Sunday, April 5, 2009

Eudora Welty Centenary, One Writer's Beginning, and What Makes Writers Different from Others

An old college chum of mine, Donna Lander, sent me a link to the recent issue of Smithsonian Magazine, which has a picture story about Eudora Welty, focusing primarily on her Depression era photography. April marks the centenary of Welty’s birth. The article is worth taking a look at if you love Welty, as I do. Most of the pictures are from the South, but there is one striking Escher-like New York street scene, and one elegant photo of Welty herself as a young woman. Here is the link:

Also, if you are interested, Suzanne Marrs published an authoritative biography of Welty a couple of years ago. Marrs’ book is a very traditional biography, charting the events of Welty’s life from birth to death in extensive, well-researched detail. Whereas Ann Waldron’s 1998 biography of Welty was hampered by Welty’s unwillingness to cooperate, Marrs, an English professor who lives in Jackson, Mississippi and who visited Welty for many years, was given access to letters and diaries and was welcomed by Welty’s friends. Waldron, perhaps piqued by Welty’s reticence, made much of the writer’s physical appearance and southern seclusion; Marrs, obviously an adoring friend and fan, burnishes the iconic image that Welty became in American literature and presents her as a sophisticated, well-traveled woman of letters.

Eudora Welty once said that people should read a writer's creative work instead of a biographical account, adding that she did not think anyone would be interested in her private life. Perhaps partially to forestall anyone poking into her affairs, Welty published her own autobiographical memoir, One Writer's Beginnings, in 1984, which interested enough people to keep it on the New York Times best-seller list for almost a year.

The central purpose of One Writer's Beginning is Welty's exploration of what it is that makes a writer become a writer and what it is that sets a writer apart from others. Welty tries to answer these two questions in two basic ways: by describing the actual events and details of her life that she transforms into the stuff of story and by her own meditative consideration of the meaning of these sources of her fiction making. The central key to the secret of the writer, Welty seems to suggest, is his or her ability to determine the difference between mere events and "significant" events. A relation of mere events may be simply a chronological retelling; however, significant events follow what Welty calls a "thread of revelation." And that phrase perhaps is the best description of the structure of One Writer's Beginning, for the book develops a continuous related thread of individual moments of revelation and meaning.

Some of the central points along this thread involve Welty's gradual awareness of what she calls "the voice of story." She recalls hearing her mother read stories to her, but it is not her mother's voice she hears; she says that when she writes she hears her own words in the same voice that she hears when she reads. Welty also recalls when neighbors were invited to go on a Sunday drive in the family car and she would sit in the back seat between her mother and a friend and say, "Now talk." It was in this way that she learned the wonderful language she recreates in such stories as "The Petrified Man" and "Why I Lived at the P.O."

The section of the book entitled "Learning to See" is more unified in time than the anecdotal first section, for it deals with Welty's annual summer visits to relatives in West Virginia and Ohio. Although she never lived in these areas, she feels a strong sense of place in them, particularly the mountains of West Virginia where her mother was born and raised. She takes obvious delight in telling stories of her mother's family, for such family stories are usually a child's first introduction to the roots of story--those revelatory moments of reality worth remembering. If life is a series of revelations, as Welty claims, then each trip she made to her parents' roots constituted a particular revelation for her.

In the last section, "Finding a Voice," Welty talks about the specific sources of some of her most memorable stories, usually some image, character, or phrase from which the story grows. For example, the story "Livie," a mythical piece about youth and old age, springs from her seeing trees throughout the South that people beautified by putting brightly-colored bottles on the ends of limbs. Her first story, "Death of a Traveling Salesman," originated with a phrase she heard from a traveling man--"He's gone to borry some fire"--that took on mythological meaning for her.

Although many experiences are too indefinite to be recognized alone, Welty says, in a story they come together and become identifiable when they take on a larger shape. Writing develops a sense of where to look for these connections, how to follow the threads, for nothing is ever lost to memory. Memory is a living thing, urges Welty, and all that is remembered joins and unites the old and the young, the past and the present, the living and the dead.

The charm and magic of One Writer's Beginning can largely be attributed to the personality of Welty herself, the model of the genteel Southern lady--gracious, kind, hospitable, and therefore irresistible. But it is also a memorable little book because of its ability to recreate the feel of small town American life in the first two decades of the twentieth century--a time when home libraries were filled with Charles Dickens, Sir Walter Scott, and the Book of Knowledge rather than a time when family rooms were filled with televisions and computers. Welty's ear for the dialogue of the small town South, her eye for the telling detail, and her vivid memory for the look and feel of the first two decades of the twentieth-century era make the book a minor classic.

The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty is a major classic. It contains forty-one stories--the distinguished southern writer's complete short fiction corpus. It includes four earlier volumes--A Curtain of Green (1941), The Wide Net and Other Stories (1943), The Golden Apples (1949), and The Bride of Innisfallen and Other Stories (1955)--and two New Yorker stories previously uncollected, "Where Is the Voice Coming From?" (1963) and "The Demonstrators" (1966). In her Preface, Miss Welty, always the model of graciousness, briefly expresses her gratitude for the fact that her early stories, beginning with "Death of a Traveling Salesman," were welcomed by influential southern critics and writers, such as Robert Penn Warren, Cleanth Brooks, and Katherine Anne Porter.

Stories from Welty's first two collections are generally better known than those from the last two, having frequently been anthologized in numerous college literature anthologies since the 1940's. In them, Welty focuses brilliantly on the Mississippi milieu she knows so well, creating enigmatic characters and symbolic situations that combine the ordinary and the mythically meaningful in a way that has become characteristic of her best work.

It is in these first two collections that we meet the following gallery of unforgettable women:Ruby Fisher, who mistakes herself for an abused woman of the same name she reads about in the newspaper ("A Piece of News"); Leota and Mrs. Fletcher, who, medusa-like in a beauty parlor, metaphorically turn men into stone ("Petrified Man"); Sister, the postmistress of China Grove, who laments the return of the prodigal daughter and tries to justify her own exile ("Why I Live at the P. O."); Clytie, who ends up upside down in a rain barrel, her black-stockinged legs hung apart "like a pair of tongs" ("Clytie"); Phoenix Jackson, a never-say-die grandmother on a sacred journey to seek relief for her scarred grandson ("A Worn Path"); and Livie, who finally dares to leave the control and order of Solomon for the raw life of Cash McCord ("Livie").

The fact that Welty's short stories do not focus on social issues has been one source of criticism of her short fiction and one reason why her stories have sometimes been characterized as women's writing in a pejorative stereotyped sense. Welty's stories seem to spring more from the world of myth and story than from the social world, and the language in which they are written is often highly symbolic and allusive, therefore susceptible to being called, especially in the mid-twentieth century when such so-called masculine writers as Hemingway and Faulkner dominated literary life, somewhat "precious" and overly self-conscious. However, as heavily loaded with metaphor and allusion as Welty's language is, and as resonant as her characters are of the world of myth, still her stories seem rooted in a strong sense of place, even if they seem eternally out of time in what she has called a "season of dreams."

I highly recommend One Writer's Beginning if you have not yet read it. I am sure you are all familiar with Welty’s stories. I have written articles on the following: “Why I live at the P.O.,” “Keela, the Outcast Indian Maiden,” and “A Visit of Charity,” which are among my favorites. I would be interested in knowing what your favorite Welty story is and why.

I would also be interested in hearing from students and writers on Welty’s ideas about what it is that makes a writer become a writer and what it is that sets a writer apart from others. I like Welty’s idea about the writer’s ability to determine the difference between mere events and "significant" events and how significant events follow a "thread of revelation."

I have always felt that writers are different from others. Or at least when they are writing well, they become different from others. I also must admit that I have always been in awe of great writers, when they are writing well. After all these years, I am still not sure how in the hell they do it.

I am taking an RV “road trip” this summer with my wife and family members—back to my hometown of Paintsville, Kentucky for the wedding of my youngest sister’s youngest daughter. Since we are going to take Interstate 10 to Tucson for our daughter’s M.A. graduation (in English, of course), and then on to New Orleans before heading North, we just may be able to stop in Jackson, Mississippi to visit Eudora Welty’s home. I hope so. I will let you know.

Oh, and a brief footnote about my little poll of my readers: 40% writers; 30% teachers; 20% students; 10% general readers. I know there is overlap here. After all, writers are always readers and teachers are always students. I also realize that all my readers did not take the poll. That's o.k. I do not have a counter of visitors to this blog. Like the rest of you, I just write and write and hope there are readers.


Lee said...

Hi Charles, I added some comments about Tower's Leopard to the relevant post, and I'd love to have your opinion - and any from your other readers. I'm still uncertain about the issues I mentioned, particularly concerning the possible element of irony and an author's 'overwriting' his character (to use James Wood's formulation).

Lee said...

Would you recommend the Welty to a young writer who is having trouble finding an authentic voice? Whose characters and constellations seem rather flat and conventional, stereotyped even? There's someone who has asked me for advice, and I'm a bit at a loss how to help him.

Charles E. May said...

Yes, indeed, Lee. Welty's One Writer's Beginning, in which she talks about finding her own voice, is one of the most honest discussions of honesty in fiction(which I do not think is incompatible with craft) that I know.

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