Locating the Sacred and Secular: Organized Religion and the "Holiness of Life" in Eudora Welty's Novels

By Pruitt, Nicholas T. | Southern Quarterly, Winter 2015 | Go to article overview

Locating the Sacred and Secular: Organized Religion and the "Holiness of Life" in Eudora Welty's Novels


Pruitt, Nicholas T., Southern Quarterly


Often Southern religion has articulated a strong dichotomy between the sacred and secular. In its Doctrines and Discipline printed in 1922, the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, makes this clear in its attempt "to warn against the insidious influence of worldliness, which is one of the most subtle and relentless foes of spirituality" (415). Regularly, however, the church reflects the society around it, and thus, the dividing line between the holy and profane remains unclear. In her novels Eudora Welty continues to blur this relationship. In her memoir Welty confesses, "I painlessly came to realize that the reverence I felt for the holiness of life is not ever likely to be entirely at home in organized religion" (One Writer's Beginnings 877). While her novels often trivialize organized religion in Southern society, her stories still give deference to personal spirituality and religious practice and stress the sacredness of human experience. Along the way Welty also attunes the reader to cultural and religious variances within different regions of Mississippi. This essay will assess the presence of organized religion in Delta Wedding, Losing Battles, and The Optimist's Daughter. In these novels, Welty identifies stereotypical representatives of the local denominations and subtly provides alternatives that reflect the "holiness of life" in contrast to the staid institutional religion found in the various settings of her novels, thus inverting the sacred and secular.1

Literary critics have examined Welty's writing from multiple angles, but have only episodically addressed the place of religion. Peggy Whitman Prenshaw in her essay "Eudora Welty's Language of the Spirit" considers mystical experience in Welty's short stories and also suggests the social gospel mindset of Southern Methodist women may have helped shape Welty's social conscience (13-22). Stephanie Nicole Johnson likewise focuses on Welty's short stories and considers the themes of humor and redemption (24-42). Of the three novels this essay considers, Losing Battles has had the best track record when it comes to religious analysis. This novel contains an abundance of religious references, and literary scholars have duly taken note. Karl-Heinz Westarp argues that Losing Battles speaks to an overarching spiritual plot involving sin and forgiveness and reflects a journey similar to that in Pilgrim's Progress (56-66). Bridget Smith Pieschel considers the elements of the biblical parable of the Good Samaritan (67-83), and Ruth M. Vande Kieft briefly touches on denominational rivalries, biblical references and similes, hymns, and piety (154-56,162-63). Finally, Jan Nordby Gretlund in his book Eudora Welty s Aesthetics of Place notes Welty's "caustic satire" toward denominationalism and Welty's heavy condemnation of the hypocrisy found within organized religion in all three novels (145-47,331-32), and he concludes that Welty's fiction "does not offer religious hope" (332). While literary critics have taken note of religion, especially in Losing Battles, all three novels together speak in great measure on organized religion in Southern culture and the substitutes that Welty provides.

Most descriptions of the South take it for granted that Baptist and Methodist churchgoers inundate the region and that organized religion is a mainstay of Southern society. The early twentieth century marked a time when denominations, particularly Southern Baptists, expanded their influence and increased their numbers through denominational structures. According to historian Edward Nelson Akin, the early twentieth century witnessed the "maturation of Protestantism" in Mississippi. This rise in organized religion, however, did not fully supplant the folk practices and aversion to denominational centralization of earlier Baptist and Methodist churches already well-established in rural Mississippi (Akin 184, 191-96; Peacock 65-69; Hill 143-44; Harvey 249-71). Despite a strong evangelical composition, Mississippi churches were never uniform. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Note: primary sources have slightly different requirements for citation. Please see these guidelines for more information.

Cited article

Locating the Sacred and Secular: Organized Religion and the "Holiness of Life" in Eudora Welty's Novels
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen
Items saved from this article
  • Highlights & Notes
  • Citations
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Search by... Author
    Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.