To the Editors:
In her letter commenting on Lorrie Moore’s review of my book, Passionate Minds [NYR, May 11], Joyce Carol Oates accuses me of writing that Eudora Welty should be faulted for “having failed to write of such timely subjects as racial conflict” in the Mississippi of her era. From this extreme misstatement of what I have written about Welty, Ms. Oates goes on to suggest that I would condemn all writers for not responding to the political issues of their times: Emily Dickinson, for instance, for not writing about the Civil War. I am as offended as Ms. Oates is by such a preposterous notion, which bears no relation to what Iactually wrote.
At no time did Isay that Welty had an obligation to respond to public issues. What I wrote is that many of Welty’s early stories did respond very powerfully to the racial situation; this is not why they are wonderful stories, but Welty’s mordant observation of people around her, who happened to be living in that situation, is a part of why her writing is so good. I argue that Welty turned away from direct observation at a time when she began to write of the South with a warm nostalgia—this was in the 1940s—and that in closing her eyes to the contemporary world she deprived her writing of its former force.
To criticize the later work of an important writer is not usually considered “bullying,” and I wonder if Ms. Oates would apply this word to the criticism of any other writer. The best of Welty’s work is far too strong to require this kind of special pleading. That Welty could still write with enormous power when she reconnected with the world is evident in “Where Is the Voice Coming From?,” a story of 1963 about the murder of Medgar Evers, of which Ms. Oates claims I am ignorant. Had she read my essay, she would know that I discuss it with great admiration.
Claudia Roth Pierpont
New York City
May 25, 2000