To the Editors:

In her review of Claudia Roth Pierpont’s Passionate Minds: Women Rewriting the World [NYR, April 13], in which Eudora Welty, the “perfect lady,” is accused of having failed to write of such timely subjects as racial conflict out of a disinclination to offend her Jackson, Mississippi, neighbors, Lorrie Moore makes the subtle point that a writer may decline to write about some subjects out of modesty: “a writer’s underestimation of his or her abilities, that keeps the work…so constricted.” It might be more generally argued that no artist has the obligation to take on any subject; art isn’t sociology, journalism, or CNN. Only a very naive and mean-spirited critic would wish to fault Emily Dickinson for having failed to write specifically of the Civil War, for instance, or Henry James, Edith Wharton, and Willa Cather for having failed to write of the exploitation of child labor in the US in their time. We note that William Faulkner failed to contend with the great revolution in physics that was occurring during his lifetime, and James Baldwin took no evident interest in women’s liberation. These curious lapses in genius we must forgive.

The irony is that, in fact, in her bullying of Welty, Pierpont exhibits an ignorance of Welty’s more “timely” work. Welty has written at least two fine stories that deal directly, and memorably, with racial issues in her South: “Where Is the Voice Coming From?” (1963), which gives voice to the white racist killer who shot down the black university student Medgar Evers; and “The Demonstrators” (1966). The merit of these stories isn’t that they are timely, or even courageous, but that they are beautifully written.

Joyce Carol Oates
Professor of Humanities
Princeton University
Princeton, New Jersey

This Issue

May 11, 2000