My experience in reading the whole body of stories (a number of them encountered for the first time) was to some degree disconcerting. For I had assumed, naively, that they would repeat a certain shapeliness of development appropriate to a career as distinguished and as frequently honored as Eudora Welty’s—that they would show a rising curve of achievement, followed by a high plateau of steady production above which several exceptional pieces would glisten like peaks. Instead, the most original and interesting stories are clustered, in my opinion, at the very beginning of the thirty years of publication; and while some of the later stories are indeed accomplished, they seem to mark a return to the strengths of an earlier mode rather than an advance into new and challenging territory.
With that first book, A Curtain of Green, which appeared in 1941 with an introduction by Katherine Anne Porter, Eudora Welty made a debut that was impressive even in a period when the supply of new Southern talent seemed inexhaustible. No other writer—not even the Faulkner of The Hamlet—had attained her mastery of the demotic speech of the region or her ability to work it into a grotesque, often loony, poetry of dislocation and surprise. “Why I Live at the P.O.” remains the most popular of her stories, a small classic of the genre—and for good reason.
It would be a holiday. It wasn’t five minutes before Uncle Rondo suddenly appeared in the hall in one of Stella-Rondo’s flesh-colored kimonos, all cut on the bias, like something Mr. Whitaker [Stella-Rondo’s deserted husband] probably thought was gorgeous.
“Uncle Rondo!” I says. “I didn’t know who that was! Where are you going?”
“Sister,” he says, “get out of my way, I’m poisoned.”
“If you’re poisoned stay away from Papa-Daddy,” I says. “Keep out of the hammock. Papa-Daddy will certainly beat you on the head if you come within forty miles of him. He thinks I deliberately said he ought to cut off his beard after he got me the P.O., and I’ve told him and told him and told him, and he acts like he just don’t hear me. Pappa-Daddy must of gone stone deaf.”
“He picked a fine day to do it then,” says Uncle Rondo, and before you could say “Jack Robinson” flew out in the yard.
What he’d really done, he’d drunk another bottle of that prescription. He does it every single Fourth of July as sure as shooting, and it’s horribly expensive. Then he falls over in the hammock and snores…
Papa-Daddy woke up with this horrible yell and right there without moving an inch he tried to turn Uncle Rondo against me.
So at supper Stella-Rondo speaks up and says she thinks Uncle Rondo ought to try to eat a little something. So finally Uncle Rondo said he would try a little cold biscuits and ketchup, but that was all. So she brought it to him.
“Do you think it wise to disport with ketchup in Stella-Rondo’s flesh-colored kimono?” I says. Trying to be considerate! If Stella-Rondo couldn’t watch out for her trousseau, somebody had to.
“Any objections?” asks Uncle Rondo, just about to pour out all the ketchup.
“Don’t mind what she says, Uncle Rondo,” says Stella-Rondo. “Sister has been devoting this solid afternoon to sneering out my bedroom window at the way you look.”
Seldom can paranoia, transvestite impulses, and sibling spite have been so happily transmuted into the stuff of comedy as the story races without an instant’s slackening toward Sister’s mad and triumphant self-immurement at the P.O.
Similarly, in “Petrified Man,” a coven of man-hating witches in a den of horrors has undergone metamorphosis into the gossipy clientele of a tacky beauty parlor, their speech and actions recorded with unnerving fidelity.
…She flicked an ash into the basket of dirty towels. “Mrs. Pike is a very decided blonde. She bought me the peanuts.”
“She must be cute,” said Mrs. Fletcher.
“Honey, ‘cute’ ain’t the word for what she is. I’m tellin’ you, Mrs. Pike is attractive. She has her a good time. She’s got a sharp eye out, Mrs. Pike has.”
She dashed the comb through the air, and paused dramatically as a cloud of Mrs. Fletcher’s hennaed hair floated out of the lavender teeth like a small storm-cloud.
“Uh-huh, commencin’ to fall out,” said Leota, combing again, and letting fall another cloud.
“Is it any dandruff in it?” Mrs. Fletcher was frowning, her hair-line eyebrows diving down toward her nose, and her wrinkled, beady-lashed eyelids batting with concentration.
“Nope.” She combed again. “Just fallin’ out.”
“Bet it was that last perm’nent you gave me that did it,” Mrs. Fletcher said cruelly. “Remember you cooked me fourteen minutes.”
“You had fourteen minutes comin’ to you,” said Leota with finality.
Images of mutilation and disfigurement, of sadism, castration, and abortion lurk just beneath the hilarious surface—images that culminate in the figure of Mr. Petrie, the fugitive rapist, immobilized and calcified in a freak show.
These early stories demonstrate repeatedly Eudora Welty’s powers of identification with widely diverse characters in a variety of situations. The speech-rhythms, the movements, the clowning of the Fats Waller-like jazz piano-player in “Powerhouse” are brilliantly realized; so is the isolation of the little knot of black musicians playing at a white dance and drinking their beer in a bleak Niggertown café during intermission. Separateness, isolation, and the yearning to love and belong—such themes are memorably dramatized in the experiences of traveling salesmen, the deaf and dumb, the widowed, the mad, and the very ignorant. Though elements of the fantastic drift in and sometimes tantalize the reader with suggestions of mystery, the pieces are essentially realistic, well anchored in their time and place. Only one story, the much-admired “A Worn Path,” strikes me as sentimental in its effort to coerce one’s sympathies in behalf of the ancient, half-senile Negro woman who heroically trudges over hill and dale, past briar and stream, to get “soothing” medicine for her little grandson from a Natchez dispensery.
The talent displayed in A Curtain of Green is robust, delighting in absurdity and vulgarity, capable, too, of delicately probing the recesses of loneliness and loss. The high proportion of first-rate stories among the seventeen that comprise the book places A Curtain of Green among the outstanding story collections of the last half-century, in a league, I would claim, with Everything That Rises Must Converge and The Magic Barrel.
It is this very robustness and diversity of effect that are missing, for the most part, in the next book of stories, The Wide Net (1943). Only the title piece (a benign, rural comedy about a long day’s dragging of the Pearl River for the body of a supposedly suicidal young wife) draws significantly upon the humor that so enriches the first collection. Instead, the writer appears to have surrendered to an excessively poetic and “literary” impulse that runs counter to her natural abilities as a storyteller. The atmosphere of The Wide Net is dream-like: hard “facts” are hard to come by, so shrouded are they by metaphor, so subordinated are they to lyric, symbolic, or mythopoeic intentions. These stories are mostly set along the fabled Natchez Trace, the wilderness track along which Indians and early settlers, criminals, evangelists, and adventurers made their way to the old Southwest. In two of the tales (“First Love,” “A Still Moment”) historical figures associated with the Trace are introduced: Aaron Burr and John James Audubon; others (“Asphodel,” “At the Landing”) take place in an unspecified free-floating past or present and involve quasi-allegorical figures who can hardly be regarded as characters at all.
The Wide Net reflects the fashion for modernized recapitulations of ancient myth and ritual that had been widely stimulated by The Waste Land and Ulysses and had sent writers scurrying to read From Ritual to Romance and The Golden Bough; it was a fashion that reached its apogee in the 1940s, though it lingered on through the Fifties and into the early Sixties (vide Updike’s The Centaur). In “Asphodel,” male goatishness (which, like the yearnings of isolated, unawakened females, is a recurrent motif in these stories) is suddenly made literal when three picnicking old maids are sent scampering by the appearance of a naked, Pan-like man and a flock of goats issuing from the vineentangled columns of a ruined mansion.
Less overtly mythic but chock-full of ritual and symbol is “At the Landing,” in which a delicate maiden named Jenny dreamily watches, like a modern Lady of Shalott, the life taking place in the bottom lands below her high pavilion; above all, she watches the movements of a “rude wild” fisher of catfish named Floyd. The fertilizing flood waters of the Mississippi rise, and Jenny is rescued by Floyd in his little boat. Later, after he has violated her, Floyd plies Jenny with the roasted meat of a wild animal and with fish. “She knew from him…that what people ate in the world was earth, river, wildness and litheness, fire and ashes. People took the fresh death and the hot fire into their mouths and got their own life.” Still later, when Jenny leaves the high ground and ventures down into the Landing in quest of Floyd, she is raped by the rude fishermen of the river-bluff.
A writer must, of course, be allowed her own subject matter—and allowed to change it, to move on. What I, as a reader of short stories, find unsatisfactory in The Wide Net is not the heavy use of myth and symbolism per se but the fact that too often the author fails to construct a narrative action firm enough to sustain or incorporate them. More distressing is the (often literal) floweriness of the style, the prolonged and somewhat forced lyricism of passages such as this:
She looked behind her for the last time as she went down under the trees. As if it were made of shells and pearls and treasures from the sea, the house glinted in the sunset, tinted with the drops of light that seemed to fall slowly through the vaguely stirring leaves. Tenderly as seaweed the long moss swayed. The chimney branched like coral in the upper blue.
Then green branches closed it over, and with her next step trumpet and muscadine vines and the great big-leaved vines made pillars about the trunks of the trees and arches and buttresses all among them. Passion flowers bloomed with their white and purple rays about her shoulders and under her feet….
The evocation of a green and flowery world can certainly be justified when the writer is attempting to cast a legendary or pastoral spell—but vines need tending and pruning, as Milton showed us, even in the Garden of Eden.
A partial re-emergence from the world of dream and legend occurs in The Golden Apples (1949), though the unpruned lyricism and the reliance upon mythological underpinnings are still much in evidence. The seven interconnected stories that make up this book follow, on the representational level, the destinies of various inhabitants of the little town of Morgana, Mississippi, and the surrounding countryside from the early years of the century to the Second World War. Again we encounter familiar figures and themes: the untrammeled male who comes and goes, the sacrificial wife, yearning adolescent girls, the old, the rejected, and the lonely who make heartbreaking attempts to “connect,” to find love. Though the mythic parallels (Zeus, Danae, Perseus, and Medusa, etc.) are obtrusive, the rendering of the country folk—their speech, their customs and rites, their strong bonds of kinship and neighborliness, their occasional buffoonery or cruelty—creates a deep-South microcosm to which the reader can often respond with wonder, recognition, nostalgia, and delight.
Despite the realistic details, the vision of this small world is essentially bucolic: all in a summer’s day. Poverty exists, but its teeth are drawn. The black inhabitants are cheerful, funny, and kindly; it is inconceivable that a lynching has ever taken—or could ever take—place in Morgana or MacLain County. Although the tensions that exist can be strong, the accidents nearly fatal, they occur within the realm of the personal, the familial, and do not reflect the larger social or racial issues. Bilbo, Vardaman, the Klan—we hear nothing of them. It is this family-centered, somewhat laundered version of life in Mississippi that relates The Golden Apples to the novels of roughly the same period: Delta Wedding and The Ponder Heart.
One longish story—“June Recital”—stands out in the collection. It concerns the return of Morgana’s former music teacher, Miss Eckhart, to the derelict house where she used to give piano lessons. Now mad as well as old and poor, Miss Eckhart intends to decorate the music room with paper streamers, etc., as if for a recital, and then to set fire to it. Unknown to her, her most gifted former pupil, the hoydenish Virgie Rainey, is romping naked upstairs with a sailor. The proceedings are watched from the house next door by a young boy and his older sister, Cassie, who had also been a pupil of Miss Eckhart’s. Since the prevailing mood is pastoral, the impending catastrophe is averted by a timely (and comic) intervention; none the less, the reader is allowed to experience—as from a great distance—the plight of the old German woman, always an alien in the little community, and to participate in her baffled affections for Virgie Rainey and a townsman long dead. Relatively free from the luxuriating tendencies found elsewhere among these stories, the imagery of “June Recital” is sharply focused, visually arresting: “On the right-hand corner of the piano stood a small, mint-white bust of Beethoven, all softened around the edges with the nose smoothed down, as if a cow had licked it.”
The other pieces are less successful, more prone to excesses of metaphor and sensibility—a sensibility that seems overly “feminized” in the bad old sense of that term. “Moon Lake” and (especially) the final story, “The Wanderers,” are intricately constructed and often touching or funny in their unfolding, but they contain passages that I felt had been tainted by all that is weakest and most irritating in the fiction of Katherine Mansfield, Elizabeth Bowen, and even the great Virginia Woolf: an indulgence in states of feeling attenuated to quivering gossamer, in sentiments at once precious, pretentious, and obscure. I will give one example from “The Wanderers.” Here is Virgie Rainey, now a woman of forty, meditating upon the picture of Perseus and Medusa that once hung in Miss Eckhart’s studio:
Because Virgie saw things in their time, like hearing them—and perhaps because she must believe in the Medusa equally with Perseus—she saw the stroke of the sword in three moments, not one. In the three was the damnation—no, only the secret, unhurting because not caring in itself—beyond the beauty and the sword’s stroke and the terror lay their existence in time—far out and endless, a constellation which the heart could read over many a night.
The Golden Apples is a novel manqué; the town of Morgana is Eudora Welty’s Yoknapatawpha County—but viewed through a many-spangled veil.
Unlike its predecessors, the final book of stories, The Bride of the Innisfallen (1955), is a thoroughly mixed lot, having no special character or flavor of its own. Abandoning Mississippi, Eudora Welty takes us on a train-and-boat trip from London to Cork in the title piece and on a sea voyage to Italy in “Going to Naples.” Both make pleasant, slightly inconsequential reading; both are under-plotted, more travel diary than fiction—though a belated effort is made to wring significance from the situation of the American girl at the end of “The Bride of the Innisfallen.” Another piece, “No Place for You, My Love,” is also a travelogue (in this instance a car trip through the bayou country south of New Orleans) with the ghost of a story riding in the back seat.
But the collection is more than redeemed by two Mississippi stories in Eudora Welty’s most accomplished vein: “Ladies in Spring” and “Kin.” The former is pure pastoral—a sweet, delicate blend of comic and fantastic elements involving a father, Blackie Coker, and his young son Dewey on a fishing expedition during which they encounter an amazingly successful rainmaker, Miss Hattie Purcell, who is also the town’s postmistress, and a mysterious lady softly calling out Blackie’s name from the shore; it is all told from young Dewey’s limited and wondering perspective. “Kin” is much more realistic, a vividly detailed and poignant account of the visit of two girl-cousins to the old family homestead where an aged great-uncle lies bedridden; approaching the sagging house they see a large crowd of country people assembled and assume that Uncle Felix has died—only to discover that Sister Anne, the distant relation who nurses the senile old man, has converted the house for that afternoon into a studio for an itinerant photographer. It is a story full of revelations, of soft explosions that carry far.
Since 1955 Eudora Welty has published only two pieces of short fiction. Both date from the mid-Sixties, when she was under attack, accused of ignoring the civil rights struggle. In an article called “Must the Novelist Crusade?” (reprinted last year in The Eye of the Story), she made an eloquent (and to my mind, unanswerable) defense of the way in which the true novelist must work—and of the ways in which the novelist’s personal, intensely private vision can illuminate even those issues which it is accused of evading.
None the less, as if in response to the pressure of events, these last stories do concern themselves directly—not obliquely—with the conflict then raging in her state. “Where Is the Voice Coming From?” (1963) was finished, Miss Welty tells us in the preface to this volume, on the very night that Medgar Evers was shot in Jackson. Written in the first person, it gives the story of the shooting from the murderer’s point of view. As an imaginative identification with a totally alien (yet thoroughly known) character, it is a tour de force, psychologically convincing until the very end, when the author unaccountably (to me) destroys the illusion by having the murderer take down his guitar and “sing a-down, down, down, down. Sing a-down, down, down, down. Down.” “The Demonstrators” (1966) is more conventional, exploring as it does the experiences and sensations of a troubled doctor—a “good” Southerner—called in to treat a Negro girl stabbed by her lover at a time when the whole community is jumpy about the possible racial implications of any violent act. It is a good Welty story, well constructed, well considered, but not among the best.
For the most recent example of what Eudora Welty can do when her talents are fully engaged, we must turn not to a short story but to that superb short novel, The Optimist’s Daughter (1972)—a complex, probing, strongly felt work which displays, in one of its aspects, a gleeful and savage rendering of southern vulgarity through dialogue that has not been equaled since those early stories in A Curtain of Green.
December 4, 1980