July 23, 2001, the literary world lost a treasure. Eudora Welty, a keen
observer of human nature and Southern idiom, died of pneumonia at the
age of 92. She had published five novels, 15 short story collections,
one book of childrens stories, four books of photography, one skit,
and two collections of interviews. She won the 1973 Pulitzer Prize for
fiction for The Optimists Daugher, a novel.
A private woman, Welty
was reluctant to reveal details of her personal life, especially as critics
and would-be biographers wanted to turn those incidents into Freudian
justifications for her work. And there have been speculations about Weltys
sexuality and her lack of it, her insistence on uplifting socio-economic
issues, her genteel Southern upbringing; there have been suspicions about
her use of the fairy tale as a literary vehicle. There have been conferences
(recently, too) that equate Weltys writing with feminist upheaval,
modernism, anti-modernism, the political experience of the South, and
even the symbolism and international implications of Weltys use
of Southern vegetation.
I say, "Hogwash!"
and I think Eudora Welty would agree. Welty was a Southerner by birth
alone and did not have an Old South heritage. Her father was a Yankee
from Ohio who sold insurance, and her mother was a schoolteacher from
West Virginia. They moved to Jackson, Mississippi, where Welty was born.
Though her mother may have had aspirations to become part of the exclusive,
genteel society of the Old South, there is no evidence that she actually
coffeekatched with pillars of the Jackson community. But Welty herself
lived long enough in Jackson to more than qualify as a Southern writer.
Welty also made distinctions
about writing and literary criticism, which she herself wrote. She insisted
that her work should tell everything that the reader needed to know. She
endured the implications that literary critics placed on her short stories
and novels, allowing them to find whatever they wanted in her work because
that was the privilege of the critic.
She, I think, wrote whatever
struck her fancy, and I dont believeGasp!that she had
a plan for each story. In interviews, Welty would not reveal her intentions
for a story. "It is not from criticism but from this world that stories
come in the beginning; their origins are living reference plain to the
writers eye, even though to his eye alone," she said in 1989s
Eye of the Writer.
This seems to indicate
that Welty started a story with a person, a particular place, or an idea
and then just let the story happen. Its been said that only amateur
writers talk of letting their characters take over and write the story.
That criticism has also been linked to classic writer Nathaniel Hawthorne,
for some critics say his Hester Pryne turned out such a strong protagonist
because her character got away from its creator.
Welty said of her first
story, "Death of a Traveling Salesman," that she let her main
character lead her. "In writing the story, I approached [the cabin]
and went inside with my traveling salesman, and had him
out what was there (One Writers Beginnings, 1987)."
That experience ended up as the heart of the story and as a main theme
that resonated throughout her writing career. Her writing related a fascination
with human relationships.
It is not such a far
leap to say that writers like Welty who explored free writing are the
godparents of meditative writing that has become popular recently as a
strategy for overcoming writers block. Such a strategy is espoused
by Gabriele Rico, author of Writing the Natural Way. Rico suggests
that writers write anything, even nonsense, for a specified time first
thing in the morning. This unlocks the creative flow. Within that experience,
there will be a nugget, which can be expanded upon throughout the writers
Regardless, Welty wrote
easily and naturally about people. The use of dialogue that captures the
character and flavor of a time and place is the cornerstone of her work.
Stories such as "The Petrified Man," and "Why I Live at
the P.O." offer insular, small town perspectives that drip with acid
descriptions balanced by a black humor that only an astute observer of
human nature could produce. Welty obviously listened carefully to people,
especially what women say to and about each other. This may have been
a trait that she developed living in a small town or through her years
working as a reporter and a publicist for the Works Progress Administration
(WPA) in the 1930s. Her extensive interviews with plain folk who told
their stories with Southernisms and quirky turns of phrase intact surely
helped shape the dialogue of Weltys stories.
Though she depicted the
lives of outrageous people or everyday people in outrageous situations,
Welty always insisted that her work was not political, that no story had
a political or socio-economic issue as its message. She created each story
to stand in relation to the conditions that were the characters
reality. If the nightmare of poverty is to be faced, it is the circumstance
in which the characters move and breathe. It is not part of a larger crusade
to right a wrong or uplift a cause.
I have some relations
who were bigger than life and who did some outrageous things, things that
the world at large would find shocking. But these family stories are gut-bustingly
funny and tell a lot about how those relatives got through the life they
had to endure. Weltys characters are like that. They cope within
a social culture many wouldnt understand or, at least, would hide
from public view.
are real. Townspeople gossip about anything new that comes to town and
about the secret affairs they just know are happening right under their
noses ("The Petrified Man"). Families drift apart, brothers
dont talk to each other, or sisters move out of the family home
because of jealousy or spite ("Why I Live at the P.O."). And
matriarchs call their families together to celebrate birthdays just to
watch them fight. This is life; it was Weltys world.
Readers came to know
these characters as they would the neighbors down the street. We laughed
with them and even shed a tear or two. Through them, we learned about
mortality and storytelling. We also were drawn closer to the storyteller.
Welty inspired. I remember
attending a writers conference over twenty years ago. Eudora Welty
was there, as well as Tillie Olson, who had just won the Pulitzer for
Tell Me a Riddle. Olson held court at an autograph session, surrounded
by a group of young sorority women. She told them not to write, that it
wasnt a profession in which they should be interested. Yet, there
was a sense of elevation or ego around her that said that only through
suffering or some other circumstance could someone get a book in print.
(Granted, it took Olson twenty years to write her famous novel, hiding
her aspirations from an abusive mate and taking out her typewriter only
late at night when her husband was asleep.)
I got my copy of Tell
Me a Riddle autographed and went over to Eudora Welty, who was standing
alone in a corner. I had adored her reading of "The Petrified Man."
Though it is a tale with a dark streak, I laughed all the way through
it. I offered my book to Welty and made a comment about the reading. Then
I said something about the crowd around Tillie Olson. Welty looked up
and quietly said, "Well, she only wrote one book!"
I almost choked! As a
result of that day, Eudora Welty became my inspiration. She had been a
newspaperwoman and had a clean style that sometimes read more like a script
than a story. In the pre-computer days, she literally cut and pasted her
work. I took that to heart until I owned my own computer. And her characters,
though from a different part of the South, resembled some of my own relations.
Welty inspired many others,
and not all of them writers. Some she might have even been willing to
add to her family of characters. One such person is Steve Dormer, who
created a computer mail program in 1990 at the University of Illinois-Urbana
for the National Center for Supercomputing Applications. It took him a
year to write 50,000 lines of code. When it came to naming the program,
Dormer thought of Weltys story, "Why I Live at the P.O."
which he had read in college. Instead of living at the post office, he
was bringing the post office to where people lived. He named the program
Nanci Griffith claims Welty as an influence. Singer Mary Chapin Carpenter
also was inspired by Welty. Carpenter wrote the childrens book,
Halley Came to Jackson, after reading Weltys autobiography,
One Writers Beginning.
And it can be speculated
that the grand lady herself also influenced Bailey White. White, a writer
from Georgia whose readings have been featured on National Public Radio,
is able to capture not only the Southern cadence but also the quirky humanness
that Welty wrote so well.
Adieu, Eudora Welty.
Youll be missed, but well be pondering and laughing with your
legacy of characters for a long time.
a BA in anthropology and has worked as a freelance writer and/or editor
for publications including High Plains Reader, Grand Forks Herald,
and Red River Valley Magazine. For the past eight years, she has
been employed as the owner of J. Freeman Franz Writing Services, thus
garnering extensive experience in ghost writing, manuscript preparation,