(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

This is the first biography of Eudora Welty, a southern writer renowned especially for her short stories, many of which—like “Why I Live at the P.O.”—have been anthologized and won prizes. After William Faulkner, Welty is the finest writer Mississippi has produced. Unlike Faulkner, she has generally been lauded by her fellow Mississippians for presenting a positive picture of the state. Whereas Faulkner presents a gothic South, replete with demons and idiots and warped by racism, Welty—while not ignoring these subjects altogether—portrays a gentler, quirkier Mississippi. As a result, she has been a much beloved figure in her native Jackson, where she has spent most of her life aside from occasional stays in other parts of the United States and Europe. Few writers anywhere have received more awards and adulation, and Welty has reciprocated by conducting an apparently blameless life and behaving impeccably at lectures and other public events, where she has proven a lively and amusing speaker and reader.

Sooner or later there was bound to be a biography of Welty. She is too firmly ensconced in the American canon not to be the subject of much scholarly work as well as interest in her life and career. How did this single, unassuming woman become such a literary force and such a revered figure? Part of the story has been told in a published collection of letters between Welty and her agent, Diarmuid Russell, and another part in Welty’s memoir, One Writer’s Beginnings (1984), which became a best- seller.

Both the letters and the memoir, however, present only a narrow slice of what it means to be Eudora Welty. Carolyn Heilbrun’s review of One Writer’s Beginnings—a review Waldron discusses with shrewdness—pointed out that Welty left out the mechanics of becoming a writer, of building a career, and instead provided a rather sanitized, fairy-tale version of her rise to recognition. Waldron thinks that Welty believes in her own myth, and the biographer respects Welty’s desire to preserve a certain decorum; and yet, like any self-respecting biographer, Waldron has to probe deeper than her living subject can tolerate.

For readers who believe that writers are entitled to portray themselves as they like, Waldron’s inquiry will no doubt seem rude. Certainly Welty, as Waldron reports, was adamant about not having her biography written. Yet if Welty, however sweetly and sincerely, has presented an image of herself to the world, surely there is room for another view, especially when that view is offered by a diligent researcher and writer who is steeped in the literature and life of Welty’s region.

Waldron, a native of Alabama, has worked on southern newspapers and is the author of biographies of southern novelist Caroline Gordon and the legendary southern newspaper editor Hodding Carter. Waldron knows the terrain of her subject far better than many scholars of southern literature—as she demonstrates quietly but firmly when she corrects some of the misguided and far-fetched interpretations of Welty’s fiction. Welty scholars, some of whom have sought Welty’s cooperation and approval, have carefully preserved Welty’s privacy and closed ranks when it came to assisting Waldron. She points out in her opening chapter that she was virtually shut out of Welty’s inner circle of supporters. The reaction of the academic establishment is well represented in James Olney’s dismissive review in The New York Times Book Review.

There are painful subjects in Welty’s life and milieu that she and her friends would just as soon not discuss. Yet it is often what writers do not wish to discuss that is at the heart of their creativity. Waldron does not prove that this is so in Welty’s case, yet a careful reading of the biography yields a far richer reading of who Welty is as a literary figure than any work of literary criticism can provide. It is a measure of Waldron’s sophistication and tact that she rarely pushes the parallels between the life and work too far. This is not a thesis biography, but rather an excavation of the background of the fiction. Readers steeped in Welty will make many...

(The entire section is 1695 words.)