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132 “Miz Welty,” the Southern boy writers all called her. They would have removed hats in her presence, had any of them been wearing one. Eudora Welty commanded the shy respect that a literary grand lady ought, although in person she was modest, retiring, self-deprecating—as if she might wish to disappear rather than stand on a platform. Perhaps she knew that her own disappearance was the surest way into the bodies of her fictional characters, into the landscape of their lives, and therefore into the hearts of their stories. Perhaps hers was a personality better suited to living a written rather than a public existence. She died in July of 2001, a couple of months before the world underwent the most profound of its most recent transformations. Although she wrote many books and received the Pulitzer Prize, she is probably best known for the story in her oeuvre that least represents her: the ubiquitous “Why I Live at the P.O.,” an over-anthologized, oft-imitated light piece that showcases little of her writerly virtuosity and only ingeminates a regrettable regional pigeonholing. The story is a funny bit of unreliable narration, and a pleasure to hear Welty read on audiotape (“Burdyburdyburdyburdy!” she sings; “There I was over the hot It’s All Gold: Eudora Welty’s “The Wide Net” Antonya Nelson RECLAMATION [ [ ] ] 133 stove, trying to stretch two chickens over five people and a completely unexpected child into the bargain, without one moment’s notice,” she complains). But because of its postmistress speaker’s relentless, nattering voice, the reader is robbed of Welty’s usual narrative presence, which is both more arresting and more bizarre. If not “Why I Live at the P.O.,” often an anthology will include “A Worn Path,” which comes closer to capturing Welty’s larger talents but still holds tight to the prescribed regionalism that many want to assign to its author. Welty is more mysterious, universal, and downright scarily weird than either of these stories, even in combination, can properly display. She must frighten some anthologizers. Russell Banks helpfully championed her thoroughly eclectic—and, for undergraduates anyway, largely impenetrable—“No Place for You, My Love” in the anthology You’ve Got to Read This; while that story adequately conveys Welty’s bent toward the elliptical, it may overcompensate for everything “Why I Live at the P.O.” omits. The Best American Short Stories of the Century presents “The Hitchhikers,” a wonderfully haunting story of transience and transgression, ghosts and ghostliness, that nevertheless lacks the lighthearted whimsy of many of Welty’s best characters. Welty’s magnificence at capturing place is well known; it is her trademark and is probably responsible for her notorious Southern identity. But she is also brilliant at capturing a place less fixed: the psychological terrain of her characters. She names the external world in all of its sensual pleasures, and then she turns her attention inward, to the state of mind and body of the person occupying that physical landscape. It is this internal scrutiny (a task never fully finished, one guesses, given the frequency with which she returns to it) that most impresses and mystifies the reader of Eudora Welty. Her characters ache to identify the unnamable and hold the intangible. They suffer the insufferable, and she, wordsmith, acts as medium between them and the reader, chronicling their restless torment. The most disturbing of her stories present characters in occasional moments of frightened and frightening cognizance of despair and isolation . Consider Nina, the child character whose on-again, off-again sensibility oversees “Moon Lake”: Again she thought of a pear—not the everyday gritty kind that hung on the tree in the backyard, but the fine kind sold on trains and at high 134 ecotone prices, each pear with a paper cone wrapping it alone—beautiful, symmetrical , clean pears with thin skins, with snow-white flesh so juicy and tender that to eat one baptized the whole face, and so delicate that while you urgently ate the first half, the second was already beginning to turn brown. To all fruits, and especially to those fine pears, something happened —the process was so swift, you were never in...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2165-2651
Print ISSN
1553-1775
Pages
pp. 132-159
Launched on MUSE
2012-10-03
Open Access
No
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