Because One Writer’s Beginnings centers on Welty’s memories of the events and persons that have influenced her, it is not a conventional autobiography. There is no chronological narrative of main events, though as a whole, the book is roughly chronological. Instead, she follows certain themes, showing their emergence in her experiences or tracing them to beginning points. While this book reveals much about Welty’s inner self, it is not a history of her life.
The book originated as a series of lectures, the first in the series of William E. Massey, Sr., Lectures in the History of American Civilization at Harvard University. Welty gave three lectures at Harvard in April, 1983, and these were edited and published by Harvard University Press in the following year. Although the lectures were written for and delivered to a university audience, they are of special interest to younger readers because Welty focuses on beginnings: how she began to see her world, what in this early experience led her to become a writer, and what she found most valuable to being a writer. Young readers who aspire to become professional writers or who are interested in how writers and artists think and develop will find Welty’s book interesting. They will also find the book accessible because Welty’s style, made for oral presentation, remains clear and simple even when her ideas are complicated and deep.
Welty speaks of her childhood world as ordered by her father’s concerns for stability and progress and her mother’s memories of past pains and fear of the future. Her father was an optimist who was ready for the worst, and her mother was a pessimist who always hoped for the best. Within the life that they created for her was a richness of experience in books and in family. Both parents believed strongly in the importance of education and of reading as central to education. They bought books for the family and read them alone and to each other almost constantly. The summer car trips of her childhood, visiting grandparents in their homes, opened up for Welty the origins of her parents and led her to think deeply, throughout her life, about how they came to be the people they were and about how their parents and the landscapes and traditions of their homes made them. This interest in origins came to permeate Welty’s fiction, just as it does her autobiography. In addition, her curiosity about her parents echoes the central curiosity of her fiction. The need to know another person from that person’s point of view, to make the most profound and loving connections with people and the world, is a theme reflected in most of Welty’s fiction, though perhaps best in The Golden Apples (1949).
Listening to the talk of her parents and their friends, Welty learned to listen for stories, to hear the drama implicit in people’s talk. Therefore, some of her best stories, such as “Petrified Man” and “Why I Live at the P.O.” (from A Curtain of Green and Other Stories, 1941), are made up almost completely of voices talking. Reading taught her the pleasures of stories, and listening taught her to “hear” stories in experience. Traveling, she writes in the second section, taught her the values of a sense of place and to see places as related to the people who lived in them. These are all lessons from which young writers might learn. Young readers of Welty’s fiction will find in this book some interesting ways to think about her stories.
Welty’s memories in One Writer’s Beginnings often cast interesting light on her...
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fiction. For example, the orphan girl in “Moon Lake” (fromThe Golden Apples) has a collapsible, metal drinking cup; Welty remembers her father having such a cup and recalls the sensation of drinking water from it while on a train trip. She also writes about her intentions in several stories often read by younger readers, as well as about images, ideas, and concerns that occur in them. In this way, she provides insight into such stories as “Death of a Travelling Salesman” (from A Curtain of Green), “A Still Moment” and “Livvie” (from The Wide Net and Other Stories, 1943), “June Recital” (from The Golden Apples), “Where’s the Voice Coming From?” and “The Demonstrators” (from The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty, 1980), and several of her other works.