Remembering Eudora Welty
Richard Bausch | October/November 2002
One evening not so long ago, I was present at a gathering in the Episcopal Church in Washington, DC. It was late October, and there was a crispness in the air, the trees lining the avenues were all blazing with color. Though the occasion was decidedly secular rather than religious, it was certainly spiritual: Miss Eudora Welty, then 86 years old, was going to read one of her stories.
Earlier, at the dinner which always precedes such events, she had told how a town librarian once approached her, wanting her to come speak. "What we'd like you to do," the librarian said, "is come tell us one of your stories in your own words." Miss Welty's eyes sparkled, relating this story, and there was no dismissal at all in her voice, no sense of the librarian as someone at whose expense the story was told. It was as if this were a tale of the kind of sweet innocence that a child might inspire, and even that isn't adequate as a depiction of the attitude: for Miss Welty was in fact delighted by it. One would almost say gladdened. There was something in her spirit that was always outward-aimed, and glad of human foible, and it is hard to express exactly how it shone forth: one simply knew it when one was in its presence.
At the Fellowship of Southern Writers Luncheon back in 1991, I plopped down next to her and stuck a fork into the chicken cordon-bleu that had been placed before me, and then realized that someone was saying a prayer for the gathering and that the whole audience, including people whom I knew quite well to be pagan, had heads bowed, hands folded. I couldn't get the fork out of the chicken, and so I sat back and put my head down, and waited. When the prayer was finished, Miss Eudora leaned over to me and murmured, "I believe it's already killed."
And now, years later, she was going to read her story "A Wide Net" to this large gathering, a packed church, people standing all along the walls and in back, and seated on the floor in the central aisle and across the front of the elevation that led to the altar behind her. There was a small table, with a book and a microphone on it, and one glass of water. She was so frail that she had to be helped across to the chair. She took her place, and the microphone was adjusted at the angle necessary to broadcast her thin, quiet voice, with the lilt of Mississippi in it, and its kindly tremor of humor and grace, and, well, goodness. Nothing less. She got comfortable in the chair, arranged herself, looked out at the throng, smiling, nodded slightly, waiting for the applause to die down. Then she opened the book, adjusted her glasses, looked down the page and waited a second, then began to read. The silence, as she spoke, and went on, was profound. No one coughed or cleared his throat; no one shifted weight or moved papers or fumbled with a purse-for that might have meant missing a word or phrase. The voice was so small, scarcely more than a murmur. When there were laughs—and she knew precisely where they all were, and took pleasure in them without making a show of it—she waited, patiently, until the silence returned, and then continued, in the same soft, warm tones, the voice of an intimate friend, telling you secrets you didn't know you knew.
Welty's charms are made accessible again, now, by the Modern Library with this wonderful book, filled with all her best virtues as a writer and as a person. Rich with her great wisdom not only about the art she practiced so well over the years, but about life, and the intelligent living of it. Any student of literature would do well to study On Writing, for here, in the words of a great practitioner of the art of fiction, are the matters of her craft, spelled out. But there is plenty here for anyone interested in how to live, too. For instance, here she is discussing place in fiction:
There may come to be new places in our lives that are second spiritual homes—closer to us in some ways, perhaps, than our original homes. But the home tie is the blood tie.
That applies to her subject, but it also contains wisdom of its own, separate from the esthetic she's describing, or extending from it.
So this book on craft is of general interest, it seems to me. And even so, I expect that young writers of fiction will be carrying it around with them in the years to come. They ought to be, anyway.
Miss Welty uses her own work and the work of artists she admires from her wide reading to talk about the forms of fiction, and the application of these matters to the life we lead: there is an essay on the writing of stories, and another on analyzing fiction; there's one about the uses of place in the novel, and there's another about words themselves in the construction of a fictive world. Each essay contains windows into the mind and soul of Eudora Welty the reader, as well as the writer. Here she is discussing Virginia Woolf, D. H. Lawrence, and Chekhov:
For Virginia Woolf the senses mattered extremely, as we know; toward sex she was a critic. But the beauty and innovation of her writing are both due to the fact, it seems to this reader, that the imprisonment of life in the word was with her a concern of the intellect as much as it was with the senses. She uses her senses intellectually, while Lawrence, if this is not too easy to say, uses his intellect sensually. While Chekhov patiently builds up character, Lawrence furiously breaks down character. Chekhov was exorcizing nothing, he simply showed it forth.
But as I have indicated, there is more than literary criticism here. Her essay "Must the Novelist Crusade?," written at the height of the civil rights crisis of the middle '60s, is fresh and burning with truth. In that essay, she confronts the evil of her time with toughness and compassion:
I believe there must be such a thing as sentimental hate. I think the worst of it is that we are getting stuck in it. We are like trapped flies with our feet not in honey but in venom. It's not love that is the gluey emotion; it's hate. As far as writing goes, which is as far as living goes, this is a devastating emotion. It could kill us.
But she also addresses the notion that it is the novelist's duty to be a crusader:
The zeal to reform, which quite properly inspires the editorial, has never done fiction much good. The exception occurs when it can rise to the intensity of satire, where it finds a better home in the poem or the drama. Large helpings of naïvete and self-esteem, which serve to refresh the crusader, only encumber the novelist. How unfair it is that when a novel is to be written, it is never enough to have our hearts in the right place! But good will all by itself can no more get a good novel written than it can paint in watercolor or sing Mozart.
The one thing most evident in all her criticism is good sense.
And that is what is so frequently lacking in the criticism of our day, the era that has been termed postmodern, and that I have elsewhere called post-sensical. It is an overly-politicized era, in which the novelist is often faced with an unspoken but very clear expectation that he indeed crusade; that one must be about the business of engineering better human beings, and correcting social ills, or redressing old social grievances. Fictive art is seen in terms of its political utility, its quotient of moral outrage. Everything is politics, the professors tell us, and the writer is morally bound to expose this or that injustice. And in keeping with this mentality, writers who have gone before us are lifted or devalued by how well they can withstand the heresy-hunting party line: for instance, Joseph Conrad was an imperialist, according to this feature of the critical climate, and Faulkner was a racist.
Well, this little book is all one needs to face into the prevailing silliness. And if I may borrow the sense of a phrase from her old friend and peer William Maxwell, Eudora Welty's heart is like a lovely cottage with all the windows and doors wide open. She reminds us, wonderfully, that "Beauty is not a means, not a way of furthering a thing in the world. It is a result; it belongs to ordering, to form, to aftereffect."
That October evening, while she read "A Wide Net" to all those people, my mind wandered just for an instant: I had the thought that this is what true civilization really is; not the cities or the monuments or the statecraft or even the politics: but this. This slip of a lady, with barely the physical power to get around on her own unaided, holding a thousand others in thrall, threaded together on the silence by the force and power of her art, her being, her imagining.