Eudora Welty, who died on July 23 at the age of 92, will remain forever for me a Southern gentlewoman who honed her writing skills to do her life’s work: create lasting literature. She lived in Mississippi throughout the era of the civil rights movement, seemingly apart from the fray. But she joined it in her own fashion, as the scene I will recount illustrates.
In the early 1980’s, I was invited to a special celebration at a well-known women’s college in the South. Eudora Welty was listed as the featured speaker. As I had a strong interest in Southern women writers, I seized the opportunity to hear her.
The campus was festive with banners. As the college women and their parents and guests filed into the auditorium, I noticed that all the students were dressed in white. (I learned later that white attire for important functions was a tradition of the college.) I took my place among them, and noted all the white faces as well as the white clothing.
At the announced hour, Eudora Welty and her hostess walked out onto the stage. Her tall figure was slightly stooped, and she wore a lovely shawl around her shoulders. She sat regally while she was introduced. Then she rose to the podium, took a book from under her shawl and said, I am going to read you a story.
She opened the book slowly and deliberately, and began to read Livvie. It is the story of a 16-year-old black girl in the South, living in poverty, who attracts the attention of Solomon, an older black man who owns his home and his land, some distance away. He courts her, and she is in awe at his attention. Concerned, he asks her ...if she was choosing winter, would she pine for spring.... She answers, No indeed. She marries him, and he carries her over the threshold of his house to her new and more prosperous life.
After nine years of keeping her in relative seclusion (he will allow her to go only as far as the chicken house and the well), he becomes ill. She continues to cook delicacies for him and nurse him with reverence and tenderness.
One spring day, weary of her isolation, she takes a walk and meets Cash, a sporty young black man who is working some distance away. Her heart leaps. Cash follows her into her house, and they steal into the bedroom. Solomon opens his eyes to see his own field hand ready to claim his woman, his house and his land. He hands Livvie his silver watch and dies.
As Eudora Welty read the story, with all the passion of one who wrote it, I could feel tension grip the audience. A breathless stillness pervaded the auditorium. Everyone was completely absorbed in the tale.
She finished the story, closed the book and stepped to one side of the podium and bowed. The stunned audience began clapping, and continued as she stepped to the other side of the podium and bowed again. Then she left the stage.
It was a literary performance of the first magnitude. I sat entranced in the spell she had woven. Slowly the audience rose and conversations began.
Later that afternoon, while strolling around the campus amid students and parents, I approached two students who were walking together. I introduced myself and commented on their beautiful campus. I hoped they would talk about Welty’s story. But they did not.
Finally, I said, Wasn’t Eudora Welty wonderful? Silence. Then one student responded, I wish she had spoken to us.
But she did speak to you, I countered. Why do you think she chose to read that story? Didn’t your heart rejoice for the liberation of that young woman? Didn’t you feel the pride and the remorse of that old man, who saw the ragged and barefoot hired hand ready to claim his hard-won home and wife? Under the skin, aren’t human beings more alike than different?
Oh, the student said.
I bought a copy of Welty’s latest book, One Writer’s Beginnings, at the college bookstore and read it that evening. When I reached the final paragraph, I knew why Welty had taken the risk to read that story in that setting. Her memoir ends this way: As you have seen, I am a writer who came of a sheltered life. A sheltered life can be a daring life as well. For all serious daring starts from within.
Welty could have chosen another story, A Worn Path, to illuminate her appreciation of the virtues of the black race, but the one she chose was right for her audience. (I learned the next day that many of the students and their parents were deeply moved by Livvie and its implications.)
I often teach A Worn Path, the story of the journey of Phoenix Jackson, an old Negro woman with her head tied in a red rag, from her home in the hills to the city of Natchez. Several times a year she had to make this journey to get medicine from the free clinic for her grandson. Her own worn path is her guide. She encounters several white persons along the way, and they are uniformly condescending. When she has conquered the perils of the journey akin to those of Ulysses, reached the clinic, examined the bottle of medicine and put it into her pocket, she then would face the long journey home. [H]er slow step began on the stairs, going down. The banal, breezy, or officious people she encounters are foils for her intrepid spirit.
Flannery O’Connor, like Eudora Welty, has been accused of being oblivious to the racism amid which she lived. But O’Connor also addressed racism in her own literary way. Anyone who reads Everything That Rises Must Converge cannot miss, beneath the laughter that the story provokes, O’Connor’s ridicule of the false overtures that Julian makes to black strangers. Anyone who pictures identical hats on Julian’s mother and the large black woman on the bus intuits the rock-bottom equality that the hats symbolize.
In one of O’Connor’s letters to a friend, she speaks of having written a story called Everything That Rises Must Converge,’ which is a physical proposition that I found in Père Teilhard and am applying to a certain situation in the Southern states & indeed in all the world (The Habit of Being).
When Katherine Anne Porter died in 1980, her requiem Mass was held in Theresa Chapel at the College of Notre Dame of Maryland. She had participated in the Eucharist in that chapel on one of her visits to Notre Dame. Her nephew, Paul Porter, and her publisher had notified her friends. On that Friday morning, Sept. 19, Eudora Welty walked into the chapel, alone, and joined the other mourners. I was deeply moved to see her regal figure bent in prayer. I remembered that it had been Porter’s introduction to Welty’s first book of short stories that launched Welty’s literary career. She had made the long journey to honor her mentor.
Eudora Welty’s own death marks the end of an era. She and O’Connor were Southern gentlewomen who never carried a banner, never created a slogan, but used their considerable literary gifts to write novels and stories that probed the depth of the human heart, revealing the basic equality of every human being.