West Virginia Touches in Eudora Welty's Fiction
Tedford, Barbara Wilkie, The Southern Literary Journal
Eudora's Welty's native state of Mississippi provides the setting for most of her fiction, but it is evident that her mother's home state of West Virginia made a significant impression upon her, too. References to West Virginia occur in The Optimist's Daughter (1972) and perhaps in her other fiction as well. It is apparent that Welty has drawn from her memories of trips to visit relatives and from stories her mother, Chestina Andrews Welty, must have told her about life in the mountains of Clay County, West Virginia. She writes in One Writer's Beginnings (1984), "I think when my mother came to Jackson [Mississippi] she brought West Virginia with her. Of course, I brought some of it with me too" (55).
The extent of the influence of Welty's family upon her life has been thoroughly told in One Writer's Beginnings. She confirms what her readers have suspected, that she listened carefully as a child to what her family and other adults around her were saying. Her mother's family's penchant for anecdotes and tall stories must have contributed a great deal to the development of Welty's comic genius. Much of the humor of the storytelling in The Ponder Heart (1954) and Losing Battles (1970), as well as in The Optimist's Daughter, lies in an angle of vision related to the position of the family in small rural towns. Family pride causes her characters to relish anecdotes that depend for their comic effect on recognition of class distinctions.
Welty's memories of her mother's West Virginia upbringing form an important thread in The Optimist's Daughter, as the character Laurel, surviving her parents in the 1960's, remembers what her mother, Becky Thurston McKelva, has told her about life "up home." Like Welty's own mother, Becky was a school teacher before her marriage and move to Mississippi. In the novel Becky used to ride horseback to school at Beechy Creek seven miles over Nine Mile Mountain at the turn of the century. In One Writer's Beginnings, Welty describes how her own mother rode a horse part way to the one-room school where she taught before her marriage in 1904: "She left home every day on her horse; since she had the river to cross, a little brother rode on her horse behind her, to ride him home, while she rowed across the river in a boat. And he would be there to meet her with her horse again at evening. All this way, to pass the time, she told me, she recited the poems in McGuffey's Readers out loud" (52). (There is a Beechy Creek in Clay County, too, although this may nor have been where Chestina Andrews taught.)
Laurel is named after West Virginia's state flower, the big laurel, or rhododendron. A map of Clay County also shows a Big Laurel Creek, a Laurel Fork, and a Laurel Run--all common Appalachian place names, of course. The county is filled with mountains, and Welty states that her grandfather had built his house "to stand on the very top of the highest mountain he could find" (One Writer's Beginnings 47). (Clay County deed books reveal that E.R. Andrews bought property in that county in 1884, 1887, 1889, and 1890. He bought a 100-acre tract plus ten acres in 1890.) Laurel's grandfather, like Welty's own Grandfather Ed Andrews (she calls him "Ned"), was a lawyer who lived on a mountain "five times as high as the courthouse roof, straight up behind it, and the river went rushing in front of it like a road. It was its only road" (The Optimist's Daughter 138). This is the Elk River, running through the narrow valley over Queen's Shoals, mentioned in the novel, although Welty has moved these shoals a little upstream for her purposes. They sound, she says, "like a roomful of mesmerized school-children reciting to their teacher" (The Optimist's Daughter 137).
There were no bridges across the Elk River before the 1920's, when Welty's mother was bringing her little girl to West Virginia to visit the relatives in the summers. Arriving by railroad at what was probably Dundon, they would ring the bell to summon the ferry, a johnboat, to take them across the river. …