Eudora Welty Essay - Welty, Eudora (Vol. 1)


Welty, Eudora (Vol. 1)

Welty, Eudora 1909–

A Southern American novelist and short story writer, Miss Welty's works include Delta Wedding, The Golden Apples, and Losing Battles. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 11-12.)

The literary career of Eudora Welty … has something in common with several of her best stories. Striking in either case is both the disarming simplicity of the external facts, the setting, basic actions, and style, and the richness and complexity of the inner reality inherent in that simplicity…. The detachment of Miss Welty's artistic vision, her habit of drawing her material from the outside world, and entering and meeting it with what is universal rather than personal and particular in her own private experience, keeps our eyes clearly focused on the stories; and in them, as in the person herself, we are struck not by poverty of experience, but by all the abundance of a life richly and fully lived. (p. 15)

Miss Welty knows she is mysterious and "obstructionist," but she is so because there is no other way for her to communicate what she must. She asks for a reader of "willing imagination" who will not insist on "a perfect Christmas tree of symmetry, branch, and ornament, with a star at the top for neatness," but will find "the branchings not what he's expecting,… not at all to the letter of the promise—rather to a degree (and to a degree of pleasure) mysterious."… Miss Welty's stories are largely concerned with the mysteries of the inner life. She explains that to her the interior world is "endlessly new, mysterious, and alluring."… The term "mystery" has here to do with the enigma of man's being—his relation to the universe; what is secret, concealed, inviolable in any human being, resulting in distance or separation between human beings; the puzzles and difficulties we have about our own feelings, our meaning and our identity. Miss Welty's audacity is to probe these mysteries in the imaginative forms of her fiction…. The stories tell us something about her philosophical vision, which might be identified (at the risk of giving her work the "tweak of fashion" she deplores) as pessimistic and existential. Through the experience of her characters she seems to be saying that there is no final meaning to life beyond the human meanings; there is no divine "surround," no final shape to total reality, no love within or beyond the universe…. Miss Welty is asking metaphysical questions, but she is attempting no answers. The only solution to a mystery is yet another mystery; cosmic reality is a nest of Chinese boxes. (pp. 27-37)

To the two extremes of what has been called the philosophical atmosphere or weather of Miss Welty's fiction, the traditional literary terms of "tragic" and "comic" might well be applied. The weather of Miss Welty's comedy has its own peculiar fluctuations, ranging from humor and merriment to satire and irony…. In some of its manifestations, Miss Welty's comedy lightly evokes the mood and spirit of the most ancient rites of comedy: the Dionysiac feasts, the fertility rites of primitive cultures, the folk ceremonies which marked the changes in season or the celebration of birth and marriage…. A second and more modern type of comedy which appears in Miss Welty's fiction concentrates upon eccentric characters who follow out their natures in humorous, repetitive action…. She is [also] likely to have an eye alert for the comic and satiric possibilities inherent in the manners and morals, social life and entertainment, of a highly organized and subtly stratified folk community…. The terror adjoining the comedy—Miss Welty herself has shown us this, along with such disparate writers as Chekhov, Kafka, Faulkner, and Samuel Beckett. However, the fact that among her stories we may find such diverse manifestations of the spirit of comedy as those of ancient ritual and mythology, of the "humorous" character of nineteenth-century fiction, and of southern folk humor—as well as the satiric, ironic, and "absurd"—is evidence of the remarkable range and catholicity of Miss Welty's comic vision. (pp. 64-80)

In Miss Welty's exploration of the inner life, hard and fast lines are not always drawn between the world[s] of fact and fantasy; there are half-states, mixtures of dream and reality, or rapid shifts between the two worlds. The facts may lie around somewhere to be pieced together by the diligent, but they may not be insisted on or even particularly interesting or relevant to the meaning of the story. The reader who recognizes this blurring of the lines as in itself a demonstrable and intensely personal fact of human experience, who accepts this tendency in human beings because of the release and enrichment fantasy brings into a reality which may be drab or cruel, and who perceives its power to crystallize an insight or convey a truth not available to the literal mind in the rational world, approves of this special form of "realism" and of the special techniques which project it…. In all the manifestations, forms, and degrees of dream and fantasy life which Miss Welty projects in her stories, there is … one constant element: a firm rooting in reality. The observer in her always coexists with the sympathetic dreamer. (pp. 82-92)

Ruth M. Vande Kieft, in her Eudora Welty, Twayne, 1962.

The most startling quality of Eudora Welty's art is her style: shimmering, hovering, elusive, fanciful, fastening on little things. Entirely feminine, it moves lightly, capriciously, mirroring the bemused, diverted quality of the people whom it describes. Like the humming-birds that appear frequently in her stories, it darts here and there, never quite coming to rest, tirelessly invoking light, color, the variety of experience….

But if it is feminine, it is also quite muscular, and its elusive, hovering quality is never vague or soft. Her art is highly complex, precise, and controlled, and the rich fabric of its texture contains a firmly patterned dramatization of people in a time and place, one that makes a considerable commentary on human experience….

There is a peculiar bemusement about Eudura Welty's characters. Even at their funniest, their most picturesque, they seem so very much in earnest. They work hard at playing games…. Miss Welty's people are always a bit abstracted; their minds are apparently filled with all manner of thoughts that are not at all organized and catalogued…. A dialogue between any two persons in the Welty novels is an exchange only of the surfaces of their thoughts; they speak obliquely; what they say is only a remote approximation of what they are thinking. Like the characters of Henry James and Edith Wharton, we never know what they are actually thinking. They can trade gossip and trivia by the hour, but their innermost thoughts are never shared.

Louis D. Rubin, Jr., "The Golden Apples of the Sun," in his Writers of the Modern South: The Faraway Country, University of Washington Press, 1963, pp. 131-54.

[The] stories of Eudora Welty, from the earliest examples in the thirties, are distinctively poetic and moving; the two dominant strains—a brilliant use of myth and symbolism and a magnificent humor—reach their logical pinnacles in The Golden Apples … and The Ponder Heart…, the development is exact and the technique is sure….

Miss Welty has not mastered the novel. The Robber Bridegroom … is ephemeral and overextended and Delta Wedding … is inconclusive and vague; it leaves the memory of a dim atmosphere, imperfectly recollected.

Marvin Felheim, "Eudora Welty and Carson McCullers" (© 1964 by Southern Illinois University Press; reprinted by permission of Southern Illinois University Press), in Contemporary American Novelists, edited by Harry T. Moore, Southern Illinois University Press, 1964, pp. 41-53.

As a literary tactic, Miss Welty's sense of humor shines with the brilliance of a peacock's tail. By nature, the irony of the naive assumes two points of view; this dual vision is precisely suited to the author's manifold themes: the simple versus the complex, the ordinary versus the transcendent, the visible versus the invisible. The stories are pervaded by the restless movement of characters in search of a magic key to the mystery of life….

The dual vision places an intense pressure on language, which must be supple enough to bear both the character's blindness and the author's vision. At its best, Eudora Welty's prose balances perfectly between the "real" world of everyday and the allegorical world of symbol.

Willard Keeney, "'Ripeness is All': Late, Late Romanticism and Other Recent Fiction," in The Southern Review, Vol. III, No. 4, Autumn, 1967, pp. 1050-61.

[Eudora Welty's] conspicuous attachment to a region [Mississippi] does not … mean that she accepts the label "regionalist."… The importance of place is that an author's feelings tend to be associated with it; thus place serves naturally as a repository for feelings that must eventually inhabit the novel taking shape in his head. Respect for place, moreover, makes an author pay attention to detail, makes him work harder to portray things with clarity, and finally prepares him to see through things as well…. In such faithfulness lies at least part, certainly, of the secret of her own wonderfully effective stories. Yet Eudora Welty's master is always fiction itself, never Mississippi. (pp. 5-6)

["First Love" and "The Purple Hat," two stories included in Miss Welty's second collection, The Wide Net, and Other Stories] are at the virtuosic limits of Miss Welty's performance in the short story and command our attention much as stories or paintings produced on a dare. Nevertheless, they also exhibit many of the solid virtues that distinguish her other work: her respect for the visual impression, which abides even when she is most concerned to insist on the existence of something beyond the immediately visible; her ability to make language suggest several dimensions of reality simultaneously, by use of allusion, by selection of detail, and by free (and sometimes licentious) use of metaphor; and above all her almost infallible ear for idiomatic diction and rhythm and her unembarrassed use of both. (p. 14)

[Eudora Welty] has, as she herself confessed, a visual imagination and a penchant for seeing things in their connectedness; and the simultaneous unraveling and compounding of the networks she finds in life about her produces those complex pieces that more often than not seem to have grown like crystals from simple sketches into the strange new entities that are her stories. Occasionally her tendency to see things in terms of other things has got her into trouble. Some of the descriptions in A Curtain of Green, especially, invite the term "baroque" because of uncontrolled and nonfunctional metaphors. The stories there have a few warts on them. In recent years these lapses have not occurred. As for structure, that has been present in Eudora Welty's work from the beginning.

Miss Welty is not without the southern writer's sense of the past or feeling for the metaphysical, but she has never allowed her writing to play a partisan's role in either of these areas. (p. 45)

J. A. Bryant, Jr., in his Eudora Welty ("University of Minnesota Pamphlets on American Writers," No. 66), University of Minnesota Press, © 1968 (and in Dictionary of American Literary Biography, Scribner's, © 1973).

What is most valuable about Eudora Welty is not that she is one of the best living short story writers. (It was startling that when I tried to think of anybody else as good, two women and one man came to mind, all three Southerners: Katherine Anne Porter, Caroline Gordon and Peter Taylor.) Nor is it that she is a woman of letters in the old sense, versatile and many-voiced in her fiction and as distinguished in criticism. No, what is valuable is that she has done it in a place. That is to say, she has lived all her life in a place and written there and the writing bears more than an accidental relation to the place.

Walker Percy, "Eudora Welty in Jackson," in Shenandoah, Spring, 1969, pp. 37-8.

What makes [Eudora Welty's] work hang together? What keeps it from appearing as a kind of anarchy of talent, an irresponsible glitter, like a slowly turning kaleidoscope? I am about to answer "temperament"—though aware that the word may seem to beg the question. So I want to elaborate a little and say that it is a temperament so strongly and significantly itself that it can face the multiplicity of the world. Art is the appropriate expression of such a temperament—art not as an escape from the incoherence of the world, but as a celebration of its richness—secure in an instinctive trust of self and in the knowledge that only out of the strong shall come forth sweetness.

Robert Penn Warren, "Out of the Strong," in Shenandoah, Spring, 1969, pp. 38-9.

One cannot imagine what Southern literature in the past thirty years would be without [Miss Welty]: she is unique—an "original" who has never strained her language for the sake of innovation, and whose originality is in her unstudied observation of people and places, so that we see human nature as it had not been seen before. She is a great craftsman, and thus a perfect case of art added to genius.

Allen Tate, in Shenandoah, Spring, 1969, p. 39.

Miss Welty has been applauded for the sharpness of her eye and of her tongue; her fidelity to observed detail of landscape and human behavior, and the uncanny precision with which she reproduces the authentic accents of colloquial speech. In this world of social satire she is as indigenous as Ring Lardner. Yet she is so much more than that. The comedy of her early fiction is as contemporary as eye and ear can make it but its roots are deep in the living traditions of imaginative fiction. Her subject has always been, not the comedy of manners, but the comedy of the human condition which is much the same at all times in all places. She takes upon herself the traditional role of myth-maker, disciplining her vision in order to gain deeper penetration into the dark and lovely realities of the lonely human spirit and shaping her fiction so that each story should be something achieved, an aesthetic form salvaged and preserved from the wreck of time. As her art matured so she moved farther away from the idea of fiction as anecdote; plot and character became less important. Dialogue, in which earlier she excelled, often becomes a means of evading contact and communication. The intensity of felt experience is established obliquely, through natural images for the most part, as she attempts to give substance to the unseen world of feeling. Not what happens and why but what is felt to be happening and how are the subjects of her later fiction. The dramatic realization of the surface of life is as confidently seized as in her earlier work but her interest lies below and beyond the world of sight and sound. She shows only a perfunctory interest in the narrative of cause and effect and focuses interest on that silent landscape of human consciousness where the lonely and elusive spirit of man wanders in search of its own identity which is to be found, if at all, in moments of love. Yet these moments have little or nothing to do with the act of love, but are more like what in Welsh is called hiraeth, the home-sickness of those in exile. Behind this notion is the larger one that suggests that life is itself an exile, an Odyssean wandering in search of lost happiness and innocence, a conviction that home is that state of mind, instantly recognised, when we are momentarily flooded with a sense of meaningful peace, of knowing that we are, if only momentarily, at home. When two people find that elusive sense of peaceful belonging together then we can say that they have found love.

Alun R. Jones, "A Frail Travelling Coincidence: Three Later Stories of Eudora Welty," in Shenandoah, Spring, 1969, pp. 40-53.

What shocks us about [Miss Welty's] art is its delicate blending of the casual and the tragic, the essential femininity of the narration and the subject, the reality, which is narrated. How can the conversational and slightly arch tone of her fiction give way to such amazing revelations? That horror may evolve out of gentility—and, even in stories dealing with the very poor or the very unenlightened, Miss Welty is always "genteel"—is something we are not prepared to accept. Our natural instinct is to insist that horror be emphasized, underlined, somehow exaggerated so that we may absorb it in a way satisfying to our sensibilities. Fiction about crime and criminals suggests always the supreme importance of crime and criminals; it is a statement of moral value. The kind of black comic-naturalism that has descended from Céline also insists, heavily, upon a moral point, about the crazy depravity of the world and the endless combinations and permutations in which it may be located … and this too, though it is constructed as a kind of joke or a series of jokes, may be related to a sense of proportion, a feeling that outrages certainly deserve more attention than normal events.

Eudora Welty baffles our expectations. Like Kafka, with whom she shares a number of traits, she presents the distortions of life in the context of ordinary, even chatty life; she frightens us. I have no doubt that her intentions are not to frighten anyone, or to make particular judgments on life, but the effect of her fiction is indeed frightening. It is the bizarre combination of a seemingly boundless admiration for feminine nonsense—family life, food, relatives, conversations, eccentric old people—and a sharp, penetrating eye for the seams of this world, through which a murderous light shines.

Joyce Carol Oates, "The Art of Eudora Welty," in Shenandoah, Spring, 1969, pp. 54-7.

It is a "losing battle" when adversaries use the same tactics. After a long life-time of teaching, Miss Julia Mortimer recognizes the "survival instinct" at fault: "A teacher teaches and a pupil learns or fights against learning with the same force behind him…. It's the desperation of staying alive against all odds that keeps both sides encouraged. But the side that gets licked gets to the truth first." The reading of [Losing Battles] … is also a fight, one that few readers will win. The three generations of "Granny" Elvira Jordan [Vaughn's] family who have gathered … to celebrate her ninetieth birthday, learn … that their teacher, Miss Mortimer, has died. They talk. Lord, how they talk! How well Miss Welty has listened to them, and how much she dotes on them; still, one must numbly if not humbly conclude that this is the most over-praised novel of at least the first five months of this year.

James Aronson, "Reservations" (© 1970 by The Antioch Review, Inc.; first published in The Antioch Review, Vol. XXX, No. 2; reprinted by permission of the editors), in Antioch Review, Spring, 1970, p. 131.

Even without the support of a concordance, one can state with considerable assurance that "said" is the most frequently used verb in Eudora Welty's Losing Battles, a novel laden to the point of bursting with talk. Much of the talk is excellent, swirling almost unbidden around a two-day family reunion, set in the northeastern hill country of Mississippi in the 1930's, in honor of Granny Elvira Vaughn's ninetieth birthday. Balanced against the family festivities are two concurrent events, one comic and one tragic, that impose demands upon the celebrants: the distress of Judge Moody's 1932 Buick, tilted precariously on the edge of a bluff, cries out for rescue, and the death of Miss Julia Mortimer, the indomitable schoolteacher who educated, after a fashion, almost every member of the Vaughn-Beechum-Renfro clan, cries out for redemption. Losing Battles provides expansive doses of both….

[The] novel, Miss Welty's first in fifteen years, is one of those rare books that can produce pleasure when opened at random. So rich is its comic inventiveness, so insistent its chorus of voices, that its excess of virtue comes to seem an endearing vice, a reassuring mark of its author's manifest humanity.

Paul Edward Gray, in Yale Review (© 1970 by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), Autumn, 1970, pp. 103-04.

Losing Battles has social, historical, and philosophical dimensions which are not to be found in the earlier work, and it is these dimensions which have undoubtedly convinced some of the more sociologically-minded critics that Miss Welty deserves a place in the first rank of contemporary novelists….

[Despite] its flaws Losing Battles is a substantial work; and it has clearly brought to Miss Welty, for whatever reasons, the kind of acclaim she has surely earned over the years. The novel is itself a splendid example of her versatility, and many of its segments are the handiwork of a major talent at the height of her powers. After reading Losing Battles one can expect a great deal more from her than even the earlier works might have promised. For one remembers, after all, that when Prospero renounced magic he returned to Milan, where presumably he ruled his kingdom more wisely than he had as a younger man. As for the island, as delightful as it might have been at times, it was not, after all, his own country.

Thomas H. Landess, "More Trouble in Mississippi: Family vs. Antifamily in Miss Welty's Losing Battles" (© 1971 by The University of the South), in Sewanee Review, Autumn, 1971, pp. 626-34.