Friday, March 26, 2010

Eudora and A Bunch of Others

Once upon a time, at Virginia Tech, I taught a whole semester on Eudora Welty. I can't say it was a rousing success with all my students, but some people loved it. I confess to being a fan, so I'm not going to pretend to be objective.

Eudora Welty was born in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1909. Her family was a comfortable one -- parents, two younger brothers, a fixture in Jackson society -- and they did not hinder Eudora's creative impulses. In fact, her autobiography, One Writer's Beginnings, speaks very descriptively and lovingly of this family milieu. She attended Mississippi State College for Women, where she distinguished herself as a writer and artist, and graduated from the University of Wisconsin.

She went to New York City for graduate school in 1930, attending Columbia University and studying advertising. New York expanded her brains and her horizons, and deepened her fiction in a way that Faulkner could envy. When her father died, in 1931, she came home to Jackson, and never really left. In fact, despite having written a first novel and won several O. Henry Short Story Awards, she actually gave up writing completely from 1951-1966, to take care of her mother and brothers.

Her 1972 novel, The Optimist's Daughter, won a Pulitzer Prize, and it is among my favorites, although her short story, "Why I Live at the P.O." is also a winner. I'm not going to spoil them for you. Read them. They're short!

Welty's artistic talent manifested itself in many ways, but photography was her medium of choice. You can check out her photographs on the web, and recognize the eye for emotional content that makes her so outstanding as a writer of description. This ability come across in "The Worn Path," as Aunt Phoenix's entire trek unrolls before us, almost as if we were watching a movie. Again, I'm a sucker for detail; Phoenix dancing with the scarecrow, pulling her skirts out of the thorn bush, lying on her back in the ditch . . . it's as if Welty had photographed those things, but not, thankfully, sentimentalized them at all.

For me, good fiction should give me room to think and breathe. I just cannot stand being hit over the head with a point, which is possibly why I don't like Joyce Carol Oates. Welty is subtle, generous, optimistic, but never cloying, mushy, or trite. After I have read her work, I feel more alive, not less. (Consider that ominous foreshadowing.)

The 20th Century spawned a bundle of writers that we won't have time to read. Here is the quick skinny on them, nothing like enough information, but you can pick the ones you might be interested in.

Flannery O'Connor. Southern gothic with Catholic overtones, good if you like your fiction moral with a grotesque aftertaste. I recommend "Good Country People."

Joyce Carol Oates. A dark, full-bodied fiction, or perhaps it's just full of bodies. I don't like her, but perhaps you will enjoy the creeping horror of "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been."

Toni Morrison. Raw-edged, not to say brutal, but absolutely worth it in every sense. If you can't read all of Sula, at least dip into it.

Amy Tan. Her first novel, The Joy Luck Club, explores the lives of four Chinese women and their daughters, in a structure that parallels a Mahjonng game. Crisp and inviting.

Stephen King. I feel about reading horror the way some people feel about reading the phone book. But King can write. His autobiographical On Writing is fantastic. This is not literary wine, though; more like some horrible spiked Kool-aid.


  1. Eudora's story is extordinarily visual, and throughout the tale, you're constantly worried that Phoenix isn't going to get where she's going. Maybe that's because of all the naturalism you made us read earlier in the semester:)

    I do appreciate literature that lets me personalize the imagery, and come to my own conclusions about how it makes me feel. I always assume that that style of writing comes from writers who aren't obsessed with proving something.

    Flannery O Connor is a favoriate of mine. She's Southern, and she has a way of lulling the reader into a false sense of its just everyday life, then boom, something super missed up happens. I love it.

    Thanks for the other reading recommendations.

  2. Eudora's story are very detailled and make a reader feel like they are their watching what is going on as they are reading it. My favorite story of hers is the "Worn Path" were she writes about the an old lady making a long journey to town to get medicine for her grandson and all that she goes through along the way.