Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces One Writer's Beginnings Analysis
Much of the magic and popularity of One Writer’s Beginnings can be attributed to the personality of Welty herself—a grand lady who with quiet dignity and grace has, without involving herself actively in the New York literary world, practiced her art with honesty and conscientiousness. She is the model of the genteel Southerner—gracious, kind, hospitable, and, therefore, difficult to resist.
Also responsible for the memorable nature of the book is Welty’s ability to re-create the feel of small-town American life before the 1920’s began to roar. The memoir surely appeals to a widespread nostalgia for a simpler time—before television, before nuclear weapons, before computers, and before jet airplanes. It was a time when the family library contained Dickens, Sir Walter Scott, The Book of Knowledge, and the Lincoln Library of Information; when school began with the ringing of a brass bell; and when seeing a film meant Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, and the Keystone Kops. Welty’s ear for the dialogue of the small-town South, her eye for the telling detail, and her uncanny memory for the precise look and feel of an era make this book fascinating.
Yet on a more basic level, the book addresses what is at the heart of all works that offer portraits of artists in their youth: What is it about the artist that sets him or her apart from others? What was it about Eudora Welty’s upbringing that made her into an artist? There are two ways in which Welty answers these questions. She provides the details of the important events of her life, and she offers her own meditative consideration of the story-making process.
Perhaps the key to Welty’s artistic nature, or at least as close as Welty comes in the book to identifying such a key, is her understanding of the difference between events as they happen in one’s life and events as they take on personal significance. Whereas the first is chronological, the second need not be at all, for events as they take on meaning follow what Welty calls a “thread of revelation.” Indeed, that is perhaps the best description of the structure of One Writer’s Beginnings—a continuous thread of individual moments of revelation.
Those moments that make up the thread of revelation for Welty include hearing her mother read stories to her and thus learning to “hear” every line read—not in her mother’s voice or even her own, but in what she calls the voice of the story itself, a voice that asks you to believe; consequently, when writing her own stories Welty hears her own words in that same voice that she hears when she reads—a voice she says she has always trusted. Hearing was also important when she listened to her mother and her friends talk. When she was a small child and a neighbor was invited to go on a Sunday drive in the car with the family, Welty would sit in the back seat between her mother and her friend and say, “Now talk.” In this way, Welty accounts for the source of the marvelous dialogue the reader hears in such stories as “The Petrified Man” and the almost perfect monologue of “Why I Live at the P.O.”
It was, however, learning to perceive the world as the stuff of story that most influenced Welty in her childhood. A...
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