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Eudora Welty

Author(s): Granville Hicks

Source: College English, Vol. 14, No. 2 (Nov., 1952), pp. 69-76
Published by: National Council of Teachers of English
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College English.
Volume ir NOVEMBER 1952 Number 2

Eudora Welty

SEVERAL years ago Eudora Welty prophecy,towardhis material.Isn't that

wrote to the New Yorkera witty letter, enough? Such qualities can identify
by no means so mild as on the surfaceit themselvesanywherein the world and in
appeared to be, protesting against some any century without furnishing an ad-
observations on Southern writers that dress or references." Mr. Wilson, she
had beenmade by EdmundWilsonin the noted, tried to explain Falllkner's de-
course of a review of William Faulkner's scriptive powers by saying that the
Intruder in the Dust. Like all Southern Southern world is differentand makes a
writers, Wilson had said, Faulkner was different impact. She asked: "Could the
provincial;he was out of touch with con- simple, though superfluous,explanation
temporarycurrentsof thought. His pro- not be that the recipientof the impact,
vincialism, Wilsongranted, was in many Mr. Faulkner,is the differentcomponent
ways an asset, but he went on to argue here, possessingthe brainas he does, and
that Faulkner's remoteness from the that the superiority of the work done
great cities, which are the birthplaceof lies in the brain?"
modernfiction, had "apparentlymade it Although Miss Welty's Jackson is no
impossible for him to acquire complete great distance from Mr. Faulkner'sOx-
expertnessin an art that demandsof the ford, it was not mere regionalpatriotism
artists the closest attention and care." that inspired her protest. She was ex-
This, Miss Welty objected, was like pressinga philosophyof literature,a phi-
criticizing Cezanne because he lived in losophy that is, of course, embodied in
Aix rather than Paris. "Such critical ir- her own work as well as in William
relevance, favorable or unfavorable," Faulkner's. Like Faulkner, and unlike
she said, "the South has long been used most contemporary writers, she has
to, but now Mr. Wilsonfancies it up and spent the greater part of her life in the
it will resounda little louder. Mr. Faulk- regionin which she was born, and, again
ner all the while continues to be capable like him, she has found in that regionall
of passion,of love, of wisdom,perhapsof that she needed to exerciseand challenge
1 Author of The Great Tradition, Figures in
her talents. She wouldnever condemnan
Transition, Only One Storm; literary editor of the author for being urban or cosmopolitan,
New Leader. but she would defend her own right, or
the right of any other author, to be rial whereshe found it-i.e., not far from
neither. Provincialism,she feels, is not a home. As KatherineAnne Porter said in
sufficient explanation of a writer's mer- the Introduction she wrote for Miss
its, nor is it inevitably a source of short- Welty's first book, A Curtain of Green,
comings. A writer can be provincial in "Shegets her rightnourishmentfromthe
the geographicalsense without being in- source natural to her-her experienceso
tellectually or aesthetically provincial: far has been quite enough for her and of
one does not have to live in cities, as Mr. precisely the right kind."
Wilson seems to believe, in order to read When A Curtainof Greenappeared,in
and understand James and Proust and 1941, some reviewers quickly concluded
Joyce. that the author was one more Southern
Miss Welty was bomrn in Jackson,Mis- realist with a penchant for squalor.
sissippi, in 1909, and was educated at "Like many Southern writers," Time
MississippiState Collegefor Women,the wrote, "she has a strong taste for melo-
University of Wisconsin, and Columbia drama, and is preoccupiedwith the de-
University. After working for a time in mented, the deformed, the queer, the
New York City, she returnedto Jackson, highly spiced. Of the 17 pieces, only two
and there she has lived, except for brief report states of experiencewhich could
trips, ever since. Her first published be called normal." The statistics are
story appeared in a little magazine, probably accurate: the stories deal with
Manuscript,in 1936, and her first collec- such charactersas a feeble-mindedgirl,
tion of stories, A Curtain of Green,was a moonshiner and his faithless wife, a
publishedin 1941.She has publishedfour pair of poverty-strickensharecroppers,a
books since then: a novella, The Robber couple of hoboes, and a victim of de-
Bridegroom;another collection of short mentia praecox. One story, indeed,
stories, The Wide Net; a novel, Delta "Clytie," seems to present its once
Wedding; and a collection of related prominentfamily as a museumof South-
stories, The GoldenApples.Her workhas ern decadence: the father is paralyzed;
been frequently honored: she once won one son has committed suicide; another
second prize and twice won first prize in is alcoholic;one daughteris mad;and the
the 0. Henry MemorialAward, and her daughter who has been the mainstay of
work has also appeared in The Best the family drownsherself in a rain bar-
AmericanShortStories.She was given an rel. This might well be called Southern
award by the American Academy of Gothic.
Arts and Letters in 1944. But if one reads carefully,it is appar-
Miss Welty has been even more faith- ent that Miss Welty is not preoccupied
ful to her section of Mississippi than with violence and horror,in the way that
Faulknerhas to his: a story is set in New ErskineCaldwellso often is and not even
York City, one in New Orleans, one in to the extent that William Faulkner
San Francisco, and everything else is sometimes is. The meaning of the story
close to the Natchez Trace. She has not, is never in the violence, nor is the abnor-
however,sought to create a regionof her mality of the characterstheir important
own, as Faulkner has done with his quality. Take, for instance, "The Hitch-
YoknapatawphaCounty, and to that ex- Hikers." SalesmanTom Harrispicks up
tent she is a less self-consciousregionalist two men alongthe road,one of them with
than he. She has merely taken her mate- a guitar. He feeds them, and, when he

comes to the hotel in which he intends to Salesman."This salesman,sick and lost,

spend the night, he makes arrangements comesupon a man and woman,the latter
for them to sleep on the back porch. But pregnant, living in primitive poverty. It
suddenlywordcomesthat one of the men is the simplest,most basic kind of human
has hit the other, the guitar player, over association, and the salesman is moved
the head with a bottle. The latter is by it.
taken to the hospital, while the formeris He wanted to leap up, to say to her, I have
locked up in the hotel, the jail being oc- been sick and I found out, only then, how
cupied by a Negro. The salesmangoes to lonely I am. Is it too late? My heart puts up a
a party, as he had planned, but it fails to struggle inside me, and you may have heard it,
protesting against emptiness.... It should be
distract him, nor does he respond when full, he would rush on to tell her, thinking of
one of the girls comes to the hotel for his heart now as a deep lake, it should be hold-
him. In the morning he learns that the ing love like other hearts. It should be flooded
guitar player is dead. After listening to with love.
the other man's confession,Harrisgives In this early story, which in some ways
the guitar to a little Negro boy and goes is reminiscent of Sherwood Anderson,
on about his business. Miss Welty is moreexplicit than she ever
The act of violence seems perfectly lets herself be in her later work. It is a
casual. "1 was jist tired of him always tremendously effective story just the
uppin' and makin' a noise about ever'- same,and, though the announcedsubject
thing," the assailant says. And later: is death, the real theme is life.
"He was uppity, though. He bragged. Squalor,violence, and decadencehave
He carrieda gittar around."The murder in themselves no importance for Miss
is so casualin appearancethat one is hor- Welty. They are merely facts, and facts,
rified at the thought of what its real whether pleasant or unpleasant, are no
causes must be. The deeper meaning of more than means to an end. What mat-
the story, however,is in the effect of the ters in her stories is never the thing that
incident on the salesman. After the happens but the effect of the thing on
party Harris tries to sleep. human beings. Her concern, in other
But it was too like other evenings, this town words, is with states of mind, and her
was too like other towns, for him to move out emphasis falls upon those emotional
of this lying still clothed on the bed, even into states that cannot be easily articulated.
comfort or despair. Even the rain-there was In "Clytie," for instance, the horrorsare
often rain, there was often a party, and there
had been other violence not of his doing-
not intended to shock us; that would be
other fights, not quite so pointless, but fights all too easy to do; Miss Welty's task, far
in his car; fights, unheralded confessions, sud- moredifficult,is to showus their effecton
den love-making-none of any of this his, not Clytie. As Miss Porter says, "The very
to keep, but belonging to the people of these shape of madnesstakes place beforeyour
towns he passed through, coming out of their
rooted pasts and their mock rambles, coming
eyes in a straight account of actions and
out of their time. He himself had no time. He speech, the personal appearance and
was free, helpless. habits of dressof the main characterand
her family." In a simplerand even more
It is interesting that Miss Welty had memorablestory, "A Worn Path," there
used a figure comparableto Harris as a is nothing at all except the details of an
symbol of rootlessness in her first pub- old Negrowoman'sjourneyto the city to
lished story, "Death of a Traveling get medicine for her grandson, but it
gives us a sense of human fortitude that humor to the blackest tragedy. Nor do
is almost unbearablein its sad intensity. her stories always conform to the pat-
Miss Welty knows how, if ever an terns that have been discussed.There is,
author did, to let facts speak for them- for example, "Powerhouse," an enig-
selves, but she does not systematically matic story of a Negro orchestra leader
refrain,in the Hemingwaymanner,from with a strong,wild rhythmin it, or thereis
the direct account of emotional states. "The Wide Net," with its fine colloquial
Although her later work is never so ex- style and country humor. Miss Welty's
plicit as "Death of a Traveling Sales- versatility bafflesthe pigeonholers.
man," she does not hesitate to tell us Yet in all this variety there are, of
what is going on within the mind of a course,persistentthemes. The first is the
character when it serves her purpose to mystery of personality, which Miss
do so. With beautiful adroitness, of Welty perceivesin two forms-the mys-
which only a deliberate analyst can be tery of others and the mystery of self.
conscious, she slips from the objective to The failure of human beings to under-
the subjective, at just the moment to stand one another, one of the perennial
achieve the maximumof revelation.Her themes of literature, she treats often as
method varies to suit her themes: in "A tragedy and sometimes,as in "A Piece of
Worn Path" everything is done with ob- News" and "The Wide Net," as comedy,
jective description and conversation;in though always with serious overtones.
"A Piece of News" there is a single, sud- The mystery of identity, central in such
den illumination of the minds of Ruby a story as "Old Mr. Marblehall,"figures
and Clyde; in "A Curtainof Green" we in some degreein almost every one of her
are now outside and now inside the mind tales.
of the bereaved,bewilderedMrs. Larkin. Closely related to this first theme is
So far as technique is concerned, her her second, the problem of what brings
characteristicquality is just this perfect people together and what holds them
balance between the objective and the apart. She writes about separatenessin
subjective. "Death of a TravelingSalesman,""The
In another sense her work is remarka- Hitch-Hikers," and many others, about
bly objective. As Miss Porter observes, love and separatenessin "The Key," "A
there is only one story in A Curtain of Worn Path," and "A Memory." In "A
Greenthat could conceivablybe regarded Still Moment," a kind of parableinvolv-
as autobiographical,and in the second ing Lorenzo Dow the evangelist, Mur-
collection of stories, The IVide Net, there rell the bandit, and Audubon the scien-
is not even one. Each story is an excur- tist, Dow thinks about separateness:
sion of her imaginationinto the minds of "He could understandGod'sgiving Sep-
others, and one finds in the two collec- arateness first and then giving Love to
tions an extraordinaryvariety of subject follow and heal in its wonder; but God
matter. It is not merely that she writes had reversed this, and given Love first
about Negroes, poor whites, decayed and then Separateness,as though it did
aristocrats, the middle-class women of not matter to Him which came first." At
Southern towns, and, in The Wide Net, any rate, Miss Welty is saying, love and
about the past as well as the present;her separatenessare equally real; they are,
emotional range stretches from the perhaps, the great realities.
poignant to the overwhelming,and from Some of Miss Welty's stories have

been called obscure, and she would not story and of the Americantall tale. The
try to refute the charge. She has said in central action is as implausibleas any-
one of her rare excursionsinto criticism: thing in Grimm, and as plausibly nar-
The fine story writers seem to be in a sense rated. The flat, poker-faced narrative,
obstructionists. As if they hold back their however,is enrichedby a dry humorthat
own best interests. It's a strange illusion. For delights in the absurditiesthat are being
if we look to the source of the deepest pleasure
we receive from a writer, how surprising it described,
and it is interrupted by de-
seems that the very source is the quondam ob- scriptive and meditative passages of
struction. The fact is, in seeking our source of great beauty and by colorfully fantastic
pleasure we have entered another world again. episodes in which historical and legend-
We are speaking of beauty. And beauty is not ary figuressuch as Little Harp and Mike
a blatant or promiscuous quality: indeed at Fink take
her finest she is somewhat associated with ob- part.
struction-with reticence of a number of It is an engaging little story, and one
kinds. feels that Miss Welty had a good time
Miss Welty's short stories are not for writing it, but the core of seriousnessis
inattentive readers; the best of them not to be disregarded.In one of its as-
yield their meaning only to an effort of pects the novella is a parable on the
the imagination.But the effort is worth theme of the mystery of personality.
making. Speaking as a writer, Miss Jamie Lockhart, the robberbridegroom,
Welty has said, "In the end, our tech- plays two roles, and Rosamund Mus-
nique is sensitivity, and beauty may be grove, his mistress, presents two person-
our reward."This can be applied to the alities to him. Her father, Clement Mus-
readersof Miss Welty's stories:sensitivi- grove, is single-minded in his simplicity,
ty is what they must bring to them, and but it is suggested that his beautifulfirst
their rewardis beauty. wife and his ugly second wife are actually
In her Introduction to A Curtainof the same person. There are other am-
Green, Katherine Anne Porter spoke of biguities as well on which a curious mind
the pressure that publishersexert upon can meditate.
short-story writers in order to get them The Robber Bridegroom has its excel-
to produce that more marketable com- lences, but it was in Delta Wedding
modity, a novel. This pressureshe urged (1946) that Miss Welty was to show
Miss XVcltyto resist. "There is nothing what she could do with the novel. The
to hinder her from writing novels if she book is a triumph of sensitivity: the at-
wishes or believesshe can. I can only say mosphereof the Delta in September;the
that her good gift, just as it is now, alive excitement and commotion of a house-
and flourishing,should not be retarded hold preparingfor a wedding;the feeling
by a perfectly artificialdemandupon her of a crowdedhouse;the feelingof a house
to do the conventionalthing." full of children; the special quality of a
Miss Welty was to come to the novel particularand unusual family, the Fair-
in her own time and her own way, but childs. It is a technicaltriumph,too: the
first, between the publication of A Cur- constant, subtle shifting of the point of
lain of Green and the publicationof The view to render the most that can be
Wide Net, she brought forth an experi- rendered.
mental novella, The Robber Bridegroom. Outwardly little enough happens.
Located in Mississippiin the old days, it Dabney, second of the Fairchild daugh-
has elements both of the Europeanfairy ters, is getting married to Troy Flavin,
her father's overseer,a poor boy fromup though one that we constantly feel we
in the hills. The relatives gather, and are on the verge of solving.
there are parties, excursions,rehearsals. If Delta Weddingis one of the finest
Dabney's Uncle Georgearrives,with the novels of recent years, it is because Miss
disconcerting news that Robbie, his Welty's sensibilityis equal to the burden
wife, has left him, but she subsequently she has imposedupon it, the burdenof a
appears. Among the visiting relatives is sustained narrative. There is nothing
little Laura McRaven, Dabney's nine- higher to be said in praise of Delta Wed-
year-old cousin,who has recentlylost her ding than that it is just as good, and good
mother,and in the parts of the story that in just the same way, as her best short
are told from her point of view we not stories. It is held up from beginning to
only get a sense of the intense juvenile end by unfailing insight into the subtle
life that is going on but also, because of and complicatedemotions of its charac-
her responsivenessto everything that is ters and by a matchless gift for making
uniquein the Fairchildsand Shellmound, us feel what they feel.
are given fresh insight into the adult In The Golden Apples (1949) Miss
world. Welty did not attempt that kind of sus-
Gradually we realize that George, tained effort. The same charactersfigure
rather than Dabney, is the novel's cen- in various episodes,and of some of them
tral figures.On her arrival,Laura is told we have a cumulative revelation, but
of an act of rather pointless heroism in each episode stands by itself. It is, in
which Georgehas recently engaged. This part, a book about small-town life, and
act, as we later learn,or the pointlessness the quality of its understandingof small-
of it, is what has alienated Robbie. The town ways remindsone of Andersonand
scene of George on the railroad bridge Faulkner. In another, more important
with his feeble-mindedniece is referredto aspect it is concernedwith the mystery
again and again, until we perceivethat it of personality. King MacLain,who peri-
is the key to George'scharacterand that odically vanishes from Morgana, and
George is the quintessential Fairchild. who affects the imaginations of its
The outsiders, Robbie and Troy, medi- people, is an obvious enigma, but he is
tate on the mysteries of the Fairchild really no more mysterious than Miss
character,and so does Laura,who is only Eckhart the music teacheror Easter the
half a Fairchild and finds Shellmound orphan or either of his sons or Virgie
strange and wonderful.Even Ellen, the Rainey or Loch Morrison.
mistress of Shellmound,who has moth- The resourcefulnesswith which Miss
ered half-a-dozen Fairchilds, is still an Welty exploresher mysteries is exciting
outsider, though she rests more easily to watch. Regarded simply as short
with the enigma than the others. To the stories, the episodes of The Golden
born Fairchilds, of course, there is no Apples, with a single exception, belong
mystery; they accept George,as they ac- with her best work. Take, for instance,
cept themselves, without any conception "Music from Spain," in which Eugene
that he or they could be different from MacLain is jolted out of his routine and
what they are. Althoughwe look through into a state of heightened sensibility by
the eyes of many of the characters,we an arbitraryact- slappinghis wife's face
are never taken inside George's mind, as it happens-and spends a remarkable
and to the end he remains a mystery, day in the company of a Spanish musi-

cian. Or there is the final story, "The opment, so that today the individuality
Wanderers,"with its wonderfullyevoca- of her prose is as obvious as it is quietly
tive portrayalof Virgie Rainey. asserted.
The title of the book is, of course, an Although her workhas been frequent-
allusion to a Greeklegend, and so is the ly honoredand, with each volume, more
title of the first story, "Showerof Gold." and morehighly praised,she has failed to
And in almost all the stories there is win the approval of certain critics who
some suggestionof myth. "Moon Lake," are to be taken seriously, among them
for example,which is in part an amusing Diana Trilling, Isaac Rosenfeld, and
account of life in a girls' camp, has its MargaretMarshall.They agreewith her
parable of death and resurrection. admirersthat she is greatly talented, but
I do not want to suggest that Miss what she does with her talents distresses
Welty belongs to the school of authors them. They feel, to begin with, that she
who think that the retellingof an ancient exploits her technical virtuosity for its
legend makes a modem masterpiece. I own sake, but their quarrelis largerthan
am merely saying that her work has ac- that. Mrs. Trilling,reviewingDelta Wed-
quired somethingof the quality of fable. ding, said that she disliked equally the
In The RobberBridegroomand a coupleof literarymannerof the book and the "cul-
short stories she has deliberatelycreated ture out of which it grows and which it
legends of her own, but these are less im- describes so fondly," and she accused
portant than the tales in which the or- Miss Welty of a lack of moraldiscrimina-
dinary events of life in contemporary tion. Miss Marshall, after complaining
Mississippi take on the purity and-to about the "finespun writing" in The
use a recklessword-the universality of Golden Apples, summed up her indict-
legend. ment: "The book does, I suppose,convey
It is not easy to say how she has the quality of life among the main fami-
learned do this. Even if Miss Porter lies of Morgana, but this is its only ac-
had not told us, we would have no doubt complishment, and the quality of life
that Miss Welty has read widely. She has among the main families of Morgana
learned, we can be sure, from many is, to speak rudely, not worth 244
writers,but none of them has left a clear pages."
mark upon her work. Her admirationfor Miss Marshall'scomment, it seems to
her fellow-Mississippian,William Faulk- me, is not so much rudeas narrow.If one
ner, is great, but his way of doing things begins with the assumptionthat life in a
is not hers. Nor is Henry James'sway her small Mississippi town is not worth
way, though he is another writershe has writing about, one is likely to miss the
certainly studied with great care. Her larger implicationsof a book about such
work has often been comparedwith that a town. (Hamilton Basso, a Southerner,
of VirginiaWoolf and Katherine Mans- has testified that Morgana"canbe taken
field, but the resemblancesseem to me to representnot only all small Southern
superficial.In the beginning, I suspect, towns but the whole Deep South.") If,
she learned a good deal from Katherine moreover,one has no sympathy with the
Anne Porter, about both the shapingof a kind of life that is being portrayed, one
story and the manipulationof words,but may easily call a writer who does like
she has followed her own path of devel- that sort of life uncritical.And, finally, if

a way of life is distasteful,the skill a writ- But if she shares in the heritage of the
er employs to evoke that way of life may South, she also sharesin the literary tra-
seem wasted. dition of Westerncivilization,and shares
Miss Welty is, to be sure, a Southern at least as fully and deeply as the most
writer, in the sense that the South is her up-to-date New York intellectual. And
subject matter, just as it is Faulkner's. not only that: she proves, as the good re-
Furthermore, again like Faulkner, she gionalists have always proved, that the
lives in the midst of the life she writes deeperone goes into the heart of a region,
about. She is a writer with roots, a fact the more one transcendsits geographical
significantly reflected in all her work. boundaries.

A Primer Study in Browning's Satire


'TissaidI brewstiffdrink.
-Epilogue to Pacchiarotto.

S OMETHINGneeds to be said about which has a special dramatic function,

Browning'ssatire. It does not need to be are the epitome of Browning's philoso-
inclusive, and it does not need to be phy is as dull and wrong as to say that
"scholarly"; but it does need to be Shakespeare'sphilosophy is summed in
exact, in order that students may see Ophelia'sverse, "Hey non nonny, nonny,
what is there and give it merited atten- hey nonny."
tion. For the tendency to read Brown- Since he is a dramaticpoet, much, al-
ing not from his page but out of tradi- though not all, of Browning's satire
tion is yet strong among us. One part comes to us in dramaticform. That this
of the tradition would deny him all form is a sufficientinstrumentfor satiric
privilege as a satirist: that which nomi- purpose Aristophanes demonstrated.
nates him the good Victorian poet who True, the medium both limits and
said, "God's in his heaven- / All's liberates what is said and how it is said.
right with the world." If this persuasion Artisticallyit affects the intent and even
were absolute in a man, he could have the spirit of the satirist, binding or
nothing about which to complain. Of enlargingthe intent, restrictingor freeing
course,in seems never to be noticed that the spirit. If Aristophanescan never do
the words lie in a lyric sung by Pippa as what Juvenal can do, he can do what
she passes the Shrub-house of Luca, Juvenal cannot. Swift can do what
where all's wrong with the world. Se- neither of these can; and so we might
bald, having slit Luca's throat, is about go on makingdistinctions.On the whole,
to crownthe painted wife of the old man the dramatist gives up direct attack-
queen, "magnificent in sin." Presently the heavy, savage, flat blow-and de-
the two are dead of self-slaughter. To pends on agility and skill. He may rightly
say that these verses from Pippa's song, be picturesque. Or to change the figure,
1 University of Michigan. he prefers to release an ass upon the

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