So Much Depends . . .

Horton Foote's Memories of Wharton and Family

FAREWELL:A Memoir of a Texas Childhood.

One pleasure of reading Horton Foote’s memoir is recognizing his plays and screenplays diffused in his account of his childhood. Uncle Oliver studies How to Become an Executive, just like Ludie in The Trip to Bountiful, and Ludie’s mother, Mrs. Watts, is a composite of the relatives and neighbors whose marriages thwart their true loves – or so Little Horton hears. Here also is 1979’s The Death of Papa: “Until my grandfather’s death, life seemed to me just magic. I never felt so secure in my life as sitting on the porch swing of my grandparents’ house, knowing I was the grandson of one of the richest families in the county and of the most respected man in town.”

But this is too simple a pleasure, satisfying as it might be, particularly when you can learn how his life taught the playwright-to-be to make Art. One anecdote seems instructive: when Big Mama asks Little Horton, visiting from his home in the small town of Wharton, if he wants to hear the latest étude his aunt Lily had composed, the tender-hearted boy politely replies, “Yes, ma’am,” even though he doesn’t know what an étude is. Many years later, Lily sends her compositions to Foote, enlisting him to get her recognition beyond her parlor and church choir, and in New York City her dreams die: a professor of music, “German born,” tells Foote that “she was not untalented, but sentimentality had crippled what talent she had.”

His first short story revealed his gift for the authenticity of voice, and he learned the effects of this gift on others. To help a cousin pass a college English course, he wrote a sketch about Eliza and Walter, two black people employed by his grandparents; the professor agreed to pass the cousin, telling him, “I know you wrote [the story], because it is about niggers and you talk just like a nigger.” And Foote portrays himself with the knack for prying stories about Wharton’s secret woes out of adults, and he laments two childhood friends who never confessed: “After all these years, when I think of them … I sense a great sadness about them. Perhaps though, I’m only imagining this, because in truth neither of them burdened me with their feelings nor ever alluded to any unhappiness in their lives.”

And from his father, a shopkeeper, he learned economy. When Little Horton racks up a twenty-eight dollar Coke tab (“a great deal for that day and time”) on the drugstore charge account meant to teach him the “value of a dollar,” his father blows up: “‘Son, have you lost your mind?… Do you want to bankrupt me? I don’t think you’re ready to handle this kind of responsibility, Son.'”

Foote learned these lessons, and his memoir shows it. Farewell is unhobbled by sentimentality, full of dialogue (real-sounding, and none written in dialeck), and plainly written; Foote lives within his linguistic means. One is pleased to find that Foote avoids playing on his audience’s ideas of old-timey Texas, though he doesn’t say where he learned to serve it up straight, with neither apology nor pride, just the plain facts of murder, lynchings, suicide, heroin addiction, miscegenation, adultery, laziness, theft, forbidden love, poverty, and natural disaster, enough human failing and emotional pain to cut off at the knees a social conservative’s nostalgia for the Ol’ Hometown. The goodbye to a small town way of life is not the farewell of the title; these failings remain local. One way to put it, via William Carlos Williams, is that Farewell is all red wheelbarrow and white chickens, upon which nothing more abstract depends. Yet the failings are never personal, either: Farewell serves up Wharton’s libidinal economy without doing the same for Horton’s. So, if you’re horrified at the gob-stopping candidness of other contemporary memoirs, you’ll be pleased that Farewell is replete with others’ secret stories and noticeably void of Foote’s own, and if you’re terrified by politicians’ prevarications, you’ll be glad to see selective memory put in service of something besides greed. Yet there’s neither relief nor disappointment that Uncle Speed “never mentioned sex to me or offered to take me across the tracks,” and what exactly “girlfriend” meant in 1930 is left to the reader’s imagination.

Foote extrapolates thankfully few judgments about modern America, and these are aesthetic: “…the quiet street that was in front of the house began, soon after his death, its slow but steady descent into a metaphor for all the ugly, trashy highways that scar a great deal of small-town America.” This one sociological moment makes you appreciate what Foote does so well – he’s a master of sympathy’s big warm licks, not the fine edge of insight. On the demise of his three uncles he’s more satisfying, recalling for us that “representative of a whole social class in the rapidly changing economic structure of the American South” and then delineating the individuals in the type, chronicling the “wasted tragic lives” of his mother’s brothers in a kind of shadow biography that seems meant to torque the reader’s sympathy for what Foote might have become.

But their wayward ways aren’t the only foils for theatrical, tender-hearted, ambitious Little Horton: so’s his father’s respectable but mind-numbing toil as the owner of a men’s clothing store. “Weekends were usually very quiet in the store – if we had a customer every hour or so we would feel fortunate. My father would always wait on them, and the purchases were often small, a handkerchief or a shirt or a pair of work pants. I don’t know how he survived on the small volume of business he did.” In this world, the bright and gifted seek their fortunes far away; since Horton’s father has to mind the store, his uncle Billy’s job (in a passage reminiscent of Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find”) is to sober up and drive young Foote to the Houston bus station.

His departure for acting school in Pasadena is the Farewell of the title, and the task of this book is not to make us weepy for Wharton, but to tell us what Horton Foote knew of it that made him sad to leave in 1933 – and what made his departure necessary. Similarly, The Trip to Bountiful asks us to sympathize with Mrs. Watts’ desire to see her old home, even before we find out why the train doesn’t run there anymore, though we have some good ideas. In this sense, his memoir is at one with his art, capturing and representing the crisis of memory and desire that’s always posed by the sudden blankness where Home used to be.

As an account of a life, Farewell tells us a lot about Foote, his family, and his hometown, but only the most generous, tender-hearted reader will share Foote’s sympathy for his young self. One problem is that Foote’s favorite conceit to get the dialogue moving throughout the book is to have the boy feign ignorance – “‘What was happening?’ I would always ask as if I didn’t know” – which makes each conversation pre-rehearsed, yet strangely undramatic. Unlike other exchanges, the conversation between Foote, his mother, and Uncle Billy, as they’re on the way to the bus station, should be a real conversation, not a linguistic ritual, alluding to what they know and operating with the faith that we know those things too, in order to recognize the reader’s awareness of what’s at stake and energize our sympathies thereby – but any tension at departing the familiar hovers, then fades, overwhelmed by a sudden verisimilitude to spontaneous chit-chat and other exterior events. Yes, Foote has it right: as Home recedes, farewells get populated by gestures that become threatened by their own meaninglessness. And the writer can bring you to that edge, but not beyond. Within the narrative of departure, perhaps the narrator’s leaving the reader is a necessity, but with this the memoir’s purpose withers, and the reader gets left behind with Mother and Uncle Billy when he thought he was along for the ride.

But even as our familiarity with his childhood gets put to no good use, Foote ushers us towards his future, introducing us to a bus-riding companion and interlocutor who will guide the main character across the night. Here it’s “a plain girl, shabbily dressed, who kept opening and closing her purse,” the sister of a movie star, who says she’ll introduce Foote to him. She falls asleep; he sits and worries: “What if you have no talent, what if you finish acting school and you can’t find a job acting and you have to go back home and work at your father’s store the rest of your life?” He tells himself to “just hush up. There is no going back now.”

Austin writer Michael Erard is sorely missed at home.

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Published at 12:00 am CST