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Tuesday, December 8, 2020

Read With Welty: In the Land of Dreamy Dreams

Tracy Carr
Library Services Director

If you haven’t read Ellen Gilchrist’s 1981 collection of short stories, In the Land of Dreamy Dreams, I envy you. This was Gilchrist’s first collection of stories and in it, she introduces us to characters she’d return to in future stories. In “Revenge,” we meet Rhoda Manning for the first time. Rhoda, who we can perhaps read as a Gilchrist stand-in, appears in dozens more stories at various ages. Don’t get too caught up in the Rhoda canon, though—sometimes details change, and you’re just going to have to deal with it.

Gilchrist’s characters are usually women, sometimes rich, and almost always Southern. In “There’s a Garden of Eden,” she combines all three:

Scores of men, including an ex-governor and the owner of a football team, consider Alisha Terrebone to be the most beautiful woman in the state of Louisiana. If she is unhappy, what hope is there for ordinary mortals? Yet here is Alisha, cold and bored and lonely, smoking in bed.

Not an ordinary bed either. This bed is eight feet wide and covered with a spread made from Alisha’s old fur coats. There are dozens of little pillows piled against the headboard, and the sheets are the color of shells and wild plums and ivory. 
The inscription in Eudora Welty's copy of In the Land of Dreamy Dreams:
For Eudora, who showed me there was a way - Love, Ellen

Gilchrist, who was born in Vicksburg, took a writing class under Eudora Welty at Millsaps. In this interview from Deep South Magazine, Gilchrist explains:

I wrote short stories for Eudora. I wrote her about one a week, and she would edit them and put these beautiful little pencil marks on them, very gentle, very light little pencil marks and I’d get it back and I’d say, ‘Well, that must not be any good,’ and I’d throw it away. I’d never heard about rewriting. There was one that she thought was publishable and I think I published it somewhere. The myths that go around about writers are not really the true stories. I’m telling you some true stories. I had a wonderful time knowing Eudora. She was my mother’s age and they had friends in common and she was just a lovely, lovely lady.

I had the luck of stumbling upon Victory Over Japan, Gilchrist’s National Book Award-winning collection of stories, when I was in high school. I immediately became an Ellen Gilchrist superfan and even wrote my one and only fan letter to Gilchrist a few years later. (Exciting: she wrote back and I framed it!) And years after that, I was giddy with excitement to be close enough to her at a Mississippi Book Festival event to secretly/creepily take a photo of her. I won’t share it here because even creepy superfans have standards. 


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