Gadfly Online.


EUDORA WELTY
1909-2001


Since being read to and after, when I began reading to myself, there has never been a line read that I didn't hear. As my eyes followed the sentence, a voice was saying it silently to me. It isn't my mother's voice, or the voice of any person I can identify, certainly not my own. It is human, but inward, and it is inwardly that I listen to it. It is to me the voice of the story or the poem itself. The cadence, whatever it is that asks you to believe, the feeling that resides in the printed word, reaches me through the reader—voice.

I have supposed, but never found out, that this is the case with all readers—to read as listeners—and with all writers, to write as listeners. It may be part of the desire to write. The sound of what falls on the page begins the process of testing it for truth, for me. Whether I am right to trust so far I don't know. By now I don't know whether I could do either one, reading or writing, without the other.

My own words, when I am at work on a story, I hear too as they go, in the same voice that I hear when I read in books. When I write and the sound of it comes back to my ears, then I act to make my changes. I have always trusted this voice.

—One Writer’s Beginnings, Eudora Welty

In an age of post-modern literary analyses, the politicizing of symbols of Southern heritage and the extinction of individuals who could weave a yarn to keep a room spellbound, the life of Eudora Welty—literary legend, Southerner born and bred, and storyteller extraordinaire—is a refreshing blend of known fact and resolute privacy. Her literary talents earned her a William Dean Howells medal for fiction (for the 1954 comic novel "The Ponder Heart"), a Pulitzer Prize in fiction (for her 1972 novella, "The Optimist's Daughter"), and a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1980, in addition to a long line of indebted readers and storytellers, many of whom were exposed to her writing as students through Intro to Southern Literature or Women’s Lit classes.

While the public came to know the South—and Welty—through her writing, they were not afforded many glimpses into the personal life of this Lady of the South. An intensely private writer, Welty opposed any number of inquiries into her personal life, advising family and friends to be guarded with stories of her life so that her writing could stand on its own. And yet the facts that are known about her, the skeletal biography gathered from anecdotes and essays, hint at a woman with a love of life—particularly the interior life—and an instinctive ear for storytelling. In One Writer’s Beginnings, a collection of Welty’s autobiographical essays, she writes:

"Long before I wrote stories, I listened for stories. Listening for them is something more acute than listening to them. I suppose it's an early form of participation in what goes on. Listening children know stories are there. When their elders sit and begin, children are just waiting and hoping for one to come out, like a mouse from its hole."

This writer, whose legend is kin to those of other great Southern literary figures like William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor and Tennessee Williams, came into being on April 13, 1909, the only daughter in a close-knit family of five. Her life in Jackson, Mississippi, was the stuff from which her stories found their inspiration. The music drifting through her open window from practice piano sessions at a small college across the street from her house found its way into her 1949 collection of short stories, "The Golden Apples." The family banter and small-town intrigues provided the backdrop to her novels Losing Battles (1970) and Delta Wedding (1946). The hotels she stayed at during a working tour of the rural South gave flavor to "The Hitchhiker."

And yet while the majority of Eudora Welty’s life was lived in the South—most of it in her Mississippi hometown—she really saw the South when she traveled as a publicity agent and photographer for the Works Progress Administration during the Depression. It was in writing about these travels—particularly a trip to Tishomingo County, Mississippi—that she "discovered" herself as a writer. In a 1989 interview about her photography and its impact on her writing, Welty talked about that moment when it all came together—the visual, the literary, the understanding of the human struggle and the story that waited to be told.

"[J]ust when I was working on ‘Losing Battles,’ a novel set in that part of the world, so much came back to me of what I had absorbed. It was so remote from anything I knew in Jackson or had seen in the Delta or on the Coast or in the Black Prairie country, or any of the other parts of Mississippi where I've been. It appealed to me as a stage to put ‘Losing Battles’ on because life there had been so whittled down to the bare bones of existence. No history but the struggle to keep alive."

On being asked what she, as the artist, discerned as the vision expressed in her writing, Welty responded:

"Well, I think it lies only in the work. It's not for me to say. I think it's what the work shows, comprises altogether.... [A]s in everything, I want the work to exist as the thing that answers every question about its doing. Not me saying what's in the work. In fact, I couldn't. Some time, if I have the time left to me I would like to do more, but of course you could never make it full enough. You know, of what is out there and in here."

After a lifetime of transforming the spirit and personality of her Southern experiences into characters who struggled, failed, fought, loved, laughed and cried their way through her stories, the time left to Eudora Welty ran out on July 23, 2001. Welty bequeathed to us, her only living descendants, the children of a Master Storyteller, snapshots of the South, of family life, of a time when life was slower, people more at ease with each other, and storytellers held us spellbound from their seats of honor in the family parlor. She will be greatly missed, but her stories—her glorious stories—will not be forgotten.—Nisha N. Mohammed