Storytelling imbues Southern life. The great Mississippi writer Eudora Welty (1909-2001) highlighted this when a Paris Review interviewer asked her in 1972 if she was an eavesdropper: “I’m not as much as I used to be, or would like to be, because I don’t hear as well as I used to, or there’s too much other noise everywhere. But I’ve heard some wonderful remarks. Well, in the South, everybody stays busy talking all the time—they’re not sorry for you to overhear their tales. I don’t feel in helping myself I ever did anything underhanded. I was helping out.”
Small Southern towns, often thought of as mundane or unextraordinary, are where Welty’s stories bloom. She spent much of her early life observing others, as a publicity agent interviewing and photographing Mississippians for the Works Progress Administration and writing stories about life in Jackson, for The Commercial Appeal newspaper of Memphis.
Through these experiences, Welty came to better understand the dynamics of human interaction in the South and drew upon them to create works that spoke to universal experiences. Welty rose in popularity after publishing her first book of short stories, A Curtain of Green (1941) – which includes the uproarious classic, “Why I Live at the P.O.” - and soon after joined The New York Times Book Review as a staff member.
Welty proved herself a master of the short story and the novel during her long career. She won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for The Optimist’s Daughter. It follows the story of a woman who experiences the great loss of her father and subsequently must return to his hometown of Mount Salus, Mississippi to bury him. There she is forced to wrestle with her grief and the memories that haunt her there.
Eudora Welty is a giant of Southern literature, so it was only fitting that we had a giant of Southern letters, Louis D. Rubin Jr. (1923-2013) write an appreciation. A literary critic, novelist and educator, Rubin was an early champion of Welty’s work. He also nurtured a generation of female Southern writers, including Lee Smith and Annie Dillard, while teaching at Hollins College, and brought national attention to the region’s writers as a founder of Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.
Appreciation of the Stories of Eudora Welty by Louis D. Rubin Jr.
At first glance, the people Eudora Welty usually writes about seem unremarkable, as are the mostly Mississippi towns, cities, and countryside they live in.
To read her stories, however, such as “Why I Live at the P.O.,” “Petrified Man,” “Powerhouse,” “Moon Lake,” and “Kin,” is to learn otherwise. Through them you enter the realm of the extraordinary, as revealed in the commonplace. Each of Welty’s seemingly mundane people exhibits the depth, complexity, private surmise, and ultimate riddle of human identity. “Every-body to their own visioning,” as one of her characters remarks.
There is plenty of high comedy. Few authors can match her eye for the incongruous, the hilarious response, the bemused quality of the way her people go about their lives. There is also pathos, veering sometimes into tragedy, and beyond that, awareness of what is unknowable and inscrutable.
Her most stunning fiction is the group of interconnected stories published in 1949 as The Golden Apples. These center on the citizenry of Morgana, Mississippi, over the course of some four decades. In “June Recital” German-born Miss Lottie Elisabeth Eckhart teaches piano to the young. These include Cassie Morrison, who carries on her teacher’s mission, and Virgie Rainey, most talented of all, who in spite of herself absorbs “the Beethoven, as with the dragon’s blood.” In the closing story, “The Wanderers,” Virgie sits under a tree not far from Miss Eckhart’s grave and gazes into the falling rain, hearing “the magical percussion” drumming into her ears: “That was the gift she had touched with her fingers that had drifted and left her.”
Welty’s richly allusive style, alive to nuance, is not really like anyone else’s. The dialogue (her characters talk at rather than to one another), the shading of Greek mythology and W. B. Yeats’s poetry into the rhythms of everyday life in Morgana, the depth perception of a major literary artist, all make her stories superb.