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Aug232009

1983

The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty

By Eudora Welty

Original Publisher: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, Publishers
Current Publisher: Harvest Books (Harcourt, Inc.)

 Robin Black writes:

“Beware of tidiness. . .” - Eudora Welty, 1949

I was nineteen years old in 1981 when I first read Eudora Welty. It was an experience characterized by a sense of immediate recognition and also by the shock young people sometimes feel at the realization that their elders are far less concerned with good behavior than they themselves are.

The recognition was simple enough: I had Southern family - and there they were. Not the individuals, though there were close calls on that, but the aura, the texture, the eccentricities, the acute observations that arrived unadorned with whispers of ladylike apology, unsupported by carefully built structures meant to justify them.

The shock though came from something quite different, not the boldness or originality of the observations, but the sense I had as I read each story that it might just burst its own banks. An aspiring writer, I believed then that stories were one’s chance to winnow down the chaos of life, tame its everything-all-the-time quality into something more like a particularly intelligent greeting card rhyme. I wanted to believe in narrative tidiness - in fiction and in life - and wasn’t a bit ready for the pathos of Lily Daw’s hope chest riding away without her, trailing the impossibility of hope; or for the girls in Moon Lake to respond to Easter’s fall with all the lasting impression of a cake that’s been in the oven long enough to bounce back immediately when touched. I thought then that fiction’s relationship to life’s sadnesses and complexities should be a corrective one and Welty’s stories seemed to me to be a mirror of all that was worst about life. Simply put, I had no idea how to read much less to write.

It took a lot of years and finally rereading the story “A Visit of Charity” before I began to understand. In that story, a young Campfire girl pays a more or less mandatory visit to an old age home. Superficially, the visit is a debacle and she ends up fleeing, but before she goes, she has occasion to look at one of the old women: “She wondered about her – she wondered for a moment as though there was nothing else in the world to wonder about. It was the first time such a thing had happened to Marion.

That was the clue I had missed in my youth. Wonder. In story after story, Welty advocates for that kind of wonder, that kind of interest in one another. In story after story, the central failure is a failure to see others clearly. Of course Welty had no interest in prettying up life in her work. She understood, as I didn’t, how that kind of self-serving make-believe signals empathy’s demise. While I was concerned with improving on life, she was concerned with improving life itself.

I understand why these stories shocked me nearly thirty years ago. Writing that chooses wonder over mastery and isn’t a bit hesitant to burst all banks if that’s where wonder leads can be scary as hell. Some of us need time to mature past other, slighter fears before we can appreciate that it’s the most valuable kind.

Robin Black’s first collection of stories, If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This, is forthcoming from Random House in 2010.

 

ISBN: 9780156189217

Fiction (Paperback) Finalists that Year:

  • David Bradley for The Chaneysville Incident
  • Mary Gordon for The Company of Women
  • Marilynne Robinson for Housekeeping
  • Robert Stone for A Flag for Sunrise

Fiction Judges that Year: Not available

The Year in Literature:  

  • The Color Purple by Alice Walker won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
  • William Golding won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

More Information:

Eudora Welty lived most of her life in the Belhaven neighborhood of Jackson, Mississippi, in the house her parents built in 1925. She donated her home to the Mississippi Department of Archives and History in honor of her parents, and it has been preserved as a National Historic Landmark and a museum.

Welty won many awards, including the Pulitzer Prize for her novel The Optimist’s Daughter in 1973. This was her only National Book Award; however, she was awarded the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters in 1991.

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