If Chekhov is guarded by the ossified ‘Lady with Lapdog’, Welty has been obscured behind two stories. One, like so much of Faulkner’s short fiction, is as much Saturday Evening Post as Welty: the folksy-as-hell tour de force ‘Why I Live at the P.O.’.
Welty wrote the other story, ‘Where is the Voice Coming From?’ late in the day and the story is justly famous as a strange footnote to history (the murder of Medgar Evers by Byron de la Beckwith), but has also become, or at least it seems so to this Mississippian, a kind of cover for not really talking about Welty’s racism—not in the way we’ve engaged with Faulkner’s and begun to talk about O’Connor’s.
Welty’s racism is all the more important and problematic, because it is so casual, and, comparatively, perniciously moderate, even as it is shot through some of the most beautiful short stories ever written. The Golden Apples is a collection of excruciating beauty, and treats all of the world as strange and terrible and inexorable and small.
In particular, ‘June Recital’ reaches its long arm round several dozen people and gathers them into a dance they’re unaware of, we’re unaware of, something that ‘The Dead’ alone of Joyce’s stories manages, but in a true third person that decenters any possible Gabriels and leaves the story hovering in collective forgetting, the real truth of the back-there-where-the-mule-died of Southern literature is that the fabric of what is known by everyone about everyone is always slipping out of memory. The collective memory is an act of collective amnesia. I’d like to say that the racism in this and other of the stories is a deliberate examination, but it isn’t.
Peter Orner once said that Welty was so clearly the greatest American short story writer that the question wasn’t even interesting to him. Without quite agreeing to that, exactly, I have never found a writer that allowed me to disagree.
In The Golden Apples, Harcourt Brace and Company, 1949
Critical consciousness is a terrible thing for book love, and so are weekly essays. I didn’t adore many books at university but I did discover the Southern Gothics: Carson McCullers, Flannery O’Connor, and Eudora Welty, my favourite of all because of that sensual, dream-like quality I am always looking for. I ate up all her stories, and realise that I actually internalised and re-wrote ‘Livvie’, which is the story of a young girl married to an older man who leaves him on his death-bed for her lover, in my novel Meeting the English. Welty manages to make not only Livvie but her husband and lover entirely sympathetic: like Idyll,it’s a story about the life force almost more than sex.
First published 1942. Collected in Thirteen Stories (Harcourt Brace, 1977)
A man and a woman meet at a lunch party on a summer’s day in New Orleans. Both are married, but appear to be interested in each other. The man suggests a drive, and Welty’s story follows them south, out of the city and into…what, exactly? A rural, semi-aquatic zone where the roads are made of shell and busy with crayfish, but also, it feels like, some kind of place where the usual way of things is suspended. They race on, this man and woman, and we race on behind them: who are they? What are they looking for? Welty doesn’t ever let the narrative settle long enough for us to find out. When the woman asks a direct question – what’s your wife like? – the man simply lifts his hand to her face to block it, and Welty lifts hers to us in a similar way. The viewpoint of the story is a close third that alternates between both characters, but we never penetrate their thoughts to any real depth; the technique is used to accentuate the distance between them, not dissolve it.
Describing a story by Elizabeth Bowen (a writer who appears later in this anthology), Welty wrote about the “turmoil” of the characters’ “passionate drives, private energies that in their own directions touch yet never can merge or become one together”. The description serves her own story well. These people meet and depart as strangers: “They were strangers to each other” is the first line of the story, and sixteen pages later it could also serve as the last. As we follow them, disorientating sentences appear – “Like a misplaced sunrise, the light of the river flowed up” – and are gone, as car and language pull us on, on, on. Because the story denies us the familiar handholds of character, because of its abrupt beginning and the hallucinatory quality of its description, I can never remember it well. Each time I return its mystery has been replenished, and I read it again almost as if for the first time.
From The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich 1980. Read the story in the 20 September 1952 issue of the New Yorker ($)
Families are mad, maddening organisms. Though I can’t remember why — we’d probably had a row — I know my mother made me read Eudora Welty’s much-anthologised masterpiece when I was a teenager. It knocked me sideways, and took me two goes to understand. It was the first time, textbooks aside, that I recall being stymied by something difficult to read, and was probably my introduction to the baroque cadences of Southern writing, which I instantly adored.
First published in A Curtain of Green (1941). You can read it online here