Eudora Welty Essay - Welty, Eudora (Vol. 5)


Welty, Eudora (Vol. 5)

Welty, Eudora 1909–

A Southern American short story writer and novelist, Eudora Welty is one of this country's most notable regionalists. Her stories of family life in small towns in the Deep South are built around what Paul Marx has called "the complex network of judgments, misjudgments, and rejudgments," sometimes taking on the elusive quality of dreams. Ms Welty is a quintessential storyteller. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)

Eudora Welty's long-awaited novel—her first since The Ponder Heart (1954)—might well be cited as evidence that most writers of authoritative fiction are often severely limited in the stories they choose—or are forced—to tell…. In any case, Losing Battles is in many ways the Welty "mixture as before": the family, the community—the blood ties of heart and home, and the teasing paradoxes they pose for those who can see the least bit around or outside them. Here is again what Robert Penn Warren years ago called the love and the separateness in Miss Welty's work: the individualism, the identity which must be cherished—even fought for—in the face of the pre-emptive and often devouring claims of the group, with all its traditional sanctions. And the tension between these two "pulls"—these twin allegiances which may be likened to the two faces of love itself—has constituted one of Miss Welty's principal thematic concerns. (p. 766)

It will be said that this novel has an extremely dense texture, that its many characters and thematic motifs—in all their permutations and combinations—weave in and out in a seamless philosophical and social garment. And so they do, almost to the point of constituting an embarrassment of riches—to say nothing of disproportionate thematic development. One feels somehow disappointed here—perhaps most so during the birthday reunion scenes, where there is a good deal more self-conscious, mannered sentiment (and consequent stylization, even affectation, in the prose) than the narrative can assume and support. There are just too many "blessed sweethearts" and too much family pet-naming and verbal cuddling. And it's so sad to see (or rather to hear) Miss Welty's ear succumbing to what often sounds factitious and even—God forbid—quaint and folksy. She's at her best when she remembers her characters'—and perhaps her own—real grounding in the lusty, robust Faulknerian humor of the old southwest, when she lets them all go to it without further ado. "Arty" tendencies have manifested themselves in her earlier fiction—in certain stories in The Bride of the Innisfallen (1955) and The Golden Apples (1949); and one always hoped that she would suppress them in light of her great gift for the real, the elemental thing. They were held well in check in Delta Wedding, where the characters and their social position would admit of more ambitious things. But they are, I believe, out of place here: one sighs for the real authority of voice found in The Ponder Heart and some of the earlier stories.

Nevertheless, though I cannot place Losing Battles in the front rank of Miss Welty's fiction, I admire the wonder, the reverence, the joy she has once again brought to her great, her inevitable theme. Her style, her art may occasionally have played her false here; but she has never really been false to the truth of the compelling story she has told again and again. She remains one of the most distinguished of 20th century American writers of fiction. (pp. 766-67)

Robert Drake, "Miss Welty's Wide World," in The Christian Century (copyright 1970 Christian Century Foundation; reprinted by permission from the June 17, 1970 issue of The Christian Century), June 17, 1970, pp. 766-67.

Miss Welty's sense of inevitable loneliness and the mysteries of the human heart purge her fiction of sentimentality. Her humor—ranging from slapstick, farce and W. C. Fields-like satire to subtle irony and down-home understatement—purges it of romanticism. The tension she creates between concealment and revelation, surprise and fate, mystery and actuality, love and rage, the delicate balance she commands between these poles while showing their discord, stamps her talent as major. But then, Losing Battles is the deceptively simple work of a great technician. The string of tall tales resembles a six-act grand old oprey about the Mississippi hills, yet the novel is intricately, deviously plotted. Characters emerge almost exclusively through dialogue, with the author invisible and her compassionate view of people and events tacit. Through their interaction with environment, characters transmit setting—the crude farmhouse, the maze of treacherous backroads, rickety wooden bridges, the nearby Bywy River, Banner Top. Time rushes forward in a lyric progression from the rooster's first crow that morning to the full moon that night, from the clarity of daylight when loquacity compensates for loneliness to the opacity of night when the heart beats to the tune of imponderables. (p. 466)

Linda Kuehl, in Commonweal (copyright © 1970 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), September 18, 1970.

It is bad luck how established, but not showy, writers are taken for granted. If [The Optimist's Daughter] were an early [novel] from a new writer, it would be hailed as a masterpiece.

It is about grieving: something commoner in life than in current fiction. Verse, from pop lyric to elegy, can express the concentrated scream of grief; the novel has the harder job of somehow suggesting grieving as activity, negative, monotonous and passive as it is, and at the mercy of the griever's relationship with time. Eudora Welty's skill in this book lies in the way she incorporates, without obtrusive use of flashback, a long span of passed and passing time within the framework of a few days….

A very subtle book; not solemn or pretentious; and it even has that old trick of making you want to know how it will turn out.

"In Mourning," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd., 1973; reproduced by permission), March 30, 1973, p. 341.

Like Hawthorne and [Katherine Anne] Porter, Eudora Welty is concerned … with depicting characters who are so spiritually maimed that they have lost the basic human qualities…. Petrified Man clearly illustrates the problem of arousing in the reader a strong emotional response without using a conventional theological or moral set of values.

Eudora Welty imposes a further restriction upon herself by omitting any positive standard of the good or beautiful by which her sordid characters may be compared. There is nothing in the story that fulfils the same purpose as does Hawthorne's majestic landscape … or the beauty of Katherine Anne Porter's writing and composition…. Eudora Welty shows unadulterated sordidness or, to use … Porter's phrase, "vulgarity absolute, chemically pure, exposed mercilessly to its final subhuman depths." (p. 35)

Eudora Welty chooses to convey the sterility of these lives in aesthetic terms, to show spiritual poverty by means of bad taste. She sets the scene in a beauty shop and the stroke is a clever one since the women are clearly physically repulsive (even a convicted rapist is unmoved by the sight of Mrs. Pike at his bedside). She works every ironic possibility in this paradoxical situation, observing with her sharp photographic eye the most telling details of ugly decor and vulgar posture. She records the vulgar language and gross sentiments of the women and presents a devastating picture of blunted sensibilities. The picture, however, in spite of its potential for horror, does not so far arouse shock. The main reason is that the kind of ugliness she describes is so widespread that it no longer astonishes. The scene strikes the reader as familiar and amusing.

But the writer is not satisfied with arousing merely an amused wince, she wishes to provoke a stronger reaction and in order to do so she moves into the grotesque world of the freak show. The freaks are described in loving detail by the "beauty operator," Leota, and the equation between them, Leota, Mrs. Fletcher and Mrs. Pike is inescapable. Like these women the freaks are stunted from birth, grotesquely joined together and the most interesting one of all is reportedly turning into stone. The point of this detail is to suggest that the physical transformation into stone which the "petrified man" simulates is taking place actually and spiritually in the women. Eudora Welty's indebtedness to Hawthorne for this central image has been noted. She probably is indebted also to the legend of the Gorgons, whose horrendous aspect turned men to stone. The reference is one of many in the story to the women of legend and mythology. The Trojan women, the Sabine women and the Gorgons are all evoked with the purpose of showing that the women of the story are totally disqualified from either heroic virtues or heroic vices. Their last act is to swoop down, like the Thracian women, and wreak a pointless vengeance for their miscellaneous grievances upon the only available male object, Billy Boy.

This final act is the dramatic climax of the story and like the account of Mrs. Pike's "treachery" it seems strained and superfluous. Apparently it proved difficult to resolve satisfactorily an account of characters whom the writer has endowed with no sympathetic traits and no capacity for introspection. In her conclusion she resorts once again to exaggerated and forced effects. Hence Mrs. Pike's unlikely discovery of the man's improbable disguise and Leota's unaccountable outrage. (pp. 35-6)

Eudora Welty … [does not] analyze her characters' spiritual states. Instead she shows at once that they are rotten and proceeds to externalize their flaws by piling one crudity upon another. Her exertions are successful in that the impact is truly startling. But her assault on the reader is similar to that of the neon sign and no more moving, in spite of its being directed against a serious human failure. Her success, in this story at least, is of a very minor kind. (p. 37)

Joan Givner, "Katherine Anne Porter, Eudora Welty and 'Ethan Brand'," in The International Fiction Review, January, 1974, pp. 32-7.

[A] detail which not only characterizes all those persons in [The Golden Apples] who embody its life and action but also constitutes the link between it and much of the rest of Miss Welty's fiction, early and late …, can best be described as a special way of seeing, or perceiving, which conditions in some degree the total vision of most of the principal characters and which, if they persist in it, may drive them to go on strange quests or otherwise wander from the patterns of normal behavior. Perception of this special kind is not unknown in other fiction, but all too often commentators and even authors sentimentalize it as a visionary dream of some sort, the possessor of which is expected to seek and find appropriate fulfillment—in love, adventure, self-realization or some other accomplishment. The characters of The Golden Apples do not reach goals or attain prizes or even seem to know what such things are. For them, or so the book would have us believe, seeing is its own fulfillment, a reward that carries with it a rare kind of vitality which more than compensates for the restlessness and anguish it sometimes causes. "June Recital" [the second chapter of The Golden Apples] helps us to understand that unusual gift by presenting several examples of it in action. (pp. 300-01)

Again and again we find in Eudora Welty's world, as in the world of Lewis Carroll's Alice—that all things are double, at least double—and that the fortunate person among us is the one who habitually, occasionally, or even once in his lifetime has the necessary fire in his head to see the golden possibility of that doubleness in some fragment or detail of the world about him. (p. 303)

In this late twentieth-century post-Christian and technological age we reach as readily as in any other for the transcendent; but all too often in our eagerness we grasp at the occult, cast horoscopes, attempt to raise spirits, or glorify seagulls. It is reassuring to have among us one writer who begins with life as it appears in all its richness and undeniable immediacy and … finds in the tangible stuff of our day-to-day existence the ground for a kind of miracle that can redeem life from the dullness that rationalism and common sense have often reduced it to. For that reassurance The Golden Apples with its collection of gifted wanderers is of central importance. Even without The Golden Apples, however, Miss Welty's work would give us our miracles; for the miraculous lurks just beneath the surface of all that she has written, establishing thereby that her relationship with the wanderers she has created is one of kissing kin and not mere acquaintance. If some readers prefer to call her craft fantasy or magic, we should allow their terms and remember that even Shakespeare's skeptical Leontes refused to quibble over such trivialities when what appeared to be his wife's statue suddenly came to life. "If this be magic," he exclaimed, "let it be an art lawful as eating." Apply Leontes's exclamation to the art of Eudora Welty—which like the statue in The Winter's Tale derives its special life from being first and finally a part of this credible world—and we can only say amen. (p. 315)

J. A. Bryant, Jr., "Seeing Double in 'The Golden Apples'," in Sewanee Review (reprinted by permission of the editor; © 1974 by the University of the South), Spring, 1974, pp. 300-15.