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  • Writer's pictureAlan Bray

First Love

This week, a new story, First Love, written by last week’s author, Eudora Welty, and first published in 1942. First Love is classic Welty, set in Natchez, Mississippi, and full of gorgeous descriptive prose, the story shown omnisciently by an active, unnamed, narrator. The dialogue, however, is minimal, as the protagonist, twelve-year-old Joel Mayes, is deaf and mute. Moreover, the story is set in the historic past, 1806, and features three characters based on “real” people, Harman Blennerhassett and his wife Margaret, and your buddy Aaron Burr, who famously shot and killed Alexander Hamilton in a July, 1804 duel. To my knowledge, Ms. Welty wrote no other stories featuring characters based on “real” people.

In any case, this is no piece of historical fiction. First Love is not “about” Aaron Burr and the Blennerhassetts; it is “about” Joel and his experience of encountering these famous people in a primarily visual way and making meaning of the encounter. And it is not about Aaron Burr’s duel with Alexander Hamilton, which occurred before the events of this story.

Well, why Aaron Burr, then?

“Kay, an historical digression:

In 1804, Thomas Jefferson won the presidential election, but Aaron Burr, who had been his vice-president, was not nominated for a second term, rebuffed, as it were. An angry Burr set off for New Orleans to raise an army and to become the leader of a separate country in the southeastern United States. (sound familiar?) Burr, backed financially by Blennerhassett, who had fled Great Britain after marrying his under-age niece (?), planned to capture Washington D.C. and sought help from both the British and Spanish governments. Thomas Jefferson ordered his arrest for treason, and Burr was eventually captured near Natchez, Mississippi. However, in a significant trial, the government was unable to convince a judge to convict him and an exonerated Burr faded into obscurity, dying in 1835.

In First Love, Joel, who is probably orphaned, works in Natchez as a boot cleaner at an inn. For this labor, he receives room and board, and sleeps in a small room at the rear of the tavern. Joel wakes late at night (please remember he is deaf) and is astonished to see two men seated at the table in his room. He doesn’t recognize them.

“They were not of Natchez, and their names were not in the book…One of the two men lifted his right arm—a tense, yet gentle and easy motion—and made the dark, wet cloak fall back. To Joel, it was like the first movement he had ever seen, as if the world had been up to that night inanimate.” The men leave. “It was while cleaning boots again that the identity of the two men came to him all at once. Like parts of his meditations, the name came into his mind…There was no one to inform him that the men were Aaron Burr and Harman Blennerhasssett, but he knew.” It's not made crystal clear in the story how Joel recognizes the men, just that he remembered a “great arrival” in Natchez. The implication is that he must have read (being deaf) about Burr and Blennerhassett coming to town, although there’s no sense that Joel knows about the rebellion. Later, he is given a notice to paste up at the tavern that confirms Burr’s identity and the circumstances of the trial.

This represents Ms. Welty taking some liberties with the historical record. We know that Burr was arrested south of Natchez but not that he spent time there. He might of. The story depicts the preparations for Burr’s trial, the arrival of the militia to enforce order, and the town giving a dance in Burr’s honor. All possible, all possible dramatic license too.

What I want to emphasize here is that this is a story about a non-historical protagonist and his “story” (which we will get into), not a story about the historical figure, Aaron Burr. First Love uses Burr and his friends Blennerhassett and Blennerhassett’s wife, as characters in a fictional story. It is like presenting a sidelight of history, a story showing how a protagonist might react to encountering a “famous” personage. This is no story that imagines the inner life of a figure from history. It is not biography. It does imagine a “what if” scenario. What if Aaron Burr had spent time in Natchez, Mississippi? What effect might meeting him have had on a twelve-year-old boy who was deaf and dumb?

Just to belabor things, is the depiction of Aaron Burr historically accurate? Are we enjoying verisimilitude in this tale?

The physical description—tall, flowing hair, sharp forehead, a small scar on the cheek—seems congruent enough with the images of Burr that survive—but also nondescript. They could apply to many. Certainly, the attire of the men, boots and cloaks, sideburns, seems very accurate. I’ve noted that the historic circumstance may be embellished a bit, but the idea that Burr was waiting in Natchez seems believable. The descriptions of Natchez and the Mississippi River are evocative (more on this later).

So, yes, First Love seems quite believable.

I suppose we could say, well, Ms. Welty planned the story out, she was the omniscient puppet-master who put these two characters—one fictitious, one real—together in order to show what might have happened. After all, the story is written in the simple past tense, implying it shows events that have already occurred. Moreover, the story, written in the early 1940s, shows events that occurred in the year 1806—so it’s clear that it shows events that have already occurred.

Oh dear. To borrow a phrase that used to crop up often in this blog, I feel like we’ve fallen down the rabbit hole.

What’s the point, Walter? The point is that Ms. Welty has crafted a story about imaginary events that might have happened in the year 1806 if a fictitious protagonist encountered a real historic figure.

It may be said that a story presenting “real” historical characters carries a certain believability by virtue of drawing on real events, however much fictionalized.

Till next time, dear friends.


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