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Welty, Eudora 1909–
Welty, an American novelist, short story writer, and nonfiction and juvenile writer, is considered a Southern regionalist and is frequently compared to William Faulkner, Katherine Anne Porter, and Caroline Gordon. Her stories revolve around the relationships within families, focusing on the emotional complexities which face the individual....
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Welty, Eudora 1909–
Welty, an American novelist, short story writer, and nonfiction and juvenile writer, is considered a Southern regionalist and is frequently compared to William Faulkner, Katherine Anne Porter, and Caroline Gordon. Her stories revolve around the relationships within families, focusing on the emotional complexities which face the individual. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 5, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1102
[Miss Welty has not] sought to create a region of her own, as Faulkner has done with his Yoknapatawpha County, and to that extent she is a less self-conscious regionalist than he. She has merely taken her material where she found it—i.e., not far from home….
When A Curtain of Green appeared, in 1941, some reviewers quickly concluded that the author was one more Southern realist with a penchant for squalor….
But if one reads carefully, it is apparent that Miss Welty is not preoccupied with violence and horror, in the way that Erskine Caldwell so often is and not even to the extent that William Faulkner sometimes is. The meaning of the story is never in the violence, nor is the abnormality of the characters their important quality. (p. 70)
Squalor, violence, and decadence have in themselves no importance for Miss Welty. They are merely facts, and facts, whether pleasant or unpleasant, are no more than means to an end. What matters in her stories is never the thing that happens but the effect of the thing on human beings. Her concern, in other words, is with states of mind, and her emphasis falls upon those emotional states that cannot be easily articulated. (p. 71)
Miss Welty knows how, if ever an author did, to let facts speak for themselves, but she does not systematically refrain, in the Hemingway manner, from the direct account of emotional states. Although her later work is never so explicit as "Death of a Traveling Salesman," she does not hesitate to tell us what is going on within the mind of a character when it serves her purpose to do so. With beautiful adroitness, of which only a deliberate analyst can be conscious, she slips from the objective to the subjective, at just the moment to achieve the maximum of revelation…. So far as technique is concerned, her characteristic quality is [to maintain a] perfect balance between the objective and the subjective.
In another sense her work is remarkably objective…. Each story is an excursion of her imagination into the minds of others, and one finds in the two collections an extraordinary variety of subject matter…. [Her] emotional range stretches from the poignant to the overwhelming, and from humor to the blackest tragedy. Nor do her stories always conform to the patterns that have been discussed. There is, for example, "Powerhouse," an enigmatic story of a Negro orchestra leader with a strong, wild rhythm in it, or there is "The Wide Net," with its fine colloquial style and country humor. Miss Welty's versatility baffles the pigeonholers.
Yet in all this variety there are, of course, persistent themes. The first is the mystery of personality, which Miss Welty perceives in two forms—the mystery of others and the mystery of self. The failure of human beings to understand one another, one of the perennial themes of literature, she treats often as tragedy and sometimes, as in "A Piece of News" and "The Wide Net," as comedy, though always with serious overtones. The mystery of identity, central in such a story as "Old Mr. Marblehall," figures in some degree in almost every one of her tales.
Closely related to this first theme is her second, the problem of what brings people together and what holds them apart. (p. 72)
The flat, poker-faced narrative [of The Robber Bridegroom] is enriched by a dry humor that delights in the absurdities that are being described, and it is interrupted by descriptive and meditative passages of great beauty and by colorfully fantastic episodes in which historical and legendary figures … take part….
The Robber Bridegroom has its excellences, but it was in Delta Wedding (1946) that Miss Welty was to show what she could do with the novel. The book is a triumph of sensitivity: the atmosphere of the Delta in September; the excitement and commotion of a household preparing for a wedding; the feeling of a crowded house; the feeling of a house full of children; the special quality of a particular and unusual family…. It is a technical triumph, too: the constant, subtle shifting of the point of view to render the most that can be rendered. (p. 73)
If Delta Wedding is one of the finest novels of recent years, it is because Miss Welty's sensibility is equal to the burden she has imposed upon it, the burden of a sustained narrative…. It is held up from beginning to end by unfailing insight into the subtle and complicated emotions of its characters and by a matchless gift for making us feel what they feel.
In The Golden Apples (1949) Miss Welty did not attempt that kind of sustained effort. The same characters figure in various episodes, and of some of them we have a cumulative revelation, but each episode stands by itself. It is, in part, a book about small-town life, and the quality of its understanding of small-town ways reminds one of Anderson and Faulkner. In another, more important aspect it is concerned with the mystery of personality. (p. 74)
In The Robber Bridegroom and a couple of short stories [Miss Welty] has deliberately created legends of her own, but these are less important than the tales in which the ordinary events of life in contemporary Mississippi take on the purity and—to use a reckless word—the universality of legend….
Her work has often been compared with that of Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield, but the resemblances seem to me superficial. In the beginning, I suspect, she learned a good deal from Katherine Anne Porter, about both the shaping of a story and the manipulation of words, but she has followed her own path of development, so that today the individuality of her prose is as obvious as it is quietly asserted. (p. 75)
Miss Welty is, to be sure, a Southern writer, in the sense that the South is her subject matter, just as it is Faulkner's. Furthermore, again like Faulkner, she lives in the midst of the life she writes about. She is a writer with roots, a fact significantly reflected in all her work. But if she shares in the heritage of the South, she also shares in the literary tradition of Western civilization, and shares at least as fully and deeply as the most up-to-date New York intellectual. And not only that: she proves, as the good regionalists have always proved, that the deeper one goes into the heart of a region, the more one transcends its geographical boundaries. (p. 76)
Granville Hicks, "Eudora Welty," in College English (copyright © 1952 by the National Council of Teachers of English), Vol. 14, No. 2, November, 1952, pp. 69-76.
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[The] stories of The Wide Net represent a specializing, an intensifying, of one of the many strains which were present in A Curtain of Green. All of the stories in A Curtain of Green bear the impress of Miss Welty's individual talent, but there is a great variety among them in subject matter and method and, more particularly, mood…. The material of many of the stories was sad, or violent, or warped, and even the comedy and wit were not straight, but if read from one point of view, if read as a performance, the book was exhilarating, even gay, as though the author were innocently delighted not only with the variety of the world but with the variety of ways in which one could look at the world and the variety of things that stories could be and still be stories. Behind the innocent delight of the craftsman, and of the admirer of the world, there was also a seriousness, a philosophical cast of mind, which gave coherence to the book, but on the surface there was the variety, the succession of surprises. In The Wide Net we do not find the surprises. The stories are more nearly cut to one pattern. (pp. 156-57)
[On] the first page, with the first sentence, we enter a special world: "Whatever happened, it happened in extraordinary times, in a season of dreams …" And that is the world in which we are going to live until we reach the last sentence of the last story. "Whatever happened," the first sentence begins, as though the author cannot be quite sure what did happen, cannot quite undertake to resolve the meaning of the recorded event, cannot, in fact, be too sure of recording all of the event. This is coyness, of course; or a way of warning the reader that he cannot expect quite the ordinary direct light on the event…. [The] faces and gestures and events often have something of the grave retardation, the gnomic intensity, the portentous suggestiveness of dreams. The logic of things here is not quite the logic by which we live, or think we live, our ordinary daylight lives. (p. 157)
[Usually] the wrenching of logic is not in terms of events themselves, though "The Purple Hat" is a fantasy, and "Asphodel" moves in the direction of fantasy. Usually the events as events might be given a perfectly realistic treatment…. But in these cases where the events and their ordering are "natural" and not supernatural or fantastic, the stories themselves finally belong to the "season of dreams" because of the special tone and mood, the special perspective, the special sensibility with which they are rendered. (p. 158)
There is [as critics have charged] a good deal of the falsely poetic in Miss Welty's present style, metaphors that simply pretend to an underlying logic, and metaphors (and descriptions) that, though good themselves, are irrelevant to the business in hand. And sometimes Miss Welty's refusal to play up the objective action—her attempt to define and refine the response rather than to present the stimulus—does result in a blurred effect. (p. 159)
[We may see in "A Still Moment"] a theme which seems to underlie the stories. For convenience, though at the risk of incompleteness, or even distortion, we may call it Innocence and Experience….
Let us look at this theme in relation to other stories. (p. 162)
"A Memory" presents the moment of the discovery of the two poles—the dream and the world; the idea and nature; innocence and experience; individuality and the anonymous, devouring life-flux; meaning and force; love and knowledge. It presents the contrast in terms of horror (as do "The Petrified Man" and "Why I Live at the P. O." when taken in the context of Miss Welty's work), and with the issue left in suspension, but other stories present it with different emphases and tonalities.
For instance, when William Wallace, in "The Wide Net," goes out to dredge the river, he is presumably driven by the fear that his wife has jumped in, but the fear is absorbed into the world of the river, and in a saturnalian revel he prances about with a great catfish hung on his belt, like a river-god laughing and leaping. (pp. 163-64)
[We] recall that Hazel, the wife who is supposed to have committed suicide by drowning, is pregnant: she had sunk herself in the devouring life-flux, has lost her individuality there, just as the men hunting for the body have lost the meaning of their mission. For the river is simply force, which does not have its own definition…. Man has the definition, the dream, but when he plunges into the river he runs the risk of having it washed away. But it is important to notice that in this story, there is not horror at the basic contrast, but a kind of gay acceptance of the issue: when William Wallace gets home he finds that his wife had fooled him, and spanks her, and then she lies smiling in the crook of his arm. "It was the same as any other chase in the end." (pp. 164-65)
It is not that there is a standard resolution for the contrasts which is repeated from story to story; rather, the contrasts, being basic, are not susceptible of a single standard resolution, and there is an implicit irony in Miss Welty's work. But if we once realize this, we can recognize that the contrasts are understood not in mechanical but in vital terms: the contrasts provide the terms of human effort, for the dream must be carried to, submitted to, the world, innocence to experience, love to knowledge, knowledge to the fact, individuality to communion. What resolution is possible is, if I read the stories with understanding, in terms of the vital effort. The effort is a "mystery," because it is in terms of the effort, doomed to failure but essential, that the human manifests itself as human. (p. 167)
I do not mean to imply that her stories should be read as allegories, with a neat point-to-point equating of image and idea. It is true that a few of her stories, such as "The Wide Net," do approach the limit of allegory, but even in such cases we find rather than the system of allegory a tissue of symbols which emerge from, and disappear into, a world of scene and action which, once we discount the author's special perspective, is recognizable in realistic terms. The method is similar to the method of much modern poetry, and to that of much modern fiction and drama, but at the same time it is a method as old as fable, myth, and parable. It is a method by which the items of fiction (scene, action, character, etc.) are presented not as document but as comment, not as a report but as a thing made, not as history but as idea. Even in the most realistic and reportorial fiction, the social picture, the psychological analysis, and the pattern of action do not rest at the level of mere report; they finally operate as expressive symbols as well. (pp. 167-68)
[There] remains a sense of the vividness of the actual world…. In fact, it may be said that when the vividness of the actual world is best maintained, when we get the sense of one picture superimposed upon another, different and yet somehow the same, the stories are most successful.
The stories which fail are stories like "The Purple Hat" and "Asphodel" in which the material seems to be manipulated in terms of an idea, in which the relation between the image and the vision has become mechanical, in which there is a strain. (p. 168)
I do not feel that [The Wide Net, as charged,] is obscure. If anything, the dream-like effect in many of the stories seems to result from the author's undertaking to squeeze meaning from the item which, in ordinary realistic fiction, would be passed over with a casual glance. Hence the portentousness, the retardation, the otherworldliness…. [Miss Welty] wants us to get [the] smallest gesture, to participate in her vision of things as intensely meaningful. And so there is almost always a gloss to the fable….
It is quite possible that Miss Welty has pushed her method to its most extreme limit. It is also possible that the method, if pursued much farther, would lead to monotony and self-imitation and merely decorative elaboration. Perhaps we shall get a fuller drama when her vision is submitted more daringly to the fact, when the definition is plunged into the devouring river. But meanwhile Miss Welty has given us several stories of brilliance and intensity; and as for the future, Miss Welty is a writer of great resourcefulness, sensitivity, and intelligence, and can probably fend for herself. (p. 169)
Robert Penn Warren, "Love and Separateness in Eudora Welty" (originally published as "The Love and the Separateness in Miss Welty," in a different version in The Kenyon Review, Vol. VI, No. 2, Spring, 1944), in his Selected Essays of Robert Penn Warren (copyright © 1958 by Robert Penn Warren; reprinted by permission of Random House, Inc.), Random House, 1958, pp. 156-69.
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The optimist of Eudora Welty's The Optimist's Daughter is a Mississippi judge named McKelva, and his optimism is hearty enough, foolish enough, generous enough, to lead him to marry in his old age a young wife, a woman from Texas whom he had met at a Bar Association convention. Wanda Fay Chisom is her name. Had she come to the attention of Faulkner, her name would be Snopes, and if Flannery O'Connor had created her, she would be named Shiflet. She is, in the pecking order of the South, white trash.
Miss Welty has been fascinated before by these rapacious, weak-witted, pathologically selfish daughters of the dispossessed, and likes to bring them into sharp contrast (as in The Ponder Heart) with the decrepit chivalry and good manners of the Mississippi gentry. The result, however complex and sensitive Miss Welty's handling of the misalliance, is always a wail of grief that an older generation is being replaced by barbarians.
Miss Welty's art modulates finely between satire and tragedy. She relishes the absurd and the incongruous, and has the canny gift of being able to translate them into tragic understanding. The power behind this rare ability is a firm moral sense of human conduct. Miss Welty's values might seem at first inspection to be Christian and Humanist, but they are yet broader in a curious sense. They are archaic. They are as old as civilization itself.
The brilliant, meticulously rendered surfaces of Miss Welty's fiction are always transparencies through which we can see the ancient stories told and retold thousands of times. In Laurel, the Judge's daughter, we can see the figure of Psyche (her husband-to-be was named Phil, that is, philos, Love) and thus the one-dimensional Wanda Fay becomes a concentrate of Psyche's nasty, hateful sister. There is nothing mechanical (or simple-minded) in these symbolic gestures of Miss Welty. Myths must be retold to stay fresh. Miss Welty has told the myth of Cupid and Psyche many times, blending it mysteriously with kindred myths of loss and redemption, evoking its details with charm and wit. (Cupid, for instance, appears in the story "June Recital" as a half-naked sailor running with his shirt—his wings—flying from his shoulders.)
Miss Welty keeps returning to one central myth, that of Persephone, whose regenerate virginity formed the old Greek understanding of the death and growth of perennial nature. Persephone alive is the natural order, or cosmos; Persephone in Hades, or dead, is raw matter (rock, dirt, spiritless disorder). Thus Laurel (matter shaped by light as a tree) is the living Persephone in this brilliant little novel, and Wanda Fay (wand, a dead stick; fay, a spirit from underground) is the dead Persephone. How do we say this otherwise? That the spirit is dying in our time? That we live in a spiritual hell rather than a natural order?
Miss Welty is a deep (and unexplored) writer. Her masterpiece is the long novel Losing Battles (an Orpheus and Eurydice so intricately retold that it seems upside down: Eurydice reclaims Orpheus!) which befuddled the critics, some of whom made the awful mistake of thinking Miss Welty a regional writer, a local colorist. If she is, so was Ovid.
In The Optimist's Daughter Miss Welty returns to her early (and well-known) story, "Petrified Man." Here she wrote her severest vision of conduct without morals or values, which have been replaced by greed in all its forms (vanity, pride, selfishness, the full devastation of the sins). The moral condemnation in that powerful story grows from a concern for life as archaic as the myths which it alludes to.
The Optimist's Daughter must therefore be read with imagination and open eyes. Note how carefully it flows against a frieze of flowers, as if all the action were a ritual of spring. The people are all rootless (the Texas Chisoms live in cars instead of houses) or withering. The vision is chilling and tragic, and yet it implies a cyclical pattern, and redemption is always a miracle. (p. 697)
Guy Davenport, "Primal Visions," in National Review (© National Review, Inc., 1972; 150 East 35th St., New York, NY 10016), Vol. XXIV, No. 24, June 23, 1972, pp. 697-98.∗
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The characters in Eudora Welty's fiction are fortunate indeed, for they are conceived in kindness, justice and compassion by the imagination that creates them. In Miss Welty's work, the strong and the weak, the magnanimous and the mean alike, in every circumstance retain their human dignity. "I don't have an ounce of revenge in my body," Edna Earle Ponder assures her auditor, and the words may aptly be applied to the author of "The Ponder Heart." The reader, too, enjoys Miss Welty's evenhanded bounty. On every page she tacitly gives him credit for being adequately prepared to face the shock of truth, sufficiently enamored of the real to relish its unexpected faces, rational enough to know that reason yields in the end to mystery. Her view of life is not idealized, nor is it tough in the sense of denying mortal existence its proper and inalienable graces. We are safe, in reading a Welty novel, from being dinned at, scolded, hoodwinked, lectured, flattered or condescended to. Secure from malice, anger or contempt, we enjoy a vision of the world depicted with an objectivity which is enriched by warmth and charity. If Eudora Welty has a bias, it springs from affection for the human race. (p. 605)
For Eudora Welty, showing the action of a novel through a woman's eyes is not an act of aggression but of illumination.
To be sure, Miss Welty delights her readers with the heroic antics of certain male characters: Uncle Daniel, Mike Fink, Jamie Lockhart, Jack Renfro, Curly Stovall, Major Bullock. However,… the suggestion here is not that male heroes are inherently ridiculous but that these characters are not, at least initially, true heroes at all. Criteria for genuine heroism as Miss Welty sees it can be found obliquely conveyed throughout her fiction. The work of demolition—to call it that—which she performs upon the conventional image of the male hero has the effect not of attacking the male sex and its image of itself but of clearing the way for a conception of heroic action which does fuller justice to the actual potentialities for heroism in men and women alike.
The tendency of Eudora Welty's fiction is indeed antiheroic; that is, it makes legitimate fun of the posturing male hero-adventurer whose main objective, to paraphrase Uncle Curtis in "Losing Battles," is to butt the world like a billy goat and make it pay him heed. An appropriate emblem of this species of hero is the Perseus of Greek myth; appropriate, that is, when Perseus' heroics are taken at face value: he averts his eyes, swings the magic sword, and lo!, with upraised arm he displays his trophy—the snaky severed head of the Medusa. Thereafter, he can use the Medusapower as his own, striking his pose again and again with the gory trophy held on high to turn his enemies to stone. (pp. 605-06)
The interpretation of the Perseus myth in "The Golden Apples" is put forward by Miss Welty through the thoughts of that book's hero, Virgie Rainey,… [as she recalls a picture of] Perseus with the head of Medusa. "The vaunting was what she remembered, that uplifted arm." Yet it is not the image of the hero triumphant that has become a permanent part of her mind but the stroke of the sword he wielded. "Cutting off the Medusa's head," she thinks,
was the heroic act, perhaps, that made visible a horror in life, that was at once the horror in love …—the separateness.
The stroke of Perseus is not, in itself, a triumph of any kind. So far from ridding the world of a horror, it reveals one. It is not an act of liberation, not even an assertion of the sovereign will. The important thing, for Virgie, is not what Perseus has done to Medusa; it is what the deed, like a stroke of fate, has done to him…. In the first moment of the heroic stroke, the hero wields the sword; in the second moment, he becomes the victim of that stroke. In the third moment, he achieves some measure of gain in understanding which leads on to self-renewal. (pp. 607-09)
Although, in the eyes of the world, Virgie Rainey has achieved nothing noteworthy, she is, in her context in "The Golden Apples," a type of the true hero. Her heroism does not derive from what is usually thought of as heroic action but from her capacity to feel and, through feeling, to know. (p. 609)
John A. Allen, "Eudora Welty: The Three Moments," in Virginia Quarterly Review (copyright, 1975, by the Virginia Quarterly Review, The University of Virginia), Vol. 51, No. 4 (Autumn, 1975), pp. 605-27.
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The introduction to her snapshot album of depression-era Mississippi, One Time, One Place, helps explain why [Welty's] home state has been her locale. No professional photographer, no outsider, could ever have captured the naturalness of her subjects, but she was "part of it, born into it, taken for granted." From this unique vantage point, unseen as the fly upon the wall, Welty has been able to write about all that is neither typical nor taken for granted in the life of the South. Originality of both subject and technique has been her one constant.
So we look to [The Eye of the Story, a] collection of essays, reviews, and personal pieces … to see what it reveals about her artistic creed and affinities. And lo, in addition to her canny insight into the work of her peers and masters and her great gift for pinpointing a writer's inspiration for coming to writing at all, many of these studies seem to be as much about Eudora Welty as about anything else. (pp. 37-8)
[If the essays on her favorite authors] were all there was to this volume—a series of touchstones for understanding Welty's stories—it would be quite enough. But as it happens, there is also a second dimension, another and more splendid gift from Welty to her readers. For in her studies of individual writers and in the more abstract section "On Writing"—which includes her defense of regional writing ("Place in Fiction") and of Faulkner, "the white Mississippian" ("Must the Novelist Crusade?")—she has made that dry art of criticism into a human, even moving practice. As critic, Welty is not lawgiver but friend and teacher. The words "feeling," "passion," "life," "communication," occur again and again in her attempts to lead her reader by the hand up to the books that have meant so much to her.
She explains at one point—referring most probably to the discovery of her own vocation—that "it's when reading begins to impress on us what degrees … of communication are possible between novelists and ourselves as readers that we surmise what it has meant, can mean, to write novels." What it can mean to write novels. This, it seems to me, is the real and very impassioned message behind all of Eudora Welty's criticism, and one that very few writers are in a position to transmit, because as she herself notes, story writing and critical analysis are entirely separate gifts, "like spelling and playing the flute."
The problem of criticism is that the meaning of writing is inseparable from the act of writing. There can never be a translation of a whole story into a commentary on its parts in which the story does not suffer. Welty's solution to this paradox is to treat the story as an intimate communication of feeling between just two persons—the writer and the reader, each bound to the other for the duration of the story by the moral responsibility the intimacy implies.
But whether she is writing fiction or criticism, Welty never forgets to be entertaining. She's as lively and engaging a critic as ever lived, and this is just another mark of her shrewdness. (p. 38)
Carole Cook, "Critic, Friend, and Teacher," in Saturday Review (© 1978 by Saturday Review Magazine Corp.; reprinted with permission), Vol. 5, No. 15, April 29, 1978, pp. 37-8.
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In this invigorating selection of her reviews and essays ["The Eye of the Story"], Eudora Welty constantly touches the painful place where literary critic and creative writer meet. They are, she seems to suggest, essentially at cross-purposes…. The writer does not seek to solve the "mystery of language" but rather to take advantage of it. Criticism tries to solve the mystery, by translating fiction into another language….
The pieces in this book about the climate of the fiction writer's mind should be prescribed reading for all literary critics. Also included here are some essays of reminiscence, from her childhood on…. She believes—and as a Southern writer this is something on which she has been challenged—that novelists should not be political crusaders….
A long section is given over to book reviews, and here Miss Welty, given her views on academic criticism, stands in the eye not only of the story but of the storm. She stands calmly, because she is sure of her ground. She writes not so much as a critic as a sensitive reader. She makes the relationship between reading and writing extraordinarily close. The literary critic is in a way a code-breaker, and therefore an antagonist; Miss Welty is all receptiveness. She uses the words "pleasure" and "sweetness" without embarrassment or sentiment.
Not that she is without her moments of asperity. She picks out for castigation two modern trends…. The first is the "bad novel" of today that is "unhappily like the tale told to the analyst. It is not communication, it is confession—often of nothing more than some mild weakness. It is self-absorbed, self-indulgent, too often self-pitying. And it's dull." Her second target is the sort of long literary biography … that is "one whole compilation of details from outside…. One original insight would have equalled the force of a dozen of these pages." (p. 7)
[It] is in writing of those authors she most admires that the difficulty in finding a "language" for criticism, or for appreciation, becomes apparent. "I could say that [Green's] 'Concluding' is like Venus on a clear evening going down over water, and if you agreed—still worse if you disagreed—where are we now?" So she poses the problem herself. Faulkner's prose is "intolerantly and intolerably unanalyzable." In good fiction "the shapes the work takes are marvelous … it is hard to speak further of them." Words fail. Words fail because the work itself stands, and she is not prepared to diminish it "in other words."
Miss Welty leads one back to the books themselves. (p. 43)
Victoria Glendinning, "Eudora Welty in Type and Person," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1978 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 7, 1978, pp. 7, 43.
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When a novelist can articulate what he knows by feel, he calls criticism down out of its self-generated clouds. This is the welcome service rendered by Eudora Welty's selection of essays and reviews, The Eye of the Story. It could as justly have been called The Eye of the Storyteller. In criticism as in fiction, Miss Welty's observations are blessed with a dazzling accuracy; her sight penetrates to the point of insight….
Miss Welty's appreciations [essays on her favorite writers] prove that a sympathy with the subject need not blur the critic's discernment, and may in fact focus it on what is central to the achievement under study….
The book reviews are in many cases as keenly perceptive as the longer essays, and in all cases but one they are as positive in their judgments. The exception is Arthur Mizener's biography of Ford Madox Ford, which Miss Welty finds hard to forgive. Characteristically, she identifies the biographer's chief problem as a settled incompatibility with his subject, a bias as damaging to the book as its "coarsegrained prose." (p. 765)
I must admit that I found myself perversely wishing, especially in the book review section, that Miss Welty had allowed herself such astringency more often. It would have provided this part of the collection with a not unwelcome variety of tone and texture. But I gather that her usual policy has been to let bad books sink of their own weight—a practice bespeaking good sense as much as forbearance.
If her essays on writers are celebrations of craftsmanship, of what admired predecessors have done, her essays on writing celebrate craft itself. These theoretical pieces have more than sufficient interest for the general reader; but for the apprentice writer they should be assigned reading. Allowing for some lacunae, they comprise in less than 80 pages a sort of basic writer's manual, everywhere lucid and concise, nowhere oversimplified. Perhaps the most valuable piece is "Place in Fiction," already well-known since its separate appearance. It is impossible after reading it to think any longer in clichés about "regional literature." That this discussion should come from Eudora Welty, whom many now think of as our greatest living regional writer, seems a pleasant irony. In this and in the surrounding essays her theorizing grounds itself in concrete examples sensitively chosen. (pp. 765-66)
If there is any defect to be found in Miss Welty's critical pieces, it would be that, for all their brilliance, they labor in places under a tone of unleavened solemnity. One occasionally notices just enough constraint or wariness of manner to be reminded that for this author such writing is the work of the left hand.
This is a minor objection, and it does not apply in any way to the concluding section of personal memoirs and sketches. Here Miss Welty comes nearest to her own fictive art, in which comedy and deep feeling are so effectively interwoven. The memories of childhood in Jackson, Miss. or of a "pageant of birds" witnessed in a black church in the 1940s, are touching, funny and sad all at once….
In the last piece in the volume, which appeared as preface to a collection of snapshots she took while working for the WPA in Mississippi in the depression, Miss Welty writes of how her camera began to teach her "a storywriter's truth: the thing to wait on, to reach there in time for, is the moment in which people reveal themselves." This led her to determine early on that her aim in art "would be not to point the finger in judgment but to part a curtain, that invisible shadow that falls between people, the veil of indifference to each other's presence, each other's wonder, each other's human plight." I closed this book thinking that in it, as in her fiction, the job had been well done, the moments of revelation, after the patient, necessary waiting, captured in order to be generously shared. (p. 766)
Robert B. Shaw, "A Storyteller's Appreciations," in The Nation (copyright 1978 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), Vol. 226, No. 24, June 24, 1978, pp. 765-66.
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Welty, I think, offers [in The Eye of the Story] a truer, more adroit vision of fiction than either that of a language-functionary like Gass, whose protocols are ensured against outside tampering, or that of a lifelikeness-affirmer like Gardner, who, frustrated by the intransigent surprise of the world, disgustedly spits in the soup because it's already too thin.
"Great fiction shows us not how to conduct our behavior but how to feel." As simple—and enormous—as that. Also a statement not to be taken too lightly: it only looks mild. Right hopes and goals, right speech, fine—but where and what is right sensation? Welty knows—and her fiction knows more deeply—that by setting them out on a loose leash, the lenient novelist riskily allows his characters the harsh freedom to land themselves in their own particular holes, to suffer the same discrepancies, inconveniences, even unbearable situations—unsolved by either language or good intentions—that we do. Like us, they "find out and keep hold of who they are, often by feeling where it hurts or how it pinches." They can be flummoxed, slipped-up, even dead wrong. Yet there's a difference, the big one: unlike our own, the errors and shortcomings of fictional characters tremble always with "the possibility that they may indeed reveal everything."
Which is why "we come looking in fiction with more longing than in any experience save love." Everything may suddenly—on the very next page—be made clear. And the writer waits apprehensively along with us, providing "performance"—ideally something fine, fervent, and accurate—but knowing all along that it's finally going to be "magic" that will step in and crown art's moment. Fiction's special "magic"—a matrix of inspired stumblings, accidental splendors—ensures that the human imperfection of performance will itself seem the most dazzling gift, that in the spilled drop, not the saved one, will "the whole shimmering fabric" be reflected. Each one of Welty's essays patiently demonstrates either how vain or how coldly, needlessly ascetic it is to argue for more … [or] bargain for less. (pp. 92-3)
Ross Feld, "Motives for Metaphor," in Harper's (copyright © 1978; all rights reserved; excerpted from the October, 1978 issue of Harper's Magazine), Vol. 257, No. 1541, October, 1978, pp. 89-93.∗
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To hear Eudora Welty tell it [in Eye of the Story] she was born to read….
Miss Welty has never gotten her fill of fiction. In a beautiful image she describes the effect of fiction on her life: as a child she was taken into the darkness of Kentucky's Mammoth Cave; when the guide struck a light she was dazzled by all the splendor of the rock formations that had been around her all along. So fiction lights up the experience that would otherwise slip by us unnoticed. That is to say, Miss Welty regards fiction as an exploration of reality, each new fiction "some fresh approximation of human truth." She would not dismiss that reality consisting solely of material objects, a view of the world so entrancing these days, but she clearly thinks that a superior reality derives from the morality which resides in human relationships. That reality is most clearly revealed to us by fiction, which can intensify our personal response by suffusing it with the accumulated insight of the race.
"Making reality real is art's responsibility," Miss Welty asserts in her famous "Place in Fiction," and she has held fiction—for her the most realistic of art's forms—severely to account. But if she has had high expectations for fiction, she has been quick to praise when her expectations have been met. (p. 215)
Eudora Welty early discovered that, as instructive to her soul as another's fiction might be (and this is the testimony in each of her essays about other writers), it ultimately remained that person's province. At that point she knew that either she could be thankful for, or at least content with, a world defined by others or she could attempt to craft her own, even though the labor would consume her life. (pp. 215-16)
Miss Welty's fictions testify that she is blessed with a profound insight—there are times when she conveys life's fragility with a pain that hurts like an autumn day. But the plentitude of her fictions and the brilliance of her essays "On Writing" declare that she has not let brilliance keep her from working at her craft.
These essays on her tools, especially "Place in Fiction" and "Some Notes on Time in Fiction," reveal a craftsmanship that is filled with pride, in the sense that Miss Welty sees pride in Katherine Anne Porter's prose, that is, "pride in the language, pride in using the language to search out human meanings, pride in making a good piece of work." Miss Welty's work (and that word cannot be too much stressed) reveals self-respect and satisfaction in effort spent, those meanings of "pride" she detects in Miss Porter's work. (p. 216)
For more than forty years Eudora Welty has, in her urgency, made magnificent use of her tools. For too many of those years she was that other writer from Mississippi or one of that wondrous generation of Southern women writers. Even yet there is not a body of criticism commensurate to her achievement—too often she suffers when the generalizations about Southern literature or about any one of her fellow practitioners are applied to her.
But with the colligation here of her own best pieces of criticism there can no longer be any excuse for mistreating her. Her critical perceptions about other writers are like boomerangs: they fly straight to their mark, but if that target should be removed, they speed directly back to her. There they join the body of comment that she has made about (her own) technique. All in all, what the comments say is that Eudora Welty must know more about loneliness than ever Robinson Crusoe did. Loneliness here is not understood as social isolation, but that vision which has, if only for a moment, glimpsed the flimsiness of all those social constructions that advertise communion. Miss Welty's characters are obsessed to talk, and sometimes the complaint is heard that nothing happens except talk in a Welty novel. That is precisely the point: nothing happens—and would happen more if we did not talk…. In her own Mammoth Cave, Eudora Welty has been lighting candles against time and death all these years. (pp. 216-17)
Lewis A. Lawson, "Lighting Candles," in Modern Age (copyright © 1979 by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, Inc.), Vol. 23, No. 2, Spring, 1979, pp. 215-17.