The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty
The forty-one stories in The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty cover a publication period of three decades, and together they represent one of the most impressive achievements in short-story writing of the present century. Many of the stories first appeared in magazines, among them Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s Bazaar, Harper’s Magazine, New Directions, The New Yorker, Southern Review, and Yale Review. All except two were collected in four earlier volumes: A Curtain of Green (1941), The Wide Net and Other Stories (1943), The Golden Apples (1949), and The Bride of Innisfallen and Other Stories (1955). “Where Is the Voice Coming From?” and “The Demonstrators,” first published in The New Yorker, were previously uncollected.
Throughout her long career as a short-story writer, Eudora Welty has shown little interest in plot, and her stories are as devoid of conventional plotting as those of Anton Chekhov. Her emphasis is on varying combinations of theme, character, and style. She uses dialogue skillfully in portraying her characters and in developing her themes. Her ear for Southern speech, which is used in so many of her stories, is remarkably accurate. One hears in the voices not only the words and pronunciations but also the characteristic rhythms of the South. This is true of the speech of both whites and blacks. Humor is present in some of her earlier stories but it is either infrequent or totally missing in the later ones.
Welty has experimented with changes in point of view or in focus from one story to another or at times within a single story. She, as author, tells some stories. In others, she turns the narration over to a story character, as in the early “Why I Live at the P.O.” or the late “Where Is the Voice Coming From?” The narrator may occasionally be neither the author nor a character in the story, as in “Old Mr. Marblehall,” where the story appears to be told by a chatty Southern lady who knows Mr. Marblehall well and finds him amusing, who has somehow learned the secret of his double life, and who also is aware of how he is looked on by the people of his home town.
Character is revealed both externally and internally, since it is made evident through action, description, and dialogue but also through entrance into the character’s mind, as when Ruby Fisher, in “A Piece of News,” sits sleepily before the fire and imagines herself dying, or when the smell of Miss Baby Marie’s lipstick reminds Livvie (in “Livvie”) of the chinaberry tree at her home.
Symbolism and imagery appear frequently in Welty’s stories. The symbols are not obtrusive and they may even remain unnoticed by the casual reader. They are often drawn from nature: birds, trees, sun, stars, thunder. Many names are symbolic or drawn from myth and legend: Phoenix Jackson, the old black woman in “A Worn Path”; the orphan Easter in “Moon Lake,” who seemingly dies and then awakens; King MacLain and the albino Snowdie in “Shower of Gold,” modern characters based on the Zeus-Danaë myth.
Welty’s stories have been frequently anthologized, and among them are several from her first volume, A Curtain of Green. In “A Piece of News,” a slow-witted young wife of a Mississippi moonshiner sees by chance in a scrap of newspaper that a woman named Ruby Fisher has been shot by her husband. Since her own name is Ruby Fisher, she dreamily envisions herself dying from a gunshot wound and her husband grieving over what he has done. The husband returns, learns she has sneaked away in his absence, briefly quarrels with her, and finally explains that the Ruby Fisher in the paper is a Tennessee woman. Symbolically, the story begins during a storm, with flashes of lightning and thunder crashes. At the end, with Ruby’s imagined violence put to rest and actual violence avoided, “The storm had rolled away to faintness like a wagon crossing a bridge.”
“Keela, the Outcast Indian Maiden,” although told by the author, ingeniously introduces three points of view regarding events now in the past. The author scrupulously resists any temptation to offer her own views about what happened. Little Lee Roy, a crippled black, is visited by two white men. Steve, the younger man, who suffers from a guilty conscience, tells Max, the older man, how he naïvely was used by the operators of a traveling show to advertise Lee Roy as Keela, the Outcast Indian Maiden, who bit off live chickens’ heads and drank their blood. Angered by Max’s indifference to Steve’s account of what he considers the cruel exploitation of a little black cripple, Steve suddenly knocks him down. He apologizes and the two men leave. Lee Roy, meanwhile, has enjoyed listening to the men talking about “de ole times when I use to be wid de circus,” just as a child might enjoy hearing a fairy tale of long ago.
“The Hitch-Hikers” and “Death of a Traveling Salesman” develop the theme of human loneliness which is seen in a number of Welty’s stories. Although Harris in the first story wishes the girls he is with would refer to him as “you” rather than “he,” he himself cares so little about other people that he confuses one girl with another he had met in a different town, and he gives to a black boy the guitar that belonged to the murdered hitchhiker. He had picked up the boy only to hear his music. Harris’ loneliness comes from his self-centered, vagabond life. R. J. Bowman, in “Death of a Traveling Salesman,” wishes to say to the country woman from whom he has sought help, “I have been sick and I found out then, only then, how lonely I am. Is it too late?” It is, and at the end of the story there is no one except himself to hear the final beats of Bowman’s heart: “bang bang bang.”
One of the most unusual and most successful stories in Welty’s first volume is “Powerhouse,” in which the leading character is based on “Fats” Waller, a popular musician and band leader. Powerhouse is a man of tremendous energy whose comedy and music entertain his white audience. He pretends he has received a telegram the night before that his wife has died and, with his band members joining in with words and music, he develops a brief, comic improvisation that he suddenly ends by announcing an intermission. Later, in a café, he and the band continue the improvisation, but without the music, before an appreciative all-negro audience. “Powerhouse” is perhaps the best of Welty’s stories in which the comic tone predominates in characterization, dialogue, description, and narrative style.
A very different black appears in the prize-winning “A...
(The entire section is 2739 words.)