Eudora Welty 1909—
“THE MYSTERY IN how little we know of other people is no greater than the mystery of how much,” bserves the title character of Eudora Welty’s The Optimist’s Daughter (1972). This mystery is at the heart of Welty’s writing. Her “real subject,” as she puts it in One Writer’s Beginnings (1984), is “human relationships.” “My wish, indeed my continuing passion, would be not to point the finger in judgment but to part a curtain, that invisible shadow that falls between people, the veil of indifference to each other’s presence, each other’s wonder, each other’s human plight,” she states in One Time, One Place: Mississippi in the Depression, a Snapshot Album (1971). As she unveils the relationships among her characters, Welty similarly dispels the barriers between author and reader since “inherent in the novel is the possibility of a shared act of the imagination between its writer and its reader,” as she writes in The Eye of the Story: Selected Essays and Reviews (1978). This imaginative participation can transform readers and their own relationships, she continues, since
great fiction shows us not how to conduct our behavior but how to feel. Eventually, it may show us how to face our feelings and face our actions and to have new inklings about what they mean. A good novel of any year can initiate us into our own new experience.
As her views of the human capacity for imaginative and compassionate growth indicate, Welty’s attitude toward experience is ultimately optimistic and comic. In Conversations with Eudora Welty (1984), she tells an interviewer, “My tendency is to believe that all experience is an enrichment instead of an impoverishment.” What she says in A Writer’s Eye: Collected Book Reviews (1994) of her fellow Mississippian William Faulkner applies equally well to her writing:
The complicated and intricate thing is that his stories aren’t decked out in humor, but the humor is born in them, as much their blood and bones as the passion and poetry. Put one of his stories into a single factual statement and it’s pure outrage—so would life be—too terrifying, too probable and too symbolic too, too funny to bear.
Her ability to find life comic and enriching is intricately linked with the emphasis on love in her craft. As she describes the novelist’s “focus” in The Eye of the Story, Welty observes that it “means awareness, discernment, order, clarity, insight— they are like the attributes of love,” a love that transforms tragedy into comedy. For Welty, “without the act of human understanding … experience is the worst kind of emptiness.”
Welty’s choice to see experience as enrichment, not impoverishment, is part of her strategy for artistic survival. Viewing her task as a fiction writer in universal terms is a means of resisting two labels that could diminish her achievement and denigrate her reputation: southern writer, which can mean ignorant and provincial, and woman writer, which can stand for trivial and sentimental. Although Welty does share southern fiction’s emphasis on the importance of place, in...