Academic journal article The Mississippi Quarterly

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman: Eudora Welty's "A Memory" and the Modern Literary Epiphany

Academic journal article The Mississippi Quarterly

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman: Eudora Welty's "A Memory" and the Modern Literary Epiphany

Article excerpt

PERHAPS BECAUSE EUDORA WELTY'S SHORT STORY "A MEMORY" WAS initially published in the Southern Review in 1937, three years prior to the beginning of her professional relationship with her agent Diarmuid Russell, critics have treated this faintly autobiographical piece as a kind of outlier. Indeed, Michael Kreyling does not address the story in Author and Agent since it was composed before Russell agreed to represent Welty in 1940. Diana Pingatore notes that critics have struggled to "detect any strong source of literary influence in the story either," choosing instead to examine the story's markers of Welty's childhood in Jackson (Pingatore 93). Critics agree, however, on the notion that "A Memory," which chronicles a daydreaming adolescent girl's struggle to reconstruct her memory of first love on a noisy beach, depicts the development of an artist--maybe even, as Katherine Anne Porter suggests, the artistic gestation of Welty herself.

In her introduction to the 1941 edition of A Curtain of Green, Porter designates "A Memory" as "one of the best stories," singling out the young protagonist's technique of peering through "small frames with [her] fingers" as "the gesture of one born to select, to arrange, to bring apparently disparate elements into harmony within deliberately fixed boundaries" (Porter 16; "A Memory" 92). The young protagonist of "A Memory" refers to herself as an amateur painter, not as a writer, but her "small frames" nevertheless function more as a method of observing "a person, or a happening" as opposed to tableaus for paintings (92). She describes the act of seeing as a means of reaching a "state of exaltation," wherein each observation might stir up "a secret of life":

   All through this summer I had lain on the sand beside the small
   lake, with my hands squared over my eyes, finger tips touching,
   looking out by this device to see everything: which appeared as a
   kind of projection. It did not matter to me what I
   looked at; from any observation I would conclude that a secret of
   life had been nearly revealed to me--for I was obsessed with
   notions about concealment, and from the smallest gesture of a
   stranger I would wrest what was to me a communication or a
   presentiment. (92-93)

The young girl's sensitivity to "a communication or a presentiment" through "the smallest gesture," read alongside Welty's lakeside setting, not only evokes a contemplative mode, but it is also reminiscent of the iconic Joycean epiphany exemplified in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. When Stephen Dedalus experiences his epiphanic vision of the young girl bathing on the strand, he recalls "a new wild life singing in his veins" as he muses about his own artistic calling (Portrait 170). The artist, James Joyce suggests in an earlier version of Portrait, understands epiphany as "a sudden spiritual manifestation, whether in the vulgarity of speech or of gesture or in a memorable phase of the mind itself" (Stephen Hero 211). In light of Joyce's definition, Welty's protagonist's desire to "wrest" a "secret of life" from the "smallest gesture of a stranger" certainly strikes an epiphanic tone, perhaps to the extent that this trope is valuable for detecting a potential literary influence for this early story.

Retrospectively, the relationship between these two moments is reflected powerfully in the imagination of literary modernism and its concern for the Romantic epiphany. But the relationship between these moments in Portrait and "A Memory" is more complex than shades of allusion: here I argue that Welty's story would appear to revise this modernist myth to suit a view of artistic revelation that not only criticizes the subjectivity of the burgeoning artist, but also questions the idealized art object, replacing what Suzette Henke calls the beautiful "bird-girl" of Stephen Dedalus's epiphany (66) with the vulgar, unruly bathers at Welty's lakeside. Furthermore, a reading of these two moments suggests new queries about Welty's position within literary modernism. …

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