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Eudora Welty 1909–
American short story writer and novelist.
The following entry presents an overview of Welty's career. For further information on her life and works, see Eudora Welty Criticism (Volume 1), and volumes 2, 5, 14, 22.
Eudora Welty has long been respected by her...
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Eudora Welty 1909–
American short story writer and novelist.
The following entry presents an overview of Welty's career. For further information on her life and works, see Eudora Welty Criticism (Volume 1), and volumes 2, 5, 14, 22.
Eudora Welty has long been respected by her fellow writers, but it was not until the publication of her Collected Stories of Eudora Welty (1980) that she received serious critical attention. Early in her career Welty was dismissed by reviewers as a regionalist, since most of her stories are set in Mississippi. However, upon close examination of her work, critics began to see the universal themes in Welty's fiction and the skill with which she evokes a sense of place.
Welty was born in 1909 and grew up in Jackson, Mississippi. She was the oldest of three children and the only girl. Her father, Christian Welty, grew up in Ohio in a very reserved family of Swiss heritage. Her mother, Chestina Andrews, grew up in the mountains of West Virginia and never felt at home in Mississippi. In contrast to her husband's background, Chestina Andrews grew up in a spirited and gregarious family, and Welty's visits with her grandmother and five uncles in West Virginia were memorable for her. Later Welty would tell of these experiences in her One Writer's Beginnings (1984) and fictionally as part of The Optimist's Daughter (1972). Welty was surrounded with books as a child. Her father kept an extensive library, and her mother often read aloud to her. After completing public school in Jackson, Welty attended Mississippi State College for Women from 1925 to 1927. She went on to receive her B.A. from the University of Wisconsin in 1929. Welty then attended Columbia University Graduate School of Business in New York from 1930–1931 to study advertising. She was forced to return home to Jackson in 1931 when her father died suddenly. In the early 1930s Welty held a variety of odd jobs with local newspapers and a radio station until she got a position as a publicity agent for the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The job took her throughout the state of Mississippi, which helped inspire her as an artist. Welty began taking photographs of a variety of images and people she encountered in the state. Although she was unsuccessful at finding a publisher for the collection at the time, the photographs were later published in 1971 as One Time, One Place: Mississippi in the Depres-sion; A Snapshot Album (1971). Her job at the WPA also inspired Welty to begin writing about the Depression era. Her first short story, "Death of a Traveling Salesman," was published in Manuscript in 1936. Her first collection, titled A Curtain of Green (1941), followed in 1941. Welty has continued to live and write from her family home in Jackson, Mississippi, including novels and essays in addition to her short stories. Her novel The Optimist's Daughter won the Pulitzer Prize in 1972.
Very few of Welty's works are written in the first-person narrative. She prefers a conversational style with a multitude of voices. The best example of this is her novel Losing Battles (1970), which is set during the Depression. The story revolves around the family of Granny Vaughn, which gathers in Banner, Mississippi, to celebrate Granny's 90th birthday. The novel is a collection of different family members' tales as they get together for this reunion. Past and present merge as each character tells their story. One of the major characters, the schoolteacher Julia Mortimer, is not even alive in the present of the narrative. She dies shortly before the reunion, but her presence is strongly felt throughout the novel. Welty does not normally use her direct experience in her fiction, and she feels that a reader does not need every biographical detail about a writer to understand his work. However, elements of her life are reflected in portions of her writing. The Optimist's Daughter is her most autobiographical work of fiction, and there are many parallel scenes between the novel and personal scenes described in her memoir One Writer's Beginnings. The memoir is based on a series of lectures Welty gave at Harvard University about the development of her life as a writer. It is not a straight autobiography or a manual on the techniques of writing; it is simply a personal look at her journey of developing her talents as a writer. There are three sections, "Listening," "Learning to See," and "Finding a Voice." Each section shares personal memories and how, as a writer, Welty absorbed and filtered her experiences.
Since most of her work is set in Mississippi, Welty was dismissed as a regionalist early in her career. Reviewers eventually recognized the depth and universal themes present in her fiction, however. Maureen Howard asserts, "Eudora Welty is not a regionalist: She is a Southern writer who has lived all her life in Jackson, Miss. It is not surprising that she draws strength from this setting for most of the stories, but it is a mark of her great skill that her perceptions of courthouse towns, poor shacks and farms, the discarded levee are so various and unlimiting." In fact it is her ability to convey her strong sense of place that has caused many reviewers to laud her work. Some critics assert that the appeal of Welty's fiction and her ability to overcome the label of regionalist derives from the fact that she writes from two perspectives. From living in the state almost her entire life, Welty knows Mississippi and its people so intimately that she is able to vividly convey them in her fiction. The fact that her parents were not Southerners, however, gave her the opportunity to view her subject as an outsider. Welty is often praised for her use of dialect and the conversational style of her writing. In describing the varied voices in Losing Battles, Paul Bailey said, "Such talk—varied, spontaneous, recognizably absurd—is a pleasure to read because it is always revealing of character." Many critics comment on the folklore influence on her work, especially in The Golden Apples (1949) and The Robber Bridegroom (1942).
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 123
A Curtain of Green (short stories) 1941
The Robber Bridegroom (novella) 1942
The Wide Net, and Other Stories (short stories) 1943
Delta Wedding (novel) 1946
The Golden Apples (short stories) 1949
Short Stories (essay) 1949
Selected Stories (short stories) 1953
The Ponder Heart (short stories) 1954
The Bride of Innisfallen, and Other Stories (short stories) 1955
Place in Fiction (lectures) 1957
The Shoe Bird (juvenilia) 1964
Thirteen Stories (short stories) 1965
A Sweet Devouring (nonfiction) 1969
A Flock of Guinea Hens Seen from a Car (poem) 1970
Losing Battles (novel) 1970
One Time, One Place: Mississippi in the Depression: A Snapshot Album (photographs) 1971
The Optimist's Daughter (novel) 1972
The Eye of the Story (essays and reviews) 1978
Moon Lake and Other Stories (short stories) 1980
The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty (short stories) 1980
One Writer's Beginnings (lectures) 1984
Eudora Welty Photographs (photographs) 1989
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SOURCE: "A Collection of Discoveries," in The New York Times Book Review, November 2, 1980, pp. 1, 31, 32.
[In the following review, Howard discusses Welty's Collected Stories, and how her range developed throughout her career.]
In reading The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty, there is a particular pleasure in following her performance over the years. Her range is remarkable—her way of telling us that stories are as different as human faces, that beyond the common features of plot and narrative, there are discoveries to be made each time. In "A Memory" (which seems to be about her childhood), she writes, "To watch everything about me I regarded grimly and possessively as a need." Now, with all the stories gathered together, we can see with what vigilance she has continued to watch the world around her. She has transformed that early obsession into the vision of a magnificent American artist.
Eudora Welty is not a regionalist: She is a Southern writer who has lived nearly all of her life in Jackson, Miss. It is not surprising that she draws strength from this setting for most of the stories, but it is a mark of her great skill that her perceptions of courthouse towns, poor shacks and farms, the discarded levee are so various and unlimiting. The Delta, the backwoods cabin or fussy middle-class home is rendered in each story, used only as necessary. And the talk, the beguiling Mississippi talk that lends such energy to her work is completely under her control. It is not the South we find in her stories, it is Eudora Welty's South, a region that feeds her imagination, and a place we come to trust. She is a Southerner as Chekhov was a Russian, because place provides them with reality—a reality as difficult, mysterious and impermanent as life.
From the first volume included here, A Curtain of Green and Other Stories, we can see the demands that Miss Welty put upon herself as a writer. Each tale finds its own pace and its own design. The characters are so fully realized that the imprint of their life is upon the page. "Lily Daw and the Three Ladies" is a farce. A poor simpleton's fate is determined as much by circumstance as the cockeyed morality of the self-approving ladies who take care of her. "Petrified Man," one of the most famous of the early stories, is all gossip. Written as idle beauty-parlor chatter, it reveals the thrill that the dull get from glamorous lives, though that glamour be infamous, corrupt. Such talk may be outrageously funny to overhear but it levels all events—murder, rape, betrayal—to perverse entertainment. Then there is "A Worn Path," the story of an old Negro woman whose endurance is superhuman. It is possible to believe in her because Miss Welty casts Phoenix's mythic journey in an easy folklore that admits magical encounters and the woman's heroic determination. These early stories are filled with dreamers, deaf-mutes, wanderers, the old—people who live outside of society. We are told what in their fantasies, or in fact, sets them apart, but we are made to wonder about the real world that cannot contain them.
There is so much virtuosity in The Collected Stories, such a testing of the form, we cannot help but see that the writing was always fresh to her and of great interest. That is the mark of genius. Like Katherine Anne Porter, whom she admired, Eudora Welty has never had the time or patience for repeats. The game of the storyteller, and it is a serious one, is always to find the right emphasis, the right tone. Thus, I am dazzled by a talent that can ventriloquize the petulant whining tale of "Why I Live at the P.O." so brilliantly, but I am genuinely impressed that after such success Miss Welty did not write another monologue for some 25 years. Then, on the night of Medgar Evers's death, she wrote "Where Is the Voice Coming From?" the loudmouthed soliloquy of a killer.
The two stories may seem alike in method: They are wonderfully different in intent. We never asked to hear the complaint of the postmistress against her family, but Miss Welty has staged a humiliating spectacle of self-exposure. We become a willing audience. The assassin's voice, we want to hear. We want to hear him to believe him and to confirm what we think we know about bigots and nasty hicks. Our interest is almost prurient, our anger predictable, but Eudora Welty's response to the murder is more profound. Her story is a deflection of common rage to an artistic honesty. "Whoever the murderer is," Miss Welty writes in her preface, "I know him: not his identity, but his coming about, in this time and place. That is, I ought to have learned by now, from here, what such a man, intent on such a deed, had going on in his mind."
Now this is the statement of a writer ultimately responsible to her material, not a writer who takes the occasion of a public event to provide material. She knows what we cannot imagine, the killer's satisfaction and the petty details of his hatred. In a few pages she creates a mind shot through with clichés ("Ain't it about time us taxpayers starts to calling the moves?"), but it is only tinged with the crazed isolation of the psychotic. He is not fantastic, not a cartoon response to our liberal concerns. The killer is real—a man with a sharp-tongued wife, a man who does not own his own automobile. All is understood (It always is in Miss Welty's work) but that does not mean that this wretched man is forgiven.
There are the formal stories, only a few, which make use of history. And again, it is impressive that each time she ventures into new territory. "First Love" is set "in extraordinary times, in a season of dreams." A deaf boot-boy falls in love with words he cannot hear, most particularly with the words of Aaron Burr as he enchants his fellow conspirator. The place is the Mississippi territory in the days before one of the greatest courtroom encounters in American history. Burr awaits trial for treason: His long nights of talk are magic to the boy who begins to see clearly what others hear, Burr's brilliance and charm. The story is held strictly to the deaf boy's vision, a narrower view of a historic moment than we are accustomed to, but locked in the boy's silence we finally see beyond Burr's courtroom rhetoric: The tone, as the boy can now observe through Burr's gestures and expression, is elegant and false. He learns, as from first love, that his heart can be broken by words, but he will never be content again with silence. The year is 1807. Aaron Burr might enter here as the lead in a costume piece, a romantic scoundrel held to his set role in history, if Miss Welty did not make the moment both extraordinary and credible by giving it to us through the deaf boy's eyes.
In "A Still Moment" it would seem that history operates as a background for parable. We are someplace in the early 19th century on the Old Natchez Trace. A preacher, a murderer, a student (Audubon) converge at the author's bidding. But the parable is not easily construed. Good and evil have blurred edges, like the reasons for lonely journeys, like the mysterious pull of one's vocation. For Audubon read naturalist, journalist—neither is fully accurate—a student, yet a master of his craft. He is a real man confounded by the detailed beauty of nature, by living things and by the difficulties of his journey—not John James Audubon (1785–1851), a symbolic figure:
He knew that the best he could make would be, after it was apart from his hand, a dead thing and not a live thing, never the essence, only a sum of parts; and that it would always meet with a stranger's sight, and never be one with the beauty in any other man's head in the world. As he had seen the bird most purely at its moment of death, in some fatal way, in his care for looking outward, he saw his long labor most revealingly at the point where it met its limit.
Audubon's words might stand as Miss Welty's graceful statement of the pressure she feels as a writer to bring life out of words insofar as she is able. In "A Still Moment" she abandons her parable intentionally. It is a schematic view and in the telling of an honest story it will simply not serve. The historic incident here gives way to a personal moment—Audubon's meeting with his limits becomes Miss Welty's confrontation with herself.
There is one group of tales that interlock, those in The Golden Apples. Seen in the midst of The Collected Stories, they seem a central performance, theme and variation played out in one place. Morgana is a Southern town of Miss Welty's making. Like Joyce's Dubliners, the stories glance off each other—stories of love, ambition, marriage, set side by side without the narrative line of a novel. But unlike Joyce's characters who never intersect, the inhabitants of Morgana turn up again and again. We come to know them—parents and children, teachers and servants—and to expect them in separate scenes held together by a lush colloquial speech and a richness of little plots. As a book, The Golden Apples is most like a one-woman show of photographs where a style is discernible in the use of light and detail. The effect is cumulative: Here is the artist's world.
"June Recital" is the most remarkable of the Morgana stories, suffused with tenderness yet never sentimental. A sick boy, home in bed, peeks out his window to the empty house next door to watch strange happenings. The town lies beyond, laden with its history, with voices, dreams, stories. All views are partial, but the story of "June Recital" is, in the end complete, a gathering of experience. In "The Art of Fiction," Henry James describes a talent much like Miss Welty's—"The power to judge the unseen from the seen, to trace the implication of things…."
The childhood myths of Morgana are destroyed by mature vision and by time, just as a movie theater and a commercial block have obliterated the pastoral scene. At the end, two lone figures stand in the rain, a community of two under the shelter of a public tree, "… listening to the magical percussion, the world beating in their ears. They heard through falling rain the running of the horse and bear, the stroke of the leopard, the dragon's crusty slither, and the glimmer and the trumpet of the swan."
The implication is that the stories of Morgana will be buried in the greater myths of the world, swept into the awesome passage of time.
Guessing the unseen from the seen is strong in a later story, "No Place for You, My Love." It is about an affair that never happens. A man and a woman try to escape the heat of New Orleans and presumably their personal histories. In a roadhouse they dance together, but the dance only lends their bodies a necessary formality: There is no release. Something is warped in their denial, their inability to translate attitude into feeling, something shameful that will forever set the incident apart. They have been on a dangerous excursion and dared nothing. But we have seen their failure and Miss Welty knows it is all we need to know. There are other stories in the last volume which are raucous, sprawling. She will try anything and get it right. "Kin" is a disorderly panorama that echoes the noise and movement of family life, jumpy, flickering, as unplotted as home movies; there is the opera buffa of "Going to Naples"; and finally "The Demonstrators," a report from the troubled South that manages to be written with both passion and balance.
Her work is filled with characters who do not hear, literally or figuratively, with people who talk and do not listen. Their stories bear the sadness and the folly inherent in ignorance and self-absorption. Eudora Welty's writing is an act of generosity—for the partial and incomplete vision of her characters is pieced out and made whole for us: In such completeness there is care and intimacy, something like mature love. The richness of such talent resists a summing up. We can place her with her models, Chekhov and Katherine Anne Porter: She is always honest, always just. And she is vastly entertaining. The stories are magnificent. Her youthful need to watch became a life devoted to observation. There is a superb vigilance in Eudora Welty, a present tense: each work is responsive to its time: history, especially in the South, must not reflect romantic distortions. It is only by the rigorous observation which we find in her Collected Stories that the present is verified and the past kept useful and alive.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4704
SOURCE: "Struggling against the Plaid: An Interview with Eudora Welty," reprinted in Listen to the Voices: Conversations with Contemporary Writers, Jo Brans, Southern Methodist University Press, 1988. (Originally printed in Southwest Review, Vol. 66, No. 3, Summer, 1981, pp. 255-66.)
[In the following interview, Welty discusses her approach to writing and some of her characterizations.]
Eudora Welty is the author of five collections of short stories, a book of photographs, a volume of essays, and five novels. For her novel The Ponder Heart she received the American Academy of Arts and Letters Howells Medal in 1955, and for The Optimist's Daughter she was awarded the 1973 Pulitzer Prize. Among the most honored of American writers, she has also received the National Institute of Arts and Letters Gold Medal for the Novel, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and in 1979 the National Medal for Literature for lifetime achievement.
Jo Brans is a member of the English faculty at Southern Methodist University. Brans interviewed Eudora Welty when she visited Dallas in November, 1980, to speak at SMU's sixth annual literary festival.
[Brans:] One thing that especially impressed me in the conversation yesterday was that you said you wrote because you loved language and you love using language. I know you are a photographer, and you've painted too.
[Welty:] Well, I was never a true or serious painter, just a childhood painter.
How does writing compare in your mind with those other art forms?
Oh, it's in the front. The others are just playthings. I didn't have any talent for photographs. I was strictly amateurish. I think the book I did [One Time, One Place] has a value in being a record, just because it was taken in the 1930s. And I was in the position of being perfectly accepted wherever I went, and everything was unselfconscious on the part of both the people and myself. There was no posing, and neither was there any pulling back or anything like that. Our relationship was perfectly free and open, so that I was able to get photographs of things really as they were. I think today it has a sort of historical value, which has nothing to do with any kind of professional expertise in taking pictures, which I knew I didn't have. But I am a professional writer. That is my work and my life, and I take it extremely seriously. It isn't just the love of language, or love of the written word, though that is certainly foremost, but the wish to use this language and written word in order to make something, which is what writing is. It's a tool. It's the tool, not the end result. So I guess that would be how you could describe what I'm trying to do.
To create a reality with words. Why is dialogue, spoken language, so important to you—say in Losing Battles?
I tried to see if I could do a whole novel completely without going inside the minds of my characters, which is the way I do in most of my writing. I didn't tell how anyone thought—I tried to show it by speech and action. I was deliberately trying to see if I could convey the same thing by speech and outward appearance, as I used to do by going inside people's minds.
It seems to me that in your writing you're hardly ever autobiographical. I've heard you say that you're working out of your feelings, but not your own experiences. Are there any stories that are autobiographical?
I don't deliberately avoid being autobiographical; it's just that when I'm writing a story I have to invent the things that best show my feelings about my own experience or about life, and I think most of us wouldn't be able to take our own experience and make a dramatic situation out of that without some aid. And I do much better with invented characters who can better carry out, act out, my feelings. I don't think you can describe emotion you have not felt. You know, you have to know what it's like—what it is to feel a certain thing—or your description or your use of these emotions will be artificial and shallow. So I certainly understand what my characters are feeling, but I try to show it in a way that is interesting dramatically.
And I don't lead a very dramatic life myself, outwardly. So it's not that I'm concealing myself, it's just that I'm using whatever—a lot of the details come out of my own life, things that I've observed. There was a scene in my novel, The Optimist's Daughter, about a three-year-old child in West Virginia, a whole section in there that I suppose you could call autobiographical, but actually it was my own memories of being at my grandmother's, on the farm, and all the things that the child felt—the rivers and the mountains and all those things. Nothing like that could be made up, you see. If you've never been in the mountains you wouldn't know how to say what it was like to be in the mountains. But it was not me as the character. It was my feelings, my memories, my experiences, but it was that character that was feeling them, not me. The character was not me. So, that's an example.
You sort of projected your feelings into this creation.
Yes, and use them to describe this character. I didn't use all that I had, I used just what would help me to explain the character.
How do those characters come to your mind? Do they just spring full-blown into your mind? Or do you work them out …?
Well, it's just part of the whole process of making a story. I mean, they are all one with the plot and the atmosphere of the story and the weather and the location. They don't exist apart from the story—they're not even in the world outside the story. You can't take a character out of this story and put it into another.
It doesn't work?
Well, they wouldn't live. So the characters are all integral parts of the story in which they occur. Of course you use many sources to make a character—occupation, memory, knowledge, dreams newspaper articles, many things. You may get little bits here and little bits there, because the character is a sort of magnet and attracts different kinds of observations. Not just any, you know; it's just what applies to the character. So how can you tell where they come from, any more than you can tell where anything comes from—where a tune comes from to a composer.
Do you have any set pattern of working? That is, do the characters occur to you first, or a trick of plot, or some idea that you want to express? Is there any particular order that seems to be the same?
It's different with every story. It just depends. Sometimes the story begins with the idea of a character and then you invent a plot which will bring this out. Take that one story that's used lots of times in schools called "The Worn Path." That character called up the story. Such a person as that would take a trip like this to do something. That's a good simple case.
What I love about "A Worn Path" is not so much the endurance of the walker as the windmill or whatever you call it at the end. For me that was the beauty of the story, that all of a sudden old Phoenix does move above the … just the endurance …
I love that, too.
And walking all the way back down the path with the windmill. I have a clear picture of that. It made the trip into town worth the coming.
In one of your essays you talk about Faulkner, and you say that Faulkner has this sense of blood guilt about the Indians and then about the blacks. In your own work you don't have that.
Well, it's not my theme. You know his work encompassed so much and so many books and so many generations and so much history, that that was an integral part of it. I don't write historically or anything. Most of the things that I write about can be translated into personal relationships. I've never gone into such things as guilt over the Indians or—it just hasn't been my subject. My stories. I think, reflect the racial relationships—guilt is just one aspect of that. Certainly I think any writer is aware of the complicated relationship between the races. It comes out in so many even domestic situations.
Very few of your stories deal directly with blacks, though. And those that do, I've wondered if the blackness is a necessary part of the character. For example, old Phoenix. Why is she black?
It's not a deliberate thing, like, "I am now going to write about the black race." I write about all people. I think my characters are about half and half black and white.
I would guess. Considering the novels and everything. I think it's the same challenge to a writer. It doesn't matter about color of skin or their age or anything else. Then again, I never have thought about "The Worn Path" as being anything but what it was; but one thing may be that when I wrote that story, what started me writing it was the sight of a figure like Phoenix Jackson. I never got close to her, just saw her crossing a distant field early one afternoon in the fall. Just her figure. I couldn't see her up close, but you could tell it was an old woman going somewhere, and I thought, she is bent on an errand. And I know it isn't for herself. It was just the look of her figure.
It's not true, then, what I read—that you were the lady old Phoenix asked to tie her shoe.
Oh, no. I was out with a painter who was painting his landscape and so we were sitting under a tree. I was reading, and I watched her cross the landscape in the half-distance, and when I got home I wrote that story that she had made me think of. She was a black woman. But then I suppose it would be more likely to be a black woman who would be in such desperate need and live so remotely away from help and who would have so far to go. I don't think that story would be the same story with a white person. The white person could have the same character, of course, and do the same thing, but it wouldn't have the same urgency about it.
Well, old Phoenix does fox white people. You know, she takes the nickel from the hunter, then asks the lady to tie her shoe.
It wasn't because they were white, though. Those are two different things altogether. It was the desperate need for the money and for the child that she needed that nickel—she knew it was a sin, too. But asking the lady to tie her shoe—she knew who would be nice to her. She picked a nice person, because she was a nice person, and she picked one. Those are two entirely different motives, taking the nickel from this really nasty white man and asking a favor of a nice lady. She knew in both cases.
She had a wonderful graciousness.
She knew how to treat both.
One of my students went to your reading Sunday night, and she came in with a paper on it. She had misunderstood the title of the story called "Livvie," and she referred to it as "Living," which showed she understood the story anyway.
That's very cute. I'm glad to hear that.
A misprision, I guess, but a nice one. What I'm saying is, I know sometimes I fix interpretations on the things I've read.
Well, I do too. We all do that. And I don't feel a thing bad about it, because a story writer hopes to suggest all kinds of possibilities. Even though it may not have been in the writer's mind, if something in the story suggests it. I think it's legitimate. You know, it doesn't have to be exact. The only way I think to err is to be completely out of tone or out of the scope of the story or its intention. No, it doesn't bother me one bit if someone interprets something in a different way, if I think the story can just as well suggest that as not, because you try to make it full of suggestions, not just one.
As a teacher I'm very sensitive to this whole question, because students frequently say, at the end of the discussion of the story where you really are trying to get at all the things that make the story possible, "Now do you think that Eudora Welty really intended all of that?" And of course there's no defense for a teacher, and all I can say is, "How do I know?"
That's all we say when we read anybody's work.
How can I know what she intended? But if we find it here in the story, the story belongs to us when we're reading it.
Exactly. The only thing that I know bogs a lot of students down, because I get letters all the time, is in the case of that dread subject, symbols. You know, if they get to thinking. This equals this, and this equals that, the whole story is destroyed. Symbols are important, I think, but only if they're organic—you know, occur in the course of the story, are not dragged in to equal something.
No, no. It takes all the life out to do that.
Of course. And symbols aren't equivalents.
—not algebraic equations!
I know it. But, you know, some students get the idea, and it's very troubling to them. And what I hate about it is it might discourage them from ever enjoying reading stories, if they think they're supposed to make an algebraic interpretation, as you said.
In connection with "Livvie," let me ask you something that's really off the wall, probably; was there any thought in your mind at all of reflecting Faulkner's As I Lay Dying? Just the name of the character Cash, and then the fact that Livvie …
No, that was a coincidence. No indeed—I mean, I wouldn't—you're not aware of any other person's work when you write your own. At the time I wrote that story I didn't know about Faulkner's Cash. When did he write As I Lay Dying?
I think about 1930.
You know, Faulkner was out of print when I was growing up.
For a long time, right.
It was about 1940.
When Malcolm Cowley did The Portable Faulkner.
Everything I have of Faulkner's I've bought through searching in secondhand bookstores in order to read them. He wasn't in the libraries. He wasn't to be had—at least in Mississippi. I don't think he was to be had anywhere. He was out of print, for a long time.
That's right. I had forgotten that. That's important.
Well, I guess I hadn't read him until I had been writing for some time. But, at any rate, the presence of Faulkner's writing in Mississippi—I was glad he was there, and I loved his work, but he wasn't hovering over my work. Because when you're writing, you're just thinking about your story, not how would Faulkner do it, how would Chekhov do it, how would Katherine Anne Porter do it?
I wasn't really asking you that. I know that's not true.
Well, a lot of people do wonder, just because he lived there, and of course it is a formidable thing.
I wish that he could have helped me.
What I was thinking was just that sometimes I feel that you've taken some of the same themes. I suppose that was inevitable.
Because we get them out of the same well.
But that, in your mind, is more or less unconscious. And you give them a comic twist. In Losing Battles, for example, all the Beecham kin decide at one point that Gloria might be a Beecham, and that her father might be one of the Beecham brothers, and they seem to be delighted with the whole idea.
Yes, they're thrilled. That makes her okay.
Right. Even though by Mississippi law at the time that would make the marriage incest. But that's kind of a Faulknerian—I'm thinking of The Sound and the Fury, where Quentin says he'd rather have slept with his sister Caddy himself than have an outsider—incest would be better. I always think of Faulkner in connection with that idea, because I got my first gasp of shock from him.
Well, I didn't mean anything serious and tragic at all. I just meant it to show what the Beechams were like. That is, to be a Beecham made everything all right. That was what I was showing.
You have commented that Faulkner's comedy may have more of the South—more of the real life of the South in it than his tragedy.
I think it has everything.
And it seems to me that your writing is basically comic. There is almost always that sense of harmony and reconciliation at the end.
Yes, I think it's a part of tragic things. It intrudes, as it does in life, in even the most tragic situations. Not comedy—I would say humor does. Yes, I like writing comedy. It's very difficult and it's much harder, because one false step—and I've made many of them…. That's why I have to work very hard on the comic theme, because it's so much more difficult to do. One false step and the whole thing comes down in a wreck around you.
When I think of comedy, I don't so much think always of humor, as I think of the something at the end that suggests that the world will continue—that life will continue. A kind of optimism for the species. You always suggest this, usually with a synthesis of opposing elements. I love that line in Losing Battles—in Miss Julia's letter—"The side that loses gets to the truth first."
Oh, yes, that's when she was in her desperate state.
Had she thought of herself at that point as having lost?
Oh, I'm sure. She did.
She did lose?
Well, look at all the people around her. All her class, all the people she'd taught, they didn't know a thing, except the thing that mattered most to them, which I think is most valuable—that is, their love for one another and dependence upon one another, and their family, and their pride, and all of that. But nothing Miss Julia had tried to teach them had ever taken root. Nothing.
In your mind is she like Miss Eckhart in The Golden Apple?
She filled a function in the story perhaps that would be kind of similar, in that she was a person unlike the world in which she lived, trying to teach and help somebody. But Miss Eckhart was a very mysterious character. Julia Mortimer was much more straightforward and dedicated and thinking of the people as somebody she wanted to help. Miss Eckhart was a very strange person.
I hope you know that in some ways these questions are meant to serve as checks for me if I need checks in reading your books, and apparently I do. I thought I saw this pattern in several of your things—Miss Eckhart, Julia Mortimer, those characters in the same mold. That is, they represent a discipline. Could I ask you what your sense is of the differences between male and female characters in your stories? I keep thinking about that line from "Livvie" that I mentioned yesterday, "I'd rather a man be anything than a woman be mean." And also, in Delta Wedding, say, the women are obviously making demands on the men.
Well, men and women are different. I don't mean they're not equally important. But they're different. That's the wonderful thing about life. No, in those different stories I'm not writing about them as men versus women. In the Delta it's very much of a matriarchy, especially in those years in the twenties that I was writing about, and really ever since the Civil War when the men were all gone and the women began to take over everything. You know, they really did. I've met families up there where the women just ruled the roost, and I've made that happen in the book because I thought, that's the way it was in those days in the South. I've never lived in the Delta, and I was too young to have known what was going on in anything in the twenties, but I know that that's a fact. Indeed it's true of many sections of that country after the Civil War changed the pattern of life there. So I've just had that taken for granted—it was part of the story. That was something the men were up against. I think that in many of my stories I do have a force, like Miss Julia Mortimer or Miss Eckhart, but those two are so poles apart in their characters that I can't see much connection.
There's a real passion in Miss Eckhart.
There certainly is. Well, it's a passion for getting some people out of their element. She herself was trapped, you know, with her terrible old mother. And then no telling what kind of strange Germanic background, which I didn't know anything about and could only indicate. I mean we don't know—they had tantrums in that house, and flaming quarrels.
Well, there's that one quarrel that surfaces when the girls are there. She hits her mother, doesn't she, or—?
Or something. I think her mother hits her. But anyway, I wanted to indicate that they were passionate people. And Miss Julia was passionate too. Most of my good characters are. Virgie Rainey had it too, and Miss Eckhart saw it, that Virgie had that power to feel and project her feelings, and she wanted her to realize all of this.
Do you think Virgie does?
I think at the end of the story she is saying good-bye to the life there in Morgana. I think she's got it in her to do something else.
Remember that line about Virgie's sewing? Virgie is cutting out a plaid dress, trying to match up the rows, and Miss Katie says, "There's nothing Virgie Rainey likes like struggling against a good hard plaid." I'm thinking of the struggle in Losing Battles too—Jack and Gloria, who in a way have come from separate worlds. Although Gloria resists it, she's very much the child of Miss Julia Mortimer. She was brought up to be the teacher. And Jack is very much the hope and promise of the Renfro clan, and yet I felt reading the book that even though they've been apart most of the time they've been married, they've already impressed their worlds on each other. Is that what you intended?
Yes, indeed, I certainly did. That's exactly correct. And why Gloria—I think every instinct in her wants them to go and live to themselves, as they put it there.
Yes, in that little house.
It's going to be mighty hard to do. But she knows where she stands all right, and she's not intimidated at all. And Jack, of course, is just oblivious to the fact that there could be anything wrong with his staying there and having the best of both.
He wants her to love Granny. Granny is just so unlovable.
Granny doesn't want to. "She didn't say anything, she nodded. She would love you."
I thought Granny was just as mean as she could be.
Well, she's living in her own world, too.
And she wants to be a hundred instead of ninety.
She thinks she is a hundred.
But the most amazing thing is that Jack is willing to love Miss Julia Mortimer.
Yes. He's willing to.
Nobody else in his family is.
No. He is. I really love Jack.
When I asked you in the panel yesterday which of your characters you thought spoke for you, I kind of expected you to say Jack.
Oh, I was thinking about stories yesterday, I wasn't thinking about the novel. Well, Jack is really the reason I went on and made a novel out of this. Because when I first began it, it was a short story which was to end when Jack came home. The story was about why he happened to go to the pen. All that crazy story about the fight. And he was to come home and wonder why they thought anything was wrong. You know: "What's happened?" Well, as soon as he walks in the door I think, "No, I want to go on with him." I had to start all over and write a novel. Yes, he's willing to love Miss Julia. In fact, he says in there, "I love her. I feel like I love her. I've heard her story." I think that's very direct and penetrating: because he's heard her story, he knows what's happened to her.
And she has a reality for him even though he "never laid eyes on her."
And the people who have gone to school to her didn't really see her. Jack is really a good person, even though he is all the other things.
I don't see anything bad in Jack.
No, except that he allows himself to be used by everybody.
But that comes out of his goodness.
It comes out of his goodness and it's so typical also, I think, of just such situations. Haven't you known people like this? We all have. Yes, I really like Jack. He's a much better person than Gloria.
Well, she's a little have-not. Don't you see her in that way? A have-not, so that she's clutching.
And that's what Miss Julia represents too. But when Jack says, "I've heard her story," he's really—
They're all living on stories. They tell each other the stories of everybody. And he heard her story. They were blinded to her by having gone to school to her. They just took her as their bane. They're struggling against her. But he heard her story.
Now Virgie Rainey—she struggles against herself. Isn't Virgie essentially a wanderer, who really wants to wander, but for years she makes herself stay there in Morgana?
I guess so. I use that term rather loosely because it also means planets, and I have got a number of characters that I try to suggest can move outside this tiny little town in the Delta, though it's not a cut-and-dried kind of thing. It's not A, B, C, D. But I wanted to suggest it.
They could make it in a larger world.
Yes. That there was a larger world. Whether they could make it or be broken like Eugene MacLain is something else. They know something else is out there. It's just an awareness of the spaciousness and mystery of—really, of living, and that was just a kind of symbol of it, a disguise. I do feel that there are very mysterious things in life, and I would like just to suggest their presence—an awareness of them.
Is the sense of mystery and magic related to your use of mythology?
I think it is. Exactly, that's what it is. Because I use anything I can to suggest it.
And myths then seem to suggest something timeless?
Yes, or something …
Perpetually reborn or re-created?
I think so. Something perhaps bigger than ordinary life allows people to be sometimes. I find it hard to express things in any terms other than the story. I really do. Some people can, but I can't. I never think that way. I only think in terms of the story. Of this story.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 831
SOURCE: "Gloriously ordinary," in TLS, No. 4131, June 4, 1982, p. 608.
[In the following review, Bailey discusses Welty's Losing Battles and states that "The prevailing tone is one of glorious ordinariness, but one that never sinks into the terminally cute…."]
The belated publication in Britain of this exceptionally beautiful novel, which first came out in the United States in 1970, is both welcome and timely, coming as it does so soon after the appearance here of its author's Collected Stories. These two books alone are evidence enough that Eudora Welty is a writer of considerable distinction.
"What I do in writing of any character is to try to enter into the mind, heart, and skin of a human being who is not myself", is how she accounts for her method of working. "Whether this happens to be a man or a woman, old or young, with skin black or white, the primary challenge lies in making the jump itself." That "jump" is achieved with a seeming lack of effort in Losing Battles as the various members of Granny Vaughn's copious family gather to celebrate the nimble old lady's ninetieth birthday. No sooner have they arrived at the farm in Banner, Mississippi, than they start talking, and in a manner that is immediately compelling. The majority of Granny's descendants and their spouses are natural raconteurs, in the best tradition of the Old South, and the great originality of Losing Battles derives from its being composed of the tales told by these people as they while away a long, hot Sunday in early August sometime in the 1930s—the work of fiction thus produced is at once a novel and a collection of short stories.
The dialogue invented by Eudora Welty in this long and delicate book is often cunningly arbitrary. Conversational culs-de-sac are explored and then deserted. The Beechams and the Renfros repeat themselves constantly, but each repetition brings with it a variation or two, almost imperceptible. Such talk—varied, spontaneous, recognizably absurd—is a pleasure to read because it is always revealing of character. It is funny, too, but not in a wanton or gratuitous way. In the following example a cyclone is being discussed:
'It picked the Methodist Church up all in one piece and carried it through the air and set it down right next to the Baptist Church! Thank the Lord nobody was worshipping in either one,' said Aunt Beck.
'I never heard of such a thing,' said Mrs Moody.
'Now you have. And those Methodists had to tear their own church down stick by stick so they could carry it back and put it together again on the side of the road where it belonged,' said Miss Beulah. 'A good many Baptists helped 'em.'
'I'll tell you something as contrary as people are. Cyclones,' said Mr Renfro.
'It's a wonder we all wasn't carried off, killed with the horses and cows, and skinned alive like the chickens,' said Uncle Curtis. 'Just got up and found each other, glad we was all still in the land of the living.'
At the heart of Losing Battles is the story, recounted by sundry characters, of Miss Julia Mortimer, the dedicated school teacher who has fought a losing battle against ignorance and illiteracy. Julia never actually appears in the narrative because she dies shortly before the family reunion for Granny, but hers is perhaps the most vivid presence in the entire novel. Welty displays remarkable skill as she resurrects this difficult woman through the voices of Julia's former students, only one of whom—Judge Moody—remembers her without resentment. Yet the more Granny's kin abuse the dead teacher, the more respect and admiration the reader feels for the object of their scorn. This is the triumph of an art that determinedly refuses to cast its own judgment, that registers—with an honourable disinterest—the judgments of the human beings it celebrates. Condemnation, it suggests, is practised by men and women, but not by novelists.
For Eudora Welty's art is, essentially, in accord with the complicated business of living. Like her beloved Chekhov, she eschews the big scenes—they are subjects for discussion; they happen off-stage. Even when her characters' tongues are venomous, her concerned detachment is informing the reader that there is more to the speakers than their temporary state of viciousness would indicate. The principal events of Losing Battles are of a trivial kind that is rare in the literature that has come out of the American South—there is no rape, and only a hint of possible, distant incest. The prevailing tone is one of glorious ordinariness, but one that never sinks into the terminally cute—pace Our Town, and the jottings of Brautigan, Saroyan and Vonnegut. The humanity that is everywhere demonstrated in Losing Battles does not cuddle itself, does not invite approbation. It simply and necessarily informs what is probably the quietest masterpiece to be written in America since the death of Willa Cather.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1020
SOURCE: "Welty's 'Death of a Traveling Salesman,'" in The Explicator, Vol. 42, No. 1, Fall, 1983, pp. 52-4.
[In the following review, Sederberg analyzes the different symbolic associations of the name Bowman in Welty's "Death of a Traveling Salesman."]
The name R. J. Bowman in Eudora Welty's "Death of a Traveling Salesman" evokes meanings beyond those suggested either by Welty herself or prior critics. In a recent reminiscence, "Looking Back at the First Story," Welty recalls a real-life prototype for Bowman, Mr. Archie Johnson, a neighbor who in the 1930's traveled remote Mississippi roads as a Highway Department inspector and land buyer. On a literal level, the name Bowman is probably a transposition of his given name, Archie, into an equivalent surname, Bowman. Yet Welty is aware of the symbolic associations of names as well, as evidenced by her changing the antagonist's name from Rafe in the Manuscript version to Sonny in the book. She comments:
I had got sensitive to the importance of proper names, and this change is justified: "Sonny" is omnipresent in boys' names in Mississippi and is not dropped just because the boys grow up and marry; "Sonny" helped make the relationship of the man and the woman one that Bowman could mistake at the beginning; and at the same time it harked back to the fire-bringer…. Prometheus [who] was in my mind almost at the instant I heard Mr. Johnson tell about the farmer borrowing fire.
Likewise, William M. Jones asserts that the name Bowman is an allusion to Hercules, the archetypal archer of antiquity. He then proceeds to analyze how the weak Bowman functions as a sort of anti-Hercules figure, foil to the strong Herculean Sonny, doer of muscular deeds and bringer of fire and potency. According to Jones, in rejecting the mythical symbolism of Sonny and his earth-mother-wife, Bowman refuses to undergo the necessary process of individuation described by Jung and hence degenerates into psychic debility and death. And so he does.
Yet, two complementary bow-man associations also seem applicable. The first is to another ancient archer—Cupid. This reference appears particularly apt as Bowman's troubles are, both metaphorically and physically, of the heart. To strain an allusion, one might say that his heart veritably quivers like a bow (it leaps and expands like a rocket and a colt, falls gently and scatters like an acrobat and ashes) out of its lonely need to achieve communion with his hosts and humanity. The bow imagery is reinforced by the tableau of the mule turning its target-like eyes into his. But Bowman averts his eyes and at the conclusion becomes the hunted, slain by his own self-destructive heart/weapon, rather than a potential wooer.
The second association is suggested by Bowman's strange symbolic gesture as he approaches the threshold of the cabin:
He stooped and laid his big black hat over the handle on his bag. It was a humble motion, almost a bow, that instantly struck him as absurd and betraying of all his weakness. He looked up at the woman, the wind blowing his hair. He might have continued for a long time in this unfamiliar attitude; he had never been a patient man, but when he was sick he had learned to sink submissively into the pillows, to wait for his medicine. He waited on the woman.
Later, when confronted by Sonny's potent presence, Bowman "knew he should offer explanations and show money—at least appear either penitent or authoritative." Both responses, however, falsely polarize his options. As Robert Heilman notes, "he cannot be either humble or dominant, that is, practice even the one-sided relationships that substitute for genuine mutuality."
The term bow, though, offers a complex continuum of connotations. Most neutrally, bowing is a ritual act of courtesy often offered in greeting (the Manuscript text significantly reads "almost a curtsey" for "almost a bow"). Negatively, bowing refers to debasing obeisance, as in "bowing and scraping," or an unwilling act of acquiescence to another's will or authority. It also suggests being bowed down by the burdens of life. In a more positive sense, bowing expresses degrees of acknowledgment and acceptance, compliance and consent, and, finally, reverence for a power superior to oneself. The posture of prayer is, after all, a form of bowing.
The woman before whom Bowman awkwardly bows is also a complex and ambiguous symbol. She is both ancient and youthful to evoke simultaneously the Uroboros or archetypal Great Mothers from Bowman's grandmother back to Rhea as well as an actual procreative mate. She also symbolically links the cycle of birth and death and functions as a guide: a priestess with a lamp before the dark passage of her temple/cabin, which combines elements of a womb and a tomb, or perhaps a medium (the earlier version contains a suggestive reference to Bowman's heart pounding "profoundly, like a medium at a seance"). Far from the weakness and passivity Bowman sees in his unconscious urge to embrace this primordial female principle, it represents a positive acceptance of life-giving sources and an act of faith. One is reminded of a similar gesture in "A Still Moment" in which the evangelical preacher, Lorenzo Dow, escapes from the Indians by acquiescing immediately and unhesitatingly to the internal command, "'Incline!'" Though Dow also is too quick to devise his own salvation instead of waiting upon Providence's "less hurried, more divine" protection, he at least is open to the vision which the heron offers. Bowman, in contrast, fails to heed the command, for "he had not known yet how slowly he understood" what the couple represents.
Welty relates her approach in "Death of a Traveling Salesman" to a recurrent motif in her fiction: "the journey of errand or search (for some form of the secret of life)," which she asserts also underlies "A Worn Path," "The Wide Net," "A Still Moment," "The Hitch-Hikers," and the entire collection The Bride of the Innisfallen. She seems to be suggesting by the multiple associations of the name Bowman that people need to learn how—out of strength not weakness—to bow before mysteries beyond our human control or even knowing.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5796
SOURCE: "A Conversation with Eudora Welty," in Conversations with Eudora Welty, edited by Peggy Whitman Prenshaw, University Press of Mississippi, 1984, pp. 252-67.
[In the following interview, Welty discusses her approach to writing and presents insights into some of her characters and stories.]
[Royals:] What do you think about the concept of what we're trying to do here, that is to say, to interview a writer and try to arrive at something worthwhile through the medium?
[Welty:] I don't rightly know. I've always been tenacious in my feeling that we don't need to know a writer's life in order to understand his work and I have really felt very opposed to a lot of biographies that have been written these days, of which the reviewers say they're not any good unless they reveal all sorts of other things about the writer. I know you're not talking about that kind of thing, but it's brought out my inherent feeling that it's good to know something about a writer's background, but only what pertains. I'm willing to tell you anything I can if I think it has that sort of value. You asked me what I thought the value was, and I'm just not sure.
[Royals:] Not sure as to whether knowledge of the writer has a value? The works may stand on their own. Is that what you mean?
Well, take somebody like Chekhov. It's important to know that he was the grandson of a serf, that he was a doctor, that he had tuberculosis, and that his wife was an actress. All these things matter in understanding his work. But there are a lot of other things, as you know, that don't matter.
[Royals:] The idea of interviewing writers is fairly recent, isn't it?
I don't know. I think mostly in the past they relied on letters, because, you know, people were great letter writers, and they wrote seriously and fully to their friends, relatives, and so on, so there was a written record of many things about people's lives that just doesn't exist now. Nobody writes letters anymore.
[Little:] But do you think it helps to know about your family life to interpret The Optimist's Daughter?
No, I don't think it's necessary in the least. I think the key fact in my case—I can only speak for myself—is that I have to write out of emotional experience, which is not necessarily out of factual experience. What I do is translate something that's happened to me into dramatic terms. And they don't coincide; well, they almost never coincide. But I couldn't write about any important emotional thing if I hadn't experienced it; that wouldn't even be honest. You have to understand the feelings, and of course, I've got my feelings out of my own experience, but the experience itself is altered, transmuted, made to convey the story. For instance, in Optimist's Daughter, I write about the death of a middle-aged woman's elderly father. My own father died at the age of 52 of leukemia. That was entirely different from what happens to the judge; I made him up from whole cloth. But my mother did have operations on her eyes, though not his operation, and my mother did die within my recent experience. So, you can see what happened, it's a transposition, but a complete change, using feelings I understood about the daughter and her parental experience.
[Little:] You can see things in the novel like the recipe, and I know about your mother's use of recipes from reading other background stuff, but neither of us probably knows that this kind of knowledge is essential to interpret the novel.
I don't think it is. But as a writer who tried to be convincing and honest and detailed, I don't hesitate to pluck detail from everywhere; but real observed detail doesn't mean that the source of it in life has any existence in the imaginary world of my book.
[Royals:] Flannery O'Connor. I've heard people say one needs to know about her Catholic religion to interpret her works.
I may have said that too, because I know when I did learn something about that, a whole lot of her work opened up for me, and I wish that I had had that benefit in the beginning.
[Little:] When did you learn about her Catholicism?
Well, I knew she was a Catholic, but I heard her give a lecture at, I think it was Converse College, called "The Catholic Writer," in which she dealt with that relationship directly and it was a revelation to most of the young students and to me too.
[Royals:] Does it open up new views into O'Connor's works?
Yes, more specific at the time than I can think back to now. But the whole idea of salvation and …
[Little:] grace …
Yes, grace and redemption and all of that are so much more deeply rooted in her fiction, enhancing her stories more than I had realized because I didn't know much about the church itself.
[Royals:] Which of her stories did we study in your class, Eudora?
We read several—"A Good Man is Hard to Find."
[Royals:] That's the one. I read that and thought it was a tremendous story and knew nothing about her Catholicism, or …
Me too, Tom. That's exactly how I read it. And it is a tremendous story.
[Royals:] What else would I have gotten out of it if I'd known about the Catholic aspects?
Don't ask me that, because I can't be specific enough. But we should go back to the scene with the old lady and the criminal and their confrontation, to some kind of state of grace that is achieved, to be aware of the difference that conviction made in a violent story.
[Little:] We read "The River," the story with the Reverend Bevel Summers and the baptism in it, and we talked about the name Bevel.
Yes, we did. I don't know whether I said that or whether I knew it then. I didn't realize it but Bevel is a common name over in Georgia and so she got it perfectly legitimately. It wasn't just a symbol thrown in. It was complete with antecedents. She would be the first to underscore that!
[Royals:] You said you didn't think it was absolutely necessary to know a writer's background to find out what they're all about. Do you think Flannery O'Connor was an exception to the rule?
No, I don't really. I expect a lot of people simply know more about Catholicism than I happen to, but I shouldn't say "it's a rule" that you don't need to know about the writer's life. What I said about Chekhov would apply. I do think that we need to know general things, somebody's century, and where they come from and what kind of people; those general things, I think do belong. They pertain.
[Royals:] What profession they are, maybe, and that sort of thing.
It's important if it's illuminating to a writer's work. I didn't mean writers should be completely anonymous.
[Little:] But do you think it's helpful if the reader knows, for example, that "Why I Live at the P.O." grew out of your seeing a woman at a post office with an ironing board?
No, I don't think that's any help at all.
[Little:] It's important, I think, to other writers if they learn more about the process of creativity, how stories evolve, how stories are born.
But that's a good example of how something like that could be said that's a fact but nothing like the truth, the real truth. I did see a woman like this, but what the story grew out of was something much more than that. I mean, it was a lifelong listening to talk on my own block where I grew up as a child, and that was in my head to write out of all the time. The sight of the lady ironing was the striking of the match that set if off, but I wouldn't have written a story just about seeing somebody with an ironing board in the post office. It's nearly always too simplifying to say that any story, however slight, comes from one thing.
[Little:] Sure. It's like, you hear it said that the germ which produced Anna Karenina came from an obituary that Tolstoy saw in the paper about a society woman who committed suicide. It's interesting to know about the spark in understanding how a story gets started or the impulse that triggers it in terms of understanding, I guess, the process or craft. But it doesn't help you to interpret or understand the story itself to know where the writer got the idea.
I think most stories and especially novels have long fuses that run way back, you know, so long that you don't even know the origin, probably. It started so long ago out of something so deep in you. Something sets it off. But you can't say that from that you can certainly see right off what made the story, because you have lived with it, of course, in the meantime.
[Little:] Did you ever tell a real story or an incident, and from the verbalization of that, realize you've got a story?
Never. In fact, that isn't the way I work. It reminds me of what I've heard of the author James Stephens in Ireland, though. He was like so many of the Irish, they were great talkers, and they met night after night and talked. And people who knew him said he talked all of his stories away, because he told them all and that was it. Of course, he wrote a lot, too, in spite of the talk. But stories don't exist to me in those two elements, sound and penmanship. Not at all.
[Little:] You mean you make an effort not to tell about something you are working on?
No. It just never occurred to me. You know, it also reminds me of what a club woman asked me to do once: "Would you just come and tell us one of your stories in your own words?"
[Royals:] That's fantastic.
[Royals:] Speaking of telling stories, I think that's the difference between a writer and a story teller. A writer writes them. A story teller tells them. I don't see the same thing occurring among writers I know. Jim Whitehead tells stories but mostly he listens and writes.
Well it's two different gifts.
And I think, John, this is not to say that when you're writing dialogue stories, you don't hear them in your head, which I do, and I think most writers do; they can be tested. But when you're writing a story, you're constructing something. You really are making something using dialogue, and using what the ear tells you to help you out. When you're telling a story, it's just different. It's just different.
[Royals:] Did you ever ask anybody to read drafts of your stories?
I couldn't work that way, Tom. I have to get a thing as well made as I can do it before I let anyone see it.
[Royals:] And then that is the publisher.
Yes—or editor. I like my friends to see them, and I have shown things to friends, but they've been completed sections of something, for instance in Losing Battles.
[Royals:] Didn't you ever do that? Most writers, when they're beginning, go and ask teachers or somebody for suggestions.
I never have. Perhaps it's shyness. Wanting to get something right and not trusting myself until I get it as well as I can, and probably pride. I don't want anyone to see it if it's not the best I can do.
[Royals:] Do you feel like the magic of it might be taken away or the spirit let out or something like that?
I don't know … I don't mean to sound … I think I am superstitious, not pretentious. I am superstitious that something would go—its possibilities would go—if you … told it before you wrote it. It would take off the bloom before you ever got to write it down. For me. Different people work different ways.
[Little:] I guess it varies among writers. Do you remember telling us about one of your earlier stories that you'd sent to the Southern Review? When they rejected it, you burned it and then they wrote back and accepted it. Then you had to sit down and rewrite it from memory?
That was "Petrified Man."
[Royals:] It was?
Yes, I had sent it all over to every magazine in the U.S.A., I guess, and everybody had sent it back. The Southern Review like it but had faults to find which were certainly legitimate. You know it was a very wild kind of story. They had published me pretty regularly, but they said they didn't think this one was quite right and sent it back. So after that, I burned it up. Then the Southern Review wrote and said "We would like to see it again," and so I did write that over from memory. But that was a "by ear" story.
[Royals:] A what?
By ear. I could just listen to it, and, click, could play it back as if it were on a tape. You couldn't do an interior story that way, at least I couldn't.
[Little:] Do you feel that when you played it back you got everything exactly as you had it the first time?
As far as I know. It was pretty easy to do. I could probably write that again from scratch if I burned it up because that kind of thing is just like hearing a song—once heard—you could sing it again.
[Royals:] How much of your work do you get from current events?
I should say I get more general information than particular information. Things stay in my head a long time, maybe years, before I use them, and by the time they would ever surface in one of my stories in some general way, the news story might be old hat, politically.
[Little:] Are you ever bothered by your fame in Jackson, or is it usually the telephone and strangers that bother you?
Jackson is very understanding of me. I'm very proud of it—my relationship with my hometown. Oddly enough, it's since the recent television interviews that came out this year on public television that I have had an absolute inundation of letters and manuscripts and people wanting interviews. I must have about ten of those requests a week, and I'm so behind in correspondence as a result of that. These letters have been very—many of the letters have been just plain—they don't ask or want anything. An entirely different audience from my book audience. Although it is pleasing to me, I must be hundreds of letters behind with answering.
[Little:] I want to follow up on something you said at the March 1978 writers' conference in North Dakota. You said during a panel discussion that you didn't think your stories had the ability to change society. What sort of response would you expect a Southern white person to get from your writing? What kind of understanding would you shoot for?
Well, for any reader I always hope that my story justifies itself as a revelation of character, and I would hope for recognition of the common humanity there. I would hope that readers might look in there and see themselves, as I was trying to look in there and see the Southern character. I write of my fellow Southerners out of a conviction that I know what they are like inside, as well as outside. They're my credentials.
[Little:] Do you think that is true for both your stories, "The Demonstrators" and "Where is the Voice Coming From?"
Well, for any story, I hope, and in "Where is the Voice Coming From?" about the murder of Medgar Evers—I was definitely hoping to say, "This is what I think these characters are like on the inside. This is what is going through the mind of that murderer," and I would hope that story could be recognized as such by the readers.
[Little:] All right. The readers should recognize that they have inside themselves something like the murderer in "Where is the Voice Coming From?" had inside himself?
Well, not literally—but I felt able to suggest they might have—in those bad times in particular. The different members of the human race are not very different potentially, you know—I mean we're all able to recognize the elements of good and evil in human behavior—we comprehend good and evil, we're familiar with violence in our world. And that particular element of evil was running all through the South at that time. And I feel that anybody who read that story would recognize things they had seen or heard or might even have said, in some version, or imagined or feared themselves.
[Little:] When "The Demonstrators" came out, you said it was not primarily a civil rights story. Would you comment on that?
Well, all of it was a reflection of society at the time it happened. Every story in effect does that. And I was trying for it in both those stories and in several others that I have underway here in the house that will be in my next book. They all reflect the way we were deeply troubled in that society and within ourselves at what was going on in the sixties. They reflect the effect of change sweeping all over the South—of course, over the rest of the country too, but I was writing about where I was living and the complexity of those changes. I think a lot of my work then suggested that it's not just a matter of cut and dried right and wrong—"We're right—You're wrong," "We're black, you're white." You know, I wanted to show the complexity of it all.
[Little:] Ok, let me ask you a technical question. There is a great deal of light imagery in "The Demonstrators." There is moonlight, electric lights, sockets left out of bulbs on the theatre sign that spells "Broadway." There are also lots of shadows. Was this imagery designed to show the obscurity and confusion that people see in things?
I think it was, John. I never had looked at it in that calculated way, but I saw it like that, was guided by my imaginary scene. I go by that, as a rule. In a story I'm writing now, I'm using light to suggest the shadowy nature of what we know and what we can see and observe. I try in all stories to use the whole physical world to assist me. I think I probably do that instinctively.
[Little:] Ok, That is something I noticed in "The Demonstrators."
It's odd that I'm doing the same thing now in what I'm writing but very consciously as opposed to unconsciously in "The Demonstrators."
[Little:] What are you writing on now?
I can't talk about that for the same reason I've already told you. I can't discuss things in progress.
[Little:] Yeah. Sure. With "The Demonstrators," there was Eva Duckett, the Fairbrothers, Alonzo Duckett and Horatio Duckett. One owns a newspaper, one is a preacher, and one is married to the mill owner. Are they sisters and brothers? Are they of the same family?
Sure. Sure they would be. Because in a small town like that you know how it is.
[Little:] Uh huh. Are you making a point with that?
Yes. I was. I was absolutely.
[Little:] What exactly is that point?
Well, it was an observation of the way a small town society in the South is often in the control or the grip, whether benevolent or malevolent, of the solid, powerful family. It makes it all the harder for any change to penetrate a town like that. Some may be good people and some not so good, and they may be in themselves helpless to bring about change. They may be victims too.
[Little:] At the end of "The Demonstrators," Dr. Strickland says to Eva Duckett, "If I had what Herman has, I'd go out in the backyard and shoot myself." Is Dr. Strickland showing a more compassionate, human side than what is usually visible in a powerful person?
He is showing the vulnerability of all of them.
[Little:] And with Marcia Pope, are you saying that she may be the only one who has the strength to come through it all?
Well, she—I meant she was tenacious to the kinds of things in her teaching and her understanding in a removed, elderly way that was maybe not as affected as the day to day things. She was trying to hold on, to keep the principles. I guess that's what I intended to say about Marcia Pope. She remained impervious.
[Royals:] It comes off, and I wonder if you did a technical thing that made it come off that well. The first and last paragraphs of the story deal with Marcia Pope. So the action was bracketed by Marcia Pope. How much thought did you give to that technique?
Well, that's important to me, Tom. I like the form of something like that. That is a loose form but yet I feel that it has its own strictness.
[Royals:] I agree.
I've sort of developed new forms for my more recent stories. They're not nearly as compact in one way as they used to be, but they're more compact in another. That is, they have density of another kind than the plot itself. I want there to be a "felt" form running through that the reader will get. You know, it's like what you said about Miss Marcia Pope, a "felt" connection between things that has its own intensity, its own development.
[Royals:] I think your compactness and density come from the economy of your prose. You just don't waste words.
[Royals:] In North Dakota when I introduced you at the writers' conference, I said that you were honest in your writing and also an honest person. I might add to that "cautious." Maybe caution has to do with honesty. I've learned here this morning that you're getting ready to publish a new book containing several stories about the sixties. Do you think that you're just now publishing a book about the sixties because of your caution and your desire to be honest—the desire to give such difficult and complete material plenty of time to mature in your mind?
That might be. Time is an important ingredient in understanding a situation. But the practical reason why I haven't produced more stories of any kind is that they've turned twice into novels. Losing Battles was to have been a story. (They weren't all to have been about the sixties.) The Optimist's Daughter turned into a novel. Now I still have some others that I'm working on and I'm praying that they won't turn into novels.
[Little:] Before we leave "The Demonstrators," I want to know what the term "I bid that" means in the story. Twosie, the sister, says to Dr. Strickland, who is about to remove the necklace from the fatally wounded woman, "I bid that." Is bid a verb?
[Royals:] B-I-D. As in "I bid that."
[Little:] I made that? Is that what it means?
No, no, no. She bids to have it.
[Royals:] I put in a bid for that? Would that be closer?
Yes, I bid that. That is to say, I want it to be mine.
[Little:] Wow, she's anticipating the death and wants the necklace.
Oh, yes. She wants it.
[Little:] For her own, I see.
She wants to get her name on it. You may not have heard that before. That was an expression when I was a child. You know, somebody would bring back a stack of sandwiches; "I bid the ham."
[Royals:] You say so much so fast, and I think you're pretty literal about it in your fiction.
Well, I try to be.
[Royals:] We need to talk about "The Demonstrators" some more. Did anybody ever ask you who the demonstrators are in that story?
I can't remember that I've been asked that.
[Royals:] When John told me he was teaching the story, I hadn't read it yet. I said "What's it all about?" He said, "The Demonstrators." And I asked, "Who are the demonstrators in the story?" and he said "That's a darn good question."
It is a good question, though I think every character in it is a demonstrator. In fact, I wanted to suggest that. Even the birds at the end when they—
[Royals:] Clothes on the clothesline even?
Yes, everything is to show. Everything, everybody's showing something.
[Royals:] It's a visual story?
A visual story. It is a visual story.
[Royals:] And that's where the demonstrators come in.
Well, I have some real, literal demonstrators who came in off-stage. But also, everybody was showing something to anybody, including the victim … those birds at the end, the flickers that showed the red seal on the back of their heads. Everything was showing themselves. Everybody was showing themselves.
[Royals:] You mentioned that the literal demonstrators were off-stage.
[Royals:] You write about them in the newspaper, and the guy who …
[Little:] And Dr. Strickland sees this picture about a guy burning his draft card, and the front pages of the newspaper …
[Royals:] Yeah. But they're really giving the energy to the story. I thought the story might be about the effect the demonstrators have had on that town.
Well, it was in a way, I think. But also, the demonstrators, who falsified their position, soon exemplified what already existed there. The society.
[Royals:] You know, I've heard that great tennis players and great baseball players have 20-20 vision, or 20-10 vision and that things really look slower to them than they do to people without really good eyesight. I've begun to think that your vision is probably like that of a great athlete. Maybe you see the world more slowly and in more detail than many people do. How is your eyesight?
That's very generous of you to say that. I thought I'd just seen it longer than most people by now. I don't know. I have got a visual mind. Most people do have, I think. I observe closely because I'm interested. I want to see, but I don't think I have any special gift. I remember reading that Goya had trained himself as an artist to see action, and when he drew a falling horse everyone said the figure was completely grotesque, but that was before the invention of photography, which proved that Goya's eyes saw everything absolutely right, the way a falling horse looked in mid air. Isn't that extraordinary?
[Royals:] That is.
[Little:] Well, when you read a story like "Petrified Man," you know you must have awful good ears. Would essential ingredients of a writer be good ears and good eyes?
I believe that. I think that they're the tools of your trade. They're not only the tools of your trade; they're probably what made you a writer to begin with, if you did like to look and to listen. You can't tell which came first. At least in my case. I think everything begins with a given, you know, like a proposition to prove. You set out with a given and then you follow that through, and there are all kinds of givens you can start with, that we give ourselves to begin with.
[Little:] Is that like in the form of an idea? In the form of a theme?
Sure. Sure, and intention and the whole germ—no, not the germ of a story—the nucleus, whatever one starts from. The whole beginning of a story, which unfolds in it.
[Little:] OK. You don't start with an incident or character. They're included, but you start with an idea?
There has to be an idea. What is alive in it is this idea. But what gives me the idea is always people. In general, human life gives me the idea; the character, the situation.
[Little:] How articulate, how fixed is that idea when you start? Is it something that happens as the story develops?
No, I think it's the very heart of it, this idea.
[Little:] And that's there to begin with.
It's alive in the story.
[Little:] Can you say the theme?
It develops. Well, I never know what any of these different terms mean. They're all in the story in embryo form, I guess you could call it, before you ever begin writing. Of course, they develop as you go, but it's all toward the fulfillment of the story's whole that you had to begin with. Working without that, I think your characters would be rattling around in a vacuum. With me.
[Royals:] What we're talking about mostly is you start with the character.
I just mean the way ideas come to me is through people from the living world, not from the abstract, but from the living world. I don't say, "I'm going to sit down and write a story about Greed." But if I'd grown up with somebody that I thought was a terribly greedy old man, and had come to see what that does to a human being, then I might write a story to show what it does to a human being, but I'm not making up an abstract character to illustrate a moral judgment. That wouldn't interest me in the least. Neither do I think I could make it come alive.
[Royals:] What kind of emotional distance and separation do you feel you have to keep from your work?
I don't know, Tom. I'm sure there's been a variation of those distances in my work, depending on the story and depending on what I'm trying to do. Some subjects I'm much closer to personally than others. I think the closer you are, the more difficult the work is. I'm sure it depends on the story in my case.
[Royals:] I've read books or stories by people who were too emotionally involved. That seems to show … but I'm not talking about passion or having creativity or energy.
Well, getting too close is the easiest thing in the world to have happen, you know, and that is the danger. When it interferes with your impersonality. You have to show—impersonality is not the word.
Objectivity. That's exactly it. You can't let anything interfere with that.
[Royals:] I think you do a good job of letting those characters be their own people. You don't even impose your own political beliefs on them.
I try not to.
[Royals:] In "Where is the Voice Coming From?" was it difficult for you to create that character and not feel some contempt for him because he was a murderer?
Oh, yes, sure. In fact I did feel it, but I was trying to. Since I wrote it on the night it happened, I was terribly emotionally involved in the writing, but I think that gave me a kind of steely feeling about it, you know, the need for understanding a murderer, which I couldn't have done maybe if I'd thought it over for a period of time. In retrospect, I would have lost my daring, picked the story up with tongs or something.
[Royals:] So, it was a kind of anger, almost anger, you steeled yourself …
It was, it was …
[Royals:] … not to get soppy about the situation.
I made myself do it.
[Royals:] I don't believe that could be done by a lesser writer.
Well I don't know if it was done by this writer or not.
[Royals:] I think it was very successful.
Thank you. It was hard to do and I was still … I stayed in the same mood for a long time afterwards as if I really hadn't finished the story, you know, I should have done more with it. Too late. It was pushing—I was writing Losing Battles at the time, it just pushed right through it.
[Little:] How many stories have you written in one sitting? I remember your saying "Powerhouse" was done in one sitting.
I did. Almost never have I done anything else in one sitting.
[Little:] This one and "Powerhouse" and …
And both of those were completely outside my usual orbit. In both cases I was writing about something that I couldn't personally have known too much about.
[Little:] The amazing thing about "Powerhouse" is that it seems that you did know exactly what you were writing about.
I know it. I knew about my feelings. Well, I knew it, sure I knew that man's music from way back, but not technically. Sure, I knew it. And it was the experience of seeing the man alive …
[Royals:] The man you are referring to is the jazz musician, Fats Waller, right?
[Royals:] You know, we were talking about believability of characters. I think the jazz musician in "Powerhouse" was a little hard to believe in everything he said. I never knew for sure whether he was putting us on or not.
Yes, well, I tried to make that a little ambiguous that way, I intended it to show he was really improvising the whole thing. I meant it to be that way.
[Little:] Which is what the story is about. And all his band members don't even know he is improvising the whole thing, right?
Yes. That's right.
[Royals:] The more you read that story, the more you do realize it is about improvising. I went into it knowing it was about improvising, but I still kept asking, "Is that true?" And then I'd remember that this is a story about improvising.
Yes, but all the same I wanted the improvising to be kind of mysterious. Powerhouse is an artist. He improvises, they fall in with it—I think it is mysterious. Another consequence is, Tom, I was not in a position to revise that story, because how could I do it? You know, I didn't know enough to have started it to begin with.
[Royals:] Well, I don't think …
So I never did. I knew that it was either that or nothing. So that was it. It could have been helped as a story but not by the author.
[Little:] One last question. Are there any rules beginning writers should follow?
No. God knows writing is the most independent and individual thing you can do.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 766
SOURCE: A review of One Writer's Beginnings, in TLS, No. 4242, July 20, 1984, p. 806.
[In the following review, Homberger states that Welty's "One Writer's Beginnings is a reminder that the imagination can be as nourished by Jackson, Mississippi, as by Henry James's London, Kafka's Prague or Kundera's Brno."]
When in 1965, during the civil rights movement, Eudora Welty wrote that "Entering the hearts and minds of our own people is no harder now than it ever was", the most common response was a subdued sense of shock at a writer so little carried away by the dramatic struggles taking place around her.
The argument that Welty's work fails to register the great traumas of the age is a way of placing her "interest" as Southern, and therefore as regional. No myth-maker like Faulkner, her work stands or falls on the sense of place, the particular character of Mississippi. She understands her people with uncanny precision. Her brief story on the murder of Medgar Evers in 1963, "Where Is the Voice Coming From?", was a fine gesture of imaginative insight. When the killer was finally caught, Welty remarks in the preface to her collected stories, it was necessary to revise certain details in her wholly invented characterization, because they had been disturbingly close to the truth.
Looking back on the 1960s, Welty recently commented on the scale of the changes which came in the wake of the civil rights movement: I think we've been through an experience which was more profound than we'd guessed, both black and white. Now we are both more open in a way that—well, I had not experienced it because it had never happened. Now, seeing how much more there was to communication than the wish, and the desire, and the heart, I feel I have more to learn now than I had to learn then.
The learning process continues. Mississippi is no longer the Demon incarnate; young college students find cocaine a better high than civil rights; and there aren't all that many unregistered black voters in the South any more. But of the rich literature of the South in this period, Welty's stories and novels look the most likely to survive.
As the appreciation of her achievement deepens, and as her stories find more and more readers, the world which permeates her writing seems remote, even historical. She was born in 1909 in Jackson, Mississippi, the sleepiest state capital in the United States, her parents having come to Jackson at the start of their married life from Ohio and West Virginia. Long family trips north from Mississippi to visit her relations (it took a week to drive each way in the 1920s) gave Welty a sense of an "outside" world which she recalls vividly in the Harvard lectures which have now been published as One Writer's Beginnings:
Towns little or big had beginnings and ends, they reached to an edge and stopped, where the country began again as though the hadn't happened. They were intact and to themselves. You could see a town lying ahead in its whole, as definitely formed as a plate on a table. And your road entered and ran straight through the heart of it; you could see it all, laid out for your passage through. Towns, like people, had clear identities and your imagination could go out to meet them. You saw houses, yards, fields, and people busy in them, the people that had a life where they were. You could hear their bank clocks, striking, you could smell their bakeries. You would know those towns again, recognize the salient detail, see so close up. Nothing was blurred, and in passing along Main Street, slowed down from twenty-five to twenty miles an hour, you didn't miss anything on either side.
In a review of Welty's Delta Wedding in 1946, Isaac Rosenfeld argued that "the serious American writer cannot but be alienated from American society, close though he may be to it, and much though he may wish to belong". Rosenfeld could not understand how a Southern writer could "really and truly feel at home in his home." Welty was perhaps too polite, too much the Southern lady, to ask the same question of Rosenfeld's (and Saul Bellow's) Chicago. Received opinion has, for the most part, agreed with Rosenfeld, and it was Bellow, not Welty, who won the Nobel Prize. Taking Welty seriously would mean questioning the massive investment in modernism and alienation in American culture. One Writer's Beginnings is a reminder that the imagination can be as nourished by Jackson, Mississippi, as by Henry James's London, Kafka's Prague or, Kundera's Brno.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3267
SOURCE: "A Visit with Eudora Welty," in The Yale Review, Vol. 74, No. 1, Autumn, 1984, pp. 147-53.
[In the following interview, Welty discusses how she develops her characters and what she thinks about writing.]
She's worn a pretty hat for the occasion, an occasion she says she has dreaded ever since she decided to make an exception to her rule, no interviews. Her smile is shy, her voice soft and hesitant: "You look like a Virginia girl." She reaches for my bag, but I protest—after all, she is seventy-five. Her hair is white. She is slight and walks with slow care in a shiny new pair of loafers. Her azure knit dress is the color of her eyes. The next day, when we have settled into pants and comfortable shoes, she tells me, "I would have worn pants to the airport, but I thought, 'She'll think I'm some sort of hick!'"
She eases herself behind the wheel of her car. She's tired. "I've been on the go ever since the first of the year. And this weekend I signed 400 of those Harvard books for a limited edition. Are you going to use a tape recorder? I always think I sound as if I don't know what I'm talking about on tape. You'll have to excuse me if I don't hear you. I don't hear as well as I used to."
The book to which she refers is her autobiographical One Writer's Beginnings. It was developed from the Norton lectures she gave at Harvard and was, she says, "the hardest thing I've ever had to do. First there were the lectures. I don't know why they wanted me. I'm no scholar and I hate to lecture. I much prefer conversation—a back-and-forth exchange. I've always had to teach to supplement my income, but I think if I had to do it again, I'd do something completely different. Not different from writing. Different from teaching. I think I'd do something mechanical, something with my hands."
"Such as plumbing?"
"Such as painting chairs. You paint a chair in the morning, and there it is in the afternoon."
In talking more of the book, she says, "It was amazing to discover that nothing is ever lost. Thomas Mann was right, the memory is a well. In writing this book each memory uncovered another. It was probably important for me to remember these things, but it was very hard. I kept thinking, 'If only I'd known then what I know now.' Or, 'If only I'd said …' And I'm so sorry I never had the chance to tell my father how I felt about him. We were a very reserved family. But passionate."
Given the reserve, it is no surprise that in One Writer's Beginnings part of her self remains in shadow. She tells, for example, of her father's death and the blood transfusion that was a desperate attempt to avert it, but what is left unwritten is how she felt. "I originally had it in the book," she says, "but I took it out. I thought it would be too self-indulgent. What I remember is that there were venetian blinds in back of me, that the heat of the sun was coming through the slats and onto my back. I suppose that was my creeping horror. That's what a person remembers—the physical sensation. I'd never seen anyone die before. Have you?"
She often asks such questions. "Don't you?" "Can you imagine?" "Don't you find that to be true?" It is her attempt to bring you into the circle, to include you. It goes beyond Southern hospitality and seems to be a complete turning over of the self to another's sensibilities. "Are you warm enough?" "Are you hungry yet?" "Land! You shouldn't have spent so much money on that book. I would have given you a copy." "I worry about you."
It is not possible to capture on paper the rich melody of her accent, but there are certain words that, once you have heard her pronounce them, seem unmistakably hers. "Buzzard" and "sinister" are two of these. As we drove along the Natchez Trace, the setting of many of her tales, two birds were spotted weighing down branches atop a dead tree. "Buzzids," she shuddered, "I hate buzzids. I always knew, when I was coming home on a train, when we had entered Mississippi because you would see buzzids out the window." She notes the cypress swamp beneath their perch: "Isn't it sinista?"
Because the Natchez Trace is what we think of as Eudora Welty country, it is jarring for me to leave it behind and drive into Jackson, a city of 300,000. Jackson's population is up 297,000 since Eudora Welty's parents settled there as a young married couple—her father from an Ohio farm and her mother from the mountains of West Virginia. The grand homes that once graced State Street have given way to Cooke's Prosthetics and Cash-in-a-Flash Pawn Shop. The architecture is that of any town in commercial, suburban America. "I used to play in all these yards," she says, pointing to parking lots. "And that is where the insane asylum used to be. Imagine—it said 'Insane Asylum' on the gates. That's what they were talking about in The Sound and the Fury when they said they were going to send Benjy to Jackson. In those days Jackson meant the loony bin."
Her own street, back from State, is quiet and slightly elevated. Her father chose the site in part to ease her mother's homesickness, but "my mother never could see the hill." Her childhood home, a 1920s Tudor designed by her father, is solid and graceful. "I feel awfully selfish living here alone, and I can't afford to keep it up the way I should, but I can't imagine moving. And it's home." The lawn is full of pine needles and is dominated by a huge oak tree. "The builder told my parents to chop down that tree, but they said, 'Never chop down an oak tree.' They were country people. I guess that was something country people say. Well, they were right. That's the only one left—all the pine have died."
We enter through a vestibule. "My father was a Yankee. He thought all houses should have vestibules." There is a living room to the left and a library to the right. Between is a solid mahogany staircase. Books are everywhere—they've overrun bookshelves and have moved to tables and desks. There are books by friends—Walker Percy, Reynolds Price, Elizabeth Bowen, Katherine Anne Porter, Elizabeth Spencer, William Jay Smith, and Robert Penn Warren. There are the diaries of Virginia Woolf and a new biography of Ford Madox Ford ("Can you imagine that he held a chair for Turgenev?" she asks). There are Seamus Heaney, Barbara Pym, Chekhov, and all of Henry Green, one of her favorites. On the mantel is a Snowden photograph of V. S. Pritchett, looking spry and amused—she's cut it from a magazine and mounted it. A similar photo is on her desk—"for inspiration." The desk is in the bedroom, where she has always worked. "When there were five of us here it was the only place I could work," she says, referring to the days when her parents and brothers also occupied this house.
She is generous in her praise and encouragement of other writers. "Anne Tyler was a whiz from the time she was seventeen!" she exclaims. She laughs as she recalls that "Reynolds Price had Anne for one of his first students. He thought, 'Teaching is going to be great!' He thought all his students were going to be like Anne." She thinks the title of Tyler's latest novel, Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, is "inspired," and that the last sentence is a tour de force. "If I had written that sentence, I'd be happy all my life!"
When asked about another prize-winning writer whose works she has reviewed, she says, "I wanted so much to like her book, but I found some of it impossibly precious. I did not put my misgivings in the review because it was the first book by a young writer and I couldn't hurt somebody like that. She was a bit self-indulgent, which is perfectly natural for someone of that much talent. I tried to point out the parts that I thought were marvelous."
Although she enjoys talking of writers and books, she warms most to speaking of the act of writing itself. "I love the function of writing—what it is doing." (She offers to pour us some Jack Daniels—"what Katherine Anne Porter called 'swish likka.' Just a jigger. This is powerful stuff. Whenever Red Warren is coming he calls and says, 'Eudora, get out the Black Jack, I'm comin' to town.'") "Elizabeth Bowen, in her marvelous notes on writing a novel in Collected Impressions, pointed out that dialogue is really a form of action. Because it advances the plot, it's not just chatter. She was so succinct in what she said. I think television may have ruined that for us. If you watch serials and talk shows, you would probably think that one-liners were the answer to conversation. That is what has hurt Broadway so: dialogue has been sacrificed for the one-liner. That's putting it too extremely, but the building of a conversation is designed to gradually reveal something.
"Elizabeth was a marvelous writer about writing and very helpful to me. So was E. M. Forster's Aspects of the Novel. I don't think that can ever be outdated. It's important to read these books, but you can't teach a person how to write. That has to come directly from inside the writer.
"What I try to show in fiction are the truths of human relationships. But you have to make up the lies of fiction to reveal these truths—people interacting, things beginning one way and changing to reveal something else. You show a truth. You don't tell it. It has to be done of itself."
She feels the same way about moralizing in fiction. "A writer has to have a strong moral sense. You couldn't write if you yourself didn't have it and know what you were doing. But that's very different from wanting to moralize in your story. Your own moral sense tells you what's true and false and how people would behave. And you know what is just and unjust, but you don't point them out, in my view. I don't think it works in fiction because fiction is dramatic. It's not a platform.
"That worried me in the sixties because I was asked so many times by strangers why I didn't come out for civil rights, something I'd worked for for years. They would call me in the middle of the night, mostly from New Jersey and New York City. They would say, 'Eudora Welty, what are you doing down there sitting on your ass?' I just told them that I knew what I could write and what I couldn't. That I was doing the best I could in my own field. I would be so shaken up that I couldn't sleep the rest of the night."
Glasses emptied, we depart for dinner at Bill's Burger House: burgers by day, native redfish by night. She is welcomed more like a football captain of a local, undefeated team than a literary eminence. Bill grabs her hand and tells me with Greek-accented gusto, "Everybody love this charming lady." And for the final flourish, "God Bless America!" A pretty young woman approaches our table. "Miss Welty, you honored us by gracing our wedding tea. I just wanted to say hello." After she leaves I'm told whom she married. The parents and grandparents are identified, as are the members of the family who are Yankees. I begin to understand what she meant when she told me that she agreed with Walker Percy's response, "Because we lost," when reporters asked him why the South had so many fine writers. "Since we never really industrialized—reconstruction saw to that—the pace is slower," she explains. "People don't move around as much. You know who a person's mother is. We're more introspective, interested in the psychology of people."
The next morning when we meet she shares the mail with me, mail that keeps her awake at night because "I feel so guilty that I never have time to answer it." This morning's includes a letter form a sixteen-year-old, Christine from Georgia who writes, "I really loved 'Why I Live at the P.O.' because it is so true to life. My brother and sister are always trying to get me in trouble." Then she asks whether the narrator of the story "will come back home, and do you think her parents will take her in if she does?"
"Of course." The answer is as natural as though we were speaking of a flesh-and-blood neighbor. "These people live by dramatizing themselves. She'll come home, they'll take her in, and it will start all over again."
There are letters asking for explanations. "I think that bears a lot on the fact that young people—students and children—are not taught and don't understand the difference between fiction and nonfiction. I recently heard about a student who, having found my name in a directory, said to his teacher, 'It says here that Miss Welty lives on Pinehurst. I thought she lived at the post office.' Well, after all," she says, pretending this is perfectly understandable, "'Why I Live at the P.O.' was written in the first person.
"[Students] are not taught. They don't experience what a story does. They just try to figure it out. I think that television has something to do with that. People don't believe events. I remember when man landed on the moon, I called my cleaning woman in to watch it on television. 'You should see this,' I told her. And she said, 'Now Miss Eudora, you know that ain't true.'"
She tells of a phone call received shortly after publication of The Ponder Heart. "The phone rang and a voice said, 'Miss Welty?' 'Yes?' 'This is Officer Ponder.' He was a policeman. 'I'm standing on the corner of State and Manship. I understand you've written a history of my family.' I explained to him, 'Mr. Ponder, that was a story. I love my characters. But they are not real.' Ponder. Isn't that a wonderful name? So he said, 'Oh. Well. If you ever need me I'm here at the corner of State and Manship.'"
That her characters have names similar to or the same as her neighbors' is no accident. "It must always be a name that people really name their children." Even when that name is chosen for mythological significance. "Of course I knew what that meant when I named Phoenix Jackson, but it was also a name that was common among old black women. White owners often gave their slaves mythological names, so we have lots of Homers and Ulysses and Parthenias. Also, poor people in the South tend to give their children beautiful names. They think, 'Well, at least I can give her a pretty name.' And they do."
Asked about Old Man Fate Rainey in The Golden Apples, she says, "The South is full of Fates. It turns out to be short for Lafayette who was a real hero down here." And Miss Ice Cream Rainey? "I learned that in Wales they give people names like Tree-Chopper Jones to distinguish him from the other Jones. My dancing-school teacher was called Miss Ice Cream McNair because her husband owned the ice cream parlor. Of course we never called her that to her face."
In a sense these names are found poetry. From obituaries, the telephone book, memory, bus rides, and conversation come Old Mrs. Sad-Talking Morgan, Miss Billy Texas Spights, Mr. Fatty Bowles, Stella-Rondo, Homer Champion, Miss Snowdie MacLain. All characters existing in the nimbus of Welty's love.
"I loved all my schoolteachers. And I loved everybody in The Golden Apples. The good ones and the bad, the happy ones and the sad ones. I loved them all." I bring up Phoenix Jackson again, the old black lady in "A Worn Path" who makes death-defying trips to town for her grandson's medicine. "I worried about her so much," I say. "I still do," she murmurs.
Of course there is the famous exception—the character she created out of anger rather than love the night that Medgar Evers was shot. The similarity was so striking between the arrested suspect and the imagined murderer, the narrator of "Where Is the Voice Coming From?", that changes had to be made before the story appeared in The New Yorker. "There was concern that it would be like convicting him before the trial. Of course I didn't know him. I just knew the type of person who might do that and I got inside his head." The title was chosen because she "really did not know where the voice was coming from that was telling the story.
"It's so queer. Your material guides you and enlightens you along the way. That's how you find out what you're after. It is a mystery. When I'm not writing, I can't imagine writing. And when I'm writing, it doesn't occur to me to wonder. Sometimes I feel like a completely split personality. I think the really true self is probably the one that is writing. But the other self is trying to protect me. Sometimes I think, 'While I'm out at the jitney will be a good time for me to retype this.' That is, that my daily life will leave me alone to do my work." She pauses to consider this, then laughs shyly, "They're really going to think I've lost my marbles if you print that."
She speaks of other aspects of the work. "Your ears should be like magnets. I used to be able to hear people in back and in front of me and on the street. I don't hear as much as I used to. It's so maddening not to overhear remarks. I hate that. When you're working on a story it's always with you. You hear somebody say something and you know that is what one character is going to say to another." Her friends delight in bringing her snatches of dialogue. Reynolds Price recently came bearing what she considers a treasure. "Reynolds was coming here from the airport in a taxi. He said that the driver told him that the reason the reservoir keeps flooding is because 'That dam is done eat out by crawfish.' Isn't that marvelous! 'Done eat out by crawfish.' Eager to contribute, I tell her something I overheard earlier in the day. "Maybe you could use it," I jest. "Or it could use me," is her serious response.
"The fictional eye sees in, through, and around what is really there," she writes in her new book. As she and I stood staring into the silent gloom on the cypress swamp in the Natchez Trace, I asked her, "How would you describe that color?" I was referring to the water's strange shade of beige beneath the darker brown of tree shadows. "Oh, sort of blue. Like an ink wash." Blue? Ink wash? What was she talking about? And suddenly there it was. She had seen the color of the air.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2896
SOURCE: "Eudora Welty's Beginnings," in The Southern Literary Journal, Vol. XVII, No. 2, Spring, 1985, pp. 120-26.
[In the following review, Smith discusses what Welty teaches about the sensibility of the writer in her One Writer's Beginnings.]
One Writer's Beginnings is a crucial book for the serious Eudora Welty scholar; for the reader who has been charmed and beguiled and moved over the years by her wonderful stories and novels; and for the beginning or not-so-beginning writer who has any interest in where it all comes from, anyway: fiction, I mean, and what in the world it has to do with life. The book originated in a set of three lectures delivered at Harvard University in April, 1983, to inaugurate the William E. Massey lecture series, and it remains so organized. The individual essays are entitled "Listening," "Learning to See," and "Finding a Voice," with a generous selection of Miss Welty's family photographs sandwiched in. For an explicit discussion of fiction-writing techniques, readers must go elsewhere; these essays concern the development of a writer's sensibility rather than her craft—that inner ear, that special slant of vision, that heightened awareness of the world which distinguishes art from pedestrian fiction and which distinguishes Miss Welty's fiction particularly—her embrace of the gross world in all its lovely and awful specific detail. How did this come about?
First, "Listening." Born in 1909 to life insurance executive Christian Webb Welty (1879–1931) and Chestina Andrews Welty (1883–1966), a passionate ex-schoolteacher from West Virginia, Miss Welty was "overprotected" (perhaps because of the first-born brother who died in infancy), greatly cherished, and greatly loved. The house at 741 North Congress Street in Jackson was full of books. "Neither of my parents had come from homes that could afford to buy many books, but though it must have been something of a strain on his salary, as the youngest officer in a young insurance company, my father was all the while carefully selecting and ordering away for what he and Mother thought we children should grow up with. They bought first for the future." Miss Welty "learned from the age of two or three that any room in our house, at any time of day, was there to read in, or be read to. My mother read to me … in the big bedroom in the mornings … in the diningroom on winter afternoons in front of the coal fire … in the kitchen while she sat churning, and the churning sobbed along with any story."
Mrs. Welty read "Dickens in the spirit in which she would have eloped with him." Consequently, Miss Welty tells us that "… there has never been a line read that I didn't hear. As my eyes followed the sentence, a voice was saying it silently to me. It isn't my mother's voice, or the voice of any person I can identify, certainly not my own. It is human, but inward, and it is inwardly that I listen to it. It is to me the voice of the story or the poem itself." Along with the reading of stories went the "striking of clocks"; Mr. Welty, who "loved all instruments that would instruct and fascinate," came from an Ohio family of Swiss origins, and "… all of us have been time-minded all our lives." Thus the future writer learned "so penetratingly, and almost first of all, about chronology."
And Miss Welty grew up hearing stories—from the sewing lady, from her mother's friends. ("What I loved … was that everything happened in scenes.") The happy result was that "long before I wrote stories, I listened for stories. Listening for them is something more acute than listening to them. "And she took note of the other sounds—the parents whistling an early morning duet, "The Merry Widow"; the hymns in Sunday School; the majestic cadence of the King James version of the Bible.
Miss Welty's brother Edward was born when she was three, her brother Walter three years later. Along with Edward came Miss Welty's sense of humor. "We both became comics, making each other laugh. We set each other off, as we did for life, from the minute we learned to talk."
The Weltys' summer trips to visit the two families in Ohio and West Virginia, undertaken in a five-passenger Oakland touring car, were essential to "learning to see." Mrs. Welty never quite got over having left the Andrews mountaintop home near Clay, West Virginia, in order to marry the young lumber company employee from Ohio; her five banjo-playing younger brothers never quite got over it, either—on the wedding day, Moses, the youngest, had gone out and "cried on the ground." Miss Welty's mother and her grandmother wrote letters back and forth every day of their lives. A different sort of life went on at Grandpa Welty's farm in southern Ohio. Compared to the boisterous Andrews clan, the Welty's were "scarce in the way of uncles and cousins and kin of an older generation." Nobody talked much. Grandma Welty—his second wife—had "each work day in the week set firmly aside for a single task." If "in the house it was solid stillness" (the organ was not played), in the huge, wonderful barn, "all you touched was warm." Although Mr. Welty had spent a sober childhood, by all indications, he was devoted to his father.
But it was the mountaintop—the wild, beautiful Andrews homestead—which would prove to be more important to the writer-to-be, for it gave Miss Welty her first sensation of "fierce independence." "Indeed it was my chief inheritance from my mother, who was braver. Yet, while she knew that independent spirit so well, it was what she so agonizingly tried to protect me from, in effect to warn me against. It was what we shared, it made the strongest bond between us and the strongest tension. To grow up is to fight for it, to grow old is to lose it after having possessed it. For her, too, it was most deeply connected to the mountains." And each summer trip "made its particular revelation," offering, finally, when the time came, plot: "When I did begin to write, the short story was a shape that had already formed itself and stood waiting in the back of my mind. Nor is it surprising to me that when I made my first attempt at a novel, I entered its world … as a child riding there on a train."
Now let me digress here a minute. Last spring, Miss Welty, Robert Penn Warren, and his wife, the writer Eleanor Clark, received honorary degrees from Wake Forest University, and I went to a party given in their honor, after the event. Miss Welty, looking tired but lovely, had been given a special seat on the veranda (there was a veranda) and a glass of special bourbon, which I'm sure she needed, as she was besieged by admiring fans and hangers-on—including me, completely mute the way I sometimes get in the presence of anybody I really respect. Everybody was asking questions about One Writer's Beginnings, which had just been published. One lady wanted to know whether or not Miss Welty considered herself a "real Southerner," since both her parents came from the North. At first Miss Welty seemed surprised by the question, and then she said of course she did, that she was born in Jackson, and she has lived there all her life. Miss Clark said she was reminded of a story often told by a friend of hers, a wonderful story involving a summer house and a cat who had had kittens in the oven. "But nobody," Miss Clark concluded, "considered them biscuits." The question-and-answer period resolved itself into general merriment.
Now I think there's some truth to be found here. And the third essay in One Writer's Beginnings is about this truth: how, in order to write what you see and what you hear, you have to be outside it, too. For the writer is ever the outsider, and the traveler. The writer is the girl in the summer dress at the window of the party—there but not there, seeing and hearing it all, in it but not of it, appreciating the petits four and the cut of a dinner jacket and the way the light comes shining in diamonds down from the chandelier, but knowing too the dark behind her, at the open window, feeling all the time the chill in the summer air. The first two essays also include this critical sense of being the observer.
In "Listening," Miss Welty tells an anecdote about a time when she was "taken out of school and put to bed for several months for an ailment the doctor described as 'fast-beating heart.' "Those nights, she was put to bed in a dark corner of her parents' room, the light carefully shaded with a piece of the daily paper, while they rocked in their rockers in a lighted part of the room and discussed their busy day. She can't remember what they talked about—it's not important, anyhow. "It was the murmur of their voices, the back-and-forth, the unnoticed stretching away of time between my bedtime and theirs, that made me bask there at my distance. What I felt was not that I was excluded from them but that I was included, in—and because of—what I could hear of their voices and what I could see of their faces in the cone of yellow light under the brown-scorched shade … I suppose I was exercising as early as then the turn of mind, the nature of temperament, of a privileged observer; and owing to the way I became so, it turned out that I became the loving kind." And in "Learning to See," those trips "were stories"; because you've got to travel, you can't stay in the same place and see anything, or hear anything, you have to go and come back in order to notice what was there all along. As much as it is about anything, One Writer's Beginnings is about traveling.
At Mississippi State College for Women, we learn in "Finding a Voice," Miss Welty escaped the "life in a crowd" of the dormitory and walked to a fountain on campus to find some precious quiet in order to read a book of poems by William Alexander Percy which included a poem "written from New York City, entitled, 'Home.'"
I have a need of silence and of stars.
Too much is said too loudly. I am dazed.
The silken sound of whirled infinity
Is lost in voices shouting to be heard….
She "said the poem" to herself, surrounded by Mississippi "silence and stars," but "This did not impinge upon my longing. In the beautiful spring night, I was dedicated to wanting a beautiful spring night. To be transported was what I wanted." Later, at the University of Wisconsin, she was "smote" by Yeats' "Song of Wandering Aengus"; and it was there, too, that she learned the word for this—"The word is passion." To feel this, and then to bring it back to bear on whatever life we know; this is what writing is about. It's a scary, risky business.
In an earlier essay, "Place in Fiction" (from The Eye of the Story: Selected Essays and Reviews), Miss Welty wrote: "The truth is, fiction depends for its life on place. Location is the crossroads of circumstance, the proving ground of 'What happened? Who's here? Who's coming?'—and that is the heart's field." But, she goes on to say, place cannot give theme. "It can present theme, show it to the last detail—but place is forever illustrative: it is a picture of what man has done and imagined, it is his visible past, result. Human life is fiction's only theme."
It is Miss Welty's characters who come, then, to mind—all round, all visible, all talking, from Edna Earle to Sister to old Mr. Marblehall to Fay—the whole host of them, peopling pages and pages. In "Finding a Voice," Miss Welty writes that characters "take on life sometimes by luck," but that she suspects it is "when you can write most entirely out of yourself, inside the skin, heart, mind, and soul of a person who is not yourself, that a character becomes in his own right another human being…." Passion—the ability to be transported—is what enables you to write "entirely out of yourself."
She discusses the origin of Miss Eckhardt, the piano teacher in The Golden Apples, a character "miles away from that of anybody" she actually knew, including herself. And yet Miss Eckhardt "derived from what I already knew for myself, even felt I had always known. What I have put into her is passion for my own life work, my own art. Exposing yourself to risk is a truth Miss Eckhardt and I had in common." A character on the page, then, becomes a visible form of what is mute and inchoate in the personality. "Not in Miss Eckhardt as she stands solidly and almost opaquely in the surround of her story," Miss Welty writes, "but in the making of her character out of my most inward and most deeply feeling self, I would say I have found my voice in my fiction." Earlier, in "Place in Fiction," she wrote that "writing of what you know has nothing to do with security: what is more dangerous? How can you go out on a limb if you do not know your own tree? No art ever came out of not risking your neck. And risk—experiment—is a considerable part of the joy of doing, which is the lone, simple reason all writers of serious fiction are willing to work as hard as they do."
So passion makes the risk possible, and the risk is justified by the "joy of doing"—a view of writing which not all writers share with Miss Welty. For the self is the source of the art, as she makes clear; but many of us are fleeing into fiction, away from life—our memories are minefields.
It's instructive to read The Optimist's Daughter just before, or just after, you read One Writer's Beginnings. The parallels, the resemblances, the echoes are striking: the books in the house, the spunky mother from West Virginia whose death (reciting poetry in her blindness) so closely resembles Mrs. Welty's; the parents' courtship; the descriptions of "up home"; the "optimistic" father.
Here's the big difference: Fay. Laurel's father's second wife in The Optimist's Daughter ("without any powers of passion or imagination in herself") is one of "the great interrelated family of those who never know the meaning of what has happened to them." Fay is just awful. But Fay makes it fiction: she's the source of the conflict which is the theme of the novel—the past versus the future, change versus stasis—and the presence of conflict makes the difference between fiction and memoir. Fay is a blunderer, like the offensive handyman Mr. Cheek with his "familiar ways and blundering hammer"; like the grandmother's pigeons who "convinced (Laurel) that they could not escape each other and could not themselves be escaped from"; like, finally, the bird caught in the house after Laurel's father's funeral. Laurel cannot hide from the bird forever, although she hides from it for all of one night. At last she must catch it and set it free, as she must leave her mother's cherished breadboard for whatever uses the covetous Fay may find for it, realizing that "Memory lived … in the freed hands … and in the heart that can empty but fill again … in the patterns restored by dreams."
For the reader to go along pointing out what is real and not real in The Optimist's Daughter means nothing, then, finally—Fay and Laurel are equally real, and it's the heart's own truth which has made the novel. The Optimist's Daughter does, however, illustrate what Miss Welty says in "Finding a Voice": "Writing a story or a novel is one way of discovering sequence in experience, of stumbling upon cause and effect in the happenings of a writer's own life. This has been the case with me. Connections slowly emerge. Like distant landmarks you are approaching, cause and effect begin to align themselves, draw closer together…." This is that "joy of doing" which Miss Welty alluded to in a different way in an earlier essay ("Katherine Anne Porter: The Eye of the Story") when she wrote about the "strong natural curiosity which readers feel to varying degree and which writers feel to the most compelling degree as to how any one story ever gets told. The only way a writer can satisfy his own curiosity is to write it … And how different this already makes it from telling it! Suspense, pleasure, curiosity, all are bound up in the making of the written story." We are always changing, too, Miss Welty reminds us towards the end of "Finding a Voice." "As we discover, we remember; remembering, we discover; and most intensely do we experience this when our separate journeys converge. Our living experience at those meeting points is one of the charged dramatic fields of fiction." For this is the point of "confluence"—that place where passion meets life, and recognizes it, and the story is born, and born, over and over again.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3860
SOURCE: "Clytie's Legs," in London Review of Books, Vol. 7, No. 8, May 2, 1985, pp. 15-6.
[In the following review, Aaron discusses several of Welty's works and asserts that "it is by design, by her calculated disclosures, that this storyteller makes herself and her writing powerful and free."]
Eudora Welty's fictional territory stretches as far as the Northern States of her native America, and to Europe too, but its heartland is Jackson, Mississippi and its environs, a country more accessible and neighbourly than Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha. The dust and heat are the same, the people comparably rooted and earthy. Yet Faulkner's South, for all of its authentic particularity, is a space larger than life in which a magnified cast of performers carry out fated acts. His stores, work-places, forests, houses, monuments, jails and churches are the setting for a sprawling historical spectacle that violently unfolds to the accompaniment of rhetorical music.
Jefferson, Mississippi is the centre, Faulkner once said, of a 'cosmos' inhabited by people whom he could move around 'like God'. Eudora Welty's people live mostly in, or near, small free-floating towns like Morgana, with its water tank and courthouse and its 'Confederate soldier on a shaft' that resembles 'a chewed-on candle, as if old gnashing teeth had made him'. They go their own ways and are not haunted by history. You can find them in a scruffy beauty parlour (scene of 'The Petrified Man') where Leota says to her 'ten o'clock shampoo-and-set customer: "Reach in my purse and git me a cigarette without no powder in it if you kin, Mrs Fletcher, honey … I don't like no perfumed cigarettes.'" They frequent drugstores, depots, old ladies' homes, woods and river bottoms, and congregate at funerals. Some are quiet and withdrawn; some chatter incessantly. They eat Milky Ways and hamburgers, drink Coca-Cola and Memphis whisky, and bear the names Stella-Rondo, Missouri, Woodrow Spights Powerhouse, Edna Earle, Wanda Fay and Mrs Marblehall—the last a club woman, member of the Daughters of the Confederacy, who will sing on request 'O Trees of the Evening'—'in a voice that dizzies other ladies like an organ note, and amuses men like a halloo down the well'.
Because Eudora Welty shies away from lofty and portentous themes, her characters are less likely than Faulkner's to be snatched into a metaphysical empyrean. She doesn't, as Henry James would say, 'cultivate the high pitch and beat the big drum'. What interests her is not so much their existential dilemmas as their physical and moral landscape, the enclosing objects, in which she allows herself virtually to disappear: their domestic lives, conversations, clothes and kitchens, the food they eat, the flowers they grow, the cars they drive. The process by which she invests herself in otherness is something akin to the effect produced by the 'mysterious contraption', the stereopticon, in her story, 'Kin'.
In that story, the narrator recalls the Sundays she spent as a child in the house of Uncle Felix, and how she and her uncle, after the heavy mid-day dinners, would pore over the 'picture cities' in the stereopticon slides. As they studied the strollers on checkered pavements, islands in the sea, volcanoes, the Sphinx, these scenes, she says, were 'brought forward each time so close that it seemed to me the tracings from the beautiful faces of a strange coin were being laid against my brain.' And as she watches Uncle Felix 'with his giant size and absorption … looking his fill', it appears to her 'as though, while he held the stereopticon to his eyes, we did not see him.' Nor do we see her, the individual Eudora Welty; the author with a Jackson habitation and a legal identity. What we see are a series of fictional slides of people and places and occasions, all transmuted from personal experience, and standing—as she says in one of her interviews—for what your life has meant to you'.
The more self-centred and confiding writers become, the less likely we are to know them. Although insistingly, sometimes touchingly, and more often tiresomely there, they hide themselves in their own ink. Whereas writers more sparing in their self-revelations, while unable to obliterate the thumb print of their uniqueness, their special tone and voice, can be tacitly revelatory. Their selfness is buried in the bodies of the worlds they create.
'I do not comprehend all that I am,' St Augustine wrote, and he followed this declaration with the question: 'Is the mind, therefore, too limited to possess itself?' Eudora Welty conveys self-possession by self-dispersal, not by consciously, or even unconsciously, concocting an instantly recognisable 'personality'. Rather she defines and displays herself in the act of seeping into other minds and bodies. This is not a vampirish invasion but a kind of Keatsian entering-into, passive and affectionate, inspired by curiosity, wonder and love—rarely by hate. She may be likened, at least in this respect, to the Whitman who chronicles the incubating self nurtured by the sensuous world:
There was a child went forth every day,
And the first object he looked upon and received with wonder or pity or love or dread, that object he became.
The 'old drunkard staggering home' from a tavern outhouse in Whitman's poem, the schoolmistress and quarrelsome boys, the 'barefoot negro boy and girl', the changes he notes in city and country, have their counterparts in the Mississippi depicted in Eudora Welty's recent account of her literary 'coming forth'.
Made up of three lectures delivered at Harvard in 1983, One Writer's Beginnings is a meditation on the making of a secular and earth-bound writer. It includes some facts about herself undivulged in her reported 'conversations' over the past four decades, but adheres tenaciously to the dictum: 'a writer's life belongs to the writer.' Biographical information unrelated to her work, and some that is, are none of the public's business. Hence One Writer's Beginnings confines itself to her literary genesis, to the influence of family, school and travel on a sponge-like consciousness—how she listened and learned to see and finally found 'a voice'. In these glowing recollections the town and society of Jackson spring back to life like castle dwellers in the fairy-tale who, frozen to stone for aeons, resume their activities after the enchanter's spell is broken. The accounts of little girls dressed in taffeta and clutching five cent coins in 'hot white gloves', the trips to the Carnegie Library, the summer expeditions—long voyages, really—in the family car to visit her mother's and father's people in West Virginia and Ohio, furnish 'hints, pointers, suggestions' to the future storyteller.
Respectful of solid things, integrated and bolstered by parental supports, she knows her 'home', her 'Place'. She has studied and internalised local space, acquired standards, models, canons of order and discipline from her family and from literature, music, and photography. Thus accoutred, she can reach those points of 'confluence' (a powerful word for her) where real and visionary rivers pour into each other. In Emily Dickinson's lexicon, 'Circumference' was the line dividing knowable earth from the Eternity of Blank; the transmundane could only be guessed at from cryptic messages of birds, or slants of light and other disturbing visitations. With Eudora Welty, reality and illusion merge without divine condescension or malediction. Dream is palpable, reality ductile to the cherished minorities of her stories, the ones responsive to 'the old stab of wonder', quick to catch the signals unheralded by thunderstorms and lightning: a rain-soaked letter, the appearance of a solitary heron, a key falling on a wooden floor, a touch of the wrist.
If the magical moments in Eudora Welty's fiction derive from 'the living world', which forms, she says, 'the vital component' of her 'inner life', they are nonetheless separate and secret. 'You must never betray pure joy,' the American girl in 'The Bride of the Innisfallen' thinks to herself—'the kind you were born and began with—neither by hiding it or by parading it. And still you must tell it.' Eudora Welty tells it by communicating the feelings of ecstasy or insight that her adventurous characters experience but can't convey.
The ability to absorb and retain what has been seen and heard, to become many persons without losing hold of the underlying self, is a gift and an art, but perhaps even more a matter of discipline. From her earliest years, Eudora Welty frames and chronologises, corrects her perspective through books, one of her conduits to the trans-Jackson world. Many of her childhood memories point to the nascent writer. In one, the seven-year-old reader lies on the floor deep in the conglomerate richness of the ten-volume set, Our Wonder World. In another, she lists the contents of her father's library drawer: a kaleidoscope, a gyroscope, 'an assortment of puzzles composed of metal rings and intersecting links and keys chained together'. The barometer hanging on the dining-room wall of the Welty house also deserves mention, because, thanks to her self-described 'strong meteorological sensitivity', storms, floods, high winds and heat precipitate or complement the action in many of her stories. So does the camera. It taught her to coalesce One Time, One Place (the title of the 'Snapshot Album' of Mississippi photographs she took during the Depression) without violating the dignity of her subjects, and to re-read objectively the history of the faces revealed by the dumb camera's unblinking eye.
But these instruments are primarily aids to register rather than to encompass the ephemeral. Photography, she acknowledges, can train the writer 'to click the shutter at the crucial moment'. It teaches 'that every feeling waits upon its gesture,' but the camera is finally only a tool. To reach the hidden dimensions beyond its scope, the writer must fall back on the artifice of words, however unstable their meanings, words ostensibly clear or neutral but twistable into the ambiguous and sinister. In the story 'Circe' the enchantress remembers her greeting to Odysseus and his crew: "'Welcome!" I said—the most dangerous word in the world.' Colours seem to have special connotations for her: black, blue, green, red (fairy-tale colours), and particularly 'gold' and 'golden', and their equivalents, 'corn-coloured', 'yellow', 'honey'. These colours resonate with magic and expectation: they are hues of the self, for what the self puts into words is what it has sucked up from the 'thick', as she would say, of its background.
The ultimate mystery of a personality or object, however, lies beyond mannerisms of speech or physical identifications like the shape of a nose or the colour of eyes or hair. It can never be divined by the word alone, only approximated. The cascade of similes pouring through her pages might be taken as a tacit concession of the impossibility of 'making reality real', of impaling it on a phrase, because reality is not contained in a single vision. But, through simile and metaphor, she nonetheless keeps shaving closer to the Thing-in-Itself, a perpetual grasping at the indefinable. 'Nothing is.' Everything suggests something else. And yet she trusts the veracity of images, luxuriates in the plenitude of analogy.
Her style is the style of a storyteller who wishes 'to set a distance' between herself and what she is observing. This feeling may signify Weltyan reserve as well as a belief in artistic detachment, but it does not lead her to blur her fictive outlines or to prettify unpretty things. She is not at all squeamish about mud, stains, blood, river slime, dirty necks, dandruff, sweat. Her speakers have their own idiosyncratic vernacular, and her prevailing narrative voice, devoid of affectation or strain, is equal to recording varieties of behaviour from the refined to the gross. She can evoke the truly vulgar, be unexpectedly shocking. Her exercises in the grotesque may seem less bleak or threatening (and more credible, too) than Nathanael West's or Flannery O'Connor's, but they are blackish enough, downward in their humour, and occasionally brutal. Who can forget Clytie, drowned in a rain barrel, 'with her poor ladylike black stockinged legs up-ended and hung apart like apart of tongs'.
Hawthorne, T. S. Eliot said, had 'the firmness, the true coldness, the hard coldness of the genuine artist'. Eliot's observation applies equally well to Hawthorne's admirer, Eudora Welty, although others who have noted this similarity scant her differences from Hawthorne in style and temperament. She is not an allegorist, and her settings, even the myth-pervaded Morgana of The Golden Apples and the Natchez Trace of The Robber Bridegroom, are recognisably Mississippian and have little in common with his self-styled 'fairy precincts'. His voice and accents sound in the words of his characters; their thoughts are filtered through his own. Her stories buzz with the conversations of individualised persons whose talk seems to have been taken down by some hovering amanuensis.
Both these writers accommodate depravity in their moral systems, distrust the antinomian impulse, are not mystical about mystery. Their fantasies exhale from things. Neither is indulgent toward the 'good', nor ready to abrogate the laws of consequence. Both are secret observers, Hawthorne often furtive and voyeuristic, Eudora Welty the tactful and sympathising spy. Both care for what Henry James called the 'deeper psychology' in their probes into human relations, their contemplations of blinkered and partial lives. Each spells out the penalties awaiting those who get lost in their private visions.
Relishing the babble of life, Eudora Welty neither loses her 'abiding respect for the unknown' nor relaxes her attentiveness to the obsessions and hallucinations of her eccentric or dim-witted or half-mad characters. They are often more alive, possess more 'self', than their safe-and-sane detractors and patronisers, although she knows that dreamers risk a loss of self once their orbitings bypass the human community. Uncle Daniel in The Ponder Heart, insulated from the actual by his fantasies, drifts off to cuckoo-land. Circe, the unchanging daughter of the gods, is fated to repeat her gyrations, because she is unable to grieve or to feel sympathy.
Pain in Eudora Welty's stories is often, if not necessarily, a catalyst for insight. Her most fully realised characters are likely to be 'wanderers', adventurers, who expose themselves, in Hawthorne's phrase, to 'fearful risks', and, whether doomed or not, wring a 'strange felicity' from their unlicensed excursions. Usually these brief encounters with the elemental are comprehended only dimly if at all by the participants, and they do not emerge from them unscathed or uninstructed. 'No place for you, my love' is about a man and a woman, strangers to each other, who find themselves stranded in New Orleans on a hot summer evening, ride into the country in a rented car toward some possible intimacy, and joylessly return to their starting points: yet both have felt something momentous and irrecoverable. After spending the afternoon improperly with a Tennessee coffee salesman, Ruby Fisher in 'A Piece of News' reads a paragraph in the newspaper he has left behind of another Ruby Fisher who 'has had the misfortune to be shot in the leg by her husband this week'. Given a sudden glimpse into her secret self, she fantasises her own death at the hands of her husband in a state of shame and bliss. In 'Death of a Travelling Salesman', the feverish salesman in the presence of a 'mysterious quiet, cool danger' lacks the 'simple words' that would have allowed him 'to communicate some strange thing—something which seemed always to have just escaped him'. But for Ellen Fairchild in Delta Wedding 'one moment told you the great things, one moment was enough for you to know the greatest thing.' These radiant events are less 'epiphanies' (for Eudora Welty a pretentious term which is without Joycean reverberations) than eruptions of self-awareness.
The climactic moment in The Optimist's Daughter—in form, a long story, she says, 'even though it undertakes the scope of a novel'—occurs when Laurel McKelva Hand finds her dead mother's breadboard in a kitchen cupboard. A middle-aged war widow, she returns to her Mississippi birthplace in time to watch her recently remarried father die, and to confront Wanda Fay, his obnoxious wife. Toward this young woman (a 'ball of fluff', as Helen McNeil calls her in a fine introduction to the novel, but hard as nails) Eudora Welty shows an unexpected hatred. The 'scored and grimy' breadboard Laurel rescues as she prepares to leave the 'desecrated' family house for good is to Wanda Fay 'the last thing anybody needs'. To Laurel it is a correlative of her supplanted mother, of her husband, killed in the Pacific war, who lovingly made it, and of the 'whole solid past' she has not yet managed to resolve or put behind her. Wanda Fay, that piece of perdurable grit, is the key element in the confluence of events that emancipate Laurel from her daughterly obsessions. 'For there is hate as well as love,' Laurel reflects, 'in the coming together and continuing of our lives.
On numerous occasions Eudora Welty has defined the difference between the autobiographical and the personal. Perhaps The Optimist's Daughter is the fullest demonstration of that distinction, for it virtually replicates many of the memories she sets down in One Writer's Beginnings. Her father, she tells us, energetically practised optimism. Her mother, born like Laurel's in the West Virginia mountains, never felt quite at home in the Mississippi flatlands. Doubtless Eudora Welty's biographers will have much to say about these and other similarities, but, as she has declared many times, Becky and Judge McKelva are not Mrs and Mr Welty, nor is Laura—angry and wounded by her father's absurd second marriage, guilty about her mother, and still grieving for her lost husband—modeled on Eudora Welty calm and sure of herself in Jackson. What is autobiographically factual in the novel, then, is of less consequence (a point made by Helen McNeil and by Eudora Welty herself) than 'the kernel of privately felt experience out of which the narrative developed'. Her characters have expropriated her emotions, and she is dramatising a literary problem and resolving it. Wanda Fay, all appetite, a scary portent of the future, has no memories and is penned in with her appalling self. Laurel, buoyed by memory, can flow into others; she redeems and is redeemed by it.
'A sheltered life,' Eudora Welty remarked, 'can be a daring one as well.' The word 'sheltered' connotes something quite different from 'insulated', 'isolated', 'beleaguered', 'secluded'. Some writers have found all they required in a circumscribed society without feeling tyrannised by the familiar, but a refusal, as she has said, 'to move mentally or spiritually or physically out of the familiar' can signify 'spiritual timidity or poverty or decay'. An 'open mind and receptive heart' make her fictional terrain a Chekhovian rather than a Bloomsbury enclave. She was sheltered, if you will, by family influence inimical to class snobbery or venomous racialism. Her circle of friends and teachers may have been wanting in sophistication, but it was understanding enough to encourage a questing intelligence. The community in which she grew up was sufficiently open-ended and diverse to satisfy a writer not content with the mere paraphernalia of local colour. Her real subject is natural violence and fallible people, the fools and cranks and misfits, the shy and the bold, the dreamers and the literal-minded, with whom she sympathetically and humorously identifies.
Apparently nothing was lost on the child exposed to the gossiping of her elders, and delighted by the strains of comedy in Jane Austen, Dickens, Edward Lear, Twain, and Ring Lardner. These very different writers must have alerted her to the comic possibilities of her own Mississippi microcosm and coloured her benign aspect of the human menagerie. But her affection for the common lot is touched—to paraphrase her out of context—with a grave if seldom belittling irony, and her sympathy for the rebellious, the injured, and the passionate is unsentimental and controlled. Emotion which in softer sensibilities is likely to spill over she restrains in the trammels of form.
Her justly admired story 'A Worn Path' could easily have turned maudlin and gone soft; directness, irony and humour preserve it and keep it taut. Phoenix Jackson is a frail black woman with a faltering memory and eyes 'blue with age'. She makes a tasking expedition from her place 'away back', as she puts it, 'off the old Natchez Trace' to the city where she goes to get some soothing throat medicine for her grandson who has swallowed lye. She tells the hospital attendant, after momentarily forgetting why she has undertaken the quest:
My little grandson, he sit up there in the house all wrapped up, waiting by himself. We is the only two left in the world. He suffer and it don't seem to put him back at all. He got a sweet look. He is going to last. He wear a little patch and peep out holding his mouth open like a little bird.
The story is dredged of tearfulness, because Phoenix herself is too indomitable to be pathetic. Undeterred by her filmy sight, she deals cheerfully and resolutely with her trials—thorny bushes, a barbed wire fence, a log, a scarecrow, a dog, a tumble in a ditch, not to mention mirages of her own making. Her gestures are 'fierce' and soldierly. Likened by the author to 'a festival figure in some parade', she moves 'in a little strutting way' and is as much at home in the pinewoods as the 'foxes, owls, beetles, jack rabbits, coons and wild animals' she importunes to stay out of her path. There is something of the trickster in her, too, for although she is civil rather than obsequious in coping with white people, she exploits their solicitude and complacency. She is even ready to slide into her apron pocket a shining nickel dropped by a young white hunter, or to extract another five cents from the hospital nurse in order to buy a paper windmill for her waiting grandson. But she accepts this donation 'stiffly', and it is her 'fixed and ceremonial stiffness' of body and spirit that prevents this story from melting into pathos.
Stephen Dedalus, in one of his aesthetic harangues, describes a process by which the artist's personality 'finally refines itself out of existence' through the dissolvent of his imagination. Once this mystery, a purification of life, is accomplished, the artist, Stephen says, is left 'like the God of creation … within or beyond his handiwork … indifferent, paring his fingernails'. In contrast to this rather grandiloquent affirmation is Eudora Welty's more modest and human aim: to be 'invisible' but not 'effaced'. She is to be looked for, not in blatant self-advertising confidences, hints and nudges, but in the metaphorical clues she drops, which are the exposures of a disciplined sensibility. From them we can deduce a history of a life. One might say her writing, spun out like the web of a 'noiseless patient spider', is not about but of herself. At bottom, the beauty and astonishment of her fiction, as Emerson might say, is 'all design'. For it is by design, by her calculated disclosures, that this storyteller makes herself and her writing powerful and free.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8491
SOURCE: "Words Between Strangers: On Welty, Her Style, and Her Audience," Mississippi Quarterly, Vol. XXXIX, No. 4, Fall, 1986, pp. 481-505.
[In the following essay, Pollack analyzes Welty's relationship with her readers.]
Eudora Welty often speaks of her storytelling in terms that suggest it is a strategy for dealing with separateness. She identifies the source of her work as "attentiveness and care for the world … and a wish to connect with it," and she tells us that her "continuing passion" is "to part a curtain … that falls between people." But paradoxically, while Welty expresses her desire for "connection," she nonetheless prefers what she calls obstruction as the means to this end. "The fine story writers seem to be … obstructionists," she notes in "The Reading and Writing of Short Stories," and she finds the "quondam obstruction"—the sheer opaque curtain that veils the meaning of a work—to be "the source of the deepest pleasure we receive from a writer." I find this paradoxical combination of her thematic concern for "connection" and her preference for technical obstruction surprising and provocative, even though Welty's commentators have long discussed it and even though obstruction is commonplace in contemporary fiction. Welty's stated purpose—she writes of successful fiction as "love accomplished"—seems to be contradicted by a reader's experience of the technique she often chooses: a richly articulate style that holds back initially as if she were reluctant to give her fiction to her audience.
One result of this tension between message and technique is fiction before which—as Ruth Vande Kieft has remarked—"the welcome mat [is] clearly out … while the sign on the gate post [reads] 'Keep Out.'" This is not the case with all, but with many of Welty's fictions: "Powerhouse," "A Wide Net," The Golden Apples, the stories of The Bride of the Innisfallen and others. These are fictions which may delight readers of various levels of sophistication and training and yet leave them intrigued, feeling as if perhaps they have missed something in their understanding. And these are fictions that, once they have delighted and puzzled, invite us to ask questions about Welty's style. Some of these questions are larger than how she uses point of view, plot, genre. We might ask, for example, precisely how love and obstruction can become the terms of one artistic equation and what role Welty's style plays in her relationship with her audience—or in other words, how much and exactly what Welty expects of her reader.
The question that occurs to me as I pursue this sort of speculation is whether Welty's style is at times a strategy for winning the struggle that can occur between writer and reader when a text is read, interpreted, and in some sense completed. The hotly debated critical question of who controls the meaning of a text—writer or reader—seems relevant here. Important reader-response critics such as Stanley Fish, Norman Holland, Wolfgang Iser and Jonathan Culler, among many others, have each illuminated the reading process as they see it. Fish and Holland, in their efforts to describe the reader's too-often ignored role in the creation of meaning, have assigned the primary position in this process to the reader and have granted him a remarkable degree of autonomy from the text. Stanley Fish, for example, has denied that a text has meaning independent of the reader's relationship to it. He asserts that a text is not "a thing-in-itself, but an event, something that happens … with the participation of the reader," and that the constraints that determine meaning do not "inhere in language but in situations," that is, in a reader's situations. And Norman Holland has proposed that interpretation is the imposition of the reader's particular "identity theme," the characteristic pattern of understanding that has more to do with the reader's psychology and obsessive interests than with the text itself. These theories that give the reader control over meaning might reasonably unsettle any writer who has worked to polish and perfect a text, and yet they suggest an undeniable circumstance, that texts, as they are consumed and interpreted, do shade off into ideas that exist in readers' minds. Only there is a book completed.
In contrast to Fish and Holland's theories, Wolfgang Iser's formulation of the reading process admits the reader's role, and yet describes a less autonomous, but perhaps ideal reader who is out-going in his textual encounters and therefore careful to respond to the text itself. Iser paints what seems to me the portrait not of every reader in every reading encounter but of what a sensitive reader strives to be. Iser sees reading as a fluid process of self-correction that involves reaction, rereading, and revision as the reader provides a sequence of changing conceptual frameworks for the fiction. "We look forward, we look back, we decide, we change our decisions, we form expectations, we are shocked by their nonfulfillment, we question, we muse, we accept, we reject." Meaning is built gradually: "smaller units progressively merge into bigger ones so that meaning gathers meaning in a kind of snowballing process." Understanding of a text is a carefully constructed product of considerable interaction. Interpretations vary as each reader selects meaning from the potential text and completes it uniquely in response to sensitivities shaped by his education, his social, psychological, and philosophical backgrounds, and his historical place. But meaning does not rest wholly in the imagination of the reader; it resides in the coming together of the reader and the text. The process of reading a text provides the author's blueprint for making meaning with it; the reader builds meaning in part by responding to literary expectations which the text evokes.
In Jonathan Culler's terms, the text bids the reader to draw on his "literary competence." This competence, which is a knowledge of implicit but well-recognized literary conventions, allows a reader to recognize a story pattern, plot type, or genre, to identify a technique of point of view or an allusion and, on the basis of expectations cued by the text, to predict a kind of meaning to be made. In a successful reading, these conventions are the shared knowledge of the author and reader. Otherwise we have the case of the inexperienced student reader of "The Wide Net" who is perplexed when William Wallace, searching for the remains of his wife Hazel, wanders into the pleasures of a golden day. This none too hypothetical reader, perhaps unfamiliar with the conventions of the heroic epic, cannot predict that the wandering of a hero may prove to be his track, the path by which he will arrive where he is going. In Culler's view, conventional literary expectations make reading and writing possible. These
the author can write against, certainly,… may attempt to subvert, but [they are] none the less the context within which his activity takes place, as surely as the failure to keep a promise is made possible by the institution of promising. Choices between words, between sentences, between different modes of presentation, will be made on the basis of their effects; and the notion of effect presupposes modes of reading which are not random or haphazard. Even if an author does not think of readers, he is himself a reader of his own work and will not be satisfied with it unless he can read it as producing effects.
Here, Culler is able to grant the reader his place in the literary process while affirming that the author's text guides his expectations.
My own reaction to the work of these four critics is to recognize that they have highlighted an obvious but somehow long-neglected variable in the meaning-making process: readers and their responses. Yet when Fish and Holland picture the reader's process as largely independent of an author's control, I cannot help feeling that their correcting visions are misleading, although their strong emphasis on the reader's role is certainly predictable when the goal is to establish his place. One result of their influential discourse has been to make literary discussion of the author and his intentions unfashionable. But because I view reading as an encounter with minds and worlds, times and cultures distinct from my own, I find myself wanting to reverse this trend away from the author who is other. One particular value of the reader-response critical model, if we put it into such reverse, would be to bring attention unexpectedly back to the writer. In other words, reader-response theory, having raised the issues of who controls meaning and of how it is negotiated by author and reader, both invites us and enables us to ask how an author attempts to direct his readers' somewhat unpredictable responses. For this reason, Iser's and Culler's work is more useful to me as I consider reading as an encounter, taking place sometimes over long distances of time and space, yet yielding an interaction and perhaps even an intimacy. In reading, as in a conversation, two minds can meet. And the one who speaks first, the author, tries to establish expectations to which a reader can predictably respond, albeit somewhat differently from every other reader. Together, through their shared knowledge of literary convention, over their different and mutual interests as well as their historical and cultural perspectives, the author and reader produce the individual literary performance.
The reader-response debate may seem far afield from Welty's own critical vocabulary, but it is relevant to a consideration of her style. A writer such as Welty, who I will argue hopes above all to be met in her fiction, might reasonably be concerned that the shared literary performance of author and reader should not ignore the guidelines that her written text imposes. Welty's concern with the question of who controls meaning in the reading process is clearest in her essay "How I Write," which was first published in 1955 and later revised for inclusion in The Eye of the Story. In the first published version, Welty discussed the faults of a type of reader who sees the writing of a story as only "his own process in reverse":
The analyst, should the story come under his eye, may miss the gentle shock and this pleasure too, for he's picked up the story at once by the heels (as if it had swallowed a button) and is examining the writing as his own process in reverse, as though a story (or any system of feeling) could be more accessible to understanding for being hung upside down.
Apparently, Welty was giving careful thought to the writing and reading processes, to their difference and to their relationship, years before the reader-response critics became vocal in the 1970's. I take Welty as my subject here because she has explicitly shown her awareness of the reading process and the risks that an author faces when giving fiction over to a reader, but also because I believe she has developed a stylistic trait that is her personal strategy for guiding her reader towards meaning. My goal is to identify this particular trait while defining all that Welty hopes for from the writer-reader relation, its hazards notwithstanding. Ultimately, I would like to suggest why when asked by Joanna Maclay in 1980 "how [her] notion of the potential reader" affected what she did "to make [her] meaning clear," Welty answered by quoting a line of Henry Green's: "Prose should be a long intimacy between strangers."
My argument is that Welty's style demonstrates, and in its way seems designed to demonstrate, the primacy of the text in the reading process. Her fiction repeatedly elicits expectations that it promptly defies. Yet the mistaken expectations that a reader develops as he follows the experience provided by her language are a part of her directions to the text's meaning. The effect is to invite the reader to return to the story again and again, to urge him to read it closely and attentively. Areas of obstruction—for example, unusual uses of point of view, of plot, genre, and allusion—are themselves clues in Welty's fiction; and once a reader has identified which of his expectations are frustrated, he is usually on his way to understanding the fiction at hand, having found its center. Seen in this light, Welty's use of obstruction could be a technique for shaping a responsive reader through her control of the textual experience. By composing texts that require attentiveness and yield best to rereading, she might invite a reader to practice self-correction and to follow more closely her lead through the reading process. How she achieves this by manipulating the reader's expectations (of the sort that Iser and Culler stress) will, I hope, become clear in this essay.
Evidence of Welty's interest in the encounter of author and audience, and in the potential struggle between them for control of meaning, is available in several of her fictions that inherently explore problems in audience reception (for example, "Keela, the Outcast Indian Maiden," or Losing Battles). One of the earliest of these and, in my view, one of her more "obstructed" short stories is "Powerhouse," an opaque parable (in Welty's words) about "the traveling artist … in the alien world" and portrays his interaction with audiences of varying degrees of receptivity. At second glance this story can reveal Welty's perception of the fragility and achievement of the writer-reader relationship, as well as the technical process by which she herself manages and creates that encounter. For the sake of what this story reveals about these issues, I take it as my point of reference and departure.
When we first meet him, Powerhouse is performing for a white audience that has come to marvel at a grotesque "Negro man," to see not the artist behind the mask but the mask they have urged onto him. To them, the black jazz musician looks "Asiatic, monkey, Jewish, Babylonian, Peruvian, fanatic, devil." Powerhouse, stomping and smooching, improvises, however, with the stereotypes that his audience attributes to "people on a stage—and people of a darker race." In his performances, he tries to work this imposed identity until it becomes a medium for expressing his private self. But this particular audience on this particularly rainy night in Alligator, Mississippi, is not ready to receive the man behind his mask. Instead of sympathetically receiving his performance, instead of sharing his effort and his eventual achievement, they "feel ashamed for" the jazzman who seems to them to give everything, and who, holding nothing in reserve, seems to expose himself before their unsympathetic eyes. They are curious, enthusiastic, but not in tune with him.
Attempting to give himself to these alienating spectators, Powerhouse feels displaced and begins to retreat behind the mask that reflects his audience's expectations for a "vast and obscene jazzman." He plays "Pagan Love Song," a sad song that he touches and that touches him back, confirming his estranged mood. Like Welty herself, Powerhouse is an artist who needs to place himself by recognizing his emotions, and to touch home with them in his work. And so he plunges into a depth of self by inventing the suicide of his wife, Gypsy, a story that he tells at first with his "wandering fingers," that is, in a musical exchange perhaps accompanied by stage whispers. The story he improvises creates a reason for his blues: a fictional telegram signed "Uranus Knockwood" that announces the news "Your wife is dead."
Powerhouse's audience for this narrative performance is—in addition to the reader—the band itself, whose members vary in their capacities for sympathy and receptivity. They are implicitly different models of the reader. The far section of the band is "all studious, wearing glasses, every one," and "don't count." These technicians are figuratively and literally too far away to hear the jazzman's story. "Only those playing around Powerhouse are the real ones," the co-creating audience of Valentine, Little Brother, and perhaps Scoot. Of this group, Valentine and Little Brother readily receive, participate in, and protect Powerhouse's invention; Valentine immediately picks up the theme that Powerhouse establishes and begins to improvise on it: "'You say you got a telegram.'" But Scoot, who is a "disbelieving maniac," is not so cooperative; he asks a series of challenging, although participating, questions: "'Gypsy? Why how come her to die, didn't you just phone her up in the night last night long distance?'" Such questions are inappropriate because they take the fiction literally, and so resist Powerhouse's fiction-making project and his purposes. They are combative as well and force Powerhouse to move his story in new directions; they challenge his control of the performance instead of inviting him to proceed with it. For a time, however, Scoot's questions serve Powerhouse well enough. For although Scoot asks Powerhouse to justify his creation rather than to expand it, his questions nevertheless give Powerhouse the opportunity to elaborate; the drummer's bantering questions establish the beat to create against, a function appropriate to his musical instrument.
Leaving the dance hall at intermission with his three accompanists, Powerhouse—now between sets in Negrotown's World Cafe—finds a large audience ready to respond to him as he develops the theme of Gypsy's death in a solely narrative performance that discloses themes of loneliness, disappointment, anger, and defiance. Powerhouse asks first to hear Bessie Smith's "Empty Bed Blues," but the juke box plays instead "Sent For You Yesterday and Here You Come Today," and Powerhouse imagines Gypsy wanting him. She listens for his footsteps and hears those of a stranger passing by. Powerhouse does not come. And she, defiant in her separateness, angrily kills herself by busting her brains all over the world.
"Listen how it is. My wife gets missing me. Gypsy. She goes to the window. She looks out and sees you know what. Street. Sign saying Hotel. People walking. Somebody looks up. Old man. She looks down, out the window. Well?… Ssssst! Plooey! What do she do? Jump out and bust her brains all over the world."
Splattering Gypsy in a fantasy that investigates solitude, separateness, and death but is not itself sorrowful, the improvisation transforms Powerhouse's mood of lonely anxiety. As his mood changes, he elaborates on that comic, mythic nemesis, Uranus Knockwood, the father of all misfortune, the man who "takes our wives when we are gone," and who finds Gypsy when she dies:
"That no-good pussyfooted crooning creeper, that creeper that follow around after me, coming up like weeds behind me, following around after me everything I do and messing around on the trail I leave. Bets my numbers, sings my songs, gets close to my agent like a Betsy-bug; when I going out he just coming in. I got him now! I got my eye on him."
For Powerhouse, Knockwood personifies affliction; he is the troublesome carrier of misfortune who brings disappointment, failure, and anxiety.
During this performance, Valentine and Little Brother encourage and protect Powerhouse's creation. Gradually, a larger audience has formed around the small group and its collaborative members recognize Knockwood immediately. "'Middle-size man.' 'Wears a hat.' 'That's him.' Everybody in the room moans with pleasure." Powerhouse's creation of Knockwood—the man who brings the Blues—becomes for this sympathetic audience a means of chasing those blues away. A waitress, in full sympathy with Powerhouse, calls out, "'I hates that Mr. Knockwoods.'" And she is also the one who asks him, "'All that the truth?'" Her admiring question, like Scoot's belligerent inquiries, once more raises the problem of the truth of fiction. The musician, performing for this flirtatious, provoking "Little-Bit," at first offers to show his telegram. He is halted for a moment by the protective cry of Little Brother, who does not want the energy building for the next set to be lost, and who fears that if Powerhouse reveals his art, he may sacrifice its power. But Powerhouse, who is now playing primarily for the waitress, explains it anyhow:
"No, babe, it ain't the truth…. Truth is something worse, I ain't said what, yet. It's something hasn't come to me, but I ain't saying it won't. And when it does, then want me to tell you?"
The truth that has not yet come to Powerhouse is something worse and something better than the story of Gypsy's death. That truth is on its way; it is the transfiguration that his story generates once it is successfully received and completed by this audience.
Powerhouse has told a story about loneliness and with it he has produced a sense of belonging. This familiar pattern of the blues performance is analyzed by Ralph Ellison in his essay "Richard Wright's Blues": it fingers a wound, and yet through the joy of expressing, surviving, and successfully sharing a painful emotion with a sympathetic audience, transforms it into something nearly or clearly celebratory. And so Powerhouse, singing the blues, has transcended his isolation and "come out the other side." Heading back to the dance, he creates a telegram of reply that puts the four of them "in a wonderful humor." He will wire the offending Knockwood: "'What in the hell you talking about? Don't make any difference: I gotcha.'" Members of the small group agree, "'You got him now,'" and feel that transformation, the surge of power generated by the fiction. They see that Powerhouse has investigated a death no one believes in—though all know it to be real and haunting—and somehow located through it his own life and strength. With his story, he has mastered his experience; he has transformed his disconcerting present into a future of his choice and created joy by fabricating a tragedy. The truth of his tale is the emotion that it has reflected and transformed.
As Powerhouse prepares to re-enter the white dance hall, Scoot, in crazy obtuseness, asks if Powerhouse isn't going to call home and learn how Gypsy really is. Then "there is a measure of silence." Scoot, "one crazy drummer that's going to get his neck broken some day," endangers the success of Powerhouse's art by failing to receive it. But because Powerhouse has the audience he needs in Valentine and Little Brother, Scoot's belligerence will not harm the evening's culminating musical performance.
In the final section of the story, we see that Powerhouse's successful narrative performance has recharged his creativity. Back in the dance hall and in the audience, we watch Powerhouse approach his piano as if "he saw it for the first time in his life." Then he
tested it for strength, hit it down in the bass, played an octave with his elbow, lifted the top, looked inside, and leaned against it with all his might. He sat down and played it for a few minutes with outrageous force and got it under his power—a bass deep and coarse as a sea net—then produced something glimmering and fragile, and smiled.
In this scene Powerhouse moves from his theme "I got a telegram my wife is dead" to the number "Somebody Loves Me." He has cast off his loneliness for a certainty that someone loves him—a certainty based on his interaction with the audience at the World Cafe—and he calls and shouts, "'I wonder who?'" Grimacing, he challenges his white audience with the line "Maybe … Maybe … Maybe it's you!" And with this furious invitation, he also addresses the reader. In a blunt confrontation between author and audience, Powerhouse and Welty may seem to merge, to ask, "What kind of reader are you?" Are you like the white audience, alien, gawking at an entertainer whose creative efforts you block rather than receive? Or like the far section of the band—"studious, wearing glasses," not really with it? Or perhaps you are like Scoot, attentive, but asking all the wrong questions? Or could it be that you are like Valentine and Little Brother, participating in sympathy with the artist?
In short, the question that Welty asks in this last line of "Powerhouse" is whether we love her in her story. This question is unexpected because Welty herself has hindered her reader's first approach to intimacy. In a fiction that dramatizes a performer's relationship with several essentially unreceptive audiences, Welty has chosen to complicate her own author-audience relationship by adopting the technique of obstruction. Although my summary has smoothed the story over and temporarily set aside the questions that color a reader's first encounter with it, the story itself unfolds against expectations that it creates but fails to fulfill.
"Powerhouse" is likely to astonish a reader in three ways: (1) in its turn away from the question of whether Gypsy is really dead, (2) in its merging of Powerhouse's narrative invention with his musical creation, and (3) in its unannounced shifts in point of view. I have named and will discuss these narrative surprises while fully aware that the precise steps of every reader's encounter with the story will be different and reflect his or her readerly skills. I am not prescribing here readerly errors necessarily encountered by all readers of this text, but attempting to describe the process of revising expectations that Welty's text calls for, a process I will be somewhat overly deliberate about, slowing it down so that it can be discussed.
When a reader first meets Powerhouse's statement "'I got a telegram my wife is dead,'" he may wonder why Powerhouse, who should be mourning, is on stage. If he concentrates on Powerhouse's startling announcement, he may be too preoccupied to notice that the jazzman's story is told in a musical exchange:
"You know what happened to me?" says Powerhouse.
Valentine hums a response, dreaming at the bass.
"I got a telegram my wife is dead," says Powerhouse, with wandering fingers.
His mouth gathers and forms a barbarous O while his fingers walk up straight, unwillingly, three octaves.
"Gypsy? Why how come her to die, didn't you just phone her up in the night last night long distance?"
"Telegram say—here the words: Your wife is dead." He puts 4/4 over the 3/4.
"Not but four words?" This is the drummer, an unpopular boy named Scoot, a disbelieving maniac….
Little Brother, the clarinet player, who cannot now speak, glares and tilts back….
"What the hell was she up to?" Powerhouse shudders. "Tell me, tell me, tell me." He makes triplets, and begins a new chorus. He holds three fingers up.
"You say you got a telegram." This is Valentine, patient and sleepy, beginning again.
Powerhouse is elaborate. "Yas, the time I go out, go way downstairs along a long cor-ri-dor to where they puts us: coming back along the cor-ri-dor: steps out and hands me a telegram: Your wife is dead."
"Gypsy?" The drummer like a spider over his drums. (italics mine)
This passage introduces both the theme of Gypsy's death and the suspicion that Gypsy is not dead. A first-time reader meets it wondering how to understand Powerhouse's narrative-within-a-narrative. The temporarily obstructed reader, trying to make sense of Powerhouse's tale, may or may not notice and respond to the suggestive phrases that I have italicized. When a reader does focus on these lines, unexpected questions about the unconventionality of this passage arise. "Literary competence," the reader's conventional expectation, is leading the way here, and underlining the importance of Welty's unconventionality. When Powerhouse speaks with wandering fingers, is he literally speaking through his musical performance? His 4/4 over 3/4 and his triplets, not coincidentally, are the rhythms he develops in Gypsy's story. And when Scoot and Little Brother speak, are they speaking in turn as their performances allow and instruments direct? When Valentine begins again, is he beginning a variation on a musical theme? If a reader is attentive and recognizes the correspondence between Powerhouse's fiction and his music, what should he make of music that poses as narrative? Is Powerhouse's story perhaps the narrator's interpretation of his music as she listens intently to hear the performers' "least word, especially what they say to one another, in another language?" How many readers attend the text closely enough to ask these sorts of questions, and at what point in their reading process?
A reader's confusion about Powerhouse's narrative is explicitly invited to turn to skepticism when Scoot asks, "'Gypsy? Why how come her to die?'" Then a reader may be trapped for a time in Scoot's overly literal questions. Wanting to know if Gypsy is really dead, the reader asks a question that the story brushes aside. As his expectations for a literal truth are frustrated, he soon realizes that his is the wrong question, that he has been misdirected by his false expectation, and by Welty, who set up that expectation. His surprise, his obstructed expectation, may then unfold the fiction by leading him to ask why Powerhouse told the tale of Gypsy's death. Gradually, the answer to this question appears if the reader has been willing to follow Welty's text: Powerhouse's music and his story are two interactive elements in one composition on the theme of loneliness which itself is a joyful, creative means to counter it. Like Power-house, that person of joy who transforms the black devil stereotypes of his audience into a medium for self-expression, Welty maneuvers the expectations of her readers until they help her to create something of her own.
Welty leads her reader by indirect means to ask about the source of Powerhouse's art, about the truth of his fiction, about his need for an audience. She maneuvers the reader's own reactions—which are structured by the text, as Iser and Culler have suggested—until they create the meaning of the story, a meaning that exists in those reactions rather than in the text per se. She guides the reader with an experiment in point of view. The story's first, second, and fifth sections are told by a hypothetical someone in the audience at the dance. The third and fourth sections, however, seem to be related by a more privileged narrator who moves with Powerhouse through the rainy night. Or perhaps these sections represent the fantasy of the narrator in the audience, whose imagination responds to Powerhouse's art. Whatever the cause, the effect of the shift is clear. By shifting the point of view closer to Powerhouse, Welty moves the reader from the audience's view of him as a marvelous, but "vast and obscene" jazzman, to perception of the man behind that grotesque mask, the man who "seems lost—down in the song, yelling up like somebody in a whirlpool—not guiding [the band]—hailing them only." The shift moves the reader from the audience that views Powerhouse as alien, monstrous, "Asiatic, monkey,… devil," to membership in the elite who travel with Powerhouse and know his emotions and artistic strategies. In these sections of the story, the reader's privileged vision exceeds and frames that of the original narrator. The unexpected narrative shift reduces the distance between narrator and subject, and thus urges the reader into sympathy with Powerhouse and his creative need. This new relationship causes the reader to revise his first assessment and perhaps to realize that the meaning of the story was not disclosed in Powerhouse's fiction about Gypsy's death, but at the end of the first section when the narrator spoke cryptically of listening in order to learn "what it is"—that is, "what it is" that makes a performance great. In its way, the story has taught the reader himself to be a part of this thing, for if he has met the challenge of Welty's obstruction, he has become, like Little Brother and Valentine, part of an attentive, involved, cooperative, and loving audience.
Welty's style, then, urges a reader to attend the text, to be a reader responding to a writer. Her "obstructions," paradoxically, are a measure of her apprehension for successful interaction with her audience. Her misgivings about her readers' powers of receptivity, expressed here in fictional form, have also made themselves felt in her interviews and critical essays. I turn to these now to define more precisely Welty's attitude towards the reading encounter.
In her interviews and essays Welty has been warmly responsive to her best readers, and quick to say that—because of the help of such early supporters as Ford Madox Ford, Katherine Anne Porter, Robert Penn Warren, and her agent Diarmuid Russell—her work "has always landed safely and among friends." She has appreciated critical attention, named insights it has given her, and even remained tolerant of interpretations that seemed to her "far-flung" by remembering that a writer hopes to suggest all kinds of possibilities. As early as in "How I Write," she realized that a reader's commentary on a story "may go deeper than its object and more times around; it may pick up a story and waltz with it so that it's never the same," allowing that the waltz might be desirable, since the richness of fictional meaning is made over time and in more than one mind.
But Welty has also shown periodic and healthy exasperation with wrong-headed readers, an exasperation with their failure to meet her in her fictions. Then Welty seems to feel as if a portion of her audience is like Marion, the campfire girl in her story "A Visit of Charity," who set out to meet someone new but retreated when faced with the shock of encounter. In an interview with Henry Mitchell, Welty joked about ordering stationery printed with a ready response for misguided correspondents: "You Just Can't Get There From Here." A reader familiar with her occasionally disturbed reactions to requests that interpretations be confirmed might guess she had a reply to some of those letters in mind. Another such correcting reply is her essay entitled "Is Phoenix Jackson's Grandson Really Dead?" in which she responded to the "unrivaled favorite" question of her public, and quietly explained that their inquiry, like those that Scoot had made, was not relevant to "the truth of the story." Earlier, in her essay "The Reading and Writing of Short Stories," she had confessed to being "baffled" by rigid analyses of her stories. "When I see them analyzed—most usually 'reduced to elements'—sometimes I think, 'This is none of me.' Not that I am too proud to like being reduced, especially; but that I could not remember starting with those elements—with anything that I could so label." And in an interview with Charles Bunting, she expressed surprise that some of her readers had failed to respect her as an authority on her fictions:
I've had students write to me and say, "I'm writing a thesis to prove that The Golden Apples is a novel. Please send me…."… So I write back and say that it isn't a novel, I'm sorry. They go right ahead, of course. It doesn't matter with a thesis, I guess.
These comments all suggest Welty's mistrust of those readers who fail to meet her in her fiction. In "How I Write" she described this reader as suffering from too independent an imagination, which was also a failure of imagination. Perhaps resembling the technicians of Powerhouse's band, "studious and wearing glasses," he can seem "blind … ingrown and tedious" in his analyses because he thinks that "he is 'supposed' to see in a story … a sort of plant-from-seed development, rising in the end to a perfect Christmas tree of symmetry…." Unlike "the reader of more willing imagination … [who] may find the branchings not what he's expecting," this reader, she went on to comment in "Words Into Fiction," errs by replacing her "mystery" with his order:
… a body of criticism stands ready to provide [a] solution, which is a kind of translation of fiction into another language. It offers us close analysis, like a headphone we can clamp on at the U.N. when they are speaking the Arabian tongue….
A year or so of one writer's life has gone into the writing of a novel…. Does this not suggest that … words have been found for which there may be no other words?
This sort of approach to fiction, as Welty put it in a remark about Faulkner's critics, is "to tree it." She dislikes the desire to explain and restate fiction that "outside its own terms, which never were explanatory, no longer exists." Convinced that meaning is not excavated from a fiction like precious metals from rubble, but is an experience one has while reading, Welty has mocked the critical impulse to explanation, saying, "I was once asked to tell one of my stories in my own words." Unlike the critics who perturb her with their explications, she believes "great fiction … abounds in what makes for confusion…. It is very seldom neat, is given to sprawling and escaping from bounds, is capable of contradicting itself, and is not impervious to humor. There is absolutely everything in great fiction but a clear answer." "To make a work of the imagination out to be something in another category, that can be learned in capsule terms, as an algebraic, or mathematical formula, is," she argues, "not honest." Like Little Brother who feared that Powerhouse might lose his performance if he explained it, she does not trust explication. Instead, like her friend Ida M'Toy, she wants to be listened to with the whole attention, to have her "true words" remembered, and to warn us: "'Let her keep it straight, darling.'"
Welty's strategy, then, for shaping and educating the reader who substitutes his own words and meaning for hers is to temporarily hinder his progress through the work. Because he looks only "for his own process in reverse," and so is in some danger of never finding Welty in her own story, she delays his appropriation of it. Her style demands that he gain perspective on his own first impressions, and coerces him to become more familiar with the limited range of possibility that is the text. Welty wants her words, the order she has created, to be held; one important effect of her style is to keep the reader close to those words while he is temporarily uncertain how to convert them into any of his own. Welty would perhaps like her stories to be too complex for analysis; and interpretations of her fictions are, in fact, rarely able to recreate the process by which a reader understands them, although that process is, after all, where the pleasure of an encounter with her fiction rests.
When Welty writes criticism herself, her key words—mystery, passion, and love—are of the affective sort that make analysts nervous. But Welty is not speaking in vague generalizations when she discusses successful fiction as "love accomplished." Instead, she is outlining her expectations for her audience. What she wants from her reader is to have him find her and thereby know her. However, Welty is an author who thinks autobiographical revelations are largely irrelevant in a writer-reader exchange. Instead, the writer's project—at one level—is to transmute his or her essential, as opposed to merely real, self into fiction. When Welty praises other authors, she frequently writes of their presence in the text. For instance, Henry Green "is there at the center of what he writes, but in effect his identity has turned into the fiction. And while you the reader know nothing of Mr. Henry Green's life, as he has taken good care to see to, in the long run a life's confidence is what you feel you have been given." When Welty tells us that this writer lives in his work, that his fiction "should be read instead of some account of his life," she is expressing an oblique but genuine concern that her own fiction be an encounter.
In this reading encounter, Welty expects to move her readers towards an intuition of what Wayne Booth has called "the implied author," what I have called her essential self, a construct that readers infer from the "real" author's conscious and unconscious literary choices. These choices are what Welty refers to when she writes that it is "through the shaping of the work in the hands of the artist that you most nearly come to know what can be known, on the page, of … [him] as apart from the others." "The events of a story," she tells us, "may have much or little to do with the writer's own life; but the story pattern is the nearest thing to a mirror image of his mind and heart." "It's our perception of this ordering"—and here I find myself thinking of Welty's own ordering for obstruction—"that gives us our nearest understanding" of an author.
Welty expresses both what she hopes for and fears from interaction with her reader with a word that, in her comments and criticism, she repeatedly borrows from her photographer's vocabulary: "exposure." In her preface to One Time, One Place, she speaks of having first recognized her narrative goal of exposure—to record the divulging gesture, to disclose the inner secret concealed in the concrete and objective by framing it—while working with a camera. She "learned quickly enough when to click the shutter, but what [she became] aware of more slowly was a story-writer's truth: the thing to wait on, to reach there in time for, is the moment in which people reveal themselves." Welty seeks the perfect fictional exposure that will capture and convey her feeling and identity in words as a camera arrests a telling sign with the click of a shutter. Welty has argued that fiction, "whatever its subject, is the history itself of [the author's] life's experience in feeling," and should therefore be read with love. But like the young girl in her story "A Memory" whose experience of first love contained discoveries of separateness and vulnerability, Welty understands the complexity of the reading process perfectly well enough to dread the hazards of encounter. Consequently, she is somewhat anxious as she exposes her essential, rather than merely actual, self to her audience. She writes of her need for "exposure to the world," but also of "the terrible sense of exposure" that she feels when she suddenly sees her "words with the eyes of the cold public." She writes of exposure as a process that "begins in intuition and has its end in showing the heart that expected, while it dreads that exposure."
The challenge of exposing an essential self in fiction rests in manipulating the external realities of words and readers to bring it into being, and certainly the project is full of risk. The most unreliable factor is the reader: the author's attempt to create and communicate herself will fail if the reader does not receive her. Like Welty's character Clytie who peers into others' faces while looking for the one that is familiar—her own—Welty sets out to meet the reader in part to find herself. It is up to the reader to reflect back to her, mirror-like, the intelligence that glances off her fiction. For this reason, the reader who first misses Welty's intention, then recomposes her text along his own lines, and finally returns to her a stranger's face, is troublesome. Still, Welty relies on this audience because she can only judge her success at constructing herself in her fiction on the basis of its reception. Her essential self is the product of her fiction's reception—the presence that her careful readers come to know as imaginative and intelligent, observant and witty, sympathetic and sharp, quite vulnerable and yet experimental and daring.
Like Powerhouse, Welty risks giving all she has to an audience that perhaps will know no better than to feel ashamed for her self-exposure. She takes this risk with feelings of vulnerability offset by the self-confidence of an artist who understands her medium and knows quite a few ways to manage the reading encounter. "Exposing yourself to risk is a truth Miss Eckhart and I had in common," Welty remarks in a self-revealing line that draws a comparison between her own passion for her life's work and Miss Eckhart's "love of her art and … love of giving it." The risk involved here is in the "giving it," as when Miss Eckhart gave to Virgie Rainey who, like some headstrong reader, was fortunately taking even though she appeared to reject. At the end of One Writer's Beginnings, the autobiographical essay in which this line appears, Welty remarks, "I am a writer who came of a sheltered life. A sheltered life can be a daring life as well. For all serious daring starts from within." In these lines, I hear Welty noting the connectedness of as well as the distance between what I have called her real and essential selves. And I hear her rediscovering for herself and for us too the daring of imaginative wandering, of artistic experimentation, and of the risk she has taken when giving her fiction over to us, her readers.
Thinking about the range, publication history, and achievement of Welty's fiction, it seems possible that Welty's concern to reach her audience has affected the shape of her career. The very diversity of Welty's fiction reflects her address of different audiences and, perhaps implicitly, her exploration of the idea of audience itself. In the year when Welty discussed the potential chasm between writer and reader in "How I Write"—1955—she was already an author who had addressed a variety of audiences, a variety climaxed by the great distance between her easily accessible, democratic The Ponder Heart and her obscure, elitist The Bride of the Innisfallen, books that were published back-to-back in 1954 and 1955. And then, in 1955, there began a period which lasted for fifteen years and ended when she published The Optimist's Daughter and Losing Battles in rapid succession in 1969 and 1970. This period, sometimes inaccurately called a gap in her career, was a time when Welty wrote more than she published and experimented by reaching out to new audiences. It seems possible to me that these years reflect a productive reaction to her reader's initial failure to meet her in The Bride of the Innisfallen, a failure measurable through the cool response of her reviewers. Did Welty reconsider her address of her audience while postponing exposure as usual?
There is some evidence to support this possibility. First, during these years, Welty's publications addressed several new audiences in new ways. She published essays that clarified her attitude toward criticism, a children's book, The Shoe Bird, as well as two stories responding to the Civil-Rights crisis in Mississippi which developed private themes through less private subject matter than she had taken before. What she did not publish, but instead worked on over a period of ten years, was her central fictional project, Losing Battles. This project was quite different from The Bride of the Innisfallen and problematic to Welty for the same reason that the novel is highly accessible to readers; that is, it is built almost entirely on dialogue and action. Welty commented that because she felt she had "been writing too much by way of description, of introspection on the part of [her] characters, [she] tried to see if [she] could make everything shown." Then, before completing Losing Battles and offering it to her readers, she wrote her very personal The Optimist's Daughter and quickly published both books. Welty herself has pointed out that during these years she was nursing her failing mother and teaching for a year at Millsaps College—two events that of course changed her usual writing habits. Constrained, she took notes and wrote scenes for Losing Battles, tucking "them in a box, with no opportunity to go back and revise, but writing a scene anew instead of revising it, so that the work prolonged itself." "I … kept thinking of more and more scenes…. There were extra incidents, which told the same thing in different terms, different scenes, different characters." "I must have thrown away at least as much as I kept in the book…. I would write the scene out just to let [the characters] loose on something—my private show." Of course, speculation that this change in habit and project grew up partially in response to thoughts and feelings about meeting her readers is just that, speculation. But during these years, Welty did not offer more of her very personal, or obstructed fiction to her audience through publication. Instead, she grew in new ways and produced Losing Battles.
At the climax of this novel Jack Renfro is able to love Julia Mortimer and so to admit her to his family circle: "'I reckon I even love her,' said Jack, 'I heard her story.'" The familial model of author-audience interaction that this novel conveys is not at all beside the point. In her essay on Jane Austen, Welty pictures Austen "reading … chapters aloud to her own lively, vocative family, on whose shrewd intuition, practiced estimation of conduct, and seasoned judgment of character she relied almost as well as on her own." In that image, Welty imagines a perfect family circle as the ideal author-audience relationship. Jane Austen, Welty wrote, "must have enjoyed absolute confidence in an understanding reception of her work. [Her] novels still have a bloom of shared pleasure. And the felicity they have for us must partly lie in the confidence they take for granted between the author and her readers."
If Welty has a model of her own to offer to current theorizing about the writer-reader relationship, it is this confidential family. And the function of her sometimes obstructing style is to transform the willing stranger into a member of this inner circle. Welty's narrative obstacles can thus be understood as leading one to read for the sake of encounter rather than appropriation. It is the very process of unraveling difficulties that binds the successful reader to Welty with the thread of fiction; they come to share knowledge inaccessible to others who have not been so attentive, or sympathetic. As the division between reader and audience gradually dissolves, the reader is directed to complete the fiction along the lines that Welty imagined. Her obstruction of her reader's expectations more than reflects, it enacts her characteristic theme of love and separateness; it leads the reader to experience isolation and to discover communion.
In the interview I mentioned earlier, Joanna Maclay asked Eudora Welty "how [her] notion of the potential reader" affected what she did "to make [her] meaning clear." And Welty, who at first answered, "I don't know," ended by quoting Henry Green's remark: "Prose should be a long intimacy between strangers…." In the context of my discussion of Welty's "Powerhouse" and her view of reading, I hope that this response has come into focus as a photograph does when rising to exposure in a developer's tray, or as Welty's fictions can in the reading process. Welty, it seems, was writing about and with knowledge of the issues of the reader-response debate two decades before it gained attention, and by adding Welty's voice to the others quoted in this article, I add the writer's point of view.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4783
SOURCE: "The Metaphor of Race in Eudora Welty's Fiction," in The Southern Review, Vol. 22, No. 4, October, 1986, pp. 697-707.
[In the following essay, Marrs discusses certain aspects of African-American culture that Welty portrays in Delta Wedding and The Golden Apples including: "separateness despite intimate contact, a consequent and paradoxical freedom from white conventions, and a once common belief in ghosts and magic potions."]
During the 1930s and early 1940s Eudora Welty was almost as busy with her camera as with her typewriter. She photographed scenes and faces, tried to sell a book of her pictures, and gave a one-woman photographic show in New York City. A primary subject of these photographs was black life in Mississippi: a fortune teller in exotic costume, bottle trees designed to ward off evil spirits, a slave apron with a whole mythology stitched upon it, a black state fair parade, a "Colored Entrance" to a movie theater, black women wearing evening dresses or men's hats for their Saturday afternoon of shopping were all subjects for Welty the photographer. We might logically expect, therefore, black life to be an important element in Welty's fiction, and indeed it is. Although Welty's fictional world is not typically black—it is the white world she knew much more intimately—black characters appear as protagonists in four of her earliest stories. That fact has been widely discussed. Almost unnoticed, however, are the numerous black characters in Delta Wedding and The Golden Apples. The exclusion from white society, the folk beliefs, and the freedom from white social convention so often depicted in Welty's photographs of blacks are especially crucial in these works. Set in the Mississippi Delta where cotton was king and where large numbers of black field hands and household servants toiled, both works rely upon a supporting cast of black characters who are at once real and emblematic, telling us of "each other's wonder, each other's human plight."
In Delta Wedding the institutionalized and artificial separation of black and white serves to dramatize the less obvious but wholly inevitable separateness of each human being, a separateness which coexists with intimacy. The plantation-owning Fairchilds deal with their servants in a congenial fashion, white and black children play together, and Ellen Fairchild sees to the health and well-being of black servants. But these surface relationships mask a very deep separation. When the black matriarch Partheny is subject to spells of mindlessness, for instance, the Fairchilds are sympathetic, but they never see the tragic import of the spells. Partheny, whose seizures resemble those experienced by Jackson midwife Ida M'Toy, describes her latest spell to Ellen Fairchild:
"I were mindless, Miss Ellen. I were out of my house. I were looking in de river. I were standing on Yazoo bridge wid dis foot lifted. I were mindless, didn't know my name or name of my sons. Hand stop me. Mr. Troy Flavin he were by my side, gallopin' on de bridge. He laugh at me good—old Partheny! Don't you jump in dat river, make good white folks fish you out! No, sir, no, sir, I ain't goin' to do dat! Guides me home."
Partheny's "mindlessness" takes a particularly appalling form—she loses all sense of her identity. Mindlessness for Aunt Shannon Fairchild takes the form of senility, not of blackouts; she is able to "talk conversationally with Uncle Denis and Aunt Rowena and Great-Uncle George, who had all died no telling how long ago, that she thought were at the table with her." The white woman retreats into the past. Partheny doesn't know her own name or the names of her sons. She recalls no past. In fact, Partheny scarcely has a past of her own. Her life has been focused upon the Fairchilds. Her contact with the family has been close and affectionate: she attended Ellen Fairchild at the birth of daughter Shelley, was the nurse to several of Ellen's children, and assists in the final preparations for Dabney's wedding to Troy Flavin; Ellen Fairchild, similarly, has ministered to the ailing Partheny, provided her with Shellmound Plantation's old wicker furniture, and refused to criticize Partheny's appropriation of insignificant Fairchild possessions. But no other family members even think about Partheny except as she plays a role in family activities. They take her for granted, never questioning that her life should be devoted to them, never realizing that she has been denied a separate past of her own. Though they are more sensitive than Troy, the overseer who laughs as he stops Partheny from jumping into the Yazoo River, the Fairchilds' empathy for their servants is limited.
The expeditious and dispassionate way Troy deals with a fight in which Root M'Hook has cut two other black field hands more explicitly emphasizes Welty's theme of human separateness. Troy, of course, is not the stereotypical sadistic overseer, but Troy sees blacks only as workers, not as human beings. Troy's reaction to the fight is thus to deal only with the facts—he shoots and disarms M'Hook, but he never explores the reason for the blacks' violent confrontation. What role has Pinchy's religious fervor, her "coming through," played in their fight? The field hands suggest it precipitated the violence. How? Troy doesn't inquire, and Shelley Fairchild, who sees and disapproves of the way Troy handles this matter, is not interested in its cause. No one else in the family even hears of the incident. Having an overseer distances them from the blacks. Moreover, neither Troy nor Shelley responds as George had years before to a fight between two black boys. He stopped their knife fight, embraced them when they cried, asked their names, and sent them off unpunished. George cared and continues to care; he tries to break through barriers that separate him even from those outside the family. But George, who repeatedly defies convention, and Ellen, who goes to the "mindless" Partheny, are the only white adults capable of such actions.
Perhaps the novel's clearest representative of separation is Aunt Studney, an emblematic character even though her name, the mysterious sack she carries, and her unusual mannerisms were those of an actual woman (as Welty told the author in a conversation of November 1, 1985). She is as oblivious to the whites as they are to her—"Ain't studyin' you," she tells them. In a sense she mirrors their detachment; the white characters find her attitude to be eccentric, perhaps frightening, often amusing, but they do not see their own attitude toward her in similar terms. And though the Fairchilds study each other carefully, their study does not narrow the distance between them. Though they look "with shining eyes upon their kin," though "their abundance of love" comes forth in jests and teasing, there is much about each other that they do not or cannot or will not know. Welty's focus in Delta Wedding is thus upon separateness within the cohesive family. Dabney and Shelley have similar fears and concerns, though one is more emotional, the other more intellectual, but they never realize their common plight. Ellen struggles to understand her two daughters. George and Robbie love but are separated. These characters in some ways are as cut off from one another as Aunt Studney is from them all.
Despite the Fairchilds' distance from one another, the barriers between black and white provide them with occasions to assert family solidarity, occasions which George, to his family's dismay, refuses to act upon. Though she has moments when she wants to be like George, when she does not care if she is a Fairchild, Dabney recalls being shocked by George's behavior during the knife fight, for that fight is "something that the other Fairchilds would have passed by and scorned to notice." George's noticing tells Dabney that he loves "the world…. Not them! Not them in particular." Dabney wants, at least at times she wants, that sense of belonging, that assertion of group solidarity which comes when others are excluded. Racial barriers, it thus seems, both encourage the illusion of absolute unity and represent the inevitable separateness of individuals.
The significance of black characters, however, extends beyond the notion of separateness. Welty suggests that both Partheny and Aunt Studney recognize and accept the mysterious power of love and the fact of their own mortality. Their white counterparts, on the other hand, typically repress such knowledge. Dabney loves and immerses herself in that love, though "timid of the element itself," but Shelley fears such an immersion. And no one, Ellen realizes, save George and herself, sees "death on its way." The novel suggests, moreover, that these mysteries must be confronted intuitively; they cannot be explained or dealt with logically.
Patterns of imagery in the novel clearly link Partheny and Aunt Studney with a knowledge of love as well as death. Partheny in her mindless condition has almost plunged from the bridge into the Yazoo, literally the River of Death, and Partheny recognizes, without fear or horror, her near brush with death. But the Yazoo is as much an emblem of love as of death. It is the river into which George, clearly enchanted with his wife, once chased Robbie, and Partheny seems to have a special understanding of such passionate relationships. Knowing in some unaccountable way that George and Robbie have separated, she attempts to remedy that situation, sending George a magical patticake that will bring Robbie back to him. She tells Shelley: "You take dis little patticake to Mr. George Fairchild, was at dis knee at de Grove, and tell him mind he eat it tonight at midnight, by himse'f, and go to bed. Got a little white dove blood in it, dove heart, blood of a snake—things. I just tell you enough in it so you trus' dis patticake." In her knowledge of both love and death, Partheny is linked to Ellen Fairchild. Ellen thinks that George alone of his family sees "death on its way," but her recognition signifies her own knowledge of human mortality as well. And Ellen, whose love for her husband Battle, for her children, and for her brother-in-law George permeates the novel, is primarily responsible for the reconciliation of George and Robbie, the reconciliation Partheny had hoped to bring about.
Perhaps even more importantly, Ellen acts in the intuitive fashion that characterizes Partheny. Partheny's faith in the magical patticake serves as an emblem of Ellen's intuition. That intuition is seen most clearly in Ellen's prophetic dreams.
Ellen herself had always rather trusted her dreams. It was her weakness, she knew, and it was right for the children as they grew up to deride her, and so she usually told them to the youngest. However, she dreamed the location of mistakes in the accounts and the payroll that her husband—not a born business man—had let pass, and discovered how Mr. Bascom had cheated them and stolen so much; and she dreamed whether any of the connection needed her in their various places, the Grove, Inverness, or the tenants down the river, and they always did when she got there. She dreamed of things the children and Negroes lost and of where they were, and often when she looked she did find them, or parts of them, in the dreamed-of places. She was too busy when she was awake to know if a thing was lost or not—she had to dream it.
The novel shows us that Ellen's dreams are valid guides—Laura finds the garnet pin where Ellen has dreamed it will be. But most of the white characters tend not to rely on dreams, not to act on the basis of intuition. Shelley seeks to understand her life by thinking, by analyzing, though this approach leaves her helpless to understand the passion George and Robbie feel—she will not deliver Partheny's patticake to George. Neither does rational Shelley comprehend the meaning of death: "'River of Death' to Shelley meant not the ultimate flow of doom, but the more personal vision of the moment's chatter ceasing, the feelings of the day disencumbered, floating now into recognition…." Though the mystery of death never crosses her mind, Dabney is more open to passion. She loves Troy and describes her love as a river: "In catching sight of love she had seen both banks of a river and the river rushing between—she saw everything but the way down." Yet even Dabney has trouble seeing "the way down," has trouble trusting her intuition as a guide through uncharted territory. George, however, does not have this difficulty. He can fully accept mystery. He can, Ellen realizes with "the darker instinct of a woman," meet "a fate whose dealing out to him he would not contest," whether that fate be death or a seemingly inappropriate love. Thus, only Ellen, who nurses Partheny, and George, who grew up at Partheny's knee, trust their intuition absolutely.
Laura McRaven, the nine-year-old motherless girl, seems most destined to share the wisdom of George and Ellen. Laura, who has loved and lost her mother, is further initiated into the mysteries of love and death on her visit to the Fairchilds, and the enigmatic black woman Aunt Studney, as Carol Moore noted in this journal, plays a crucial role in that initiation. Laura and her cousin Roy journey by boat to Dabney's future home, Marmion, only to meet Aunt Studney carrying her mysterious sack. Aunt Studney, who lives beyond The Deadening, will not let the children look inside her sack. Though the location of Studney's home makes her seem an emblem of mortality, Roy believes her sack is the place "where Mama gets all her babies." And when Laura is plunged into the Yazoo River, these associations with both life and death are reiterated: "As though Aunt Studney's sack had opened after all, like a whale's mouth, Laura opening her eyes head down saw its insides all around her—dark water and fearful fishes." Laura, whose only previous "swims" have been in Jackson's Pythian Castle with the protection of water wings, is immersed in the river which has repeatedly been associated with the mysteries of love and death and which is now linked to Studney's sack. She placidly accepts this experience, and at the end of the novel she holds her arms "out to the radiant night." She is not disoriented by the unknown and unknowable. Laura, still a child of course, cannot achieve the kind of awareness that George and Ellen know; but Laura, who so much wants to belong to the Fairchild family, will be able to face life's transience and the consequent urgency to love, and she will not have to use the extended family as a shelter from those enigmas. Her decision to return to her father and to Jackson signifies as much.
Black characters in The Golden Apples are not so prominent as they are in Delta Wedding, but they are essential to the book's thematic development. Most basically, white attitudes toward blacks in these interrelated stories of Morgana, Mississippi, exemplify the white community's need to insulate itself and to believe in its self-sufficiency. When Miss Eckhart is attacked by a "crazy Negro" who pulls her down and threatens to kill her, the people of Morgana expect her to move away. They do not want to face the ugly memory of her rape, though Miss Eckhart herself seems to consider "one thing not so much more terrifying than another." White Morgana will not confront inevitable threats to community solidarity. These white citizens want a world they can control, and they certainly expect to be in control of blacks. They want blacks to be like Plez Morgan, "a real trustworthy nigger," the "real old kind, that knows everybody since time was." Plez is part of the community and assists in its protective deception of Miss Snowdie MacLain when her wandering husband comes home. Probably he does so out of affection for Snowdie; perhaps he also knows better than to intervene in white affairs. Whatever the case, Plez is a man the white community can patronize and cherish, but that community prefers to ignore black violence. The "crazy Negro" who attacks Miss Eckhart jeopardizes the community's illusion of control, an illusion which helps it to deny individual separateness and vulnerability.
Black violence is not the only black threat to community solidarity in The Golden Apples. More importantly, blacks are associated, often paired with white characters who are imaginative and unconventional wanderers. In "A Shower of Gold," Plez Morgan is the only person who sees King MacLain when he reappears one Halloween day, and it is Plez who constructs the story of King's return, even recounting an event that he could not have seen: "Plez said though he couldn't swear to seeing from the Presbyterian Church exactly what Mr. King was doing, he knows as good as seeing it that he looked through the blinds." Plez, the man who believes in ghosts and who toys with the idea that he has seen a ghost on Miss Snowdie MacLain's front porch, tells this story. Although Plez helps the community conceal King's visit from Miss Snowdie and although he serves white people faithfully, Plez can never be the social equal of whites. He thus is outside the restraints of Morgana society: King has broken free; Plez has been excluded. And like Plez, King is a man of imagination. King envisions the possibilities of life and leaves Morgana in quest of them. Plez's imagination wanders freely in realms of supernatural and natural events, unfettered by white rationalism. As a result, superstition seems an emblem of imagination in "A Shower of Gold."
In "Moon Lake" superstition does not play so central a role, but again black characters are free in mind, much freer than their white counterparts. They confront the realities of their world and accept its mysteries. Among the white girl campers at Moon Lake, the orphan Easter lives most intensely. When she sleeps, her hand is open to the night, to the unknown, to the mysterious. But Easter cannot swim and seeks to avoid Moon Lake where there is a chance of "getting sucked under, of being bitten, and of dying three miles away from home" and where Miss Moody sometimes goes out in a boat with "a late date from town." The lake holds out the possibilities of danger and romance—Easter's openness to experience is thus incomplete until she climbs to a diving board, is tickled on the foot, and makes a near fatal plunge into the lake. That initiation experience, which occurs in a series of humorous scenes with serious import, links Easter with the story's black characters and marks her as a wanderer. In the first place, the black boy Exum causes Easter to fall into the lake. Exum plays outdoors in the midday heat as the white girls are forbidden to do; he fishes in Moon Lake, swearing that he can catch an electric eel; and he wears a hat reminiscent of King MacLain's. Exum's freedom, his contact with realities from which the girls are sheltered (the heat, the mysterious lake), his blackness, all make him the appropriate character to prompt Easter's dive. It is not Exum, however, but the white Loch Morrison who then saves Easter. Nevertheless, Loch seems almost black to the girls in the camp. He swims in Moon Lake when all other white characters are indoors. He wears a bathing costume which looks "black and formal as a minstrel suit." And he lives "apart like the cook," a black servant. His rescue of Easter is thus metaphorically significant, for his experiences extend beyond the world of white Morgana with its organized camps and willful ignorance of life's mystery. Ironically, even in acting for the community as its lifeguard, Loch seems to defy its will. Miss Lizzie Stark associates his life-saving endeavors with sexual passion, an emotion that respectable Morgana fears but that neither Loch nor Easter seems destined to repress. Finally, once Easter has been rescued and revived, Twosie is the camp employee assigned to watch over her. It is Twosie who has heard an ominous warning in a bird's call and has asked, "Know why, in de sky, he say 'Spirit? Spirit?' And den he dive boom and say 'GHOST'?" And it is Twosie who tells the girls "Yawl sho ain't got yo' eyes opem good, yawl. Yawl don't know what's out here in woods wid you." Twosie's superstitious nature and her suggestion that the white girls are blind to reality make her the appropriate attendant for Easter. In a comic fashion, she shares the acceptance of mystery and recognition of danger that typify the story's black characters and that now fully typify Easter.
In "Music from Spain," Eugene MacLain has traveled far from Morgana and Moon Lake only to lead a very routine life in San Francisco. Three black characters, however, provide him with images of a freer life, a life as free as his father's and a life that Eugene, consequently, both desires and fears. Eugene's first encounter with a black occurs early in the story. Waiting for a stoplight to change, Eugene stands by an unusual woman: "There was such strange beauty about her that he did not realize for a few moments that she was birth-marked and would be considered disfigured by most people—by himself, ordinarily. She was a Negro or a Polynesian and marked as a butterfly is, over all her visible skin." As Eugene gazes at the woman, he senses "an almost palpable aura of a disgrace or sadness that had to be as ever-present as the skin is, of hiding and flaunting together." Eugene associates this black woman with both the freedom of the butterfly and an ever-present sadness. Welty here again suggests that her black characters are at once free from the confines of white society and oppressed by that society. The woman's "hiding and flaunting" are true to the general experience of blacks, and they are also true to the experience of Welty's wanderers, to the experience of those characters who are unwilling or unable to live according to a formula, who will not or cannot ignore the realities of time, loss, and loneliness, and who seek to live more intensely than convention would permit. Appropriately, then, Eugene believes the strangely beautiful Negress would make a fine mistress for the Spanish guitarist with red fingernails, but he does not think of her as his own mistress. Eugene allots beauty, sadness, defiance of convention to the Spaniard and protects himself.
Eugene's second encounter with blacks comes as he and the Spaniard take a streetcar. The conductor on the car is "a big fat Negro woman who yelled out all the street names with joy." When Eugene sees that the Spaniard is smiling at this woman and at other blacks on the car, he is upset: "Negroes would think he comprehended all their nigger-business." Eugene doesn't comprehend the joy, the plans for a two AM rendezvous at the Cat, the freedom of these characters. Even as he tries to break free from his structured life, Eugene retreats. The Spaniard, however, does understand this "nigger-business" and does share in its joys.
Finally, Eugene looks into a basement as he and the Spaniard walk through San Francisco. There he sees "a big colored woman plying the keys," and he thinks she must be a long way from home. He associates her with the old Negro in Morgana who in times of trouble has always walked into the Morgana store and asked the proprietor to play "Rocks in My Bed Number Two." Blacks, Eugene knows quite well, created the blues, a musical form which defines the black experience. Significantly, though, Eugene cannot hear the woman playing. Eugene himself has good reason to understand the blues; the death of his daughter Fan has been a devastating blow to him, but he and his wife Emma are unable to talk honestly, openly with each other about Fan's death. Not even music can help them to transform and transcend sorrow. Eugene cannot hear the blues, and he will ultimately return to Morgana as a broken and bitter man.
In "The Wanderers" blacks continue to be those characters who are at once most realistic and most imaginative. Juba, Mrs. Stark's maid who comes to help Virgie pack before leaving, is able to deal with realities Virgie still seeks to avoid, and Juba does so in the form of ghost stories. She tells Virgie, "I seen more ghosts than live peoples, round here. Black and white. I seen plenty both. Miss Virgie, some is given to see, some try but is not given. I seen that Mrs. Morrison from 'cross the road in long white nightgown, no head atall, in her driveway Saddy. Reckanize her freckle arms. You ever see her? I seen her here. She die in pain?" Juba may not consciously know that Mrs. Morrison has suffered from white Morgana's life of Rook parties, speakings, and recitals, but Juba does know that despair drove Mrs. Morrison to suicide. Her vision of the ghost reflects that knowledge just as her vision of Katie Rainey "lyin' up big on a stuff davenport like a store window, three four us fannin' her" suggests the serenity Katie Rainey had achieved. But Virgie is not ready even now to confront Mrs. Morrison's pain or her mother's death. She turns on Juba and accuses the absent Minerva of having stolen silver-headed Katie's yellow hair switch and the Raineys' baby clothes. In these petty and meaningless thefts, Virgie sees the loss of her past. She lashes out and sends Juba away. Juba, however, understands the emotion behind this outburst and returns to tell the sobbing Virgie: "That's right. Cry. Cry. Cry."
At least partially because of Juba, Virgie comes to recognize that her mother is gone and that in human transience lies life's one "irreducible urgency." Her departure from Morgana is not a retreat, but the beginning of a quest. At age forty, having wasted years of her own life and having lost her entire family to death, Virgie recognizes what the piano teacher Miss Eckhart had offered her so long ago. Seven miles from Morgana in the town of MacLain, she sits on a stile in front of the courthouse, thinks of Miss Eckhart with love, not hate, and knows the meaning of "the Beethoven" and of the picture on Miss Eckhart's studio wall: "Every time Perseus struck off the Medusa's head, there was the beat of time, and the melody. Endless the Medusa, and Perseus endless." Virgie has absorbed the hero, the victim, and the music. No longer does she avoid facing the realities of time, loss, separateness. No longer does she lash out at those who call these realities to mind. When a woman carrying a red hen sits next to her, Virgie thinks of this woman as "the old black thief," perhaps recalling her verbal attack on Minerva but certainly identifying herself with this woman's resolve to survive, to wrest from time all that she can. Virgie accepts the companionship of the woman, and together they hear "the magical percussion, the world beating in their ears." They hear "through falling rain the running of the horse and bear, the stroke of the leopard, the dragon's crusty slither, and the glimmer and the trumpet of the swan." The world of myth, of art, of intuition, of superstition leads to knowledge—a knowledge of love and death which Virgie finally and completely accepts. And her new awareness is marked by the presence of the old black woman, a character who might have seemed a stereotypical chicken-stealing darky to most of Morgana's white citizens, but who for Welty and Virgie is an emblem of courageous striving.
Three realities of black existence in the South are thus crucial to Eudora Welty's achievement in Delta Wedding and The Golden Apples. Separateness despite intimate contact, a consequent and paradoxical freedom from white conventions, and a once common belief in ghosts and magic potions—these aspects of black culture Welty vividly conveys. But she also uses these aspects of black life to develop her major themes, themes which extend to all life. Welty's accurate depiction of black life is a metaphoric one as well, suggesting the inescapable nature of human isolation, the courage and triumph and pain involved in an independent existence, the limitations of reason, and the validity of intuition. Throughout her fiction Welty has succeeded in "making moments double upon themselves, and in the doubling double again." Nowhere is this more true than in Delta Wedding and The Golden Apples. Events involving black characters in these works are typically double, and the works are rich and complex as a result.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7303
SOURCE: "Eudora Welty's Dance with Darkness: The Robber Bridegroom," in The Southern Literary Journal, Vol. XX, No. 2, Spring, 1988, pp. 51-68.
[In the following essay, Harrell Carson discusses the integration of fairy tale and history in Welty's The Robber Bridegroom.]
The nature and purpose of the relationship between fairy tale and reality in Eudora Welty's The Robber Bridegroom has been discussed since the earliest reviews. In what is probably the most perceptive long critical analysis of the work, Michael Kreyling has seen in the mixture of fairy tale and history an expression of the tension between pastoral dream and capitalistic reality in America. It is possible, however, to view the work in a larger metaphysical scheme—one which suggests that the moral weight of the tale comes down on the side of recognizing and accepting the unity of contraries in life, not in choosing one pole of a pair of opposites (such as pastoralism over capitalism) at the expense of the other. In this reading, we can see in the collision of fairy tale and history the tension between the human impulse to simplify life, on the one hand, and, on the other, life's insistent complexity.
Indeed, the folk fairy tale that Welty incorporated into her story is grounded on the child's need for simplicity. As Bruno Bettelheim writes:
The figures in fairy tales are not ambivalent—not good and bad at the same time, as we are in reality. But since polarization dominates the child's mind, it also dominates fairy tales. A person is either good or bad, nothing in between. One brother is stupid, the other is clever. One sister is virtuous and industrious….
The child cannot handle the grandmother's crabby moments, so she sees the mean grandmother as the wolf, the nice one as the object of Red Ridinghood's charitable visit. She avoids direct confrontation with her own double nature in stories such as "Sister and Brother," in which her undisciplined self, projected as her brother-companion, is turned into a fawn. In The Robber Bridegroom, the characters attempt to sustain the child's simple vision of human nature, while life works inexorably to introduce them to its doubleness. In this way, Welty's novel is about the lesson needed to move us from the child's world to the adult's, from a fairy tale vision of life to a philosophically, psychologically, and historically corrected outlook.
The ontology of this corrected vision is based on the old principles of concordia discors and coincidentia oppositorum. Reality is not an either/or matter, but is created by the dynamic tension of co-existing opposites. The challenge of life is thus not choosing between opposites—joy or sorrow, true or false, beginnings or endings, life or death—but coming to see a whole in which both poles are as inseparably united, as interdependent as the two poles of a magnet.
In Welty's The Robber Bridegroom Clement Musgrove's journey from his blissful home in Kentucky into the Mississippi wilderness is itself a trip from fairy tale to reality. Anthony Steven's analysis of the expulsion from the Garden of Eden applies to Clement's move: the loss of paradise, Steven says, is "a parable of the emergence of ego-consciousness, and the replacement of harmonious unity with the conflicts born of awareness of opposing categories of experience (e.g., good and evil, love and hate, pleasure and pain)." However, Welty's characters will learn a lesson opposite Adam and Eve's. While life in Eden was possible only in the presence of one of the paired opposites (good, love, pleasure) and while Judeo-Christian teachings urge a similar either/or morality in life outside of Eden, in the world Welty presents life can only be lived fully with the acknowledgement of the harmony to be found in the coexistence of the contraries.
In The Robber Bridegroom nature itself bears witness to the cosmic reality of concordia discors, contrasting vividly with the human desire to see everything in either/or terms. When Jamie Lockhart (the gallant who is also the robber) leaves Clement Musgrove's house after he has failed to recognize in Clement's daughter Rosamond the girl who attracted him in the woods, he enters a natural world whose complexity adumbrates the reality that he avoids. He rides "in the confusion of the moonlight, under the twining branches of trees…." The next day when Rosamond, who has likewise failed to recognize in Jamie the bandit she found so charming, sets out to find her highwayman, she enters the same forest, that old literary symbol for a mind on the threshold of self-knowledge—and, hence, knowledge of the reality into which the self fits. Although she does not realize it at the time, the perceptual confusion she experiences as she penetrates the forest (mistaking the gentle for the cruel, the animal for the human, the predator for the defenseless) hints of the overlapping and intertwining nature of reality:
On and on she went, deeper and deeper into the forest, and its sound was all around. She heard something behind her, but it was only a woodpecker pecking with his ivory bill. She thought there was a savage there, but it was a deer which was looking so hard at her. Once she thought she thought she heard a baby crying, but it was a wildcat down in the cane.
By the end of the tale she will have learned that other categories that she had also thought to be mutually exclusive are, after all, not so clearcut.
Jamie Lockhart experiences a similar illumination. He is The Robber Bridegroom's best exemplar both of the impulse to simplify one's sense of self and one's responses to others, as well as of the need to move toward acceptance of the self's polar reality. Jamie's first conversations with Clement reveal his desire for a life without complications. When Clement confesses his own perpetual guilt before his second wife Salome, Jamie replies: "Guilt is a burdensome thing to carry about in the heart…. I would never bother with it." To this Clement replies: "Then you are a man of action,… a man of the times, a pioneer and a free agent. There is no one to come to you saying 'I want' what you do not want." Things will change for Jamie in the course of Welty's story. But at its start, he has tried neatly to partition his life, seeing himself as alternately the bandit or the gentleman, never admitting that his reality includes simultaneously both identities. When, at their first formal meeting, he fails to recognize Rosamond as the same beautiful girl he met in the woods, it is not only because she is now ragged and dirty, but also because "it was either love or business that traveled on his mind, never both at once, and this night it was business." However, when Clement offers his daughter as a reward if Jamie captures the bandit who stole her clothes, Jamie is repulsed—in spite of the attraction of the dowry that is an unspoken part of the deal—because this "man of enterprise" actually incarnates (without being aware of it) human concordia discors, combining within self the contradictory qualities of the romantic and the materialist. Welty writes that "in his heart" Jamie "carried nothing less than a dream of true love—something of gossamer and roses, though on this topic he never held conversation with himself, or let the information pass to a soul…." Later, when his robber band chides him for staying with Rosamond during the daytime (he had always before confined romance to night and devoted the day to banditry), he halfway draws his dirk in self-defensive protest: "For he thought he had it all divisioned off into time and place, and that many things were for later and for further away, and that now the world had just begun."
Jamie's challenge is to bring into conversation the two sides of himself, accepting his complex reality. Ironically, the innocent Clement voices most clearly the truth of this polarity, when Rosamond visits him after her "marriage" to Jamie. He says:
'If being a bandit were his breadth and scope, I should find him and kill him for sure…. But since in addition he loves my daughter, he must be not the one man, but two, and I should be afraid of killing the second. For all things are double, and this should keep us from taking liberties with the outside world, and acting too quickly to finish things off.'
It is strangely appropriate in a world where apparent opposites meet that kind-hearted Clement shares this awareness of doubleness with the villains of the piece. In fact, while the innocent planter has only abstract insight into the mingled identity of Rosamond's robber lover, the evil Salome and the Little Harp have specific evidence that Jamie Lockhart and the outlaw are one. At their first meeting, Salome sees the berry stains behind Jamie Lockhart's ear; Little Harp sees Jamie with only a partially stained face after Jamie, interrupted as he began to disguise himself, runs to aid Goat's sister, whom Little Harp had decided to kill instead of marry. Little Harp gloats: "Aha, but I know who you are too…. Your name is Jamie Lockhart and you are the bandit in the woods, for you have your two faces on together and I see you both."
Salome and Little Harp on the one hand and Clement on the other demonstrate two responses to an awareness of human complexity. Clement shows that an appreciation of the full instead of the partial human being can lead to compassion and to patience with life's unfolding. He shows, too, that understanding of the doubleness of others can illuminate dark areas of one's own life. His speech about Jamie's doubleness includes this startling bit of self-examination:
'All things are divided in half—night and day, the soul and body, and sorrow and joy and youth and age, and sometimes I wonder if even my own wife has not been the one person all the time, and I loved her beauty so at the beginning that it is only now that the ugliness has struck through to beset me like a madness.'
The trick in human relationships that Clement has not applied to his own wife and that Jamie and Rosamond must discover is to see the different "sides" of personalities simultaneously and not sequentially.
For Salome and Little Harp, however, knowledge of Jamie's dual self leads neither to compassion nor to self-knowledge. For them it is the basis for their powerplay over Rosamond and Jamie. Salome's and Little Harp's relations to others have their own kind of simplicity: they use them. That Rosamond and Jamie—both of whom deny one side of their identity—are such easy victims implies the vulnerability that accompanies attempted retreats to a simple identity. Paradoxically, however, that very vulnerability contains the seeds for human growth: only when they are forced to confront their duplex identities can Rosamond and Jamie experience life's fullness of sorrow and joy.
On the other hand, Salome and Little Harp illustrate the self-destruction that accompanies inviolate one-sidedness. If Clement is right that Salome is really the other side of his first wife Amalie (their names are practically anagrams), ugly now and hardened since the murder of their son by Indians, Salome has denied so totally the gentle, loving side of her self that she has become stonelike. At one point Welty writes: "… Rosamond did not think the trickery went so deep in her stepmother that it did not come to an end, but made her solid like an image of stone in the garden…." Salome's singlemindedness leads to her capture by the Indians: "… her eye, from thinking of golden glitter, had possibly gotten too bright to see the dark that was close around her now." Her coldly determined self-sufficiency leads to her destruction. When Goat, who has come to free her from the Indians, asks why she is crying, she screams: "I am not crying!… Be gone! I need no one!" And so he leaves her. Brought before the Indians, she claims the power to command the sun. "Shaking both fists in the smoky air," she proclaims, "No one is to have power over me!… No man, and none of the elements. I am by myself in the world!" And she dances to her death, alone, ordering the sun to retire.
Little Harp also demonstrates that nothing is potentially so destructive as single vision—viewing self or other through a single lens. Having reduced himself merely to the violent outlaw—the shadow self of Jamie Lockhart's bandit persona—Little Harp dies when he declares the death of both Big Harp and the bandit Jamie Lockhart. (His plan was to keep the reward offered for Big Harp's head when it was mistaken for Jamie's). Little Harp, like Salome, asserts that he alone is in control: "… the Little Harp rules now. And for the proof of everything, I'm killing you now with my own two hands." Instead, of course, Jamie kills him. Only in death does Little Harp reveal the other, feeling side of himself he had denied in life: "The Little Harp, with a wound in his heart, heaved a deep sigh and a tear came out of his eye, for he hated to give up his life as badly as the deer in the woods."
However, while Little Harp's death, like Salome's, implies the deadness even in life of those who develop and recognize only one part of the self, the central significance of Little Harp's murder seems to lie in its symbolizing the death of Jamie's bandit self. Yet even this is not as simple as it first appears. We recognize as clearly as Jamie did that Little Harp represents the violent, outlaw side of Rosamond's handsome lover. While we, like Rosamond, actually see in action only the dashing Lochinvar/Robin Hood side of Jamie, Welty is careful to remind us of the more somber business of his profession. The first intimation takes the comic form of Mike Fink's obvious fear of Jamie: whoever can bring a tremor to that he-bull, he-rattle-snake, he-alligator of a flatboatman must be some sort of a he-terror himself. When Mike Fink's ominously croaking raven sits easily on Jamie's finger "as though there it belonged," we assume Jamie is at home, too, with Mike Fink's grimmer activities. (Fink has, after all, just had a hearty go at beating Jamie and Clement to death with a floorboard.) Less laughter accompanies the next clue to the reality of Jamie's life as an outlaw, one he himself furnishes when he broadly hints to Clement—almost as if he wished to give himself away—about the parallels between the Indians robbing Clement and Jamie's own banditry. Further inside the nested boxes of The Robber Bridegroom are even darker reminders of the non-fairytale quality of robbers' lives. When Jamie first encounters Little Harp and tries to kill him, he instinctively recognizes their shared identity. Welty writes:
He half pulled out his little dirk to kill the Little Harp then and there. But his little dirk, not unstained with blood, held back and would not touch the feeble creature. Something seemed to speak to Jamie that said, 'This is to be your burden, and so you might as well take it.'
So the Little Harp moves into Jamie's hideout, raping and killing the Indian girl in the same house where Jamie lives with Rosamond, whom he had abducted, too (though, in a fairy tale layer of the story, with her loving compliance). In the death of the Indian girl we are about as far as we can get from lighthearted innocence and from gay, soaring dreams without nightmares. And Jamie's character is here revealed as far from the fairy tale Prince Charming. To Jamie's outlaw band, Little Harp declares, "… your chief belongs to me!… He is bound over to me body and soul…." Although Jamie throws him out, he knows that "he'll be back with me tomorrow." Even Rosamond comes close to acknowledging the real life of her lover when she admits to Salome that Jamie still brings home to her fine dresses and petticoats—obviously from other women he has accosted and possibly raped.
As the book moves away from its dark center, Jamie resolves comically the problems that have been generated by his keeping the two parts of his self in isolation. However, the solution is not actually the death of his robber side, as the death of Little Harp may seem at first to imply. To think that the robber in Jamie dies completely is to miss the whole point of the theme of doubleness, of the necessary and valuable reality of human psychological polarity. It is also to miss a good joke. Jamie becomes a rich merchant, the perfect way to be both a gentleman and a highwayman. As Welty tells us: "… the outward transfer from bandit to merchant had been almost too easy to count it a change at all, and he was enjoying all the same success he had ever had." Thus the death of Little Harp signals, not the death of Jamie's robber self, but his acceptance of integration of the two poles of self into one whole. New Orleans is the perfect setting for this integration, since it too brings into concord apparent opposites: "Beauty and vice and every delight possible to the soul and body stood hospitably, and usually together, in every doorway and beneath every palmetto by day and lighted torch by night. A shutter opened and a flower bloomed." Here, Jamie—now a man of feeling as well as a man of action, and no longer quite so free of the wants of others—lives the wisdom he has come to, his heroic vision: "But now in his heart Jamie knew that he was a hero and had always been one, only with the power to look both ways and to see a thing from all sides." In Welty's moral scheme the willingness to take this Janus-like perspective is itself heroic.
Jamie is not the only character with two faces in The Robber Bridegroom. Almost everyone has either a double identity or a personality made up of contradictory elements, making it difficult for us easily to pass judgment on or finish anyone off. The "evil" characters seem evil precisely because—and to the extent that—they refuse to acknowledge their complexity, a refusal that reduces them to one-dimensional fairy tale villains in their evaluations of themselves and in their relationship to others. But Welty insists that the reader see virtue even in the villains. So the Little Harp turns out in his death to have human feelings; so Salome and Amalie are two halves of an unrecognized whole. The loudmouthed, murderous Mike Fink of the first part of the tale is also the timorous, ghost-bedeviled mail rider of the conclusion (and even in the opening scene he has such a queasy stomach that he covers his eyes and feels rather than looks at the ruin he thinks he has brought Clement and Jamie, a comic introduction to Welty's idea that all people are double). Later, we see the stupid Goat moved to tears by Rosamond's song and the pitiless Indians feeling pity for Clement. We end up feeling strangely ambivalent even about Salome, whose defiance of all in heaven or on earth demands a kind of admiration as well as scorn.
However, next to Jamie, the character whose doubleness is most fully developed is Rosamond. She is both the spoiled daughter of a rich planter and the self-sacrificing lover of the bandit of the woods. While she has the fairy tale attributes of Gretel, Cinderella, and Snow White (her name, Rose of the World, is close to the generic naming of fairy tales), she is unlike them in being far from the one-sided, virtuous, long-suffering, passive maiden of fairy tales. She is "a great liar" from whose mouth lies fall as naturally as jewels from the lips of fairy princesses. She is also as sexually awakened as Snow White is innocent of all conscious sexuality. Rosamond has had fantasies of abduction and is coolly self-possessed when she is accosted by the outlaw Jamie ("… Rosamond … had sometimes imagined such a thing happening, and knew what to say"). In fact, it seems to be Rosamond who entices Jamie in their first encounter. "Well, then I suppose I must give you the dress … but not a thing further." When Jamie takes even her petticoats, she spends no time worrying about the precarious state of her virtue, but instead wonders "how ever she might look without a stitch on her." And when Jamie offers her a choice between being killed and going home naked, she shows no stupid fairy tale preference for honor over life, asserting, "Why, sir, life is sweet … and before I would die on the point of your sword, I would go home naked any day." Returned home, she acquiesces in Salome's orders that she work like a scullery maid, finding in her subservience freedom from others' pleasures and plans for her—a neat instance of coincidentia oppositorum in personal relations. The next day, she returns to the forest of her own free will, giving Jamie the opportunity to take what he had left her the day before—a step that will lead to the very unfairytale-like predicament of her pregnancy.
After she begins to live with her robber lover, her psychological state also bears witness to the real-life adult's need for the state of tension created by the simultaneity of apparent contraries. In the robber's cottage, she is perfectly happy, we are told, except that "she had never seen her lover's face. But then the heart cannot live without something to sorrow and be curious over." So even the happiness of love is incomplete without sorrow, which passes in the world of the simple as totally alien to love.
Rosamond's doubleness is even more complexly present in her difference from and similarity to Salome. At first the two seem absolute opposites. An early description establishes their contrast: "For if Rosamond was as beautiful as the day, Salome was as ugly as the night…." But as in the case of the yin-yang principle, Salome and Rosamond share points of contact and dynamic exchange. Like so many opposites in Welty's fiction, these two begin to reveal their similarities, especially after Rosamond is initiated into love, that business so likely to introduce us to life's complicated reality. It is probably not so much ironic as appropriate in a world where opposites meet that the place where Jamie first made love to Rosamond is the same place where Clement had married Salome: "… there under the meeting trees at the edge." When Rosamond tells her father and stepmother of her marriage to the bandit, Salome senses her kinship with Rosamond: "… at that moment the stepmother gave Rosamond a look of true friendship, as if Rosamond too had got her man by unholy means." And when Salome voices the doubts that Rosamond feels about her lover's identity, "Salome drew so close to Rosamond that they could look down the well and see one shadow, and whispered in her ear…." She is as surely Rosamond's shadow self as the Little Harp is Jamie's. Thus it is fitting that Salome die when Rosamond moves toward integration of the parts of her self, just as Little Harp does when Jamie starts on a similar path.
The attitude toward life conveyed by The Robber Bridegroom is as double as Jamie's and Rosamond's identities are. It parallels the splicing of the fairy tale tone to the real horrors of murder, rape, and other savage doings that fill the story. In The Robber Bridegroom Welty has given us a story about which we could write precisely what she wrote about Chekhov's stories:
Yet—Chekhov goes on to say—'Life is terrible and marvelous, and so, however terrible a story you tell in Russia, however you embroider it with nests of robbers, long knives and such marvels, it always finds an echo of reality in the soul of the listener…. [Real life] was of itself so marvelous and terrible that the fantastic stories of legend and fairy tale were pale and blended with life.'
Terrible and marvelous—that is the estimation of life Welty gives us in The Robber Bridegroom. ("Life is sweet," Rosamond has said, even as she is being robbed; her name, "rose of the world," implies in the old image of flower and thorns both the beauty and pain of life.) It is a perspective very like the Buddhist outlook described by Joseph Campbell in Myths to Live By:
'All life,' said the Buddha, 'is sorrowful'; and so, indeed, it is. Life consuming life: that is the essence of its being, which is forever a becoming. 'The world,' said the Buddha, 'is an ever-burning fire.' And so it is. And that is what one has to affirm, with a yea! a dance! a knowing, solemn, stately dance of the mystic bliss beyond pain that is at the heart of every mythic rite.
The Robber Bridegroom is one of Welty's dances, acknowledging this insight—not stately so much as spritely, a laugh and a hurrah in the face of horror. And the horror is very much acknowledged, even in this tale so widely read as light-hearted entertainment. The undertone of horror accompanying the wonder of life is introduced early in the story. The first paragraph ends with the declaration, "the way home through the wilderness was beset with dangers," creating a sense of the threats that surround and (if we remember the symbolism of the wilderness) live within the human psyche. The theme of human cruelty to other humans is introduced in the first chapter. The first two innkeepers Clement encounters have lost ears for horse stealing and cock-fighting. While their cropped ears seem funny at the outset, deeper inside the tale we realize that the mutilation of the criminals is but a societally sanctioned version of the mutilation of the Indian girl by Little Harp. Then, after the slapstick attempt by Mike Fink to kill Clement and Jamie, we are chilled with the almost sickening tale of the treatment of Clement's party by their Indian captors. Humiliation, torture, murder have left Clement with "less than nothing." Not a funny story, it is hard for readers to bear because we know that every act of cruelty detailed by Clement has been perpetrated by one human on another, again and again, around the world, throughout history.
Indeed, for all the rollicking gaiety of its surface, The Robber Bridegroom presents one of Welty's darkest visions of reality, a darkness intensified by Clement's perception of a cosmic horror in which humans appear as "little mice" in a life seen as "a maze without end." Psychological forces are as mysterious as the powers of nature. Clement cannot even remember why he came into the wilderness; all he knows is that "there was a great tug at the whole world, to go down over the edge,… and our hearts and our own lonely will may have had nothing to do with it." Just as frightening as the mystery of causality is the uncontrollable domino effect of human actions (yet another expression of the tangled nature of reality). Jamie determines to rescue Rosamond, saying, "… when I went off and left her, I had no idea what a big thing would come of it." In spite of this recognition, however, human will is ineffectual in fighting life's horror. It is not Jamie who rescues Rosamond, but the stupid Goat. And when Clement, uncharacteristically moved from passivity, determines to rescue his daughter himself, he ends up wrestling all night with a monster that turns out to be a willow tree. If this were not a comedy, protected by its fairy tale wrappings, a character like Clement would surely be driven mad by the cruel, senseless, and overpowering forces of life that assail him. Hearing that the gentleman he trusted to rescue his daughter is the bandit who stole her clothes, her honor, and her heart, he forgets his own wisdom about life's doubleness and retreats into the forest (the appropriate place for encounters with horrors within and without), demanding exactness from a world that will not furnish it:
'What exactly is this now?… Wrath and love burn only like campfires. And even the appearance of a hero is no longer a single and majestic event like that of a star in the heavens, but a wandering fire soon lost. A journey is forever lonely and parallel to death, but the two watch each other, the traveler and the bandit, through the trees. Like will-o-the-wisps the little blazes burn on the rafts all night, unsteady beside the shore. Where are they even so soon as tomorrow? Massacre is hard to tell from the performance of other rites, in the great silence where the wanderer is coming. Murder is as soundless as a spout of blood, as regular and rhythmic as sleep. Many find a skull and a little branching of bones between two floors of leaves. In the sky is the perpetual wheel of buzzards. A circle of bandits counts out the gold, with bending shoulders more slaves mount the block and go down, a planter makes a gesture of abundance with his riding whip, a flatboatman falls back from the tavern door to the river below with scarcely time for a splash, a rope descends from a tree and curls into a noose. And all around again are the Indians.
'Yet no one can laugh or cry so savagely in this wilderness as to be heard by the nearest traveler or remembered next year. A fiddle played in a finished hut in a clearing is as vagrant as the swamp breeze. What will the seasons be, when we are lost and dead? The dreadful heat and cold—no more than the shooting star.'
Love and wrath, massacres and mysteries, bandits and slaveowners, music and a swamp breeze—all become equal in insignificance before the rolling seasons, and the only solace seems to be a recognition of the transcience and insignificance of everything. Clement could be the prophet of Ecclesiastes crying out on the vanity of life. As he watches Salome going to her death, he looks at the faces of the surrounding Indians and thinks: "The savages have only come the sooner to their end; we will come to ours too. Why have I built my house, and added to it? The planter will go after the hunter, and the merchant after the planter, all having their day."
The monstrous, self-devouring quality of life is captured in Clement's musings, but clearly this is only the dark center of Welty's tale. For while Clement's thoughts imply the question, "If this is what life is like, why go on?", go on he does. And he can go on, and Rosamond and Jamie can too, because they glimpse something of the whole of Welty's insight. Her story unites a confrontation with the monstrousness of life with a recognition of its wonder, a vision that transforms wandering in a maze into a dance. This evaluation of life is very similar to that reflected in the Hindu legend about the God Shiva. Confronted by a demon demanding that Shiva hand over his wife, the world-goddess Parvati, Shiva hit the earth with lightning and created a new demon which he commanded to eat the first. The first demon threw himself on Shiva's mercy and was forgiven. Bound by the god's original order, the second demon asked, "What shall I eat now?" To which Shiva replied, "Well, let's see: why not eat yourself." And so the demon began, eating its own feet, belly, chest, neck. Joseph Campbell, who tells the story charmingly, continues:
And the god, thereupon, was enchanted. For here at last was a perfect image of the monstrous thing that is life, which lives on itself. And to that sunlike mask, which was now all that was left of that lionlike vision of hunger, Shiva said, exulting, 'I shall call you Face of Glory, Kirttimukha, and you shall shine above the doors to all my temples. No one who refuses to honor and worship you will come ever to knowledge of me.'
The obvious lesson of all of which is that the first step to the knowledge of the highest divine symbol of the wonder and mystery of life and its glory in that character: the realization that this is just how it is and that it cannot and will not be changed…. So if you really want to help this world, what you will have to teach is how to live in it. And that no one can do who has not himself learned how to live in it the joyful sorrow and sorrowful joy of the knowledge of life as it is.
It is in the teaching of how to live in such a world that Welty's tale offers help for travellers in life's wilderness, alive as it is with Indians, outlaws, and wild animals. She has no secret to make the threats go away, but she knows what will help us live with the horrors surrounding us. Surely part of her "program" is the recognition of the doubleness of life that the book reveals, an awareness of its marvelous as well as its terrible side.
The second part of Welty's strategy for survival is the old one: to have someone to love may make the world seem less terrifying, even if it does nothing to change objective reality. Clement suggests the power of love when he laments: "My wife will build a tower to overlook the boundaries of her land, while I ride its woods and know it to be a maze without end, because my love is lost in it." It is the lost love that makes the world seem a maze.
However, Welty makes clear that the mere physical presence of the loved one is not enough for sustained solace. Even though Rosamond lies by Jamie's side, "she would look out the window and see a cloud put up a mask over the secret face of the moon, and she would hear the pitiful cries of the night creatures. Then it was enough to make her afraid, as if the whole world were circled by a band of Indian savages…." And her fear all wells from the fact that in spite of her study of Jamie's face "she did not know the language it was written in." For love to alleviate the night terrors of existence, it must be love of a whole self by a whole self. That full achievement of this lies beyond human achievement is life's eternal tragedy. However, the closer we approach it, the more effective will be love's protection. Rosamond and Jamie have consummated their love, but each recognizes only half of the other's identity. It is this that makes theirs a false marriage, not just the drunken priest who performed the ceremony.
The desire to push beyond the view of life as simplex, into knowledge of its real multiplicity Welty identified as the motivation behind the plot in The Robber Bridegroom. The truth in the story, she wrote, lies in the need "to find out what we all wish to find out, exactly who we are, and who the other fellow is, and what we are doing here all together." Yet, oddly enough, in the same essay Welty says that in washing off Jamie's disguise Rosamond is making "the classic mistake." So which is it? Is the desire to know others a way to mitigate the pain of life or is it an unforgivable trespass? To an extent, Welty's answer is a perverse Yes—it is both.
More precisely, the novel suggests that there are right and wrong reasons for trying to fathom another's identity. The story opens with the wrong one. Mike Fink threatens to reveal the other part of Jamie's identity in order to have power over him. In silencing Mike Fink, Jamie makes an important distinction: "Say who I am forever, but dare to say what I am, and that will be the last breath of any man." Later Clement asks Jamie's name so he can express his gratitude, but he does not ask "what you may be." The problem with having handy names or labels for the multiple parts of a human identity is that they can fool us into thinking that we have psychological understanding or "control" of the other person, that we have reduced the mystery of his or her full selfhood.
While it is natural to want protection from the reduction of self symbolized by the threats of Mike Fink and Little Harp to reveal what Jamie is, Welty reiterates in her essays and stories the view that the most pitiful life is one that has been made invulnerable. Certainly the outcome of The Robber Bridegroom seems to justify Rosamond's attempt to discover Jamie's identity. As a consequence of her act, Jamie's dual selves are integrated, and he and Rosamond are truly married. However, the initial consequence of Rosamond's penetration of Jamie's disguise is the rupture of their relationship, because she has asked for a label, not for an introduction to Jamie's fuller self.
The cause of Rosamond's growing need to know Jamie's identity is significant. As long as their life together is blissful (that is, as long as it has fairy tale perfection), she can accept the mystery. However, with the arrival of Little Harp in their cabin and the death of the Indian girl, the simple happiness she and Jamie shared is threatened. The threat comes from the insidious invasion of her own awareness of Jamie's shadow self—a self she cannot accept and that she, in the form of the psychologically projected Indian maiden, finds terrifying:
… she was torn as she had never been before with an anguish to know his name and his true appearance. For the coming of death and danger had only driven her into her own heart, and it was no matter what he had told her, she could wait no longer to learn the identity of her true love.
Multiplex reality has displaced fairy tale simplicity; Rosamond has entered the world we inhabit. Unfortunately, her reaction to her discovery that her bandit is also Jamie Lockhart does not lead her immediately away from isolation into union with another. Instead of seeing and accepting the sad and joyous human mystery, she retreats to simplistic labelling, and Jamie responds in kind:
'You are Jamie Lockhart!' she said.
'And you are Clement Musgrove's silly daughter!' said he.
'Good-by,' he said. 'For you did not trust me, and did not love me, for you wanted only to know who I am. Now I cannot stay in the house with you.'
We recall that Jamie was willing for Mike Fink to declare who he was, but not what he was. By seeking merely his name, Rosamond has chosen the least important part of Jamie's identity (one available even to his enemies), condemning herself to superficial knowledge of Jamie.
And yet Rosamond's impulse is not entirely wrong. Jamie, in hiding part of himself from the one who loves him, is endangering their love. Rosamond sounds at least partially right when she cries, after Jamie has left her:
'My husband was a robber and not a bridegroom…. He brought me his love under a mask, and kept all the truth hidden from me, and never called anything by its true name, even his name or mine, and what I would have given him he liked better to steal.'
What she learns, however, is that "names were nothing and united no knots." She has to move past the stage where she can assert: "… I already know everything and can learn nothing new." Goat's reply to that declaration ("Do not be so sad as all that …") is not the non-sequitur it seems. Few states are sadder than thinking we have figured out all life's mysteries—especially the mysteries about other people. To get beyond the labels of "Jamie Lockhart" or "robber" or "Clement's silly daughter"—to appreciate the complex humanity on the other side of the name—that is when the universal search for "who we are and who the other fellow is" might pay off.
In Welty's story as in folk fairy tales, the woman is the one who pushes for integration. The message that Rosamond sends Jamie "out of the future"—from their twins to be born next week—makes very real the power of the female suasion to unification. Rosamond's role is much like that ascribed by Bettelheim to the women in other tales who suspect they are married to beastly bridegrooms:
… one very significant feature of the animal-groom cycle … [is that] the groom is absent during the night; he is believed to be animal during the day and to become human only in bed; in short, he keeps his day and night existences separate from each other: … he wishes to keep his sex life separated from all else he is doing. The female … is unwilling to accept the separation and isolation of purely sexual aspects of life from the rest of it. She tries to force their unification. But once Psyche embarks on trying to wed the aspects of sex, love, and life into a unity, she does not falter, and in the end she wins.
Like Psyche, Rosamond does not falter. She does her penance for asking the wrong questions about her lover's identity. Following Jamie's path along the tangled wilderness of the Natchez Trace, she is "tattered and torn, and tired from sleeping in hollow trees and keeping awake in the woods." The imagery here implies both enlightenment and acceptance of the unity of apparent opposites (in this case, the human unity with the natural world).
In the last chapter we feel the book's emerging from its dark inner core (where we watched the death of the Indian girl, the robber band, Little Harp, and Salome), its returning to the realm of fairy tale. Mike Fink joins Rosamond now as he did Jamie in the beginning. (But even he is chastened and improved, shaken from his blustering self-importance by his encounters with what he takes to be Jamie's ghost.) The idyllic life Jamie and Rosamond establish in New Orleans is our best hint that a fairy tale version of reality dominates as the novella ends. Yet even in this conclusion Welty reminds us of the doubleness of reality that Rosamond and Jamie fail to see—in spite of their personal integration (or, perhaps, because of the protection it offers from life's darker side). Describing their life to her father, Rosamond sketches a happy-ever-after world, complete with beautiful twins, a stately house, a boat, servants, and rich friends. For the moment their eyes are not on the wilderness that still surrounds them or the Indians that inhabit it. And yet Welty's concluding references to Rosamond and Jamie's "hundred slaves" and to the pirates' galleons they sail out to watch, as well as to Clement's return to the wilderness, remind us that evil is closer than they may be aware—"with us, within us," as Welty has declared. Thus, while Jamie and Rosamond have returned to life in a fairy tale, the reader carries away the corrected vision of a reality in which darkness and light, hope and despair, joy and sorrow, beginnings and endings are dynamically united in the terrible and marvelous cosmic dance.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4554
SOURCE: "Death and the Mountains in The Optimist's Daughter," in Essays in Literature, Vol. 15, No. 1, Spring, 1988, pp. 77-85.
[In the following essay, Watkins discusses the importance of mountains in Welty's life and in her novel The Optimist's Daughter.]
The pervasive relationship between character and place in fiction is especially important and subtle in the fiction of Eudora Welty. Place derives not only from natural geographical characteristics but also from human history and the events that have happened there. In one of several lectures and essays on the subject, Weky comments on the endurance of life in place, which transcends time, locality, and changes in the terrain:
Whatever is significant and whatever is tragic in its story live as long as the place does, though they are unseen, and the new life will be built upon these things—regardless of commerce and the way of rivers and roads, and other vagrancies.
It follows that the old life, then, goes into the place and emerges in a new life of new personages, who in turn become a part of the complexity of the place which continues to grow along with the addition of new events to old.
Central to the understanding of Welty's fiction is this union of place and person; her works, therefore, must be interpreted according to the way the psyche or the soul is affected by place and the events and culture of a place. Most of Welty's works have been set in her own state of Mississippi, which seems generally and perhaps erroneously to be regarded politically and culturally as one of the most homogeneous states in the country. Welty's fiction, however, is certainly not homogeneous. the people and the culture differ greatly from one book to another. There are stories about the Mississippi Delta in Delta Wedding; about the hill country of northern Mississippi in "A Piece of News" and Losing Battles; about the early American history and culture of Natchez in The Robber Bridegroom and some of the short stories; about the black Mississippians in such stories as "Powerhouse," "Keela, the Outcast Indian Maiden," and "A Worn Path"; and about the life of many small towns around Jackson and in southern Mississippi in The Golden Apples, The Ponder Heart, and other works.
Welty has not turned often and significantly to settings outside Mississippi except in one novel The Optimist's Daughter—which is also her only fiction based extensively on her own life and that of her family. This novel is so personal to her that she has restricted the use of the manuscript even by scholars. It is the only story of the visits of Welty and her mother during the summers of Welty's childhood to the ancestral home on Blue Knob, the mountain above the Elk River in Clay, West Virginia.
The West Virginia mountains are different from the flatlands of Mississippi, and out of that difference grows much of the style and the meaning of The Optimist's Daughter. Chestina (or Chessy) Andrews Welty (Eudora's mother) refused ever to be convinced that Mississippi was not flat, and similarly Becky McKelva asks in the novel where the mountain is in Mount Salus. Becky, Welty says in an interview, "has her deepest roots in another place, that's the thing that most changed her life—a feeling of being out of place, in a place to which she has never really resigned herself…." Further, Welty admits, "I did draw on some of the childhood and early married experiences of my own mother. That's the only thing that is 'factual'; and the character of Becky, the mother, is not the character of my mother, but it draws upon it." Usually Welty is an author of humor and subtle high comedy rather than the creator of dark tragedies like those written by her fellow Mississippian from the northern part of the state. The sickness and death of Judge McKelva in New Orleans, the wake over him with the serious mourning of his daughter (Laurel) and the antic buffoonery of his younger wife (Fay), and the actions of the community of Mount Salus during his funeral maintain a comic view of life in the larger sense of the term until after the funeral. When the wife, Fay, leaves to visit her home in Texas, and Laurel goes into her mother's sewing room to ponder her life and the lives of her parents, the novel turns to recollections of life in West Virginia, to darker memories, and to contemplations of the tragic moments of those who are dying and those who must stand by and watch the agonies and loneliness of the deathbed.
Becky's strong will, strength, and independence are admirable qualities, but they are also responsible for her tragic flaw: she uses that strength to fight inevitable death and to accuse all those who surround her in her moment of death. Whatever temperament and character she derived from the mountains intensifies her resentment, her hostility, her accusations, her anger at mortality and at herself and at those who cannot enable her to avoid death and who cannot go with her into that dark night. In One Writer's Beginnings Welty reveals how she herself gained from the mountains particular virtues like her mother's. In explaining her indebtedness to the mountains, she provides a strong clue to the meaning of the novel. When Welty visited her mother's childhood home, she, like Becky, gained particular virtues attributable to the West Virginia heights:
It took the mountain top, it seems to me now, to give me the sensation of independence. It was as if I'd discovered something I'd never tested before my short life. Or rediscovered it—for I associated it with the taste of the water that came out of the well, accompanied with the ring of that long metal sleeve against the sides of the living mountain, as from deep down it was wound up to view brimming and streaming long drops behind it like bright stars on a ribbon…. The coldness, the far, unseen, unheard springs of what was in my mouth now, the iron strength of its flavor that drew my cheeks in, its fern-laced smell, all said mountain mountain mountain as I swallowed. Every swallow was making me a part of being here, sealing me in place.
Both Eudora Welty and Becky McKelva derive strength from the West Virginia mountains of their mothers' younger years. Laurel enters the past through her memories as they are stimulated when she goes through the twenty-six pigeonholes of her mother's desk after her death. Here she had stored all things "according to their time and place" except for the letters from the Judge. This is the process of discovery, not only of her mother but also of herself. The inner sanctum, the little sewing room where Laurel had "slept in infancy," is a source for whatever understandings she will ever attain. Here at the desk Laurel looks through the mementos of her mother and father's courtship and marriage. These items transport her back to the familial past, and she contemplates that time of family life which is so often a void in the mind of a child and the stories told to a child. Perhaps more than anything else the account of Laurel's memories of her mother's past helps us to arrive at the ultimate theme of the novel. Welty's return to her own childhood and then to her own mother's home and even her mother's childhood in a faraway country is an indication of continuity and, paradoxically, also of change:
Laurel had been taken "up home" to West Virginia since a summer before she remembered. The house was built on top of what might as well have been already the highest roof in the world…. From a rocking chair could be seen the river where it rounded the foot of the mountain…. This point of the river was called Queen's Shoals.
In The Optimist's Daughter Welty conveys the remoteness and isolation of the family and of the imagination by stressing the altitude. She removes the novel and Becky from the ordinary world and emphasizes the arduousness of their ordeals when it is necessary for them to enter the outer world.
As a child Laurel herself heard the solitary sounds of the mountain wilderness primeval in West Virginia and asked her grandmother about their mysteries. Early in the morning a sound traveled from one stillness to another, "a blow, then … its echo, then another blow, then the echo, then a shouting." The boys, her uncles, interpret literally: "It's just an old man chopping wood." The mother is mysterious and religious: "He's praying." The grandmother, perhaps with the loneliness of older age, says that it is "an old hermit … without a soul in the world." Decades later after the mother's death, Laurel, alone in her mother's sewing room, is still contemplating the possibilities of various meanings.
The image of the old man chopping wood and of the distinct sound on the mountain is further developed by the image of the bell on the mountain. "In sight of the door there was an iron bell mounted on a post. If anything were ever to happen, Grandma only needed to ring this bell." Its sound conveys isolation and need from the lonely one to those who are being summoned. This image recalls Laurel's first arrival in West Virginia. She and her mother descended from the train, which left them "by themselves on a steep rock … and its own iron bell on a post with its rope hanging down." There is a "mist," which mysteriously obstructs vision but not sound. A pull on the bell, "and close to them appeared a gray boat with two of the boys at the oars. At their very feet had been the river. The boat came breasting out of the mist, and in they stepped. All new things in life were meant to come like that." Not only is it a sudden and (to Laurel) surprising appearance; it is almost a manifestation. Becky and Laurel's having only a large rock for a railroad station and then crossing the river in fog creates great mystery in the mind of a small child.
Becky's mountain home is described with a style appropriate to the pastoral mountains. The beauty comes from images, such as "bird dogs … streaking the upslanted pasture through the sweet long grass," the blue valley beneath the mountain, and pigeons which "came down to her feet and walked on the mountain." Again, especially for the child, there is the suggestion of a visitation. The pigeons are both beautiful and repulsive, puzzling and ugly in their relationships with each other, "sticking their beaks down each other's throats, gagging each other, eating out of each other's craws, swallowing down all over again what had been swallowed before." Their community may suggest love, but it also ambivalently suggests a repulsive and excessive dependence: "they could not escape each other." Their feeding and digestion is fearful and ugly to the child, but the grandmother explains simply that it is just hunger.
Life in the mountains may occasionally be beautiful and even awesome, but it is also fraught with labors and trials, especially in the time before the new methods of rapid transportation. The greatest trial of Becky's days, certainly those before marriage, came with the illness and then the death of her father.
Becky had gone with her father, who was suffering pain, on a raft propelled by a neighbor, down the river at night when it was filled with ice, to reach a railroad, to wave a lantern at a snow train that would stop and take them on, to reach a hospital.
In Baltimore, she tells the doctors (her father was delirious) what he had said: "If you let them tie me down, I'll die." She can do no more, go no farther. "Baltimore was as far a place as you could go with those you loved, and it was where they left you."
Eudora Welty has taken this story directly from the pages of her family history. The only printed account I have been able to find of the death of Edward (Ned) Raboteau Andrews (the grandfather of Eudora Welty) was recorded on the second page of the Clay County Star of March 30, 1899. Most of the story in the fiction appears in only one sentence in the newspaper: "His daughter, Miss Chessie, accompanied him."
After recalling Becky's strength on the journey, Laurel remembers the deathbed conversation between her mother and her father, and then she again recollects West Virginia. She recalls how Becky asked for "spiritual guidance." The young Presbyterian minister, Dr. Bolt, was called to her side, and she rejected him and his attempts to offer solace. She told him, apparently as an indication of his ignorance of her needs and his inability to comfort her or counsel her, "I'd like better than anything you can tell me just to see the mountain one more time." The crowning glory of the mountain which she describes to him is the white strawberry, an actual kind of wild plant, an image, and a beautiful if eerie symbol. It
grows completely in the wild,… very likely … in only one spot in the world…. I doubt if you'd see them growing after you got there…. You could line your hat with leaves and try to walk off with a hateful: that would be how little you knew about those berries. Once you've let them so much as touch each other, you've already done enough to finish 'em…. Nothing you ever ate in your life was anything like as delicate, as fragrant, as those wild white strawberries.
The strawberries are the last image in the passage about the glories and the meanings of the mountains. They are the ultimate in beauty, in physical taste, in rarity, in delicacy. Metaphorically, they are the incarnation of the wonders of the mountain and the beauties and the strengths of Becky the child. They are also a gift of God, a greater gift than anything said to Becky by the young preacher.
Strawberries like those Becky describes actually grew at what is called the Point, the hill which starts the rise to the Andrews farm above the junction of what is now West Virginia Route 4 and Route 16. Mrs. Lois Andrews Cleland, daughter of Carl (one of the Andrews "boys" and later Mayor of Charleston, West Virginia), is the only person I have talked to who has actually seen these strawberries. Carl Andrews took his children to see them some time before Miss Welty wrote about them in The Optimist's Daughter. Mrs. Cleland quotes him as saying that just to smell the white strawberries is much more delightful than eating the usual red ones. As the climactic image about the Andrews farm and the mountains of Clay, West Virginia, the strawberries are a supreme beauty with profound meanings. They constitute the final part of the narrative about Becky's West Virginia childhood.
Becky fails to overcome time and death. But the strawberries represent false hopes for long life and at least near-immortality. Welty suggests theological and religious implications by having Becky tell her story on her deathbed to a minister who cannot overcome his insensitivity or understand such wonder. The basic crux of the emotional conditions and the harsh conflicts of the novel are revealed in Laurel's contemplations of the deathbed scene of her mother. Child of the mountains, Becky McKelva was not tolerant of the lowlands. After all the years in Mississippi, at crucial moments her spirit sought strength in the mountains. The desperate accusations and imprecations she hurls at her daughter and her husband on her deathbed are anticipated throughout her life; she never lost her soul's citizenship in the mountains and became naturalized in the place of her home after marriage.
The Optimist's Daughter is conspicuous among Welty's works for its symbolic use of high place. "The high place," Leonard Lutwack says in The Role of Place in Literature, "inspires feelings of elation, domination, transcendence; it is the traditional home of poetry." Mountains or high places, furthermore, do not exist without low places between them or on which they stand. There are no mountains without valleys. Mountain literature, then, is the scene of changes, contrast, variety. Level places without mountains or valleys, produce monotony, even weakness. Lutwack's study of place in literature provides insight into the West Virginia scenes of The Optimist's Daughter: "Scaling heights," he writes, "is a test of character, and the conflict of adversaries is accentuated when it occurs in a high place." On the other hand, "The promise of greatness in a high place … may turn into disaster, for under Mount Etna yawns the volcano." The specific and important truth must be slightly rephrased for The Optimist's Daughter. Coming out of the mountains by necessity (the trip to Baltimore) or by choice (the chance for a happy marriage in Jackson) signifies risk, hope, danger, and even death. The crossings of a desert or of prairies surrounded by hostile Indians or peoples have the same omens. But the forebodings and dangers are not the same in mountains as on flat crosscountry trips. The twists and turns and rises and falls, the very surprises of the mountains in the many forms which they may take, add great complexities even if they do not increase substantially the risks. Dangers in the mountains and valleys tend to be sudden; in the prairies, they are prolonged, as they intensify in suffering and simultaneously in monotony. Flat places are not, as Lutwack says, necessarily "safe, restful, reassuring." They may be too dry, too rocky, and too far to cross without water. The beauties of the mountains of the Andrews farm, known as Blue Knob, are striking, but perils and trials also come along with the beauty.
The mother, Becky, does not have a prominent role in the novel until the account of her dying. The ultimate fact of life for all, death, is the great change, the moving into oblivion or another world depending on religion and beliefs. The most inescapable and normal thing in the world, it seems the most horrible. It is the ultimate experience not only in terms of the final disposition of body and soul, but also in terms of the definition of character as it is confronted in the drawing of the last breath.
Becky's trip to Baltimore with her father to his death was a foreshadowing of her own dying. She says as her father had before her, "Don't let them tie me down…. If they try to hold me, I'll die." Baltimore was an ultimate test of Becky's strength. She had known no one there, but she "had known herself." She trusts no one at the time of her dying, and with great anger and independence she turns from her husband into herself. Because the Judge can do no more than she herself has done, she calls him a coward, a Lucifer, and a Liar. When the Judge dies years later, his daughter, Laurel, stands by his bedside as his main companion if not comforter. He asks no questions; he listens to Laurel's reading "without much comment." His silence is puzzling and difficult to interpret. He dies without uttering a word, asking no quarter from death.
Mysteriously, in the last moments the Judge has "the smile of a child who is hiding in the dark while the others hunt him, waiting to be found." Whether he goes into that dark night passively or with quiet strength is not clearly apparent. He dies alone with no relative by his bedside. Dr. Courtland says, "The renegade! I believe he's just plain sneaked out on us." The silence of his deathbed is entirely different from the five-year illness of Becky and her defiant accusations while the Judge attempts to promise, placate, comfort, reassure her.
When the Judge died, Laurel meditates among the mysteries of the sewing room, she had not saved him as she had not saved her mother. She was not by his bedside but on the way to the hospital room. Neither had Becky saved her father. "But Becky was the brave one," Laurel remembers, suggesting that no mortal can save another from death. Because of her courage she was most irascible and accusatory when her own time came to die. One characteristic—and only one—is the same in the deaths of the Judge and his wife. He dies in silence, and she, after first blaming herself and others, suffers a stroke and also becomes silent: ("She had died without speaking a word, keeping everything to herself, in exile and humiliation."). Becky had blamed herself for not saving her father, the Judge, for his promises at her deathbed, and Laurel for not saving her: "You could have saved your mother's life. But you stood by and wouldn't intervene. [How could she?] I despair for you."
Another complexity of human experience is represented by the Judge's taking his wife's death as a matter of natural process. "He seemed to give the changes his same, kind recognition—to accept them because they had to be only of the time being." Becky had reacted to news of her mother's death in an altogether different way. It is unexpected, and "uncontrollably" Becky cries: "I wasn't there! I wasn't there!" Despite her strength and genuine sentiment, she could have done nothing if she had been there, just as the trip to Baltimore had been a heroic but futile confrontation with death. She assumes blame for the death of her mother, because of her own absence at the time of that death. The Judge tells her that she is not to blame, but she anticipates her deathbed accusations of him by bringing up the question of lying. As she will accuse him of being a liar just before she dies, she now says, "You can't make me lie to myself, Clinton!" Becky is strongest at the time of the death of another character, her father; but in her encounter with her own death, strength and independence turn into anger at her own mortality and into the inability of her kin to help her overcome her death or endure it with her. Indeed, the greater the strength of the dying, Miss Welty seems to suggest, the greater the suggestion of weakness of character in the last moments of life.
The Judge's strength and optimism are not good companions by the bedside of the dying; they are, instead, an annoyance. Death often causes conflicts between loved ones. Becky blames the Judge for sufferings imposed by others: "Why do you persist in letting them hurt me?" No well person can respond to a question like that. Within the father and the Judge there are conflicts between an optimistic belief that "all his wife's troubles would turn out all right," and "horror of any sort of private clash," and "his good hope, trust in one another." Conflict seldom, perhaps never, reaches greater depths than when Becky angrily and futilely questions why she married a coward, or greater ambiguity than when she takes "his hand to help him bear it." Bear what? The fact that he is a coward in the face of death, or that his wife thinks he is and calls him one? It is not a pretty picture for either of them.
After Becky calls him a coward, the Judge promises to take her back to the mountains, almost seeming to hope that there is or will be no death. But knowing that there is death and that it is coming to her and that her husband's promises are false optimism or lies, she calls him "Lucifer!… Liar!" When he refuses "to consider that she was desperate," his attitude is summed up—apparently in Laurel's memories of her mother's anger at his "betrayal on betrayal." Becky's attitude toward death and toward the death-watcher at her bedside establishes the conditions for the deathbed scenes throughout the novel. Her comments are mysterious if not altogether inexplicable, and they do seem to be the climactic statements of the relationships between characters and of the meanings of all the novel. The ultimate interpretations of these mysteries, as nearly as I can understand them, are that the dying hate the privilege that their survivors have of living after the death, that they are angry that it is impossible for the living to accompany the dying into death, that the living may betray the memory and life of the dead after they have died.
Baltimore and Mount Salus are both utterly mortal, and no one can go beyond that. The living and dying must unclasp hands and go their separate ways. It is not logical or theological or indeed even sensible and sane for the dying to expect the living to go along with them. Death, as Emily Dickinson writes, stops kindly for some who do not have time to stop for him, but he is not kindly to others, certainly not kindly to Becky, who struggles mightily against him. The final statements by Becky are not lucid and rational. but that does not make those statements any less real to her or to those who helplessly watch her die. At the ultimate moment death has its sting and its victory even if no one acknowledges its finality.
The strength of place and mountains may be used for defiance as well as for comfort, may increase anger, may add to the intensity of despair. A strong soul may struggle to reject death itself, as Milton's Satan rejects God and even his own fall. Becky herself rather than the Judge may resemble the rebellious Lucifer. Her body comes to death while her strong soul is not ready to stop for it, and she casts about in accusation of others. Ultimately the tragedy of The Optimist's Daughter is that the great strength derived from a childhood home in the mountains increases the last despair.
The deaths of the Judge and of Becky have prepared for Laurel's memories of the death of her husband, Phil, and her speculations about what it means to survive the one you love:
The guilt of outliving those you love is justly to be borne, she thought. Outliving is something we do to them. The fantasies of dying could be no stranger than the fantasies of living. Surviving is perhaps the strangest fantasy of them all.
The precise choice of the world guilt is fraught with implications. Guilt results from something the survivor does to the dying. Becky believed that. But it is a feeling of guilt, not a moral wrong, not a moral choice. Here is, indeed, the mystery and the culmination of the novel, and it seems to me that it is inexplicable, a statement that defies interpretation. It is as mysterious as the ultimate theological mysteries: how evil came to be, for example, if God is omniscient, omnipotent, and omni bene volens. Death is the father of mysteries. How can Laurel be guilty? How can the well-wishing and loving Judge be a coward, a betrayer, a Lucifer? What is death that we are mindful of it and guilty because of it without action and decision? No one knows. Yet, Laurel and Becky accuse, we the living are guilty.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6079
SOURCE: "Place Dissolved In Grace: Welty's Losing Battles," in The Southern Literary Journal, Vol. XXI, No. 1, Fall, 1988, pp. 39-53.
[In the following essay, Walter discusses Welty's Losing Battles.]
The more one gets to know Eudora Welty's characters and to observe her construction of worlds in words and images, the more difficulty one has in seeing a division between objective and subjective, outward and inward. Her physical locales, though faithful renderings of the world's appearance in convincing visual detail, are always also figures of the thought, emotions, and dreams of her characters and narrators; and usually what wisdom her characters achieve is by way of imaginative awareness of their place as a reflector of their own and time's deepest secrets. Welty's characters typically begin in their stories with attitudes or beliefs settled in routine or tradition and sometimes hardened by a defensiveness resulting from experience of losing battles with life. Despite their accommodation, however, life turns out for them in much the same way that Judge Moody in Losing Battles says it turned out for Miss Mortimer: "What she didn't know till she got to it was what could happen to what she was." What can "happen" is hardly ever what was anticipated nor is it ever very securely within human control; rather it unfolds at the prompting of a mysterious shaping spirit alive in particular conjunctions of place, event, and human purpose. The action of this gracious spirit can be read in its dissolution of old and settled perspectives, its opening of minds and hearts to others, and its promotion of new more inclusive communities.
In Losing Battles, Welty's characters, almost despite themselves, are being gradually transformed by some dissolving and annealing power in time—a power that might be called grace, because of its gratuitous and generally sanctifying effect. What finally happens to most of the actors in Welty's novel is analogous to what Moody expresses when he says, in responding to a mood sent him in the air, that Miss Mortimer's life-story "could make a stone cry." Somehow, by virtue of a power laboring in the very body of the world, this human transformation comes out of the very stone—through inevitable experience that while threatening to harden feeling can also temper a capacity for sympathy.
The main action of Welty's novel, one sees by opening to almost any page, is constant talk among the numerous members of three related families—Vaughn, Beecham, and Renfro—gathered to celebrate a family reunion in the Mississippi hill country during the hard times and drought of summer 1930. Physically unifying and defining the place is its atmosphere: in the oppressive heat of Sunday, day of the reunion, a thick veil of pinkish dust raised from the red clay by any movement of man, beast, or vehicle covers almost everything; on Monday morning, after a night of full moon, a fine gentle rain muddies but also slowly cleans everything, leaving the earth bright for the farmers who must return to labor on it for their livelihood. Emotionally the unity of this world is disclosed in the metaphoric connotations of the dust, moon, and rain. Like the dust that obscures vision, an emotional defensiveness initially confines the family, causing them as a matter of habit to seek safety by joining together against outsiders. The dusty atmosphere figures the condition of their hearts as a result of their frustrations in trying to live off barren soil, their resentment at Jack Renfro's unfair imprisonment and the stain it put on the family name, and their trepidation at human mortality, clear in the condition of Granny Vaughn and in numerous signs attending the reunion. If the dust figures mortality obscuring and covering all that is not vital enough to oppose it, the long-awaited rain, even as it spoils hay left on the ground after cutting, signifies, at the novel's end, a fresh and hopeful spirit in the protagonists as they return to their everyday life and work. The evolution of the novel's world, thus, follows the movement of comedy, from seeming hopelessness in a wasteland state toward affirmation of all that lives; the resolution, assisted by outside help, is in the discovery of the best order of loves and motives within the self, family, and community.
This affirmative spirit is already present but concealed within the words and images of the novel's first paragraph:
When the rooster crowed, the moon had still not left the world but was going down on flushed cheek, one day short of the full. A long thin cloud crossed it slowly, drawing itself out like a name being called. The air changed, as if a mile or so away a wooden door had swung open, and a smell, more of warmth than wet, from a river at low stage, moved upward into the clay hills that stood in darkness.
The general sense of this opening scene is of a new world being announced by the rooster's crowing. The auditory image is followed by a visual one, the moon's "flushed cheek," the first of many images in which nature seems to reflect a human form. Next, the visual leads the auditory in a synaesthetic image: the cloud drawn out "like a name being called" is a visual object which its viewer perceives as speech. The connection between the second and third sentences seems almost causal, as if "hearing" nature's speech awakens the percipient's other senses to smell and feel the life in the very flesh of earth. In its progression, the description of this scene foreshadows the conclusive shape of Losing Battles and the effect of its completed story on most of its participants, including the reader.
The novel is narrated by an implied author who seems, at times, to speak as the meditative and prophetic spirit of the place, knowing its people and teaching them somehow before they know it, but eventually being that which is known by its more perceptive inhabitants. A major intention of this author is to show that a remarkable world waits to be seen, and to make the reader see it despite all the obscuring influence of dust, self-love, fear, and passivity. The need to see and be seen, nevertheless, insofar as it compels a search for security in the relative fixedness of visible signs and objects, is submitted to a critique in this novel. Human realization requires also a certain openness and venturesomeness regarding the unseen, which is often only heard or intuited. The illusoriness of stability sought in the seen world is emphasized near the middle of the novel, just after the family, in a gesture to repress answers to painful questions raised by the newcomer Cleo about Nathan's "play hand" and about "Handsome" Sam Dale, unite in visible solidarity to sing "Gathering Home." Following this attempt by the family to divert the flow of talk, the narrator comments,
As they sang, the tree over them, Billy Vaughn's Switch, with its ever-spinning leaves all light-points at this hour, looked bright as a river, and the tables might have been a little train of barges it was carrying with it moving slowly downstream. Brother Bethune's gun, still resting against the trunk, was travelling too, and nothing at all was unmovable, or empowered to hold the scene still fixed or stake the reunion there.
Like the Bywy River flowing at the edge of the known world in this novel, the flowing river of time constantly disturbs the stability of the visible and whispers of a mystery that is out of eyesight.
The surprising analogies in this description of "Billy Vaughn's Switch," which is typical of the diction, tone, and style of the lyrical inscriptions throughout the novel, over-whelm the visual sense, inhibit its tyrannizing drive to literalize objects, while stimulating among all the reader's senses a collaboration that intensifies awareness of variety and relation. By compelling the reader to engage in imaginative play with different visual possibilities, it communicates to a deeper human sense, stirring recall of the easily forgotten unity that mysteriously knits the diversity of things.
The imagery of the opening of Losing Battles implies the possible rejuvenation of the dry land of its world. The family's hope is represented in the posture of Granny as she sits at the edge of the Renfro porch watching for the reunion to begin and especially for the "joy" of the family, Jack Jordan Renfro, to return from prison. All the family anticipates the resurrection of their fortunes as soon as Jack takes up their battles again; but they look for change according to the old law of "the way we do it in Banner": "Well, Curly skinned Jack's ear, and Jack had to skin Curly's ear, and so on."
It is significant that Mr. Willy Trimble helped Mr. Renfro put on the new roof after Jack's departure for prison and that the old man has since "taken liberties" by "scurrying and frisking around" at will over the family's head. Trimble is an odd figure. Miss Julia Mortimer taught him carpentry so he could make the mailboxes essential to her mail-order nursery, but he has perversely turned his skill to coffin-making. He shows up where least expected—in front of Judge Moody's car forcing him off the road; at Julia Mortimer's when she is dying, to help her from the road into her bed and to respond with a blank look to her last question; and later, as an immovable although unwelcome guest at the main table of the reunion. In school the other children had dubbed him "Willy Trimble?—Hope Not!" Brother Bethune calls him "the biggest old joker in Christendom!" He is in a mysterious way a personification of earthly contingency, contrariety, and death, realities the reunion intends to keep at arm's length by its garrulous self-satisfied optimism.
When Jack first arrives home, he patiently indulges his family and enjoys their attention; but when cousin Homer Champion arrives to ridicule him for stopping on his way home to help the wrong man get his car out of a ditch, Jack's vengeance is aroused. The fallen state of the family is fully revealed as goading by Champion perverts their inherited spirit of heroic independence into a refusal to help or accept help from someone who, they believe, has no business being "in our part of the world." Jack may be back within the family circle, but his recent prison experience and his love awakened at first sight of his infant daughter make him a fresh seed unfolding there, preparing a transformation of the family's horizon from within. When Jack graciously offers to help Moody a second time after the Judge swerved his car off the road to avoid hitting Jack's wife and baby, Jack's repudiation of the clan's mechanical system of vengeful justice promises eventual change for all of the family.
The family and the community's habitual tendency to blame others and retaliate, or simply to ignore outsiders, is shown in a humorous variety of ways through the middle of Losing Battles. An exaggerated type of the whole community appears in the Broadwees, a tribe of Jack's neighbors who come marching single-file up Banner Road eating watermelons shortly after the Judge's car has reached a precarious perch on Banner Top. The Broadwees possess hardly enough difference among themselves to need first names. Their last name tells everything about them: their absorption by family has so "broadened" their outlook to "we" that personal sight and responsibility largely escape them. Their response to the Moodies' plight is merely to sit down in rows to watch while finishing their watermelon. Their speech is little more than "Boo! Boo! Boo!"—a sound they make in habitual unison against rivals during Banner basketball games and, at the present moment, their only available utterance to express their pleasure in the antics of Lady May.
Like their speech, the watermelons eaten by the Broadwees suggest a great deal about the simple corporate myth they live by. Physical similarities between this fruit, the land it grows on, and the people who eat it are repeatedly stressed throughout the novel, as if some alimentary vein passing through the watermelons connects these people with the soil. For example, we are told that Banner Road runs deep between "banks that were bright as a melon at that instant split open." Later, Mr. Renfro's gesture of splitting watermelons to give to each girl "the bursting red heart to drown her face in" suggests the sensual immediacy of this clan's relation to the natural world, quite different from the imaginative distance imposed by the written letters on the tablets of Moses, with which the melons are compared. The family's initiation of Jack's wife, Gloria, in an attempt to absorb her into their sphere is logically enacted by their concerted effort to force her to eat a hulk of watermelon "shoved down into her face, as big as a man's clayed shoe, swarming with seeds, warm with rain-thin juice."
The melon's color, of course, repeats the pink-to-red tinge of almost everything in the Banner world—its people, the flowers, the dust-filled sky, dust-covered objects, the tender skin of babies, even the well water. But like most natural symbols, the melons radiate multiple and ambiguous significance. On the one hand, they suggest a round and smooth containment, a type of limited, rind-covered life; but on the other hand, their bright meat and myriad seeds, visible when the melons are cracked open, symbolize a hidden power of nourishment and generation in nature. This most abundant fruit of the place contains a hidden life-potential that has its emotional and spiritual analogues in the people of the novel's world. For instance, when Lexie Renfro, the bitter old-maid nurse of Miss Mortimer, arrives at the reunion wearing a hat she borrowed from her patient's closet and bringing food she prepared out of her patient's pantry, these slight reminders of Miss Mortimer become seeds that will yield fruit by the end of the day. Like Jack, but with different meaning, the schoolteacher is a fertile presence in the family's consciousness waiting on something to quicken its growth.
Lexie's hatred of Miss Mortimer and envy of Gloria, a concentration of the family's more reserved feelings, are the activators which more Lexie to begin altering Gloria's oversized dress to the accompaniment of a story she tells detailing her patient's stages of senility. Lexie's aim is to render Gloria totally public and thereby settle her identity according to type in the family myth. At the same time, she attempts to reduce Miss Mortimer to those elements in her personality, sadly exaggerated in old age, which made her seem an ogre beyond the pale of human communion. One effect of Lexie's ventilation of spite is to arouse the ire of Judge Moody, who all along has been listening in an old school chair and getting an education in the ways of these people. When he first speaks, the Judge's motives are no less vindictive than theirs, since he intends to be the agent of their comeuppance. He too had been taught by Miss Mortimer in her prime, and before disabling his car had been on the way to see her in response to a letter she had sent him a month earlier. The Judge's speaking up at this moment, with support from written "documents" he carries and one provided by Mr. Trimble, initiates what appears to be a radical break from the mode of mythologizing and caricaturing engaged in thus far by most of the representatives of the family. The Judge assumes a demythologizing attitude, telling them, "Your memory's got a dozen holes in it. And some sad mistakes." To a large degree, Moody appears to uncover successfully the thought behind the strange behavior of Miss Mortimer that Lexie had so unsympathetically described.
Lexie's most interesting and, to the family, baffling information had to do with her patient's peculiar demands in her final isolation. When she had called for "her book," Lexie thwarted her by answering, "I don't know which book you mean." The last earthly possession the schoolteacher was able to use was her pencil, with which she wrote rapid letters of indictment against human nature. According to Lexie, she was quiet only when given the pencil: "Like words, just words, was getting to be something good enough to eat. And nothing else was!" In her compulsion she wrote on everything at hand and then crammed it "in the envelope till it won't hold one word more!" On the coverboard of the speller that Mr. Trimble had found, "ungiving," beneath Miss Mortimer's pillow when he placed her in bed, the schoolteacher had etched the combined words M-Y-W-I-L-L. Inside the book, handwriting overlays some of the spelling pages and extends over the margins. It appears that with her last strength Miss Mortimer attacked even the common language, projecting over it according to her own morphology a gloss of her indomitable will. The white space of the margins, which in a text symbolizes the unsaid meaning beyond the words, she assaulted for its intimidating threat to her domineering spirit.
Miss Mortimer, the picture suggests, pitted her life to its end in resolute struggle against all that resisted the sovereignty of her will. Her habitual mode of being was combat—with ignorance; with all that is illogical and unsystematic, particularly the prejudice constitutive of family and community; with nature; and finally with God. As she revealed in the last pitiful question of her life, addressed ironically to the ignorant Mr. Trimble—"What was the trip for?"—she had subordinated her combat's purpose to the sheer exhilaration of engaging it for its own sake. The substance of Miss Mortimer's will, as paraphrased by Judge Moody since the family refuses to be read to, is that they are all "constituted her mourners."
After he reads the will, the Judge's ultimate gesture to try to humble the family, by showing them evidence of a nobility of soul contrasting to their pettiness, is to read to them a letter he had received from Miss Mortimer. The letter includes an illuminating admission: "What I live by is inspiration. I always did—I started out on nothing else but naked inspiration." Recounting her inspired "war with ignorance," Miss Mortimer tells how she managed to turn each defeat, even "on the brink of oblivion" and crawling "along the edge of madness," into a lesson to take her "another mile" ahead. Evidently her inherited Presbyterian belief in Providence had undergone a warp at some stage in her thinking, causing her to posit something like a Darwinian life-process that, through testing creatures in a struggle for survival, provides them in itself a "measure of enjoyment." Experience of loss and failure in her life had for her the single effect of inspiring more heroic determination and effort. Thus, for her, "providence" was only something she had marched boldly to meet in the future, never something to discern in her memory of a past. Even in backing her car when she was younger, she had looked straight ahead, to the jeopardy of whoever happened to be behind her.
Miss Mortimer had proved equal to everything life could throw in her path until the very last when a "puzzler" confronted her: "Something walls me in," she writes, "crowds me around, outwits me, dims my eyesight, loses the pencil I had in my hand." She avows distrust of this unexpected other that exerts its power at concurrent limits of life and of language. In part, the "something" appears to have been her physical frailty as death began to claim her; but the barrier she describes was also mental and spiritual, imposed within the border of her linguistic horizon. Her reliance on a literal exactitude as her mode of understanding human experience incapacitated her for passage or vision beyond the border. An aunt's earlier comment concerning Miss Mortimer's habit of licking her pencil as she furiously wrote suggests the danger in her determination: "I've heard that licking an indelible pencil was one sure way to die." The schoolteacher's effort always to cast words into absolute statement that dispelled mystery, as a way to gain human certitude in time, had only the ironic effect of strengthening the prison-house of her existence. Moreover, because she looked on language and time only as raw material for her shaping will, she neglected to prepare for her own inevitable appropriation by time's sentence. When her final helplessness made her dependent on others, she knew only enough to scorn her fate with vain words: "Is this Heaven, where you lie wide-open to the mercies of others who think they know better than you do what's best—what's true and what isn't? Contradictors, interferers, and prevaricators—are those angels?… I think I'm in ignorance, not Heaven."
Her emotional life stifled by her rationalist presuppositions, the schoolteacher had attempted to be the active scourge of the non-rational ties of others. As a result, all her possibly fecund experience of tragic failure and negation, which could have taught her understanding of her human fate and her need for others and for mercy, was reduced by her to a sterile challenge having only the effect of increasing her for her undoing. Although the report of her last moment is given by Mr. Trimble, probably an untrustworthy observer, the spareness of it compels wonder: Did Miss Mortimer go out into the road to seek the communion she had missed, or did she go out for one last battle with backwoods ignorance?
Despite her addiction to writing, Miss Mortimer had actually based her existential outlook on a kind of antinomian orality. Her Emersonian (and Nietzschean?) "inspiration" suggests a conviction of self-reliant presence informing a strong will to contend. Miss Mortimer's writing, then, was only an instrument of her inspiration, a means of extending her conviction of sovereignty over the disorderly and contingent. The attitudes of the family, in contrast, despite its dependence on the spoken word, imply an ultimate reliance on a primary writing. At the reunion there are no isolatoes; all are in a sense copies of each other and conceive of themselves as copies of archetypes made by a first creator. Their orality is simply a confident performance of a ritual according to the script naturalized by tradition. As optimists concerning the continuity of human experience and the integrity of nature under a God whose intentions are conceived as relatively transparent, they each act their parts with a minimum of questioning or wonder; and they expect others to accept instruction and follow suit. Their oral self-display, apart from the pure pleasure of imitation it provides, is rhetorical in purpose, directed to outsiders who are slow to understand their ways. The danger in this outlook is in the tyrannizing potential of the letter, in the cultural idolatry that grows on love of the exterior of signs and forgets the renewable spirit that first called them into being. In Losing Battles, there is evidence that the family's pleasurable garrulity is, to a degree, a cover for a more elemental uncertainty and fear of ambiguity; preoccupied as they are with their public ritual, they fail on a more personal level to face and do battle with enemies of the interior world.
Deficiencies in Miss Mortimer and the people of Banner are emphasized in this analysis, perhaps to the point of obscuring virtues, because I think it is important to see clearly why and how, in the early parts of the novel, the combatants are confined, are in a real sense "lost." Despite their good qualities, all the Bannerites are initially stymied by psychological and spiritual faults. But to mark their deficiencies is also to make more explicit the re-creative power that, by the story's end, transforms most of them, miraculously. The comic effect of the novel is increased by our seeing that these sinners can be changed.
History's distinctive theme of "something new" is evident in Judge Moody as the completion of the story of Miss Mortimer brings him mysteriously to a clearer view of his own life and to a humble admission: that he "never fully forgave her" for her domineering influence in his life, that he didn't do all his "duty" by her, and that he cherished against her the advice she gave him years ago not to pursue success elsewhere but to remain in Boone County and devote his life to using the power of the courts to educate its stubborn people. The Judge's activated guilt and his deep grief for the poor woman illustrate his improved imagination. His concluding interpretation of Miss Mortimer is perceptive: "She knew exactly who she was. What she didn't know till she got to it was what could happen to what she was. Any more than any of us here know." Paradoxically, Moody's sorrowful recognition of contingency and the pathetic finitude of human knowledge does not lead him to despair, but it prepares him for hopeful participation, with less self-consciousness, in the comic resolution of Losing Battles.
There are numerous other signs that telling and hearing Miss Mortimer's story, in some ways the story of each one at the reunion, has animated the imaginations of all involved. In a beautifully wrought passage, the lyrical voice of the narrator describes what had been the dust of day as a "deep blue dust that now reached Heaven"; moments later the narrator describes a fine "substance" of moonlight sifting down "upon the world." For the first time this day, as "Silence that was all one big question opened like a tunnel," the participants open together in receptive wonder to an atmospheric memory that feeds their negativity and makes it fruitful.
This power felt by the participants of the reunion is most magnificently displayed by the narrator in the one passage in the novel admitting us fully into the interior of a character, as if this grace of imagination could be demonstrated only in the relatively silent and image-filled place of an individual psyche. The psyche used is the particularly sensitive one of Vaughn Renfro, twelve-year-old brother of Jack and general sufferer of the family's abuse and neglect. If the deceased schoolteacher had made school, book, and writing instruments of mortification, then Vaughn's love of school and especially of "geography" (study of the earth as a script?) suggests the possibility of imagination's rescue of culture's writing from its tendency to kill life by fixing it rigidly in abstract system. In contrast to the narrow and vindictive mythologizing that earlier had diverted the family from truth, the inspired mythopoesis that is filtered through Vaughn's consciousness discloses all the obvious, subtle, multiple, and necessary interpenetration of humans with their place and time and the significance they give to each other. What Vaughn perceives as, astride the mule Bet, he listens with ears funneled by an oversized hat he inherited from Grandpa Vaughn, is quite literally a voice myriadly incarnated in many voices "heard" through the world's visible body; the synaesthetic articulation of this voice is similar to that of the "could like a name being called" in the novel's opening paragraph.
[Vaughn] heard every sound going on, repeating itself, increasing, as if it were being recollected by loud night talking to itself. At times it might have been the rush of water—the Bywy on the rise in spring; or it might have been the rains catching up after them, to mire them in. Or it might have been that the whole wheel of the sky made the sound as it kept letting fall the soft fire of its turning…. It was all-present enough to spill over into voices, as everything, he was ready to believe now, threatened to do, the closer he might come to where something might happen.
Like the cosmos that "defies" Vaughn's honest soul at this moment, this passage gathers, states, intimates, and resonates in ways that defy systematic analysis. It tells of a universe that is in its essence an act of communication. It tells of the person's essential privacy and need to share understanding. It tells that meaning registers chiefly through the intuitions and images held in the heart, and that in any single act of knowing a multitude of mysterious qualities in being escape rational focus to hover at the edge of awareness. It tells of a multitude of emotions aroused in the knower, who needs to visualize, to speak with others, and to write in order to gain enough distance from experience and sound not to be absorbed by them. It hints of a grace operative in history and place, which may well be the writing of a divine Author whose book is read best by the innocent eye and the pure heart. And it reveals that, although reading by mortals is at best approximate and therefore inadequate, experience of negation can be fecund. The passage, thus, is a beautiful coda of Welty's obsessive concerns, not only in this novel but in all the fiction she has written.
If at first glance Vaughn's vision appears as a mandala in the Eastern tradition of mysticism, closer inspection uncovers its dependency on Western sacred literacy. In imagery, theme, and inspiration this passage and its context correspond with Ezekiel's astounding apocalypse of rolling wheels, storm, glimmering light and fiery flashes, roaring waters, compound beings, and battle-like sounds. Just as the prophet received his mission through his empathy with Israel's exilic suffering, so is Vaughn made to experience, in a similar imaginative setting, his connection with a transcendent holiness and purpose signified to him through the awesome creation. The further similarity that Vaughn takes things in "like a word … being swallowed," much as Ezekiel was made to eat the scroll the Lord gave to him, should make clear the continuity between Welty's rendering of Vaughn's experience and Judaeo-Christian understanding. The scroll that Ezekiel ate is a symbol of the "firmament" first described in Genesis and later allegorically interpreted by Augustine to be a scroll of signs stretched over the waters and the earth to raise forgetful human beings out of the deep of their separation from God's love. As illustrated in Vaughn's visionary experience, Welty's characteristic technique vis-a-vis traditional symbols is to re-create them in a way that respects their original power to generate fresh perceptions of truth yet avoids their tendency to become literal in abstract concept or doctrine.
That this powerful vision is filtered through the consciousness of Vaughn elevates him to special status in Losing Battles. His fertile gift of imagination is metaphorically indicated in the narrator's description of him feeling loved objects, such as the Banner school bus, "on his tongue, like a word of his own ready to be spoken, then swallowed back into his throat, going down, inside and inside." It is unimaginable that any other member of the family would swallow a word; but for Vaughn words are not so much a medium of ritualistic performance as they are mediators of a knowledge that joins rational apprehension and interior awareness. The active quality of Vaughn's imagination is evident in his translating an owl's cry he hears as "Who cooks for you? / Who cooks for me?"—questions that ponder the manifold interdependence of man, beast, earth, and provider. Vaughn's difference from the family is clarified as he unexpectedly meets Granny at the door to her room after all the others have fallen asleep; when she, in somnambulistic indiscriminateness, invites him to "Take off your hat … And climb in wi' me," he flees the house, telling himself, "She didn't know who I was … She didn't care!" Because the family mythos so thoroughly informs Granny's sight, she hardly cares who comes to sleep in her bed so long as it is family. Vaughn, however, feeling painfully the family's oppression of the private and personal, runs to the barn where he tumbles to the floor asleep while saying his prayers. The association of Vaughn in this scene with the prophet-like Baptist preacher Grandpa Vaughn, who often filled "the upper regions" of the same barn with prayers in behalf of the family, implies the re-creation in the boy of an archetype of critical consciousness that the family, because of its naturalizing habit, but dimly remembers.
At the conclusion of Losing Battles, Jack Renfro attempts to call his white horse Dan, loose from the pasture of Curly Stovall, who had appropriated the horse in Jack's absence as payment for the Renfros' new tin roof. To save pain, the family had lied to Jack that the horse had been "rendered"; thus Jack is elated as he witnesses it in a "few bright minutes" running "lightly as a blown thistledown" all around Banner. The imagery portraying the horse implies the revelation of a spirit in it; its name and color, furthermore, associate it with Daniel and Revelation, the chief apocalyptic books of the Old and New Testaments. Whatever it stands for, the horse's escape from Curly's lot signifies its opposition to the insecurity which compels the pharisaical storekeeper to cut off other men's shirt-tails for display in his store, gestures calculated to win glory from a seeing world. In contrast, Jack draws the reader's admiration as the novel ends because he has kept faith in an ideal of honor that is personal yet still binds him to others in gracious justice and charity.
The description of Jack's pursuit of Dan includes a pun suggesting Welty's pursuit of elusive truth in her fiction. Gloria tells Jack, "Dan is fickle. And now he's Curly's horse and he's let you know it. Oh, Jack, I know you'd rather he was rendered!" "No," Jack replies, "I rather he's alive and fickle than all mine and sold for his hide and tallow." Truth of the sort Welty reveals in this novel, of human life whose self-made terms of placement are being continuously dissolved by a re-creating grace, is also fickle; any Mortimerian writer's attempt to "render" it with total visual clarity, leaving no margin for the play of words and their connotations—and the play of the reader's active imagination—would indeed "render" this truth to its "hide and tallow." Consequently, throughout her fiction Welty characteristically avoids the hard edges of exact description, relying instead on diction that retains the ambiguity of real experience, on mind-stretching and mixed figures of speech, on hilarious hyperbole and timely silence, and sometimes on an unsettling profusion of visual images that break the tyrannizing control of the reader's eye and thus allow the essence, for a moment, to disclose itself.
In the comic conclusion to Losing Battles Jack is shown returning to his farm with his wife and baby behind him on the mule ambiguously named "Bet." He sings a Protestant song of harvest that illustrates once again Welty's amazing ability to combine several levels of meaning in a single action. The song, "Bringing in the sheaves, / Bringing in the sheaves!" in echoing a Biblical hope borne by exiles ("Those that sow in tears shall reap rejoicing … shall come back rejoicing, carrying their sheaves"), anticipates a joyous fulfillment ("a Son of Man wielded his sickle over all the earth and reaped the earth's harvest"). The word "sheaves," moreover, which conflates pages with bundles of grain, suggests the novel's own work of discerning a voice in the signifying bodies of earth and of collecting its own sheaves into the credible and significant wholeness of a book whose multiple visual signs mediate that voice. Beyond this volume of temporal writing, Welty suggests, and validating whatever truth it may publish, is that other volume noted in Revelation, the "book of the living" whose pages accumulating over the ages are read by their divine author.
It is appropriate, then, that Jack's song echoes the moment in Dante's Paradiso when the poet sees, in eternal light,
All things in a single volume bound by Love,
of which the universe is the scattered leaves.
As its title implies, however, Losing Battles is not paradisal or high comedy. Its tone is too naturalistic, evil of an everyday sort remains too visible in its world, some of its petty culprits are still unscathed and at large; and its final celebration—of a married couple with a child returning to work—is too reserved and mundane. Still, its purgatorial comic resolution could have been written only by a poet capable of imagining this world's losing battles as reflecting paradisal light, and the eternal as disclosing something of its form in the letters of its own book that it writes.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3358
SOURCE: "Some Talk about Autobiography: An Interview with Eudora Welty," in The Southern Review, Vol. 26, No. 1, January, 1990, pp. 81-8.
[In the following interview, conducted in July, 1988, Welty discusses the autobiographical aspects of her novel The Optimist's Daughter which correspond to sections of her lectures presented in One Writer's Beginning.]
The inspiration for this interview came partly as a result of a conference on southern autobiography at Arkansas State in the spring of 1988. In July of that year I visited Eudora Welty at her home in Jackson, Mississippi, where we discussed correspondences between One Writer's Beginnings and her highly autobiographical novel, The Optimist's Daughter. Miss Welty also relates memories and details which reveal more of her personal involvement in this novel.—SW
[Wolff:] One of the issues raised at the recent conference on southern autobiography is whether there is a distinct body of work that might be thought of as southern autobiography. Do you think certain aspects of southern life and culture might predispose writers to autobiography?
[Welty:] Yes, I think probably so, don't you? It occurs to me that southerners take certain things for granted—such as certain classes, certain strictures, different backgrounds—people immediately make certain assumptions. Southerners want to place everybody. This was especially true in former times, when someone might say "Oh, so-and-so, his father was so-and-so." It used to be so simple—you might be born on the wrong side of the track. I remember as a child being taught not to make this count. I was warned against it. But it's a way southerners have of locating themselves.
What else in southerners might encourage them to write about themselves?
It's entertaining when it's done well. It helps you get a narrative sense of continuity when there are so many stories through the generations—something that connects people together. I missed that when I lived in other parts of the country. People were friends but had no sense of their ancestors. No one was interested. I did have a good friend—David Daiches—who invited me to visit his family in Edinburgh. The family I met there was so warm and welcoming. His three aunts met me at the door with arms extended. I felt at home with them. In the South we combine a feeling of family and of place. They are twin strands, the sense of family and place. I didn't grow up with this sense of the whole family. As you know from One Writer's Beginnings, much of the family was away.
In West Virginia?
The feeling of being somewhat isolated from the extended family also comes through in The Optimist's Daughter in Becky and Laurel's memories about West Virginia.
Yes, I used it in the work in general. I used the point of view of the child coming to something new. I did the same thing in Delta Wedding where the child's perspective is a narrative device to lead the reader into something new. In lots of stories it's the stranger to the family that provides this perspective. Maybe that is my point of view.
The rejection of Flags in the Dust seems to have turned Faulkner inward, down into himself, after which he began writing The Sound and the Fury. I'm thinking about that introduction to the book in which he says, "One day I seemed to shut a door between me and all publishers' addresses and booklists … and set out to make myself a beautiful and tragic little girl." That book seems autobiographical to me, so much a reminiscence of and a lament for lost childhood. Can you say that some set of events or some factor led you to turn to autobiography?
Well, in One Writer's Beginnings a particular event did. I was asked, as you know, to give the series of lectures at Harvard, and I thought, "I can't possibly say anything they don't already know." But Dan Aaron, my good friend, came to see me and said, "Yes, there is something you know that they do not—what books were in your grandfather's library." I thought, "That's intriguing to think about it that way." If it hadn't been for Dan the book wouldn't have happened. I wrote a great deal more material than I used. I threw away four times what I kept. I may not have chosen well, but I had to choose. One memory calls up another. Like Thomas Mann says, memory is like a well: the deeper you go, the more you recover. It's probably a good thing the book had to be compressed or I might have gone on forever. I'm not used to writing anything but fiction. I didn't make up anything in One Writer's Beginnings. I couldn't help but use my experience in knowing, for instance, what makes a scene—the dramatic sense. I think of things in scenes—trips in the car, being on the ferry boat, my mother and father arguing about their different attitudes about drowning—it was better than making a simple statement. I remember things that way—in scenes, as little wholes.
Would you say, then, that the autobiographer uses the same tools in writing autobiography that the fiction writer does?
My own bent is to use those tools. I would want certain things to be brought out in act, in deed, and in what can be observed. It's natural for me to do it that way. A poet would do it differently, I suppose, as would a railroad engineer.
Could you say that any other factors in particular led you to write autobiographically, especially in The Optimist's Daughter?
I did use things about my mother, as I have said. In The Optimist's Daughter I was trying to understand certain things, some of which are reflected in the character of my mother. All that was true. But my mother did not marry a southerner the way Becky does. So much of what I wrote about was not my mother. And that is true for the other characters.
I could not imagine that there was a "Fay" anywhere in your family.
There is no Fay in any of my life, except as she exists in the world.
Fay has always seemed highly symbolic to me.
Yes, I think she is.
What other aspects of the novel might you say were particularly autobiographical?
There are things I never realized growing up that I began to realize. I used certain things that I had been familiar with. You do this when you write any character. My mother had eye trouble, but she didn't have a detached retina. I did know someone who had a detached retina, though. I nursed my mother through cataract surgery, and some of the details I used for the judge. She had sandbags, for instance, and she couldn't move her head. It's not literal, though. If it were it would be a damn difficult task to write the literal truth. It was hard to do in One Writer's Beginnings, to give an account of family illness. I don't think I could have done that in a novel.
Would you say, then, that writing autobiography is more difficult than writing fiction?
When I was writing The Optimist's Daughter, I never gave a thought to myself—my self did not enter into the novel. It's much easier for me to write fiction. I try to put myself into the characters and see how they felt. Any nonfiction is so different from fiction. A book review, for instance, is completely different from using your imagination in a story.
In an earlier interview, you said that in One Writer's Beginnings you wrote for the first time about yourself and that the experience was enlightening. Could you elaborate about what this writing experience taught you?
Well, I'd like to think about that for awhile. I will say that it came about without my realizing it at the time. Writing about anything teaches you—it teaches you the recognition of things in your life that you remember, but you might not have recognized their portent. It's like you have an electric shock—and you can say that's when I recognized so-and-so. Writing is a way to come to terms with whatever you've done or not done—what your life has meant to you—good or bad. One thing leads to another subjectively, and you could probably go on forever.
Do you have that same experience writing fiction?
Yes. That same feeling comes from writing fiction. In the course of writing a scene of interplay between two characters, you build to a confrontation that needs to take place—and you realize that's why you were diddling with it and fooling with it in the first place—there was something in there. It's like a belated understanding. I seem to come to understanding belatedly.
Lately I read a statement by Sarah Orne Jewett that all the materials you need to be an artist you know by the time you are ten years old. Would you agree?
How could you ever prove it, though? But yes, I think I know what she means, don't you? Your capacity for realizing the other people in the world, your physical world, even if you can't define them, you know what they are.
And memories of childhood are an important source for the artist.
Yes, they are a fund.
I'm interested in the remark you made earlier that when you were writing The Optimist's Daughter you did not envision yourself in the novel. Laurel has characteristics which are both similar to and unlike yours, doesn't she?
Yes. In a wider sense, I would say it was my own inquiring mind that corresponds to the girl's in the novel, to the effort to understand your roots and the decision in the end that you can't be held back by the past. I used things that would be useful in the novel. The war was very important, for instance. My friend in World War II married into—well, when someone was lost—like Phil is—I knew what that feeling was like. How could I not have? That was a war people believed in. We still had the belief in World War II that war could be ended by licking the Nazis. The difference in attitude toward war now is striking. Some of my friends put on a production at the New Stage of the songs of Irving Berlin. The young girls were giggling at songs like "Over There!" and the director stopped them and said, "When those songs were written, they meant that." It was a bad war. The boys we knew were involved and we were with them. These young people in the theater couldn't conceive of fighting for a cause. This applies to Phil. The part in the novel about the kamikaze happened to my brother Walter. He was in the Navy at Okinawa, and later he was asked, "How close have you come to a kamikaze?" and he said, "Close enough to shake hands with." So I put that in the story. Who could ever make up a thing like that?
No one could. Was Phil made up?
Phil is an amalgamation of a lot of boys I knew. My other brother, the middle child, has some of his characteristics—those double-jointed thumbs, and he was an architect. Phil has not got his character, though. Although he did make a breadboard. But no one ever acted badly about it.
No one ever acted the way Fay does?
Not in my family: but I've seen a-many, a-many. And anyone who's ever had anyone in the hospital will recognize the people who sit in the waiting rooms and eat and drink and talk. I wouldn't want anyone to think that I was using their sick in the novel, but these things come back to me, like air, and I use them.
Everybody told me I was absolutely right with the hospital scenes. I heard people say some of those things, like "I'm not gonna let him die wanting water." It's the inadequacy of their comprehension, or maybe they can't express it. They say, "What is yours doing? Mine is doing OK."
Mr. Dalzell's line, "Don't let the fire go out, son!" is tragic and funny at the same time.
I love Mr. Dalzell. The fire, of course, is life too. He talks in terms of the things he knows—country things. He and the judge were so different, but I thought it would be good to have them in the same room together. They each had a sense of honor and would have respected each other. He was a gentleman—like Fay's old grandfather—these are affinities among characters that don't have anything to do with their circumstances.
Let me go back to Laurel for a moment. I was surprised to read in one of your interviews that you identify most with your character Miss Eckhart rather than with Laurel.
It's not that I shared any of my life with Miss Eckhart. She was devoted to her art. I could identify with Laurel in wanting to know about family and relationships, in living through World War II when my friends and brothers were fighting, and also in my sense that Laurel had left home and had a life elsewhere that had something to do with the arts. I wouldn't have thought of making her a writer. The fact that she was in the arts allied her with Phil, who is also a maker, and in the end she goes back to that life, but without leaving anything behind. She knows the future is to be valued. I sympathize with all these attitudes. I am not Laurel. But I have the feeling of the close-knit family—do you remember the scene where they're holding each other's hands? I've gone through that feeling a lot though my own father died when I was just out of college.
Miss Eckhart and Laurel are alike, then, in their dedication to their art?
Miss Eckhart is a teacher, though—I've never seen myself as a teacher. Both Miss Eckhart and Laurel had belief in the individual—in what an artist does. In her own way—you know, I really hadn't thought of it until now—Laurel was as isolated in the town as Miss Eckhart was. Laurel was protected and pampered by the town, but when it came down to it no one could share in her deepest feelings about life and responsibility. We don't ordinarily talk about things like that in the South, or maybe anywhere.
Laurel's privacy and isolation are reflected in the narration, too. We do not see into Laurel's thoughts until the very end of the book.
She is subservient to what she endures going on around her, and then she is activated by this. She has a muted position. It's not her place to yell and scream. She's kept a lot of things inside her. In the part about New Orleans, when she and Fay are in those cheap rooms where you can hear through the walls—I wanted that to be foreboding.
It is, especially when Fay sees the bride and groom skeletons at the carnival.
I took that part from real life. I took a picture one time at Mardi Gras in New Orleans of a man and woman dressed as skeletons, and she was holding a bouquet of white lilies. And I saw the man with the Spanish moss; he was dressed entirely in Spanish moss. It was all over his hair, like he had a permanent of long curls, and he was dressed in a whole suit of Spanish moss.
In one of the early versions of The Optimist's Daughter you wrote out some scenes depicting Phil and Laurel courting, and in one scene Phil's mother asks Laurel how far apart their children will be spaced. Why did you decide to delete this material?
That's a good middlewestern touch in the kitchen, isn't it? I remember writing the courtship scene, but maybe I left it out because it didn't fit my purpose as well. I wanted the relationship of Phil and Laurel to be taken for granted for my purposes in the novel. It gave it a more proper depth and allowed me to concentrate on the scene in which Phil says, "I wanted it! I wanted it!" It's really a short novel, and I still think of it as a long short story. You have to get the proportions right. You have to keep in mind the good of the whole story. That is true for writing short stories, too; you have to get the balance right. Dozens of possible scenes show the same point, and I have to choose as in One Writer's Beginnings. I just have to feel my way to it.
Did you save the material for One Writer's Beginnings that you did not use?
I saved the notebooks I wrote it from. I did write those as lectures, and I did have the deadline of timing—length was one thing I had to go by because they were lectures. I probably threw away some of it that didn't show an event as well. I can remember things in stories—the choice I made for stories—more than in that book.
You said earlier that in the end of The Optimist's Daughter, Laurel learns to move to the future. She packs up the family home, and she leaves for the North. Would you say that autobiographical writing allows you to imagine your own life choices in another way? Is this a freeing experience?
It can be. The end of the novel embodied Laurel's whole experience. It had to be settled and then done with as far as her practical life is concerned. She would never forget any of the past, though. Miss Adele was very sensitive to what was going on with Laurel. I like my character Miss Adele. Laurel could not be the only one who felt things, who was aware. That just worked out as I was writing it. I'm glad it happened.
Do you recall any other changes that emerged from the experience of writing The Optimist's Daughter?
The publisher might have wanted to go ahead and print the novel as it was published in the New Yorker. But I wanted a waiting period to let things settle to see how I felt about it. I wanted to let a little time pass. I always change things. I don't know exactly what changes I made in the different versions; it all seems the one thing to me now.
There are some provocative changes; one is the change from the New Yorker title—"An Only Child." Would you comment on that change?
I wanted to have something about the eyes. I first wanted to call it "Poor Eyes," but that was voted down. Bill Maxwell and Diarmuid Russell didn't like it. Bill did like The Optimist's Daughter. He said it gave a nice "chill of apprehension." But I've never been very good at titles. After the book came out I had letters that had the title wrong: "I so much enjoyed The Optimistic Daughter." Another one said The Optometrist's Daughter. That's a good one, don't you think? The Optometrist's Daughter? Because of the eyes?
Yes, that's good. Is there a sense in which "An Only Child" is an autobiographical title, even though you are not an only child?
Yes, I dramatized the sense of being an only child. If Laurel had had brothers, like I had, she wouldn't have had the trouble she did. I was not an only child but the only girl—that is difference enough to understand the feeling that you are by yourself.
By yourself in confronting the deaths of so many family members?
That reminds me of Mrs. Chisom's summation of Laurel's predicament: "So you ain't got father, mother, brother, sister, husband, chick nor child." I like that: "chick nor child."
Isn't Chisom a good name for them? And I like the sound of Wanda Fay. I love that.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 791
SOURCE: "Welty's Losing Battles," in The Explicator, Vol. 51, No. 1, Fall, 1992, pp. 49-50.
[In the following review, Nordby Gretlund discusses the scene in Welty's Losing Battles in which Granny invites Vaughn to get in bed with her, and asserts that the scene is a case of mistaken identity, not a revelation of a dark side of the family.]
It is my impression that there is an intense search among critics for censure by Welty of the farmers in her novel Losing Battles. I think that the subconscious rejection of her blatant celebration of the Beecham-Renfros stems from an unsatisfied urge among Welty's admirers to locate passages in her fiction that deal with the dark, or even evil, side of humanity. Several critics are obviously of the conviction that only the presence of unexplained evil will give her fiction its full depth, so they cast about for the negative aspects of Welty's characters. And whereas the dark side of man is definitely present in her fiction, critics are not always locating it in the right places. As a typical case in point I can refer to the many surprising interpretations of the following scene.
It is late in the evening after the reunion. Granny Vaughn has retired to her bed, and Vaughn, Jack's brother, who is twelve, is making his way through the passage of the house to the loft, to bed down after a long day's hard work:
Then all of a sudden there came through the passage a current of air. A door swung open in Vaughn's face and there was Granny, tiny in her bed in full lamplight. For a moment the black bear-skin on the floor by the bed shone red-haired, live enough to spring at him. After the moonlight and the outdoors, the room was as yellow and close as if he and Granny were embedded together in a bar of yellow soap. "Take off your hat," Granny's mouth said. "And climb in wi' me." He fled out of her dazzled sight. "She didn't know who I was," he told himself, running. And then, "She didn't care!"
The rest of the scene is simply a description of the confused boy's flight to the loft.
In an early essay, originally broadcast by Voice of America in 1973, Seymour Gross commented that the night scene is "the literal and symbolic dark time of the novel." He continues: "Granny, anguished by the end of the reunion, pleads with Vaughn, neither knowing nor caring who he is, to get into bed with her." Gross's idea about this scene has been perpetuated by Larry J. Reynolds in an equally influential essay of 1978. Reynolds wrote, "Vaughn Renfro's painful and nightmarish vision as he encounters Granny in bed further discloses a reality neither lighthearted, comic, nor charming…. Granny is ready to ask someone to share her bed, not knowing nor caring who it is, because she does know that that person represents relief from the loneliness she feels." As Reynolds goes on, it becomes obvious that he is relieved "that the truth about Granny Vaughn's family has been completely revealed." Most critics follow Gross and Reynolds in this reading. As Elizabeth Evans phrases it: "Vaughn is distressed when Granny awakens and, not knowing who he is, invites him to her bed [my italics]."
But is this really an important scene that completely reveals the dark side of this family? As Elin Harkema, who is an old woman, has pointed out to me, the truth is that Granny believes she knows the person she is inviting into her bed very well. To understand this we have to remember an earlier sentence in the novel, about Vaughn's riding Bet, the mule, through the night "dosed with moonlight," wondering what Jack's return will mean to him. Welty continues: "Grandpa Vaughn's hat came down low and made his ears stick out like funnels." In other words, Vaughn is wearing Grandpa Vaughn's hat, and a little later he carries well water in it. It is probably her late husband that Granny thinks she sees that night. Remember what she said: "Take off your hat…. And climb in wi' me."
Granny Vaughn is ninety years old. Her eyesight is failing, she is asleep after a tiring day, and she is awakened by a thud when her door swings open. Is it any wonder that when she looks up against the glare of the lamplight and against moonlight "the thickness of China" and sees the outline of her husband's hat in her doorway, she is "dazzled" enough to believe for a second that her husband is still with her? It is no wonder that the boy is puzzled by Granny's invitation, but is there any reason why we should be puzzled or shocked?
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5496
SOURCE: "'Among Those Missing': Phil Hand's Disappearance from The Optimist's Daughter," in Southern Literary Journal, Vol. 25, No. 1, Fall, 1992, pp. 74-88.
[In the following essay, Wolff discusses how the character of Philip Hand, from Welty's The Optimist's Daughter, was changed as the author revised the work.]
Eudora Welty published The Optimist's Daughter first as a short story in the New Yorker in 1969 and subsequently as a novel in 1972. Radically revising the character of Philip Hand during successive interim versions of the story, initially omitting and then adding, Welty finally excised most material that elaborates his character and brief marriage to Laurel. In the novel, little description of Phil remains except for a paragraph about his origins on an Ohio farm and a brief reminiscence about their wedding day, altogether amounting to no more than four pages of text. During the process of achieving the final version, Welty deleted some twenty pages of romantic scenes depicting the meeting, courtship, and marriage of Phil and Laurel.
Not included in the original story, Phil Hand evolved into a strong physical presence in the interim versions. The Philip Hand in the resulting novel, however, is dead, disembodied, arising only in Laurel's reverie on the night of her father's funeral. In the novel, though gone, Philip Hand makes his voice heard:
the past had been raised up, and he looked at her, Phil himself—here waiting, all the time, Lazarus. He looked at her out of eyes wild with the craving for his unlived life, with mouth open like a funnel's…. 'Laurel! Laurel! Laurel!' Phil's voice cried. She wept for what happened to life. 'I wanted it!' Phil cried. His voice rose with the wind in the night and went around the house and around the house. It became a roar. 'I wanted it!'
In the novel version, left bodiless and graveless in his World War II death, Phil exists in Laurel's mind, not as a whole man, not even as a memory of a whole, but as a remembered image, a remembered voice. Phil is only a cry of despair that reverberates in Laurel's mind with an excruciating anguish not found elsewhere in Eudora Welty's fiction. His anguish naturally becomes Laurel's cry, too, of lost opportunity for life and love. As the physicality of Phil disappears, the text about him does also. Almost simultaneously creating and erasing, Welty alters Phil from the resplendent young bridegroom of the early sketches to a shadow and an absence. Her final rendering of him is the deathly, ghostly sound, occurring in Laurel's dream, as she slumps forward in her chair. Welty has commented upon the decision to alter the presentation of Phil:
I wanted the relationship of Phil and Laurel to be taken for granted for my purpose in the novel. It gave it a more proper depth and allowed me to concentrate on the scene in which Phil says, 'I wanted it!' It's really a short novel, and I still think of it as a long short story. You have to get the proportions right. You have to keep in mind the good of the whole story.
By deliberately excising Phil, Welty dramatically restructures the story into a novel that focuses not upon the happy days enjoyed by Laurel and Phil, but upon the end of those days and his disappearance. As the literal presence of Phil diminishes, he metaphorically looms larger, and as the descriptions of his everyday life with Laurel and their domestic bliss are made more sketchy, Phil becomes more fully identified. The excisions profoundly transform "The Optimist's Daughter" from a story about love to a novel about tragedy and death. Initially pictured an only child, Laurel evolves into a character who knew love, was courted, married, and widowed—a woman whose untold love story ended almost before it began. Only Phil's memory emerges as the sustaining power of the novel's final pages.
In early drafts Phil does not appear, but Laurel is immediately introduced as a widow. Draft one, sentence one reads: "Laurel Hand, born Laurel McKelva." Welty pictured Laurel's marriage before she created a husband for her. In fact, Welty recently stated that "Phil was always there in my mind, even before I decided to write about him." Laurel's absent husband is mentioned only once in several early drafts of the story, as Mrs. Chisom queries Laurel about him. In draft one, for example, we find only one reference to Laurel's husband:
"You had a bad luck with your husband, too?" Mrs. Chisom asked Laurel.
"He was lost over North Africa."
"So you ain't got father, mother, brother, sister, husband, chick nor child." Mrs. Chisom poked Laurel as if to send her from the room.
"Not a soul to call on, that's you."
Though blunt and intrusive, Mrs. Chisom has struck at the heart of Laurel's lonely predicament. Like Everyman, Laurel has no "soul to call on" and must rely only upon her memory. The title for draft one of the story, "An Only Child," is particularly apt, in this context, emphasizing Laurel's aloneness and reflecting Welty's autobiographical tendency to incorporate into this work her experience as the only girl in a family with two brothers, a configuration that gave her the "feeling that you are by yourself."
In draft two of "An Only Child," the mention of Laurel's husband is made more vague rather than more detailed: he "died in the war." Here he is dead even without the African location, without any location. She subsequently changes the scene of Phil's death, a third time, to the Battle of Leyte (Gulf), but in the final version he dies in an unspecified location in the Pacific, an early indication of the eventual placelessness, gravelessness, and anonymity Welty later accords his wartime death. Further alterations occur in Phil's war assignments. Initially serving as a fighter pilot, Phil later dies as a communications officer aboard a mine sweeper in the Navy.
Not until the third draft of the story does Welty first sketch a full character resembling Phil Hand, yet he remains unnamed. This character, a friend who lives in Chicago, will comfort Laurel:
—a friend who was not to be turned away like another Major Bullock, a friend who with healthy Middlewestern impatience would answer her….
The character of Phil Hand, Welty says, derives partly from her brothers and partly from the memories of friends lost in World War II. Her compositional technique is evinced in the combining of aspects of real people and places with the imagined to create a fictional whole. She specifically refers to "Those who fought in the Italian campaign started out over North Africa…. I had a friend who fought in the Italian campaign. But my brother fought in Okinawa, and I put that in, too." Her brother's character informs Phil's characteristics the most vividly:
Phil is an amalgamation of a lot of boys I knew. My other brother, the middle child, has some of his characteristics—those double-jointed thumbs, and he was an architect. Phil has not got his character, though. Although he did make a breadboard. But no one ever acted badly about it.
Some twenty pages of fragments describe Phil and Laurel together during early courtship days and suggest that Welty gathered together the material about this "Chicago friend" from different places or drafts. Suzanne Marrs points out in The Welty Collection that this material contains Welty's note to herself to "Omit this part for now," and that these fragments indicate her possible intention "to return to this character before publishing her story as a book."
What seems clear, at least, is that Welty once considered a greater emphasis on the early love relationship between Phil and Laurel than she finally chose for either story or novel. "Sometimes you have to know what happened to character, even if you do not use it," Welty says. Her decision to exclude the sketches of Phil as a courting lover and young husband results in an intensified conclusion for the novel, one with more mystery and pathos.
Among these revisions and drafts, available in the Mississippi State Archives, the portraits of Philip Hand do exist as Welty originally conceived them. Particularly vivid are several romantic scenes that capture the spontaneous attraction between Laurel and Phil, a quality that survives in subsequent versions, until finally it is radically reduced. Here Welty finally names Laurel's friend "Phil," and describes the couple in the kitchen of Phil's mother, on the occasion of Laurel's first visit to his family home. We hear again the theme of the "only child" as Phil's mother pleads for more than one grandchild.
His family in their Middlewestern way had seemed to her pleasantly fond and wholesomely unacquainted with one another. In the occasion of their first visit, she had heard Phil's mother ask him at the table if he liked ice cream. In exactly the same voice she had asked Laurel, over dishwashing, how soon, how many, and how wide apart would the children be? When Laurel dropped a pie plate, Mrs. Hand had [implored] [explained], "Please, not an only child!"… She laughed at the thought of her own mother making any of these remarks.
Though his Midwestern mother's directness is given voice here, Phil still has no voice of his own. Laurel's point of view governs this kitchen scene, and as Phil's mother questions her directly about children, Welty establishes a contrast between her manner and Laurel's Southern decorum. "That's a good middlewestern touch in the kitchen, isn't it," Welty now muses about her early draft. The question of the children implies marriage and sex, surprising the shy Laurel, who drops the pie plate she is holding. "Southerners," Welty says, "would not have asked the question, though it is a perfectly good question to ask." Despite these familial differences, Laurel's attraction to Phil grows. She enjoys his independence of mind and love of privacy—two qualities Laurel also possesses:
Part of Philip's arrest on her mind was his complete silence about his family. Nobody ever sat at a board and drew with a pencil who was not in love with privacy, she supposed. Phil seemed a prodigy of independence, and yet he was deprived—she had first thought him shallow; he seemed not even very much to tolerate the human species.
Draft three continues Welty's definition of Phil Hand, yet the descriptions are still sketchy, and like his name, synecdochal. His gentleness and love of birds are clear:
He was an Ohio boy, had loved birds; he stole away from life class to watch birds instead, filled his sketchbook with them, knew all about their nesting, migrations—had shown Laurel the birds of the lake, of the Northern cold.
The meeting between Laurel and Phil, she writes: "had been spontaneous—they had begun by dancing well together." Yet after the publication of the New Yorker story, the meeting place changes to the steps of the Chicago Art Institute. The predominant characteristics of both meetings are consistent: the attraction between these two people is spontaneous and strong, mutual, immediate, and undeniable.
She and Philip first walked toward each other by chance in front of the Art Institute. Each knew who the other was, there had been a friend in common. It was a cold, dark Sunday afternoon in the middle of March; the lake was indigo. They walked into the museum together and walked up the staircase, enclosed by the Sunday throng, shoulder to shoulder. As they climbed, a Monet on the floor above (it was a loan exhibition) shed light halfway down the staircase towards them, out of a lady's open parasol. They were stopped at the same moment with a foot on the same step. Then up they sped. For the rest of the afternoon, they walked miles without ever leaving the museum and never stopped talking. They were aware of an attraction as if it had been some amazing resemblance growing between them, which called clamorous attention to itself and reverberated to their footsteps. In front of a Bonnard lithograph six inches square, which contained the expansiveness of a woman standing with her arm down—curved to place a bowl in front of a man seated at a table, they came to another halt, and exchanged addresses and phone numbers. Both wrote with Venus drawing pencils, and both pencils raced, as though two lives would depend upon their quickness.
Welty characterizes the marriage of Laurel and Phil as one of magical ease—"They would live in Chicago where they had met … at the Art Institute … [They hurried] each night to get back to the apartment, that dark into which the two used to walk [,] swaying with happiness." The "manual training" Phil received in high school enables him to solve the domestic, electrical, and carpentry problems around the house.
He was amused that she had come to marriage unprepared for life with anybody who knew how to make things work. He re-routed the wiring in their apartment to give them their bed light. He made a four-legged stool for her to stand on to put up her curtains and hang her wash. He said it was just like the stool he'd made in manual training class the seventh grade in Logan's Bridge, Ohio.
Eventually he makes the breadboard, a touching gift of his handiwork for his mother-in-law.
The compatibility between Laurel and Phil derives partly from their common art; the idea of designing has metaphorical significance for both Laurel and Phil. An architect, Phil imagines and sketches houses—domestic structures—while Laurel, first a painter, later opts for design—she becomes a decorator of interior spaces. This change in Laurel's career, from painter to interior designer, is a significant one, suggesting that she is a shaper of interior landscapes.
Quickly, however, the first indications come that Laurel has lost Phil.
Laurel thought we loved each other! To love is not to dismiss. It was not even a very long time ago. But memory was a reckless power, as independent of wish as the power of loving. [Phil was the only ghost in her life, she thought]. The reminder of loss was still a part of her conscious effort to live, but was familiar now, almost in the nature of comfort. Losing your love was like being given a compass, though too late for the journey.
Welty likens love to memory, since both are "reckless" powers now ranging out of control, "independent" of the wish of the individual. She likens the loss of love to a compass—found "too late" to chart the waters together. Laurel makes the "conscious effort to live" after Phil's death, only to meet perpetual loneliness as a penance. His accustomed absence—in Derridean terms, the presence of an absence—takes on the familiarity of "a comfort."
Laurel's memories of Phil in these unpublished sketches now begin to move, "press forward," and erupt in her mind, unbeckoned, beyond her conscious control, and requiring her full attention. She ruminates about this selective, uncontrollable quality of memory, which Welty later calls "the somnambulist." Phil, the most repressed memory she has, emerges from the deep recesses of her mind:
Of all those who moved in her mind, he was the retiring one. Those closest to us in time seem quickest to vanish, and those who lay deep back begin to press forward, making voices heard. [In the long period of sleeplessness of the war and after the war [he was lost], [she was in effect staying awake]….
Laurel's sleeplessness carries forward the more general motif in the novel of sightlessness, hindsight, and the personification of memory as somnambulist. Laurel's father and mother each die blind or nearly blind. The loss of sight ironically creates deepened hindsight in both Judge McKelva and his daughter, each of whom achieves a heightened understanding of love. In this context, Welty's title change of draft four, from "An Only Child" to "Poor Eyes," is understandable. She has commented further upon that change in title:
I wanted to have something about the eyes. I first wanted to call it "Poor Eyes," but that was voted down. Bill Maxwell and Diarmuid Russell didn't like it. Bill did like The Optimist's Daughter. He said it gave a nice "chill of apprehension." But I've never been very good at titles. After the book came out I had letters that had the title wrong: "I so much enjoyed The Optimistic Daughter." Another said The Optometrist's Daughter. That's a good one, don't you think? The Optometrist's Daughter? Because of the eyes?
Welty's title also reflects her own propensity to learn through hindsight: "I seem to come to understanding belatedly," she says, and in One Writer's Beginnings she applies this sense of understanding to her parents' lives.
It seems to me, writing of my parents now in my seventies, that I see continuities in their lives that weren't visible to me when they were living. Even at the times that have left me my most vivid memories of them, there were connections between them that escape me. Could it be because I can better see their lives—or any lives I know—today because I am a fiction writer?
Sleeplessness and hindsight seem most closely related in Welty's image of memory as "the somnambulist," the wakeful sleeper.
The revisions also carefully trace Phil's wartime activities and death. During the war, Phil's letter home warns of the proximity of the perilous Kamikaze planes and presages his imminent death.
He had written on a V-mail letter not to her but to her father, and she, being at home, had opened it—the only letter not her own she had ever opened [and done as if to show she was married]—read aloud the absurdly reduced laconic words that the suicide flyers had been up to now approaching the carrier 'close enough to shake hands with me.'
The autobiographical underpinnings of these scenes become clear in Welty's statements:
My friend in World War II married into—well, when someone was lost like Phil is—I knew what that feeling was like. How could I not have?… It was a bad war. The boys we knew were involved in this, and we were with them. These young people (today) … couldn't conceive of fighting for a cause. This applies to Phil. The part in the novel about the kamikaze happened to Walter. He was in the Navy Okinawa, and later he was asked, 'How close have you come to a kamikaze' and he said, 'Close enough to shake hands with.' So I put that in the story. Who could ever make up a thing like that?"
The inevitable moment soon arrives, in these dramatic but fragmented sketches, in which Laurel receives the news of Phil's death.
That night there came knocking—first on the front room door of this apartment and then, down the hall, at her bedroom door: [S]he was writing him a letter, half drawing it the way they wrote to each other. She put her head out the front door—She recognized the knocker in a moment. It was the neighborhood Taxi, that was all;
"Wrong door." she said, pert-voiced, a young matron in the north.
He came on in. "You got a place to sit down, lady? You got a death message." He handed her a telegram. [from Washington.]
"But you were just the taxi driver!" He put on his cap, with a badge lettered "TAXI[.]" and clumped off down the stairs. Still standing in her doorway with her telegram, she heard the taxi proving itself, creaking off into the snow.
This scene is redolent with implication. Laurel receives the news of Phil's death as she is in the bedroom writing him a letter. But she is "half-drawing" this letter, "the way they always wrote to each other," another testament to their shared artistry and affection. Laurel is unaware that as she composes the letter, Phil is dead.
The ironically off-handed method by which the devastating death letter reaches Laurel, by way of "just the taxi driver," has echoes in other Welty stories of the injustice of accident. In "A Piece of News," for example, Ruby Fisher reads a shocking news story that she believes to be pronouncing her own death. The news article startles her, as for Laurel, because the outside world violates the private sphere abruptly; the newspaper and the taxi driver alter lives with cruel anonymity. Miss Larkin in "A Curtain of Green" similarly loses her husband to accident, her loss lasting a lifetime. Laurel can control neither the shock of Phil's death, nor the abruptly inadequate and inappropriate manner in which the news arrives.
Disappearing while flying over the Pacific, Phil is, as military euphemism would have it, "among the missing." But Laurel's imagination dwells upon the gruesome fate of her lover's body:
But of what had happened to him and his plane, there had been no living witness, [there was no trace]. He was among those missing, and that was the end of it. He was bones on the Pacific floor. Or his drowned body had washed up on some strip of sand and birds he would have loved and known had eaten him. And because there was nothing of him left, her [his] memory of Phil was intact; satisfied. Everything changes. [His memory was intact, yet vast (.) (F)or her it was Chicago].
Phil is physically gone, his body violently destroyed. "Bodiless and graveless," as Welty describes him later in the novel, Phil's association with birds becomes even more ironic because this careful watcher and lover of birds—who "filled his sketchbook" with birds, "knew all about their … nesting, migrations," had shown these birds to Laurel—has now literally been eaten by them.
Phil's death by drowning also has significant ramifications in the larger context of the novel. Death by water is a common end for Welty characters. Clytic drowns in a rainbarrel; Hazel Jamison in "The Wide Net" threatens to drown herself, and since she is presumed drowned, the community drags the river for her body. Grady's father has drowned in the Pearl River (in "The Wide Net"), and tears come to Grady's eyes when he imagines his drowned father's visage:
Without warning he saw something … perhaps the image in the river seemed to be his father, the drowned man—with arms open, eyes open, mouth open … Grady stared and blinked, again something wrinkled up his face.
Written thirty years before The Optimist's Daughter, this passage closely resembles the drowned visage of Phil as it appears to Laurel in the novel—mouth open, eyes open, voice crying out, as the survivor weeps for love and for the dead.
For Welty, the drowned face is the face of death in its most horrifying form—eyes that are open but cannot see, arms open wide that cannot embrace, and a mouth that is open but has no breath or voice. Although Judge McKelva does not literally drown, Welty insists on a parallel:
He made what seemed to her a response at last, yet a mysterious response. His whole pillowless head went dusky, as if he laid it under the surface of dark, pouring water and held it there.
In Welty's photographs and stories, the human face is the clearest image of life, and so bereft of all expression and voice, the drowned face becomes her most profound image of the finality of death.
The association of water with death and memory occurs in all versions of The Optimist's Daughter, perhaps because water, with its fluid properties, resembles the onset and then the "flood" of memory, that can "roll its wave" over Laurel "unbidden." In the first complete draft of the novel, for example, water evokes Laurel's memory of Phil as she washes her hands.
'the way to cool off the soonest is to let water run over the veins in your wrists.' Philip Hand's voice returned in the running water and spoke from her memory unbidden. She stood there, letting the water cool her, and the tears brimmed her eyes.
Memory arises against her will. Phil is disembodied here, as well—no image appears; Laurel simply hears his voice. But the moment is not one of horror as in the final pages of the novel. Instead the voice soothes her soul, just as the running water cools her body. Water and grief commingle again as Laurel weeps at her father's funeral. As she stands at the gravesite, grief deafens her, and she does not hear the funeral sermon.
Dr. Bolt assumed position and pronounced the words. Again Laurel failed to hear what came from his lips. She might not even have heard the high school band. Sounds from the highway rolled in upon her with the rise and fall of eternal ocean waves. They were as deafening as grief. Windshields flashed into her eyes like lights through tears.
The psychological significance of the journey that the judge embarks upon is here suggested by Welty's powerfully descriptive language. Sounds from the interstate achieve the deafening pitch of "eternal ocean waves." "The ancient porter," unloading Judge McKelva's coffin from the train, is a modern-day Charon, the mythic boatman who ferries the souls of the dead down the river of eternal woe. Sound carries meaning: "There was a dead boom like the rolling in of an ocean wave. The hearse door had been slammed shut." Laurel's father is poised for his journey down the river of oblivion. The bridge over the Mississippi River, shrouded in nightfall, that Laurel sees from the Judge's hospital room window shortly before his death, further symbolizes his impending passage into the world beyond. The metaphor of the wave now takes on even more texture and resonance in describing her marriage to Phil.
As far as Laurel had ever known, there had not happened a single blunder in their short life together. But with Phil's death, the knowledge that nothing had protected him had rolled its wave in on her, over her head, and when its savagery was spent had left her stranded.
Like Phil's bones, washed ashore, Laurel is emotionally "stranded" without him. Her memory of him is "vast," like the Pacific Ocean in which he drowns, and her soul expires along with Phil's: "If Phil had lived and I had lived!"
But Laurel cannot renew Phil's life nor save it. Saving one's life is at first a joking matter between the two lovers:
'You saved my life,' she'd said when Phil replaced the broken sash cord so that the little kitchen window could be raised. 'Well, that time it was easy,' he said, and, both laughing, they sat down to the table with a blessing of a fresh breeze from the lake. Even to the sound of a distant band concert—and he'd whistled along with it, as though to say a proper husband could produce music just by loving it, skim it right off the lake.
Overseas, in wartime battles of fire and water, Phil is vulnerable to the kamikaze, and neither she nor anyone can protect him from death: "She'd had to learn it again, and now from Philip Hand again. Who knew better than she now that protecting was the feeblest act of love."
The theme of protection and vulnerability continues to wind suggestively through the later novel. Laurel's mother Becky cannot protect her own father from death, nor can Laurel save her father from destruction. Welty cites in One Writer's Beginnings the roots of this idea in her parents' lives. Her father saves her mother's life once, but ultimately she cannot save him when he needs a blood transfusion:
This time, she would save his life, as he'd saved hers so long ago, when she was dying of septicemia. What he'd done for her in giving her the champagne, she would be able to do for him now in giving her own blood.
The medical procedure fails, and Welty's father dies: "My mother … never stopped blaming herself. She saw this as her failure to save his life." The complexity of these lessons results in the fictional Laurel's understanding that "protecting was the feeblest act of love."
In revising The Optimist's Daughter, Welty excised most passages that elaborate the character of Philip Hand and his early married days with Laurel. The little description of Phil's character remaining in the novel, a brief account of his wedding day, does not substitute for the excision of sketches portraying happy love. These excisions emphasize the horror of Phil's demise and the tragedy of his loss. Commenting upon her decision to deemphasize their romance, Welty said that:
There wasn't time for any of it. I played Laurel down from the beginning—she's the eyes. But when I started developing it more, I decided to concentrate on Phil's death rather than on the earlier material…. Laurel's romance wants to come out, too. She's been trying to bring it forth. Her own has been kept waiting. Finally it burgeons out, especially in the context of the records she goes through, and the storm, and the crisis.
Not included in her original story, Phil Hand evolves into a character during Welty's compositional process. After the radical excisions, the Philip Hand of the final draft, dead and disembodied, arises in Laurel's purgatorial memory, like the ghost of Hamlet, returned from the grave to inflame the survivor with grief. The novel now relentlessly and powerfully apprehends the image of the dead Philip Hand.
She had gone on living with the old perfection undisturbing. Now, by her own hands, the past had been raised up, and he looked at her, Phil himself—here waiting, all the time, Lazarus. He looked at her out of eyes wild with the craving for his unlived life, with mouth open like a funnel's … 'Laurel! Laurel! Laurel!' Phil's voice cried. She wept for what happened to life. 'I wanted it!' Phil cried. His voice rose with the wind in the night and went around the house and around the house. It became a roar. 'I wanted it!'
Here at last is the remembered voice of the husband silenced by death, "raised up" like Lazarus by Laurel's "hands." His voice rises with the wind in a deep and profound cry for life that becomes Laurel's expression, too, of her own missed opportunity: "I wanted it!" Phil's voice, the tornadic "roar" whirling around the house, becomes the second metaphor for the sound, like the eternal ocean waves, of deafening grief.
Removing the early sketches, reducing Phil to a voice enveloping Laurel, Welty achieves the emotional pitch and imagistic clarity that is the genius of The Optimist's Daughter. Phil's spirit merges with the bird that rushes through Laurel's house, as images of water shift to those of flight and sound. The next scene introduces a small, brown chimney sweep who enters the house with a disturbing, "pounding" wingbeat. Once inside the house, the bird "frantically" strikes itself against the window. Laurel catches and releases the bird, which flies away with a gently palpable wind. The bird, like Phil, appears bodiless as it recedes:
Something struck her face—not feathers; it was a blow of wind. The bird was away. In the air it was nothing but a pair of wings—she saw no body any more, no tail, just a tilting crescent being drawn back into the sky.
The final image of the disappearing bird symbolically incorporates both Phil's physical absence and his presence. Avid birdwatcher, sketcher of birds, eaten by them on the Pacific sands, Phil assumes here the corporeality of the chimney swift, as the housekeeper, Missouri, warns with her folk wisdom, "Bird in the house means death." As Laurel carries the bird out of the house, she has "full knowledge" of its body and spirit "vibrating through the ribs of the baskets, the beat of its wings or of its heart." The violent winds of the past are transformed here into a feather-like brush of wind of a chimney swift's wing. Her night of agony is over; even the house is still "like a ship that has tossed all night and come to harbor." Laurel's waves of emotion subside. The catharsis is at hand: the exhalation of the breath, the calming of the wind and water.
In the final moments of the ultimate chapter comes the heartrending apotheosis of Philip Hand and Laurel's own salvation, as Welty draws together the disparate symbols of bird, war-plane, and wind into the single image of the "tilting crescent," spent in memory. Mrs. Chisom was mistaken: Laurel has indeed had "a soul to call on," and that soul, like memory, "is like a well; the deeper you go, the more you recover." Thus transfigured, Phil abides imperviously in Laurel's memory of him. With Phil forever among the missing, no body to recover, no grave to tend, Laurel has only memory by which to apprehend and enshrine the disappearing man.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6899
SOURCE: "The Languages of Losing Battles," in Studies in American Fiction, Vol. 21, No. 1, Spring, 1993, pp. 67-82.
[In the following essay, Bass analyzes the female characters' use of written and spoken language in Welty's Losing Battles and states "Though the feminine language modes of Losing Battles are 'opposites,' they serve a common goal: querying and challenging male-authored decrees."]
Although they serve a common end, written and spoken language complement and compete with each other in Eudora Welty's Losing Battles. Teaching, writing, and books are the province of Julia Mortimer, who dies on the morning of Granny Vaughn's reunion. Lexie Renfro had presumed to be Julia's successor, but she "fell down on Virgil" and could not finish her training at Normal. Gloria Short, Julia's chosen heir, also denies that role when she marries Jack Renfro, her pupil. Julia's opposite, Granny Vaughn, commands a different province, spoken language and its transmission of family history. Thése two feminine modes of expression differ in that written language (books, letters) conceptualizes, moves toward abstractions; whereas oral language deals with the concrete, the experiential. In a process marked by both modes, the pulpit oratory of the late Grandpa Vaughn diminishes into that of Brother Bethune speaking (to Granny's disparagement) from the family reunion pulpit.
When Grandpa Vaughn's patriarchal voice is replaced by Brother Bethune's, his Baptist conception of authority (infant baptism can't save souls from sin) is reduced to local mythology, a shift from the oracular to the anecdotal. Both feminine voice modes thus mark a decline in male authority. Beulah rules her family, not her husband Ralph; and their idolized son Jack's impulsiveness gives rise to demonstrable instances of male folly. Rather than looking inside Curly Stovall's open safe for the missing gold ring, for example, Jack carries away the whole safe: "but he's a man! Done it the man's way," as Aunt Nanny says. Even the account of Grandpa Vaughn's daddy, builder of Damascus Church, implies criticism: "he'd preach in the church on Sunday and the rest of the week he could stand on his own front porch and have it to look at"—six days, not one, to admire his creation. Whether through Julia's book language (meant to lead Banner beyond parochialism) or Granny Vaughn's oral history (to perpetuate family values), male authority is questioned: not out of malice or subversion, but rather in an undercurrent of irony, sometimes funny, sometimes sad.
Battles and banners are seminal images in Losing Battles; they mark the main conflict of the novel between local and absolute. Thus Curly Stovall's store and Gloria's Banner School face each other across the road that runs through town "as if in the course of continuing battle." Jack's noisy fight with Curly in the store over the missing gold ring disrupts Gloria's efforts across the road to teach her class the poem about Columbus and the gray Azores. She teaches an ideal of outreach; Jack and Curly's rivalry becomes a comic brawl. Other contenders are "two ancient, discolored sawdust piles [left from Dearman's sawmill business] … like the Monitor and the Merrimack in the history book." Aside from its pictures, the book conceptualizes Civil War issues in the abstraction of printed words, whereas the actual sawdust piles not only look like the ironclad ships, but are the debilitated physical remnants of the Reconstruction itself. The issues of the War become localized in concrete images.
Written words rather than images signifying combat appear in the letter from Julia that Judge Moody reads to the reunion (to the family's displeasure, who want it "told" to them); Julia wrote, "I've fought a hard war with ignorance. Except in those cases that you can count on your fingers, I lost every battle." Moody himself is one "success" who stayed in Boone County, but he never forgave Julia for compelling him to stay there. As a judge he remains her judgment on Banner's ignorance—"the very pocket." Lexie, Ralph Renfro's old maid sister who wanted to teach school and who dampens the spirit of the reunion, likewise remarks to Ralph: "these children of yours are the least prepared to be corrected of any I ever ran up against. How they'll conduct themselves on the Day of Judgment I find hard to imagine." Thus written language is broadly judgmental, whereas oral tradition fosters impulse and concern for localism.
Both battle and banner converge in the emblem of Jack's "torn sleeve that flowed free from his shoulder like some old flag carried home from far-off battle." The sleeve marks Jack's arrival at the reunion; like the sawdust piles that image the ironclad vessels, it too speaks of the South's history of lost battles. And from the beam in Curly's store hang local "shirt-tails of every description … like so many fading banners of welcome." To these trophies of Curly's other victories in battle, Jack's shirttail is added after Curly knocks him senseless in the fight at the end of the novel. The shirt-tails are like feudal banners captured from claimants to Curly's male fiefdom, his store, which indeed once belonged to Jack's father. But the contending oral and written languages, which are female-dominated, underlie the novel, the surface of which deals with matters like Jack's and Curly's rival claims to a ramshackle truck and a horse: prizes in a male world. Gloria, the short-time teacher, sees the truck for its real worth, a man's "play-pretty" that really wouldn't take her and Jack anywhere.
Granny Vaughn's full name, mentioned but once in Losing Battles, relates to the oral consciousness of her family; as proclaimed by Brother Bethune in his reunion speech, "Miss Thurzah Elvira Jordan … [was] known far and wide in the realms of the Baptists for the reach of her voice as a young lady." Her name comes from "Tirzah" in Canticles: "thou art beautiful, O my love, as Tirzah, comely as Jerusalem, terrible as an army with banners." Granny's sermon-bred family know about Thurzah and Banner as these are epitomized by their spirited vocal matriarch and by the name of their community.
Though married, with a child, and reunited with Jack, Gloria yet assumes the role of a school teacher when she orders the rest of the men at the reunion not to join her and Jack for his vengeful encounter with Judge Moody. She, Jack and Lady May will do it alone, she says, as she "lifted her old teacher's satchel … and hung the strap over her shoulder." To complete Gloria's role, Beulah praises her daughter-in-law's self-containment and assurance in terms of written language: "once you've hidden her Bible … and wished her writing tablet out of sight, you wouldn't find a trace of her…. You can't reach her." Although Julia wanted people to open their minds and hearts to others "so they could be read like books," Gloria finally rejects Julia's council and decides, "people don't want to be read like books."
As much as he loves Gloria, Jack still senses a missing part: "you know all the books. But about what's at home, there's still a little bit left for you to find out." He means her sense of family, or lack of it: she is an orphan, and much of the talk at the reunion deals with who her parents were. Mistrusting books and writing and favoring oral history instead, the Beechams and Renfros never write letters, whereas "I'm not afraid of pencil and paper," says Gloria. While Jack served time in Parchman, she wrote to tell him that they had become parents, but he never wrote back—remiss, "like a man," as the women folk would say. Earlier, when he was her student, Gloria sent Jack home as punishment for fighting Curly, and she demanded a written excuse from his mother, but Beulah characteristically refused to write anything. Forceful and articulate at the reunion, however, Beulah tells much about the fight with Curly which ended in Jack's sentence to the pen.
Vaughn, Jack's put-upon younger brother (now twelve, the age when Jack had to quit school) nevertheless is the "best speller"; his toehold on literacy recalls Julia's triumph when Gloria "spelled down" the legislature. Humorously related to the family's conflicts over written language is the name of the youngest surviving uncle, Noah Webster (of the dictionary) Beecham; a sad instance is Julia's spelling book, where she lettered her will in pin pricks, her pencil having been taken away from her by Lexie. Despite its initial promise, literacy would appear to be a lost cause, though there are occasional cycles of hope—if marked by nothing more than spelling skills.
Spoken words in Losing Battles contend with the enemy just as do those written or read from a book by school teachers. Granny Vaughn was famous for her voice when she was young: "talked back to General Grant. Remembers the conversation," says Aunt Beck. When Grant shot a cannon ball into Captain Jordan's five-foot-square chimney, Granny, then a child, ran out and scolded him for it to his face. Grant is not only the enemy Northerner, but also the male aggressor, who is put down by a young girl.
The family uses spoken language as a way of sharing. Aunt Beck complains about the newest sister-in-law: "can't she [Cleo] wait till Brother Bethune gets here for dinner and tells it [the family history] to us all at the table?" Though his dictionary name belies him, Noah Webster, speaking to Gloria, describes the spoken tradition best: "long after you're an old lady without much further stretch to go, sitting back in the same rocking chair Granny's got her little self in now, you'll be hearing it told to Lady May and all her hovering brood. How we brought Jack Renfro back safe from the pen!" As if by folk magic, an act of will, the family perpetuates its values in oral tradition with Jack as its central figure. Thus when he is about to lower the Buick into place, Beulah says that her son will show better judgment than Samson did, but that is more her expectation than her conviction. For all his heroics, Jack is bedeviled by bad luck and his own likeable folly; beneath the admiration of his mother and his young wife lies the question of his right reasoning.
Whereas Julia forbade Gloria to marry Jack (she thought they were first cousins), Gloria defied her and did so anyway. Julia said any child born of the marriage would be deaf and dumb—symbolic affronts to oral history—but to prove her mentor wrong, Gloria planned to take Lady May to see Julia as soon as the little girl could talk. During the night after the reunion a heavy rain falls on the Renfro house: "then the new roof resounded with all the noise of battle," in the course of which Lady May "put her voice into the fray, and spoke to it the first sentence of her life: 'What you huntin', man?'" As if by nature the child vocalizes the matriarchal battle-challenge inherited from Granny Vaughn, who shamed General Grant.
In contrast, Judge Moody, the first of Julia's proteges (as Gloria is the last), has little use for spoken language. He has come at Julia's written request, to affirm the law forbidding marriage of cousins, a law Julia was instrumental in getting passed. At Banner Top he scolds the family for talking to death the dilemma of the Buick perched above the roadside. Amusingly, though, his court sessions have to be held in the cramped quarters of a Sunday school room because the court house and its written records were burned (by varmints, as Granny says) after Jack's trial. And in his comic predicament at Granny's reunion, Moody sits like a pupil in the school chair, to be lessoned in the reunion's oral history.
Writing takes another comic form in the character of Miss Ora Stovall, Banner correspondent for the Vindicator. "Watch out, Freewill! Banner's going to beat you this week!" she says, planning her account of the reunion, the Buick's misfortunes, and Julia's funeral. Though written, Miss Ora's newspaper column will have much the flavor of spoken language: gossip, "human interest," provincialism, a "story" told like a folk tale. Even her name is almost "Oral," just as Lexie, who wanted to but couldn't be a school teacher, is a diminished "lexicon."
After the reunion, with everyone else in the Renfro house asleep, Vaughn, wearing Grandpa Vaughn's old hat, rides Bet the mule and hears "loud night talking to itself…. No matter how good at hollering back a boy might grow up to be, hollering back would never make the wheel [of the sky] stop." Earlier, when Jack and Gloria prepare to sleep on the bare porch, "Jack in his gown came running out … and before she [Gloria] could get her hand over his mouth he had given his holler." These vocal outbursts come from the old tradition of the travelers' holler to signal others as they made their way through the Mississippi wildemess. Willy Trimble also has a network of "hollers" whereby aged, infirm people can let each other know that they are still alive every morning, but Julia refused to take part in it; instead, she wrote desperate letters which jaded Lexie might or might not post in the mail box.
Gloria's Bible, as expected, functions pedagogically as a book; other Bibles, though on printed pages, give rise to spoken folk myth. When Brother Bethune climbs up Banner Top and stumbles next to Jack and Gloria, he drops his tuning fork and his Bible. "Bound in thin black leather skinned to the red of a school eraser, [it] looked as if it had come to his door every Sunday by being thrown at it, rolled up like the Ludlow Sunday newspaper." In the pulpit, however, Bethune orally transposes a printed book (his Bible is worn almost to an abstraction) into local legend and experience.
Because he doesn't measure up to her late husband, Granny Vaughn doesn't want Brother Bethune to preach at the reunion, and as matriarch she forbids his use of the Vaughn Bible. It is her repository for sacred family emblems, a closed book on the past containing Grandpa's eyeglasses, a lock of her daughter Ellen's hair, Ellen's wedding ring, the post card from Sam Dale. Out of respect for her mother, Beulah orders the Renfro Bible fetched instead, but Bethune doesn't really read from it either: "he threw open the Bible … as if to show he could start on any page it wanted him to." His funny, inept applications show how local, oral history has its own way with things, but to the ears of the reunion, especially those of the women, his sayings are absurd. Grandpa's patriarchal authority has been replaced by a poor diminished thing.
For an ungainly starter to Granny's reunion, Brother Bethune praises the old home, the happy family and "what exactly in the Book it looks like to me this minute [is] Belshazzar's Feast. Miss Beulah may have even out-provided it!" Beulah, offended by Bethune's foolishness, says Grandpa Vaughn would have said the blessing, given the family history, and its lesson, before even looking at the table. Much of Bethune's message, in fact, is interspersed with women's voices correcting his lapses, the worst being his forgetting that Grandpa Vaughn is dead.
Inept as it seems to Beulah, however, the Belshazzar trope says more than what appears on its comic surface. The biblical narrative in which none of Belshazzar's court is able to interpret the writing on the palace wall dwindles in Losing Battles to the family's aversion to written language. To be sure, there are Uncle Nathan's signs (painted lefthanded), which speak to minimum literacy; but they do not require reading by a prophet, can be read by all. They are practically oral-visual in the sense of a cartoon caption or a speaker's ballooned words in a comic strip, the modicum of Banner literacy. Also, "the part of the hand" seen writing on Belshazzar's wall presages the ghost of Nathan Beecham's missing right hand (and oddly connects with the heaven-pointing, bodiless hand seen at the top of Dearman's monument in the cemetery).
The most pervasive biblical emblem in Losing Battles (and one with oral force) comes from God's order to the prophet Nathan (the name of one of Beulah's brothers) to "build me a house to dwell in" because, ever since the Israelites came up out of Egypt, God's house has been a tent and a tabernacle; the permanent house must be built of cedar as a sign that the Israelites will no longer be wanderers. Therefore Great Grandfather Vaughn, newly arrived in the wilderness, "raised that house out of his own oaks, pines, and cedars, and then he raised the church"; also, he "hewed them pews out of solid cedar, and the pulpit is all one tree." Thus the one-tree pulpit makes patriarchal declamation the center of Damascus Church. Lying in the Renfro yard is the trunk of an old cedar tree where on the morning of the reunion Gloria patiently waits for Jack. Later, after his arrival, they sit on the log together. They were married in Damascus Church by Grandpa Vaughn, in front of the cedar pulpit.
Cedar takes on a comic role in the "tall old cedar tree [that] was stubbornly growing out of the end and standing over" Banner Top. Because of Lady May and Gloria's absurd confrontation in the road with Judge Moody, his car veers up the embankment. "The Buick had skinned past the trunk, the tree had creaked back into place," so that "now the old cedar stood guard just behind the left rear fender."
But since its staying power seems an impediment, with comic male ineptness Mr. Renfro blasts away the cedar so that the Buick can be pulled back down to the road. His dynamiting is noisy enough for the Last Judgment, mingling with the thunder of the night storm following the reunion. By just a few roots, the tree hangs upside down over the edge of Banner Top. A delayed, unintended second explosion (Mr. Renfro used old dynamite) dislodges the last of the cedar's roots; it falls down the bank. When the rope breaks that holds the Buick over the edge, Jack and Gloria fall into the cedar tree (it still has some staying power), then land safely on their feet next to the Buick, which stands on its nose.
Cedar is also the intended lining for the rough pine coffin Willy Trimble carries in his wagon. When Mrs. Moody sees this receptacle, she refuses to ride with it to get to the reunion. Willy planned to get cedar boards "from Dearman's time" to put within the coffin; he hoped it would be used for Julia. Since he couldn't master books, she taught him woodworking when he was her student at Banner School, but the coffin doesn't suit the literate mourners at Julia's wake. And at Julia's burial owls fly out of the old cedar tree behind her grave, suggesting the flight of literacy and knowledge.
The emblem sequence thus forms a paradigm of decline: the cedar log in the Renfro yard, the old tree dislodged at Banner Top, the lining for the rejected coffin, and the ancient tree at the head of Julia's grave. In each instance, the cedar's biblical, patriarchal force diminishes from its original, the permanent house for God to dwell in, Damascus Church, where the Word is spoken from the one-tree pulpit. The dwindling of that male voice has been remarked by the Banner women's speaking, as it also has been by Julia, single-handed defender of books, whose "church" is the schoolhouse.
The most telling sign of female dominance in Losing Battles relates to the relationship between Beulah and her favorite brother Sam Dale, cemented by his emasculation as a child by a spark from the fireplace, and Beulah's failure to find a timely cure for the injury. Beulah holds herself to blame for this harm done to the best of her brothers, a pain made even worse by his dying in the World War. Her inwardly turned anger reinforces the power of her speech, which dominates the many voices of the reunion. She is Granny's vocal heir.
Less effectually, Brother Bethune adapts parable to local legend. When first meeting Jack, he "pivoted on his gun and fixed him with his loving gimlet eye. 'It's the Prodigal Son.'" Jack escaped from the penitentiary at Parchman one day before his release in order to be on time for Granny's birthday, but he was not away from home wasting his inheritance or eating pig fodder. As comic overtone, the Renfro pig will be fed leavings from the reunion, and it accompanies some wild pigs who gobble up Mrs. Moody's chocolate layer cake when the cake falls out of the Buick. To complete the parable, Beulah even calls their pig an "old sinner," as if to lay Jack the Prodigal's misalleged sins on the scapegoat animal.
In another skewed parable, Jack in his well-meaning folly is said to have become a Samaritan because he pushed Judge Moody's car out of the ditch, but when Mrs. Moody signals for help to get her car down from Banner Top, neither Uncle Homer driving his chicken van nor the "hungry Methodists headed home for dinner" stop as Samaritans to aid the distressed Moodys (who are, and indeed look like, Presbyterians). The Samaritan in Luke helped a victim despised and passed by by others, but the affluent Moodys are scarcely victims who have been robbed and beaten. The Bible parable is turned inside out; in addition to their hunger, the Methodists most likely "pass by on the other side" because they feel inferior to Presbyterians. Mrs. Moody's vocal distress dominates this whole sequence, during which she trades on her need for some male Samaritan help, but neither Homer Champion nor Rev. Dollarhide, consummate politician and hymn-prone preacher, offers any help.
Like the lyrics in Shakespeare's plays, old-time hymns also provide vocal irony for the events of Losing Battles. Before their church dismisses, the Baptist-rival Methodists sing "Shall We Gather at the River," a skewed appraisal of the political fish fry Curly plans for that very Sunday afternoon at the river's edge. A little later, the Methodists are heard singing "Throw Out the Life Line," to anticipate the absurd human chain begun by Jack to save the Buick on the rainy Monday after the reunion. The chain involves everyone except Miss Lexie and Miss Ora, who are parodies of the two language modes, oral and written; the others hang onto the rope from which the unfortunate car is suspended over the edge of Banner Top. Although no one is "sinking today" (in the hymn's phrase), everyone (Baptists and the rest) gets a thorough soaking in the steady rain.
Granny's reunion ends when Uncle Nathan, left-handed, plays a different hymn tune on his cornet: "Let the Lower Lights Be Burning"—"Some poor fainting, struggling seaman, You may rescue, you may save." A self-styled evangelist, Nathan "becomes" the old-time prophet as his way of repenting for his murder of Dearman, exploiter of timber and of people. After his solo, Nathan takes a coal tar torch and burns out the caterpillar nets in the trees around the Renfro house. "We've lost him, I know, to the Book of Revelation," says Beulah, the family's spokeswoman. Revelation mentions locusts and scorpions being emitted from the "bottomless pit," and Nahum says that the sinners of Nineveh will be devoured by fire as if they were cankerworms.
If one reads Welty's subtext, biblical Nathan finds his obverse in Nathan Beecham: whereas the former chastises King David for sending Uriah to certain death in battle so that David could possess his captain's beautiful wife Bathsheba, Nathan Beecham kills Dearman the timber exploiter and expropriator of the Renfro house and store. As hinted by Granny, Dearman had impregnated Rachel Sojourner, who was admired especially by Nathan, and whom Sam Dale later promised to marry. Thus Nathan felt justified in the revenge he took for his brother who was "sent into battle," who died, although not in action, and who was lost to his adulterous and pregnant wife-to-be. Biblical Nathan chastises the king with a parable; whereas his Beecham namesake kills Dearman, then cuts off his own right hand, to follow biblical injunction, and to follow the quirky mission of planting along the roadways his left-handed signs about repentance. Nathan's full story, finally revealed at the reunion, has been known and concealed by Granny and Beulah; his method of penance, as we shall see, was ordained by Julia. Thus his role is circumscribed by both female language modes.
Women's folk art in the form of patchwork quilts also adds biblical overtones to Losing Battles. "The Delectable Mountains" patterned quilt is Granny's favorite gift on the day of her reunion birthday. It displays the "called-for number of sheep," which would be ninety and nine. The parable search for the missing hundredth becomes the search for Gloria Short's mother, who by way of extended oral reminiscence turns out to be Rachel Sojourner (her name means "homeless ewe"). Rachel abandoned her baby and died shortly later of pneumonia; her grave, marked by a lamb no longer "very snowy," is about to slide into the Bywy River.
In a biblical allusion not spoken by a character, but in keeping with the characters' perceptions, Julia's funeral procession crosses Banner Bridge, which could at any moment collapse under the load. "Behind the hearse the line seemed to narrow itself, grow thinner and longer, as if now it had to pass through the eye of a needle." That line of Julia's admirers, people of rank, book knowledge, and substance, should indeed be concerned about "passing through the eye." Whether Julia herself will enter the Kingdom is problematic; the only churchman present at her grave site to aid that endeavor, a Catholic priest, speaks in Latin. Julia chose him for the role because he once learned algebra from her, but his speaking a strange tongue and wearing "skirts" elicits Miss Ora's critical "what does he call himself?" Brother Bethune, the only available Protestant clergyman, absentmindedly thought he was to perform a marriage at Damascus Church and did not appear for the grave ceremony at all. Thus Julia, sponsor of books and writing, is spared the gravesite oratory of Banner; by her choice, Latin, algebra, and the skirted priest become its foreign substitutes.
When Jack and Gloria arrive at the cemetery, barely in time for Julia's burial, "the original grasshopper [on Sam Dale's grave] was repeated here too, repeated everywhere and a hundred times over, grave-sitting or grave-hopping in the stubble." The army of graves that Jack and Gloria pass on their way to Julia's burial swarms with grasshoppers, numerous and apocalyptic as Nahum's prophecy to Nineveh. Though these Banner graves comprise "an army of tablets," the cemetery stands too close to the Bywy River, into which Rachel Sojourner's lamb will soon slide, the same river in which Ellen and Euclid Beecham drowned after the accident at Banner Bridge. As the narrator observes, a "long and colorless tree" submerged in the Bywy at Deepening Bend (seen as Jack and Gloria pause at Rachel's grave) looks like a fern pressed in a book. This is the very spot in the river where Ellen's drowned body was found. Welty's elegiac simile echoes Granny's use of her Bible as keeper of memento mori: the "fern" tree pressed in a figurative book, for Ellen's drowning, is like the lock of hair and wedding ring of Ellen, or the post card from Sam Dale, that are kept in the Vaughn Bible. A "book" is a closed receptacle, unlike spoken words, which are open and responsive. And the "army of tablets" in the graveyard are those surfaces on which are recorded brief, written words about the deceased, concealing more than they reveal: tablets as factual and abstract as Gloria the school teacher's writing tablet.
The tallest monument in Banner cemetery is for Dearman, "on its top the moss-ringed finger that pointed straight up from its hand in a chiseled cuff above the words 'At Rest,'" A monumental equivalent to Nathan's artificial hand, but with a difference; the index finger has a ring of moss, whereas Nathan's hand (a gift from his brother) has a seal ring on the ring finger, ironically echoing the gold wedding ring over which Jack and Curly fought. After a disembodied hand writes mysterious words on the wall at Belshazzar's feast, the king dies; Nathan killed Dearman and severed his own hand in repentance, his prosthesis mock-imitated by the hand on the monument.
One can tell where Nathan Beecham has traveled by the signs painted left-handed that he leaves behind. Just when Jack tries to be amorous with Gloria on Banner Top, she bumps her head on something hard, Nathan's sign "Destruction is at Hand." Thus one dimension of Nathan's warning relates to Banner Top's fame as a Lovers' Leap; another is to its being the legendary jumping-off place for Indians who didn't want to be repatriated. The same sign also plays its joke as a humiliating perch for the Buick. Another of Nathan's signs, freshly painted, appears in the ditch where Moody says he got stuck on Sunday: "Where Will YOU Spend Eternity?" Though these clumsy mottoes express abstract concepts, Welty puts them to humorous, concrete uses, much as she does with other folk emblems in the novel. Unlike the mysterious handwriting on Belshazzar's palace wall, Nathan's signs "speak" clearly to local experience. But curiously enough, Nathan's role as wandering evangelist began with Julia, who conceptualized or abstracted his role and in effect sent him away from his community. "Nathan, even when there's nothing left to hope for, you can start again from there, and go on your way and be good." Despite the signs' intent, however, in Julia's pedagogy they achieve bare literacy.
Though not very church-minded or good, Curly Stovall adds a further evangelical note to the dilemma of the Buick, perched as it is on Nathan's "Destruction" sign. "Who told you you could run that pleasure car up yonder and leave it, lady? That's a spot just waiting to give trouble. Full of temptations of all kinds." At her age, Mrs. Moody doesn't need to be warned about the amorous dangers of Lovers' Leap (indeed Jack's sister Etoyle mistakenly calls her the Judge's "mother"), but Welty keeps up the humorous byplay when in all innocence the younger sister Elvie approaches, singing, "yield not to temptation for yielding is sin."
Losing Battles features an amusing, non-ecumenical meeting of Protestant sects. Mrs. Moody (herself once a school teacher and now the Judge's judge) feels embarrassed about her husband's muddy knees; he appears, ill-kempt and unshaven, as one of Julia's pallbearers. "People from Ludlow, and Presbyterians from everywhere, will wonder what you've been doing down on your knees," she says. After all, Presbyterians don't kneel. They do, however, believe in Divine intervention. "Like it sprung right out of the ground! Providence sent that. My husband only had to turn his back," Mrs. Moody remarks when she sees Curly arriving in his truck, which she hopes will tow the Buick down to the road. Mrs. Moody also presumes Divine intention (predestination?) when she says, "if that car hasn't fallen to its destruction before much else happens, it wasn't intended to fall." "How much longer do you think Providence is prepared to go on operating on our behalf?" the Judge asks her. "Oscar, instead of tempting Providence, you'd better to head on down this road" to the store with a telephone, replies Mrs. Moody. But the store is closed on Sunday, and Miss Pet Hanks, the phone operator, won't be able to take the vocal distress call. Characteristically, the Judge fails to get "on line" in this oral community.
Before the Buick climbed to Banner Top on reunion day, Elvie's sister Etoyle sat in the cedar tree watching for the approach of Judge Moody. "A puff of dust showed along the next ridge over, as though a match had been laid to a string in Freewill whose other end was here at Banner Top. 'That's him. He's coming the long way round.'" Supposedly coming of his own free will, Moody is nevertheless compelled to do so by Julia's letter, a summons from a woman ten years older than he to whom he had other ties than romantic ones. She is still his teacher, he, her "pupil." So much for the dilemma of Calvinism, free will versus predestination. Culturally, Southern Presbyterians presumed to a higher social scale than did the evangelical sects; the fact that Gloria came from the Ludlow Presbyterian Orphan Asylum makes her think better of herself than of what is deemed to be her mother's family, the Sojourners, "lower than Aycock," who are nominally Methodists.
Further contention exists between the evangelical sects themselves. In the cyclone, the Methodist church was picked up bodily and set down next to the Baptist church, where-upon the Methodists took it apart piecemeal, put it back together "on the side of the road where it belonged…. A good many Baptists helped them." The banks of the road separating the two churches look, in the rain, like the parting of the Red Sea (the biblical "red" literally becoming the red banks of the road approaching Banner). And the funny procession of school bus, truck, Buick, and mules passing down Banner Road comprises the escaping "Israelites," with rival churches, singers versus orators, on opposite sides of the parted Sea. Welty even provides her vocalizing Baptists with total immersion in the rain, along with the Presbyterian Moodys and Methodist Stovalls—Curly and Ora—all equably immersed, "baptized."
As we learn from the oral history of the family, Euclid Beecham, a Methodist circuit rider, became husband to Ellen; parents of Granny Vaughn's many grandchildren, they died in the bridge accident. But before the marriage, Grandpa Vaughn had made Euclid into a Baptist. The couple were married by Grandpa in the Damascus church made of cedar. When Euclid and Ellen fled from the family by night in their buggy, Granny Vaughn rushed out and tried to stop them, but she was almost crushed between the buggy shaft and a tree, the remains of that tree being the cedar log which is Gloria's seat at the reunion. The log with its tragic story, its comic other self at Banner Top, and its sad counterpart at Julia's grave, thus hark back to the cedars of Damascus Baptist Church. Each has its staying power, though a lessening one: the cedar that once stopped Granny is now only a log; the Banner Top cedar stays the Buick (for a time) and even when uprooted, for the moment it eases Jack and Gloria's fall; the old cedar heading Julia's grave is the uncertain barrier between it and the fatal river.
Built of cedar, "Damascus was a firm-cornered, narrow church resting on four snowy limestone rocks." The church cornerstones recall the stone step to Banner School, under which Julia asked to be buried. But the male supervisors—"the bad boys of Banner School"—turned down her request. They said that the whole building would fall if the stone were moved: Grandfather Renfro began the schoolhouse with that stone, and "he meant it to stay. He didn't mean it to come out for anybody." Dr. Carruthers and Judge Moody are Julia's only successes who stayed in Boone County, the Judge even regretting having done so. Julia expected all her students to resist learning, but the treachery of the successes who don't return and the "bad boys'" refusal of her burial request show what she was up against with men. Remaining a mistrustful old maid was her form of protest.
After stating her burial instructions (which are ignored), Julia's will concludes, "and then, you fools—mourn me." But Brother Bethune, finally in key with the Bible (he does after all carry a tuning fork) says, "whosoever shall say, thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire!"—a corollary to the commandment, "Thou shalt not kill." Judge Moody, chief defender of Julia Mortimer, authority figure and defender of learning, is thus put down by Brother Bethune, inept and "foolish" though he is, when Bethune speaks "in the flat tones of inspiration. 'We're going to forgive you.'" Taking up that spirit, partly out of humor, partly out of tolerance for an intolerant man, the entire reunion (except for Jack) joins in the forgiveness. The dominating male authority figure gives in to the diminished one.
Bethune's vocal "inspiration" short-circuits from Julia's written inspiration in an unlikely juncture that links the two disparate parts of the novel. In her last testimony Julia wrote that when all else failed, she finally depended on inspiration. Also "inspired" is the busload of school teachers who decide to take Gloria with them to Julia's wake. Even Lexie said to Julia, "you used to be my inspiration."
Another unlikely juncture in Losing Battles connects gender to church affiliation and politics. Although snakes and politicians are said to be the only flourishing creatures in Boone County, the poorest in all Mississippi, both accommodate themselves to its mythological church heritage. Brother Bethune, childless and alone, is the champion snake killer who deals in his own way with the first creature. The second makes marriages of convenience. As candidate for the office of justice of the peace, Uncle Homer (by marriage to Mr. Renfro's sister) counts on Baptist votes from the Renfros and Beechams. The opposing candidate Curly Stovall, a Methodist, will nevertheless get the best of Jack his rival by marrying Jack's sister to end their contention over the gold ring and to take Renfro-Beecham votes away from Homer. Thus matriarchy lies behind male power politics.
Used for quite different causes, Homer's and Curly's political campaign posters contrast with Uncle Nathan's apocalyptic signs, but both function in similar ways: they "speak" like cartoon captions. Though abstract and conceptual so far as individual words go, the campaign posters (like Nathan's signs) have a visual/oral impact that denotes Banner's literacy level, poised as it is between speaking and writing. Uncle Homer's "qualifications were listed in indentation like a poem on a tombstone:"
Just Leave It To Homer
"Poem on a tombstone" is an epitaph. More hopeful in a crude design that suggests sunrise and Resurrection, Curly's poster shows him wearing a hat, and "coming out from the crown on rays were the different words 'Courteous,' 'Banner-Born,' 'Methodist,' 'Deserving,' and 'Easy to Find,'" Other than place of birth, the claims are dubious, but as a radiant halo they speak confidently to Curly's winning the election. His victory will come about because of a marriage of contraries: Methodist to Baptist, Jack's enemy to Jack's sister Ella Fay—just as Jack's marriage to Gloria joins the written and oral traditions. Though the campaign posters contain words, the word arrangements speak as emblem-designs with specific, given meanings for Welty's narrative. Homer's epitaph will be no match for Curly's halo. An epitaph is a "closed book" on one's life that proposes to have "read" one to the end, just as the finality of being "read" by a school teacher causes Julia's former students their apprehension of being "ended" by her.
Thus the language of writing and print is a centrifugal force in Losing Battles, moving outward toward the abstract or conceptual (the summary epitaph) and away from the concrete center. Julia, the advocate of recorded language, sends forth her emissaries, but they fail to return to her until the time of her funeral. That is the tragedy of her message written to Judge Moody on the blank fly leaves torn from her Bible. Rather than choosing a Scriptural text, she writes her own Apocrypha, just as she asked to be buried under the schoolhouse step rather than among Christian families. (She ends up, however, in a borrowed grave in Banner Cemetery). In contrast, spoken language is the centripital force that gathers together the extended family of Granny Vaughn. Since writing and printed language move outward to the abstract, the words in Julia's letter are "too hard" for the listening reunion. Spoken language draws in close to make the emblematic concrete, familial, as in the humorously (mis)applied parables of the Samaritan and of the Prodigal, or in the diminished staying power of the cedar trees.
Judge Moody may say that Banner, the very pocket of ignorance in its oral history, is too self-forgiving; but for Beulah, Banner is "the very heart" of Boone County. Trained as a school teacher and emissary of books and writing, Gloria wants Jack to leave his closely-centered family, but he resists. Despite this year's spoiled hay crop, he ends up singing "Bringing in the Sheaves." Still, Gloria will probably demand a last word, just as Ella Fay will likely give Curly his comeuppance once they are married. After all, Gloria spelled down the (all-male) legislature, Granny defied General Grant, and Julia defied male-sanctioned burial customs. Gloria and Mrs. Moody, both former school teachers, exert their common sense against Jack and his father's hare-brained schemes for rescuing the Buick. Though the feminine language modes of Losing Battles are "opposites," they serve a common goal: querying and challenging male-authored decrees.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6476
SOURCE: "Time and Confluence: Self and Structure in Welty's One Writer's Beginnings," in The Southern Literary Journal, Vol. XXVI, No. 1, Fall, 1993, pp. 78-93.
[In the following essay, Ciuba discusses Welty's One Writer's Beginnings, asserting that Welty's "narrative confluence abolishes distances and divisions in time, links generations, connects seemingly disparate events into the pattern of a lifetime."]
The first picture in the photo album that forms part of One Writer's Beginnings shows the young Eudora Welty in a telling moment: the delighted child is clenching her father's pocket watch, dangling its fob before the camera. "Life doesn't hold still," she later comments about her own photographs. "A good snapshot stopped a moment from running away." Like her own art that seeks the revealing gesture in the fleeting scene, the emblematic photo of the one-year-old halts Eudora Welty forever in the paradoxical position of keeping time—of marking its passage and holding it as a possession. One Writer's Beginnings is written precisely at the point of such temporal convergence. It reveals the confluence of past and present as the design of Welty's life and art by making such intersection the structural principle behind her lifestory as an artist.
In writing her autobiography at such a junction, Welty turns what seems like a necessity of the genre into a statement of her self. Augustine's description of memory as the "present of things past" defines the dual temporal perspective basic to autobiography. But as if following Ben Franklin's annals of the self-made man, a long tradition in American autobiography has arranged memory into chronology and emphasized the past over the present. One Writer's Beginnings duly acknowledges the custom of organizing a retrospect by hours and years. The pocket watch held by the infant Eudora in the photo keeps the conventional passage of time echoing throughout Welty's memoirs. As a child, she recalls growing up to the sound of a grandfather clock, cuckoo clock, and bedroom clock. As a college student, she felt the tolling of the chapel clock shake her bed at Mississippi State College for Women. And when Welty later got her first paid job in communications, she worked for a radio station in the base of the clocktower at Lamar Life. Published when she was seventy-five, Welty's reminiscences frankly confess the steady and straight-forward progress of time. She knows that the past—when infants had calling cards, the night sky over Jackson was nothing but blackness, and gargoyles graced her father's office building—is past. She even uses a loosely linear structure to plan the three sections of One Writer's Beginnings. "Listening" attends to her childhood years in Jackson; "Learning to See" reviews a journey in 1917 or 1918 to visit her maternal and paternal grandparents; and "Finding a Voice" speaks of her years in college and her first works as a serious writer.
But if the whole triptych shows how Welty gained the ears, eyes, and tongue of a storyteller, her fragmented and wayward memories ultimately reject the external organization of clocks and calendars. Her roundabout narrative flows with the casual immediacy of the raconteuring that Twain described as basic to his own Autobiography: "Start it at no particular time of your life; wander at your free will all over your life; talk only about the thing which interests you for the moment; drop it the moment its interest threatens to pale, and turn your talk upon the new and more interesting thing that has intruded itself into your mind meantime." Twain hoped that such formless form might provide the model for all future autobiographies. Originally delivered as a series of lectures at Harvard, One Writer's Beginnings shifts and drifts along the most vital currents of the Southern oral tradition. Welty omits sizable portions of her life and travels through her past without being restricted by fidelity to historical sequence. The problem with organizing her memories according to the rigid succession of years is the same as the problem with the rigorous windows that the narrator of Welty's quasi-autobiographical "A Memory" wants to impose on the transiency and turbulence of her girlhood. Both devices overlook Welty's discovery that greater than any perspective is "a single, entire human being who will never be confined in any frame."
The structure of One Writer's Beginnings repeatedly violates chronological framework to portray the integral, elusive self as the confluence of past and present. "It is our inward journey that leads us through time," Welty explains, "forward or back, seldom in a straight line, most often spiraling." Her allegiance to the dynamics of inner time typifies the increased appreciation of subjectivity in modern and postmodern autobiographies. Paul John Eakin sees traditional examples of the genre as encouraging the reader to believe that "the play we witness is a historical one, a largely faithful and unmediated reconstruction of events that took place long ago." But Welty rejects such documentary drama for what Eakin calls the play "of the autobiographical act itself, in which the materials of the past are shaped by memory and imagination to serve the needs of present consciousness." One Writer's Beginnings makes the process of recollection as revealing as the recollections themselves. Welty does not remember and then write, as if her life were a finished pageant that simply needed to be chronicled by an objective and anonymous observer. Rather, Welty writes as she remembers. She follows the dictum of veteran autobiographer Wallace Fowlie, "Living belongs to the past. Writing is the present." Living out the writing, Welty shows how personal and family history are always flowing together in the consciousness of the storyteller.
Welty defined the subjective temporality of One Writer's Beginnings in her 1973 essay "Some Notes on Time in Fiction." Although clock time "has an arbitrary, bullying power over daily affairs," fiction wrests from time such authority by subjecting it to plot. The story can accelerate, reverse, prolong, or contract time. "It can set a fragment of the past within a frame of the present and cause them to exist simultaneously." Such freedom, Welty claims, "bears a not too curious resemblance to our own interior clock; it is so by design. Fiction penetrates chronological time to reach our deeper version of time that's given to us by the way we think and feel." One Writer's Beginnings is autobiography as fiction—not because it explores the problematic relation between memory and imagination like Mary McCarthy's Memories of A Catholic Girlhood but because it records the same irregular, internalized time that flows through all of Welty's stories and novels.
Yet despite its highly individual course, the structure of One Writer's Beginnings is not haphazard. Welty shuns what is merely amorphous, much as does the designing narrator of "A Memory." Hence, her reminiscences are ordered by the same insight that guides her fiction. Writing stories and novels, Welty asserts, has given her a "sense of where to look for the threads, how to follow, how to connect, find in the thick of the tangle what clear line persists." Her memoirs pursue a strand of discovering affinities and continuities between apparent disconnections. "The events in our lives happen in a sequence in time," she recognizes, "but in their significance to ourselves they find their own order, a time-table not necessarily—perhaps not possibly—chronological." Welty's distinctive rearrangement of the years does not keep events fixed to the standard autobiographical timeline but allows them to flow together or be forgotten according to their importance to her. Her ostensibly erratic play of recollection conveys the free and fluid exploration of her lifetime as one memory leads back or ahead to others, connected with it, commenting on it, the whole forming out of lives and generations a "continuous thread of revelation." If One Writer's Beginnings does not follow a straight line, it does pursue what Lewis Simpson has called the "southern aesthetic of memory" to discover the plot strands of Welty's life.
At the end of One Writer's Beginnings, Welty finally names the temporal design that has organized the stream of recollections from the start. As if the preceding hundred pages were a prelude, she writes, "I'm prepared now to use the wonderful word confluence, which of itself exists as a reality and a symbol in one. It is the only kind of symbol that for me as a writer has any weight, testifying to the pattern, one of the chief patterns, of human experience." Confluence provides an image for both the content and the flow of Welty's memories, for the self formed by the various tributaries of her past and for the formal structure of Welty's autobiographical essays. One Writer's Beginnings pursues this primal pattern by showing the connections between apparently different times in Welty's life as well as the intersections between obviously different lives and Welty's own time. All of these crossings coexist in memory, "the greatest confluence of all."
The title of Welty's memoirs explains this fundamental confluence. Since memory finds a meaningful conjunction between now and then, Welty traces her present identity as a writer back to the very beginnings of her life. In the first paragraph of an autobiography that dispenses with the ordering of clock time, she tells of being formed in and by clock time. "In our house on North Congress Street in Jackson, Mississippi, where I was born, the oldest of three children, in 1909," she begins "Listening" with her typical rootedness in time and place, "we grew up to the striking of clocks." But even as Welty recalls their tolling throughout her house, she displaces the supremacy of linear tick-tock. Since the author is not just the remembered child but also the remembering adult, this memory of time's sound does not exist by itself but immediately flows into other tenses. It leads her to speculate about the significance of her ancestral past and then to anticipate its consequence in the future, her present time as autobiographer. Welty writes by confluence, not by chronology. She first wonders whether her father's Swiss heritage may have predisposed the Weltys to being "time-minded all our lives." When Welty returns to her father's family in part two, she seems to circle back to the very beginning of her book and of her life as well, but on her first page she does not take the traditional opportunity to retell these distant origins. Instead, Welty interprets her memory of hearing time by its later reverberation in her career: "This was good at least for a future fiction writer, being able to learn so penetratingly, and almost first of all, about chronology." If the novel cannot begin until the clock starts, as Welty observes in "Some Notes on Time in Fiction," she already heard in childhood the mechanism animating every short story and her life story as well. Although Welty concedes that she made these clocks her own without even realizing it, she grants, "it would be there when I needed it." For her as for Faulkner, "Memory believes before knowing remembers."
From the first paragraph of "Listening," time is ticking, but its typical sequence is undermined because incidents from various points in Welty's life are always "subject to confluence" in memory. Welty views past events from the perspective of the present and joins these episodes with others unrelated in time to disclose the larger pattern of how she began as a writer. In writing her memoirs Welty rewrites her life so that she reveals not just how the past seemed to her but how it seems to her now as autobiographer. As she recalls listening to songs, sermons, conversations, monologues, lessons in school, her own and her mother's reading, Welty shows how she heard her way to becoming a writer. All the earmarks of her fiction—her attention to dialogue and narrative voice, her pleasure in the sounds of words and cadences of sentences, her sense of story and dramatic scenes—begin in her youth. The child crafted the writer, but Welty the writer also crafts the child. She brings all the author's resources, which she began to discover in her early years, to capture her photographs of the artist as a young woman. Eudora is one of Welty's own best characters. And as her narrative skill in the present shapes her account of the past, the events in her life often follow the pattern of a short story.
Welty recalls discovering a classic epiphany about confluence while home from grammar school for several months due to a fast-beating heart. The memory charges a conversation between her mother and father with an erotic subtext to show how Welty the writer was born of a girl who loved to listen and who made listening into a virtual act of love. As the young Eudora lay at night in her parents' bed while they sat in rockers by a shaded lamp, she listened to their voices, hearing the murmur but not the actual words of their conversation. The daughter was privy to the subtle balancing of opposites in her parents, the "design for patterning and formulating complementarities" that Peggy Whitman Prenshaw shows is basic to Welty's fiction. Connecting early and later selves, Welty explains that her girlhood detachment disclosed what she afterwards turned into the necessary preparation to tell any story: she must find a frame, get a perspective, determine her distance. However, the adult writer never became a mere voyeur in her fictional world because her early stance as private observer was balanced by discovering another home truth.
Welty conflates not only her younger and older selves but also herself and her parents. In the bedroom, she was participating in a primal scene of linguistic intercourse. The child-writer sensed "the chief secret there was—the two of them, father and mother, sitting there as one." The daughter heard in her parents' tête-à-tête the flowing together of their lives, and she felt like a deeply responding part of their marital union. "I was conscious of this secret and of my fast-beating heart in step together," she writes, as if the quickened rhythm of her body were joining in such heartfelt lovemaking through language. Welty understands that this combination of childhood inclusion and aloofness gave her the eyes by which she would see her stories. "I suppose I was exercising as early as then the turn of mind, the nature of temperament, of a privileged observer; and owing to the way I became so, it turned out that I became the loving kind."
The second part of One Writer's Beginnings makes clear that its author had her beginnings not only in Chestina Andrews and Christian Welty but also in all the ancestors that preceded them. Whereas "Listening" turned its ear to her parents, "Learning to See" surveys a trip when Eudora was eight or nine to visit her grandparents in West Virginia and Ohio. What she learned to see on this journey was her own identity as a part of a community in time. The journey motif gives the section a more linear structure than that of its predecessor. However, part two is not so much a travel log as a free-flowing excursion into time past that connects events widely-separated over many years to show that Welty is the confluence of family history.
Although autobiography implicitly seems to announce that "I am I," Welty cannot define herself in narcissistic isolation but only through her kinfolk. Her abiding attachments confirm Susan Friedman's argument that women autobiographers often view themselves not simply in opposition to a world of others but also in relation to it. Elizabeth Fox-Genovese refines this feminist reading of lives that become texts by emphasizing the specific social and historical conditions that shape a woman's self-representation. She shows how this position between individualism and community is especially typical of the autobiographies of Southern women. Yet for Welty, the central community is neither Friedman's sisterhood nor Fox-Genovese's culture of race, class, and region. It is the family. Welty does not become a self by leaving her forebears behind but by taking them with her. Hence, she recounts not just her emergence from the abandoned world of childhood but also her continued rediscovery of bonds with the still present and interdependent past.
The West Virginia homestead of the Andrews family was a site for such temporal confluence. Its stories connected people of different times into generations. Welty's grandfather, the high-spirited Ned Andrews, loved to provoke his wife with tall tales, and since he died early, his sons knew him by oral tradition rather than by actual experience. Welty turns the home that Ned built into a memory house, for each place in it serves as the beginning of a narrative about the past. "Here in the center of the Andrews kitchen" was the long table where Ned prepared to transcribe music for the family band or to defend his cases at Clay Courthouse. "It was in the quilted bed in the front room of this house" where Ned suffered with an infected appendix and called upon Welty's mother, only a young girl at the time, to plunge a knife into his side. "It was from that door" that the fifteen-year-old Chessie left with her father to travel by raft and train to the Baltimore hospital where he died. "It was from this house" that soon afterwards Chessie set out to teach, reciting poems from McGuffey's Readers along her way to the one-room school. The Andrews home locates Welty not just in the hills so beloved by her mother but in the storied past. As each memory of the house leads to a more distant memory about her mother's beginnings, Welty's family history dramatizes the consanguinity that she describes in "Some Notes on Time in Fiction": "Remembering is done through the blood, it is a bequeathment, it takes account of what happens before a man is born as if he were there taking part." Part two of One Writer's Beginnings traces the bloodlines of Welty's ancestry and of her art.
Since Welty's narrative is governed by the personal time of its writer as she remembers rather than by close adherence to chronology, she interrupts this sequence on the Andrews home with a recollection from almost fifty years later: her elderly mother, helpless in bed and nearly blind, reciting with unabated ardor the same verses that she had memorized years ago from the primers of her students. Welty remembers, "She was teaching me one more, almost her last, lesson: emotions do not grow old. I knew that I would feel as she did," and the autobiographer makes that moment near the end of her mother's life circle ahead to her own life of seven decades by adding, "and I do." Welty neither recalls her mother's West Virginia origins as a prelude to her own beginnings in part one nor records the debilities that preceded her mother's death in 1966 as the finale to part three. Instead, her memory works by confluence. It reduces the original order of events and the half century that separates them to accidents of time, and it then rearranges these episodes according to the interpretive sequence of the artist's consciousness. Linking Chessie's girlhood with her passionate old age, Welty combines both of these memories with her own present as a writer at age seventy-five. The same enduring vitality makes the apparently discrete times of mother and daughter flow together.
Welty tasted the very wellsprings that nourished the independent spirit of her mother's family during her girlhood summer on the mountain. Then she became one of the folk of the West Virginia hills. Welty recalls that as she drank of the family well and of her homeland, the water's metallic flavor and ferny smell "all said mountain mountain mountain as I swallowed." Welty's deep draught grounded her in the locale that she had imbibed. "Every swallow was making me a part of being here, sealing me in place, with my bare feet planted on the mountain and sprinkled with my rapturous spills. What I felt I'd come here to do was something on my own." Inspired by such communion with the genius loci, the child tried to embody this newfound self-determination by taking a different course from the path along which her mother and uncles dawdled. However, the bold wayfaring led not to a triumph of autonomy but to a discovery of communal identity. Welty was initiated into the vast company of Southern women that Shirley Abbott names the "daughters of time." After the errant adventurer fell and was presented with torn dress to her grandmother, Eudora Carden brushed aside her grandchild's hair and peered into her eyes. What the gentle lady discerned in her namesake was the peculiar confluence of their lives as mountain women. "Hadn't we come right to the point of our both being named Eudora?" Welty wonders. And Eudora Carden saw that well-given bond in the context of a wider kinship when she looked from her granddaughter to her daughter and then back again. "I learned on our trip what that look meant," Welty explains in "Learning to See": "it was matching family faces."
In name and features generations converged. And as Welty juxtaposes memories, heedless of temporal order, she repeatedly makes the same kind of match. She writes her sense of self—communal, historical, regional—into the structure of her autobiography by selecting, omitting, and connecting so that widely different times in her life and family come face to face and show their similar identities. As Welty remembers her childhood trip into matrilineal history, her past of sixty-five years ago turns into her mother's past and finally into her grandmother's past. Welty follows her mountaintop meeting with Eudora Carden by recording the story of her maternal great grandparents, Eudora Ayres and William Carden, who came to West Virginia before it was a state. She finally ends the account of her visit to the high country with a memory that is evoked not by chronology but the logic of association. Once again Welty recalls her mother feebled by age, this time in her wheelchair as she tries to pick out "The West Virginia Hills" on the piano, fingering keys that she could not even see. The song that Chessie had once sung while washing supper dishes for her family was now the anthem of her independence in old age. "'A mountaineer,' she announced to me proudly, as though she had never told me this before and now I had better remember it, 'always will be free.'" The conflux of Welty's memories illustrates how the independence that Eudora first tasted on the mountain as a girl lasted throughout her mother's lifetime and has now become a personal inheritance that must not be forgotten. All the folk of the West Virginia hills wear this same proud countenance.
If Welty's journey to her mother's kindred was a discovery of liberating connections with the past, her summer visit to her father's family in Ohio was a frustrating search for confluence. The Andrews' household remembered by talking, but the Weltys denied memory by silence. Although Welty traces her father's roots back to three brothers from Switzerland, who came to America before the Revolutionary War, she recalls that her father never told her a single family story. Indeed, his Ohio home was so empty and silent that his daughter could not even imagine Christian as a child there. At the heart of Welty's disconnection from her father's past was Allie Welty, the grandmother who died when her son was still a boy. Unlike the uncles' banjos that delighted Eudora with ballads and hymns in West Virginia, Allie's organ in the Ohio parlor was never played or approached. The stilled instrument was a way of not remembering her just as Welty's middle name was an accidental way of misremembering her. Much as she bore the first name of her grandmother Carden, Eudora had been given the middle name of Alice after her paternal grandmother. But it was later discovered that her kinswoman's name was Almira. "Her name had been remembered wrong. I imagined what that would have done to her," Welty writes. "It seemed to me to have made her an orphan. That was worse to me than if I had been able to imagine dying."
Eudora Alice Welty should have been the name of the dead grandmother's ongoing connection with her family, but instead it became the sign of her absence and abandonment. The word did not work as Welty had long expected it. From childhood the writer believed in the real presence embodied in speech. In "Listening" Welty recalled feeling the rondure of moon as a six-year-old, and she remembered how when she saw the Book of Kells as an adult, she sensed that the illumination was "a part of the word's beauty and holiness that had been there from the start." In Welty's beginning was the sacred, potent word; she even quotes the first line of John's gospel when she witnesses to how the King James Bible has resounded in her prose. But when her mistaken middle name recorded how even language had not kept hold of the past, the future novelist glimpsed a dereliction more terrible than death. Almira Welty lived not in the spoken present of a story but only in her unsaying—in oblivious silence and misnomer. The closest that Eudora Welty could come to her half-forgotten ancestor was the poignant vision of a childlike inversion: her grandmother had not died to the family but the family had died to her. In the Ohio parlor, there was no matching of names, faces, and lives as in her hillcountry rendezvous with Eudora Carden—no confluence.
Although the young Welty heard in Ohio the aesthetics of loss, this disconnection finally leads the mature writer back to a connection with her father's past. Through memory and imagination the daughter attunes herself to the deprivation of his childhood. Welty recalls that as a girl, she occasionally heard in her father's quiet home a music box, playing a tune from a faraway time, but she only comes to understand the melody in retrospect. "Now I look back, or listen back, in the same desire to imagine, and it seems possible that the sound of that sparse music, so faint and unearthly to my childhood ears, was the sound he'd had to speak to him in all that country silence among so many elders where he was the only child." Welty understands that "sound of unspeakable loneliness" better because she discovered after her father's death a worn giftbook from his youth. Besides various consolations from relatives and friends, it contained a message that his mother had written on the day of her death. "It had been given him to keep and he had kept it," Welty affirms. Her recollections of her childhood visit to Ohio conclude with the discovery of this memento as an adult because the keepsake makes sense of the lasting sadness that Welty heard when she was young. Welty's present rounds about her past and then curves back farther to her father's past. Like the music box, the memory books of Christian Welty and, to some extent, of Eudora Welty keep the same time of old bereavement.
Welty's trips to the homes of her mother and father schooled the child of memory in the continuity of the present with the past, the continuation of the past in the future. They made her feel the temporal confluence that she would later define in "Some Notes on Time in Fiction" by quoting Faulkner: the past is "a part of every man, every woman, and every moment. All of his and her ancestry, background, is all a part of himself and herself at any moment. And so a man, a character in a story at any moment in action, is not just himself as he is then, he is all that made him. If Welty's focus on her precursors seems to deflect attention from herself, it actually reflects her sense of self more profoundly than any supposedly more candid confessions. To be Eudora Welty is to live in the context of a particular history and in concert with her family.
In "Finding A Voice" Welty tells how her childhood expedition in part two formed part of a longer journey toward becoming a writer. She makes the two essays flow into each other by beginning the last section of One Writer's Beginnings with another trip. As the near ten-year-old traveled by rail with her father, her awareness of passing through the passing world reinforced the sense of place and transiency that would later define her stories and novels. The girl who rode through her life in time anticipates the writer whose characters would repeat the same transit in her fiction. Having discovered her point of view in a ready-made frame of the window, the young Eudora watched whole towns leap before her gaze and then disappear. And what she could not spy beyond the pasture or over the hill, she invented. Even before she was ten, Welty was seeing as she would from first novel to last. Laura McRaven's reverie on the train at the beginning of Delta Wedding as well as Laurel McKelva Hand's dream of the train ride to Mount Salus at the end of The Optimist's Daughter grew from precisely such play of the mind over the terrain. Weltyland, despite its celebrated depiction of the Southern locale, is a highly subjective country for the child who first sees as much as for the adult who later remembers and recreates it in her fiction.
As Welty reviews her childhood train ride, it becomes a circuitous passage that reconnects her with the origins of her life and art in her parents. On the journey, Christian Welty saw the vanishing scenery by memory rather than through fantasy, for he had passed its landmarks during the course of many trips. But his daughter never learned exactly how customary was this route until years later. Throughout One Writer's Beginnings Welty continually calls attention to what she did not know and to when she later found it out. She does not present herself as the eternally omniscient narrator of her own life who reads back into the past what she only discovered in the future. Rather, Welty shows how she has learned the whole of her own story only in time. Memory discovers the confluence hidden in personal history. Welty remembers learning after her father's death that he used to travel the thousands of miles from Mississippi to West Virginia by train to court Chestina Andrews. And when he could not afford the trip, the couple wrote daily letters. Kept over the years by Welty's mother in an attic trunk, these pages "brought my parents before me for the first time as young, as inexperienced, consumed with the strength of their hopes and desires, as living on these letters." The writer read her beginnings in the fervent writings of her parents. Welty's initial memory of a childhood train ride leads her to recall a later discovery of an earlier time, a revelation of her parents' passion before she was ever born. Their letters, which once bridged space, now bridge all of these overlapping times—especially those sent by her father. "Annihilating those miles between them—the miles I came along to travel with him, that first time on the train," they were "so ardent, so direct and tender in expression, so urgent, that they seemed to bare, along with his love, the rest of his whole life to me." Retrospect turns into prospect as Welty recovers a proleptic image of her father's life journey.
Since Welty's memory makes the recent and distant past into contemporaries, One Writer's Beginnings holds all of these times together—the memoirist as imagining young daughter and discovering adult, Christian Welty as parent and future husband. By seeing her father as a fiancé, a role that she could never have envisioned when only a girl herself, the much older writer at last understood how Christian Welty must have seen the landscape on her childhood train ride. She arrived at the truth of the past only by way of what was then the future. And as an artist, the daughter of Christian Welty eventually came to share his passionate vision. Welty recalls a final confluence with her father when she began writing seriously in her twenties, for then she found the world as revealing as the countryside that he had passed on the train. Conflating tenses, superimposing her later discovery on her girlhood recollections, Welty explains that she achieved this new perspective "because (as with my father now) memory had become attached to seeing, love had added itself to discovery," and she felt the desire to connect herself to the outside world. Welty's father knew the train route not just by heart but with his heart—with the tender recollections of all the journeys before his marriage. Writing repeats the same interior progress for Welty because it involves not just vision but re-vision, not just insight but intimacy.
When Welty concludes her memoirs with the publication of her early fiction, she shows how her stories join in confluence with her life story. These first works not only mark the end to her beginnings as a writer but also record the same time of her life, the same search for pattern, as do her autobiographical essays. "Writing a story or a novel is one way of discovering sequence in experience," she explains, "of stumbling upon cause and effect in the happenings of a writer's own life." Fiction finds the proximity between origin and distant end, and then it connects events "too indefinite of outline in themselves" into "a larger shape." Welty brings that form into focus by an image from the railroad trips that cross so much of her life and art. As when a train rounding a curve throws its light back on what could not be seen, the storywriter beholds "a mountain of meaning rising behind you on the way you've come, is rising there still, proven now through retrospect." One Writer's Beginnings discloses just such a looming, backward view as does all of Welty's writing from the beginning.
The revelations of once-obscured design make Welty's autobiography so continuous with her fiction that the story of how she came to collect The Golden Apples is also the summary story of how she structures each of the essays in One Writer's Beginnings. As she was writing her tales of Morgana, Mississippi, Welty did not know that they would form a cycle, but she noticed afterwards that they were about the same characters—sometimes under different names or at different parts of their lives. "They touched on every side," she realized, joined unwittingly from their creation "by the strongest ties—identities, kinships, relationships, or affinities already known or remembered or foreshadowed." One Writer's Beginnings composes Welty's life as if it were just such a suite of stories. It manifests the hidden continuities and contiguities that hold together her own identity in time, the characters of her family, and the course of her career. Like the individual pieces in The Golden Apples, all of her memories touch on every side. "In writing, as in life," Welty observes, "the connections of all sorts of relationships and kinds lie in wait of discovery, and give out their signals to the Geiger counter of the charged imagination, once it is drawn into the right field." If writing and life share such buried correlations, these networks of associations find their natural confluence when Welty writes her life.
In the final pages of One Writer's Beginnings, Welty dramatizes her vision of such latent connections throughout time when she quotes the beginning of the last chapter from The Optimist's Daughter. Her novelistic autobiography and autobiographical novel fittingly converge in a passage about convergence. Having dreamed about a train ride over a long bridge with her dead husband, Laurel awakens to realize that it was actually a memory of the trip years ago when she and Phil traveled from Chicago to Mount Salus, where they were to be married. The story that she told herself while asleep was a revelation of confluence. As Laurel and her fiancé looked down from the transcendent perspective of the bridge, they saw not just the commingling of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers but the coming together of the whole world: below them, trees advancing from the horizon, and above them, birds meeting in a V and descending along the common course of the waters. "And they themselves were a part of the confluence," for while Laurel sat by the window, Phil touched her arm, and the two rode together toward their mutual act of faith. As if this immense panorama might localize the time of their conjoined lives, Laurel believed that they were going to live forever as one. But when her husband died in the war a year later, she separated herself from the underlying connections at the center of life and of Welty's writings. After remembering her earlier vision of unity, Laurel realizes that "Phil could still tell her of her life. For her life, any life, she had to believe, was nothing but the continuity of its love." Just as Laurel believes that the great rivers will still flow together at Cairo although she will not see them when she flies back to Chicago, the optimist's daughter places her faith in such confluence.
Welty writes her memoirs at the same point of intersection. Like Laurel in beholding the central design of life as the pattern of the heart, at the end of One Writer's Beginnings Welty sees the successiveness of time suddenly freed by an embracing simultaneity. The past is not behind her but beside her. And to remember is to renew membership in this enduring commonality: "I glimpse our whole family life as if it were freed of that clock time which spaces us apart so inhibitingly, divides young and old, keeps our living through the same experiences at separate distances." Flowing by linked associations rather than governed by chronology, Welty's memoirs duplicate exactly such temporal coincidence. Her narrative confluence abolishes distances and divisions in time, links generations, connects seemingly disparate events into the pattern of a lifetime. "The memory is a living thing—it too is in transit," Welty writes, always aware of the progress through time. "But during its moment, all that is remembered joins, and lives—the old and the young, the past and the present, the living and the dead." Memory suspends tenses to create a meeting place for what can never or no longer meet in time. In One Writer's Beginnings Welty can be always with herself and her family at the start of her own life story. Like the one-year-old in the photograph, the writer can hold time in her hands.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3218
SOURCE: "That Which 'The Whole World Knows': Functions of Folklore in Eudora Welty's Stories," in The Southern Quarterly, Vol. XXXII, No. 1, Fall, 1993, pp. 9-15.
[In the following essay, Vaschenko discusses the folklore elements present in Welty's short fiction.]
When it is approached, the subject defined appears to be a part of the general mystery that the stories of Eudora Welty present for any attentive reader. Yet the literary and the folk do intertwine in such an unprecedented way in her narration that this constitutes a challenge for any critical mind.
This approach to the short stories and novellas of Welty reveals some of their complexity of form and meaning, for the genres of folklore employed are as various as the means to employ them. Indeed, the field to be covered quite unexpectedly may turn out to be so vast that it cannot be encompassed here. Yet what may be called the most pronounced ways to bring the folk elements into narration, as manifested in Welty's shorter fiction, will be discussed here at length. I should like to approach my subject from the point of view of the aesthetic function performed by concrete folklore elements.
In the American tradition, folklore is understood in a broad sense to include almost all of the manifestations of folk life, not just verbal art. From that point of view, we should begin with the mythological dimension, especially if mythology is thought of in terms of a body of concrete myths and the specific ways to tell them. This level manifests itself in Welty's fiction by way of the symbolic chains exemplified mainly by ancient Greek and Celtic images. These two different mythologies certainly combine in bringing forth the purport of the stories in The Golden Apples. Although both traditions can be traced back to written sources, rather than to oral, these are undoubtedly based on folk models. Because of them the general atmosphere of the stories in The Golden Apples becomes one of life as wonder, mystery and fantasy, which is characteristic of Celtic folklore and, to a large extent, ancient Greek mythology.
Even though the images of Psyche, Circe, Perseus, Medusa, the Shower of Gold, the Golden Apples and many others may persist in the works of Eudora Welty, they lose considerably their orality, assuming a function that is purely literary in nature. For this reason, folklore in Welty moves toward the more concrete and exceptional uses of folklore proper.
All classifications work poorly with Welty's stories, and not all of the writer's stories are to be regarded as good cases for the study of folk elements as the first and foremost features in making their structure and meaning. Most obvious and easy to deal with is the case when the subject matter as a whole is borrowed or reset from a folk source, but that is, characteristically, the least common with Welty. The Robber Bridegroom, being a creative remodeling of the Brothers Grimm fairy tale, may be an exception that proves the rule. Yet at least two groups of stories which are very different from each other show that they are designed with the idea that the literary and the folk should complement each other. And each group of stories employs folk elements that are different and uses them for different reasons.
The first group comes somewhat early in Welty's career and thematically is grouped around the Natchez Trace, that is, most of the stories in The Wide Net and Other Stories (1943) and The Robber Bridegroom. These works are grouped not only thematically but stylistically, because of the special goal the author wished to achieve.
Being closely connected with specific and striking landscape features, these stories are oriented toward imitation of the folk genre called "local legends," hovering between these and historical anecdotes, with concrete historical names involved. This presupposes that the time is also legendary. In "First Love," for example, the narrator begins, "Whatever happened, it happened in extraordinary times, in a season of dreams." The real time, if one bothers to investigate, is the period between the 1790s and the 1810s. The Robber Bridegroom, as the author specifies in The Eye of the Story, is "set in the Natchez country of the late eighteenth century, in the declining days of Spanish rule."
The outcome of this combination, of the legendary time and place in these works, is that the writer implants the Natchez Trace in our consciousness as an aesthetic symbol and spiritual landmark of universal scope, performing, on the level, a task not unlike Miguel Angel Asturias in the Leyendas de Guatemala, E. Pauline Johnson in the Legends of Vancouver, or a number of writers in the Russian tradition, be it Shergin with his tales about the northern seamen, the pomors or Bajov with his legends of the Ural mountains. After reading these Welty stories, one is truly convinced that there appears such a place as the Natchez Trace in the imaginary—as well as geographic—map of the world and that there is no America without the Natchez Trace. One could not have achieved this goal through folklore alone, for it would be confined only to the local vicinity, having stayed limited to the folk knowledge of the early settlers. Only by giving birth to this folk material as a literary reality could it be made widely appreciated and universally significant.
Welty has written, "The line between history and fairy tale is not always clear." In The Robber Bridegroom, where the fairy tale quality is so clearly manifested, one must notice also the hidden presence of such genres as the tall tale and the ballad, especially with the appearance of such figures as Mike Fink and Jimmy Lockhart. Besides, one can notice that two different times are combined in the narrative: the unspecified time of the fairy tale and mythic time. These times merge, for as we proceed from the beginning to the end of the narrative, the surrounding wilderness becomes civilized. One structural peculiarity is also present, for we experience every now and again some gap in explanation and are to take the striking and the grotesque for granted. In folklore this is natural, as the stanzas of the ballad leap from one piece of narration to another, but here it becomes a device to enhance the analytical and mystical qualities of the narrative.
This legendary atmosphere becomes clearly manifested through the structure of the language and the imagery employed, the peculiar rhythm and syntax, as can be seen especially in the opening lines of many of these stories. These just slightly modify but clearly make use of the folk formulas for the beginning of the story.
Whatever happened, it happened in extraordinary times, in a season of dreams, and in Natchez it was the bitterest winter of them all. ("First Love")
Lorenzo Dow rode the Old Natchez Trace at top speed upon a race horse, and the cry of the itinerant Man of God, "I must have souls and souls I must have" rang in his own windy ears. ("A Still Moment")
Solomon carried Livvie twenty-one miles away from her home when he married her. He carried her away up the old Natchez Trace into the deep country to live in his house. She was sixteen—only a girl, then…. He told her himself that it had been a long time and a day she did not know about, since that road was a traveled road with people coming and going. He was good to her, but he kept her in the house. ("Livvie")
These are clearly marked folktale-like opening lines, but in the same passages Welty brings into the narrative the literary preoccupation with the details of the immediate and individual perception, constantly breaking the folk pattern, in order to complicate the general idea of the story. It continues to be one of the author's chief artistic devices in all of the Natchez Trace stories.
Beginning with these early stories, another type of narrative structure began to develop in Welty's stories—one structure among all the diversity of her stories. Yet it is unmistakably present in stories like "Lily Daw and the Three Ladies," "Petrified Man," "Why I Live at the P.O.," "Old Mr. Marblehall," as well as in several stories in The Golden Apples and some of the later ones. In these stories, the narrator (the protagonist) represents somebody who is an intricate part of a community who is usually telling about somebody who is at odds with community views, or vice versa. Again, we can see the striking structural difference when we read the opening lines in these stories:
Mrs. Watts and Mrs. Carson were both in the post office in Victory when the letter came from the Ellisville Institute for the Feeble Minded of Mississippi…. Mrs. Watts held it taut between her pink hands, and Mrs. Carson underscored each line slowly with her thimbled finger. Everybody else at the post office wondered what was up now. ("Lily Daw and the Three Ladies")
Reach in my purse and get me a cigarette without no powder in it if you kin, Mr. Fletcher, honey, said Leota to her ten o'clock shampoo and set customer. I don't like no perfumed cigarettes. ("Petrified Man")
Old Mr. Marblehall never did anything, never got married, until he was sixty. You can see him out taking a walk. Watch and you'll see how preciously old people come to think they are made. ("Old Mr. Marblehall")
That was Miss Snowdie Maclain. She comes after her butter, won't let me run over with it from just across the road. Her husband walked out of the house one day and left his hat on the banks of the Big Black River—that could have started something, too. ("Shower of Gold")
Let us make a special note of the place of action: the post office, the beauty shop, the neighborhood or, equally, it may be the house of the dead, as in "Wanderers." The diversity of these will look similar only in one respect: these are the places and the occasions where and when the people gather to chat, exchange news and gossip. So the reader is brought at once on the scene of the traditional speech events, so to speak. Here the folk elements, as employed in the narrative flow, represent not the local but the regional way of life, linking it with the universal. The South in general is the place, be it Morgana, Victory or any other small town. And this time it is the different folk genres that are being structured. To portray the South preeminently as a way of life which is most characteristic yet universal, Welty turns to what with some risk may be called a folk genre, small town gossip. Yet the risk happens to be not so great after all, when one outlines its peculiar qualities.
In the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture one may come across many broad characteristics of southern life, such as laying an emphasis on "leisure time, the strong continuity between generations of many fàmilies, the interest in family background and genealogy and the love of storytelling"; or that "southern regional identity will partially determine the aspects of a person's life that are worth telling stories about, but these narratives also relate to American culture and to universal human concerns"; or that "the personal experience narrative acts as a means of reincorporating the mystical event into everyday reality, a structuring of an unstructured incident so that it can be shared with and perhaps inspire others." The latter quotation describes the genre of the "Personal Experience Narratives," the "Family Narratives," the "Oral History Narratives" and, one may add, just "Gossiping-or Sitting-on-the-Porch Narratives."
We can find examples of all these in the Welty short fiction under discussion here, but for the sake of brevity, we should concentrate on small town gossip narrative. As I understand it, gossip is viewed as a complex phenomenon. Not only is it entertainment, but it is a way of being, of sharing and expressing certain community views and values. Gossip involves taking sides, employing many speech events, such as metaphors, understatements and the like—including a great deal of improvisation, acting, impersonation, etc.—in other words, folklore characteristics. And out of the many great southern writers, Welty seems to be the most aware of the creative potential in this element of folk life and folk expression—which she uses to its full measure. Each time she uses it, the small town gossip element may be presented differently, yet it is manifested on many levels.
A comparison between Faulkner's narration and Welty's will illustrate this point. In Faulkner, however different his characters may be in social, cultural or racial terms, be it Benjy Compson, Ike McCaslin or Gavin Stevens—or even Lucas Beauchamp—their voices are, in the long run, the same written-speech voice, the epic literary biblical voice of the author coming through in long monologues incorporated into the narrative.
It is very different with Welty. First, she seems to avoid the depiction of extraordinary events as her subject matter. She sticks to the apparently insignificant. Second, her narrators, while gossiping, often serve the role of counterposition between the visually present or told about and what is actually meant by the author.
What, then, does this small town gossip technique actually amount to when applied to Welty's narrative composition? First of all, it means the adoption of a loose structure of gossip storytelling. When reading these stories, we experience constant digressions from what appears to be the main issue or subject. Instead, we come across interruption or running-ahead-of-time information, the inclusion of less important or what appears to be seemingly unrelated matters, all kinds of odd motifs which are seemingly at war with the main idea of the story. The plot itself seems to wander about freely, coming and going as it pleases. Before the reader has time to account for what is going on in the story, the "gossip technique" has reached the level of the reader's psychology, bringing forth the aftermath of the oral mental processes of a small community, so that the reader—now actually the listener and participant—becomes the wanderer among those others meant in the closing story of The Golden Apples. Little by little we also come to understand that all this is done to both challenge our intellectual analytical activity and to give us the opportunity to formulate our own view on the matter. On the more abstract level, it brings forward the philosophical concept of life as a complex phenomenon, where some kind of mystical and wonderful pattern is making its way through all of the haphazard and chaotic manifestations of the story. This technique also helps to avoid the narrowness of certain conventional literary techniques, but it nevertheless complicates the position of the reader. There are many variations to this technique in Welty's stories, with or without the oral speech patterns involved, with just a community point of view present.
Secondly, the gossip technique, when employed as the means of telling a story, involves the characteristic logistics of phrase structure. One immediate aspect of this is that the phrase and the sentence acquire an immense multitude of meanings. It simultaneously characterizes the events of the fabula, the community point of view and, by extension, its values and the philosophy of the narrator and narration—even when they may be expressing different points of view.
Another verbal and narrative outcome of the gossip technique is that the written phrase structurally tends to become oral. This means that the relationship between the narrator and the reader becomes close to the relationship between the storyteller and the listener. And more: the story itself acquires the touch of "just a story for entertainment," told for the mere purpose of passing the time, for amusement. It is only eventually that it proves to reveal the whole of its meaning through small trifles and everyday details. These "trifles," however, involve a leisurely time and thought and actually point to the freedom of self-expression, as well as the freedom, the variability of the events depicted, freedom of interpretation of the causes and effects, of the detail and the whole.
Thus, on a general level, gossiping is implanted in the reader's perception as a local way of life which is preserved only through this style of living and storytelling and by means of this proves to possess universal appeal.
Given all this, we might conclude that there are two groups of stories in Welty's short fiction classified according to the use of folk styles. First, when the meaning of the story is extracted from the plot itself, from what is told, so to speak (as in the Natchez Trace stories, organized according to the poetics of certain folk genres). Second, when the meaning is derived in spite of the plot or from the way the story is told. In the Natchez Trace stories, the author is the narrator and the discourse is clearly of a "narrative" type. In the "gossip technique" stories, a line of imaginary storytellers appears, and the story is told rather than narrated. Both are, to an extent, folk structured but according to different aesthetic systems.
From this we can see that quite often the events narrated and the voice of the narrator, the "point of view," make a peculiar combination. Contrast between the two is more pronounced in the second group, for the events being narrated are everyday occurrences, while the mode of the narration is oral. The event and the telling about it are simultaneous but counterpositioned, unlike in the Natchez Trace stories, where the narrator is blended into the narrated, as in the romantic legendary tradition. In the "gossip technique" stories, the actions of a hero undermine the community views, paradoxically enough, as in "The Shower of Gold."
In One Writer's Beginnings Welty states that her self-education began with listening—that is, mastering the oral characteristics of the language and the world around her. This statement holds true for many southern writers whose distinguished oral quality is too often obscured by their openly literary means. The fictional world of Eudora Welty shows eloquently the multitude of consequences coming out of this orality. If the reader is a symbolic wanderer and the community is ambivalent about its values—and the world, too, possessing the quality of a fairy tale in all that is bitter and sweet—then it means we have to look deeper into these categories, redefining that which "the whole world knows": community values, immediate reality, the meaning of the self, the fairy tale and storytelling itself.
In Eudora Welty's fiction we indeed come across the making of a metaphor for the South, which is oral in quality. The technique and the framing of the story that she employs has proved to be so rich and productive that it has been developed in stories by Peter Taylor, Elizabeth Spencer and perhaps others. In other words, it is by listening that these writers have developed their craft, which is so unique in the literary world, and succeeded in building up a metaphor which is invariably a combining of the oral with the literary and is, at the same time, endlessly confirming and questioning that which "the whole world knows."
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2480
SOURCE: "Wafts of the South," in TLS, No. 4767, August 12, 1994, pp. 20-1.
[In the following review, Shields discusses three books: a biography of Eudora Welty, a collection of her book reviews, and her novel The Optimist's Daughter.]
Eudora Welty was born in 1909 in Jackson, Mississippi, where she still lives. This stern rootedness has always compounded the wonderment in Miss Welty's admirers, for there is, first, her long list of writing accomplishments to contemplate, and then an accompanying respect for her serene, unwriterly willingness to stay put. She is, in a sense, a curiosity in American literary history, a writer who stayed home, who has lived, in fact, in the same house she moved to with her family when she was a girl of sixteen.
Her five novels, her dozens of short stories and essays, and her fine memoir One Writer's Beginnings, all found their sense and shape in an upstairs bedroom of the Welty house on Pinehurst Street. The mention of this upstairs bedroom may call to mind Emily Dickinson (another writer who kept to her room), but the comparison fails from the start; Eudora Welty's writing has always turned outward to embrace the society she was born into, and her life, moreover, has been characterized by a rare richness of friendship. Old friends, familiar surroundings, conversation, books, occasional travel, the pleasures of the post, the sustaining power of routine in a small and knowable city; these seem the steady forces that have nurtured her gift—a gift which is often described as being uniquely Southern.
Most serious readers of fiction are acquainted with the work of William Faulkner, and are on speaking terms with Walker Percy or Toni Morrison, and so have overcome their apprehensions about the universe of critters, grits and Grandaddy-catching frogs-down-by-the-swamp. Southern writing—whatever that phrase embodies—is lyrically seductive and, at its best, brings fresh narrative news from another frontier.
North Americans love their regional pigeon-holes. The sheer immensity of continental space drives writers, and critics, into the consolation of shared corners, hunkering down with their geographical fellows, becoming New England writers, Western writers, writers of the Great Plains, even attaching themselves to smaller subdivisions: Montana writers, North Carolina writers (of which there seem a disproportionate number), San Francisco writers, Marin County writers, and, of course, that pressing throng of writers from the South, including writers from the "deep South". We almost never speak of Northern writers, perhaps because this largest-by-far category is simply "the other" against which "the rest" are poised and compared.
There's more than self-interest behind these clusterings. The tug of landscape plays a part, certainly, and the reliability of an accessible human network, but there are also the comforts of related syntax and, finally, a strong comradely resistance to the monolith of New York publishing, with its perceived appetites and modus operandi.
Such territorial groupings, not nearly cohesive enough to be called "schools", shatter quickly under analysis. Every theory of regional writing produces its contrary example, and, in fact, writers, even those eager enough to support local presses or literary magazines, are the first to resist identification by geographical category. Eudora Welty, reviewing Marguerite Steedman's novel But You'll Be Back, in 1942, objects to the jacket copy which advertises the book's characters as being "Normal Southern" people; This is "a jolting phrase", she writes, and she hopes it "does not indicate that hereafter southern people are to be subdivided after having already been divided from the rest of the country".
Two years later, reviewing a novel by the mostly forgotten Harry Harrison Kroll, Miss Welty says, "This is a distinctly Southern Book, in that every word springs straight up from Southern earth." Kroll's attachment to a recognizable terrain seems as far as Eudora Welty is willing to go in isolating qualities of "Southernness". Interestingly, it is only in these two early reviews that the "Southern question" is raised; her later reviews avoid the subject almost entirely. It may be that she despaired of defining so slippery an essence as regionalism; perhaps the breadth of her reading—she was discovering South American fiction as early as the 1940s—made her sceptical of arbitrary enclosures.
The University Press of Mississippi has now published Eudora Welty's complete collected book reviews, sixty-seven, written between the years 1942 and 1984, most of them for the New York Times Book Review: Pearl Amelia McHaney can be thanked for bringing this graceful collection together. The availability of Welty's critical work locates the author historically, enlarging our understanding of the evolving Welty aesthetic, and creating a sort of subjunctive biography which will be especially enlightening for those who believe that the books we read form a part of our consciousness, and sometimes the best part.
For close to fifty years Eudora Welty has been reading books and setting down her impressions, always with sensitivity and with an exceptional openness, even a kind of gaiety—something that appears to have gone out of book-reviewing. The collection can be seen as a random slice of publishers' offerings in the middle years of our century, and random it certainly is. Welty must have been more than once surprised by what she was given for review: there are wobbly first novels here, histories, essays, letters and journals, mysteries, children's fiction, fairy-tales, art books, even a how-to book for window-box gardeners. But along the way came such writers as S. J. Perelman, William Sansom, Faulkner, Rose Macaulay, Isak Dinesen, J. D. Salinger, V. S. Pritchett, Patrick White, E. M. Forster, whose work she adores, Elizabeth Bowen, a close friend, and Virginia Woolf, about whom she writes brilliantly.
The simplicity of Eudora Welty's opening sentences are a rebuke to those reviewers who stand on their heads to be clever. "This is a book of twenty-one short stories"; "These are stories and sketches collected from writings over a period of several years"; or "This is a disarming book, and a pleasure to read". Her strategy is classical. She provides a brief description of the work, followed by a careful, balanced analysis, and her strength lies in identifying—sharply, wittily, often metaphorically—the centre of a writer's power, or else a debilitating weakness. Of Colette she says, "She writes indeed of love", but "not with her love". Of Sylvia Townsend Warner: "Miss Warner is careful never to lose herself beyond a point where wit will not bring her back." Of a convoluted paragraph in Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek she writes, "I honestly do not know what she is talking about at such times".
She shows an early appreciation of Henry Green and Elizabeth Bowen, and her particular enthusiasms may send readers back to the delights of Perelman, or scurrying after a second-hand copy of Marianne Thornton: A domestic biography by E. M. Forster. These critical pieces, written between Welty's novels and short stories, will stand as "a graceful and imperturbable monument to interruption", which is the phrase she herself uses to describe Virginia Woolf's journalism.
She is less than sympathetic in her review of Arthur Mizener's biography of Ford Madox Ford, The Saddest Story. Mizener, she says, makes the mistake of alternating his clumsy "coarse-grained" comments with Ford's carefully cadenced prose, and the result is "like being carried in a train along the southern coast of France—long tunnel, blinding view of the sea, and over again". This, unhappily, is the problem faced by Paul Binding in his critical memoir, The Still Moment: Eudora Welty, Portrait of a Writer. It may be that literary studies like The Still Moment are doomed to be clumsy and mechanistic, since traditional critical methods have demanded comment—those endless tunnels—followed by concrete evidence in the form of a quoted passage. Eudora Welty's luminous and highly textured language presses again and again against the darkness of Binding's vague, awkward, hesitantly offered commentary. "Since her early years she had wanted to be a writer, and had indeed written things." Things? Or, speaking of a photograph Eudora Welty had taken, he writes, "This picture also brings home to me, more than its fellows, both the strength—and eternity, if you prefer—of a moment and its helplessness in the inexorable forward march of Time." After quoting a passage from Delta Wedding, he sums up with: "This passage brings us a fresh realization of the disturbing coexistences of ordinary life, and of the extreme difficulty (and danger) of simplifying things [those things again] with ready moral judgments."
This is a valuable book none the less. Between his dutiful paragraphs of exegesis, Binding assembles an affectionate and penetrating portrait. Eudora Welty, he reminds us, is a Southerner by birth, but her parents came from more northerly states and were able to provide their daughter with an outsider's eye. Welty herself was educated in the North, first at the University of Wisconsin, then Columbia where she studied advertising. The Depression drew her back to Mississippi, and there she found work with the WPA (Works Progress Administration), travelling to every corner of the state, conducting person-to-person interviews and taking, for her own pleasure, photographs of her fellow Mississippians. This field-work, undertaken with youthful ardour, was to form the rich material of her fiction. Binding underlines the importance of Welty's fortunate apprenticeship. The photographs, which she developed herself, deepened her sense of the human image rooted in its landscape, and her interviews animated these images, so that her fiction vibrates with the lively orality so often associated with "Southern" writing.
Wisely, Binding refuses to be throttled by a precise definition of what Southern writing is. For, despite innumerable studies devoted to its analysis, and hundreds of college courses designed around its contours, Southern writing is, in the end, almost what anyone wants it to be—writing about the South, or writing set in the South, writing by writers born in the South, who have passed through the South, who have Southern antecedents or who express themselves through the use of Southern locutions. (A certain amount of confusion exists about whether the word Southern should be capitalized, though the "S" in South is almost always in upper case.)
There are those who feel that there can be no Southern writing since there is no longer a stable South; the old agricultural South is fast becoming suburbanized; Southerners now watch the same television programmes as other Americans, and avail themselves of the same fast-food and consumer products. Race and gender may be the webs that hold us together now, not the accidents of geography. Some insist that Southern writing cannot be defined, but only felt; that it falls on the ear with a detectable but indescribable Southern slant; that it's romantically inflated, a forced garden, writing that is slightly out of control with an unreliable traffic director. For Reynolds Price, it contains, almost always, the consciousness of race. For others, it holds the memory imprint of the colonized or defeated. It is lush, Gothic, rural, claustrophobic, informed by a humour that lies broad in the brain, drawing its narratives from folk stories, from anecdotes, from tall tales, from language that bends easily to metaphor. It is less about the arabesque of the unfolded self than about the way families and communities work.
John Barth, who is sometimes, but not always, classified as a Southern writer, claims that the most important narrative question for the writer is not "What happened?" but "Who am I?" On the other hand, a narrative question closer to the Southern sense of story-telling might be "Who are we?" or, taking it a centimetre closer to the essence of what a story is, "How are we who we are?" Two of Eudora Welty's novels have been reissued by Virago, and each finds its narrative energy in the conundrum of community.
The Optimist's Daughter is often considered Eudora Welty's most lasting achievement. Published in 1972, it won a Pulitzer Prize, but in today's political climate it feels a little hollow and somehow unsure of itself. Its spareness and its use of vernacular materials point towards an awakening of the liberated self, but the denouement of the novel leaves more questions unanswered than addressed.
Welty's heroine is Laurel, a childless widow in her forties, who travels from Chicago to her family home in the South where she faces her father's illness and death, and where she must confront the egregious Wanda Fay, a heartless, selfish, silly woman, the wife her father married in his old age. Wanda Fay is unique in Eudora Welty's fiction, a vessel of pure evil who remains unredeemed by the author. The novel poses a timeless question: how can we love the parents who have ultimately failed us? Laurel's mother, we are told, ended her life in madness, her father with a foolish alliance, and in the period following his funeral, Laurel disengages herself from the pain of family distress by absorbing into her consciousness all that was good and worthy. But she never thinks to ask herself what it is that has deprived Wanda Fay of a heart, what circumstances have squeezed the woman dry—was it poverty, a failure of acceptance in her own family? Both are hinted at. In the end, Wanda Fay brings more comedy than tragedy to the pages of this puzzling novel, and Laurel returns to the North, carrying with her what may be the seeds of her own heartlessness. The book invites a perplexing double reading: Mr Cheek, a seasonal handyman, in telling Laurel that she resembles her dead mother, can be seen as the messenger of evil or else an astute prophet; the bird that flies into the family house may presage misfortune or the beginning of a necessary cleansing.
The quality of Southernness may be difficult to bottle, but it comes wafting off every page of Losing Battles. It's not just that the characters are called Aunt Beck, Brother Bethune, or Miss Beulah. It's that each of them is provided with an oral gift matched by an aural receptivity. The book is all talk, a whole Sunday of talk that stretches into Monday morning. The time is the 1930s, in the old segregated South; the occasion is the ninetieth birthday of Granny Vaughn; the mood is comic and tender. The chatter goes on and on, passing from gossip to banter to declaration to confession, about buttered biscuits, family bibles, about the fear of entrapment and of death, about fluctuations in faith, about how hot the weather's got; and each of these conversations secures a cultural moment. The novel sprawls in a dozen directions, but always letting in the noise of life.
It is good to have these novels in print. Eudora Welty, besides producing her own fine body of work, has been a major influence on America's Anne Tyler, on Canada's Alice Munro, and on many other writers, men as well as women, who have faced the daunting task of making literature out of the humble clay of home.
Last Updated on February 5, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 725
Prestianni, Vincent. "From Porter to O'Connor: Modern Southern Writers of Fiction. Seven Bibliographies of Bibliographies." Bulletin of Bibliography 48, No. 3 (September 1991): 137-51.
Provides a bibliography for other bibliographies about Welty and other Southern writers.
Butterworth, Nancy K. "From Civil War to Civil Rights: Race Relations in Welty's 'A Worn Path.'" Eudora Welty: Eye of the Storyteller, edited by Dawn Trouard, pp. 165-72. Kent, OH: The Kent State University Press, 1989.
Discusses the place of race relation's in Welty's "A Worn Path" by analyzing the character of Phoenix.
Caldwell, Price. "Sexual Politics in Welty's 'Moon Lake' and 'Petrified Man.'" Studies in American Fiction 18, No. 2 (Autumn 1990): 171-81.
Discusses Welty's short stories "Petrified Man" and "Moon Lake" stating that "These stories portray the comedy of human beings trying to impose their interpretations on nature."
Clerc, Charles. "Anatomy of Welty's 'Where is the Voice Coming From?'" Studies in Short Fiction 23, No. 4 (Fall 1986): 389-400.
Analyzes Welty's short story "Where is the Voice Coming From?"
Eichelberger, Julia. "From Medusa to Sibyl: Welty's Art as Cultural Critique." Mississippi Quarterly 46, No. 2 (Spring 1993): 299-304.
Reviews Peter Schmidt's The Heart of the Story: Eudora Welty's Short Fiction.
Evans, Elizabeth. "Eudora Welty and The Dutiful Daughter." Eudora Welty: Eye of the Storyteller, edited by Dawn Trouard, pp. 57-68. Kent, OH: The Kent State University Press, 1989.
Discusses the heavy price daughters pay for being dutiful in three of Welty's works.
Flower, Dean. "Eudora Welty Come from Away." The Hudson Review XXXVIII, No. 3 (Autumn 1985): 473-480.
Analyzes Welty's position on the question of roaming or staying home.
Marrs, Suzanne. "'The Treasure Most Dearly Regarded': Memory and Imagination in Delta Wedding." The Southern Literary Journal XXV, No. 2 (Spring 1993): 79-91.
Asserts that "The emergence of distant memories from the unconscious mind and the very conscious examination of an era not her own are crucial to Welty's achievement in Delta Wedding, for perspective in time seems at once to provide her with vivid images, to prompt a metaphoric use of those images, and to grant her the freedom to alter and combine images in the service of her story's metaphoric patterns."
Mortimer, Gail L. "'The Way to Get There': Journeys and Destinations in the Stories of Eudora Welty." The Southern Literary Journal XIX, No. 2 (Spring 1987): 61-9.
Asserts that the journey is more important than the destination in Welty's fiction.
Peterman, Gina D. "A Curtain of Green: Eudora Welty's Auspicious Beginning." Mississippi Quarterly 46, No. 1 (Winter 1992): 91-114.
Discusses the history of Welty's first short-story collection A Curtain of Green.
Pitavy-Souques, Daniele. "On Suffering and Joy: Aspects of Storytelling in Welty's Short Fiction." Eudora Welty: Eye of the Storyteller, edited by Dawn Trouard, pp. 142-50. Kent, OH: The Kent State University Press, 1989.
Discusses the way Welty presents suffering in her stories.
Polk, Noel. "Going to Naples and Other Places in Eudora Welty's Fiction." Eudora Welty: Eye of the Storyteller, edited by Dawn Trouard, pp. 153-64. Kent, OH: The Kent State University Press, 1989.
Asserts that "Welty never exploits place, hers or anybody else's, for its own sake, but rather hopes, in writing about it, to see it anew, for the first time every time."
Romines, Ann. "How Not to Tell a Story: Eudora Welty's First-Person Tales." Eudora Welty: Eye of the Storyteller, edited by Dawn Trouard, pp. 94-104. Kent, OH: The Kent State University Press, 1989.
Discusses Welty's stories in which she uses first-person narration.
Saunders, James Robert. "'A Worn Path': The Eternal Quest of Welty's Phoenix Jackson." The Southern Literary Journal XXV, No. 1 (Fall 1992): 62-73.
Discusses the importance of Phoenix Jackson's journey in Welty's "A Worn Path."
Schmidt, Peter. The Heart of the Story: Eudora Welty's Short Fiction. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 1991, 312 p.
Provides a study of Welty's short stories and attempts to show "how through a sibylline sleight-of-hand Welty's art merges disguise and revelation into one motion."
Vande Kieft, Ruth Marguerite. Eudora Welty. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1987, 209 p.
Provides a close reading of Eudora Welty's fiction.