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 Some are quiet and withdrawn; some chatter incessantly.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’.

Made up of three lectures delivered at Harvard in 1983, One Writer’s Beginnings is a meditation on the making of a secular and earth-bound writer. It includes some facts about herself undivulged in her reported ‘conversations’ over the past four decades, but adheres tenaciously to the dictum: ‘a writer’s life belongs to the writer.’ Biographical information unrelated to her work, and some that is, are none of the public’s business. Hence One Writer’s Beginnings confines itself to her literary genesis, to the influence of family, school and travel on a sponge-like consciousness – how she listened and learned to see and finally found ‘a voice’. In these glowing recollections the town and society of Jackson spring back to life like castle dwellers in the fairy-tale who, frozen to stone for aeons, resume their activities after the enchanter’s spell is broken. The accounts of little girls dressed in taffeta and clutching five cent coins in ‘hot white gloves’, the trips to the Carnegie Library, the summer expeditions – long voyages, really – in the family car to visit her mother’s and father’s people in West Virginia and Ohio, furnish ‘hints, pointers, suggestions’ to the future storyteller.

Respectful of solid things, integrated and bolstered by parental supports, she knows her ‘home’, her ‘Place’. She has studied and internalised local space, acquired standards, models, canons of order and discipline from her family and from literature, music, and photography. Thus accoutred, she can reach those points of ‘confluence’ (a powerful word for her) where real and visionary rivers pour into each other. In Emily Dickinson’s lexicon, ‘Circumference’ was the line dividing knowable earth from the Eternity of Blank; the transmundane could only be guessed at from cryptic messages of birds, or slants of light and other disturbing visitations. With Eudora Welty, reality and illusion merge without divine condescension or malediction. Dream is palpable, reality ductile to the cherished minorities of her stories, the ones responsive to ‘the old stab of wonder’, quick to catch the signals unheralded by thunderstorms and lightning: a rain-soaked letter, the appearance of a solitary heron, a key falling on a wooden floor, a touch of the wrist.

If the magical moments in Eudora Welty’s fiction derive from ‘the living world’, which forms, she says, ‘the vital component’ of her ‘inner life’, they are nonetheless separate and secret. ‘You must never betray pure joy,’ the American girl in ‘The Bride of the Innisfallen’ thinks to herself – ‘the kind you were born and began with – neither by hiding it or by parading it. And still you must tell it.’ Eudora Welty tells it by communicating the feelings of ecstasy or insight that her adventurous characters experience but can’t convey.

The ability to absorb and retain what has been seen and heard, to become many persons without losing hold of the underlying self, is a gift and an art, but perhaps even more a matter of discipline. From her earliest years, Eudora Welty frames and chronologises, corrects her perspective through books, one of her conduits to the trans-Jackson world. Many of her childhood memories point to the nascent writer. In one, the seven-year-old reader lies on the floor deep in the conglomerate richness of the ten-volume set, Our Wonder World. In another, she lists the contents of her father’s library drawer: a kaleidoscope, a gyroscope, ‘an assortment of puzzles composed of metal rings and intersecting links and keys chained together’. The barometer hanging on the dining-room wall of the Welty house also deserves mention, because, thanks to her self-described ‘strong meteorological sensitivity’, storms, floods, high winds and heat precipitate or complement the action in many of her stories. So does the camera. It taught her to coalesce One Time, One Place (the title of the ‘Snapshot Album’ of Mississippi photographs she took during the Depression) without violating the dignity of her subjects, and to re-read objectively the history of the faces revealed by the dumb camera’s unblinking eye.

But these instruments are primarily aids to register rather than to encompass the ephemeral. Photography, she acknowledges, can train the writer ‘to click the shutter at the crucial moment’. It teaches ‘that every feeling waits upon its gesture,’ but the camera is finally only a tool. To reach the hidden dimensions beyond its scope, the writer must fall back on the artifice of words, however unstable their meanings, words ostensibly clear or neutral but twistable into the ambiguous and sinister. In the story ‘Circe’ the enchantress remembers her greeting to Odysseus and his crew: ‘ “Welcome!” I said – the most dangerous word in the world.’ Colours seem to have special connotations for her: black, blue, green, red (fairy-tale colours), and particularly ‘gold’ and ‘golden’, and their equivalents, ‘corn-coloured’, ‘yellow’, ‘honey’. These colours resonate with magic and expectation: they are hues of the self, for what the self puts into words is what it has sucked up from the ‘thick’, as she would say, of its background.

The ultimate mystery of a personality or object, however, lies beyond mannerisms of speech or physical identifications like the shape of a nose or the colour of eyes or hair. It can never be divined by the word alone, only approximated. The cascade of similes pouring through her pages might be taken as a tacit concession of the impossibility of ‘making reality real’, of impaling it on a phrase, because reality is not contained in a single vision. But, through simile and metaphor, she nonetheless keeps shaving closer to the Thing-in-Itself, a perpetual grasping at the indefinable. ‘Nothing is.’ Everything suggests something else. And yet she trusts the veracity of images, luxuriates in the plenitude of analogy.

Her style is the style of a storyteller who wishes ‘to set a distance’ between herself and what she is observing. This feeling may signify Weltyan reserve as well as a belief in artistic detachment, but it does not lead her to blur her fictive outlines or to prettify unpretty things. She is not at all squeamish about mud, stains, blood, river slime, dirty necks, dandruff, sweat. Her speakers have their own idiosyncratic vernacular, and her prevailing narrative voice, devoid of affectation or strain, is equal to recording varieties of behaviour from the refined to the gross. She can evoke the truly vulgar, be unexpectedly shocking. Her exercises in the grotesque may seem less bleak or threatening (and more credible, too) than Nathanael West’s or Flannery O’Connor’s, but they are blackish enough, downward in their humour, and occasionally brutal. Who can forget Clytie, drowned in a rain barrel, ‘with her poor ladylike black stockinged legs up-ended and hung apart like a pair of tongs’.

Hawthorne, T.S. Eliot said, had ‘the firmness, the true coldness, the hard coldness of the genuine artist’. Eliot’s observation applies equally well to Hawthorne’s admirer, Eudora Welty, although others who have noted this similarity scant her differences from Hawthorne in style and temperament. She is not an allegorist, and her settings, even the myth-pervaded Morgana of The Golden Apples and the Natchez Trace of The Robber Bridegroom, are recognisably Mississippian and have little in common with his self-styled ‘fairy precincts’. His voice and accents sound in the words of his characters; their thoughts are filtered through his own. Her stories buzz with the conversations of individualised persons whose talk seems to have been taken down by some hovering amanuensis.

Both these writers accommodate depravity in their moral systems, distrust the antinomian impulse, are not mystical about mystery. Their fantasies exhale from things. Neither is indulgent toward the ‘good’, nor ready to abrogate the laws of consequence. Both are secret observers, Hawthorne often furtive and voyeuristic, Eudora Welty the tactful and sympathising spy. Both care for what Henry James called the ‘deeper psychology’ in their probes into human relations, their contemplations of blinkered and partial lives. Each spells out the penalties awaiting those who get lost in their private visions.

Relishing the babble of life, Eudora Welty neither loses her ‘abiding respect for the unknown’ nor relaxes her attentiveness to the obsessions and hallucinations of her eccentric or dim-witted or half-mad characters. They are often more alive, possess more ‘self’, than their safe-and-sane detractors and patronisers, although she knows that dreamers risk a loss of self once their orbitings bypass the human community. Uncle Daniel in The Ponder Heart, insulated from the actual by his fantasies, drifts off to cuckoo-land. Circe, the unchanging daughter of the gods, is fated to repeat her gyrations, because she is unable to grieve or to feel sympathy.

Pain in Eudora Welty’s stories is often, if not necessarily, a catalyst for insight. Her most fully realised characters are likely to be ‘wanderers’, adventurers, who expose themselves, in Hawthorne’s phrase, to ‘fearful risks’, and, whether doomed or not, wring a ‘strange felicity’ from their unlicensed excursions. Usually these brief encounters with the elemental are comprehended only dimly if at all by the participants, and they do not emerge from them unscathed or uninstructed. ‘No place for you, my love’ is about a man and a woman, strangers to each other, who find themselves stranded in New Orleans on a hot summer evening, ride into the country in a rented car toward some possible intimacy, and joylessly return to their starting points: yet both have felt something momentous and irrecoverable. After spending the afternoon improperly with a Tennessee coffee salesman, Ruby Fisher in ‘A Piece of News’ reads a paragraph in the newspaper he has left behind of another Ruby Fisher who ‘has had the misfortune to be shot in the leg by her husband this week’. Given a sudden glimpse into her secret self, she fantasises her own death at the hands of her husband in a state of shame and bliss. In ‘Death of a Travelling Salesman’, the feverish salesman in the presence of a ‘mysterious quiet, cool danger’ lacks the ‘simple words’ that would have allowed him ‘to communicate some strange thing – something which seemed always to have just escaped him’. But for Ellen Fairchild in Delta Wedding ‘one moment told you the great things, one moment was enough for you to know the greatest thing.’ These radiant events are less ‘epiphanies’ (for Eudora Welty a pretentious term which is without Joycean reverberations) than eruptions of self-awareness.

The climactic moment in The Optimist’s Daughter – in form, a long story, she says, ‘even though it undertakes the scope of a novel’ – occurs when Laurel McKelva Hand finds her dead mother’s breadboard in a kitchen cupboard. A middle-aged war widow, she returns to her Mississippi birthplace in time to watch her recently remarried father die, and to confront Wanda Fay, his obnoxious wife. Toward this young woman (a ‘ball of fluff’, as Helen McNeil calls her in a fine introduction to the novel, but hard as nails) Eudora Welty shows an unexpected hatred. The ‘scored and grimy’ breadboard Laurel rescues as she prepares to leave the ‘desecrated’ family house for good is to Wanda Fay ‘the last thing anybody needs’. To Laurel it is a correlative of her supplanted mother, of her husband, killed in the Pacific war, who lovingly made it, and of the ‘whole solid past’ she has not yet managed to resolve or put behind her. Wanda Fay, that piece of perdurable grit, is the key element in the confluence of events that emancipate Laurel from her daughterly obsessions. ‘For there is hate as well as love,’ Laurel reflects, ‘in the coming together and continuing of our lives.’

On numerous occasions Eudora Welty has defined the difference between the autobiographical and the personal. Perhaps The Optimist’s Daughter is the fullest demonstration of that distinction, for it virtually replicates many of the memories she sets down in One Writer’s Beginnings. Her father, she tells us, energetically practised optimism. Her mother, born like Laurel’s in the West Virginia mountains, never felt quite at home in the Mississippi flatlands. Doubtless Eudora Welty’s biographers will have much to say about these and other similarities, but, as she has declared many times, Becky and Judge McKelva are not Mrs and Mr Welty, nor is Laura – angry and wounded by her father’s absurd second marriage, guilty about her mother, and still grieving for her lost husband – modeled on Eudora Welty calm and sure of herself in Jackson. What is autobiographically factual in the novel, then, is of less consequence (a point made by Helen McNeil and by Eudora Welty herself) than ‘the kernel of privately felt experience out of which the narrative developed’. Her characters have expropriated her emotions, and she is dramatising a literary problem and resolving it. Wanda Fay, all appetite, a scary portent of the future, has no memories and is penned in with her appalling self. Laurel, buoyed by memory, can flow into others; she redeems and is redeemed by it.

‘A sheltered life,’ Eudora Welty remarked, ‘can be a daring one as well.’ The word ‘sheltered’ connotes something quite different from ‘insulated’, ‘isolated’, ‘beleaguered’, ‘secluded’. Some writers have found all they required in a circumscribed society without feeling tyrannised by the familiar, but a refusal, as she has said, ‘to move mentally or spiritually or physically out of the familiar’ can signify ‘spiritual timidity or poverty or decay’. An ‘open mind and receptive heart’ make her fictional terrain a Chekhovian rather than a Bloomsbury enclave. She was sheltered, if you will, by family influence inimical to class snobbery or venomous racialism. Her circle of friends and teachers may have been wanting in sophistication, but it was understanding enough to encourage a questing intelligence. The community in which she grew up was sufficiently open-ended and diverse to satisfy a writer not content with the mere paraphernalia of local colour. Her real subject is natural violence and fallible people, the fools and cranks and misfits, the shy and the bold, the dreamers and the literal-minded, with whom she sympathetically and humorously identifies.

Apparently nothing was lost on the child exposed to the gossiping of her elders, and delighted by the strains of comedy in Jane Austen, Dickens, Edward Lear, Twain, and Ring Lardner. These very different writers must have alerted her to the comic possibilities of her own Mississippi microcosm and coloured her benign aspect of the human menagerie. But her affection for the common lot is touched – to paraphrase her out of context – with a grave if seldom belittling irony, and her sympathy for the rebellious, the injured, and the passionate is unsentimental and controlled. Emotion which in softer sensibilities is likely to spill over she restrains in the trammels of form.

Her justly admired story ‘A Worn Path’ could easily have turned maudlin and gone soft; directness, irony and humour preserve it and keep it taut. Phoenix Jackson is a frail black woman with a faltering memory and eyes ‘blue with age’. She makes a tasking expedition from her place ‘away back’, as she puts it, ‘off the old Natchez Trace’ to the city where she goes to get some ‘soothing’ throat medicine for her grandson who has swallowed lye. She tells the hospital attendant, after momentarily forgetting why she has undertaken the quest:

My little grandson, he sit up there in the house all wrapped up, waiting by himself. We is the only two left in the world. He suffer and it don’t seem to put him back at all. He got a sweet look. He is going to last. He wear a little patch and peep out holding his mouth open like a little bird.

The story is dredged of tearfulness, because Phoenix herself is too indomitable to be pathetic. Undeterred by her filmy sight, she deals cheerfully and resolutely with her trials – thorny bushes, a barbed wire fence, a log, a scarecrow, a dog, a tumble in a ditch, not to mention mirages of her own making. Her gestures are ‘fierce’ and soldierly. Likened by the author to ‘a festival figure in some parade’, she moves ‘in a little strutting way’ and is as much at home in the pinewoods as the ‘foxes, owls, beetles, jack rabbits, coons and wild animals’ she importunes to stay out of her path. There is something of the trickster in her, too, for although she is civil rather than obsequious in coping with white people, she exploits their solicitude and complacency. She is even ready to slide into her apron pocket a shining nickel dropped by a young white hunter, or to extract another five cents from the hospital nurse in order to buy a paper windmill for her waiting grandson. But she accepts this donation ‘stiffly’, and it is her ‘fixed and ceremonial stiffness’ of body and spirit that prevents this story from melting into pathos.

Stephen Dedalus, in one of his aesthetic harangues, describes a process by which the artist’s personality ‘finally refines itself out of existence’ through the dissolvent of his imagination. Once this mystery, a purification of life, is accomplished, the artist, Stephen says, is left ‘like the God of creation... within or beyond his handiwork... indifferent, paring his fingernails’. In contrast to this rather grandiloquent affirmation is Eudora Welty’s more modest and human aim: to be ‘invisible’ but not ‘effaced’. She is to be looked for, not in blatant self-advertising confidences, hints and nudges, but in the metaphorical clues she drops, which are the exposures of a disciplined sensibility. From them we can deduce a history of a life. One might say her writing, spun out like the web of a ‘noiseless patient spider’, is not about but of herself. At bottom, the beauty and astonishment of her fiction, as Emerson might say, is ‘all design’. For it is by design, by her calculated disclosures, that this storyteller makes herself and her writing powerful and free.