A Universal Region: The Fiction of Eudora Welty

By Allen, Brooke | New Criterion, October 1999 | Go to article overview

A Universal Region: The Fiction of Eudora Welty


Allen, Brooke, New Criterion


"As you have seen," wrote Eudora Welty in the final paragraph of her memoir, One Writer's Beginnings 0984), "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." Her choice of the word "daring" is an interesting one, for on looking back at her long career it is daring, above all, that turns out to have been the outstanding trait of this quiet Mississippi lady whose extra-literary life has been, in the normal sense of the word, neither daring nor adventurous. Born in 1909 in Jackson, Mississippi, the much-loved eldest child of an affectionate, cultivated, middle-class family, she has, except for a few years at the University of Wisconsin and at the Columbia University Business School in New York, lived in Mississippi all her life. Today, at the age of ninety, she still resides in the family home built by her father in the 1920s.(1)

But in the practice of her art, Welty has been as stylistically daring as any American of this century. Possibly more so, for even the great innovators like Hemingway and Faulkner, once they found "their" voices, refined and developed them rather than sailing off again into entirely uncharted territory as Welty did. Having perfected an entirely individual type of verbal farce with her early stories "Petrified Man" and "Why I Live at the P.O." (still her best-known and most frequently anthologized work, if not her best), she was simultaneously producing tales in a manner that can loosely be called Southern Gothic. As she matured she turned away from both genres in favor of a complex, layered style that allowed her to synthesize her many gifts.

Not all of her attempts, of course, have been successful; indeed they have included a few really spectacular failures. Some of the early experiments in the Gothic mode, such as "Asphodel" "The Purple Hat," and "Clytie," are downright bad, relying as they do on a puerile faith in the power of the grotesque qua grotesque. Many of these and the other early stories that make up the volumes A Curtain of Green (1941) and The Wide Net (1943), while they remain popular and critically respected, do not have the sustained mastery of the particular that marks Welty's best work; their narratives tend to buzz around the story's essence impotently, unable to capture it and making do instead with mere hyperbole, here as always a makeshift and inadequate tool.

But for all the flops and near misses in these volumes, there are at least an equal number of quite brilliant pieces and even a few that can confidently be called great. "Petrified Man," a series of conversations in a Southern beauty parlor over the course of several days, contains dialogue that is, to use a degraded word literally, inimitable. Take the following exchange between Leota, the beautician, and her regular customer Mrs. Fletcher about Leota's new boarder, Mrs. Pike:

   She flicked an ash into the basket of dirty towels. "Mrs. Pike is a very
   decided blonde. She bought me the peanuts."

   "She must be cute," said Mrs. Fletcher.

   "Honey, `cute' ain't the word for what she is. I'm tellin' you, Mrs. Pike
   is attractive. She has her a good time. She's got a sharp eye out, Mrs.
   Pike has"

How much we know about the awful Mrs. Pike after just these few words! How much we can deduce about her meager and inadequate soul! "Petrified Man" shows a perfectly pitched comic sense, and a surprising confidence and command of the language for so young a writer.

If "Petrified Man" shows one side of Welty's talent, the sombre and poetic "Livvie" shows another. Livvie, a young black woman, has been married to old Solomon since she was sixteen, imprisoned in his isolated cabin while he slowly lapses into feeble senility. The story shows the moment of her liberation and awakening as a strange young man appears and gives her love, life, the world. Here is a moment in the development of what were to become, over the course of Welty's career, really extraordinary descriptive gifts:

   Her hand took the lipstick, and in an instant she was carried away in the
   air through the spring, and looking down with a half-drowsy smile from a
   purple cloud she saw from above a chinaberry tree, dark and smooth and
   neatly leaved, neat as a guinea hen in the dooryard, and there was her home
   that she had left. … 

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