The Eye of the Story
For nearly forty years Eudora Welty has been recognized as one of our finest writers of fiction, particularly of short stories; but her infrequent nonfiction writings have been comparatively little known. In her latest book she has gathered together her critical writings on a number of her contemporaries and several nineteenth century fiction writers, and has added eight brief pieces about her native South. The Eye of the Story is a selection of thirty-five essays, reviews, and personal and occasional pieces, most of which originally appeared in the New York Times Book Review, Atlantic Monthly, New Republic, Harper’s Bazaar, and other periodicals. The volume contains most of Miss Welty’s nonfiction writing which has been published in the past thirty-six years.
In the first group of essays, “On Writers”—Jane Austen, Henry Green, Katherine Anne Porter, Willa Cather, and Anton Chekhov—Welty writes sometimes objectively, sometimes subjectively with frequent use of “I think,” “I feel,” “it seems to me,” so that the essay becomes a personal appreciation of the writer she is analyzing and discussing. The appreciation is both intellectual and emotional. Of Jane Austen’s novels she remarks in “The Radiance of Jane Austen”: “Their high spirits, their wit, their celerity and harmony of motion, their symmetry of design appear unrivaled in the English novel. [Her] work at its best seems as nearly flawless as any fiction could be.”
Commenting on the work of a contemporary English novelist whose nine novels have often portrayed an exterior life very different from that in Jane Austen’s, Welty says: “Henry Green seems to me to be a romantic novelist who has chosen to write from inside the labyrinth of everyday life, whose senses and whose temperament are and have remained romantic and whose reason and experience are lying in wait for the romantic at every turn.” She sees Green as a novelist of the imagination who is “inside his characters’ world, totally and literally” even though the reader may sometimes wonder whether the novelist is, at a particular moment, writing of the exterior or the interior world.
Like Henry Green, Katherine Anne Porter often writes from within her characters’ minds; and, says Welty, “As her work has done in many respects, it has shown me a thing or two about the eye of fiction, about fiction’s visibility and invisibility, about its clarity, its radiance.” Readers of one of Welty’s best-known and most beautifully written stories, “A Worn Path,” may see how she has developed her own “eye of fiction.” In the story she easily, almost unnoticeably, shifts from the exterior description of Phoenix Jackson’s trip to town, into the busy mind of the old woman as she moves, half-led by memory which aids her age-dimmed eyes, along the familiar path.
Welty, as she makes clear in “The House of Willa Cather,” has been stirred by the way in which Miss Cather makes the landscape seem a living presence to her characters and to the reader in her novels. She is impressed by Cather’s artistry in juxtaposing the present against vivid reminders of a distant past, when prehistoric monsters bathed or swam in waters that washed where cattle now graze in sweeping fields, or later, when long-vanished people lived in the cave dwellings of the Southwest where one may still flake off the carbon left by the smoke of ancient cooking fires. “Another of the touchstones of Willa Cather’s work,” says Welty, “is her feeling for the young.” One thinks of Welty’s own love for the young and her understanding of them, as in her early story, “A Piece of News .” In this story young Ruby Fisher, finding her name in a murder account in a scrap of newspaper, luxuriates in the fantasy of imagining herself shot to death by her gruff husband. When he returns from tending his moonshine still, he brings her back to everyday reality by explaining that it was another Ruby Fisher who died, and then...
(The entire section is 1,704 words.)