Form and Content

(Critical Edition of Young Adult Fiction)

In One Writer’s Beginnings, Eudora Welty explains in vivid and moving detail, by means of a series of memories, how she became a writer of fiction. Memory is her central theme; she writes that her memory is her greatest treasure, the place where all the events and persons of her life come together and live together outside time, as if they were the characters in her stories. The book is structured in three main parts: “Listening,” “Learning to See,” and “Finding a Voice.”

In the first and longest section, “Listening,” Welty recalls the sounds of her childhood. She begins with her earliest memories of the sounds in her secure, middle-class home in Jackson, Mississippi, and moves through experiences at home and at school, ending with her explanation of how she gained control over her emotions and learned to think of herself as independent of her mother. Therefore, this section is largely about aspects of Welty’s culture that she absorbed uncritically, those experiences that became part of her imaginative life without her very considered choice.

The second section, “Learning to See,” emphasizes her travel experiences of later childhood, especially to the homes of her grandparents. These visits took Welty away from Mississippi to Ohio, the farm home of her paternal grandparents, and West Virginia, the mountain home of her maternal grandparents. Summer car trips with her family showed her a wider world, and knowing...

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One Writer's Beginnings

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 11)

The Harvard University Press has printed many lectures delivered by distinguished visitors, but it has never until the publication of this work produced a best-seller. The wide appeal of this small volume rests on many of the elements that have made Eudora Welty one of the most respected of American fiction writers: her unerring ear for the cadences of human speech, her ability to draw extraordinarily vivid characters in a few words, her sensitivity to family relationships, and her rich insight into the interplay of experience and memory.

The three chapters that make up the book, “Listening,” “Learning to See,” and “Finding a Voice,” explore Welty’s own past and that of her parents in search of those experiences that molded her into a writer. These chapters are, however, more than a quest for the springs of her own creativity. They provide a window on early twentieth century American life, on an era when schoolteachers inspired awe and fear in small girls who committed the heinous offense of saying “might could”; a time when trains ran on time and car trips were perilous ventures on dirt roads and dilapidated ferries. It was a period, too, in which death seemed much closer at hand than it does today. Each of the author’s parents lost a parent early, her father at seven, her mother at fifteen. The first of the four Welty children died at birth, nearly taking his mother with him. Christian Welty, Eudora Welty’s father, fatally ill with leukemia, died at fifty-three, on a hospital bed while receiving a blood transfusion from his wife. Nevertheless, the picture Welty presents of the world of her youth is one of richness and vitality. Her adventurous parents were quick to take advantage of the opportunities available in the first three decades of the twentieth century, and they provided a near-ideal environment for the nurturing of their daughter and her two younger brothers.

Welty’s story is as much her parents’ as her own, and she acknowledges throughout the book their enormous influences on her life. Christian Welty left his family’s farm in Ohio and joined a small but growing life insurance company in Jackson, Mississippi, a few years before his daughter’s birth in 1909. He was a man who believed profoundly in the future, in progress, science, and facts. To prepare his children for the world he saw ahead, he provided them with blocks, tinker toys, erector sets, and electric trains, and taught them about astronomy and meteorology.

His wife, Chestina Andrews, was equally courageous but in some ways less confident in her approach to the world. Her early years will sound familiar to readers of The Optimist’s Daughter (1972), in which Welty has given to Becky McKelva much of her mother’s past: the West Virginia mountains, the close mother-daughter bond, the large, devoted, musical brothers, and the nightmarish journey of the fifteen-year-old daughter to a Baltimore hospital with her dying father and her return home with his body in a coffin. Chestina Welty is presented as a devoted wife and mother who instilled in her children her love of books, but she is also seen as a woman who felt herself somewhat exiled from her true home. She obviously considered the social life of a young Jackson matron, exchanging calling cards and small talk, a waste of time.

Welty explores in some depth her parents’ relationship to each other and her own to them, musing affectionately and sympathetically about their characters and their idiosyncrasies. Her father, she notes, was essentially an optimist, but it was he who never went into a hotel without chains, rope, and ax to protect his family in case of fire. His pessimistic wife, on the other hand, could show unexpected courage. Her heroic dash into her burning home to save her set of the complete works of Charles Dickens, given her by her dead father, was a family legend. Both parents, perhaps as a result of their own childhood losses and of the death of their firstborn, were inevitably overprotective, and their daughter had to struggle for a long time to achieve independence from their sheltering love. She writes of the sense of guilt that often accompanied joyous occasions in her childhood, for her own pleasure usually depended on her mother’s sacrifice. She could hardly relish the delights of the performance of Blossom Time when she thought of her mother at home missing them. Even as a young adult traveling to New York to show her stories and photographs to editors, she left home “with an iron cage around my chest of guilt,” for she knew how much anxiety and apprehension her departure was to bring her mother. Both she and her brothers believed that their independent ventures had to be extremely successful to justify the pain they unwillingly inflicted.

For Welty, one way to handle this guilt was to transform it into art, and that revelation is the main theme of this work, which presents both her era and her family relationships primarily as the source of the attributes she needed to become a writer. Almost the first thing she learned was how to listen—to the chiming clocks in her home, the whistling duets of her parents, the conversations of neighbors. She tells a delightful anecdote of herself as a small child, seating herself in the backseat of the family car between her mother and a...

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Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Against all odds and expectations, Eudora Welty’s modest memoir about her childhood in Jackson, Mississippi, stayed on The New York Times best-seller list for almost a year after it was published. It is difficult to explain the appeal of this lyrical evocation of a sheltered and uneventful life in the small-town backwater of Mississippi. Although the title suggests that the book will offer some secrets of the wellsprings of the writer’s art, one does not find much of that here. With the exception of a few paragraphs near the end of this slight, one-hundred-page meditation, Welty actually says little about the sources or secrets of her magical short stories or her richly poetic novels.

Nor is the book an autobiography, for although Welty was in her seventies when she wrote it, and therefore had had a long life about which to write, it is hardly comprehensive, primarily focusing on her early childhood, with only a few pages devoted to the early days of her writing career. Instead, it may be more properly termed a memoir or a meditation, a lyrical recollection of how one writer learned to see the world in such a way that she could re-create it in narrative.

If the book is not an analytical account of the sources of Welty’s work or a detailed account of her life, what indeed is it? Welty herself was asked the same question by interviewers, and she admitted that the book is unlike anything else she had ever done, for she had never before written directly about herself. In spite of the intensely personal and lyrical nature of the book, it actually began as a series of lectures at Harvard University for the William E. Massey lecture series in the history of American civilization. As Welty tells it, when she was invited to give the lectures, she protested, saying she was not an academic and thus could not possibly say anything of...

(The entire section is 761 words.)

Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Eudora Welty once said in an interview that a writer’s creative work should be read instead of an account of his or her life, adding that she did not think anyone would be interested in her own private life. She changed her mind, however, when Harvard University asked her to deliver the William E. Massey Sr. Lectures in the History of American Civilization on the subject of what made her become a writer. Although never before having written about herself as herself, Welty became interested in the idea and began to draw on memory and to develop a structure that would hold her many reminiscences together. The result, she has said, was so much fun, so enlightening, that she advised everyone to do it.

One Writer’s...

(The entire section is 650 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

As slight as One Writer’s Beginnings seems on the surface, it is a profound document about the beginning and the development of a writer’s consciousness. Although its stated purpose is to delineate what makes a writer different from other people, the book also implicitly deals with what makes a woman writer different from a man. Several reviewers and critics of Welty’s book have noted that in order to write, women must very early see themselves as both “subject and object” and that for Welty becoming a writer began with the discovery that language is the means by which one moves from passive object to free subject.

The remarkable reception of Welty’s lectures—when students stood in lines and sat in the aisles at Harvard to hear her speak—and her book—whose popularity many critics have found difficult to account for—suggests a belated admiration for a lifetime of quiet, conscientious, artistic achievement. The older Welty gets—she was in her late seventies when she wrote One Writer’s Beginnings—the more cherished she becomes. Each Welty birthday becomes cause for interviews, seminars, conferences, and pilgrimages to her home in Jackson, Mississippi.

Although Welty has never sought the social or political limelight that many other writers have, she has had a powerful impact on all writers that have come after her, especially women short-story writers. Although she admits throughout the book that she came from a sheltered life, she concludes with the claim that a sheltered life can be a daring life as well, for “all serious daring starts from within.”


(Critical Edition of Young Adult Fiction)

Bloom, Harold, ed. Eudora Welty. New York: Chelsea House, 1986. Although this compilation includes no specific discussion of One Writer’s Beginnings, it does contain several classic essays on Welty: Katherine Anne Porter’s introduction to A Curtain of Green and Other Stories (1941), Robert Penn Warren’s essay “Love and Separateness in Eudora Welty,” and a key chapter from Ruth Vande Kieft’s important early biography (below).

Dollarhide, Louis, and Ann J. Abadie, eds. Eudora Welty: A Form of Thanks. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1979. Selected from presentations at the 1977...

(The entire section is 489 words.)