With no special incentive behind it, I pulled an Ellen Gilchrist collection off the shelves this afternoon and sat down to read a handful of her always “Southern delicious” stories. The Washington Post once described this Mississippi born writer as ‘a national treasure.’ That is clearly high praise for a woman who was forty-five at the time her first book was published. Questioned on this late start to writing, Gilchrist once replied, “I was too busy living.” And who could doubt the illumination that this ‘living’ has brought to her writing?
Novelist, poet and short story writer, Ellen Gilchrist was born in Vicksburg, Mississippi in 1935. She studied under the renowned Eudora Welty at Millsap College, but it wasn’t until 1981 that her reputation was made with the short story collection, The Land of Dreaming Dreams. Three years later she won the National Book Award with her collection titled, Victory Over Japan.
She has created characters who reappear in her stories in different phases of life, and together these stories form an interconnected body of fiction. In a 1999 book, The Fiction of Ellen Gilchrist, author Margaret Donovan Bauer said, ‘Gilchrist’s point of uniqueness is that all of her work is interrelated to the extent that her whole body of work…is part of an organic story cycle, a story cycle that continues to evolve as each new book appears, comparable to the roman-fleuve, it is a story cycle in the full sense of the word: there are no definite endings to the individual books and, distinguishing her work from the roman-fleuve, there is no clear beginning to the cycle.’
But don’t let this interconnectedness lead you to believe that the stories depend upon a specific chronology. All of Ms Gilchrist’s stories are indisputably stand-alone works, and enthrall the reader with or without knowledge of connected stories. Her stories of Rhoda Manning, Traceleen, Nora Jane and Miss Crystal capture the reader despite order or date of publication. These wonderfully eccentric characters light up the author’s prose in each and every appearance regardless of sequence.
The stories that brightened my Sunday afternoon all come from the collection published in 2000, Ellen Gilchrist, Collected Stories, and are “Victory Over Japan” and “Music” from the 1984 book, Victory Over Japan, and “Drunk With Love” and “The Young Man” from the 1986 collection, Drunk With Love.