My Old Kentucky Home is more like a novel in its construction than is Linden on the Saugus Branch
or A Ghost Town on the Yellowstone,
though each of them contains enough direct quotation of speech to import total recall if
taken literally. At some level, perhaps even consciously, Paul may have realised that his
recent novel-writing would not reach publication (outside of the Homer Evans stories) but
that he could exploit the memoir form to incorporate what he would have created as a
novelist. Whether he invented the Kirby household and other characters in My Old
Kentucky Home out of whole cloth, or partly by reassembling persons met in various
places, there is an underlying thematic continuity in the book.
There are five clusters of characters, whose stories are balanced. In each the question
of familial relations is highlighted. Neither in Linden nor in A Ghost Town, with its
restricted number of females, was it possible for Paul to use his experience to reflect on
the nuclear groups which constituted larger communities. In different ways, this is the
subject of both My Old Kentucky Home and its successor volume.
Of the Kirby family, where Elliot boards, we learn that the beautiful, young Ann Kirby
had turned down the offer of the hand of the courtly, flamboyant Whitner Kirby for his
nondescript, but kindly and moral brother Aaron. Ann runs the Kirby boarding house, with
Aaron self-effacingly in the background. Whitner boards with them, and makes trouble; in
fact, he "acts the Devil." Self-confessedly "the man in the Southland who
does more nearly what he pleases than any other," Whitner attempts to interfere with
the running of the house, and the family, but unsuccessfully. It is the strength of Ann,
for whom the spectacle of what she might have chosen holds no interest, and of her quiet,
Sunday-school-tract-reading husband - who can nonetheless put his foot down when it counts
- that Whitners self-regarding antics have no effect. They are not deflected from
bringing up their three children wisely, and from running a warm and welcoming home for
strangers. We infer that Whitners interference has even run to fathering a bastard
on one of the black servants and then acting spitefully towards his unacknowledged child.
Whitner is a monster who is never arraigned by the writer, which thereby aligns the book
tonally with the decency and reserve of Mrs Kirby and Aaron.1
The other four clusters of characters equally focus on familial loyalty. Adela Torres
cares fiercely for her mother, the helpless Donna Guillermina, who has "no idea of
the value of money, what had to be done to obtain it, or where it came from." Adela
has rescued her mother from an unhappy marriage to the Spanish bully, Don Gustavo. She
overworks as a hairdresser, and becomes seriously ill, and if not fatally at least enough
to make it doubtful that she will be able to continue to support her mother. Going
"to extreme lengths in concealing her fatigue and physical distress, Adela is courted
by the "two bachelors from Boston," at first by the gentlemanly, well-balanced
engineer Olney, to her "a well-intentioned man all neatly rules like music
paper," and then by the black-Irish contractor Lew Monahan, an excessive
drinker, "erratic and impetuous," and subject to epileptic fits. Monahan is as
intense as Adela, and equally family-minded. His life revolves around his pride in his
brother Tom, who is preparing for ordination as a priest, and when Tom meets the two
women, "[t]he love he had felt for Tom spread out to include
Donna Guillermina and Adela, for the first
time unreservedly." With Adela, Lew becomes articulate and speaks freely. Recognising
and moved by Lews passion, she breaks off with Olney, and at length acquiesces to
Monahans importunate suit. Elliot fears for the relationship, which "from so
many angles, did not make good sense." (But he is jealous, too.) She says she has
told Monahan of her illness and her need to "defend my mother." But when Donna
Guillermina suddenly dies - of overeating "burgoo" at the Jeffersonian barbeque
- Monahan decides that Adela had only accepted him for her mothers sake.
Unable to see how alike they are, on their "separate treadmills," Lew drives off
into the night to think and dies in an automobile crash. It is possibly not suicide but an
epileptic attack. Adela, Elliots favorite, leaves Louisville for an unknown
Olney has earlier taken Adela to a seance given by the famous trance medium Eusapia
Palladino. Through her "control," a message comes from "Teira,"
asking for "Zoondela." Elliot knows of the secret sorrow of the Kirby boarder Mr
Lazarus Whele, his parents and wife murdered in a Polish pogrom, his small son thereafter
missing. Teira is "dear one" in Yiddish, "Zoondela," little son.
Elliot "fears that something was being cooked up to hurt or swindle" Mr Whele,
to whom the report of the seance would be leaked. To counteract this, it is arranged that
Mr Whele should move North and adopt the white-looking bastard son of the familys
black servant - "his act of Christian charity to Uncle Whitner" - and through
surrogacy a family is restored.3
My Old Kentucky Home contains two comic familial underplots - and each has its
sideshow subplot as well - filling out a rich and sprawling city-life. One concerns the
Kirbys boarders, the travelling salesman and his wife, and their friends; the other
concerns Highlow Pepper, the black originator of a jazz band, the Louisville Superiors,
and his wife. In the former plot, the "diabolic" Uncle Whitners
blackmailing efforts are frustrated and ingenuity prevents the discovery of extramarital
consolation from wrecking marital ties. (The worldly-wise author would return to the
subject of surviving adultery in Desperate
Scenery.) In the latter, the stresses that jazz as a sociological phenomenon
creates drives Mrs Pepper into the hands of a soothsayer (and madam) - a black variant on
Palladio - who determines that "cutting was the cure for wavering breadwinners."
She takes a knife to Highlow, but the bloodletting has something of ritual about it, an
accommodation is reached, and the history of jazz is not impeded.4
Each "family romance" has a different background; each reaches a different
resolution. If Pauls his young self is unaccommodated to the tragedy - guilt that he
might have prevented Donna Guillerminas death and the loss of Adela drive Elliot
from Louisville - the author has a wiser view, sorrowful but more accepting. Hedonism and
sentiment there is in good measure, not the deepest of philosophies, but sustained in part
as a deliberate antidote to the staider morality of the late 1940s. If Pauls outlook
also involves him, as it does more than one of his characters, in tall tales, confidence
tricks and even charlatanism, who is the worse for that? Life in My Old Kentucky Home
is mysterious and tragic, comic, errant and above all human. The author makes a statement
about the capacity for survival in the human family, one more "item on the grand
1 Elliot Paul, My Old Kentucky Home (New York:
Random House, 1949), 303.
2 Ibid., 276. Elliot accompanies Adela to Dr I.N.
Blooms, on Second Street - a "real person" as Russell Briney notes - where
her illness is diagnosed (247). Briney, "Louisville as Elliot Paul Remembers It - Not
Quite as It Actually Was," Louisville Courier-Journal, Sunday 11 September
1949, Sec. 3, 1. She later speaks of her ovaries and her veins (363). He may have been
describing his own visit. Dr Bloom tells Elliot, "Youre nervous as a cat....
Too much adrenalin" (375-76).
3 Ibid., 369, 429.
4 Ibid., 325.