Academic journal article Southern Quarterly

"Serious Daring" in Eudora Welty's "Powerhouse" and "Where Is the Voice Coming From?"

Academic journal article Southern Quarterly

"Serious Daring" in Eudora Welty's "Powerhouse" and "Where Is the Voice Coming From?"

Article excerpt

Eudora Welty concludes One Writer s Beginnings with the comment, "As you have seen, 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" (114). The juxtaposition of sheltered and daring reflects the dissonance between Welty the person, who often came across in interviews as a demur Southern lady, and Welty the author, who dared to write "serious" fiction. This split is reflected in the divide between the critics who protest that Welty failed to address concerns of gender and race in her fiction and those critics who see her as deeply engaged in the issues of her time period. Perhaps further complicating the question of how to read her engagement is Welty's "Must the Novelist Crusade?" where she distinguishes between writing for a social or political cause and writing fiction, which for her "abounds in what makes for confusion" but gives no "clear answer" (806).

What would her "daring" look like in fiction? Welty claimed she needed daring to write only two of her stories, "Where is the Voice Coming From?" and "Powerhouse." On the surface her claim seems puzzling, as scholars have argued that Welty's other fiction is risky in any number of ways: the overturning of gender roles, the use of rape imagery, the love of camp, or the just plain wild (Mark, McWhirter, Nissen). Out of all of her works, these are also the only two pieces she describes as coming to her spontaneously. She claims to have written both of them overnight, "Powerhouse" immediately after seeing Fats Waller perform and "Where is the Voice Coming From?" in her "emotional" response to Medgar Evers' death (Conversations 266). Writing quickly was the only way, she says, she could have written these two stories; if she had thought about the Evers story more she would have "lost [her] daring, picked the story up with tongs or something" (Conversations 265). Welty pinpoints the difficulty as subject matter outside of her comfort zone:

I tried to write my idea of the life of the traveling artist and performer-not Fats Waller himself, but any artist-in the alien world, and tried to put it in the words and plot suggested by the music I'd been listening to. It was a daring attempt for a writer like me-as daring as it was to write about the murderer of Medgar Evers on that night-and I'm not qualified to write about music or performers." (Conversations 85)

Despite her caveats about her qualifications, these two stories tackle the dangerous subjects of jazz and murder directly and do not shy away from the complex racial context surrounding the African American musician or the white supremacist murderer. The performance in "Powerhouse" is a fictional rendition of the Fats Waller concert Welty heard on May 8,1940 at Jackson's Municipal Auditorium (Marrs, "Eudora" 5). The story takes on the subject of the travelling artist, his unappreciative white audience, the subversive nature of jazz, the risqué subject matter of blues, and the larger economics of the music industry, where white artists profited from black music. The fictional account thus speaks directly to the historical situation of African American artists such as Fats Waller. In "Where is the Voice Coming From?" Welty writes about an event that happened in Jackson on June 12,1963. Medgar Evers, a field secretary for the NAACP, was murdered getting out of his car in his driveway. Welty explains that she wrote the story before anyone knew who the murderer was and immediately sent it to the New Yorker (Conversations 83). Her fictional account came so close to the real story of Byron De La Beckwith's murder of Medgar Evers that Welty had to change details of the story before it was published (Conversations 100). In writing about the real figures of Fats Waller and Medgar Evers, Welty's fiction only thinly veils the realities of racism, exploitation, hatred, and violence, and comes quite close to breaking her own rule about not crusading. …

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