Pros: Welty wrote some of the finest literature, Southern or otherwise, ever to grace a page
Cons: Miss Welty has gone to that great Library in the Sky
Until her death at 92 last month, Eudora Welty had been one of those writers I always told myself I?d ?get around to one of these days.? Sadly, it took her death for me to declare, ?Today is the day.?
Why is it we always feel a greater surge of appreciation for the great ones once they?re gone? (Thought for the day: Go hug a living writer and tell them how much you love them.)
For years, Eudora Welty?s books?The Optimist?s Daughter, Losing Battles, The Collected Stories?sat quietly on my shelf, never waving their hands, never speaking out of turn, never calling too much attention to themselves. Rather like Miss Welty herself.
She was a quiet personality, as reticent as Flannery O?Connor, the other Southern writer she?s often compared to. She lived much of her life in the same town (Jackson, Mississippi), listened carefully to all the conversations buzzing around her like cicadas, and softly went about the business of being a writer. A damn good writer.
More accessible than Faulkner, gentler than O?Connor, Welty?s writing is full of charm and grace. Reading her work, you feel like you?re sitting on the veranda on a warm June afternoon, in the hour just before supper is called and the light starts to fade and the fireflies come out to dance in the yard. Yes, reading Eudora Welty can call to mind such things; but there?s also an underlying tartness, a sharp slice of human comedy. The sweet and sharp co-exist in delicious harmony?rather like the slab of aged cheddar that accompanies the wedge of apple pie. She was the last survivor of the old school of great Southern literature. Oh sure, there are those writers standing in the wings?Reynolds Price, Larry Brown, Lee Smith, Clyde Edgerton?but their more contemporary style will forever be haunted and blessed by Miss Welty?s spirit.
Yes, I gleaned all this from my post-mortem reading of The Optimist?s Daughter. It?s generally acknowledged as Welty?s finest work (and won the Pulitzer in 1973). Truth be told, I had read her works before?a short story here and there in literature anthologies (?Death of a Traveling Salesman,? ?Why I Live at the P.O.,? and so on), but this was the first time I?d pondered and treasured what she had to say.
Brief Biographical Interlude: The Beginning of a Writer
Eudora Welty was born April 13, 1909 in Jackson, Mississippi, the daughter of an insurance executive (perhaps he was optimistic, but I can?t say for sure) and a mother who was an avid reader (the story goes that Mrs. Welty once raced back into a house engulfed in flames to save a set of Dickens volumes). In her autobiography, One Writer?s Beginnings (1984), Eudora wrote, ?As you have seen, I am a writer who came of a sheltered life. A sheltered life can be a daring life as well. For all serious daring starts from within.? She dared to leave home to attend college (at Mississippi State College for Women, then the University of Wisconsin in Madison and finally a year of business school at Columbia University in New York City), but after that short period of her life, she returned home and there she remained, never marrying because, as she said in an interview, ?it never came up.? During the Depression, she served with the Works Project Administration, writing articles and taking photographs (you can see an example of one photo, ?Tomato Packers Recess,? here: www.olemiss.edu/depts/english/ms-writers/dir/welty_eudora/tomato_packers.html). She published her first collection of stories, A Curtain of Green in 1941; a short novel, The Robber Bridegroom, the following year; and a full-length novel, Delta Wedding, in 1946. Later novels include The Ponder Heart (1954) and Losing Battles (1970).
We Now Return to Our Regularly-Scheduled Book Review?
The Optimist?s Daughter is a slender book at 208 pages, but it brims with compact sentences which, in turn, teem with so many details of the human condition that you can only sit back and marvel at Welty?s skill. There?s really not much ?action? to speak of on these pages. Yet, when you examine the inner life of the novel, it is a busy one. Eudora Welty tells us so much with so little. Just look at how she introduces the main character:
Laurel McKelva Hand was a slender, quiet-faced woman in her middle forties, her hair still dark. She wore clothes of an interesting cut and texture, although her suit was wintry for New Orleans and had a wrinkle down the skirt.
Laurel, ?a professional designer of fabrics in Chicago? but a true Mississippian at heart, has been summoned to New Orleans on account of her father, the self-proclaimed optimist, who has been troubled by a ?scratch? on his eye. That turns out to be much more serious than the 71-year-old judge had let on: he?s got ?a malignancy.?
Standing watch with Laurel in the hospital room is the judge?s young second wife Fay, a childish, selfish and altogether unlikable woman from Texas, the other South (Welty neatly describes how even the bottom half of the United States divides itself into factions and regions). The deathwatch turns into a battle of wills between daughter and stepmother. When Judge McKelva finally shuffles off this mortal coil and his body is returned to Mount Salus, Mississippi for proper burial, the sparks fly even brighter.
As Laurel goes home with her father?s casket, it?s a journey back to her past?to the town where she herself had once been married to a young man named Phil who, shortly after their nuptials, had gone off to war and gotten himself killed. Laurel?s spirit is still damaged by the loss, and it?s all the more painful when, upon her arrival at the train station, she?s greeted by a group of her old friends who are collectively known as The Bridesmaids. They?re there to offer comfort (?People live their own way, and to a certain extent I almost believe they may die their own way, Laurel?) and to make sure the family home is well-stocked with pies and turkey and the rest of the funeral smorgasbord.
Family and friends gather at the home to pay their last respects to Judge McKelva who now lies in state in the parlor, dressed in his finest winter suit. This is the longest section of the book and, believe it or not, it?s riotously funny?probably the most laughter I?ve ever had at the expense of death. Welty ratchets up the humor with the arrival of Fay?s family, the rudely boisterous Chisom clan from Madrid, Texas (?Madrid was pronounced with the accent as in Mildred?). If Fay is an outsider to the sewing-circle community of Mount Salus, then the Chisom brood is like to come from Mars.
Through it all, Laurel?the Southerner transplanted to the North?looks deep inside herself to reconcile her grief over the past with her course for the future. This is, at its core, a book about discovering one?s place in the world. As Welty observes, ?The mystery in how little we know of other people is no greater than the mystery of how much.?
I, for one, am glad I got to know Miss Welty. Even if it was too little and too late.
I?ll close this review by quoting a passage from near the end of the book, when Laurel recalls the train trip she made with her fiance Phil as they traveled south to be married. I could think of no better way to end than to let Miss Welty have the last word. Read it and weep with equal parts joy and grief:
When they were climbing the long approach to a bridge after leaving Cairo, rising slowly higher until they rode about the tops of bare trees, she looked down and saw the pale light widening and the river bottoms opening out, and then the water appearing, reflecting the low, early sun. There were two rivers. Here was where they came together. This was the confluence of the waters, the Ohio and the Mississippi.
They were looking down from a great elevation and all they saw was at the point of coming together, the bare trees marching in from the horizon, the rivers moving into one, and as he touched her arm she looked up with him and saw the long, ragged, pencil-faint line of birds within the crystal of the zenith, flying in a V of their own, following the same course down. All they could see was sky, water, birds, light, and confluence. It was the whole morning world.
And they themselves were a part of the confluence. Their own joint act of faith had brought them here at the very moment and matched its occurrence, and proceeded as it proceeded. Direction itself was made beautiful, momentous. They were riding as one with it, right up front. It?s our turn! she?d thought exultantly. And we?re going to live forever.