Sometimes the prospect of reviewing the work of an understood American short story master can be both daunting and reassuring. If the reader is unfamiliar with the short story work of American monolith writers like William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, or F. Scott Fitzgerald and enters without the baggage of critics or general evaluators, the experience can be revelatory. For those writers, and many more who toiled in all manner of writing forms (short story, novels, plays, and more) reputation and status is solid.
It usually takes major shifts in the winds of intellectual sensibility to bring such authors down from their pedestals. Readers who make friends, if you will, in the works of these great American writers (and so many others) at impressionable reading ages can be comforted by more visits as the years pass. We will age, but the strength and dependability coming from the work of the greatest American short story masters will never diminish.
The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty, a 1983 National Book Award Winner, has been re-released this year to a reading public that may or may not need it. This might be a rash conclusion for this Northern-based reviewer, a concession to political correctness, surrendering to a desire to be seen as somebody trying to navigate in an idealistic “post-racial” world, but it was the first feeling that came to me after finishing this large collection of 41 stories taken from four books and spanning 14 years (1941-1955.) Two selections in a section called “Uncollected Stories”, (1963’s “Where Is the Voice Coming From?” and 1966’s “The Demonstrators”) hint at the possible avenues Welty could have traveled had she stripped down the layers of literary structure and sense of place in favor of direct contact with a world outside of Mississippi.
The argument for many years has been that Welty, a white female writer from Jackson, Mississippi, was, at her best, ambivalent about race. Writing in and around the same time as the legendary African-American writer Richard Wright, Welty refused a request from The Journal of Mississippi History to review Wright’s 1945 memoir Black Boy:
“Wright was a guilty reminder of the complicity that even a ‘decent white Southerner’ had in a ‘deceased civilization.'”
The idea that Welty chose to be oblique and perhaps insufferably coy about race because she “…was afraid of reprisals against her and her mother if she openly defied ‘local racist customs’ is one way to look at her work, but another is that she saw Wright (an unstoppable literary force if there ever was one) as someone who set off something uncomfortable “…in a thoughtful, pre-civil rights person.” In other words, while the responsible reader of 2019 has to be able to assess Welty’s work on its own literary merit, doing so while avoiding how she deals with race might prove impossible. Fortunately, Ann Patchett‘s solid and affectionate Introduction helps out these stories into effective perspective:
“There is no writer I know of who tells the truth of the landscape like Welty. The natural world is the rock on which these stories are built, and its overbearing presence informs every sentence.”
Patchett’s Introduction sets a perfect tone for the stories that follow because it is about discovery, about connection. Eudora Welty’s name is an imposing one for any reader. Put her in a category with fellow Southern female writers Carson McCullers and Flannery O’Connor and see how quickly the connections beyond gender and regional origin will fade. Patchett notes that her first perception of Welty was that of a “…fabulist, a writer endowed with a superior imagination and love of tall tales.” Welty spent most of her life in Jackson, Mississippi, in the same house her father built when she was a child. Patchett concludes that Welty was to Mississippi as Joan Didion was to California. Of Welty’s stories in this volume, Patchett notes:
“Throughout this book the characters speak of the incessant hell of the heat, of the need to lie down in the middle of the day because of it…Anyone who’s passed a summer in Mississippi will tell you, it may be art but it’s also a fact.”
It should be apparent at this point that starting this collection cold and with no understanding of Welty’s style or of Southern writing of and about pre-Civil Rights America will find it a hard road to travel. There is no comfort here, no smooth summer breeze. In her own Preface, dated May 1980, Welty reflects about her work:
“In general, my stories as they’ve come along have reflected their own present time, beginning with the Depression in which I began; they came out of my response to it. These two written in the changing sixties reflect the unease, the ambiguousness, the sickness and desperation of those days in Mississippi…They come from living here- …my long familiarity with the…many shadings and variations and contradictions.”
It’s in these two uncollected stories that the reader will find the strongest, most immediate resonance. “Where is the Voice Coming From?” takes the perspective of a racist reflecting on life in Mississippi after the shooting of James Meredith and the murder of Medgar Evers. Welty writes in her Preface:
“…I thought, with overwhelming directness: Whoever the murderer is, I know him: not his identity, but his coming about, in this time and place.”
In the story, Welty’s masterful portrayal of white rage burns from the page. Her speaker imagines a world where white mobs running amok get what they want:
“I was already tired of seeing a hundred cops getting us white people nowhere… It don’t get you nowhere to take nothing from nobody unless you make sure it’s for keeps, for good and for all, for ever and amen.”
One problem with The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty is probably also its greatest characteristic. These are slow stories. They take their time. We may see ourselves as patient and responsible readers, but the slow trudge, atmospheric tone in many of these stories will take a lot out of any reader. The four books that comprise this volume: A Curtain of Green (1941), The Wide Net and Other Stories (1943), The Golden Apples (1949), and The Bride of Innisfallen and Other Stories (1955) are effective in that they offer a scope of atmosphere, location, and characterization.
The uncollected stories, both of which had only appeared in The New Yorker, are outliers in that they touch (albeit tentatively) on civil rights issues Welty simply could not afford to keep addressing in such an oblique style. Of the four short story collections in this large volume, only The Golden Apples (1949) features stories tightly connected with each other. It’s prefaced by a list of families that populate her fictional Mississippi town of Morgana and county of Maclain. Like Faulkner’s fictional Yoknapatawpha town, Mississippi proved a state of infinite potential for Welty.
The best way to take this collection is in chronological order, both to see the progress of the author’s growth and cultural sensitivity (or lack thereof.). In the first book, the highlights are probably “Why I Live at the PO” and “Death of a Traveling Salesman”. The latter is an elegiac tribute to the title character. The former is a delight and one of Welty’s most widely anthologized stories. In the former, a defiant young woman leaves her family and spends five days living at the local Post Office. Our narrator writes:
“…I like it here. It’s ideal…I’ve got everything cater-cornered, the way I like it…Radio, sewing machine, book ends, ironing board and that great big piano lamp-peace, that’s what I like…Of course, there’s not much mail.”
One of the more problematic stories in this first book is “Powerhouse”, a sketch about an African-American pianist in the early years of the 20th Century that might have resonated for white readers in 1941 but the initial descriptions of the title character are, to say the least, troubling:
“He’s not coal black-beverage colored-looks like a preacher when his mouth is shut, but then it opens-vast and obscene…his mouth…like a monkey’s when it looks for something…There he is with his great head, fat stomach, and little round piston legs, and long yellow-sectioned strong big fingers, at rest about the size of bananas.”
There isn’t much more to this one. It goes on as a character sketch about a dynamic African-American pianist who caters to a mainly white audience. The modern reader might excuse Welty by assuming her characterization of Powerhouse is meant to reflect the thoughts of a white clientele, but the overall effect will more likely create a queasy reaction. Yet there are a great deal of positive and memorable passages to be found in these stories for those willing to swim through the problematic waters. In “A Piece of News”, a character named Ruby Fisher reads a newspaper story about an abused woman and imagines how things would turn out if she met the same fate:
“Clyde would have to buy her a dress to bury her in. He would have to dig a deep hole behind the house, under the cedar, a grave. He would have to nail her up a pine coffin and lay her inside.”
Lemon and Honey by of zuzi99 (Pixabay License / Pixabay)
In “Petrified Man”, Leota and Mrs. Fletcher spend time in a beauty parlor and metaphorically turn men into stone. In “Clytie”, a strange old lady (the title character) imagines herself upside down in a rain barrel. Her black-stockinged legs are hung apart “like a pair of thongs”. More moodiness follows in “A Worn Path”, in which an indomitable grandmother named Phoenix Jackson embarks on a sacred journey determined to find relief for her scarred grandson.
The final two books in this collection feature stories that are deeper in context and might prove less accessible to the average reader. They demand more from the reader, yet the rewards will prove worth the journey. In “Shower of Gold”, Welty is working from the myth of Zeus impregnating Danae through visiting her in a shower of gold. She still features the type of strong women we’ve read in the earlier stories, but now they’re operating within a deeper context.
With “Circe”, the reader unfamiliar with Ulysses’ brief stop at the island of the sorceress on his journey home might be lost. Welty is less understandable with a story like this, but the style of such writing makes the work stronger. Welty brings her characters to New Orleans (“No Place for You, My Love”) Ireland (“The Bride of Innisfallen”) and Italy (“Going to Naples”) in the last volume, and the stories are stronger for having made the trip.
The strengths in The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty are many and they more than justify their status as among the jewels of American short stories. But to read this work in 2019 and criticize it for not directly dealing with and attacking racial injustice at the moment is unavoidable. Welty draws from myths and fables to make her characters shine. Her language is deeply symbolic and allusive. Take this moment in “Circe”, beautiful if we understand Odysseus yet still wondrous on its own:
“I thought of my father the Sun, who went on his divine way untroubled, ambitionless-unconsumed; suffering no loss, no heroic fear of corruption through his constant shedding of light, needing no story, no retinue to vouch for where he has been — even heroes could learn of the gods!”
The problematic portrayals of African-Americans might be a reflection of how her white characters see their former subordinates, and this portrayal of a white Mississippi slowly trying to adjust to a new South probably spoke more to the reader in its time than it does to readers now. Thus, the way a modern reader understands this writing now should be more contextualized than excused. Consider the fact that these stories (except for the final two) were written and released in a fairly brief time frame (1941-1955).
The strongest selections in The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty are those that go beyond the Mississippi world to place their characters in locations both concrete and abstract. Go to the beautiful opening from Welty’s story “First Love”, a prime example of the writer at her best, for everything you need to understand about her mastery of the form:
“Whatever happened, it happened in extraordinary times, in a season of dreams, and in Natchez [Mississippi] it was the bitterest winter of them all.”