“The Past Is Never Dead. It’s Not Even Past”: The Ambivalent Call of Nostalgic Memory in Richard Ford’s Short Story “Calling” (A Multitude of Sins, 2001)
This passage shows nostalgia literally, if fleetingly, at work. A teenager achingly longs for (algia) the recovery of home (nostos) as household: here, it is his father’s return home that will bring back the perfect bygone days of family happiness. But the next sentence reads: “And then I prayed that he would die and die in a way I would never know about, and his memory would cease to be a memory, and all would be erased” (p. 64), which shows the nostalgic temptation being brushed aside, the hope for recovery yielding to the fantasy of erasure. However, the very narrative serves as contradiction to these dismissive words since its focus has precisely been the protagonist-narrator’s detailed recalling, from the vantage point of adulthood, of that duck-hunting outing with his father at a moment of acute family crisis. By that time, his father had “gone off with a man,” leaving wife and child “behind in New Orleans,” and his “mother had let a black man […] move into [their] house and into her bedroom.” (p. 35). Furthermore, as the narrator tells us from the outset of his tale, it is precisely because “They’re all dead now. My father. My mother. Dr Carter [my father’s lover]. The black accompanist, Dubinion [my mother’s lover],” (p. 35) that the call of nostalgic memory cannot be repressed and triggers off the need to tell, and therefore to keep a written trace of his parents, and more particularly, his father.My father lived thirty years after that morning in December, [when we went duck-hunting] on the Grand Lake, in 1961. By any accounting he lived a whole life after that. […][…] I never saw him again […].Once, in our newspaper, early in the nineteen-seventies, I saw my father pictured in the society section […].Seeing this picture reminded me that in the days after my father had taken me to the marsh, and events had ended not altogether happily, I had prayed for one of the few times, but also for the last time, in my life. And I prayed quite fervently for a while and in spite of all, that he would come back to us [my mother and me] and that our life would begin to be as it had been.(A Multitude of Sins, Ford 2001, pp. 63–64)
Willful nostalgic recollection does not only fail the narrator; it is also blurred and eventually undone by the haunting return of the historical repressed, slavery. “The past is never dead. It’s not even past,” Faulkner—one of the most powerful embodiments of Southern Gothic and an author whose spectral presence can tellingly be felt in “Calling”—reminds us (Faulkner  1996, p. 85). Along with Teresa A. Goddu, we can say that “the Gothic becomes the mode through which to speak what often remains unspeakable within the American national narrative—the crime of slavery” (Goddu 2007, p. 63), or rather, considering the title of the collection in which “Calling” is included, the Gothic becomes the mode through which to speak America’s ineffable original sin.In many ways, the style which critics call the Southern Grotesque can be described as a reaction to the discrepancy between the vision of the South as antebellum pastoral Arcadia on the one hand and the crude historical realities of a patriarchal, racist society on the other. It is thus instructive to wander through the gallery of freaks and deformities which abound in this genre, since they can offer us telling insights into exactly which unpalatable realities the South has repressed in its own vision of itself.(Ibid., p. 487)
2. The Pastoral Impulse
In Wilderness and the American Mind, Roderick Frazier Nash records America’s changing attitudes towards Wilderness, and shows the growing appreciation of it on a romantic mode by people who did not face it from the pioneer’s perspective. In the early nineteenth century, wilderness was felt to pose “an exciting, temporary alternative to civilization” and by the end of the century, “the widespread appeal of the uncivilized” had turned to “a cult” (Nash  2001, pp. 51, 60, 145). After the closing of the frontier in 1890, pioneering “acquired added luster […] and came to be regarded as important not only for spearheading the advance in civilization but also for bringing Americans into contact with the primitive.” (Ibid., p. 145).4 As notably underlined by Frederick Jackson Turner, it was life in the wilderness that shaped the national character, and “by virtue of being wild, the New World was a clean state to which idealists could bring their dreams of a better life.” (Ibid., p. 146). Americans’ long-lasting attraction to wild spaces indeed cannot be separated from what Robert H. Brinkmeyer Jr. calls “the towering mythology of the West.” (Brinkmeyer  2007, p. 1).A notable fact about imaginative literature in America […] is the number of our most admired works written in obedience to a pastoral impulse. By ‘pastoral impulse’ I mean the urge, in the face of society’s increasing power and complexity, to retreat in the direction of nature. The most obvious form taken by this withdrawal from the world of established institutions is a movement in space. The writer or narrator describes, or a character enacts, a move away from a relatively sophisticated to a simpler, more ‘natural’ environment. [… Its] significance derives from the plain fact that it is ‘closer’ to nature: it is a landscape that bears fewer marks of human intervention.”
“I’m calling up […] to know if you’d care to go hunting in the fabled Grand Lake Marsh. […] My ancient father had a trusted family retainer named Renard Theriot, a disreputable old yat. But Renard could unquestionably blow a duck call. So I’ve arranged for his son, Mr. Renard, Jr., to put us both in a blind and call in several thousand ducks for our pleasure.” My father cleared his throat in the stagy way he always did when he talked like this—high-falutin’ […].(p. 37)5
I wanted to go duck hunting, to go by boat out into the marsh that makes up the vast, brackish tidal land south and east of our city. I had always imagined I’d go with my father when I was old enough. And I was old enough now, and had been taught to fire a rifle—though not a shotgun—in my school.(p. 38)
The typographic emphasis on wanted and the repetition of the same verb (last two quotes) betray the child’s naïve expectations, as reality is bound to fall short of his imaginary projection: “And what I saw, coming low over the decoys, […] was only one duck. […] In my dreams, there’d been hundreds of ducks, and my father and I shot them so that they fell out of the sky like rain, and how many there were would not have mattered because we were doing it together.” (p. 61). The adult narrator had warned the reader in advance: “And I remember becoming nervous [when my father called], as if by agreeing to go with him […]—as if by doing these altogether natural things (going hunting) I was crossing a line, putting myself at risk. […] Disappointment was what I risked, I know now.” (p. 39).[Renard Junior] had yet to blow one of the calls, but I wanted him to, wanted to see a V of ducks turn and veer and come into our decoy-set, the way I felt they were supposed to.(p. 54)
[My father] was wearing a tuxedo with a pink shirt, a bright-red bow-tie and a pink carnation. He was also wearing white-and-black spectator shoes […].(p. 49)
My father had already gotten his black-and-white shoes muddy and scratched, and mud on his tuxedo pants and his pink shirt and even onto his forehead. He was an unusual-looking figure to be where he was. He seemed to have been dropped out of an airplane on the way to a party.(p. 55)
3. From Pastoral to Southern Gothic
He was a tall, skinny, solemnly long yellow-faced Negro with sallow, moist eyes, a soft lisp and enormous, bony, pink-nailed hands he could stretch up and down a piano keyboard. […] He often parked himself in our living room, drinking scotch whisky […]. He usually looked at me only out of the corner of his yellow Oriental-looking eye […].(p. 42)
[H]e played a chord in the bass clef, a spooky rumbling chord like the scary part in a movie.(p. 43)
The objectifying process discernible in “[Dubinion] often parked himself in our living-room” is complemented by the suggestion of his animal dimension through the hypallage in the following description: “I could see outside through the glass door to where William Dubinion was on his knees in the monkey grass that bordered my mother’s camellias.” (p. 37).He was a strange, powerful man who had seen life I would never see. And I am sure I was both afraid of him and equally afraid he would detect it, which probably made me appear superior and insolent and make him dislike me.(Ibid.)
4. “The Past Is Never Dead. It’s Not Even Past”: America’s Ineffable Original Sin
Not only does the dialogue betray the teenager’s patronizing stance (he obviously takes for granted that Dubinion is unlettered, showing his difficulty shaking off preconceived representations), but the passage interestingly pits Dante’s The Inferno against the ritualistic celebration of Christmas, all complete with the decorated tree. In Western culture in general, and anglo-saxon culture in particular, Christmas time is arguably a moment imbued with nostalgic longing, with its celebration not only of the birth of Christ but also of family unity shared in the warmth of home; and the protagonist’s mother is shown to cling to this chimera even in the face of family dissolution. Christmas is also a celebration predicated on a lie: that of the existence of Santa Claus, who eventually rewards all children, reassured that they are indeed well-behaved and on the side of good.The one thing I remember [Dubinion] saying to me was during the days before I went with my father to the marsh that Christmas […] I came into the great shadowy living-room where […] my mother had established a large Christmas tree with blinking lights and a gold star on top. I had a copy of The Inferno, which I had decided to read over the holidays […].“That’s a pretty good book,” he said in his soft lisping voice, and stared right at me in a way that felt accusatory.“It’s written in Italian,” I said. “It’s a poem about going to hell.”“So is that where you expect to go?”“No,” I said. “I don’t.”“‘Per me si va nella citta dolente. Per me si va nell’eterno dolore.’”(pp. 42–43)
However, this observant man does not realize that choosing the same profession as his father and his grandfather is yet another way of desperately clinging to the past. He also seems unable to widen his analysis and to envision the broader meaning of his private story. Although, according to Svetlana Boym, “reflective nostalgia has a capacity to awaken multiple planes of consciousness” (Boym 2001, p. 50), the narrator proves unable to see “the patina of time and history” that this kind of nostalgia lingers on (Ibid., p. 41). He indeed never shows any explicit awareness that the past as idealized homeland to which Americans are irresistibly tempted to return, as in the fabled stories involving a nostalgic relationship to pristine nature or to the Old South as antebellum Arcadia, is the fake past of myth, a myth that erases the darker truth. Surprisingly, the lawyer-narrator also fails to envisage the need for redress of the victims of American history.Life had already changed [before that day]. That morning represented only the first working out of particulars I would evermore observe. Like my father, I am a lawyer. And the law is a calling which teaches you that most of life is about adjustments, the seatings and reseatings we perform to accommodate events occurring outside our control and over which we might not have sought control in the first place. So that when we are tempted, as I was for an instant in the duck blind, or as I was through all those thirty years, to let myself be preoccupied and angry with my father, […] I try to realize again that it is best just to offer myself release and to realize I am feeling anger all alone, and that there is no redress. We want it. Life can be seen to be almost nothing else sometimes than our wish for redress. As a lawyer who was the son of a lawyer and the grandson of another, I know this. And I also know not to expect it.(pp. 63–64)
It falls upon the reader to carry on the reflective process, and precisely to see themselves in the mirror that is held out to them; and because “[r]e-flection suggests new flexibility, not the reestablishment of stasis” (Boym 2001, p. 49), they too must accept to be displaced from their comfortable landmarks and certainties in the process.I looked at Renard Junior [after not shooting the duck. […] He looked at me and made a strange face, a face I’d never seen but will never forget. He smiled and began to bat his eyelids in fast succession, and then he raised his two hands, palms up to the level of his eyes, as if he expected something to fall down into them. I don’t know what that gesture meant, though I have thought of it often—sometimes in the middle of the night when my sleep is disturbed. Derision I think; or possibly it meant he merely didn’t know why I hadn’t shot the duck and was awaiting my answer. Or possibly it was something else, some sign whose significance I would never know. Fabrice [Renard Junior] was a strange man. No one would have doubted it.(p. 62)
Conflicts of Interest
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This is how the narrator retrospectively analyzes the call his father gave him when he invited him to go duck-hunting: “[W]hen we spoke that day, he didn’t sound to me like some man who was living with another man in St. Louis. He sounded much as he always had in our normal life when I had gone to Jesuit and he had practiced law in the Hibernia Bank building, and we were a family.” (p. 38).
In Mystery and Manners, Flannery O’Connor, one of the best-known representatives of Southern Gothic, devotes a whole essay to the importance of the Grotesque in modern Southern fiction. (O’Connor  1969, pp. 36–50)
The first sentence of the short story reads: “A year after my father departed, moved to St. Louis, and left my mother and me behind in New Orleans to look after ourselves in whatever manner we could, he called on the telephone one afternoon and asked to speak to me.” (p. 35)
Jennifer K. Ladino also insists on the nostalgic dimension of the American nature myths of the frontier and the pastoral (Ladino 2012, p. 11).
The archetypal motif of father-son transmission is reinforced by the suggestion that the narrator’s father was taken on the same outings by his own father.
Definition of The American Heritage Dictionary Online: “A member of a lower- and middle-class segment of the white population of New Orleans.” (https://ahdictionary.com/word/search.html?q=yat).
Susan Donaldson in her article “Faulkner’s Versions of Pastoral, Gothic, and the Sublime,” opposes the two notions of “pastoral retreat” as stasis and “gothic journey” as motion.
As betrayed by the presupposition on which the fragment “it was just as likely to cause no uproar if a proper white woman appeared in public with a Negro man in our city” hinges: “proper white woman” takes for granted the implicit presence of the reverse adjective “improper” before “Negro man”, sapping the supposed open-mindedness of New Orleans inhabitants, protagonist included.
Leslie Fiedler, in Love and Death in the American Novel (1966), writes: “Our literature as a whole at times seems a chamber of horrors disguised as an amusement park ‘fun house’, where we pay to play at terror and are confronted in the innermost chamber with a series of inter-reflecting mirrors which present us with a thousand versions of our own face […]. Through these gothic images are projected certain obsessive concerns of our national life: the ambiguity of our relationship with Indian and Negro, the ambiguity of the Encounter with the nature, the guilt of the revolutionist who feels himself a parricide…” (qtd in Liénard-Yeterian 2012, p. 81).
The full quote, in keeping with Flannery O’Connor’s religious perspective on a modern secular world which has lost all sense of evil, reads: “The novelist with Christian concerns will find in modern life distortions which are repugnant to him, and his problem will be to make these appear as distortions to an audience which is used to seeing them as natural; and he may well be forced to take ever more violent means to get his vision across to this hostile audience. When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal ways of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then 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.”
See in particular Tréguer and Henry’s book Lectures de Richard Ford: A Multitude of Sins, pp. 81, 174 and 181–82.
The only other explicit reference is to be found in the story “Charity” (A Multitude of Sins, Ford 2001) on page 188.
One thinks here of Faulkner’s house Rowan Oak, built in the colonial style and redolent of the typical plantation house with its cedar-lined drive and its large white columns, a house he acquired in early 1930 and spent his life working on.
The last story in this collection, “Communist” (Rock Springs, Ford 1987, pp. 215–35), already stages a hunting outing, this time between a teenager and his mother’s boyfriend, an episode to which the teenager returns as adult narrator twenty-five years later.
“Puppy” (A Multitude of Sins, Ford 2001, pp. 77–110), another story whose action is set in New Orleans, tellingly reproduces the motif of the uncanny and the return of the repressed, this time through the figure of a small puppy that intrudes upon the protagonists’ sacred homeplace and becomes an eerie presence, a network of allusions here again making of class and race relations a subtext to the story.
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Gay, M.-A. “The Past Is Never Dead. It’s Not Even Past”: The Ambivalent Call of Nostalgic Memory in Richard Ford’s Short Story “Calling” (A Multitude of Sins, 2001). Humanities 2019, 8, 11. https://doi.org/10.3390/h8010011
Gay M-A. “The Past Is Never Dead. It’s Not Even Past”: The Ambivalent Call of Nostalgic Memory in Richard Ford’s Short Story “Calling” (A Multitude of Sins, 2001). Humanities. 2019; 8(1):11. https://doi.org/10.3390/h8010011Chicago/Turabian Style
Gay, Marie-Agnès. 2019. "“The Past Is Never Dead. It’s Not Even Past”: The Ambivalent Call of Nostalgic Memory in Richard Ford’s Short Story “Calling” (A Multitude of Sins, 2001)" Humanities 8, no. 1: 11. https://doi.org/10.3390/h8010011