Eudora Welty: The Necessary Optimist

By Tolson, Jay | The Wilson Quarterly, Winter 1999 | Go to article overview

Eudora Welty: The Necessary Optimist


Tolson, Jay, The Wilson Quarterly


Eudora Welty's hard-earned comic vision makes her a rare and valuable presence in the American literary procession. Yet her standing as a modern classic should not divert us from the rewards of reading her closely.

Last year was in many ways the best and worst of years for Eudora Welty. Not only did more than the usual number of tributes come her way, all richly deserved for a career of astonishing literary achievement; more pointedly, proof of her achievement - five novels, four collections of short stories (and two previously uncollected stories), nine essays, and a memoir-was brought together in two handsome volumes in the Library of America series, an honor tantamount to canonization and so far accorded no other living American writer.

But the year also had its lows, not the least being the poor health that has kept the 87-year-old writer less "locally underfoot" in her native Jackson, Mississippi, than she ever imagined being. For someone who has derived so much inspiration from the lifeline of gossip, house-bound immobility resulting from advanced arthritis and osteoporosis has been a hard blow - almost as hard as the abandonment of writing gradually forced upon her by those same afflictions.

There were blows of a literary nature as well. Almost inexplicably, none of Welty's works appeared on a curiously assembled (but widely discussed) list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century drawn up last summer by the board of the Modern Library. Although the list was conspicuously short on women writers in general, the omission of Welty prompted at least a few howls of protest and even a defensive explanation from one of the panelists: Welty was more a short story writer than a novelist. That defense might have seemed plausible if such mediocre works as James Dickey's Deliverance and Carson McCullers's Heart is a Lonely Hunter hadn't edged out any one of at least three novels by Welty that can more legitimately lay claim to distinction: Delta Wedding (1946), Losing Battles (1970), and The Optimist's Daughter (1972).

Lit biz is not literature, of course, but even accounting for lit biz standards and the chromosomal bias of the mostly male panel, the slight seemed to hint at troubles ahead as far as Welty's literary reputation is concerned. A recent New Yorker article by Claudia Roth Pierpont suggests that Welty has already "entered the national pantheon as a kind of favorite literary aunt - a living exemplar of the best that a quaint and disappearing Southern society still has to offer." If this deftly condescending characterization is true, Welty is likely to be remembered as the endearing, widely loved spinster writer of Jackson, who, remaining in her mother's house, turned out a few remarkable stories, rich in regional dialect and freakish characters, but never attained her artistic majority. Pierpont even goes so far as to conclude that Welty ceased being an "intrepid explorer" and became "a perfect lady - a nearly Petrified Woman - with eyes averted and mouth set in a smile."

Yes, to be sure, there were those novels. But isn't there something a little daunting and unapproachable about them, something decidedly literary in an almost Jamesian sense? Such demurrals are increasingly common, even among some of Welty's admirers. And there we have it: on one hand, cuddly and clear, virtually a state monument, with libraries named after her and even a Mississippi state holiday declared in her honor in 1973; on the other hand, too difficult, too obscure, too literary. It would be hard to concoct a better recipe for oblivion.

This is an odd fate, to say the least, for a writer who was until recently a lively presence on the American literary scene. Though never "easy" and sometimes risking inclusion in that faintly damning category of "writer's writer," Welty, in her long creative run - roughly from the late 1930s through the early 1970s - acquired a sizable and devoted following. …

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