Eudora Welty is one of the reasons that you thank God you know how to read. Throughout a forty-year career, Welty gave the American story a neoclassic face, taking her knowledge of the territory of the south and adding touches of Austen, Turgenev, Faulkner and Green to create the greatest body of American short fiction of the twentieth century (sans Hemingway). Her gift was to capture the essence, structure and economy of a scene and make it resoundingly clear to the reader, cutting the distance between artist and audience.
In her brilliant short story collections, A Curtain of Green, The Wide Net, The Golden Apples and The Bride of The Innisfallen, she cut bias, pretense and prosaic flash to create fictional worlds so real and so clear that her act of creation has a certain art to it. So that’s why it’s nothing short of a blessing that we, have One Writer’s Beginnings, her memoir in which she illuminates her life as part of an instruction on how write. One Writer’s Beginnings is guided by the techniques that made her fiction so great: sense of place, eye for detail and its intrinsic meaning and the breathtaking clarity in her commitment to creation itself.
The book consists of three parts, titled “Listening,” “Learning to See” and “Finding a Voice,” each taken from Harvard lectures she did in 1983. Her story is told in a non-linear form, chock full of asides that shift from the past to the present and from action to recollected memory. Given the improvisational nature of speeches in relation to the structural demands of a book, one has to fight the initial urge not to think of it as a cohesive body. But after reading her book as a whole, her asides not only blend seamlessly together, they show her understanding of the story, be it fiction or non, as a panoramic multi-voiced art form.
Although they intertwine together throughout the book, each of the three lectures primarily consists of a certain story of her life. The first, “Listening,” is Eudora telling the story of her childhood. She was born in 1909 in Jackson, Mississippi to Christian and Chestina Andrews Welty. Christian’s job as an insurance salesman gave them a rather comfortable lifestyle, and the bulk of the lecture tells of a sheltered, imaginative childhood, extensive schooling and communal bonds with neighbors and family. It’s the kind of charming, homiletic and homespun story of a southern childhood that has led many critics to deem her a “Local Color Writer”. And those critics, among them the schmucks who passed her over for the Nobel, would be dead wrong.
To write off her experience because it contains no obvious pathos misses the beauty of the section altogether. Instead of the obsession over and recessation of grievances that readers have come to know and hate in the modern memoir, Welty uses the events of her life as pieces that tell parts of her own individual identity, provide the base of her creativity and connect her with the rest of the world. From the intensity and energy that come from her own descriptions of childhood, to the mythic stature that her mother gives to literature, to how she shows school as a fertile training ground for her creative and inquisitive mind, Welty gives the reader a stunning picture of youth by making the mundane in life seem magical.
“Learning to See,” the second section of the book, tells of the history of her parents, how their personalities blended with each other and how their personalities molded her. Welty’s recollections of visits to her relatives take up most of the section: Chestina coming from a protective mother and rambunctious brothers that Welty calls “the boys”, Christian coming from a gentle, silent farmer and a mother who was a great cook. Welty presents their differences in symmetry with their similarities. Although Chestina came from a broad family while Christian only had her mother and father, both of them benefited from close family units and both gave Welty a strong sense of self.
In between her parents’ histories, Welty presents their courtship as a compelling love story. Here she shows the power of realism in her craft. By analyzing her parents from an aesthetic distance, she makes them flesh and blood characters, individuals that exist away from personal recollection. Chestina was a grand southern lady with a wide imagination and a fervent passion for books (in her daring and decorum you can see where Welty got her love of Jane Austen). Christian was the pragmatic farmer’s son who found not only stability in the ritual of work, but an elegantly pragmatic personal philosophy. Welty presents their love affair not as unrealistic bathos, but as a kind of ying and yang; two people working together to make a concrete union. You are so invested in them that when Christian dies, after an attempt by Chestina to save his life the way he saved hers years before, it comes off as a deeply human tragedy, the culmination of an epic love affair.
The last section, “Learning to See,” is Welty going to college and piecing her life together. The great beauty of it lies in how she ties the struggle for a writer to find who they are and what they want to write to the basic struggle for a sense of self that every young person goes through. To Welty, all of the things that have happened in her life, all of the memories, all of the people that she has known are lessons in her own story. What makes those recollections special is how she ties them to her work. By going into detail about the nexus of specific characters, how they come from real people, how they evolve and how the world reacts to them, Welty gives the reader an exclusive view of the process of creation.
The beauty of Welty’s stories is in how she makes them so authentic and how much she invests in the human being. You can see it in “Lily Daw and The Three Ladies”, when three elderly women agonize over a disabled person’s adventures on love, in the prose and feeling of “Powerhouse”, in which through lyrical improvisation she transforms a jazz man into a phantasmagorical being with cool overflowing from the page; in the surreal religious imagery of “A Still Moment”, where life and death and heaven and hell surround a religious man’s ride to his wife; and in the evocation of naked madness in “Where Is the Voice Coming From”, as she searches for the root of pure evil in a fictionalized portrayal of the killer of Medgar Evers. Eudora Welty is an American treasure and one of the greatest storytellers in not only the history of American literature, but all literature, period.
What makes One Writer’s Beginnings so special is that she presents her life as not only her own biography but one of the most compelling stories she has ever written