MAXWELL:  Writer personified the best of the South

7/25/2001 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper

 

As a whole, Southern literature is self-conscious and introspective, a mixture of pride and guilt. Eudora Welty’s death on Monday reminds me that Southern writing is a unique genre in American letters. Its powerful sense of place created and shaped the careers and the very lives of some of the nation’s best writers: James Agee, John Barth, Truman Capote, William Faulkner, Ernest Gaines, Kaye Gibbons, Alex Haley, Carson McCullers, Flannery O’Connor, Katherine Anne Porter, Alice Walker, Robert Penn Warren, Tennessee Williams.

Welty, 92 when she died, personified the best of the South, and her work explores some of the worst traits in the Southern character. The definition of Southern literature? Some writers deny that it is a separate genre.

Ben Forkner, co-editor of the anthology Stories of the Modern South, observes: “Southern cultural and literary heritage stems from an environment where states’ rights are important; where the Bible is read, memorized, and cherished; where decentralized government is seen as something valuable; where families tend to live by traditional agricultural means; where a code of honor and polite manners have been traditionally expected of everyone; where Elizabethan literature and the works of Sir Walter Scott were esteemed for decades; and where slavery and the effects of the Civil War have left a definite mark on mores and attitudes.”

Like her contemporaries who came of age during the 1920s and 1930s, a period called the Southern Literary Renascense, Welty rejected what Forkner describes as “the elegant myth of an idealized ante-bellum aristocracy” nurtured by Southern writers of the 19th century. She lived in the present and wrote about it unflinchingly. She rejected the hatred and apologia that blamed the South’s post-Civil War fate on the black race. She crafted tales that made whites responsible for their condition (Read “Where is the Voice Coming From?”).

Welty captured place, the region’s physical isolation, character, speech, religion, the legacy of slavery and the agonizing presence of “niggers.” Unlike some, Welty did not let her work become tedious sociological tracts. She kept to art.

I discovered Welty on my own in a magazine. Entering college in 1963, I had read most of her short stories and the novel Delta Wedding. I admired her lyrical style and her uncanny ability to create vivid scenes of human encounter. I also liked her apparent empathy for the plight of blacks living under Jim Crow.

In 1984, I bought a copy of One Writer’s Beginnings, Welty’s memoir published by Harvard University Press. I read the book in one sitting, then read it again over the weekend, this time underlining and annotating. It is one of the books I read each year, that I recommend to other writers, especially students trying out their wings.

Many people call One Writer’s Beginnings the writer’s Bible. I agree. The 140-page work has three chapters _ “Listening,” “Learning to See” and “Finding a Voice,” each a toolbox filled with the essentials that many good writers consciously or subconsciously use in their craft.

Listening: “Long before I wrote stories, I listened for stories. Listening for them is something more acute than listening to them. I suppose it’s an early form of participation in what goes on. Listening children know stories are there. When their elders sit and begin, children are just waiting and hoping for one to come out, like a mouse from its hole.”

Learning to See: “I think now, in looking back on summer trips, that another element in them must have been influencing my mind. The trips were wholes unto themselves. They were stories. Not only in form, but in their taking on direction, movement, development, change. They changed something in my life: each trip made its particular revelation, though I could not have found words for it. But with the passage of time, I could look back on them and see them bringing me news, discoveries, premonitions, promises. . . .”

Finding a Voice: “I don’t write by invasion into the life of a real person: my own sense of privacy is too strong for that; and I also know instinctively that living people to whom you are close _ those known to you in ways too deep, too overflowing, ever to be plumbed outside love _ do not yield to, could never fit into, the demands of a story. On the other hand, what I do to make my stories out of is the whole fund of my feelings, my responses to the real experiences of my own life. . . .”

Welty is gone. But her significance in American and Southern literature and an appreciation of her contributions to individual writers will grow with time.