Lorna Scott Fox

  • The Still Moment by Paul Binding
    Virago, 290 pp, £20.00, May 1994, ISBN 1 85381 441 5

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.

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[*] Published by Virago on 12 May at £5.99 (180 pp., 0 86068 375 3), along with Losing Battles (463 pp., 0 86068 761 9).