did not speak.
“I said, how is the boy?”
But Phoenix only waited and stared straight ahead, her face very solemn and withdrawn into rigidity.
“Is his throat any better?” asked the nurse. “Aunt Phoenix, don’t you hear me? Is your grandson’s throat any better since the last time you came for the medicine?”
With her hands on her knees, the old woman waited, silent, erect and motionless, just as if she were in armor.
“You mustn’t take up our time this way, Aunt Phoenix,” the nurse said. “Tell us quickly about your grandson, and get it over. He isn’t dead, is he?”
At last there came a flicker and then a flame of comprehension across her face, and she spoke.
“My grandson. It was my memory had left me. There I sat and forgot why I made my long trip.”
“Forgot?” The nurse frowned. “After you came so far?” (“Worn Path” 147-48)

  • 8 Frédérique Spill notes that Burning Bright “develops in the form of a scattered inventory of lost t (...)
  • 9 Welty insists that “[t]he real dramatic force of a story depends on the strength of the emotion tha (...)
  • 10 Rash reads the story as a tale of loss and love in which “[a]ll that survives is Phoenix’s love for (...)

14Jesse’s great-aunt8 is reminiscent of Phoenix in that she seems to operate very much like an automaton: she knows she must get to the city but once there she has a memory lapse. The nurse’s insistence turns into irritation and she paradoxically becomes a source of light for Phoenix: she provides the missing elements in her story and brings back the meaning that Phoenix has lost along the way. The organization of the passage, which oscillates between direct speech (the nurse) and description (Phoenix), turns the reader into a spectator as s/he is made to imaginatively witness the exchange, to imaginatively look at the way the characters interact. Stressing the changes in Phoenix’s facial expressions using alliterations as the scene unfolds, the narrator helps the reader understand how important Phoenix’s grandson is to her—hearing about him brings her back to life, setting her back into (e)motion.9 As Danièle Pitavy-Souques observes, Welty’s control of images “asserts Phoenix’s humanity while conjuring up something above her” (138, my translation). Interpreting this moment, Welty herself notes that “in the whole surround of this story, the world it threads through, the only certain thing at all is the worn path. . . . The path is the thing that matters” (“Phoenix” 161-62). The journey Phoenix regularly makes is as essential as the medicine she intends to get to keep her grandson alive—whether it is through memory or not.10 It is by repeating past actions that she gives shape to her present.

15“Into the Gorge” follows a similar pattern: if Welty’s character symbolically retraces the path of American History, Jesse, as he takes “the old logging road” (Burning 136), repeats his family history. His story, too, as Welty puts it in her discussion of “A Worn Path,” is about “a journey . . . parts of life’s uncertainty” (161). He finds “the ridge’s shadowy north face where his father had seeded and harvested his ginseng patch,” and he himself “[had] carefully replanted the seeds, done it just as his father had done” (136), thus honoring the past in his own way—“respectfully” (137). However, when he notices footprints indicating that someone has found his plants, he starts cursing—he is mad at himself for carelessly “walk[ing] the road on a rainy morning” as it means he is the one who has potentially showed them the way. Fortunately, “the plants were still there, the soil around them undisturbed” (137) when he gets to his spot. The narrator suggests that harmony is restored when Jesse kneels down and smells the earth—“the rich dark earth that always reminded him of coffee . . . [h]e liked being this close to the earth, smelling it, feeling it on his hands and under his nails” (138). Jesse’s closeness to nature is perceptible here but the reader knows that since the “park service made an offer on the homestead [and] Jesse’s father and aunts had sold” (135), life has taken a different turn: “bulldozers [have started razing] woods and pastureland for another gated community” (135). Nature is obviously under attack and the peace Jesse has been seeking to find is threatened.

16The footprints Jesse has noticed turn out to belong to a park ranger who takes him by surprise and intends to jail him for breaking the law: “What was happening didn’t seem quite real. The world, the very ground he stood on, felt like it was evaporating beneath him. Jesse almost expected somebody, though he couldn’t say who, to come out of the woods laughing about the joke played on him” (140). The irony of the situation is that Jesse’s “‘daddy planted the seeds for this patch. That ginseng wouldn’t even be here if it wasn’t for him’” (140). Jesse’s reality is slowly shattered; as Yeats would have it, “things fall apart; the center cannot hold” (“The Second Coming”). The narrator, by using expressions such as “didn’t seem quite real,” “felt like,” or the adverb “almost” insists on the process of dispossession that is at work, turning the familiar into the unfamiliar. This is emphasized when Jesse, who has caught a glimpse at the ranger’s name tag, tries to relate to him, asking him if he is “‘any kin to the Wilsons over on Balsam Mountain’” (140). Jesse is trying to bring the unknown into the realm of the known in order to recover some sort of ground but when the ranger tells him he “‘grew up in Charlotte’” (140), the gap between them widens: how is a countryman to compete with someone coming from an industrial city? The clash between the rural and the urban is clear and understanding between the two is impossible.

17Jesse eventually manages to have the upper hand and escape though what will happen next is left open. Rash leaves the reader with the image that made him start writing the story: “[a] man running from something. He was too old to be running, yet he was running nevertheless. At first, I didn’t know what he ran from, but soon I began to understand that he was, at least in part, running from a world he no longer understood” (“Contributors’ Notes” 326-27). The narrative illustrates such a comment when Rash resorts to a similar structure to characterize Jesse’s actions: “Jesse bent down and reached not for the younger man’s hand but his shoulder”; “He ran, not toward his farmhouse but into the woods” (Burning 142, emphasis added). In both cases, the grammatical structure indicates what Jesse may have done naturally and what he ends up doing on the spur of the moment. The confrontation with the rangers has split his world (and self) into two—and when he reflects upon it, it is again the notion of respect that comes to his mind: “It seemed so wrong to be sixty-eight years and running from someone. Old age was supposed to give a person dignity, respect” (143, emphasis added). The character’s confusion filters through and his perception of how things should be is called into question as the use of modalization indicates—any possibility of “making the world straight,” to paraphrase the title of one of Rash’s novels, is far from view. Jesse conjures up the past, and the ghost of his great-aunt who “was still down there, many believed” (135); knowing who he was and who he has become, he reflects on the way people talked about her after she passed: “They told stories about her and every story was spoken in a reverent way, as if now that his great-aunt was dead she’d once more been transformed back to her true self” (144), hoping, maybe, that he will be getting a similar treatment after his own demise. The reader is left wondering whether Jesse will make the past present the way Phoenix Jackson does in “A Worn Path”—will he spend the remaining years of his life hiding in a natural environment he cannot part with? Such a question makes Rash’s stories live on long after the book has been closed but, knowing that Rash enjoys expanding his texts into longer works or shortening them into poems, answers might come out of these narratives to come that are “so rich and strange.”

Textual Manipulations: The “Something Rich and Strange” in Rash’s Fiction

18Rash has explained that his “stories start with an image and that image could end up anywhere” (Something Rich and Strange interview 304). Going through his work, readers might experience an uncanny experience when an image they have become familiar with suddenly emerges in a different context. For example, the poem “Speckled Trout” featured in Raising the Dead was expanded into a short story that bears the same title—it appears in Chemistry and Other Stories—and the latter text was revised to become the opening chapter of The World Made Straight (see Spill, “Pursuit” and Wilhelm, “Blood Memory” 15). Rash’s “recycling methods” (Wilhelm, “Blood Memory” 15) are also exemplified in “Madison County: 1934,” also collected in Raising the Dead and later developed into “Hard Times.” The expression “hard times” is present in the poem and readers who perused this text first know who has been stealing the eggs—“no snake but a neighbor’s child” (Raising 51). The tension that builds up in the short story is thus not so effective, should the image of the child “hunched in a corner” (51) have stuck in the reader’s mind.

  • 11 The poem “Bonding Fire” takes up a story in Saints at the River (111-13) which elaborates on the wa (...)
  • 12 In Saints at the River, the first chapter begins with the word “ghosts” which comes to describe, an (...)

19“Something Rich and Strange,” a tragic story in which a young girl is carried away by the current of a river and eventually drowns, has inspired two poems later included in Waking: “Bonding Fire” and “The Girl in the River” (see Lang 54).11 Rash also “revised and developed the story of the drowned girl to shape Saints at the River,” revisiting it one more time before including it in the collection Nothing Gold Can Stay (Wilhelm, “Blood Memory” n. 33, 29). The use of the present tense in the opening sections of both the story and the novel makes the scene unforgettable—it leaves a mark on the reader and never ceases to be present, the way it also seems to operate on its author and on the other characters.12 Out of the two poems, “The Girl in the River,” because it is much shorter than “Bonding Fire,” has a stronger effect on the reader. It is told in the past tense and reads like the account of men trying to catch a mermaid, risking their lives:

Men tried three days to raise her
with prayers, grabbling hooks trolled
like lures across the suckhole,
the divers finally called in
to work water’s other side,
where they swirled above a face
clear as a lover’s, but could
not reach her though the one came close
enough to brush the yellow
flow of hair and almost drown
before the others roped him back. (Waking 41)

  • 13 A set of three poems (“The Men Who Raised the Dead,” “Death’s Harbors,” and “Calenture”), published (...)

20Like the second part of the short story, the first sentence of the poem—there are two—centers on the divers and their efforts to retrieve the girl’s body. Incidentally, the way it is phrased echoes Rash’s previous collection of poems, Raising the Dead, and makes clear that the men mean to bring the girl back to (a form of) life.13 They use subterfuges, as the reference to “grabbling hooks [that] trolled like lures” suggests, and eventually one of them has to be “roped back,” implying rather ironically that it is not the dead that should be handled with care but the living. The girl’s power of attraction is equally important in the second part of “Something Rich and Strange” as the diver “saw that her eyes were open. Their faces were inched apart when he slipped an arm around her waist. Then the hydraulic ripped free the mask and mouthpiece, grabbed the dive light, spiraling it toward darkness” (Nothing 46-47). In both the poem and the story, the emphasis is placed on sensuality—the comparison of the girl’s face to that of a lover, the closeness of the bodies that either touch or fail to do so. Yet, danger is near and this moment out of time abruptly comes to an end as the light is taken away from the diver. The sight is nonetheless haunting as the rest of the story shows: “The diver had trouble sleeping afterward. Every night when he closed his eyes, he saw the girl’s wide blue eyes, the flowing golden hair. . . . On the third night, the diver fell into a deeper sleep and the girl came with him” (47). Images of the girl, left behind in the darkness of the river, return in the darkness of the night; the sensuality of the girl’s connection to the diver is amplified “[a]s he embraced her, she whispered that this world was better than the one above and she should never have been afraid” (47-48). Again, the diver is the one reaching out while the girl retreats. Echoing the beginning of the story when her purpose for exploring the river was to “place one foot in Georgia and one in South Carolina so that she [could] tell her friends back in Nebraska she [had] been in two states at the same time” (43), she is now in two other states—between life and death. Kept alive in the diver’s mind, though “transform[ed] unrushed, gentle” (49); ultimately, when the diver sees her last, she is “less of what she had been, the blue rubbed from her eyes, flesh freed from the chandelier of bone. He touched what once had been a hand. The river whispered to him that it would not be long now” (49). The diver’s attraction to the girl is still strong as he “touches” what remains of her hand; the choice of repeating the verb “whisper,” this time to refer to the river, suggests that the girl and the river will soon become one—their fate forever sealed.

  • 14 This idea is also outstanding when looking at Jesse and his great-aunt in “Into the Gorge.” The st (...)

21The story’s evocative power is reminiscent of Poe’s “The Oval Portrait” in which life is turned into a work of art and made eternal. Rash uses similar imagery—darkness, a young girl who is dead and yet very much alive—and the words the diver hears from the girl echo those uttered by the painter in Poe’s story: “‘This is indeed Life itself!’” (253). By enabling his readers to dive deeper into the girl’s story despite the brevity of “Something Rich and Strange,” Rash makes it possible for them to see another side of the story he tells in Saints at the River by changing the narrative focus. There is, then, not simply one story that can be told, not just two, but as many stories as there were witnesses to the scene and the reader is encouraged to imagine what they could be. Like Shelby Foote who used elements from his novel Tournament when writing Jordan County, “transform[ing] a life into a destiny” (Vauthier 171), Rash illustrates his idea that, in his fiction, “landscape [decides his characters’] destiny” (interview by Gretlund and Bjerre 197).14

22Introducing Eudora Welty’s A Curtain of Green and Other Stories, Katherine Anne Porter praises stories like “A Worn Path” in which “external act and the internal voiceless life of the human imagination almost meet and mingle on the mysterious threshold between dream and waking, one reality refusing to admit or confirm the existence of the other, yet both conspiring toward the same end” (xxi). Ron Rash’s stories take the reader into a similarly fluctuating space as he recovers the past to help her/him better understand the present. That his texts should conjure up images that derive from previous writers help place him in a literary continuum and in a community of writers who strive to keep the then in the now. As Elizabeth Spencer puts it, “the living . . . are marching through, creating their own sense of where they are, though the places seem to have no past, no memory, only a conclusive NOW” (“Place” 64). Stories like “Hard Times” or “Into the Gorge” and “Something Rich and Strange” deal with dispossession and death. Yet, there always seems to be a light, a hope, that is burning as life transforms itself into something mysterious, more alive than life itself.

23Ron Rash has declared: “Short Fiction is the medium I love the most, because it requires that I bring everything I’ve learned about poetry—the concision, the ability to say something as vividly as possible—but also the ability to create a narrative that, though lacking a novel’s length, satisfies the reader” (“Ron Rash: How I Write”). “Hard Times,” “Into the Gorge,” and “Something Rich and Strange” beautifully illustrate such ideas as they plunge the reader in a world both rich and strange that forces them to “imagine a place worse than where [they were]” (Burning 18). By presenting the darkest world possible, Ron Rash hopes his readers will find a world with light that is “burning bright” more easily.

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Caldwell, Erskine. “The Art of Fiction: An Interview with Erskine Caldwell.” 1968. By Donald Lewis and Richard Wertman. Rpt. in Conversations with Erskine Caldwell. Ed. Edwin T. Arnold. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1988. 109-19. Print.

---. Stories of Life: North and South. Selections from the Best Short Stories of Erskine Caldwell. New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1983. Print.

---. “‘A Writer First’: An Interview with Erskine Caldwell.” 1980. By Elizabeth Pell Broadwell and Ronald Wesley Hoag. Rpt. in Conversations with Erskine Caldwell. Ed. Edwin T. Arnold. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1988. 160-78. Print.

Carmignani, Paul. “Jordan County: Going Back to the Roots.” Short Story Cycles. Ed. J. Gerald Kennedy. Spec. Issue of Journal of the Short Story in English 11 (Autumn 1988): 93-98. Print.

Claxton, Mae Miller. “Ron Rash and Eudora Welty: Walking the Same Worn Path.” Summoning the Dead: Essays on Ron Rash. Eds. Randall Wilhelm and Zackary Vernon. Columbia: U of South Carolina P, 2018. 111-21. Print.

Cook, Sylvia Jenkins. Erskine Caldwell and the Fiction of Poverty: The Flesh and the Spirit. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1991. Print.

Douglas, Ellen. Witnessing. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 2004. Print.

Foote, Shelby. Jordan County: A Landscape in Narrative. 1954. New York: Vintage, 1992. Print.

Gray, Richard. The Literature of Memory: Modern Writers of the American South. London: Edward Arnold, 1977. Print.

Holman, C. Hugh. Windows on the World: Essays on American Social Fiction. Knoxville: The U of Tennessee P, 1979. Print.

Humphreys, Josephine. “A Disappearing Subject Called the South.” 1988. Rpt. in Friendship and Sympathy: Communities of Southern Women Writers. Ed. Rosemary M. Magee. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1992. 297-301. Print.

Lang, John. Understanding Ron Rash. Columbia: U of South Carolina P, 2014. Print.

Matthews, John T. “Trashing Modernism: Erskine Caldwell on the Southern Poor.” Reading Southern Poverty Between the Wars: 1918-1939. Eds. Richard Godden and Martin Crawford. Athens: U Georgia P, 2006. 206-22. Print.

Moisy, Amélie. “Myth for the Masses: Erskine Caldwell’s ‘Daughter.’” Representation and Rewriting of Myths in Southern Short Fiction. Eds. Alice Clark, Gérald Préher and Emmanuel Vernadakis. Spec. issue of Journal of the Short Story in English 67 (Autumn 2016): 83-95. Print.

O’Connor, Flannery. Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose. Selected and edited by Sally and Robert Fitzgerald. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1969. Print.

Pitavy-Souques, Danièle. La Mort de Méduse : L’art de la nouvelle chez Eudora Welty. Lyon : Presses Universitaires de Lyon, 1992. Print.

Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Oval Portrait.” 1845. The Fall of the House of Usher and Other Writings. Ed. David Galloway. London: Penguin, 1986. 250-53. Print.

Porter, Katherine Anne. Introduction. A Curtain of Green and Other Stories. By Eudora Welty. 1941. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1979. xi-xxiii. Print.

Rash, Ron. Burning Bright: Stories. 2010. New York: Ecco, 2011. Print.

---. Chemistry and Other Stories. New York: Picador, 2007. Print.

---. “Countering the Darkness.” Interview by Amy Frykholm. Christian Century 8 (July 2015): 10. Print.

---. Contributors’ Notes [On the origins of “Into the Gorge”]. The Best American Short Stories 2009. Ed. Alice Sebold. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009. 327-28. Print.

---. “An Interview with Ron Rash.” Interview by Jack Shuler. The South Carolina Review 33.1 (Fall 2000): 11-16. Print.

---. “Interview with Ron Rash.” 2014. Interview by Jan Nordby Gretlund and Thomas Bjerre. Southern Writers Bear Witness. Ed. Jan Nordby Gretlund. Columbia: U of South Carolina P, 2018. 192-200. Print.

---. “Into the Gorge.” The Southern Review 44.4 (Autumn 2008): 628-37. Print.

---. Nothing Gold Can Stay: Stories. New York: Ecco, 2013. Print.

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---. Saints at the River: A Novel. 2004. New York: Picador, 2005. Print.

---. “Something Rich and Strange: Ron Rash on Short Story Writing.” Interview by Frédérique Spill. Representation and Rewriting of Myths in Southern Short Fiction. Eds. Alice Clark, Gérald Préher and Emmanuel Vernadakis. Spec. issue of Journal of the Short Story in English 67 (Autumn 2016): 301-12. Print.

---. Waking. Spartanburg: Hub City, 2011. Print.

---. The World Made Straight: A Novel. New York: Picador, 2006. Print.

---. “Writing the PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories 2010.” The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories: The Best of the Year 2010. Ed. Laura Furman. New York: Random House/Anchor Books, 2010. 435. Print.

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---. “The Pursuit of Happiness, or Contemplating Trout in Ron Rash’s Fiction.” La Recherche du Bonheur/The Pursuit of Happiness. Eds. Jocelyn Dupont, Marie-Jeanne Rossignol and François Specq. Spec. issue of Revue Française d’Études Américaines 157 (2018): 199-213. Print.

---. The Radiance of Small Things in Ron Rash’s Writing. Columbia: U of South Carolina P, 2019. Print.

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---. “The Reading and Writing of Short Stories.” 1949. Rpt. in Short Story Theories. Ed. Charles May. Athens: Ohio UP, 1976. 159-77. Print.

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1 Rash echoes Josephine Humphreys who has encouraged southern writers to “continue to write about development. We must prevent it. Writers in particular have a duty to prevent it, because for us what’s at stake is lifeblood” (297). 

2 In her essay “Writing Short Stories,” O’Connor notes that “[b]eing short does not mean being slight. A short story should be long in depth and should give us an experience of meaning” (94). Further on, discussing her story “Good Country People,” and focusing on its surprise ending, she explains: “This is a story that produces a shock for the reader, and I think one reason for this is that it produced a shock for the writer” (100). In “The Fiction Writer and His Country,” O’Connor famously claimed that to make sure your audience understands your message, “you have to make your vision apparent by shock—to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures” (34).

3 Randall Wilhelm sees the story as “emblematic of the entire collection [Burning Bright] and of Rash’s work as a whole” (“Blood Memory” 19).

4 In her monograph, Frédérique Spill notes that “the dog’s silent acceptance of his fate . . . suggests how much part of ordinary life violence has become” (Radiance 161).

5 When Edna explains that it “‘wasn’t [her] intending’” (9), Jacob is quick to draw a parallel between the way she behaved with Hartley and the way she treated their children—“‘Like it wasn’t your intending for Joel and Mary to leave and never darken our door again. . . . But it happened, didn’t it” (9). The absence of a question mark emphasizes the irony behind Jacob’s words and the grudge that he holds against his wife.

6 The story exemplifies C. Hugh Holman’s idea that, “[a]t the heart of Caldwell’s portrayal of his world is a sense of what the social system can do—indeed, has done—to people, and upon that basis he makes his strongest claims” (37).

7 She chose to discuss two stories from Chemistry and Other Stories (“Flouridated Water” and “Their Ancient, Glittering Eyes”), together with the novels The World Made Straight and Serena.

8 Frédérique Spill notes that Burning Bright “develops in the form of a scattered inventory of lost things” and that Jesse’s great-aunt, who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease, embodies one of the most “heart-rending representation[s] of loss in the collection” (“Rewriting” 254). For Rash, Phoenix Jackson is also a victim of life—“Eyesight, memory, vigor, family—all have been taken from her” (qtd. in Claxton 119).

9 Welty insists that “[t]he real dramatic force of a story depends on the strength of the emotion that has set it going. The emotional value is the measure of the reach of the story. What gives any such content to “A Worn Path” is not its circumstances but its subject: the deep-grained habit of love” (“Phoenix” 161).

10 Rash reads the story as a tale of loss and love in which “[a]ll that survives is Phoenix’s love for her grandchild, and that love is honored each time she walks the worn path toward town, toward the hospital where she demands medicine that she believes might heal him” (qtd. in Claxton 119).

11 The poem “Bonding Fire” takes up a story in Saints at the River (111-13) which elaborates on the way a tradition from the Scottish midlands was imported to the South. See Baldwin’s essay on another form of recycling at work in Rash’s fiction—“The stories he tells depend on the stories he heard from ancestors, who heard them from earlier generations” (45).

12 In Saints at the River, the first chapter begins with the word “ghosts” which comes to describe, and define, a number of characters whether they have returned as wanderers to a place they used to live in, have died, or lost someone they cared for.

13 A set of three poems (“The Men Who Raised the Dead,” “Death’s Harbors,” and “Calenture”), published in the Sewanee Review 109.4 (Fall 2001) under the heading “Death by Water,” is reprinted in Raising the Dead but the poems do not appear in the same order. The title “Death by Water,” which gives unity to the original set is absent though the menace water constitutes flows throughout the collection.

14 This idea is also outstanding when looking at Jesse and his great-aunt in “Into the Gorge.” The story was heavily edited after its original publication in The Southern Review and thus offers another example of textual manipulations which I hope to explore at a later date.

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Gérald Préher, « “A sure terrain, . . . a permanent landscape of the heart”: Ron Rash’s Poetics of Textual Space »Journal of the Short Story in English, 74 | 2020, 89-107.

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Gérald Préher, « “A sure terrain, . . . a permanent landscape of the heart”: Ron Rash’s Poetics of Textual Space »Journal of the Short Story in English [En ligne], 74 | Spring 2020, mis en ligne le 01 juin 2022, consulté le 28 février 2024. URL :

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Gérald Préher

Gérald Préher is Professor of American Studies at Lille Catholic University (France) and a member of the CIRPaLL (University of Angers, France). He defended a doctoral dissertation on southern literature and has written essays on various 19th and 20th century writers. He co-edited several collections of essays on American literature, is the editor of the Journal of the Short Story in English and the general editor of the review Résonances. He recently published a study of Carson McCullers’s The Heart is a Lonely Hunter as part of a book on Solitude and Community in the Novel (Atlande), has a forthcoming monograph on Elizabeth Spencer and a volume dedicated to Richard Ford in the Understanding Contemporary American Literature series.

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