Happy birthday, Miss Welty

America's greatest living short story writer turns 90.

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It’s the end of summer at the beginning of the century, the dark
middle of the night on a street and in a house just like the one where
Eudora Welty grew up in Jackson, Miss., and a little girl named Josie
has been roused from her bed, dressed in the wrong coat and escorted by her
parents to a safe room during a tornado. As the storm passes eerily over
and her smaller brother yells in his sleep, Josie floats through her
dream-life childhood, effortlessly conjuring visions of the season now
passing — toy tattoos of flower baskets and Athenian ruins transferred
onto her arms and legs, live June bugs on threads, the fascinating
golden-haired teenage neighbor, Cornella, in her high-heeled shoes. The
morning after the storm, Josie finds a wet scrap of paper outside — a torn
bit of ardent love letter with Cornella’s name scribbled on it, which Josie
hides in her “most secret place”: Oh my darling I have waited so
long …
“For the first time in her life,” wrote Welty in
“The Winds,” a short story published in 1941, “she thought, might the same wonders never
come again?”

This realization — that one door opening might mean another one
closing forever — might stand as a metaphor for Eudora Welty’s entire
career. When she wrote “The Winds,” Welty was 32, and had just sold her
first book. Around the same time she confided to her friend and mentor,
Katherine Anne Porter, that she was still a virgin. “And you always will
be,” Porter replied.

Porter may have been right. That door may never have opened for
Eudora Welty the woman. But whether it did or not, another door — one that
leads into a strange and beautiful imaginative world — opened for Eudora
Welty the writer.



Today, April 13, 1999, is Eudora Welty’s 90th birthday. In some
minds the question of America’s greatest living short story writer’s
virginity is still worth wondering about, made all the more tantalizing by
Welty’s famed, lifelong silence on the details of her private life. It’s
not just prurient interest that drives curiosity about Eudora Welty (though
in this age of confession prurience is hard to escape). How, one might ask,
could an unmarried, childless woman who spent her entire life living in the
home of her parents, who acknowledges having lived “a sheltered life,” have
known so much about life? That she did is undeniable. Many qualities have
gained Welty her exemplary standing in American fiction — her perfect
pitch for Southern dialect and culture; her comic, satirical extravagance;
her range of tone and form; her experimentation with folklore and myth –
but it is her exploration of the gift and burden of aloneness, what Welty
has termed the “human mystery,” that keeps her work so vital. Yet Welty is
herself, deliberately, something of a human mystery.

“I’d rather you didn’t talk to her” was Welty’s ladylike directive
to her friends and colleagues, according to Ann Waldron, author of the one
and only biography of Welty (“Eudora, A Writer’s Life,” Doubleday),
released this year. It’s not that Welty has had nothing to say about her
life — she has, in fact, said plenty, submitting graciously to countless
interviews over the years and publishing her own bestselling memoir of her
early life, “One Writer’s Beginnings,” in 1984. One of the oft-repeated
stories about Welty as a child is that she would appear in the room when
her mother’s friends would come to the house to visit, commanding them,
“Now, talk.” Though she remembers riding her bicycle around the
rotunda of the state Capitol in the city where she has spent
virtually her entire life, Welty has said that she sometimes felt like an
outsider in the South, an observer whose ancestral home did not burn during
Sherman’s March — her West Virginian mother and Ohioan father, both
schoolteachers, settled in Jackson as newlyweds. It’s well known that Welty
traces her aspiration to be a writer to her brief stint as a reporter for
the WPA during the Depression, which gave her the opportunity to travel all
over Mississippi for the first time, interviewing and photographing people
of all social classes in their everyday lives.

Welty is even on record about her conflicting feelings of guilt and
loyalty toward her mother, with whom she lived for 57 years. In
her memoir, Welty recalled her mother’s puzzlement over Welty fighting with
her younger brothers — “I don’t understand where you children get
it,” Chestina Welty had said. “I never lose my temper. I just get hurt.”
“But that was it,” Eudora wrote. “A child has no greater burden to bear
than a mother who ‘just gets hurt.’” She transformed her sorrow over the
deaths of both parents into her last novel, “The Optimist’s Daughter,”
which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1973. But Welty has always carefully
steered interviewers away from questions about her marital status, family
affairs and sexuality, insisting politely that certain subjects are simply
private. (Asked by one questioner why she never married, she replied, “I
wasn’t brought up to answer questions like that. And I don’t think you
were, either.”)

Welty’s biographer, however, suffers from no such scruples. Waldron
is endlessly fascinated by the nature of Welty’s relationship with her “adored”
friend John Robinson, to whom Welty dedicated the novel “Delta Wedding” and
who was perhaps the only man with whom she may have had a romantic
attachment, though he is known to have been homosexual. Waldron also
suggests — without offering any evidence — that Welty’s devoted
friendship with sexually predatory writer Elizabeth Bowen may have been
more than platonic. But the most tiresome and offensive of Waldron’s
speculations is her insinuation that despite her infectiously charming
personality, it was Welty’s “ugliness” — which Waldron greatly
exaggerates, if photographs can be trusted — that prevented her from
attracting a romantic partner. No doubt this type of personal intrusion is
exactly what Welty hoped to protect herself from by discouraging
biographers.

Flawed, unfounded or silly as many of Waldron’s personal analyses
of Welty may be (for example, there are several catalogs of the details of
minor social events that end meaningfully, “but Eudora didn’t attend”),
hers is the only work to gather so much of the vast trove of secondary
sources — letters, interviews and various other papers — together in one
volume, and for this reason alone it is indispensable for students of
Welty. It is worthwhile to consider, for instance, Welty’s comment about
“hurt” mothers and her own guilt within a broadened context of
information: Waldron notes that several of Welty’s early, unpublished
stories deal with protagonists trying to escape from powerful mothers; that
Chestina Welty had breast surgery for a malignant tumor on the night before
young Eudora’s piano recital but didn’t tell her daughter for fear she
“wouldn’t do herself justice”; that Welty’s love of travel led to her
mother’s cutting comment shortly before her death, “I’ll be right back –
when you die, those words ought to be engraved on your lips — ‘I’ll be
right back.’”

In fact, Welty’s experience of the world was anything but
parochial. From her early 20s onward Welty made innumerable trips
east, especially to New York, where she was an avid theatergoer and struck
up enthusiastic friendships with writers and editors, even working at the
New York Times Book Review for a spell. She also lived for a few months in
San Francisco (one of the stories in “The Golden Apples” is a veritable
walking tour of the city and describes her daily streetcar ride to the
beach) and traveled in Europe, the inspiration for many of the stories in
“The Bride of the Innisfallen.”

But if travel opened Welty’s mind, her true subject was always her
inner landscape. Welty would not have earned her status in the American
canon if she had merely invented traveling salesmen or provincial
beauticians or old black grandmothers or little girls dreaming through
storms. What distinguishes her fiction is the way she parts a curtain for
her characters — often observers, outsiders, travelers like herself –
allowing them fleeting glimpses of some truth they’ll never be able to hold
onto. In one of many eloquent soliloquies delivered by a Welty character,
an adolescent camper on the cusp of adulthood in the story “Moon Lake”
thinks of how pears begin to turn brown as they are eaten: “It’s not the
flowers that are fleeting,” she thinks, “it’s the fruits — it’s the time
when things are ready that they don’t stay.”

Welty’s legendary powers of observation — undoubtedly honed during
her travels, camera in hand, for the WPA — were obvious from her first
book, “A Curtain of Green and Other Stories.” In this strange and affecting
collection, Welty laid virtually all of her stylistic and thematic cards on
the table: her knife-edged ability to render place, her fascination with
journeys, her virtuosity with metaphor and description and her
characteristic plot, a meandering, nonlinear story that resolves itself –
or doesn’t — in ways wholly impossible to anticipate. The effect is that
of entering an elevator in which a fateful conversation is already taking
place — and your only choice is to get off at your own floor. Most of
Welty’s best-known stories, including “Why I Live at the P.O.,” come from
this book, which also displays how acutely she understood the stilted
mysteries of relationships between men and women. “Women?” the
then-admittedly virginal Welty wrote in “Death of a Traveling Salesman,”
“He could only remember little rooms within little rooms, like a nest of
Chinese paper boxes, and if he thought of one woman he saw the worn
loneliness that the furniture of that room seemed built of.”

There is nothing of the prudish old maid, nothing innocent, about
Welty’s fiction. Not only does she not flinch at the most vivid of sexual
situations, she exhibits an almost frightening insight into the nuances of
sexual conduct and married life. In “Sir Rabbit,” a young wife is raped in
the woods by a Pan-like character with whose twin boys she once literally
rolled in the hay. Another young wife, reuniting with her husband after a
year’s separation, “slid in her hand and seized hold of him right at the
root.” In “Music From Spain,” a year after a beloved child’s death a
husband slaps his stunned wife across the breakfast table, “without the
least idea why he did it.” And in a fantastically pagan, archetypal scene
in the novel “Losing Battles,” a bride is forced to the ground by her
assembled female relatives, who cram her mouth and smear her wedding dress
with watermelon.

“The Optimist’s Daughter” is the most overtly autobiographical of
her books. Written in response to the recent deaths of her mother and
younger brother, the book’s protagonist is Laurel McKelva Hand, an artist
nursing a complicated, long-buried grief. Laurel has returned to her family
home to be with her father during his eye surgery, but he dies while
convalescing in a New Orleans hospital, leaving Laurel to contend with his
selfish, oblivious second wife, her mother’s wretched death years before
and her widowhood — Laurel’s young husband was killed shortly after their
marriage during World War II. As the novel opens, Laurel remarks that “some
things don’t bear going into”; by book’s end, after her father’s funeral
and an inescapable pull back into memory, Laurel has removed herself from
the category of “those who never know the meaning of what has happened to
them.”

Welty seems to have used “The Optimist’s Daughter” to discover for
herself the meaning of what had happened in her own life. Laurel’s mother,
Becky McKelva, is clearly based on Chestina Welty: Like Chestina, Becky
missed the West Virginia mountains where she grew up with a widowed mother
and five banjo-playing, storytelling brothers. At 15, Chestina had
taken her father, whose appendix had ruptured, by river raft and then train
to Baltimore, where he died; Becky makes the same terrible journey. “Your
mother died a crazy!” Laurel’s stupid stepmother taunts, and Laurel is
forced to think back on her mother’s angry suffering, described in terms
not dissimilar to Chestina Welty’s final years, during which Eudora was
completely occupied by the needs of her family. Laurel’s father’s optimism
– a reference to his determined desire for his wife’s torments to turn out
all right, an unrealistic hope that only caused her mother more frustration
and that Laurel cannot easily forgive — is clarified further in “One
Writer’s Beginnings,” in which Welty recalls her mother labeling her
father “an optimist” with a sigh. “You’re a good deal of a pessimist,
sweetheart,” Welty’s father replied.

Looking back over her parents’ “blunders,” Laurel is ultimately
freed by disturbing the “old perfection” of the past, despite the losses
and regrets that rise to the surface. And yet, knowing how closely linked
the emotions, if not the fictionalized events, in this book are to Welty’s
own life, it’s hard to ignore the autobiographical sting of its most
sorrowful moment: when Laurel dreams up her dead husband, “wild with the
craving for his unlived life,” crying out, “I wanted it!” “I tell my
innermost secrets through my fiction. It’s all there,” Welty stated in a
late interview. How can one not imagine her, then, weeping like Laurel
McKelva Hand “for what happened to life,” the voice of her lost love rising
with the wind in the night and becoming a roar?

Back in 1943, when what Welty wanted most was to succeed as a
writer, she got a fan letter. She had just published her third book, “The
Wide Net,” in which many of the characters are somehow isolated, cut off
from the world; most of the reviews were disheartening, calling her work
“puzzling” and “obscure.” But a letter came that assured Welty that “You
are doing fine. You are doing all right …” It was signed “Faulkner.”

Forty years later, Eudora Welty gave a speech honoring the memory
of her fellow Mississippian, whose work she once characterized as “twice as
true as life” and whom she admired more than any other writer. “Faulkner sees
with the eyes of the artist and can make us see what is here and at the
same time through it to the truth about it, the human truth,” Welty said.
The same could be said of her own work, though her famous modesty would
never allow her to say it. Eudora Welty sees with the eyes of an artist,
but her vision has always been that of a woman who has lived.

Kate Moses is the author of "Wintering: A Novel of Sylvia Plath" (St. Martin's.) She was the co-founder, with Camille Peri, of Salon's "Mothers Who Think" site, and she and Peri also co-edited the award-winning book "Mothers Who Think: Tales of Real-Life Parenting." She lives in San Francisco.

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