Gail Mortimer’s title may suggest through its allusion to “Among School Children” that she proposes to focus upon W.B. Yeats’s influence upon Eudora Welty, amplifying earlier commentary by Patricia Yeager, Rebecca Mark, and others who have analyzed Welty’s assimilation of—and response to—Yeatsian matter. But what Mortimer does in her excellent study of Welty is use Yeats as a point of departure for focusing upon Welty’s epistemology. The image of the swan, an icon Welty draws from Yeats, implies a “search for knowledge,” which both she and Yeats view as “a symbol for the solitary human soul,” Mortimer asserts. The focus here is Welty’s exploration in fiction, autobiography, and essays of the ways in which human beings perceive relationships, manipulate language, and construct reality—all in the pursuit of “knowledge.”
The subject of how human experience is enacted and interpreted is not new in Welty scholarship—it is central in Welty’s fiction and understandably has been central in critical analyses since the 1940s, Robert Penn Warren’s “The Love and Separateness of Miss Welty” in 1944 being one of the earliest. But Mortimer has a great number of new insights to offer regarding this subject, and she gives them in a lucid, well-researched, and ably-argued text.
One of the strengths, for example, is Mortimer’s demonstration of how broadly Welty’s art meshes with the major strains of intellectual life in the twentieth century. Further, she gives a responsible synthesis of preceding Welty scholarship, acknowledging and drawing upon myth studies, thematic analyses, feminist readings, and commentaries on structure, narrativity, and lyricist style. She also continues and extends studies by Ruth Vande Kieft, Michael Kreyling, Albert Devlin, Suzanne Marrs and others in examining connections between Welty’s writing (fiction and non-fiction) and the author’s personal experience.
In her first chapter, Mortimer draws heavily upon Nancy Chodorow’s and Carol Gilligan’s theories of gender-based differences in men’s and women’s proclivities for separation and connection, basing an analysis of the “love and separateness” paradigm expressed in Welty’s fiction largely upon these theories. To sharpen the analysis, she [End Page 155] contrasts Faulkner to Welty, noting that “whereas for Faulkner a character’s intellect is typically used to orient the self toward others, as a way of speculating about and keeping track of them for the sake of distance and control, in Welty’s fiction the use of one’s intellect is motivated by love and the desire to reach an empathic understanding.”
In subsequent chapters Mortimer interrogates Welty’s childhood as a basis for understanding the author’s construction of knowledge and concludes that it encouraged “an early vision of the world as harmonious and orderly,” a vision that Welty’s characters are shown to share, but that the author herself, Mortimer argues, does not. On this point Mortimer is not always consistent. She writes in the introduction and in later chapters of the “illusions of harmony” reflected in the narratives Welty’s characters tell and of Welty’s implication that love and harmony may interfere with an acquisition of knowledge, but she asserts in the last pages that a vital strain, perhaps the vital strain in Welty’s art as well as in her life is a balancing of “Dionysian images and energies” with “Apollonian form and order.” Both the work that is the subject here and Mortimer’s analysis of it reveals that facile or false harmonies are rejected by Welty, but one cannot dismiss the iteration and reiteration of “confluence,” “convergence,” balance in the Welty canon, as Mortimer herself concludes.
Mortimer concentrates upon the short fiction in developing her analysis of Welty’s epistemology; there is little discussion of Losing Battles and Delta Wedding and no mention of The Robber Bridegroom, a puzzling omission given that the protagonist Rosalind is developed upon the figure of Psyche and her risky, courageous search for knowledge. But the readings of the short fiction are sharp in insights offered...