Eudora Welty & the Hidden Music of Gossip
Marjorie Sandor | October/November 2010
The Southern writer Eudora Welty has an enduring-and profoundly misleading-reputation as a homebody: there are anecdotes in which she waves to friends from her writing desk upstairs in her Jackson, Mississippi home. While it's true that she would inhabit that home for seventy-six years, right up until her death in 2001 at the age of ninety-two, it's also true that she traveled widely and well whenever she could: enough to leave her beloved camera on the Paris Metro, to visit Elizabeth Bowen in Ireland, to give lectures all over the world, and to long to live in New York City, where she had studied and worked as a young woman. More crucially, although she came back to Jackson to help care for her ailing father, and then her aging mother, she never lost the traveler's bug, the longing to encounter human mystery. In One Writer's Beginnings, she says, "I am a writer who came of a sheltered life. A sheltered life can be a daring life as well. For all serious daring starts from within."1
From the 1930s on, Welty's voice traveled out from that daring inner place, influencing generations of readers and writers, including Alice Munro, who once wrote, about The Golden Apples: "I am overwhelmed with a terrible longing. Stabbed to the heart, as Miss Kate Rainey or perhaps Miss Perdita Mayo would say, by the changes, the losses in our lives. By the beauty of our lives streaming by, in Morgana and elsewhere..."2
Morgana and elsewhere. This begins to capture Welty's double vision: her attachment to home, and the yearning to escape. "Morgana and elsewhere" coexist in the language itself, a language shaped in the local terrain, but shot through with the dream of elsewhere. Out of the mouth of Miss Katie Rainey, the dairyman's wife, comes a music so rich and magical it is finally more exotic, more daring, than any grand geographical journey. The local and colloquial are, for Welty, the threshold, her "jumping-off place,"3 not only of drama, but of a rare and breathtaking music.
Welty's ear for the music tucked away in colloquial speech was awakened early in childhood. She once wrote that a lady-friend of her mother's, while gossiping, often said: "The crisis had come!" and that it was from listening to such "overheard" conversations, during car rides, or while being pinned up by the sewing lady, that she learned her first lessons about drama. "The scene," she says, "was full of hints, pointers, suggestions, and promises of things to find out and know about human beings. I had to grow up and learn to listen for the unspoken as well as the spoken."4
Maybe there's something crucial about that phrase, "pinned up." In all these cases, the listener is physically trapped. But while she's stuck and the ladies are talking, she is secretly forming a question, a question about the human story they're rushing past on their way to the next interesting spike in the drama. The child catches a mysterious, unfinished scrap of a local story, and can't let it go. She holds it, treasures it up with her senses. It starts to take on more mystery, and at the same time so do the words themselves. Welty also said that as a very small child, she experienced words as things, and vice versa: "The word 'moon' came into my mouth as though fed to me out of a silver spoon," she writes. "Held in my mouth the moon became a word. It had the roundness of a Concord grape Grandpa took off his vine and gave me to suck out of its skin and swallow whole, in Ohio."5 Is it significant that the sensual awareness of language, its hallucinatory potential, came to her while she was traveling in another state?
"My first good story," she once wrote, "began spontaneously, in a remark repeated to me by a traveling man-our neighbor-to whom it had been spoken while he was on a trip into North Mississippi: 'He's gone to borry some fire.' The words, which carried such lyrical and mythological and dramatic overtones, were real and actual-their hearer repeated them to me."6 Welty refers here to her first published story, "Death of a Traveling Salesman." She was twenty-six when it appeared in Manuscript magazine, but you can already hear in her comment how fully alive she was to the richness in ordinary language. In this brief colloquial phrase lies the hint or allusion to a landscape's history, as well as the rhythm and lilt of music. Yet it is also "real and actual." That is, spoken, plainly necessary, and authentic to its specific time and place.
Certainly the narrator of another of Welty's early stories has the "real and actual" layer of language down pat, and music and mythological richness as well. This is Sister, the passionate unreliable narrator of "Why I Live at the P.O." Her hidden story dawns on us only gradually, for she is expert at the gossip's art of releasing only tidbits, so the listener stays "pinned up" till the end. Only then do we fully see that Sister has collared a passing stranger at the P.O. and given him an earful; she sounds a little like a defense attorney as she works her way through her family trials, at last relinquishing the truth that she's gotten herself confined, somehow, to living in the tiny P.O. of tiny China Grove, Mississippi, where, she cheerfully says, "You see, I've got everything cater-cornered, the way I like it,"7 in a voice that is almost unfailingly certain of itself.
Almost. Because in the breathless rush of her tale, she occasionally drops her guard, revealing, in brief flashes, the pathos and paradox at the heart of her story: her longing for a dramatic life, and her inevitable fixedness in this hemmed-in place. There is no getting away, finally, for Sister.
The gossip's voice is the story's bedrock: its pathos and secret gravity lightly marble the apparent uniformity of Sister's song of complaint. Two more qualities of the gossip's art come into play here: one is the speaker's desperate desire to persuade, revealed by, among other things, her repeated use of the phrase "of course," a phrase we've all used to prevent argument. The other, more potent, is the slip of the tongue that cracks the narration open, however briefly, to tell us the story under the story. Listen, for instance, to Sister's opening salvo:
I was getting along fine with Mama, Papa-Daddy and Uncle Rondo until my sister Stella-Rondo just separated from her husband and came back home again. Mr. Whitaker! Of course I went with Mr. Whitaker first, when he first appeared here in China Grove, taking "Pose Yourself" photos, and Stella-Rondo broke us up. Told him I was one-sided. Bigger on one side than the other, which is a deliberate, calculated falsehood: I'm the same.8
"Of course," she says. Twice. And "just separated" is so rapidly thrown off that it loses its conventional meaning and sounds strange again: like some bizarre physical experiment. And that little word "just." Haven't we all used it to belittle someone's behavior, or slant our listener our way? Pose Yourself Photos are real enough-you've seen the little booths-but they also suggest the unspoken story: what poor Sister is trying to do, herself. It's in this same paragraph, at the very peak of her rhetorical ascent-"Bigger on one side than the other, which is a deliberate, calculated falsehood"-that language suddenly deflates on her, taking her prose with it. "I'm the same" is a phrase so suddenly bitten off that the reader trips over it, into a verbal hole, a silence, and a suspicion about Sister. How off-kilter is she, exactly?
This is the story's core dynamic, its argument with itself: a long breathless run of gossip, a little slip, and a gap, in which silence is what speaks to the reader. Then the story accelerates again, until it reaches the next crisis point, always building through the push and pull of persuasion, failure, brief opening, and the rhetoric of persuasion again, more desperate than before, until we realize we're hearing two stories: the desire to not lose one's secure place in the heart of the family by the return of the prodigal, and beneath that, the poignant desire to be the one who got away. It's about the impossible relationship we have to home and family. My favorite moment is one that is comical, painful, and on top of all that, invokes the myth of Cinderella-pre-prince-which is, in fact, Sister's eternal condition. Listen to the undertones of lyricism and mythology here, in a phrase that should be as mundane and as anti-lyrical as it gets: "There I was over the hot stove, trying to stretch two chickens over five people and a completely unexpected child into the bargain, without one moment's notice."9
Like the phrase Munro invoked, that marvelous "stabbed to the heart" feeling, this phrase functions as comically bad grammar and overstatement, and reveals the character's psychology through its allusion to the archetype of the displaced princess. It's the curtain we are itching to pull aside. And while such comedy is the story's major mode, it is also the foil to its secret story-Sister's unsuspected depths beneath her cartoon surface. Here, the most powerful of these "curtains"-briefly opened-lies smack in the middle of the story, tucked away so quietly you could walk past. Sister is on yet another breathless tear: two long sentences with barely a gulp of air between them. Listen to them, and then, to the little sentence that follows behind:
Well, I'm just terribly susceptible to noise of any kind, the doctor has always told me I was about the most sensitive person he had ever seen in his whole life, and I was simply prostrated. I couldn't eat! People tell me they heard it as far as the cemetery, and old Aunt Jep Patterson, that had been holding her own so good, thought it was the Judgment Day and she was going to meet her whole family. It's usually so quiet here.10
When that short sentence arrives, it's as if the story-and all of China Grove-has been stripped of its distracting chatter. In one arrhythmic moment, you hear the story's real heartbeat, the truth Sister's been desperately trying not to convey all along. And it wouldn't have its power if it weren't surrounded, like Sister herself, by the voices of family, through which the "war news" on the radio can barely penetrate.
Sister (even her name tells you her status) is so identified and shaped by her position in the family that all her actions are reactions to it; it's hard to say who is responsible for that move to the P.O., so tangled is the family web. But her destiny, out of that muddle, is absolutely clear: a place as fixed as a star in a constellation, in a place called China Grove, its own name plausible, ironic, and mythic all at once, a place in which her family are "naturally the main people," and in which a sound heard "as far away as the cemetery" has the force of a great legend.
In Welty's first collection, A Curtain of Green, is another lament, which, although sung in a minor key with a narrator who keeps a little distance from the main character, also calls up the fairy tale of Cinderella, even as it evokes the imminent decline of a Southern family and the town named for it. For "Clytie," the mad old maid of Farr's Gin, is also hopelessly trapped in a failing-and unfailingly dramatic-family. Just as we see Sister clearly trapped in dreamed drama at the P.O., we can see the hopelessness of Clytie's trap. But the beauty, the "heart-stabbing" thing, is that she, like Sister, continues to wait patiently for rescue, and for her own lost identity to be restored. Clytie is dimly aware of a mysterious "face she had been looking for, and from which she had been separated,"-there's that word again-a face, the reader comes to know, that is at once her own, lost long ago, and possibly the shade of a lost love, that of a prince come from another kingdom to penetrate the briars of this claustrophobic kingdom-did he ever? We can't know.
This story opens not with the voice of "the town gossip," but from a third person watching, and listening, to Clytie and the whole town. This story's voice resides chiefly in the lyrical, sensual region of Welty's tonal spectrum, but you still hear, absolutely, the sharp, splintery shards of local gossip. The town's speculation about Clytie is the wellspring of the narration's curiosity, its "jumping-off place" into the mystery of Clytie's passion and loss.
Welty begins by planting us in a specific time and place, much in the manner of a fairy tale's "once upon a time." "It was late afternoon, with heavy silver clouds which looked bigger and wider than cotton fields, and presently it began to rain."11 We are in "the little town of Farr's Gin," and before we've even seen Clytie, we have an image from domesticated nature that will, soon enough, be linked to her: "A hen and her string of yellow chickens ran in great alarm across the road..."12 The opening is a still life of a still town-it has the feel of an illustrated page in a book of old tales, a sort of authorial care and distance. But the next paragraph, the one that introduces Clytie, slides into a much more intimate, whispering tone: "After everyone else had gone under cover, Miss Clytie Farr stood still in the road, peering ahead in her near-sighted way, and as wet as the little birds." "She usually came out of the old big house at about this time... It used to be that she ran about on some pretext or other." And a little later, this: "It might be simply that Miss Clytie's wits were all leaving her, said the ladies."13
Can you hear it? The source of the story is community gossip: Clytie's habits, which run counter to those of "everyone else" and about which the ladies are given to speculate. But then the more "distant," authorial narration seems to reply to the ladies, with a hand raised first to stop their chatter, then to beckon the reader closer to this obscure, singular figure: "And indeed it was with the patience almost of a beast that Miss Clytie stood there in the rain and stuck her long empty arms out a little from her sides as if she were waiting from something to come along the road and drive her to shelter."14
Within that reply is a seed of resistance to the community view, and within the little phrase, "as if," a gift of compassion. The narrator alerts us first to mystery, then to the possibility of entering Clytie's own experience of the world, in a single phrase that is itself ambiguous: "waiting for something to come along the road and drive her to shelter."
Such a little phrase, but it suggests so much. You hear the shadow of the fairy tale desire, Cinderella's patient waiting for the "coach" to carry her off, yet the word "drive" also suggests her suffering, of being driven like a beast, without volition.
There could be no story more different in tone from "Why I Live at the P.O.," and yet I'd suggest that they are mirror images of one another; that the same haunting conflict lives at the heart of both: that of being bound to a place, and yet dreaming passionately of a connection to the world beyond the limits established for us, limits established long before we were born. And just to get a sense of the range of Welty's voice, compare this description of Clytie at the stove to the earlier example of Sister, at her "hot stove." It is essentially the same scenic moment: a woman trapped by her family's disparate demands, their Olympian whims. "The hot stove," is a place we know from both life and fairy tales. Each incarnation suggests the figure of Cinderella at her labors, and yet to a completely different effect: Notice, in the passage that follows below, that even the name of the family's former "nurse," "Old Lethy," like "China Grove," is mythic, yet entirely possible in a small Southern town: "Old Lethy" calls up not only this family's lost past, and Clytie's present distress, but also the river Lethe of Greek mythology, across which the dead are rowed and forget all they knew in life.
Clytie cooked the three meals on the stove, for they all ate different things. She had to carry them in proper order up the stairs. She frowned in concentration, for it was hard to keep all the dishes straight, to make them come out right in the end, as Old Lethy could have done.15
While this moment has none of the comedy of Sister's complaint about trying to "stretch two chickens over five people," it still presents the "real and actual" and the mythic at once. On the one hand, Clytie's distress at the stove is strictly reported without exaggeration or commentary, only showing the simple desire, the simple difficulty. But there is a hint of fairy tale magic in the little word for: "for it was hard to keep all the dishes straight" tells the reader precisely, and with dignity, how it is. We recognize the storyteller's authority, and accept it absolutely, like children captivated and listening.
In this story, as in "P.O.," family dynamics command the character. Just as Sister is driven to the P.O., (by her own passion for drama as much as her family's) so is Clytie driven out to the rain barrel in the back yard. She is ordered there, literally, by her imperious elder sister Octavia: "Clytie, Clytie!" cries Octavia, "...where in the devil is the rain water to shave Papa?"16 Yet, once Clytie is at the rain barrel, she discovers, or thinks she's discovered, the lost "face" of her dreams as she leans, Narcissus-like, toward her own reflection. The narrator's voice reaches its fullest lyric intensity at the very moment it reports from within Clytie's own senses. "The rain barrel was full. It bore a dark, heavy, penetrating fragrance, like ice and flowers and the dew of night."17
The story ends tragically-Clytie, trying to reach the face before Octavia can stop her, does "the only thing she can think to do." She "thrust her head into the barrel, under the water, through its glittering surface into the kind, featureless depth, and held it there."18 As we take in the phrase "kind, featureless depth," we are released, with her, from the family's claustrophobia, and into what, for Clytie, is surely the only way out. But then the narration does the most surprising thing of all: it steps lightly away from Clytie, back into the community's observing eye.
"When Old Lethy found her, she had fallen forward into the barrel with her poor ladylike black-stockinged legs up-ended and hung apart like a pair of tongs."19
The contrast in vision and voice is shocking-I would say it almost shocks us into a kind of horrified laughter, with this image like something out of Edward Gorey's drawings of a Victorian ladies and gentlemen being "done in" by various ghastly means. But because we've been inside Clytie, we're caught now in a deeply uncomfortable place, somewhere between the delicate horror of town gossip, (you can almost hear how it will go, "they say Old Lethy found her with her poor legs..." and the haunting beauty of that phrase, "ice and flowers and the dew of night"-an elegy to Clytie's passion and human experience. Here is Welty's "double vision"-we are still with Clytie, dreaming of a mysterious reunion, and at the same time, we are driven to witness her as the world does-as an absurd, inexplicable, accident: "a shame, wasn't it, did you hear?"20
The voice of wonder and curiosity, the voice of the traveler caught-at home, and by home-crosses all kinds of borders in "Powerhouse," another story written in the Depression and published in 1941, in A Curtain of Green. Welty composed "Powerhouse" in a single night, after attending a "Fats" Waller jazz concert in Jackson's old City Auditorium, and the story captures not only the exotic allure of traveling performers for a small town audience, but also reaches imaginatively into the experience of the performers themselves, to suggest the high wire act of being so far from home, for so long.
The story begins, as it must for Welty, rooted in a specific place, time, and culture. The narrator this time is a local of Alligator, Mississippi, where the great jazz pianist Powerhouse has come to play for one night only. The narrator acknowledges her position early on-she's part of the audience at a "white dance" on a "bad night." Simple, colloquial language. But soon she leads the reader out a little further, as if to dance on that empty floor:
When any group, any performers, come to town, don't people always come out and hover near, leaning inward about them, to learn what it is? What is it? Listen. Remember how it was with the acrobats. Watch them carefully, hear the least word, especially what they say to one another, in another language-don't let them escape you; it's the only time for hallucination, the last time. They can't stay. They'll be somewhere else this time tomorrow.21
It's the voice that engages us at first, as Sister's might, with a question demanding an immediate answer, and implying a desire for communion with the reader: "don't people always come out?" The question pleads a little, calling us out of our limited vision, then collars us with a little flight of commandments. The urgency is in the rhythm itself, short staccato beats at first, then longer, longer. What is it? Listen... Remember how it was... Watch them carefully, hear the least word... then descending again to the short line: They can't stay." And there's the poetry of repetition, too: "the only time... the last time." How can you walk away? It is the beginning of a hypnotist's spell, the invocation before the trance: you will do as I say.
But Welty gives the real beginning of the trance to Powerhouse and his bass player, Valentine.
Late at night they play the one waltz they will ever consent to play-by request, "Pagan Love Song." Powerhouse's head rolls and sinks like a weight between his waving shoulders. He groans, and his fingers drag into the keys heavily, holding on to the notes, retrieving. It is a sad song.
"You know what happened to me?" says Powerhouse.
Valentine hums a response, dreaming at the bass.
"I got a telegram my wife is dead," says Powerhouse, with wandering fingers.
His mouth gathers and forms a barbarous O while his fingers walk up straight, unwillingly, three octaves...
"Telegram say-here the words: Your wife is dead." He puts 4/4 over the 3/4.22
So funeral-march time is laid over waltz (love-song) time. Pure Welty: love and death, mortal and immortal, playing together.
So begins one of Welty's most magical hallucinations, the journey out the stage-door of the white dance-hall. We follow, discreetly, the parade of "a hundred dark, ragged, silent, delighted Negroes" who "have come around from under the eaves of the hall, and follow (the band) wherever they go,"23 and are guided away from the mundane "white dance" on a "bad night" into "the World Cafe" in Negrotown.
Once we've crossed that threshold, the pleading, engaging voice of the narrator recedes, and an interpreting eye takes over: it's a language that makes you sit up a little straighter: it is solemn and deeply attentive. Welty's sensitivity to the physicality of "words" is in charge now. Remember that word "moon" coming into the mouth like a Concord grape? Listen:
Sheltered dry smells stand like screens around a table with a red-checkered cloth, in the center of which flies hang on to an obelisk shaped ketchup bottle. The midnight walls are checkered again with admonishing "Not Responsible" signs...It is a waiting, silent, limp room.24
Smells that "stand like screens." An obelisk-shaped ketchup bottle. Midnight walls. Waiting.
The flies and checkered tablecloth, the familiar "Not Responsible signs"-all ordinary, actual, real. But an atmosphere of magic-even of preparation for a sacred ritual-has been established. In effect, Welty has arrived at the cafe first and prepared the place for Powerhouse, for the ceremony of storytelling, of art. Because what happens in that little room is nothing less than an improvisation on the theme of facing down death, all humor and melodrama and deep scary seriousness.
Surely it's no accident that this occurs during the "intermission" for the white dance; that the fullest expression of art takes place in a transformed cafe, and in a transformed community. Time, not to mention the paying audience, must be held at bay while Powerhouse tells the story of his battle with Uranus Knockwood, that arch undertaker always following him around, wanting to steal his beloved Gypsy.
"Listen!" whispers Powerhouse, looking into the ketchup bottle... "Listen how it is. My wife gets missing me. Gypsy. She goes to the window. She looks out and sees you know what. Street. Sign saying Hotel. People walking. Somebody looks up. Old man. She looks down, out the window. Well? Sssst! Plooey! What she do? Jump out and bust her brains all over the world."
He opens his eyes.
"That's it," agrees Valentine. "You gets a telegram."25
Just about everybody in the cafe-waitress, musicians, the listeners crowding in at the door-participates as Powerhouse composes and revises his wild love song, a song so outrageously gruesome at times that everybody laughs. Oh no, it can't be true! But then he reaches, master of suspense, into his pocket and says, "Want to see the telegram I got from him?"26
Suffice it to say that Uranus Knockwood wants to steal his love, his music, everything. Powerhouse won't let him. The musician sends a telegram right back to Death. "No! How many thousand times tonight I got to say No?"27
From this lyric improvisation, and Powerhouse's communion with musicians and followers, we must fall out of the spell. Intermission is over: time, and the next set at the white dance-hall, take over. It's a little bit like that moment in "Clytie" when we have to leave behind the "ice and flowers and dew of night," led away by the voice that took us in. And as in "Clytie," we are onlookers again, with gossip our only source: "When Powerhouse came back from intermission, no doubt full of beer, they said, he got the band tuned up again in his own way..."28 And so we are made to remember where we were, and that folks-white folks in this case-will talk, in spite of all that power and pleasure. Or maybe because of it. But then the narrator herself tunes up, one last time, her own way... "He sat down and played it for a few minutes with outrageous force, and got it under his power-a bass deep and coarse as a sea net-then produced something glimmering and fragile, and smiled. And who could ever remember any of the things he says? They are just inspired remarks that roll out of his mouth like smoke."29 And then, one last time, Welty delivers us back into Powerhouse's huge hands, that he might call out to us one last time before he goes: "Somebody loves me! Somebody loves me, I wonder who!"... "...maybe, it's you!"30
The hallucinating "I" of Powerhouse gives way, in a later story, to an even richer, more artistically complex form of narration. "No Place for You, My Love" was published in the mid 1950s. Welty once said that it took a road trip to unlock the story's own claustrophobia: that she "treated the story to my ride"31 and ended up rewriting it completely.
She describes the narration of the story as "my third character, the straining, hallucinatory eyes and ears, the roused-up sentient being of that place."32 That place is the landscape "South of the South"-beyond New Orleans, that her two characters travel, one hot August afternoon. In an earlier draft, the heroine of the story was a girl from Welty's own world, "a girl in a claustrophobic predicament," she writes. "...she was caught fast in the over-familiar, monotonous life of her small town, and immobilized further by a prolonged and hopeless love affair; she could see no way out. As a result of my ride, I extricated-not the girl, but the story."33 In the new draft, she made the girl a Midwesterner, and invented another character to go along-a stranger, a man from Syracuse, New York. So both characters are out of their own time and place when the story-an intermission in their lives-begins. They journey outward, on a series of little shell roads and a ferry, getting lost, and seeing little marvels: on somebody's doorstep is "a catfish the size of a baby-a fish wearing whiskers and bleeding. On a clothesline in the yard, a priest's black gown on a hanger hung airing, swaying at man's height, a vague, trainlike, ladylike sweep along an evening breath that might otherwise have seemed imaginary from the unseen felt river."34 At dusk, the end of the road, quite literally, among a few shacks and flowers and "mounds of shells like day-old snow, pink-tinted"35 one of the shacks suddenly lights up: itself a fleeting answer to an unarticulated question, a need. These two people will not be lovers, though there is something, briefly, between them, composed as much by the place watching them, as by anything they do or say. A bruise on her temple, revealed later as they dance in Baba's beer shack, tells him-and us-only that there is a mystery in her life; the "eye" of the story will not violate her privacy. That bruise, finally, is not the center of the story at all, but yet another mysterious part of the story's landscape itself, like a cluster of stars you see best by looking slightly to the side. What is most remarkable here is that the story's viewpoint, its way of looking and listening to these characters from the outside, provides the story with a fantastic sense of spaciousness-even as the mystery of their lives remains a closed book to us. In a sense, the watching "sentient being' of that place has the innocence and curiosity of the child-listener Welty, who knows we cannot penetrate the final mystery of personality, but only make some brief connection with it, before the curtains open again on the drama of their known lives.
If we take a closer look at that point of view and voice, we can see how both partake of the two characters but remain outside them, observing, floating without ever tightening the focus exclusively on one or the other. If you write fiction, you'll know how hard this is to do without violating the reader's trust that the story has a solid footing. And in a sense, this voice, while neither a character in the thick of things (like Sister) or a community observer as in Clytie, or even a local willing to "hallucinate" is in fact the next daring stage in the evolving vocal range of a great artist.
The story opens with a plural:
They were strangers to each other, both fairly well strangers to the place, now seated side by side at luncheon-a party combined in a free-and-easy way when the friends he and she were with recognized each other across Galatoire's. The time was a Sunday in summer-those hours of afternoon that seem Time Out in New Orleans.36
We know immediately that the "eye" of the story observes from the outside: somebody-or something-has taken a "they" as its subject-neither exclusively he, nor she. There's a shade, in this opening, of the comforting colloquial authority of a human storyteller, even a gossip: "both fairly well strangers to this place." You can almost hear the voice of Sister, framing the relationship for you.
But it is not a voice that intends to bias or limit our view; quite the opposite. The voice keeps swinging back and forth between the two characters the way a lantern might, illuminating one spirit, then the other, then floating above them to get a wider view, with curiosity as its single driving force. A page or so into the story, after we've alighted, briefly, in the mind of each a few times as they near their decision to take a drive, the narration floats upward again, reminding us that a quietly watching presence stands beyond the two, taking stock. "Of all human moods, deliberate imperviousness may be the most quickly communicated-it may be the most successful, most fatal signal of all. And two people can indulge in imperviousness as well as anything else." Then it crosses, delicately, a little bridge of dialogue into the man's viewpoint. "You're not very hungry either," he says. Then the narrator watches him: "The blades of fan shadows came down over their two heads, as he saw inadvertently in the mirror, with himself smiling at her now like a villain."37
Notice how, halfway through that sentence, the point of view itself descends from above "their two heads" into his inadvertent observation, as if it's not so much coming from the character as being conferred upon him by the story's watching eye, its presence.
This sense of a shadowy eye-not quite human-but deeply feeling and patient-grazes the story and its characters throughout, in a fluid way that is responsible for the story's great beauty, and its ability to hold loss (a word to hold in the mouth, like moon), like the marvel that it is, until, inevitably, the two must go their separate ways. Here again, the "real and actual"-even comically mundane, collides with the deepest, most sensual of musical tones: They are back in New Orleans, he has dropped her off at her hotel; in the sentences that follow, the language and scene quietly lift from the colloquial and the local to the rhythms and diction of poetry, and another place and time, all in one smooth flight.
In Dickie Grogan's, as he passed, the well-known Josephina at her organ was charging up and down with "Clair de Lune." As he drove the little Ford safely to its garage, he remembered for the first time in years when he was young and brash, a student in New York, and the shriek and horror and unholy smother of the subway had its original meaning for him as the lilt and expectation of love."38
The furthest journey out of all is one Welty did not want to make, but felt she must, "into the mind and inside the skin of a character who could hardly have been more alien or repugnant to me."39 This is the narrator of her 1963 story, "Where is the Voice Coming From?" written and immediately published in the New Yorker, just after the murder of African-American civil rights activist Medgar Evers that summer in Jackson. As in the case of the joyous hallucination of "Powerhouse," she once again wrote through the night, in a single sitting, though this time, she was compelled by anger, the one emotion she says, that is "least responsible for any of my work."40 But, she writes in the preface to The Collected Stories, "that hot August night when Medgar Evers, the local civil rights leader, was shot down from behind in Jackson, I thought, with overwhelming directness: Whoever the murderer is, I know him: not his identity, but his coming about, in this time and place. That is, I ought to have learned by now, from here, what such a man, intent on such a deed, had going on in his mind. I wrote his story-my fiction-in the first person: about that character's point of view, I felt, through my shock and revolt, I could make no mistake. The story pushed its way up through a long novel I was in the middle of writing, and was finished on the same night the shooting had taken place."41
The result is one of the most astonishing first person narrations in American literature. Welty takes us inside the voice and mind of the murderer-and into the parched landscape of a heart hemmed in by its own insistent sense of righteous victimhood.
Like other Welty narrators, the murderer addresses us directly, and insists on a level of familiarity. While this is charmingly askew in the case of Sister, and liberating in the case of the narration of "Powerhouse," here, the assumption of closeness creates a suffocating sensation, and makes us all complicit in the crime.
I says, I could find right exactly where in Thermopylae that nigger's living that's asking for equal time...And I ain't saying it might not be because that's pretty close to where I live. The other hand, there could be reasons you might have yourself for knowing how to get there in the dark. It's where you all go for the thing you want when you want it the most. Ain't that right?42
He draws you ever closer, even giving you precise directions, lest you want to play tourist and leave when it gets too hot. Further in you go: "So you leave Four Corners and head west on Nathan B. Forrest Road, past the Surplus and Salvage, not much beyond the Kum Back Drive-In and Trailer Camp..."43
And another way he pulls you close is by chanting the spell, his way. The seductive repetition of the invocation we heard in "Powerhouse," has a relentless downbeat here-it drives downward:
Never seen him before, never seen him since, never seen anything of his black face but his pictures, never seen his face alive, any time at all, or anywheres, and didn't want to, need to, never hope to see that face and never will. As long as there was no question in my mind.
He had to be the one.44
Lodged at the end of the paragraph is a conditional phrase: "As long as there was no question." It almost raises the reader's hope that there might be a question, a wavering. But no: the narration drives straight from that slight faltering into that isolated sentence of brief and terrible finality. "He had to be the one." You can hear in this sentence both the authentic quality of a local speaker, "Gone to borry some fire" and standing just behind it, the shade of a much older narrator: the ancient betrayer bent on fulfilling what he sees as his personal destiny: he and his victim might be the only two left in all the world, so single-minded, so driven is he. Remember how, in the comedic case of "Sister," she is convinced she is acting out of her own volition, when in fact, it is her position in the family that moves her along? In the case of the "Where is the Voice Coming From?" we might say that a whole culture, a history, is the "family" driving this man to act; he cannot locate his identity without finding an enemy, an "other" to show him where he is.
Here, the colloquial voice that in earlier Welty stories served as the entrance into music and compassion, is shown in its most stark and devastating form: the language of the voice, as it spirals down, is borrowed from billboards and television advertisements, crippled by lack of education, class frustrations, a narrowed and narrowing life. "I done what I done for my own pure-D satisfaction,"45 he says-twice-depending on the language of advertisement to hold his identity together; in effect, it underwrites his act.
Yet even this voice, which terrifies with its certainties and its constant use of cliche and received ideas, is shot through with a strange slim vein of poetry-and near-moral knowledge. After he shoots his victim in the back-a man walking up his driveway to his waiting wife and children-the murderer says: "Something darker than him, like the wings of a bird, spread on his back and pulled him down. He climbed up once, like a man under bad claws, and like just blood could weigh a ton he walked with it on his back to better light. Didn't get no further than his door. And fell to stay."46
Such a passage, from the mouth of such a character, demonstrates Welty's courage and integrity as an artist: a match-flame of lost morality wavers through the dark distortions of our culture and language, in this worst of all possible moments. In these similes, "Like a man under bad claws" and "like just blood could weigh a ton he walked with it on his back to better light," we hear and see the tragic drama of a martyrdom, so much bigger than the perpetrator himself. The fact that it is being filtered through his mottled and marred speech is the remarkable, the daring thing: if we glimpse the faint flicker of an inner struggle, don't we then recognize him as connected to us, like us?
"And fell to stay." The bitten off phrase is not unlike Sister's "It's usually so quiet here;" it leaves a well of silence behind it. The sense-almost, but not quite-that beneath all denials and refusals, the speaker knows the truth trying so hard to emerge. In that silence, we have to hear it, don't we?
The range of Eudora Welty's voice cannot be overestimated. She can depart from the least likely point-a lands-end of down-and-dirty local gossip-and move out from there into waters unsuspected. You could say that her patient probing into the human condition is the daydreaming-and secretly rebelling-child "pinned up and listening." For she takes a rumor, a figure disregarded, ignored, or otherwise hidden, and imagines with all her senses and the concentration of her heart what it's like to be in that person's skin, whether it's a traveling performer or the maiden-lady next door, whose life seems, on the surface, perfectly unremarkable. There is, steadfastly, in all her voices, the sense of a storyteller behind it all, who not only represents a community, but talks back to it, argues with its conventions and seeks to enlarge it. Even if, as in the case of "Where is the Voice Coming From?" it means revealing the voice of hatred, a social isolation so deep it cannot be retrieved as it descends.
And yet, even into that least sacred place she brings her compassion. At the end of "Where is the Voice Coming From?" she gives her character-the murderer-a guitar.
So I reach me down my old guitar off the nail in the wall. 'Cause I've got my guitar, what I've held on to from way back when, and I never dropped that, never lost or forgot it, never hocked it but to get it again, never give it away, and I set in my chair, with nobody home but me, and I start to play, and sing a-Down. And sing a-down, down, down, down. Sing a-down, down down, down. Down.47
She lets him sing, and we picture the lightless place beneath his town, Thermopylae-a place surely underlain with hot springs, and all that hot springs imply-where, as he says, "the temperature stuck where it was...a good 92."48 And because she has given him that guitar, we understand that long ago, there was music in him too. Where did it go, Welty seems to ask. How far can I follow, to see where it went, and what part we all played in its going?
In her essay "On Place in Fiction," Welty writes,
Naturally it is the very breath of life, whether one writes a word of fiction or not, to go out and see what is to be seen of the world. For the artist to be unwilling to move, mentally or spiritually or physically, out of the familiar, is a sign that spiritual timidity or poverty or decay has come upon him; for what is familiar will then have turned into all that is tyrannical.49
She might have added-or we might consider-how she'd revise that famous adage, write what you know.
"That's the jumping-off place," she might have said, reminding us how much more is there, just waiting.
Marjorie Sandor is the author of three books, including the linked story collection Portrait of my Mother, Who Posed Nude in Wartime, 2004 winner of the National Jewish Book Award in Fiction, and an essay collection, The Night Gardener: A Search for Home. Her work has appeared in The Best American Short Stories, The Pushcart Prize, the Georgia Review, TriQuarterly, AGNI, and elsewhere. A new essay collection, The Late Interiors: A Life in Five Seasons, is forthcoming in 2011 from Skyhorse Publishing. She directs the MFA program in Creative Writing at Oregon State University in Corvallis, and is on the faculty of the Rainier Writing Workshop.
Welty, Eudora, One Writer's Beginnings, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984), p. 104.
- Munro, Alice, "Golden Apples," the Georgia Review, vol. LIII, Number 1, Spring 1999, (Athens: The University of Georgia, 1999), p. 23.
- Welty, Eudora, The Eye of the Story, (New York: Vintage International, 1990), p. 145.
- Welty, Eudora, One Writer's Beginnings, p 15.
- Ibid., p 10.
- Ibid., p.87.
- Welty, Eudora, The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty, (New York: Harvest Books/Harcourt Brace, 1980), p. 56.
- Ibid., p.46.
- Ibid., p.46.
- Ibid., p 53.
- Ibid., p. 81.
- Ibid., p.82.
- Ibid., p. 84.
- Ibid., p. 90.
- Ibid., p. 132.
- Ibid., p.133.
- Ibid., p.135.
- Ibid., p.136.
- Ibid., p. 137.
- Ibid., p. 139.
- Ibid. p. 140.
- Ibid., p. 141.
- The Eye of the Story, p. 111.
- Ibid., p. 113.
- Ibid., p. 111.
- The Collected Stories, p. 472.
- Ibid., p. 474.
- Ibid., p. 465.
- Ibid., p. 466.
- Ibid., p. 481.
- One Writer's Beginnings, pg. 39.
- Ibid., p. 38.
- Collected Stories, xi.
- Ibid., p. 603.
- Ibid., p. 604.
- Ibid., p. 607.
- Ibid., p.605.
- The Eye of the Story, p. 129.