Clytie’s Legs

Daniel Aaron

  • The Optimist’s Daughter by Eudora Welty, with an introduction by Helen McNeil
    Virago, 180 pp, £3.50, October 1984, ISBN 0 86068 375 3
  • One Writer’s Beginnings by Eudora Welty
    Harvard, 136 pp, £8.80, April 1984, ISBN 0 674 63925 1
  • The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty
    Penguin, 622 pp, £4.95, November 1983, ISBN 0 14 006381 1
  • Conversations with Eudora Welty edited by Peggy Whitman Prenshaw
    Mississippi, 356 pp, £9.50, October 1984, ISBN 0 87805 206 2

Eudora Welty’s fictional territory stretches as far as the Northern States of her native America, and to Europe too, but its heartland is Jackson, Mississippi and its environs, a country more accessible and neighbourly than Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha. The dust and heat are the same, the people comparably rooted and earthy. Yet Faulkner’s South, for all of its authentic particularity, is a space larger than life in which a magnified cast of performers carry out fated acts. His stores, work-places, forests, houses, monuments, jails and churches are the setting for a sprawling historical spectacle that violently unfolds to the accompaniment of rhetorical music.

Jefferson, Mississippi is the centre, Faulkner once said, of a ‘cosmos’ inhabited by people whom he could move around ‘like God’. Eudora Welty’s people live mostly in, or near, small free-floating towns like Morgana, with its water tank and courthouse and its ‘Confederate soldier on a shaft’ that resembles ‘a chewed-on candle, as if old gnashing teeth had made him’. They go their own ways and are not haunted by history. You can find them in a scruffy beauty parlour (scene of ‘The Petrified Man’) where Leota says to her ‘ten o’clock shampoo-and-set customer: “Reach in my purse and git me a cigarette without no powder in it if you kin, Mrs Fletcher, honey ... I don’t like no perfumed cigarettes.” ’ They frequent drugstores, depots, old ladies’ homes, woods and river bottoms, and congregate at funerals. Some are quiet and withdrawn; some chatter incessantly. They eat Milky Ways and hamburgers, drink Coca-Cola and Memphis whisky, and bear the names Stella-Rondo, Missouri, Woodrow Spights, Powerhouse, Edna Earle, Wanda Fay, and Mrs Marblehall – the last a club woman, member of the Daughters of the Confederacy, who will sing on request ‘O Trees of the Evening’ – ‘in a voice that dizzies other ladies like an organ note, and amuses men like a halloo down the well’.

Because Eudora Welty shies away from lofty and portentous themes, her characters are less likely than Faulkner’s to be snatched into a metaphysical empyrean. She doesn’t, as Henry James would say, ‘cultivate the high pitch and beat the big drum’. What interests her is not so much their existential dilemmas as their physical and moral landscape, the enclosing objects, in which she allows herself virtually to disappear: their domestic lives, conversations, clothes and kitchens, the food they eat, the flowers they grow, the cars they drive. The process by which she invests herself in otherness is something akin to the effect produced by the ‘mysterious contraption’, the stereopticon, in her story, ‘Kin’.

In that story, the narrator recalls the Sundays she spent as a child in the house of Uncle Felix, and how she and her uncle, after the heavy mid-day dinners, would pore over the ‘picture cities’ in the stereopticon slides. As they studied the strollers on checkered pavements, islands in the sea, volcanoes, the Sphinx, these scenes, she says, were ‘brought forward each time so close that it seemed to me the tracings from the beautiful faces of a strange coin were being laid against my brain.’ And as she watches Uncle Felix ‘with his giant size and absorption... looking his fill’, it appears to her ‘as though, while he held the stereopticon to his eyes, we did not see him.’ Nor do we see her, the individual Eudora Welty, the author with a Jackson habitation and a legal identity. What we see are a series of fictional slides of people and places and occasions, all transmuted from personal experience, and standing – as she says in one of her interviews – ‘for what your life has meant to you’.

The more self-centred and confiding writers become, the less likely we are to know them. Although insistingly, sometimes touchingly, and more often tiresomely there, they hide themselves in their own ink. Whereas writers more sparing in their self-revelations, while unable to obliterate the thumb print of their uniqueness, their special tone and voice, can be tacitly revelatory. Their selfness is buried in the bodies of the worlds they create.

‘I do not comprehend all that I am,’ St Augustine wrote, and he followed this declaration with the question: ‘Is the mind, therefore, too limited to possess itself?’ Eudora Welty conveys self-possession by self-dispersal, not by consciously, or even unconsciously, concocting an instantly recognisable ‘personality’. Rather she defines and displays herself in the act of seeping into other minds and bodies. This is not a vampirish invasion but a kind of Keatsian entering-into, passive and affectionate, inspired by curiosity, wonder and love – rarely by hate. She may be likened, at least in this respect, to the Whitman who chronicles the incubating self nurtured by the sensuous world:

There was a child went forth every day, And the first object he looked upon and received with wonder or pity or love or dread, that object he became.

The ‘old drunkard staggering home’ from a tavern outhouse in Whitman’s poem, the schoolmistress and quarrelsome boys, the ‘barefoot negro boy and girl’, the changes he notes in city and country, have their counterparts in the Mississippi depicted in Eudora Welty’s recent account of her literary ‘coming forth’.

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