Book Review


Those many who have feasted on Eudora Welty’s fiction through the years now can enjoy this rich table of leftovers. Since she left us in 2001, several follow-up books have appeared: appreciations of William Faulkner and the painter William Hollingsworth plus collections centered on her wanderings around the Mississippi River country, her youthful escapades and her photography. Perhaps there will be more, but one feels that this may be the last of her writings uncollected until now.[1]

They are drawn from everywhere: the Mississippi State archives in Jackson, exchanges of letters, articles in the New York Times and the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, chance publications in small, obscure magazines. Here we find unfinished drama, stories that were never republished, reviews, introductions, recipes (for eggnog and chicken pie!), reminiscences, appreciations, speeches, even a poem or two. This was a woman so creative that even her daily speech bore a tone of originality and sharp observation, often full of delight and fun. She could not write a sentence that was ordinary or plain.

In reading this book, I was struck by several unexpected aspects. One is her passionate defense of the South. Not only did she love Jackson, her hometown, also her state, but she avidly defended Southernness, our attitudes and customs, even our weather, and especially Southern literature. A lengthy article she wrote, which appeared anonymously in the LondonTimes Literary Supplement in 1954, extolled Southern writing from its origins, showing how it continues into the present. She saw it as the constant impulse to artistic expression which Southerners have possessed all along the way. There is also the famous letter in which she challenged the brilliant Edmund Wilson for his scolding review of William Faulkner’s Intruder in the Dust. Both the review and her letter appeared in The New Yorker in 1948. It is still worth our time to read both. She even wrote a lovely description of Mississippi hot weather for Harper’s Bazaar, aptly called “The Abode of Summer.”

It was often said that Eudora took little interest in current politics or issues of national importance. I found this to be untrue. Though she shared many qualities of a well-brought-up Southern lady—good manners, attentive listening, correct behavior—Eudora was not “sweet.” If we took her to be so, we might sail into alarmingly heavy weather. Her feelings were reserved, but they were there and they were strong. She could turn a stupid remark off with a joke, though the joke itself might have a bite in it. But she was sometimes sharply corrective; she did not like slack thinking; she could be passionate. See for instance her letter to the Jackson Clarion-Ledger on the 1945 visit of Gerald K. Smith to the state. Smith was head of the America First Party, a leader in the U.S. of what could only be called fascism. He came South to put a wreath on Huey Long’s grave and thence to Mississippi to distribute wreaths to Mississippians Senator Theodore Bilbo and Representative John Rankin, seeing them as right-minded leaders. He came also to organize the development of his party in the South. Eudora’s complaint to the local paper was that no one had criticized his coming there, no one had asked him what he thought he was doing, no one had told him to Get Out! She acknowledged the shame of having elected the likes of Bilbo and Rankin but hoped for better sense from voters in future elections. No blandly polite Southern lady could have talked like that. Her admiration for Adlai Stevenson and for Mississippi’s most liberal governor William Winter finds expression here also.

But of course the center of her life was fiction.

It is of especial interest to a fellow writer to read her early beginning stories, which until her name was widely known were never published. One can see the tendency of her vision, how it is struggling to break out into full expression. Probably the best of these is “Acrobats in a Park.” A whole family of circus performers is stranded in a Jackson park, the circus having gone off and left them there. The interaction of the family members, so keenly observed, draws the story on.

I was most interested, however, in a story called “The Doll.” A young girl just engaged to an older man buys a doll at a bazaar. When he comes to visit her that evening, she finds little to say to him. She holds the doll, and they cannot communicate. At this point there is a fire alarm, and they leap into a car and go rushing to the fire. In a burning building the girl sees a woman standing in a high window, surrounded by fire, waiting for rescue. The woman looks like a doll. The pair turn away, and the girl, turned tender and loving, throws herself in the man’s arms.

The faults in the story are obvious. The doll is put to work as a symbol of childhood. Why a couple, just engaged, momentarily at a loss for words, would jump in a car and race to a fire is so contrived as to be absurd. Yet the story in the end reveals the emotions of a girl in love, feelings I believe Eudora Welty never elsewhere ventured to describe. I found this passage moving, almost strong enough to rescue a trial not quite successful.

Eudora was generous in talking about her work. Hence we find here forewords and afterwords, probing her own memory of creating Morgana, the setting for The Golden Apples, explaining characters and scenes from The Optimist’s Daughter. It is singular that a writer would even want to do this. Lifting the veils from the process itself, she might seem to be giving a last full measure to the work; but one might also see the work as already finished, completed on the page. Who has attempted such a thing before? I can only think of Poe and “The Raven.” Eliot might have helped us with “The Waste Land,” and spared us thousands of critical analyses.

Eudora’s remarks on the writings of others, however, are wonderfully illuminating. In her essay on Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, she becomes so intensely involved in the text it would seem the two writers are so at one as to be jointly creating that vivid work. She sees it as an instantaneous revelation, like a stroke of lightning or, better still, a crossing beam from the lighthouse itself on that one day.

Another triumph is her tribute to fairy tales. She sees them as survivors, “authorless, timeless, placeless . . . flawless.” They have come into our consciousness, and their power does not end with childhood. She goes on to show how poets, playwrights and fiction writers are indebted to these stories. One could, of course, recall her own Robber Bridegroom.

On we could go with pointing out good things in Occasions to savor. This is hardly a book to be read from start to finish. Readers can skip around and pick and choose, wandering wherever they like, a luxury indeed.

[1] OCCASIONS: Selected Writings, by Eudora Welty, ed. by Pearl Amelia McHaney. University Press of Mississippi. $35.00.