The Political Thought of Eudora Welty
Prenshaw, Peggy Whitman, The Mississippi Quarterly
THROUGHOUT THE NEARLY SIXTY YEARS OF EUDORA WELTY'S LITERARY CAREER it has been commonplace for reviewers and critics to think and write of her fiction as apolitical or non-political. Diana Trilling's reviews of The Wide Net (1943) and Delta Wedding (1946) spoke of a fictional vision that was like a ballet--stylized, elegant, too often precious and lacking in a realistic engagement with the South as it existed in a social, political manifestation. "Cloud Cuckoo Land" was the description the reviewer for Time magazine gave Welty's portrait of a 1923 Mississippi Delta, the nod to Aristophanes serving to indict what the reviewer regarded as the novel's political naivete. A generation later, in his 1980 study of the Southern Renaissance, Richard King made a now nearly famous assertion, often rebutted in the intervening years, that Welty, along with other Southern women writers, excepting Lillian Smith, was "not concerned with the larger cultural, racial, and political themes" that he was focusing upon. According to King, Welty and the others "did not place the region at the center of their imaginative visions." (1)
There have been rumors, too, for many years of repeated Nobel prize nominations that have met resistance because of judges' perception of a lack of political "consciousness" in Welty. And Welty herself has, of course, somewhat exacerbated her reputation for apoliticality by such pieces as "Must the Novelist Crusade?" Published in the Atlantic in October 1965, the essay pointedly differentiates the arena of the novelist from that of the social or political crusader. "The writing of a novel is taking life as it already exists," Welty writes, "not to report it but to make an object, toward the end that the finished work might contain this life inside it, and offer it to the reader.... What distinguishes it above all from the raw material, and what distinguishes it from journalism, is that inherent in the novel is the possibility of a shared act of the imagination between its writer and its reader." (2) For Welty, a crusading novelist is damned from the start by the deadening effects for fiction of totalizing generalities. The generalities, the pronouncements the crusader is trying to drive home, "make too much noise," as Welty personifies them, "for us to hear what people might be trying to say." By contrast, she says, "there is absolutely everything in great fiction but a clear answer" (pp. 148, 149).
In interviews she has frequently dismissed efforts by social activists to engage her in causes. Jonathan Yardley reported in 1973 that "as a Southerner and a woman," Welty was "constantly pressed for her opinions on race and Women's Liberation." She told Yardley, "I've never had any prejudice shown to me, so I have no bone to pick. I do think women should be paid as much as men, which I don't suppose anyone would disagree with. I don't see why, just because I write stories, that should give me the authority about, say, what should happen about abortion. Maybe I'm shirking responsibility, but I don't think so. Everything I feel is in my stories." (3)
Without engaging here the question of Welty's construction of "prejudice," I should like to inquire into her assumptions about what constitutes political space and political action and how these assumptions are related to the South in which she grew up and began seriously to write about in the 1930s.
The space in which Welty places what one might call acts of political behavior listening, talking, debating, evaluating argument, articulating ideas about the society's good--that is, a free political arena, is infrequently to be found in Welty's fiction in town halls, state capitols, political campaigns, or union halls. Nonetheless, the fiction displays a persistent regard for political negotiations but displaces them from political sites to what we might traditionally call the private sphere, private, perhaps, because these sites are so often the domain of women. …