Born in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1909, the daughter of two ‘outsider’ parents, an Ohian and a Virginian, Eudora Welty has made a life’s work of belonging. She wandered only briefly, to the University of Wisconsin and then to Columbia, NY, an episode which left no trace in her writing. Soon she was back with her mother in Jackson, where she lives to this day, setting almost all her work within a hundred-mile radius of her home.
The memoir One Writer’s Beginnings, which in 1983 spent months on the New York Times best-seller list, makes clear Welty’s rootedness in a blissful childhood, and the importance to her of what is intimately known. Warm, affirmative, gently humorous, the book does more than finger some of the connections between everyday experience and literary truth. Miss Welty comes across as a prophet from the vanished realm of unembarrassed love and unfractured personality. She is an almost mystical witness to pre-ideological family values. The only fissures are time and death. She deals with the loss of the past, by adjusting through a small and exquisite opus to the downward slide of the whole world; it’s this that makes of her a more divided and indeed interesting writer than Paul Binding’s new study, in its pursuit of a resolving wholeness, will allow. For she is the Optimist’s Daughter whose father died tragically in the prime of life, of leukaemia – ‘a disease that even he had never heard of’.
Dynasty, civility, quality, feeling: the things Eudora Welty both exemplifies and mourns are what the American South has been mourning ever since the first slave got above himself. In the continental psyche, the South is not only a sort of decadent Europe, historically crushed by the forces of progress; it lives on symbolically as a snake-infested Eden. The blues of this complex, cruel and sensuous culture is a constant undertone in the fanfare of America’s self-foundation outside history. And its fall, as replayed in the literature, is endlessly contemporary, from the menace of Injun Joe to the march of Margaret Mitchell’s carpet-baggers, from Faulkner’s tentacular Snopeses to Flannery O’Connor’s blackhearted preachers. Welty documents the fall (her loss) in a very Protestant way, as something immutable. Degradation and its agents – often heralds of the New South – are to be portrayed, pitied, parsimoniously redeemed, but never fought. Revelation, in her stories, is always of something that is already there, and virtue is acceptance.
True to her distaste for any endeavour that smacks of artifice, Welty was self-made, something which delighted Katherine Anne Porter. ‘She has never studied the writing craft in any college. She has never belonged to a literary group ... Nothing else that I know about her could be more satisfactory to me than this.’ Despite Welty’s prompt adoption by Robert Penn Warren and the Southern Review crowd, the figure who emerges from Portor’s 1941 text is Austenish, ‘a quiet, tranquil-looking, modest girl’ who sits in a corner listening. Many years, honours, fellowships and prizes later, Paul Binding meets what is now the grande dame of Southern letters and finds her unspoilt. This only fuels the young Englishman’s awe. He foresees that she will not so much change his life (this would be un-Weltian) as offer a much-needed repose, the ‘deep certainties’ of recognition. After months of tramping the swamps and malls of Southern literature, her old-world refinement and simplicity, her very bookshelves, are like a homecoming.
Binding’s loving and highly attentive insights include good passages on the relationship between photography and epiphany. The book is marred, however, by a mostly chronological order that purports to trace Welty’s path to ever greater heights of wisdom and artistry. He hypes his idol so remorselessly, never questioning her claim simply to describe ‘what people are like’, that the inner conflicts in her work become invisible. One especially counter-productive habit is to bring up other ‘great’ writers principally as a foil for Welty’s manifest superiority. By the end only Shakespeare, to whom she is frequently compared, manages to stay ahead.
Furthermore, Paul Binding is politically aware: he returns again and again to the misery of the Depression, the burnings and murders of the Fifties and Sixties, in an attempt to make Welty some sort of fellow-traveller in anger. But Eudora Welty, as any disinterested reader will see, couldn’t care less about correctness. There are more than enough other qualities in her work to have justified passing over this matter with a nod to her own position, the standard case for literary unworldliness made in a 1965 essay called ‘Must the Novelist Crusade?’ Binding, though, corners himself into suggesting that as an unshrill democratic humanist, the less she says the more she cares. At any rate she once worked for Adlai Stevenson, who ‘would undoubtedly have been a far more active enthusiast for black rights’ than Eisenhower. Later, asked by Alice Walker whether she had ‘really known’ any black women, honest Eudora came up with two, a schoolteacher and a maid. Binding’s gloss: ‘She does not indulge in generalised rhetoric, and by implication, makes us realise anew just how difficult the social climate was ... blocking so many possible or burgeoning cross-race meetings.’
Welty confesses an innate feeling for persons rather than groups, and her aesthetic distaste for the clumsy clangour of causes is perfectly honourable, however much one might argue with her reluctance, in the ‘Crusade’ essay, to distinguish social or power relations from private ones. It’s typical of her quirky empathy that, shaken by the killing of activist Medgar Evers by a white racist in Jackson, she immediately wrote it up from the murderer’s point of view. There’s no need either to avoid or apologise for the fact that her negroes, when not farm props, tend to be violent or befuddled. Even the roiling, entranced language of ‘Powerhouse’, a story inspired by Fats Waller, betrays what to today’s eyes seems a considerable dread of the tom-tom. For all the emotive pull of the black characters, her best-drawn figures are those into whose minds and senses she enters with less imaginative effort: gentry and white trash, the déclassés and the diehards of a miniature world in which we’re invited to recognise the human universe.
But this conservatism is belied from within, in the exultant undertows, the flashed visions and sensations arising from deep inside the characters, affording us no optical or rational distance from them; a sensuousness at odds with the civilised resolutions of her fictions, which are somewhere between compassion and cruelty. I have the sense that Welty’s fabled humanism has had to be fought for and endlessly proved to her own more abrasive and anarchic urges, in part by arranging sorry ends for those who have not, unlike her, chosen to belong. She does this in her very first piece, ‘Death of a Travelling Salesman’ (1935). An alienated shoe rep wanders from town to town with his samples until one evening, the heart already showing signs of distress, he gets lost down what he considers a miserable cow trail and crashes the car. Rescued and faintly welcomed by a laconic pair of locals, he takes them at first for mother and son and develops a murky wish to intrude. When the revelation comes, however, it drives him into the night alone: ‘He was shocked with knowing what was really in this house. A marriage, a fruitful marriage. That simple thing.’ He dies groping toward the car, trying with poignantly misplaced manners to stifle the rude explosions of his heart. The sober, glimmering writing, with its unobtrusive use of symbolism, lacks both the preciosity and the humour of later stories. But the lines are already drawn between outsider and insider, between modern (fallen) and rural values. This is the first of many ‘still moments’, when destinies that have already been meted out become clear.
‘Good country people’, as Flannery O’Connor more grimly called them, are the very stuff of Losing Battles (1970). For Binding this is Welty’s ‘supreme achievement’, mostly for formal reasons, though he writes with feeling about its celebration of American practicality and zest; an uncompromising oral structure ‘orchestrated with near-inaudible artistry’. (Alternatively, an atonal recording of a family chinwag that at times is as oppressive as the real thing.) The aunts and uncles of Southern fiction, piled on the porch for Granny’s ninetieth, gossip and reminisce with aimless cheer, in a foam of narratives that smothers actual narrative movement. We are waiting on Jack, the adored man of the family, who will surely emerge from Parchman jail in time for Granny. The antics that landed him in the pen are collectively retold in Brer-Rabbit picaresque, as a battle that pitted Jack’s impetuous loyalty against a greedy shopkeeper and a moralising judge – a battle which the best man, to his credit, lost.
Wife Gloria, aloof on a log with her back to the clan, turns out to be the orphan school-teacher who threw away a career for her pupil Jack. When the prodigal does appear, having thrashed his way out one day before release (such are our victories) with the single-mindedness of a homing salmon, she does her best to lure him away from the tribal pond. Love, for half-educated, snobbish Gloria, is a private affair, and families ought to be nuclear, and she’s had enough of living with his. She, too, loses her battle, saved against her will: claimed by the chaotic security of family in a ceremony that involves being held down and grotesquely smeared with watermelon juice. She may even be Jack’s cousin. But the spectre of incest is already effaced by the angelic evidence of the couple’s child. Gloria’s alternative fate is held up for pity in the figure of her estranged mentor, Julia Mortimer, the schoolteacher bitterly dying during the two days’ present time of the book. She was a fighter, and wanted to improve everybody, and where did that get her? Or them? Losing Battles underpins the vernacular of its story-tellers with Welty’s heady, heightened prose. Her plea for individual fulfilment in the swaddlings of unspoiled community draws her to human images for nature: ‘Bees were crawling like babies into the florets.’ Full of minor miracles and massive meals, rueful forgiveness and reckless love, in a glowing place where each potential disaster unravels into farce, it is, for all its verbal realism, one big wishful thought of a book.
During the Sixties, while this novel was taking shape in its surprisingly benign Depression setting, a lot of nasty things were going on in Mississippi – as Binding keeps reminding us. But the death of Welty’s beloved mother in 1966 painfully overshadows her Pulitzer prize-winning The Optimist’s Daughter (1972).This book, in defining the good that is lost, houses a darker version of a constant theme: materialism and the Bad Family. In some early stories, criticism of modern manners among the incipient suburban classes was something Eudora found so enjoyable that Katherine Anne Porter feared her readers might get the wrong idea. ‘Dullness, bitterness, rancour, self-pity, baseness of all kinds, can be most interesting material for a story provided these are not also the main elements in the mind of the author. There is nothing in the least vulgar or frustrated in Miss Welty’s mind.’ Perhaps, though, she has the defects of her virtue. Her dislikes speak plainly now and the pain of loss is similarly direct, as near to raw as it could be in such an authorially invisible writer. In contrast with the hollerin’, tender mirage of Jack and Gloria, the novel is set in a drab urban present with no room for illusion. It is leaden with nostalgia, shot with loathing of redneck vulgarity, and full of autobiographical detail as, like her protagonist, the author faces the death of parents and the desecration of the world.
Laurel is that rare thing in Welty’s fiction, a de-territorialised character, who flies in at the beginning and out at the end. Her father, a cultured and decent man, needs an eye operation, and Laurel rushes down from Chicago so as not to leave him in the sole care of Wanda Fay Chisom, the brassy new wife. Judge McKelva’s unexpected death forces her to confront past and present, and reach a semblance of consent to loss. But her memories of an intelligent kind of family bond are mocked by two versions of the Bad Family: the Dalzells, loutishly sniggering through the death their own father in the same ward as the Judge, and the coarse, grasping Chisoms, who have made Fay what she is. Laurel views Fay as an affront to the memory of her mother and an intolerably common mate for her father. The two women wage eerie, solipsistic war over the Judge’s legacy: that is, over the nature of reality itself. But their conflict fails to be engaging, for in an unusually crude piece of characterisation. Fay is an unmitigated bitch – and Laurel is something of a prig. At the climax, she brandishes a breadboard made by her long-dead husband:
‘... it’s made on the true, look and see, it’s still as straight as his T-square. Tongued and grooved – tight-fitted, every edge –’
‘I couldn’t care less,’ said Fay.
‘My mother blessed him when she saw this. She said it was sound and beautiful and exactly suited her long-felt needs, and she welcomed it into her kitchen.’
‘It’s mine now,’ said Fay.
The several pages in this vein are involuntarily comic, precisely because Welty’s sense of comedy has deserted her, and with it her inclusiveness. Such a dialogue of the deaf shows the limits of humanism when it comes to portraying evil, that speciality of Southern fiction. It also highlights what is everywhere lurking in Welty’s work, the corollary of her classic belief in the integrity of character: a resignation bordering on cynicism.
About to smash Fay over the head with the breadboard, Laurel decides instead to leave it behind with the rest of the property, for her only possible victory lies in retreat, in detachment from things, place and the carnality of bereavement. The vitalistic Losing Battles could admit, almost cheerfully, that ‘there is only one way of depriving the ones you love – taking your living presence away from theirs ... no one alive has ever deserved such punishment.’ The Optimist’s Daughter, dealing with the extreme anguish of that punishment, must find solace in a more platonic note. Love and community are destroyed, mere memories, but perhaps memory lives ‘not in initial possession but in the freed hands, pardoned and freed, and in the heart that can empty but fill again, in the patterns restored by dreams’.
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