The Quiet Greatness of Eudora Welty

Like Robert Frost, Carl Sandburg, and a few others, Eudora Welty endures in national memory as the perpetual senior citizen, someone tenured for decades as a silver-haired elder of American letters. Her abiding maturity made her seem, perhaps long before her time, perfectly suited to the role of our favorite maiden aunt.
But when I visited Welty at her Jackson, Mississippi, home on a bright, hot July day in 1994, I got a glimpse of the girl she used to be. She was eighty-five by then, stooped by arthritis, and feeling the full weight of her years. As she slowly made her way into her living room, navigating the floor as if walking a tightrope, I could see that her clear, blue eyes retained the vigorous curiosity that had defined her career. She still wanted to know what would happen next.
And while she sat with me for one of her last interviews, Welty seemed acutely aware that she had been young once—and slightly surprised, like so many people touched by advancing age, that the seasons had worked their will upon her so quickly.
Physical decline had kept Welty from the prized camellias planted out back, and they were now forced to fend for themselves. “The garden is gone. It makes me ill to look at it,” she told me in her signature Southern drawl. “But I’m not complaining. It’s just the state of things.”
Welty’s comment about the sad state of her yard was just a passing remark, and yet it appeared to point toward the center of her artistic vision, which seemed keenly alert to the way that time pressed, like a front of weather, on every living thing.
What Welty once wrote of E. B. White’s work could just as easily describe her literary ideal: “The transitory more and more becomes one with the beautiful.” Her three avocations—gardening, current events, and photography—were, like her writing, deeply informed by a desire to secure fragile moments as objects of art.
Tellingly, One Writer’s Beginnings, Welty’s celebrated 1984 memoir, begins with a passage about timepieces:
In our house on North Congress Street in Jackson, Mississippi, where I was born, the oldest of three children, in 1909, we grew up to the striking of clocks. There was a mission-style oak grandfather clock standing in the hall, which sent its gong-like strokes through the living room, dining room, kitchen and pantry, and up the sounding board of the stairwell. Through the night, it could find its way into our ears; sometimes, even on the sleeping porch, midnight could wake us up. My parents had a smaller striking clock that answered it. . . . This was good at least for a future fiction writer, being able to learn so penetratingly, and almost first of all, about chronology. It was one of a good many things I learned almost without knowing it; it would be there when I needed it.
One Writer’s Beginnings recounts Welty’s early years as the daughter of a prominent Jackson insurance executive and a mother so devoted to reading that she once risked her life to save her set of Dickens novels from a house fire.
Welty’s childhood seemed ideal for an aspiring writer, but she initially struggled to make her mark. After a college career that took her to Mississippi State College for Women, the University of Wisconsin at Madison, and Columbia University, Welty returned to Jackson in 1931 and found slim job prospects. She worked in radio and newspapering before signing on as a publicity agent for the Works Progress Administration, which required her to travel the back roads of rural Mississippi, taking pictures and writing press releases. Her trips connected her with the country folk who would soon shape her short stories and novels, and also allowed her to cultivate a deep passion for photography.
Welty took photography seriously, and even if she had never published a word of prose, her pictures alone would probably have secured her a legacy as a gifted documentarian of the Great Depression. Her photographs have been collected in several beautiful books, including One Time, Once PlaceEudora Welty: Photographs; andEudora Welty as Photographer. In hiring Welty, “the Works Progress Administration was making a gift of the utmost importance to American letters,” her friend and fellow writer William Maxwell once observed. “It obliged her to go where she would not otherwise have gone and see people and places she might not ever have seen. A writer’s material derives nearly always from experience. Because of this job she came to know the state of Mississippi by heart and could never come to the end of what she might want to write about.”
Because of the years in which she was most active behind the camera, Welty invites obvious comparison with Walker Evans, whose Depression-era photographs largely defined the period for subsequent generations. Walker’s pictures often seem sharply rhetorical, as when he captures poverty-stricken families in formal portrait poses to offer a seemingly ironic comment on the distance between the top and bottom rungs of the economic ladder. But Welty, by contrast, seems uninterested in using her subjects as symbols. She appears to see the people in her pictures as objects of affection, not abstract political points.
In One Writer’s Beginnings, Welty notes that her skills of observation began by watching her parents, suggesting that the practice of her art began—and endured—as a gesture of love. Even when the characters in her stories are flawed, she seems to want the best for them, one notable exception being “Where Is the Voice Coming From?,” a short story told from the perspective of a bigot who murders a civil rights activist. Welty wrote it at white-hot speed after the slaying of real-life civil rights hero Medgar Evers in Mississippi, and she admitted, perhaps correctly, that the story wasn’t one of her best. “I’m not sure that this story was brought off,” Welty conceded, “and I don’t believe that my anger showed me anything about human character that my sympathy and rapport never had.”
Welty’s philosophy of both literary and visual art seems pretty clear in “A Still Moment,” a short story in which bird artist John James Audubon experiences a brief interlude of transcendence upon spotting a white heron, which he then shoots for his collection. What Welty seems to say, without quite saying so, is that the best pictures and stories cannot simply reduce the creatures within their spell to specimens. True engagement requires a durable sympathy with the world.
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