Editor's Introduction

By Chambers, Douglas B. | Southern Quarterly, Winter 2010 | Go to article overview
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Editor's Introduction


Chambers, Douglas B., Southern Quarterly


In 1 998, the Library of America honored Eudora Welty, then increasingly frail as she neared ninety, as the first living writer to be included in the Library's classic series, in two hefty volumes. In a review of the books in the New Yorker, Claudia Roth Pierpont wrote that, with their inclusion in the series, Welty had "entered the national pantheon as a kind of favorite literary aunt - a living exemplar of the best that a quaint and disappearing Southern society still has to offer." She was, in short, "a perfect lady," of the southern sort.1

This rather condescending image of "Miss Eudora," as a genteel spinster aunt living a quietly literary if not quite reclusive life in the same house, in the same neighborhood, in the same smallish southern city of Jackson, Mississippi, for the balance of her long life still resonates a decade after her death. With her home now restored and open to the public as a museum, and its inclusion in the newly established tri-state Southern Literary Trail, which was inaugurated in the year of Welty's centennial (2009), it is tempting to capitalize on this popular conception of Welty as the South's "favorite literary aunt."2

In reality, of course, Eudora Welty (1909-2001), was much more interesting, and far more complicated, than that. With the publication of Suzanne Marrs's remarkable and vivid biography (2005), and the whole host of public conferences that marked the centennial of Welty's birth in the past year, including the Natchez Literary and Cinema Celebration (from which this special issue is derived), and the outpouring of Welty scholarship they engendered, we see instead an adventuresome, generous, spirited woman fully engaged in a long and varied writerly life.3 It is this life, with her rich personal history of encouraging others, that we seek to celebrate in this special issue dedicated to the Eudora Welty centenary.

One gains the sense that Eudora Welty was particularly loyal to those she chose to befriend, and that that loyalty was repaid in spades. She was not merely "nice"; neither simply "proper" nor just "genteel." In fact a number of her longest friendships required at least a little personal courage, or perhaps forbearance, one may presume, most notably with a number of gay men (who were necessarily closeted) such as her unrequited first love John F. Robinson (1919-1989), Hubert Creekmore (1 907- 1 966), and the writer Reynolds Price (b. 1 933) whom she befriended in the mid-1950s. And even in this regard, Welty was no saint, at times reflecting in general, abstract terms the anti-gay prejudices of her time; though she apparently was no sinner, either.4

I do think it noteworthy that Welty hit her stride as a writer, from 1941 to 1955, at a time when an earlier generation of controversially feminist icons such as Gertrude Stein (1874-1946) and Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950), were passing from the scene. They were not southern of course, and Stein lived outside the U.S. for the balance of her life; and they were both self-consciously radical. At the same time, one can only wonder what Welty would have thought of the harrowing experiences of her new friend Katherine Anne Porter (1890-1980), also of that generation, whose tumultuous personal history included being unhappily married four times by 1941, when that summer they roomed in the same farmhouse at Yaddo.5 But, the following dozen plus years would be Welty's halcyon years, when she published four collections of short stories,6 and three novels,7 and traveled widely including to Europe in 1949-1950 on a Guggenheim Fellowship, and in the summer and fall of 1954 throughout Britain (visiting London, lecturing at Cambridge, sightseeing in Scotland, Wales, and Ireland). And of course, Welty regularly visited New York City.8 Rather than having to escape Mississippi, as her contemporary Elizabeth Spencer (b.1921) clearly felt she had to do in order to forge her own "writerly self,"9 one may see Welty's settling back in to a writerly life in Jackson from 1 955 as not so unlike the experience of another of Welty 's Mississippi contemporaries, Ellen Douglas (b.

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