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Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Timothy Schaffert on how Ambrose Bierce, Willa Cather, and William Faulkner have treated “our often tawdry funerary customs”

The Coffins of Little Hope
by Timothy Schaffert
(Unbridled Books, 2011)
Timothy Schaffert joins our continuing series of guest blog posts by writers of fiction, history, essays, and poetry. Much like Essie, the 83-year-old, widowed obituary writer who narrates his recently published fourth novel, The Coffins of Little Hope, Schaffert is a bit obsessed with what can be discovered when “chronicling the dead.” Here he revisits how three master storytellers use end of life tales to plumb the nature of love, grief, prejudice, and horror.
As a child, I once saw an undertaker close the coffin lid on its inhabitant, and I’ve spent years trying to describe that dip-in-the-road feeling I got in my gut at the sight of it. The organist had stopped her wheezy hymn, bringing a thudding silence to the church. As sudden as a buzzard the undertaker then swooped up to the altar to unprop the pillow of the deceased (my great-grandfather), and a shadow slowly consumed the casket’s bed, my great-grandfather’s suit, his gaunt, stoic, pioneer’s face, then, lastly, his lovely and stately bald head. In my memory, I seem to recall hearing every squeak of the hinges and rustling of lace. The undertaker did everything but lock the lid and throw away the key. I felt I’d witnessed at the front of the church a bit of business that should’ve taken place at the back of the church, and such errors of decorum tend to echo across the years.

As I’ve grown older, I’ve come to realize that some of my favorite short stories are those that have done exactly what that undertaker did—stories that offer unsettling insight into our often tawdry funerary customs.

“A Rose for Emily” by William Faulkner. Emily Grierson, toad-like in both appearance and demeanor, is lovable in her utter unlovability—she’s one of literature’s most reticent villains, and you can’t help but envy the way she intimidates with barely a grunt. “I have no taxes in Jefferson,” she tells her youthful oppressors, and though the town’s new leaders disagree, Emily ultimately pays no taxes in Jefferson. When the druggist refuses to sell her arsenic unless she states her purpose, she refuses to state her purpose; the druggist sells her the arsenic. She seems driven by a staunch indifference. Though the narrator—one person speaking on behalf of the entire town—is determined to portray this difficult woman without sentiment, sentiment seeps in. For all the townsfolk’s talk of “modern ideas,” this thoroughly un-modern Emily is so bizarre, her story so legendarily morbid, they can’t deny their infatuation with her empty past. Her shrine to a lover’s corpse—either a mad desecration or a lovely tribute—so titillates the townsfolk, they’ll never again regard a stray hair without thinking of the sexual perversity of this cold, ugly woman and her romantic funeral practices.

“The Boarded Window” by Ambrose Bierce. Though most frequently reprinted in volumes of horror (with good reason—it’s as chilling as the lowering of a coffin lid), “The Boarded Window” is among the most gentle and exact portraits of grief I’ve ever encountered. As with “A Rose for Emily,” the narrator is relating a local folktale, the locality being the untamed woods near nineteenth-century Cincinnati. I’m no scholar of Midwestern gothic, but I suspect this to be among the earliest examples of it—a man, lured from the East onto an untamable tract of land, loses his wife to illness, medical help too far away for rescue. There’s also no funeral industry in this god-forsaken land, but the widower nonetheless conducts a ritual as delicate as any in literature.

He stood over the body in the fading light, adjusting the hair and putting the finishing touches to the simple toilet, doing all mechanically, with soulless care. And still through his consciousness ran an undersense of conviction that all was right—that he should have her again as before, and everything explained. He had had no experience in grief; his capacity had not been enlarged by use. His heart could not contain it all, nor his imagination rightly conceive it. He did not know he was so hard struck; that knowledge would come later, and never go.
But that’s not the worst of it, I’m afraid. The story takes a horrific, exciting, and heartbreaking twist, in a scene that takes place mostly in pitch darkness. Moving from a poetic articulation of loss, Bierce describes a nightmare in sounds. He concludes with an image as startling and delicious as the famous stray hair at the end of “A Rose for Emily.”

“The Sculptor’s Funeral” by Willa Cather. I’ve always thought this story a fascinating failure—I get the sense that Cather might think that she’s packing a wallop just at the moment that she pulls her punches. Merrick, the forty-something sculptor of the title, has died in the East and been delivered, in a coffin, to the little Kansas town that never appreciated his delicate constitution and creativity. The story’s first pages are breathtaking in their description—death is delivered to a dead landscape, the train station surrounded by winter and men in black coats. Then, like the pacing panther that replaces the starved Hunger Artist in the cage in Kafka’s story, young men on the fringe of a small-town funeral industry creep to life; “lanky boys of all ages” (including the hearse drivers) appear “as suddenly and slimily as eels wakened by the crack of thunder.” This flurry of youth in the face of death is Cather at her most sublime, and the story gets even better, somehow lifting the veil on the false humility of the living—Merrick’s mother is a shrieking monster of ego; she asserts herself as the star of her son’s funeral.

Much has been made by queer theorists of the gay potential of Jim Laird, the deceased’s childhood friend, and Steavens, one of Merrick’s students, and though I don’t know if Cather had any of that in mind, there’s a sweet, perhaps romantic generosity in the scene between the two men. Laird and Steavens end up alone with the casket and corpse, in the Merrick parlor, and Steavens becomes faint. The window is stuck, and Laird “loosened the sash with one blow of his red fist.” The two men, at opposite ends of Merrick’s short life, seek solace in each other’s sensitivity, as the town’s most pompous and condemning moralists—the funeral regulars—gather in the other room. I wish Cather had left us there, alone with Laird and Steavens, but instead she turns the floor over to those moralists; fortunately for Laird, all the men so bent on criticizing Merrick for his unmanliness are corrupt in a variety of ways, allowing Laird to take the moral high ground. We’re supposed to delight in the tongue-lashing Laird delivers them, I suspect, but such melodrama isn’t remotely as authentic and affecting as that red fist against the stuck sash in the other room.
About Schaffert’s most recent novel, The Washington Post’s Ron Charles wrote “The Coffins of Little Hope is like an Edward Gorey cartoon stitched in pastel needlepoint. Its creepiness scurries along the edges of these heartwarming pages like some furry creature you keep convincing yourself you didn’t see.” “Men should not be allowed to write women this well” was novelist Joni Rodgers’s complaint about The Devils in the Sugar Shop (2007). Salon’s Meghan Daum thought The Singing and Dancing Daughters of God (2005) “ruthlessly funny and utterly compassionate.” The Phantom Limbs of the Rollow Sisters (2002) won the Nebraska Book Award. Schaffert has also won the Henfield Award and the Mary Roberts Rinehart Award, and has been short-listed for the O. Henry Prize. He teaches in the English Department at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln.

Note: Schaffert will be reading from The Coffins of Little Hope at Barnes & Noble Tribeca at 6 PM on Wednesday, July 27, and at Word at 7 PM on Thursday, July 28.

Previous Reader’s Almanac posts of interest:
Related LOA works: Ambrose Bierce: The Devil’s Dictionary, Tales, & Memoirs (includes “The Boarded Window”); Willa Cather: Early Novels and Stories (includes “The Sculptor’s Funeral”)

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