Eudora Welty Goes to the Movies: Modernism, Regionalism, Global Media
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Eudora Welty Goes to the Movies:
Modernism, Regionalism, Global Media

In a recent reconsideration of his argument in After the Great Divide (1986), Andreas Huyssen advocates “revisiting the high/low problematic in a transnational context” (“High/Low” 368). Drawing on recent critical discourses on “alternative modernities with their rich histories and local contingencies,” Huyssen suggests that “the same need to argue in place- and time-specific ways applies to the relationship between high art and mass culture that accompanied the trajectory of Western modernity from romanticism to postmodernism and that is intimately connected to the idea of modernism as an adversary culture” (366). Indeed, once we locate modernism in the expanded geographic field of modernity-at-large and in relation to “cultural developments in ‘peripheral,’ postcolonial, or post-communist societies” (367), the static, vertical binary of high modernism vs. mass culture gives way to a “horizontal borderland of exchanges and pillagings, of transnational travels back and forth, and all kinds of hybrid inventions” (370). The discourse about alternative modernities in India or Latin America can thus help us to assess “alternative developments in the relations and crosscurrents between indigenous popular culture, minority cultures, high culture (both traditional and modern), and mass mediated culture,” as well as to recognize that, historically, such “alternative modernities have existed all along” (367). My agenda in the present essay, which I pursue by way of the example of Mississippi writer Eudora Welty, a late modernist often [End Page 68] claimed for the particularly strong—or even reactionary—version of modernist regionalism associated with the Southern Renaissance, might be best understood as the inverse of Huyssen’s: that is, as an effort to remap the real and symbolic geographies of modernism, and especially what Arjun Appadurai calls its “production of locality” (178), by exploring the cultural exchanges and flows obscured by the high/ low distinction. What does a classically modernist region like the US South begin to look like once we read back into its cultural imaginary the historical record of high modernism’s extensive engagements and negotiations with mass culture—those multiplicitous “exchanges and pillagings” that have been increasingly emphasized by contemporary modernist studies scholarship?1 What kind of discourse of regional modernism might emerge from a critical practice that attended to the specific ways in which the high/low interchange played out in the historical and geographic space of a particular region?

Welty’s modernism—she was throughout her career a persistently, often radically experimental artist who wrote in response to and in dialogue with key figures including Yeats, Joyce, Eliot, Woolf, Faulkner, and Chekhov—has almost always been trumped by her regionalism, or perhaps, one should say, by a version of regionalism that was itself a thoroughly high modernist enterprise. Many of Welty’s readers, and more than a few of her critics, have long had an overdetermined investment in keeping her in her place. Unsurprisingly, given the author’s own stress on the importance of place in fiction,2 Welty’s southernness and the narratives traditionally attached to that region have tended to shape and bound both the questions asked and the answers reached by scholars exploring her work. A number of factors have fed and sustained such intensely localized readings of Welty, first and foremost, perhaps, the persistence of what Suzanne Marrs calls “the mythic Eudora” (xviii)—the figure of the prim, provincial, sheltered, sequestered spinster whose “cramped” and “sheltered” life was spent “in the quiet of a house in a quiet Mississippi town” (qtd. in Marrs xiii) and whose fictions are thus read—by admirers and detractors alike—as products of such isolation. But this version of Welty also reflects the broader ways in which modernist regions—Yeats’s and Synge’s West Ireland, Gaugin’s Breton, and the US South of the Nashville Agrarians, to name a few salient examples—have traditionally been characterized as spaces of resistance to modernity. In the modernist period, region was often configured as countermodern, antibourgeois, and anticapitalist, the locus of a kind of homegrown primitivism, a place apart from the corruptions of national and global mass culture. The founders of the Southern Renaissance, in particular, sought to make a virtue...