Nearly sixty years ago John Peale Bishop published a remarkable essay in the Virginia Quarterly Review entitled “The South and Tradition.” In it he ruminated on the Old South—its glories and failings—and said that the South had a civilization because like civilizations elsewhere (in Rome, France, England) there was “a continuous succession of manners, which apply not only to the fine arts but, perhaps, more essentially, to the arts of living.” These arts of living, what critics since have called manners and morals, gave Bishop and the writers of his generation in the South a valuable lode to mine and countermine. That is especially true of the novelists and short story writers who have written about the South since the late 20’s—from Wolfe, Faulkner, Katherine Anne Porter, Caroline Gordon, and Bishop himself to Andrew Lytle, Robert Penn Warren, and James Agee to William Styron, George Garrett, Elizabeth Spencer, Clyde Edgerton, and Jill McCorkle.

The writers whom we are considering here come from the generation born in the teens and 20’s. Charles Edward Eaton, who was born in 1916, is the oldest of them; Nancy Huddleston Packer, the youngest. Each of the three has written regularly in more than one mode: Eaton as a poet, William Hoffman as a novelist. Packer as a memoirist. All have had academic appointments and longtime academic connections, but only Packer has taught full-time for most of her career. And she, a native of Alabama, is the only one to have lived outside the South most of her mature life. Hoffman, who has published the most stories over the past decade, is the most accomplished short story writer of the three. His stories have appeared not only in leading quarterlies but in such magazines as the Atlantic. His ten novels have been published by Doubleday and Viking and by the LSU Press, the publisher of By Land, By Sea and of Furors Die, a novel to be released this spring. Although Hoffman is a good novelist, the short story is his natural form. After regularly publishing short fiction for over twenty-five years, he is finally getting appropriate attention and lately has won prizes for his fiction from the Virginia Quarterly Review and Shenandoah.

By Land, By Sea, Hoffman’s second book of stories, is not quite so fine as his first, Virginia Reels (1978), but is nevertheless one of the best collections of short fiction under single authorship to derive from the South in the past five years. Hoffman’s short fiction embodies a freshness of style, variety of character, range of effect—from pathos to humor to tragic intensity—that have seldom been rivaled in the South during his career. The best of the dozen stories presented in By Land, By Sea are “Landfall,” “Smoke,” “Faces at the Window,” “Moorings,” “Indian Gift,” and “Altarpiece.” Hoffman characteristically shows us his leading characters as they are caught in the vise of fate, and as the jaws of that vise slowly close, we see what those people are made of and how they confront the manifold pressures of their destinies. In “Landfall” an aging alcoholic decides to make one final run in his sloop, and as he and his wife sail into the raging seas of the North Atlantic, he looks Death squarely in the eye. In “Smoke” another frail alcoholic, who has lately been released from the penitentiary, faces down two armed younger men. In “Faces at the Window” a divorcee tries to rebuild her confidence in love and in the male sex. In “Indian Gift” a hardworking man is brought down by a momentary act of greed and ill-judgment. In “Moorings” another hardworking man is undone by a fit of unreasonable behavior. And in “Altarpiece” a lonely widower tries to come to terms with his grief while helping a woman who is long on pride and pluck and short on money and luck.

All of these stories reveal William Hoffman at his best. The earmark of this fiction is its author’s exact use of the Southern idiom, especially the spoken language. Hoffman has a marvelous ear for colloquial speech, high and low.

If Hoffman’s beat is Virginia and West Virginia from the coal-mining country of the mountains to the Tidewater and indeed to the Chesapeake Bay, Charles Edward Eaton is chiefly engaged by the world of embassies in Latin America and by the equally rarified world of the academy. But he is also interested in Cheever and Updike country—New England society, especially the suburbs of Connecticut. Mr. Eaton writes in the tradition of Henry James, and the Southern writer of an earlier generation whose fiction his most resembles is Allen Tate, although Tate’s scene was the South. Tate also was interested in manners and morals and wrote his stories and his novel as a poet, with more in the way of description and reflection than action realized through scene. Mr. Eaton writes very well indeed, but sometimes his descriptions are too lavish and his dialogue too mannered.

The stories presented here derive from three previous collections published between 1959 and 1978, with a new selection presented for the past decade. Some readers will find that the characters and situations tend to be too much alike, but complexity and subtlety abound within this relatively narrow round of experience. The stories proceed by indirection—allusion, metaphor, irony. The characters are superbly conscious and self-conscious—actors on the stage of the self The situations are, as James would phrase it in speaking of the form of these stories (what he calls the anecdote), small and smooth and detached; the author makes them bristle with possibility, sometimes overemphasizing that possibility.

“One Man’s Poison” by Nancy Packer might well have been written by Charles Edward Eaton, whose characters often consume large quantities of alcohol. When we first meet Garter Frame, he says: “If I’m not a drunk, the world isn’t round, Birmingham isn’t the Pittsburgh of the South, their grandfathers didn’t own a thousand slaves, nothing they believe is true. Even Lucy. . . . We were almost married once.” Lucy, our narrator, finds that Garter has reformed and is now helping drunks rather than helping himself to drinks as he did once too often during their engagement. The story turns upon her recognition about the relation of desire and drink. “Why go on about the suggestion, of seduction?” she asks herself and the reader. “No one can speak with as many voices as a woman discovers in herself, shouting, rasping, whispering, telling of desire and reluctance. . . . If only between the parlor and the boudoir there was no hallway.”

A similar passage—a moment of intense reflection—occurs in one of Eaton’s best stories, “The Case of the Missing Photographs.” The narrator asks of a friendship that is drying up: “Why didn’t it end there? Why do human beings keep toying with each other past the point of reason and civilized endurance? Loneliness provides part of the answer, but I think one must look elsewhere into some basic lust for human encounter, some fascination with what’s difficult in the face of the absurdities of human coexistence.”

Mrs. Packer’s stories, like Mr. Eaton’s, are often laid outside the South, but she has no interest in what James called the international theme and confines herself to such exotic spots as California and New York City as well as the South. She also occasionally writes about the academy, which is the scene of the title story of her new collection and of “Lousy Moments” and “The Waiting Game,” stories about commonplace academic situations. But “The Women Who Walk” actually explores the bereft loneliness of a woman caught by divorce, intense loneliness that could occur in any setting. Indeed the best stories here—” Breathing Space,” “Jellyfish,” “Homecoming,” “Making Amends,” and “The Women Who Walk“—are about lonely people, mainly women, trying to come to terms with solitude and, often, isolation and alienation. “She had lost touch with the world, gone stale and sour inside herself Her life had lost its shape. . . . She had to rebuild her life again,” Marian, the protagonist of “The Women Who Walk,” thinks forlornly. This powerful thematic statement applies, mutatis mutandis, to many of the stories here, some of which—such as “Making Amends” and “One Man’s Poison”—are comedies of manners. All of these writers are Southern, but none is confined to the region.

All of them write out of a profound knowledge of the South and its literature and culture, but all are more interested in what Bishop called the arts of living than in the fine arts. Even though the Southern civilization’s manners are becoming attenuated, they still exist and are often seen best in the clash between manners and morals that provide the essential theme and action of much American fiction from James to the present time. This clash can be seen in such representative stories as Hoffman’s “Faces at the Window” and “Altarpiece,” Eaton’s “The Case of the Missing Photographs,” and Packer’s “Jellyfish” and “Making Amends.”

The stories presented in these three books are set in the world of the present, and the best of them remain contemporary—in touch with the currents of modern life as well as solidly rooted in the past. “Without a past,” Bishop observed, “we are living not in the present, but in a vague and rather unsatisfactory future.” He continues: “We have this [past] for our encouragement. That is a start, and a good one, in these days when everyone is ready to make civilization in which nothing so fallible as grandfather will be left, but all will be ordered for the best in the best of dehumanized worlds.” Although we often feel the pressure of dehumanization in these stories, we also find the clean well-ordered space of civilization.


[New and Selected Stories, 1959-1989, by Charles Edward Eaton (New York, London, and Toronto: Cornwall Books) 355 pp., $18.95]

[By Land, By Sea: Stories, by William Hoffman (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press) 184 pp., $16.95]

[The Women Who Walk: Stories, by Nancy Huddleston Packer (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press) 184 pp., $17.95]