The Harvard University Press has printed many lectures delivered by distinguished visitors, but it has never until the publication of this work produced a best-seller. The wide appeal of this small volume rests on many of the elements that have made Eudora Welty one of the most respected of American fiction writers: her unerring ear for the cadences of human speech, her ability to draw extraordinarily vivid characters in a few words, her sensitivity to family relationships, and her rich insight into the interplay of experience and memory.
The three chapters that make up the book, “Listening,” “Learning to See,” and “Finding a Voice,” explore Welty’s own past and that of her parents in search of those experiences that molded her into a writer. These chapters are, however, more than a quest for the springs of her own creativity. They provide a window on early twentieth century American life, on an era when schoolteachers inspired awe and fear in small girls who committed the heinous offense of saying “might could”; a time when trains ran on time and car trips were perilous ventures on dirt roads and dilapidated ferries. It was a period, too, in which death seemed much closer at hand than it does today. Each of the author’s parents lost a parent early, her father at seven, her mother at fifteen. The first of the four Welty children died at birth, nearly taking his mother with him. Christian Welty, Eudora Welty’s father, fatally ill with leukemia, died at fifty-three, on a hospital bed while receiving a blood transfusion from his wife. Nevertheless, the picture Welty presents of the world of her youth is one of richness and vitality. Her adventurous parents were quick to take advantage of the opportunities available in the first three decades of the twentieth century, and they provided a near-ideal environment for the nurturing of their daughter and her two younger brothers.
Welty’s story is as much her parents’ as her own, and she acknowledges throughout the book their enormous influences on her life. Christian Welty left his family’s farm in Ohio and joined a small but growing life insurance company in Jackson, Mississippi, a few years before his daughter’s birth in 1909. He was a man who believed profoundly in the future, in progress, science, and facts. To prepare his children for the world he saw ahead, he provided them with blocks, tinker toys, erector sets, and electric trains, and taught them about astronomy and meteorology.
His wife, Chestina Andrews, was equally courageous but in some ways less confident in her approach to the world. Her early years will sound familiar to readers of The Optimist’s Daughter (1972), in which Welty has given to Becky McKelva much of her mother’s past: the West Virginia mountains, the close mother-daughter bond, the large, devoted, musical brothers, and the nightmarish journey of the fifteen-year-old daughter to a Baltimore hospital with her dying father and her return home with his body in a coffin. Chestina Welty is presented as a devoted wife and mother who instilled in her children her love of books, but she is also seen as a woman who felt herself somewhat exiled from her true home. She obviously considered the social life of a young Jackson matron, exchanging calling cards and small talk, a waste of time.
Welty explores in some depth her parents’ relationship to each other and her own to them, musing affectionately and sympathetically about their characters and their idiosyncrasies. Her father, she notes, was essentially an optimist, but it was he who never went into a hotel without chains, rope, and ax to protect his family in case of fire. His pessimistic wife, on the other hand, could show unexpected courage. Her heroic dash into her burning home to save her set of the complete works of Charles Dickens, given her by her dead father, was a family legend. Both parents, perhaps as a result of their own childhood losses and of the death of their firstborn, were inevitably overprotective, and their daughter had to struggle for a long time to achieve independence from their sheltering love. She writes of the sense of guilt that often accompanied joyous occasions in her childhood, for her own pleasure usually depended on her mother’s sacrifice. She could hardly relish the delights of the performance of Blossom Time when she thought of her mother at home missing them. Even as a young adult traveling to New York to show her stories and photographs to editors, she left home “with an iron cage around my chest of guilt,” for she knew how much anxiety and apprehension her departure was to bring her mother. Both she and her brothers believed that their independent ventures had to be extremely successful to justify the pain they unwillingly inflicted.
For Welty, one way to handle this guilt was to transform it into art, and that revelation is the main theme of this work, which presents both her era and her family relationships primarily as the source of the attributes she needed to become a writer. Almost the first thing she learned was how to listen—to the chiming clocks in her home, the whistling duets of her parents, the conversations of neighbors. She tells a delightful anecdote of herself as a small child, seating herself in the backseat of the family car between her mother and a...