Why I Live at the P.O. Critical Overview
by Eudora Welty

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Critical Overview

(Short Stories for Students)

When it appeared in 1941, Welty’s first book, A Curtain of Green, was met with mostly good reviews. However, reviewers who made up the northern literary establishment tended to find Welty’s characters abnormal, a quality they chauvinistically associated with the South. ‘‘Like many Southern writers, she has a strong taste for melodrama and is preoccupied with the demented, the deformed, the queer, the highly spiced,’’ reads a Time review. A mixed review in Books includes a similar comment: ‘‘As a whole, A Curtain of Green shows too great a preoccupation with the abnormal and grotesque. Some day some one might explore this tendency of Southern writers.’’ However, the collection also won some very positive reviews. Interestingly, those critics who liked the book tended to focus on an opposite characteristic—Welty’s beautiful and subtle portrayal of the normal. For example, the New York Times’s Miriam Hauser states that ‘‘few contemporary books have ever impressed me quite as deeply as this book. . . . To explain just why . . . appears as difficult as to define why an ordinary face, encountered by chance on the street, might suddenly reveal miraculous beauty, through a smile perhaps, or an unexpected expression of beauty.’’ The reviewer for the New Yorker also points out Welty’s extraordinary rendering of the ordinary. ‘‘Miss Welty’s stories are deceptively simple. They are concerned with ordinary people, but what happens to them and the manner of the telling are far from ordinary.’’ In her introduction to the collection Katherine Anne Porter seems to ascribe to the former view when she describes Sister of ‘‘Why I Live at the P.O.’’ as ‘‘a terrifying case of dementia praecox,’’ the Latin term for schizophrenia. But she also states that ‘‘there are almost perfect stories’’ in the collection and praises Welty’s ‘‘blistering humor and her just cruelty.’’

Though Welty went on to become a beloved and respected writer, contradictory perceptions of her work have persisted. She is sometimes grouped with writers of the ‘‘Southern grotesque’’ school who portray the dark underbelly of the gracious Southern lifestyle. And sometimes she is characterized as a ‘‘Southern regionalist,’’ a warm and funny writer who affectionately portrays the foibles of her own tribe. In Eudora Welty: A Study of the Short Fiction, Carol Anne Johnston suggests that both views undervalue Welty’s artistry. Johnston claims that the only way to account for such a discrepancy in interpretations is to recognize that Welty’s genius lies in the merging and balancing of opposites. In her opinion, the first critic to do this was novelist Robert Penn Warren. His influential 1944 essay ‘‘Love and Separateness in Eudora Welty’’ explores the tension between intimacy and independence running through her first two collections of short stories. Focusing on the paradoxes of Welty’s theme, he shows how, again and again, her characters love...

(The entire section is 718 words.)