Eudora Welty Welty, Eudora (Vol. 14) - Essay



(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.)

Granville Hicks

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

(The entire section is 1102 words.)

Robert Penn Warren

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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 entire section is 1526 words.)

Guy Davenport

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 690 words.)

John A. Allen

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 773 words.)

Carole Cook

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 552 words.)

Victoria Glendinning

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 451 words.)

Robert B. Shaw

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 678 words.)

Ross Feld

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 371 words.)

Lewis A. Lawson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 715 words.)