Eudora Welty's Achievement of Order

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 15)

Michael Kreyling’s excellent study of the work of Eudora Welty draws its title from a passage in Welty’s essay on Willa Cather: “A work of art is a work: something made, which in the making follows an idea that comes out of human life and leads back into human life. It is an achievement of order, passionately conceived and passionately carried out.”

Kreyling examines Welty’s four volumes of short stories, her two short novels, and her two longer ones; and he shows how her “achievement of order, passionately conceived and passionately carried out” resulted from the experience she gained through her own writing and, in part, through the perception that came from her reading of other authors.

Considering Welty’s books in their order of appearance, Kreyling frequently cites the failure of reviewers to discover more than a surface meaning or effect in works whose deeper art escaped them but was perceived by later, more observant readers. Like the work of many other writers, Welty’s is subtler and more complex than the rapid reader sees.

Several reviewers of A Curtain of Green, Welty’s first book of stories, unjustly considered her a mere writer of Southern Gothic. They were misled, Kreyling believes, by the appearance of “grotesques” in a few stories and by a few incidents—such as the desperate suicide in “Clytie”—which blinded them to other aspects of her writing.

The stories in A Curtain of Green present real, although sometimes grotesque, people; but Welty is not content to be a mere realist picturing what the eye can see. She searches for more. As Kreyling says, “Always present and striving in the technique . . . is the will to probe the enigma with language, with fiction, for the wholeness that lies at the root of human life.”

Kreyling sees in the eight stories of Welty’s second book, The Wide Net, “a powerful and subtly unifying technique that links individual stories and transforms them into something more than a collection.” Longer and more complex than the stories in A Curtain of Green, those in The Wide Net anticipate Welty’s novellas and novels to come.

The two nineteenth century stories, “First Love” and “A Still Moment,” contain actual historical characters and they occur in the geographically real Natchez Trace. Yet, they are not historical narratives. Fictionally, they take place, as Kreyling writes, “in a state of heightened imaginative possibilities.” Aaron Burr was really tried for treason, but he is presented by Welty as the heroic figure imagined and glorified in the mind of the young deaf-mute, Joel Mayes, who receives something of Burr’s dream in a handshake. Lorenzo Dow, James Murrell, and John James Audubon, the three men who meet in “A Still Moment,” belong to history; but in the story they seem to exist in a poetically imagined landscape.

Welty’s combining of realism with mythic or symbolic elements in several stories in A Curtain of Green continues in The Wide Net. Kreyling interprets “Asphodel” as a skillfully crafted and ironic version of the classic strife between Dionysian and Apollonian visions of life.” Numerous passages in “Livvie” clearly suggest the winter-spring symbolism. In “The Winds,” both Josie and the symbolically named Cornella (from corn, suggests Kreyling) are seen during the equinox, a “season of change.” Cornella, lashed by the storm winds and rain, has already begun the change from girl into woman and the onlooking Josie is poised to enter it.

In The Robber Bridegroom, her first novella, Welty blends elements of history, fairy tales, tall tales, comedy, and tragedy. Despite the title, which suggests that Jamie Lockhart is the protagonist, Kreyling sees Clement Musgrove as the real hero, “a character in a cast of cartoons,” and he links him with Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Miles Coverdale, Cervantes’ Don Quixote, and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby, “a motley fraternity of dreamers [who] all face across the bay of their own puzzling circumstances a disordered world that will not obey their wills or dreams.” Musgrove’s pastoral dream is doomed by the greed and other evils of the whites who have taken over the Natchez Trace from the Indians. At the end, although his daughter Rosamond chooses the “splendid” city, Musgrove retreats. Kreyling writes, however, “he has won an integrating vision; he has learned through physical and emotional trial the continuity of time and its concentration in the moment . . . the moment of unscaled vision is the only true stability.”

When Delta Wedding, Welty’s first full-length novel, appeared in 1946, many reviewers were disappointed. They looked for a “story,” a book with social significance, a facing of the factual present. Welty had intended a very different kind...

(The entire section is 2015 words.)