All Hope Abandon Here: A Personal Encounter with “Where Is the Voice Coming From?”
By Robert M. Brennan, Georgia State University Alumnus
Eudora Welty’s tightly knit short story “Where Is the Voice Coming From?” is a complexity of irony, metaphor, anger and place. The story is ironic because of the assassination committed by a nameless murderer in Thermopylae, Mississippi, a town named for the Battle of Thermopylae in which a brave Spartan army fought to the death against an overwhelming Persian army. The murder victim Roland Summers is named for Roland, a warrior-hero of early French literature, who, like Roland Summers, was also ambushed and slain. And while the French hero was figuratively stabbed in the back by a traitor, Roland Summers was literately shot in the back, the modus operandi of a coward.
In the unnamed assassin in her story, Welty has created a white racist Everyman frustrated by his anonymity, angry that Roland Summers has had his picture in the newspaper and on television—the killer has never even had his picture taken—demanding equality with him. The irony in this is that Roland Summers would not want to be equal to his killer; that would be a step backward. All Roland Summers wants for himself and others are the rights to which his murderer had access. In the things of this world, Roland Summers was already superior to his killer: a nice home with a well kept, green front lawn on a paved street, a white new car, a garage with a paved driveway, and house lights on to greet him when he arrives home.
When the killer arrives home, he parks on his bare front yard in a truck borrowed from his brother-in-law. There are no lights on in the house and his wife immediately begins to nag him reducing still further his self-esteem. Yet killing Roland Summers not only bolstered his self-esteem but the brutal act had also assuaged the envy that he felt, realizing that to an objective observer, Roland Summers was a better man than he was. And the murderer settled that with a shot in the back. He says, “Roland? There was one way left, for me to be ahead of you and stay ahead of you, by Dad, and I just taken it. Now I’m alive and you ain’t. We ain’t never now, never going to be equals and you know why? One of us is dead. What about that, Roland?” (729).
And who was this anonymous killer?
He was Byron De La Beckwith, DeLay to his friends and cronies in the White Citizens Council.
One day in 1967, during the time I was the CBS News Southern Bureau Chief, I was in New Orleans to cover a speech at a White Citizens Council Convention to be given by George Wallace who was beginning to look like a third-party candidate in the 1968 elections. I was in an elevator with a small group of men, obvious attendees at the White Citizens Council convention. A man got on the elevator carrying a rifle, and someone asked, pointing to the rifle, “Hey, De Lay, is that it.” Byron De La Beckwith brandished the rifle and with a vulpine smirk, nodded. The implication, of course, was that this was the gun he, Byron De La Beckwith, had used to assassinate Medgar Evers in June of 1963. His companions chuckled approving. By 1967, De La Beckwith had been twice tried for the crime and twice acquitted. The gun he used was evidence in both trials, and whether that was the rifle he carried around in New Orleans on the day that I saw him, I don’t know. What I do know is that rifle, any rifle really, was carried among people he wanted to impress. In his sorry life, that is all he had to give him status, the symbol of a cowardly murder.
For legal reasons, Welty could not use the killer’s real name in her story that was published in The New Yorker (July 6) a month after the killing, at which time De La Beckwith had already been arrested. But she did give the killer a voice in her story. In a reading of Welty’s story for The New Yorker, Joyce Carol Oates notes that Welty uses, “The most extreme masculine, percussive, mean, vicious, thug voice,” a voice, adds Oates, that because it is all around her, may be the voice of her gardener or the auto mechanic who works on her car. Perhaps as a New Englander, Oates would not realize that the menial work in a southern garden would be done by an African American, but her point is interesting. Welty lived in a city surrounded by hatred, fear, anger, and thuggishness. The white feared the loss of their superior political and social position, and even after the civil rights and voting rights acts were passed in 1964 and 1965, many southern blacks feared retaliation in the form of direct violence or loss of their jobs. They were still living in a town, after all, where one of the streets was named for the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, Nathan Bedford Forrest. Many Klansmen had abandoned the Klan and had joined the White Citizens Council, a much more respectable name, but the same virulent racist cowards nevertheless.
Speaking with Linda Kuehl for the Paris Review in 1972, referring to the Medgar Evers assassination, Welty said that too many generalities were being written about the South from a distance, but “I knew what was in that man’s mind because I’d lived all my life where it happened. It was the strangest feeling of horror and compulsion all in one (83).”
Oates, Joyce Carol. “Joyce Carol Oates Reads Eudora Welty.” New Yorker 9 Mar. 2009. Web. 1 Feb. 2016.
Welty, Eudora. “The Art of Fiction XXLVII: Eudora Welty.” Interview with Linda Kuehl. 1972. Conversations with Eudora Welty. Ed. Peggy Whitman Prenshaw. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1984. 74-91. Print.
——. “Where Is the Voice Coming From?” Stories, Essays, & Memoir. New York: Library of America, 1998. 727-32. Print.