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Critical Review by Maureen Howard
SOURCE: "A Collection of Discoveries," in The New York Times Book Review, November 2, 1980, pp. 1, 31, 32.
In the following review, Howard discusses Welty's Collected Stories, and how her range developed throughout her career.
In reading The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty, there is a particular pleasure in following her performance over the years. Her range is remarkable—her way of telling us that stories are as different as human faces, that beyond the common features of plot and narrative, there are discoveries to be made each time. In "A Memory" (which seems to be about her childhood), she writes, "To watch everything about me I regarded grimly and possessively as a need." Now, with all the stories gathered together, we can see with what vigilance she has continued to watch the world around her. She has transformed that early obsession into the vision of a magnificent American artist.
Eudora Welty is not a regionalist: She is a Southern writer who has lived nearly all of her life in Jackson, Miss. It is not surprising that she draws strength from this setting for most of the stories, but it is a mark of her great skill that her perceptions of courthouse towns, poor shacks and farms, the discarded levee are so various and unlimiting. The Delta, the backwoods cabin or fussy middle-class home is rendered in each story, used only as necessary. And the talk, the beguiling Mississippi talk that lends such energy to her work is completely under her control. It is not the South we find in her stories, it is Eudora Welty's South, a region that feeds her imagination, and a place we come to trust. She is a Southerner as Chekhov was a Russian, because place provides them with reality—a reality as difficult, mysterious and impermanent as life.
From the first volume included here, A Curtain of Green and Other Stories, we can see the demands that Miss Welty put upon herself as a writer. Each tale finds its own pace and its own design. The characters are so fully realized that the imprint of their life is upon the page. "Lily Daw and the Three Ladies" is a farce. A poor simpleton's fate is determined as much by circumstance as the cockeyed morality of the self-approving ladies who take care of her. "Petrified Man," one of the most famous of the early stories, is all gossip. Written as idle beauty-parlor chatter, it reveals the thrill that the dull get from glamorous lives, though that glamour be infamous, corrupt. Such talk may be outrageously funny to overhear but it levels all events—murder, rape, betrayal—to perverse entertainment. Then there is "A Worn Path," the story of an old Negro woman whose endurance is superhuman. It is possible to believe in her because Miss Welty casts Phoenix's mythic journey in an easy folklore that admits magical encounters and the woman's heroic determination. These early stories are filled with dreamers, deaf-mutes, wanderers, the old—people who live outside of society. We are told what in their fantasies, or in fact, sets them apart, but we are made to wonder about the real world that cannot contain them.
There is so much virtuosity in The Collected Stories, such a testing of the form, we cannot help but see that the writing was always fresh to her and of great interest. That is the mark of genius. Like Katherine Anne Porter, whom she admired, Eudora Welty has never had the time or patience for repeats. The game of the storyteller, and it is a serious one, is always to find the right emphasis, the right tone. Thus, I am dazzled by a talent that can ventriloquize the petulant whining tale of "Why I Live at the P.O." so brilliantly, but I am genuinely impressed that after such success Miss Welty did not write another monologue for some 25 years. Then, on the night of Medgar Evers's death, she wrote "Where Is the Voice Coming From?" the loudmouthed soliloquy of a killer.
The two stories may seem alike in method: They are wonderfully different in intent. We never asked to hear the complaint of the postmistress against her family, but Miss Welty has staged a humiliating spectacle of self-exposure. We become a willing audience. The assassin's voice, we want to hear. We want to hear him to believe him and to confirm what we think we know about bigots and nasty hicks. Our interest is almost prurient, our anger predictable, but Eudora Welty's response to the murder is more profound. Her story is a deflection of common rage to an artistic honesty. "Whoever the murderer is," Miss Welty writes in her preface, "I know him: not his identity, but his coming about, in this time and place. That is, I ought to have learned by now, from here, what such a man, intent on such a deed, had going on in his mind."
Now this is the statement of a writer ultimately responsible to her material, not a writer who takes the occasion of a public event to provide material. She knows what we cannot imagine, the killer's satisfaction and the petty details of his hatred. In a few pages she creates a mind shot through with clichés ("Ain't it about time us taxpayers starts to calling the moves?"), but it is only tinged with the crazed isolation of the psychotic. He is not fantastic, not a cartoon response to our liberal concerns. The killer is real—a man with a sharp-tongued wife, a man who does not own his own automobile. All is understood (It always is in Miss Welty's work) but that does not mean that this wretched man is forgiven.
There are the formal stories, only a few, which make use of history. And again, it is impressive that each time she ventures into new territory. "First Love" is set "in extraordinary times, in a season of dreams." A deaf boot-boy falls in love with words he cannot hear, most particularly with the words of Aaron Burr as he enchants his fellow conspirator. The place is the Mississippi territory in the days before one of the greatest courtroom encounters in American history. Burr awaits trial for treason: His long nights of talk are magic to the boy who begins to see clearly what others hear, Burr's brilliance and charm. The story is held strictly to the deaf boy's vision, a narrower view of a historic moment than we are accustomed to, but locked in the boy's silence we finally see beyond Burr's courtroom rhetoric: The tone, as the boy can now observe through Burr's gestures and expression, is elegant and false. He learns, as from first love, that his heart can be broken by words, but he will never be content again with silence. The year is 1807. Aaron Burr might enter here as the lead in a costume piece, a romantic scoundrel held to his set role in history, if Miss Welty did not make the moment both extraordinary and credible by giving it to us through the deaf boy's eyes.
In "A Still Moment" it would seem that history operates as a background for parable. We are someplace in the early 19th century on the Old Natchez Trace. A preacher, a murderer, a student (Audubon) converge at the author's bidding. But the parable is not easily construed. Good and evil have blurred edges, like the reasons for lonely journeys, like the mysterious pull of one's vocation. For Audubon read naturalist, journalist—neither is fully accurate—a student, yet a master of his craft. He is a real man confounded by the detailed beauty of nature, by living things and by the difficulties of his journey—not John James Audubon (1785–1851), a symbolic figure:
He knew that the best he could make would be, after it was apart from his hand, a dead thing and not a live thing, never the essence, only a sum of parts; and that it would always meet with a stranger's sight, and never be one with the beauty in any other man's head in the world. As he had seen the bird most purely at its moment of death, in some fatal way, in his care for looking outward, he saw his long labor most revealingly at the point where it met its limit.
Audubon's words might stand as Miss Welty's graceful statement of the pressure she feels as a writer to bring life out of words insofar as she is able. In "A Still Moment" she abandons her parable intentionally. It is a schematic view and in the telling of an honest story it will simply not serve. The historic incident here gives way to a personal moment—Audubon's meeting with his limits becomes Miss Welty's confrontation with herself.
There is one group of tales that interlock, those in The Golden Apples. Seen in the midst of The Collected Stories, they seem a central performance, theme and variation played out in one place. Morgana is a Southern town of Miss Welty's making. Like Joyce's Dubliners, the stories glance off each other—stories of love, ambition, marriage, set side by side without the narrative line of a novel. But unlike Joyce's characters who never intersect, the inhabitants of Morgana turn up again and again. We come to know them—parents and children, teachers and servants—and to expect them in separate scenes held together by a lush colloquial speech and a richness of little plots. As a book, The Golden Apples is most like a one-woman show of photographs where a style is discernible in the use of light and detail. The effect is cumulative: Here is the artist's world.
"June Recital" is the most remarkable of the Morgana stories, suffused with tenderness yet never sentimental. A sick boy, home in bed, peeks out his window to the empty house next door to watch strange happenings. The town lies beyond, laden with its history, with voices, dreams, stories. All views are partial, but the story of "June Recital" is, in the end complete, a gathering of experience. In "The Art of Fiction," Henry James describes a talent much like Miss Welty's—"The power to judge the unseen from the seen, to trace the implication of things…."
The childhood myths of Morgana are destroyed by mature vision and by time, just as a movie theater and a commercial block have obliterated the pastoral scene. At the end, two lone figures stand in the rain, a community of two under the shelter of a public tree, "… listening to the magical percussion, the world beating in their ears. They heard through falling rain the running of the horse and bear, the stroke of the leopard, the dragon's crusty slither, and the glimmer and the trumpet of the swan."
The implication is that the stories of Morgana will be buried in the greater myths of the world, swept into the awesome passage of time.
Guessing the unseen from the seen is strong in a later story, "No Place for You, My Love." It is about an affair that never happens. A man and a woman try to escape the heat of New Orleans and presumably their personal histories. In a roadhouse they dance together, but the dance only lends their bodies a necessary formality: There is no release. Something is warped in their denial, their inability to translate attitude into feeling, something shameful that will forever set the incident apart. They have been on a dangerous excursion and dared nothing. But we have seen their failure and Miss Welty knows it is all we need to know. There are other stories in the last volume which are raucous, sprawling. She will try anything and get it right. "Kin" is a disorderly panorama that echoes the noise and movement of family life, jumpy, flickering, as unplotted as home movies; there is the opera buffa of "Going to Naples"; and finally "The Demonstrators," a report from the troubled South that manages to be written with both passion and balance.
Her work is filled with characters who do not hear, literally or figuratively, with people who talk and do not listen. Their stories bear the sadness and the folly inherent in ignorance and self-absorption. Eudora Welty's writing is an act of generosity—for the partial and incomplete vision of her characters is pieced out and made whole for us: In such completeness there is care and intimacy, something like mature love. The richness of such talent resists a summing up. We can place her with her models, Chekhov and Katherine Anne Porter: She is always honest, always just. And she is vastly entertaining. The stories are magnificent. Her youthful need to watch became a life devoted to observation. There is a superb vigilance in Eudora Welty, a present tense: each work is responsive to its time: history, especially in the South, must not reflect romantic distortions. It is only by the rigorous observation which we find in her Collected Stories that the present is verified and the past kept useful and alive.
This section contains 2,162 words
(approx. 8 pages at 300 words per page)