Sex and the Southern Girl: Eudora Welty's Critical Legacy

By Johnston, Carol Ann | The Mississippi Quarterly, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview

Sex and the Southern Girl: Eudora Welty's Critical Legacy


Johnston, Carol Ann, The Mississippi Quarterly


LEGENDS ABOUT THE SOUTH REMAIN AS POWERFUL as the place itself. Whether or not a genteel Southern aristocracy has ever existed continues to be an issue for scholarly debate, yet the legend of such an antebellum South and of the South as a backward-looking region longing to rise up from the ashes of Sherman's pyrotechnics as an openly genteel, white supremacist nation looms powerfully in the minds of many readers and critics. These received images of the Old South, hanging around like a bad penny, present formidable obstacles for Southern writers who take the South as their subject. The new legend of the "sunbelt South" may have begun to chip away at these hegemonic myths, but for much of the twentieth century, Southern writers were allowed two topics: the myth of the Old South--"ladies'" stories detailing faded aristocracy, laced with extremely good manners--or the direct opposite of Southern gentility, manly stories about abject poverty and perverse depravation (see: William Faulkner). A writer working explicitly with neither topic, Eudora Welty finds her work more often than not caught awkwardly between these diametric subjects in critical discussions of her short fiction. In addition to its awkward relationship to historical myth, Welty also finds her work captive to a series of personal myths generated by her reticence about her private life, about a third of which she livied alone in her parents' house in Jackson, Mississippi. These personal myths, along with generic historical myths about the South, position Welty's work in peculiar zones: a zone of misapprehension because her stories do not conform to conventional historical subjects; and a zone of under-reading, because of misconstrued ideas about the narrowness and prudishness of Welty's personal vision.

In this essay, I consider several of Welty's stories apart from the standard historical and personal myths that have governed their reading. I find in these stories a writer offering up explicit discussions of sexuality, the kinds of sexual conversations that occur among women in the exclusive space of the beauty parlor, in "Petrified Man," the legacy of boys educated in sexuality by women in "At the Landing" and "June Recital," and a hopeful prophecy of how sexuality may be discussed and envisioned in "The Wanderers." Throughout these stories, Welty both records and interrogates cultural configurations of gender and sexuality.

Critics almost universally agree upon the technical brilliance of Welty's stories--they show her sharp ear for dialogue and gift for recognizing and capturing a dramatic scene, her profound uses of intertextuality. Yet, as the Georgia writer Alice Walker explains in a recent interview, the East Coast critical establishment is notorious for forcing writers into preconceived categories. Acknowledging the power of critics to build or destroy a literary reputation, Walker talks about the freedom she found in her work after moving from the East Coast:

   The east-coast critics are really afraid of the spirit.... I don't
   feel I've had a decent critic ever on the East Coast. There's also
   that feeling that they have the right to suggest what you should be
   doing. That's absurd.... People always want to keep you in a little
   box or they need to label you and fix you in time and location. (1)

Consistent with Walker's experience, many of Welty's critics in the popular press as well as in scholarly venues keep her in the "little box" of genteel antebellum Southern lady writer. Yet by neither interrogating nor allowing the subject of what women hear and observe into the canonical subjects that a Southern writer may address, critics can diminish Welty's literary achievement and can as well diminish what we can know about the South. In addition to the restricting power of Southern myth, the power of personal myth also can corrupt a clear reading of Welty's work. Though she has been vilified in some circles for doing so, Eudora Welty lived in her parents' house on Pinehurst Street in Jackson, Mississippi, for most of her life. …

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