Eudora Welty (b. 1909)
Contributing Editor: Jennifer L. Randisi
Classroom Issues and Strategies
Like many lyric novelists, Welty is easy to read. She therefore seems (to many students) very simple. They like her work, generally, and don't want to ruin their enjoyment by having to analyze it.
I like to begin by looking at what makes Welty seem simple (her lovely sentences, her homey metaphors, her "impulse to praise"). The difficulty here is not a lack of accessibility, but rather that Welty seems too accessible, too superficial. The challenge is to get students to read Welty seriously, critically, analytically.
Welty has said that except what's personal there's so little to tell. I'd start where she did: with the hearts of the characters she's writing about--the universal emotions they share with us. Why do we feel a certain way about the story? The situation? The character? What is evoked? How is Welty able to evoke a certain response from us? What values emerge? A strong sense of values is something Welty shares with writers like William Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor, Katherine Anne Porter, Walker Percy, and Alice Walker. These novelists believe in certain things and the communities created in their fiction share both a value system and a sense of what words like "love" and "compassion" mean.
As with most of the southern writers, Welty's humor, her use of the grotesque, and her dialogue are often initial difficulties for students, who tend to take her too literally and thus miss the fun she's having. Welty's books often work the way folk or fairy tales do; students aren't used to this.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
Major themes include the problem of balancing love and separateness (the community and one's sense of self), the role and influence of family and the land ("place"), and the possibilities of art (story-telling) to inform life. Welty is also very concerned with resonances of classical mythology, legend, and folk tale, and with the intersection of history and romance.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
Welty clearly owes something to fellow Mississippian William Faulkner, and to the oral tradition of the South. She has a terrific ear, reproducing cadences of dialect and giving much insight into her characters by allowing her readers to hear them talk. Welty's work also owes something to the grotesque as developed in the American South.
Since Welty hasn't been grouped with writers critical of the South (her issues are neither political nor social in a broad sense), her work hasn't been read much differently over the years. She's been criticized for not attacking the South; that has never been her interest or her aim.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
Any of the southerners writing in the twentieth century could be compared to Welty in terms of voice, violence, attitude toward the land, feelings about community, and ways of telling a story. William Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor, Katherine Anne Porter, Walker Percy--even Alice Walker--would be good to start with.
Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing
1. I like to start with what students see. I think study questions (except for general questions relating to the elements of the story--point of view, character, theme) direct their reading toward what they think I want them to see rather than allowing them to see what they see.
2. I am fond of the short paper (2-3 pages) and of the directed journal. The former allows students to focus on a very specific problem or concern; the latter allows students to carry issues from one author to the next, or from one book to the next. I like assigning a formal paper from one of the journal entries.
Welty's essay "Place in Fiction" is very good. Welty's book of photographs, One Time, One Place, is a nice companion piece, as is her collection of essays, The Eye of the Story. Peggy Prenshaw's Conversations with Eudora Welty has some helpful information and I think her collection of essays (Eudora Welty: Critical Essays) and John F. Desmond's (A Still Moment: Essays on the Art of Eudora Welty) are both worthwhile reading.
My chapter on Losing Battles (in A Tissue of Lies) is also worth reading.