On Eudora Welty (1909–2001)

In an early story by Eudora Welty called “The Hitch-Hikers” (1941), a man says: “I come down from the hills…. We had us owls for chickens and fox for yard dogs but we sung true.” The phrase is quoted by Flannery O’Connor in an essay on the importance of using the idioms of people you hear around you for writing stories. O’Connor says: “Now there is a whole book in that one sentence.” The sentence is spoken by one of two hitchhikers who have been picked up by a traveling salesman called Harris, as he drives toward Memphis one night. One of the hitchhikers has a guitar and it’s he who speaks. He goes on to tell Harris a brief story of his childhood. Harris listens automati-cally—it’s his habit. And what he happens to hear now is the story of this man’s mother, who used to sing ballads:

Long ago dead an’ gone. Pa’d come home from the courthouse drunk as a wheelbarrow, and she’d just pick up an’ go and sit on the front step facin’ the hill an’ sing. Ever’thing she knowed, she’d sing. Dead an’ gone, an’ the house burned down.

The mother’s obscure tragedy, the man’s speech, his pride in what could be made out of his backwoods, hill-country life, momentarily touch the salesman. Then they arrive at a place in the Delta called Dulcie, and while Harris is inside his usual stop-off hotel, the two men get into a fight. Harris goes to a brothel in the rain, the woman there is interested in him and resents his travels, a girl there falls for him, he hears the guitar-player has been killed, he goes back to his hotel, and the girl follows him. In the morning he drives on, and a little black boy in the street asks if he can have the dead man’s box, just before he drives off: “The po’ kilt man’s gittar. Even the policemans didn’t want it.” Harris hands it over. The story is full of the loneliness of a life of pointless traveling and no home, of chance encounters without meaning or sense, and of a humane man with sympathies and interests gone adrift. Every inch of the writing is loaded with the sense of “the helplessness of his life.”

Though O’Connor praises this story, it suggests what sets Welty apart from other white Southern writers, as well as what links them. If O’Connor was writing a story about a murdered hitchhiker, it would move relentlessly, like “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” toward a ghastly moment of revela-tion when the man’s whole purpose in life would be understood, in the eye of God, at the point of his death. If Faulkner were writing it, the hitchhiker’s death—like that of Joe Christmas in Light in August—would involve the guilt-ridden history of a whole community, and Harris’s burdensome memory of his decayed dynasty. If Carson McCullers were writing it, the hitchhiker would be traveling with a one-legged…

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