Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Whatever Happened to Eudora Welty?

by Patrick Thomas Henry

Recently, I posted a status update on my Facebook wall and asked if anybody near New York would be interested in tagging along to a June 10, 2011 panel at The New School, moderated by Granta assistant editor Patrick Ryan.  The event, entitled “Truly Yours,” offered perspectives on Eudora Welty from writers she has influenced. An acquaintance from high school responded to my status:  “Does anybody know to whom you are referencing?” In short:  I was flummoxed.(1) Who doesn’t know of Eudora Welty?

Apparently, far too many readers. Ryan opened the panel by saying that he recently had similar experiences, one with an intelligent college English major and another with a voracious, older, lifelong reader.

“Truly Yours” wasn’t exactly a Eudora Welty/new readers matchmaking session; the panel spoke to Welty lovers, not folks like my high school chum.  But the panel’s participants—critic Maud Newton and novelist Sheri Holman—joined Ryan in explicating Welty’s unique importance to American fiction. Dramatic readings of some Welty excerpts, performed by actress Rhonda Keyser, punctuated their discussion.

 “More than any writer I can think of,” Newton said, “Welty captures how people speak and the humor of situations.” Holman agreed, saying that “her dialogue is some of the funniest and truest you’ll ever read.” According to the panel, Welty’s interest in the inner, private life places her alongside Virginia Woolf and William Faulkner. Holman said that Welty’s concern for characters’ interior lives—their private dreams and desires—moves us “in and out of minds in so many ways.”

We need Welty, the panel argued, because she’s a regional writer whose pitch perfect sense of the human voice eclipses the limits of place. Her control of dialects and everyday language illustrates something essential about our behaviors. Ryan shared Welty’s description of Anton Chekhov’s plays, which describes Welty’s thoughts on conversations:

You know, in Uncle Vanya and The Cherry Orchard, how people are always gathered together and talking and talking, no one’s really listening. Yet there’s a great love and understanding that prevails through it, and a knowledge and acceptance of each other’s idiosyncrasies, a tolerance of them, and also an acute enjoyment of the dramatic.(2)

People talking and talking yet never really listening to each other—this is why today’s readers need Welty’s fiction. Smart phones seem to be surgically attached to people’s ears, and the lot of social media—MySpace, Facebook, Twitter—generate channels of emptiness, great voids into which we can shout while choosing to ignore the calls of others, the echoes of our own voices.(3)

Talking-across-purposes muddles relationships in “Why I Live at the P.O.,” even as the reader witnesses how the characters keep missing each other.(4) Voice works, here, in two key ways. First, we hear the snark-fueled appraisal of family life from the first-person narrator—the postmistress. Her Southern dialect rings honest, never farcical.(5) So, we want to trust her—even as we don’t know the others’ take on Stella-Rondo’s failed relationship with Mr. Whitaker. Second, the narrator is posturing herself against the rest of the family as her recently returned sister turns the entire clan against her.  Really:  the narrator and her family put the “fun” in “dysfunction.”

As Holman pointed out to the audience, “Everybody’s about power and position, and who has what on whom.” The whispered insults and misconceptions in “Why I Live at the P.O.” are simply how the narrator and Stella-Rondo keep lunging in front of each other. Yet, we need to be aware of these plays, especially in a twenty-first century where everything orbits around poignancy in 140 characters or less:  “Powerlessness,” as Holman elaborated, “attunes you to what others are saying.” Welty’s characters, in their little power parades, perform the gamut of emotions and beliefs.

Not realizing this results in disaster. Nowhere in Welty’s short fiction is this truer than “Where Is the Voice Coming From?”—Welty’s only overtly political story.(6)  Here, Welty inhabits the voice of a white man who assassinated an NAACP leader, a narrative arc lifted from the 1963 hate killing of Medgar Evers by Byron de la Beckwith. Welty slides deftly into this perspective, at once uncovering the terror of this racist crime while showing us how such a person justify that act. The story’s power stems from precisely this: Welty knows where that voice is coming from—a well of racism and hatred.  And she’s brave enough to confront that attitude, in a way few short story writers can.

Where should new readers meet Welty? Newton directed the audience toward Welty’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Optimist’s Daughter (1972), while Holman guided readers toward Welty’s second short story collection—The Wide Net (1943).  Holman promoted The Wide Net because of Welty’s flexibility; the collection was written during the World War II years, and Holman asserted that few other books handle the consequences of shifting realities as powerfully as The Wide Net. Regardless, Welty offers today’s readers a guide to how we should communicate—so readers should unplug for a moment and hear what her stories relate.

(1) I somehow found it within myself to not deride his highfalutin diction.
(2)  The complete interview is available online at The Paris Review Web site.
(3)  My iPod, Kindle, Macbook, and Wii betray this much:  I’m no enemy to our technological overlords.  It’s just far too easy to get sucked into the virtual world they offer.
(4)  The proof, the cliché goes, is in the pudding, and this story backs up Holman’s assertion on Welty:  “Why I Live at the P.O.” goes down sweet, and when I read this story I can hear the syrupy dialect.
(5)  Listen to Welty reading from “Why I Live at the P.O.”
(6)  This story was first published in The New Yorker on July 6, 1963. An online subscription is required to read this digital version.