Eudora Welty Essay - Welty, Eudora (Vol. 2)


Welty, Eudora (Vol. 2)

Welty, Eudora 1909–

A Southern American novelist and short story writer, Miss Welty is the author of Delta Wedding, Losing Battles, and The Optimist's Daughter. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)

Inevitably [Miss Welty] has become associated with William Faulkner, Robert Penn Warren, John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate and that distinguished company of writers who, like Katherine Anne Porter, "have blood knowledge of what life can be in a defeated country on the bare bones of privation." Although she claims Yankee blood on her father's side, she was born in Jackson, Mississippi, not far from the borders of Yoknapatawphaw County, and belongs there in the way that Emily Brontë belongs to the Yorkshire moors. Her close association with the South as a traditional way of life, under pressure and, perhaps, in decay, has been felt to confer on her as a writer special advantages and peculiar limitations, as if she were both the beneficiary and the victim of her background. No one, and certainly not Miss Welty herself, would wish to deny the importance of "place" to a writer, although it could be argued that it is the writers of the South who have made it a place, rather than a point on the compass, just as frontier legend made the West.

Naturally, in her work Miss Welty draws for her material largely on the world of the South, familiar and immediately to hand, but it is human nature and the human dilemma that are explored, and her art is distinctive. Only the most provincial reader confuses the writer with the raw material of his art. Certainly the South seems to lend her an assured sense of personal identity…. But indeed, even among the writers of the South, she is the only one to have acknowledged the autonomy of the imagination. Behind her work there lies a fragile, profound and essentially lyrical imagination strengthened by characteristic wit and shrewdness. Thus her art brings together the delicate, introspective refinement of Chekhov, Katherine Mansfield, and Virginia Woolf and the tough, American know-how of Mark Twain, Stephen Crane and Ring Lardner….

[Above] all else [her stories] portray a wide variety of attitudes and peoples living in a recognizably human world of beauty and corruption, tenderness and hate, wonder and boredom. The stories are concerned largely with single moments of personal crisis and move towards and explore the nature of conflict as the characters struggle to clarify their choices, to come to terms with themselves and the world around them. Although a strong sense of an ordered community binds the settings of the stories together, it is the dark, inner lives of the characters that interest her more than their public faces. She is more concerned with individual self-deception than with social hypocrisy.

She has, too, the storyteller's gift of compelling attention, of capturing her reader's interest in what happens and, more particularly, in what happens next. Moreover, although her subject is often fabulous, bizarre and in itself improbable, she has the unfailing ability to maintain what she has called "believability"—to establish that imaginative confidence between reader and writer which constitutes a mutual act of poetic faith….

The stories are often concerned with those who are in some way deprived and living on the very edge of life but they see deprivation not as a social question but as a human one, a matter not of income and status but of love and loneliness. They cover the social range from faded gentry to sharecroppers and Negroes, yet their concern is always with the human dilemma, with man's failure or success in dealing with his own nature, with the realities of the life within him and the needs of those around him….

[One] of Miss Welty's outstanding characteristics as a writer is her Tennysonian ability to sustain an atmospheric mood. The world of the imagination is so fully realized in terms of the sensuous and ordinary that it is accepted without question. Although [her] stories are clearly informed by compassionate intelligence and shaped by an acute feeling for artistic form, we are aware that for the author life continually moves towards the fabulous…. She is conscious of mythical and imaginative reality impinging on and informing the trivial and the banal….

Her imagination is essentially poetic; her fiction is clearly centripetal, structured like poetry with an intuited center and everything subdued to the demands of this central insight. As her art develops, so her fiction accumulates a more profound sense of human suffering and dignity and it covers a wider area of human activity without losing any of its original power. She continues to affirm the beauties and terrors inherent in the human situations while asserting the right to love and the need to dream. Through dream, as through art, man can express and realize his secret self: through love, as through art, he can communicate that secret self to others; for art, she believes, is the power to convey love….

In … The Bride of the Innisfallen, Miss Welty has broadened the scope, as well as enriched the texture of her writing still further. Her eye and her ear are as sharp as ever, but her compassion leads her to a more subdued consideration of personal suffering. Her work takes on a sculptured, timeless solidity. At the same time, her thematic material becomes denser and more complex, and an increased artistic assurance enables her to treat her narrative more obliquely than in her previous work. She no longer draws her material exclusively from the South and she explores new areas of experience with more somber restraint and from a viewpoint withdrawn from the center of the stories' interest. Taken as a whole the stories are an exciting departure. They are experiments in a kind of impressionistic writing that depends hardly at all on traditional narrative techniques but relies largely on montage, an approach to writing that has its parallel in the cinema of the Nouvelle Vague….

Writing with love, she restores our illusions about the world of love. Her fiction is exuberant with life, rich in comedy, pathos and color, quick with movement and firmly disciplined. Each of her stories creates its own level of reality and succeeds in the business of fiction which is to make reality real. Replete with sensuous and meaningful detail, the meaning itself is often suspended in that private world somewhere between dreaming and waking. Indeed, it is the particular, personal moment that her imagination seizes with concrete and urgent immediacy.

Her writing as a whole is characterized by an elegant and correct compassion that interpenetrates life's disordered vitality in such a way that, in her own words, "life on earth is intensified in its personal meaning and so restored to human terms." Her art shapes the experience, lending it style and direction; life informs her art at every turn, giving it variety and intensity. The most immediate and most lasting impression created by reading her work is an admiration for the sheer abundance of human life. Her achievement has won her comparison with the best writers of the century and the prospect of her future work assures readers of fresh and exciting excellence.

Alun R. Jones, "The World of Love: The Fiction of Eudora Welty" (© 1963 by Nona Balakian and Charles Simmons; reprinted by permission of Doubleday & Co., Inc.), in The Creative Present: Notes on Contemporary American Fiction, edited by Nona Balakian and Charles Simmons, Doubleday, 1963, pp. 175-92.

It is axiomatic that every young Southern writer of the last thirty years has had sooner or later to come to terms with Faulkner, and one can only conjecture to what extent Miss Welty's early literary development reflected the kind of settlement she must, however unconsciously, have made with him. But as her stories continued to appear and a distinctive Welty type of story began to be noticeable, it became apparent that she was approaching the Southern—and specifically the Mississippi—experience from an angle very different from his and was either instinctively avoiding or incapable of engaging the large mythic and demonic issues which were his obsessive concern. It was almost as if she had made a bargain to concede him first rights to the major materials of their native territory and had agreed to limit her own creative interests to the minor and peripheral. In any event, she developed into a charming, skillful but, it sometimes seemed, a deliberately narrow writer, who was also a specifically feminine writer most notable for qualities commonly associated with Southern women of her class and background—modesty, delicacy, sensitivity, meticulousness, a certain breathy wonderment about the small, exquisite sadnesses of life—qualities which, while attractively feminine in her, were peculiarly open to parody later on as her influence spread and she herself acquired imitators….

From the beginning she had displayed an extraordinary talent for the short story, and one began to feel that while the short story was clearly her natural medium, it was also a medium in which she had achieved a too early and too effortless mastery, so that in that degree it had become her prison. Her very ease and security within it was such that she seemed to have little inclination to go beyond it, to extend her imaginative range or to engage materials whose ultimate value to her might lie precisely in their being ill-suited to the particular requirements of the form. Even the novels she came to write—The Robber Bridegroom (1942), Delta Wedding (1946), and The Ponder Heart (1954)—were really little more than extended and obviously attenuated short stories, and in them all the attenuated quality seemed to have been created by the injection of great quantities of environmental gas, the elements of setting, scene, and atmosphere working in a kind of perfumed rhetorical fog to obscure the thinness of characterization and the paucity of drama….

[But] she has suddenly and mysteriously become surprising. She has radically altered the direction of her work. She has radically enlarged the range of her interests, and she has begun to address herself vigorously to the use of the very kinds of experience which in the past she appears to have avoided. It may be that it has taken her this long to free herself from the stereotypical formulations of her older contemporaries, to lay the ghost of Faulkner, and to be able to confront her true subject and her true originality…. She has ceased to be merely exquisite and become indeed robust. She has ceased to be narrow and meticulous and become wide-ranging and exuberantly inventive. She has broken away from those patterns of response which made her too easily identifiable as a Southern lady writer, and she has become simply and, in the best sense, a writer. Her real gifts are now, in this new novel [Losing Battles], on full display for the first time in her career, and they can be seen to be as impressive as those of any writer, male or female, at work in this country at the present time….

[Her] characters possess none of the qualities normally associated with Southern country people in the work of other writers. They are not Faulknerian grotesques, degenerates, morons, perverts, or madmen. They are not obsessed with sex, tormented by guilts, or driven to commit acts of violence and outrage. If they were any of these, they would undoubtedly be far more compelling as characters but far less convincing as people, and Miss Welty has had the courage to preserve them in their authenticity, even if she has had to forfeit some measure of dramatic interest.

John W. Aldridge, "Eudora Welty: Metamorphosis of a Southern Lady Writer," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1970 by Saturday Review; first appeared in Saturday Review, April 11, 1970; used with permission), April 11, 1970, pp. 21-3.

The trouble with Eudora Welty is that she is a Southerner, a woman, and she can twang your heartstrings like a Union Grove fiddler. The consequence is that she is dismissed or accepted, according to your point of view, as a regionalist whose view does not extend beyond the first hill, as a "woman's writer," and as a teller of simple, sentimental tales, some of them vaguely elusive but all of them quite within the mental reach of the Wednesday Lecture Club. Her very name conspires against her; like that of another equally misunderstood Southerner, Calder Willingham, "Eudora Welty" somehow has the ring of contrivance, or self-parody, of the Old South risen again.

The truth is of course a good deal more complicated, as is Eudora Welty. The South is certainly important to her work, but as is the case with any great regionalist, ultimately it is merely a convenient device for the exploration of themes which are anything but regional; she uses the Mississippi hills and delta as Bernard Malamud uses the New York ghetto stores and apartments. Her femininity only enriches her work, especially her marvellous portraits of men; and her spinsterhood adds yet another complicating dimension. The facade of simplicity with which most of her work is coated is a ruse, for underneath it are extraordinary depth, range and deliberate ambiguity. The sheer variety of her work is quite stunning. Unlike Faulkner, who usually mined one vein, she has explored a broad range of subjects and styles. She has roamed from the enchanting fantasy of The Robber Bridegroom to the harsh realism of "Powerhouse" …; from London and the decks of a transatlantic liner to the rich Mississippi lowlands of Delta Wedding and the hard Mississippi hills of Losing Battles; from the warm nostalgia of The Ponder Heart to the deftly bitter hometown social commentary of "Lily Daw and the Three Ladies." It is quite impossible to read such stories as "A Wide Net" and "Death of a Travelling Salesman" and dismiss her as a giddy regional sentimentalist. The stories are wonderfully light and gentle and touching, but there is nothing soft about them. Thematically they are complex—sometimes incredibly difficult—and varied; each is essentially about love, yet each is embroidered with other themes which achieve equal validity and meaning. Reading her best work, one peels off layer after layer of mood and meaning, each more subtle and more difficult to find than its predecessor….

Her symbols are at once obvious and subtle; you are made aware that they are there, you need no Annotated Version to find them, yet you are never pounded over the head with them. And there are moments when her prose is ethereal in its perfection, so that you tingle because every word is right.

Jonathan Yardley, "The Last Good One?," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1970 by Harrison-Blaine of New Jersey, Inc.), May 9, 1970, pp. 33-6.

Eudora Welty's new novel [Losing Battles] … is a frightening gift—because it hands us, after so long a wait, an offering of such plenitude and serene mastery as to reveal with panicking suddenness how thin a diet we survive on—little dry knots of fashion, self-laceration; windy flights from "plot and character" into bone-crushingly dull (and ancient and easy) "experiment" and, throughout, a growing and maiming attachment to the modern city as the only scene for fiction. Reading it, one is reminded that liberated prisoners of war in 1945 often succumbed to shock on receiving full rations….

I am not indulging in literary-couturier's hyperbole in saying that Miss Welty's new novel is comparable, for depth and breadth and stamina, not with other American novels but with larger things—The Tempest, The Winter's Tale, War and Peace. And—least the above suggest a tragedy—like them, it is comic (more, it is funny—perhaps the funniest novel since Huckleberry Finn). Its faith is clearly that the world is ordered, that life—even a Renfro's—unfolds to messages contained in its seed and that any man's efforts to misread the commands, even decipher them, must only end in laughter. And if only God laughs—well then, only He was watching.

Reynolds Price, "Frightening Gift" (originally appeared in The Washington Post), in his Things Themselves: Essays & Scenes, (copyright © 1970, 1972 by Reynolds Price; reprinted by permission of Atheneum Publishers), Atheneum, 1972, pp. 139-42).

The Optimist's Daughter is Eudora Welty's strongest, richest work. For me, that is tantamount to saying that no one alive in America has yet shown stronger, richer, more useful fiction. All through my three readings, I've thought of Turgenev, Tolstoy, Chekhov—First Love, The Cossacks, The Steppe—and not as masters or originals but as peers for breadth and depth.

And an effortless power of summary, unity (of vision and means). For that is what I have felt most strongly in the story—that Miss Welty has now forged into one instrument strands (themes, stances, voices, genres) all present and mastered in various pieces of earlier work (many of them, invented there) but previously separate and rather rigidly compartmented. I'm thinking especially of "comedy" and "tragedy." In her early work—till 1955—she tended to separate them as firmly as a Greek dramatist. There is some tentative mingling in the larger works, Delta Wedding and the linked stories of The Golden Apples; but by far the greater number of the early stories divide cleanly—into rural comedy or farce, pathos or tragic lament, romance or lyric celebration, lethal satire….

But now in The Optimist's Daughter all changes. If the early work is classic, this might be medieval—in its fullness of vision, depth of field, range of ear. Jesus and goblins, Macbeth and the porter. There is no sense however of straining for wholeness, of a will to "ripeness," no visible girding for a major attempt. The richness and new unity of the story—its quality of summary—is the natural image produced by this action as it passes before Miss Welty's (literal) vision—look at a room from the perfect point, you can see it all. She has found the point, the place to stand to see this story—and we discover at the end that she's seen far more than that. Or perhaps the point drew her—helpless, willing—toward it, her natural pole?

Reynolds Price, "The Onlooker, Smiling: An Early Reading of The Optimist's Daughter," in his Things Themselves: Essays and Scenes (copyright © 1969 by Reynolds Price; reprinted by permission of Atheneum Publishers), Atheneum, 1972, pp. 114-38.

Eudora Welty's novel, [The Optimist's Daughter] … is a miracle of compression, the kind of book, small in scope but profound in its implications, that rewards a lifetime of work. Its style is at the service of a story that follows its nose with the instincts of a good hunting dog never losing the scent of its quarry. And its story has all those qualities peculiar to the finest short novels: a theme that vibrates with overtones, suspense and classical inevitability.

Known as a "Southern regionalist," Miss Welty is too good for pigeon-holing labels. Though she has stayed close to home, two interlocking notions have been demonstrated in her fiction: how easily the ordinary turns into legend, and how firmly the exotic is grounded in the banal. They are subjects only partly dependent on locale. In [The Optimist's Daughter] we are in the South once more, but a South where real distinctions are made between Texas and Mississippi, and Mississippi and West Virginia. And if place has been Miss Welty's touchstone, the pun implicit in the word "place" comes alive in her new novel; its colloquial meaning—caste, class, position—is as important as its geographical one.

Miss Welty is equally adept at redneck lingo, mountain twang and the evasions of middle-class speech, but it is her inability to falsify feelings that gives the novel its particular sense of truth … The best book Eudora Welty has ever written, [The Optimist's Daughter] is a long good-bye in a very short space not only to the dead but to delusion and to sentiment as well.

Howard Moss, "Eudora Welty's New Novel About Death and Class," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1972 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 21, 1972, pp. 1, 18.

Innocence enmeshed by schemers, gullibility abused, a harmless, hopeless simplicity too grand for deceitful living has been a theme in Eudora Welty's fiction since The Robber Bridegroom, 1942….

But in Miss Welty's new novel this very innocence ceases to be comic or charming and becomes lethal, a crucial failure to do business with the world, a special vulnerability, not a state of peculiar grace; not innocence at all, finally, but a form of guilt, the weakness both of individual men and a whole Southern style….

[The] book is … powerful …, stern, and funny in a way that has nothing to do with Miss Welty's earlier comic writing. Or rather, that has all too much to do with it, since it is concerned with taking it back. The engaging and irresponsible Uncle Daniel, say, of The Ponder Heart, has become … the helpless judge of The Optimist's Daughter, dignified but too delicate, not half as fit for life or as fond of it as he thought. The invading girl is no longer a young waif—"the kind of person you do miss," as The Ponder Heart's anything but unbiased narrator concedes—but a woman of forty wearing impregnable armor, hard as nails, and defying a whole world of manners and self-respect.

When comic characters appear in The Optimist's Daughter—and they appear often enough, Miss Welty's touch is as sure as ever there—they appear in settings that condemn their comedy as frivolous or irrelevant.

Michael Wood, "Cunning Time," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; © 1972 by NYREV, Inc.), June 29, 1972, pp. 8-9.

The Optimist's Daughter is an unlikely triumph, combining Chekhovian understatement with Faulknerian verve, displaying the powers [Eudora Welty's] at their best. She has lost nothing over the years: her unerring ear, the comic vitality of her characters, the authenticity of furniture and flowers and small-town mores remain compelling. And the profundity of her moral imagination has deepened. Little of obvious significance happens in this book…. What makes … events important is the penetration with which the characters are judged and the intensity with which they are loved.

Patricia Meyer Spacks, in Hudson Review, Autumn, 1972, p. 509.

Infinite riches in little room are displayed with profligate abandon in Miss Welty's latest book [The Optimist's Daughter], a brief novel almost perfect in its concept and execution, laid as usual in a small Mississippi town with few but thoroughly realized characters. Her story, on its face one of apparent simplicity, becomes through the exercise of her high art a complex pattern of human behavior under a stress that reveals the weaknesses of her characters as well as their strengths, and gives the reader a superb specimen of the author's work at her very best. She proceeds from page to page with professional ease and subtlety, utilizing the death of a prominent citizen to display devotion, treachery, vanity, pretense, and hypocrisy among survivors and friends alike. Her book constitutes an incomparable performance, most particularly these days when craftsmanship, skill, and competence are so conspicuous by their absence in contemporary fiction.

Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 48, No. 4 (Autumn, 1972), p. cxx.