Sunday, May 4, 2014

Short Story Month 2014: Eudora Welty

            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.  However, she changed her mind 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 has said she became interested in the idea and began to draw on memory and develop a structure that would hold her many reminiscences together.  The result, she has said, was so much fun, so enlightening, that she advises everyone to do it.

            One Writer's Beginnings (1984), the book that grew out of the lectures Welty delivered, stayed on the New York Times best-seller list for almost a year, easily countering Welty's modest assumption that no one would be interested in her private life.  However, the book is not an autobiography in the traditional sense, for it focuses mostly on her early childhood and only briefly deals with her life as an adult.  Instead, it is a memoir or meditation, a lyrical recollection of how one writer learned to see the world in such a way that she could recreate it in stories.

            The three 1983 lectures that make up the book are entitled "Listening," "Learning to See," and "Finding a Voice."  The first, the longest of the three, deals with Welty's childhood relationship to her parents.  Instead of being strictly chronological, it is structured on what Welty calls the "pulse" of childhood, for childhood's learning is not steady, she argues; rather it consists of separate yet connected moments.  Welty's emphasis in this section is on her discovery of the magic of sounds, letters, words, and talk; consequently the focus is on teachers, books, music, and films--all of which fed her hunger for the sound of story.

            "Learning to See" takes Welty out of her small hometown of Jackson, Mississippi to describe her summer trips to Ohio and West Virginia to visit the families of her parents.  In small anecdotes that could be short stories, Welty tells of her mother running into a burning house to retrieve her precious set of the novels of Charles Dickens and of her mother, at age 15, taking her own father to Baltimore because of a ruptured appendix and then bringing his body home alone on the train.  Because, as Welty says, her mother brought some of West Virginia to Mississippi with her, Welty brought some of it with her also

            The final section of the book, "Finding a Voice," deals with Welty's leaving Jackson to go to college in Wisconsin, taking her first job with the Works Progress Administration (WPA) as a publicity agent, and writing her first stories, such as "Death of a Traveling Salesman," "Livie," "A Still Moment."  It was these stories that quickly gained the admiration of the so-called New Critics of the influential journal The Southern Review.  Because this is a book about "beginnings," it says nothing of her writing career after these early works.

            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 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.

            As slight as One Writer's Beginning 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 Collected Stories of Eudora Welty 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 Travelling 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").

Stories in Welty's last two collections, while no less magical than the first two, are less well known because they are more heavily linked to their mythical sources and therefore less accessible to the average reader.  For example, it helps to know, when reading "Shower of Gold," that Welty draws from the myth of Zeus's impregnation of Danae by visiting her in a shower of gold; and her story "Circe" will make no real sense to the reader unfamiliar with the story of Ulysses' brief stop at the island of that sorceress on his famous journey home.  Furthermore, in The Bride of Innisfallen, Welty uncharacteristically moves out of her home in the South; for example, the title story deals with a group of travelers on the way from London to Cork in Ireland, and "Going to Naples" focuses on a band of Italian-Americans on a journey to Naples.  Because these stories seem less linked to the power of place, an important element in all of Welty's best fiction, they are less magical and memorable.

Because of historical tradition and the aesthetic conventions that adhere to short narrative, short stories are less apt to focus on characters defined by their stereotypical social roles than they are by their archetypal metaphysical roles.  The short story deals with situations that compel characters to confront their essential isolation as individual human beings, not as social masks within a particular cultural context.  As a result, the women in Welty's short stories do not so much confront their social roles as women as they reveal what Welty sees as their essential roles as isolated human beings.  Such an approach, which eschews the social and the polemical and instead explores the symbolic and the metaphysical, does not lend itself to that brand of feminist criticism concerned with the wide range of social traps in which women find themselves.

For example, in "A Piece of News," although Ruby Fisher is caught in a marriage in which she is most likely abused and which allows her no sense of herself as an independent social entity, this is not Welty's concern.  When Ruby sees a story in a newspaper describing how a woman named Ruby Fisher was shot in the leg by her husband, her recognition, "That's me," followed by her elaborate, self-pitying fantasy of her death and burial, is an effort to find a sense of identity in a basic and primal way.  When her husband comes home and points out that the newspaper is from another state and swats her fondly across the backside with it, both Ruby and the reader feel a puzzling sense of loss.            

In the story "Clytie," although it is true that Clytie is a stereotyped old maid, exploited by her family and laughed at by the townspeople for her eccentricity and addled demeanor, it is not social criticism Welty focuses on here, but once again a search for primal identity.  Just as Ruby recognizes her self in the newspaper story, so does Clytie when she looks down into the mirrored surface of the rain barrel and sees her own face recoil from her look of waiting and suffering; she can think of nothing else to do but thrust her head into the "kind, featureless depth" of the water and hold it there.  It is not social isolation that Welty's women suffer from, but rather a more basic sense of separateness; and it is not social validation that they hunger for, but, as Robert Penn Warren noted several years ago in a famous essay, love that will heal the separateness and magically give them a sense of order and meaning. 

The fact that Welty's short stories do not focus on social issues as such 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 real 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."

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