Eudora Welty 1909–
American novelist, short story writer, and essayist.
Welty is a southern regionalist frequently compared to William Faulkner, Katherine Anne Porter, and Caroline Gordon. Her stories of family life in small towns in the Deep South are built around what Paul Marx has called "the complex networks of judgments, misjudgments, and rejudgments," and sometimes take on the elusive qualities of dreams.
(See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 5, 14, Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed., and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 2: American Novelists since World War II.)
Eudora Welty admires Jane Austen and owes much to her and indeed stands in the same relation to fellow-Mississippian William Faulkner that Austen stood to [Walter] Scott. With little interest in history or social themes, she concentrates on the ordinary people of her country who go about the business of loving and hating and talking about their neighbors as if there were nothing more important in the world. But within this close range, she scrutinizes her subject and registers its vibrations with a tenderness of attention that places her closer to the heartbeat of her region than Faulkner himself.
If she shows greater variation than her eighteenth-century predecessor, it is not because her aim is different but because she lives in another age and her work inevitably shows it. Like Miss Austen, she remains aloof from social and political events of her time, but with one important difference. In spite of the French Revolution and Napoleon, England was confident and self-contained, and the Catherines, Elizabeths, and Emmas could go on flirting and finding husbands in a way of life that was apparently immutable. After two hundred years, even though Miss Welty's village remains intact, the world outside is not, and disturbing voices are beginning to be heard. Instead of writing about home and social ties, the old standbys of the English novel, young writers today are peering, in Miss Welty's words, through "knot-holes of isolation."
She does not take much to isolation—as no one could who believes in the family as she does—but feels very keenly the plight of the individual who pursues his own dream, never quite going the whole way perhaps but suffering from loneliness even while playing his part in the family life. Thus in the midst of what appears light comedy, she shifts abruptly to the subjective, and at times in fact appears uncertain where her main interest lies, with the individual or the social circle he belongs to. She veers from characters like Miss Eckhart and Miss Julia Mortimer and the other seekers of "the golden apples" to the village at large, loud with the clatter of ordinary life. Jane Austen's interest could not have been so divided because her audience would not have tolerated the private eye in fiction. She keeps passion offstage, concealed in a social mode, and so achieves a synthesis that Miss Welty's fiction lacks.
The gulf between "June Recital" and "Why I Live at the P. O.," for example, is very great indeed. One is in the major, the other a minor key. Miss Eckhart, Virgie Rainey, and Cassie Morrison are tragic figures, while in the other story Miss Welty is out for fun and the reader is not asked to consider what lies behind the old maid's spiteful antics. These disparities, however, are more apparent than real. In the long view, as one takes leave of a Welty story, the private voice is lost in the hubbub of family or community at large: the vision is essentially social. Whatever problems the individual may have—and they are sometimes very great indeed—can best be dealt with among those he knows best in some sort of conformity to the general pattern.
This public rather than private view sets her work in perspective, frames it in time and space and, like Miss Austen's, adorns it with the particularities of her culture, which to the outside world at least seems almost as remote as eighteenth-century Hampshire…. Of all the Southern writers, Miss Welty is most sensitive to the grace of manner and to those dissonances that threaten from the outside. Such is the precarious balance of her world, where not much seems to happen except a lot of talk but where in fact she outlines in her own quiet way what being civilized is all about. (pp. 771-72)
Miss Welty is a very private person with a bent for writing about private experience, however much she participates in community life. Her most dramatic moments are in this vein, when like the poet she explores the inarticulate region of the mind and heart. She shows a predilection towards the character, usually female, who dramatizes her loneliness—like Cassie Morrison in "June Recital" and Shelley Fairchild in Delta Wedding—and wonders why nothing ever happens to her as other lives are being fulfilled. (p. 772)
This type of character is recurrent in Miss Welty's fiction—Nina Carmichael, Laura McRaven, Lexie Renfro, Laurel Hand are variations—but too passive to command much interest, even when, as in the case of Laurel, she is given a leading role…. But there are other lonely characters who excite more interest because they do not stand still, who lurch out at life, sudden, grotesque, and finally impotent, in a game they are obviously not fitted for. Miss Eckhart, the piano teacher of "June Recital," is anything but passive. She came to Morgana, Mississippi, and in spite of aversion to her foreign ways,...
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In reading "The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty," there is a particular pleasure in following her performance over the years. Her range is remarkable—her way of telling us that stories are as different as human faces, that beyond the common features of plot and narrative, there are discoveries to be made each time…. Now, with all the stories gathered together, we can see with what vigilance she has continued to watch the world around her. She has transformed that early obsession into the vision of a magnificent American artist. (p. 1)
It is not the South we find in her stories, it is Eudora Welty's South, a region that feeds her imagination, and a place we come to trust. She is a Southerner as Chekhov was a Russian, because place provides them with reality—a reality as difficult, mysterious and impermanent as life.
From the first volume included here, "A Curtain of Green and Other Stories" …, we can see the demands that Miss Welty put upon herself as a writer. Each tale finds its own pace and its own design. The characters are so fully realized that the imprint of their life is upon the page…. These early stories are filled with dreamers, deaf-mutes, wanderers, the old—people who live outside of society. We are told what in their fantasies, or in fact, sets them apart, but we are made to wonder about the real world that cannot contain them.
There is so much virtuosity in "The Collected Stories," such a testing of the form, we cannot help but see that the writing was always fresh to her and of great interest....
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[In her Collected Stories] Eudora Welty's real self percolates into a generous fiction that wastes very little time on disapproval. She wanders, marveling, over the landscape of soul and senses, never allowing the smallest fluctuation in either to escape her, but she is not a moralist. She has no vocation for rectitude, and one can search in vain among dozens of her springy, piquant, often irascible characters for those implications of psychological delinquency that give such dramatic tension to the stories of Henry James. Yet she is no less a psychologist; she simply is more interested in our efforts and longings than in our guilts and weaknesses. (p. 3)
Whenever she discerns a fault in someone, she leaves room for an advantage or a felicity. In "Lily Daw and the Three Ladies," three biddies of an age to wear widow's black and get hot easily are about to plump a slightly retarded young lady into an institution for the feeble-minded, presumably for her own happiness. When they find her at home packing a hope chest (so far she has collected one bar of soap and a wash rag) and preparing to get married to a traveling xylophone player, the ladies are aghast—in good part because she has outwitted their pessimism and shattered their complacency. This ignoble sentiment would no doubt be the chief disclosure for some other writer, but it is their sheepishness and hesitation that Miss Welty wants to call to our attention….
Miss Welty unnerves us with the possibility of violence in a gentle woman mainly to stir us, as her characters are often painfully stirred, to a realization of cosmic forces. The only lesson for them or us to learn is that we must accede graciously. But while that is the course she would recommend, she takes it for granted that most of the human species is awkward indeed at coming to grips with fate.
The partly autobiographical "June Recital," a shimmering flashback to the poetry and wonder of life at the age of 12, creates a marvelous balance sheet of benign and thwarting experience, setting side by side family happiness and bitter isolation, the carefree next to the crabbed, the...
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More than thirty years after writing the stories in A Curtain of Green, Welty gave the best introduction to their theme and technique in her foreword to One Time, One Place. She spoke of the experience of being invisible behind her Kodak…. (p. 5)
This photographic metaphor for the artist's vision—the snapping of the shutter, the slow process of development, the examination in objectivity and solitude—may also be the best way of reading these early stories. And insofar as the impulse to make an image, to border and thus to define amorphous experience, is the impulse to discover an order in experience, the same metaphor indicates the theme. (pp. 5-6)
[In several of...
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