Eudora Welty (essay date 1954)
SOURCE: Welty, Eudora. “Place and Time: The Southern Writer's Inheritance.1” Mississippi Quarterly 50, no. 4 (fall 1997): 545-51.
[In the following essay, first published in 1954, Welty discusses some general characteristics of Southern literature and praises the work of such modern novelists as William Faulkner, Katherine Anne Porter, and Peter Taylor.]
As this was being written, the new book by William Faulkner is about to come out in America—a long novel entitled A Fable. One never knows ahead what a new work by Mr. Faulkner will be like—that is one of the joys of living contemporaneously with a genius. Now in the prime of his life, in the mid-fifties, he may well be giving us his major work; the talk is that he himself has an inkling that this is so. We shall have it here before long, and meanwhile the American critics are all giving cry. They ought to know by now, though, that Faulkner's work is a whole, that cannot be satisfactorily analysed and accounted for, until it can be predicted—Lord save the day. That prose is indestructibly itself and alive, something passionate and uncompromising, that will never sit still and wait on what anybody thinks; it will never be a possum in the tree. It sheds its light from higher up than any of the boys can shoot it down.
In the present surge of writers coming out of the South, Faulkner is the Man—pride and joy and show piece. Still, Mr. Edmund Wilson has put himself on record as wondering why on earth Mr. Faulkner doesn't quit all this local stuff and come out of the South to write in civilization. He asks how writing like that can possibly come out of some little town in Mississippi. The marvellous thing is that such writing comes. Let Mr. Wilson try calling for some in another direction, and see how long it takes. Such writing does not happen often, anywhere.
In America, Southerners are always being asked to account for themselves in general; it's a national habit. If they hold themselves too proud, or let themselves go too quickly, to give a reasonable answer, it does not really matter—at least it does not matter to the Southerners. Now that the “Southern Renaissance” is a frequent term, and they are being asked to account for that, some try and others just go on writing. In one little Mississippi town on the river, seventeen authors are in the national print and a Pulitzer Prize winner edits the paper. It is also true that nobody is buying books in that town, or generally in the South. It seems that when it comes to books they are reading the old ones and writing the new ones. Southerners are, indeed, apart from and in addition to the giant Faulkner, writing a substantial part of the seriously considered novels, stories and poems of the day in America, and the most interesting criticism. One might just think that they are good at writing, and let it go at that.
There has always been a generous flow of writing to come out of the South. One can begin with Poe and come up through George Washington Cable, Joel Chandler Harris, James Branch Cabell, Julia Peterkin, Willa Cather, Ellen Glasgow, Stark Young, William Alexander Percy, and so on—there are many more. Before the famous Southern Review of the thirties there were two previous Southern Reviews, the first published more than a hundred years earlier in Charleston. There was the Southern Literary Messenger, to which Poe contributed, and there was, and still is, the South Atlantic Quarterly, which has been going on in Durham, N. C., for the last fifty years, with many creditable pieces in it, as Dr. W. B. Hamilton's recently published collection from it has made plain. There has been a high standard of journalism in the South, not everywhere, but continuously somewhere; one thinks of it as a tradition out of which came historians and critics like Herbert Agar, who edited the Louisville Courier before coming to England; of Virginius Dabney in Richmond, and of Hodding Carter in Greenville, Miss., the aforementioned Pulitzer prize winner.
It is nothing new or startling that Southerners do write—probably they must write. It is the way they are: born readers and reciters, great document holders, diary keepers, letter exchangers and savers, history tracers—and, outstaying the rest, great talkers. Emphasis in talk is on the narrative form and the verbatim conversation, for which time is needed. Children who grow up listening through rewarding stretches of unhurried time, reading in big lonely rooms, dwelling in the confidence of slow-changing places, are naturally more prone than other children to be entertained from the first by life and to feel free, encouraged, and then in no time compelled, to pass their pleasure on. They cannot help being impressed by a world around them where history has happened in the yard or come into the house, where all round the countryside big things happened and monuments stand to the memory of fiery deeds still to be heard from the lips of grandparents, the columns in the field or the familiar cedar avenue leading uphill to nothing, where such-and-such a house once stood. At least one version of an inextinguishable history of everybody and his grandfather is a community possession, not for a moment to be forgotten—just added to, with due care, mostly. The individual is much too cherished as such for his importance ever to grow diminished in a story. The rarity in a man is what is appreciated and encouraged.
All through their lives Southerners are thus brought up, without any occasion to give it wonder, to be intimate with, and observant of, the telling detail in a life that is changing ever so slowly—like a garden in a season—and is reluctant to be changing at all. Without the conscious surmise of how they may have come to find it out, they do habitually find out how to be curious and aware, and perhaps compassionate and certainly prejudiced, about the stories that can be watched in the happening, all the way—lifelong and generation-long stories. They are stories watched and participated in, if not by one member of the family, then without a break by another, allowing the continuous recital to be passed along in its full course—memory and event and the comprehension of it and being part of it scarcely marked off from one another in the present glow of hearing it again, telling it, feeling it, knowing it. Someday somebody is liable to write it, although nobody is quite so likely to read it. The main thing Southern writers learn is that the story, whatever it is, is not incredible. Of course, that is what they wind up being charged with—stark incredibility. Faulkner is all true—he is poetically the most accurate man alive, he has looked straight into the heart of the matter and got it down for good.
One thing Yoknapatawpha County has demonstrated is that deeper down than people, farther back than history, there is the Place. All Southerners must have felt that they were born somewhere in its story, and can see themselves in line. The South was beautiful as a place, things have happened to it, and it is beautiful still—sometimes to the eye, often to the memory; and beyond any doubt it has a tearing beauty for the vision of the Southern writer, in whose work Place is seen with Time walking on it—dramatically, portentously, mourningly, in ravishment, in remembrance, as the case may be—though without the humour this writing is full of, where would it be? It is a rural land, not industrialized yet—so that William Faulkner can still go out and get his...
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