Sunday, November 18, 2007

The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty

Our book today is The Collected Stries of Eudora Welty.

We here at Stevereads vividly recall our one and only meeting with Miss Welty – we were visiting the Mississippi desk of Stevereads and were in the middle of a long and typically contentious phone call with Robert Penn Warren when Miss Welty stopped by the office on an impromptu social call. She was a bit of a homebody, so this was unexpected and went unreported by the staff. We wrapped up our phone call (as usual, we met Warren’s price in the end) and stalked into the bullpen, only to find Miss Welty waiting patiently, seated with both hands folded over her purse.

Stunned at finding one of the greatest prose stylists in the world sitting unattended in our newsroom, we thundered for an explanation. A startled intern stammeringly reported that they’d all mistaken Miss Welty for the nighttime cleaning lady and consequently paid her no mind.

She chortled at this and positively prohibited the mass-firings that sprang immediately to our vengeful mind, and in retrospect the mistake seems illustrative

Many years have passed. We shuttered the Mississippi desk (the graft was excessive even by our standards), and Miss Welty died. But her luminous, amazing stories live on, a gift to each new generation as long as reading endures.

The illustrative part comes from the fact that these are humble stories, narrowly focussed, full of small and precisely rendered details – unassuming stories, just as their author could be so unassuming.

‘The things everybody does every day,’ is how it’s phrased in one story, and although this is not technically the case (otherwise there would be no cause for writing of it), most of the stories manage to make it feel that way. The secret lies in how thoroughly Welty knows her characters. Every person who walks through these pages can be seen and heard by the reader. This is a rare talent in a writer, one not possessed by titans who possessed many larger gifts in abundance.

She is, in other words, the Miss Marple of American letters, seeing the world and knowing it straight down to the bottom by knowing in absolute detail the goings on of her own Southern version of the village of St. Mary Mead. She might as well be writing in her own voice when she has one character exclaim:

“Randall, when are you going back to your precious wife? You forgive her, now you hear? That’s no way to do, bear grudges. Your mother never bore your father a single grudge in her life, and he made her life right hard. I tell you, how do you suppose he made her life? She don’t bear him a grudge. We’re all human on earth. Where’s little old Woodrow this morning, late to work or you done something to him? I still think of him as a boy in knee britches and Buster Brown bob, riding that pony, that extravagant pony, cost a hundred dollars. Woodrow: a little common but so smart. Felix Spights never overcharged a customer, and Miss Billy Texas amounted to a good deal before she got like she is now, and Missie could always play the piano better than average; Little Sister too young to tell yet. Ah, I’m a woman that’s been clear around the world in my rocking chair, and I tell you we all get surprises now and then.”

In fact, it’s the local immediacy of her prose that’s fooled many a critic into using the word ‘gentle’ to describe her stories (in “Music from Spain,” for instance, he main character in the story’s opening paragraph reaches across the breakfast table and slaps his wife across the face; in the late story “The Demonstrators,” a young girl is stabbed in the chest with an icepick), but the mistake is understandable anyway, because even Welty’s savageries are drawn with such care and sympathy that they feel if not gentle at least empathetic.

Be it horror or tension, satire or morality play, her ability to evoke all aspects of a scene is unmatched by an American author (and we here at Stevereads have learned through bitter experience that no lady author takes kindly to being called ‘America’s Trollope’). Sixty different little authorial decisions are being made in a passage like the following, and all of them correctly:

“Screams surrounded the house. The little MacLain children and their nurse had gotten away from old Miss Lizzie, their grandmother, and come to play in the Rainey yard. Gradually other children, Loomis and Maloney, attracted by the magnetic MacLains, played there too, all drunk with the attractions of an untried place, and a place sinister for the day. The little Mayhews, every time they were gathered up and brought away from these into the house, cried. Blue jays were scolding the whole morning over the roof, and logging trucks thundered by shaking their chains and threatening the clean curtains.”

And of course there’s the thing everyone even vaguely acquainted with Miss Welty’s fiction will be looking for, waiting for. And we can faithfully report what you all suspected anyway: even among the incalculable richesses of this bursting story collection, the gem-perfect comic masterpiece “Why I Live at the P.O.” stands out.

If any of you know Miss Welty, you most likely know her from this one story, and that’s just as well, for though it cannot show you the whole range of what our author can do, it can at least show you that she’s capable of making something that’s flawless, which is impressive enough in its own right.

The story is impossible to summarize (but, we suspect, easy to google – hinthint), but it hardly matters, since any random slice of it conveys the barely-controlled lunacy of its goings-on – and perhaps provokes out-loud laughter in the process. Herewith a random slice, because no mention of Miss Welty would be complete without it:

“So the first thing Stella-Rondo did at the table was turn Papa-Daddy against me.
‘Papa-Daddy,’ she says. He was trying to cut up his meat. ‘Papa-Daddy!’ I was taken completely by surprise. Papa-Daddy is about a million years old and’s got this long-long beard. ‘Papa-Daddy, Sister says she fails to understand why you don’t cut off your beard.’
So Papa-Daddy l-a-y-s down his knife and fork! He’s real rich. Mama says he is, he says he isn’t. So he says, ‘Have I heard correctly? You don’t understand why I don’t cut off my beard?’
‘Why,’ I says, ‘Papa-Daddy, of course I understand, why I did not say any such a thing, the idea!’
He says, ‘Hussy!’
I says, ‘Papa-Daddy, you know I wouldn’t any more want you to cut off your beard than the man in the moon. It was the farthest thing from my mind! Stella-Rondo sat there and made that up while she was eating breast of chicken.’
But he says, ‘So the postmistress fails to understand why I don’t cut off my beard. Which job I got you through my influence with the government. ‘Birds nest’- is that what you call it?’
Not that it isn’t the next to smallest P.O. in the entire state of Mississippi.”

There’s no parsing this kind of genius, so we’ll leave it as is and end with our strongest possible recommendation here at Stevereads: find this book, this wondrous collection – find it and read it and then periodically reread it throughout your lives.

It’s in this way that Miss Welty is with us forever. It’s not ideal – much, much better would be her living and breathing down south, turning in wise, impeccable story after story every other month to the Atlantic Monthly. These stories would be national treasures and cautionary tales, scaring and instructing all the age’s lazy and stupid practitioners into silence, until they better learn the craft she so unassumingly adorned.

We miss you, Miss Welty. But we – and everybody else – at least get to consult with you every time we need a gust of pure, sweet air.


Beepy said...

I've never read anything by Eudora Welty, but I certainly will now. thanks, Steve.

Sam said...

It's true--you can forget the serious subject matter of Welty's stories because of her empathy (or, as she might prefer, love) for all her characters and settings. But murder, suicide, sudden death, adultery, estrangement and other such non-gentle subjects are at the heart of nearly every story she ever wrote. That's got to be part of what makes them so great--they're deal with everyday minutia more indelibly than nearly anyone else, but they've always got a bigger more dramtic story at their root. Even 'Why I Live at the P.O." has an illegitimate child in there.
(My favorite of her stories, as of today, is "The Wide Net")

Beepy said...

Hey, Steve, thanks for adding Manateeforallseasons to your list of links. I'll try to live up to the honor. Also, if I ever figure out how to make a list of links, you know you'll be number one.