Jul 12 Ellen Douglas, A Literary Legacy

Your Natchez History Minute is brought to
you by Natchez National Historical Park. On this day, July 12 in 1921, Josephine Chamberlain
Ayers was born in Natchez. She is known to the world by her pen name Ellen Douglas, a
name she adopted to protect her Natchez family, on whose lives she based her first novel,
A Family’s Affairs. Although raised in Arkansas and Louisiana, Ellen Douglas spent her adult
life in Greenville and Jackson, Mississippi. However, many of her best novels are set in
a fictional Natchez, a town she calls Homochitto. Her works that depict Natchez include: A Family’s
Affairs (published in 1961), Black Cloud, White Cloud (published in 1963), Apostles
of Light, a finalist for the National Book Award in 1973, and The Rock Cried Out (published
in 1979). In Douglas’s autobiographical, non-fiction book entitled Truth: Four stories
I Am Finally Old Enough to Tell published in 1998, she openly discusses family secrets,
her search for the truth, and along the way aptly describes eccentric, real-life Natchezians.
In all of Douglas’s work, her great preoccupation is truth, asking how anyone can fully know
the past or understand another human being. Written primarily during and after The Civil
Rights Movement, Douglas’s stories pierce tired racial stereotypes, giving her readers
a highly nuanced understanding of the complexities faced by whites and blacks in the South. However,
it is the moral dilemmas of her finely drawn characters, white and black, that lead critics
to compare her work as much to Flaubert and Dostoevsky as they do to Faulkner and Welty.
Ellen Douglas died in 2012, leaving Natchez with a literary legacy of the kind of truth
about itself that can only be found in great fiction. I am Dianne Bunch, a professor of English
at Alcorn State University, a native Natchezian, and a great admirer of Ellen Douglas, and this
is your Natchez History Minute.

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