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 midget.
It’s a very long time since Leslie Fiedler, in Love and Death in the American Novel (1960), referred to Welty, Katherine Anne Porter, McCullers, and O’Connor as “distaff Faulknerians”: in Eudora Welty “the grotesque tensions and masculine vigor of Faulkner…tend to disappear among the more delicate nuances of sensibility.” Welty long outlived that kind of misguided condescension, and was always calm and measured when asked about Faulkner’s influence on her:
So often I’m asked how I could have written a word with William Faulkner living in Mississippi, and this question amazes me. It was like living near a big mountain, something majestic—it made me happy to know it was there, all that work of his life. But it wasn’t a helping or hindering presence. Its magnitude, all by itself, made it something remote in my own working life.
Certainly she shares with other Southern writers a haunted sense of the past, a familiarity with an intensely rooted and memory-ridden community, an ear for voices, and an acute sense of the grotesque. She is also, as “The Hitch-Hikers” suggests, as interested in wandering, homelessness, and passing encounters as she is in the binding power of fixed, small, tale-telling neighborhoods. But the way “The Hitch-Hikers” allows momentary, deep glimpses of the unhappiness and vulnerability of lives accidentally brought together, and then lets them drift out of the story in all the confusion of their desires and regrets, is the work of a writer unlike any other.
Welty had a wonderfully benign and generous presence, and she spoke of herself and her work, all her life, in many interviews and essays, with exceptional modesty and privateness. But her work is much darker than this benevolent public persona indicated. Her vigorous, startling comic narratives often have grim tales to tell, and are at their most ebullient (as in “The Wide Net” or “Petrified Man”) when they have something macabre or dreadful to talk about. A lot of their good humor is barbaric, violent. The joviality of the female relations in the novel Losing Battles, who are trying to make a young girl admit she is one of the family by forcing her on the ground, in a kind of gang rape, to swallow the juice of a melon they are grinding into her face, is astoundingly brutal. Her greatest comic turn, “Why I Live at the P.O.,” can be read as a cruel story of revenge, spite, and lies. And some of the strongest feelings in Welty—as with the narrator of that story—are of savage anger against the confines of the family and the community. It’s one of the great energizing paradoxes in her fiction that what she most celebrates is also most resisted. We enter deep into the communal lives of Delta Wedding or The Golden Apples, but we also come to understand very well the wild, savage, secret selves of people whose feelings fail “to match the feelings of everybody else,” and who need to make a life of their own and get away.
But she is, above all, a humane writer. Her families can be realistically brutal and oppressive, but they can also be places of refuge and education. And one of her strongest themes is education, even though—or because—she often writes about (and famously began her career by photographing, during the Depression) people who are illiterate, poor, or unread. Her mother was a teacher and a great reader, and Welty’s fiction often has a woman teacher as a crucially influential character. Though she doesn’t wear her learning and literariness ostentatiously—and sometimes gets talked about as though she were a “natural” or “spontaneous” writer—Welty is immensely well-read and practiced, with a dense, lyrical, highly metaphorical language, impossible to read quickly or casually. Reading made her a writer. The songs of the hitchhiker’s dead mother—“Ever’thing she knowed, she’d sing”—are the backwoods equivalent of the books that filled the house Eudora Welty grew up in, and lived in all her life until her death in July.
In her enchanting, self-concealing autobiography, One Writer’s Beginnings (1984), Welty recalled her childhood in Jackson, Mississippi, as having a great deal to do with books. Her parents’ living room was always called “the library”; her mother read aloud to her as a child and she began very young to read for herself. One of her powerful childhood memories was of being taken out of school at six or seven with a “fast-beating heart” and having to rest in her parents’ bed. In the evening, they would sit and talk in the room where she was half-sleeping, and she would hear “the murmur of their voices, the back-and-forth.” In her partly autobiographical novel, The Optimist’s Daughter (1972), the orphaned Laura, whose father has just died, is left alone in her parents’ house, and goes into what was her father’s “library.” Although her father remarried, disastrously, after her mother’s death, nothing has been changed in the study. She sits at her father’s desk and looks at his books:
She saw at once that nothing had happened to the books…. Shoulder to shoulder, they had long since made their own family. For every book here she had heard their voices, father’s and mother’s. And perhaps it didn’t matter to them, not always, what they read aloud; it was the breath of life flowing between them, and the words of the moment riding on it that held them in delight.
That protected, tender memory of the parents’ voices, of reading as the “breath of life,” irradiates this dark and painful novel. Just so, the voice of this wonderful writer still comes to us like a speaking sound, a breath of life, to hold us “in delight.”
September 20, 2001