Wunderkammer: Padgett Powell’s Edisto

Megan Mayhew Bergman
September 3, 2011
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A wunderkammer is a curiosity cabinet; it means “wonder chamber” in German. In these posts, I’ll assemble trivia and a handful of oddities that evoke the spirit of a particular book or author.

Powell’s Edisto is one of my favorite novels, one I return to because the prose is spare but fiercely alive. It’s a masterful narrative, a potty-mouthed love song to the complicated twentieth-century south, a place Powell’s narrator claims is “as confused as during Reconstruction.”

Padgett Powell (Photo Source: Maggie Steber, NYT)

Padgett Powell (Photo Source: Maggie Steber, NYT)

Through the voice of protagonist Simons Manigault, Powell conjures Edisto. Powell writes of the “curiously hot, still quality of late Sunday mornings when your church clothes need to be taken off,” the “glassy curl” of the ocean, and “odd inland pockets of salt-smelling air.”

Self-awareness saves Simons from coming off as sentimental or flat. For example, he knows when he’s been “handed over to Daddy like a baton in a relay.” He cautions the reader not to “get down on your mother if she’s drunk a lot, demanding, promiscuous, imperious.”

The basics: Manigault is the product of separated parents; the small town refers to his doctor mother as “the Duchess.” Taurus, an African-American stranger, comes to town bearing a subpoena and scares away Simons’ maid, Theenie. Taurus and Simons pal around local bars; all the while, Simons ponders his parents’ relationship, race relations, and the changing landscape of his youth in a coming-of-age moment.

To me, Edisto is like a William Eggleston print: equal parts brilliant, creepy, with hints of sophisticated nostalgia for the south. Welty once said of Eggleston’s photographs, “They focus on the mundane world. But no subject is fuller of implications than the mundane world!” Edisto, I think, is that way; what seems like the accidental profundity of one boy’s life is no accident at all. Underneath the narrative, and around it, are questions and observations about “progress,” filial obligations, and the grand mess of love.


The Believer claims Powell, “embraces the stereotypical pickup trucks, cheap booze, and Piggly Wigglys that crowd the genre with an irascible, pessimist’s wit, proving what a wonderful and silly thing it is to be Southern, and, ultimately, human.”

Who can say it better?

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A pictorial sense of Edisto:

Edisto's Mattress Swing  (Photo Source:  Charleston Daily Photo)

Edisto's Mattress Swing (Photo Source: Charleston Daily Photo)

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The narrator of Powell’s Edisto, Simons Manigault, is often compared to Salinger’s Holden Caulfield. Ron Loewinsohn of The New York Times Book Review said, “Simons Manigault is brother to all literary adolescents–Mailer’s D. J., Salinger’s Holden Caulfield, Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus . . .”

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A 2010 interview by Michael Kimball of The Faster Times reveals how much of Powell is invested in his narrators:

Kimball: Are you, Padgett Powell, also the narrator of The Interrogative Mood or is the narrator a fictional creation separate from you (or is the narrator maybe a fictional Padgett Powell)?

Powell: Dude, c’est moi. It’s always c’est moi. Narrator schmarrator, author schmauthor.

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While being interviewed by Dan Halpern of the NY Times in 2009, Powell was “waging war” against the raccoons that had been eating his chickens. After trapping one in a cage, he lamented that “he had enough N.R.A. in him to feel he should have no sympathy for the thing but then also enough NPR in him to hesitate.”

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According to Maud Newton, Powell studied chemistry and was a roofer and dental technician before becoming a writer. In an interview with The Believer, Powell discusses his relationship with work:

Believer: Is there anything about hard labor you miss?

Powell: After thirty, working for a living with your body is contraindicated. You always miss being around hard people without imaginary issues.

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On imaginary issues:

Donald Barthelme (Photo Source:  Today in Literature)

Donald Barthelme (Photo Source: Today in Literature)

Donald Barthelme, the mentor whom Powell called “Uncle Don”, is the subject of a 2001 article by Paul Limbert Allman in Harper’s.

Allman speculates that Barthelme’s recurrent character Kenneth may have inspired the attack on Dan Rather by a schizophrenic 1986. The assailant puzzled Rather by uttering, “What’s the frequency, Kenneth?” (The incident was further immortalized by REM.)

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Powell, on Donald Barthelme (from a BOMB Magazine interview, 1996):

I’m doing what I’m doing now because I met Donald Barthelme and subsequently lost part of my mind–my original literary mind. Barthelme’s aesthetic, as I grasped it, got me tired of a certain pedestrian storytelling, whether for good or for ill. When you lose some of your mind, you don’t have any trouble with formlessness. It alerted me to an impatience in the absence of surprise. Barthelme was cubism and jazz to my crayons and rock n’ roll–he was after something altogether new on paper, I’m not.

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Barthelme on Edisto (from Powell’s Books):

“Edisto is a startling book, full of new sights, sounds, and ways of feeling. Mr. Powell weaves wonderful tapestries from ordinary speech; his people, Black and White, whether speaking to each other or past each other, tell us things that we never heard before. The book is subtle, daring, and brilliant.”

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More from The Believer interview:

Believer: Your characters also seem to be wrangling with their own insignificance in life. Is this a reflection of your own struggle?

Padgett Powell: No. My insignificance is not to be contested.

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