The Critical Response to Eudora Welty's Fiction

By Laurie Champion | Go to book overview

Eudora Welty and the Use of Place in Southern Fiction

Elmo Howell

In an essay published in the South Atlantic Quarterly in 1956, Eudora Welty declared that place in fiction is just as important as character and plot. This statement, a few generations ago, would have been meaningless, since no novelist would have thought of telling a story without reference to location. But with the general uprooting of life in the village and on the farm and with a growing subjectivity in art where characters in fiction are more likely to talk than act, Miss Welty's statement comes as a wholesome reminder of an elemental fact. Southern writers, however, have never been deficient in this respect, even the most modern ones. If anything, they have suffered from too much place. The peculiar history of the South has made the Southerner place-conscious -- he may like it or dislike it, but he can seldom leave it alone -- so that with him place becomes almost an extra dimension and sometimes to the disadvantage of his art. The great writers have taken it for granted, or almost done so, like Mark Twain and William Faulkner and at best, I think, Miss Welty.

Like many of her generation, Eudora Welty learned from Faulkner the advantage of hanging on to what is near and familiar. She is more deliberate than Faulkner in her use of the regionally distinct and perhaps lays a greater burden on the reader from the outside; but with her devotion to the small and inconsequential in daily life, she is in some respects even closer to the heartbeat of her region, in a sense, his feminine counterpart. Faulkner is concerned with men and ideas and the course of history; she is most at home in a domestic situation where people talk about seemingly unimportant things, while at the same time revealing a whole pattern of life. As soon as man stopped wandering around and stood still in a particular place, she says,

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