We take this occasion to thank Noel Polk for all he has done and written for Eudora Welty’s fiction. First, I would like to celebrate the kind, reliable, and knowledgeable friend Noel was for the two of us, François and myself. So many years of friendship and lively exchanges—we deeply mourn his loss.
Noel’s kindness and enthusiasm played a great part in what still remains for me a magic encounter with Eudora Welty herself and with some major early critics: the inauguration on November 10–12, 1977, of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi for which Bill Ferris, its new director, had asked Professor Louis Dollarhide to organize a symposium honoring Eudora Welty, “Mississippi’s greatest living author.” Noel offered hospitality in Hattiesburg, and then drove us to Oxford. On the panel were seven speakers, chosen out of a spirit of celebration and friendship—Cleanth Brooks, Charlotte Capers, Reynolds Price, William Jay Smith, and younger scholars Michael Kreyling, Peggy Prenshaw, and Noel. In the large enthusiastic audience, there were critics with influential essays on Welty, including Thomas McHaney, and two Europeans in love with Welty’s work, Jan Nordby Gretlund and myself. Noel’s presentation was timeless and ever-evolving as we shall see.
Besides the invaluable tool that the Bibliography represents for Welty scholars, Noel’s last book, Faulkner and Welty and the Southern Literary Tradition, remains a critical landmark for its title essay and the other eleven readings of Faulkner’s and Welty’s fictions. The two “mountains” of [End Page 11] southern twentieth-century literature are examined side by side at length; Polk wittily picks up Welty’s dismissal of Faulkner’s possible influence: “It was like living near a mountain,” to suggest that “what most often lives near a mountain is another mountain” (6). The world of the two writers’ ways of seeing, writing, and thinking has already been mapped and discussed at length in separate studies, but here the confrontation is new and illuminating and its compactness helps students and readers.
Polk’s angle challenges younger southern writers, readers, and critics alike. From a first examination of “the eye” of the two writers in their relation to the South, Polk opens up the perspective to their vision of man and the world. He starts by saying,
William Faulkner’s eye is a defining eye. Generations of post-Faulkner southern writers and readers have adopted his vision and so seen “The South” through his eyes rather than through their own or struggled against that vision, experiencing it as a barrier to be gotten around behind above or below in order to keep from seeing only the South that he saw.(3)
As for Welty, Polk says, “More likely, she saw a different landscape than the one he saw and so had no real need to mine his” (7). Then he pits Faulkner’s vision against Welty’s:
Faulkner’s work quite self-consciously addresses itself to epic issues, deals with them on epic scale in an epic landscape: his language strains at its outermost limits to raise every event, every gesture, to its highest, most intense pitch of significance. The universe is his world.… [Welty] slices away at the exteriors of a familiar only incidentally southern and takes us into the hardest to reach nooks and crannies of human life. She dissects our comfortable assumptions about family and community, about ourselves, and in doing so offers a more comprehensive because a more intensely local understanding of those traditionally cosmic concerns than Faulkner does precisely because she demonstrates how these ‘cosmic’ concerns work on us, individually, in the most private, the least epical, but in some ways the most dramatic and most complex because the most intimate places of our lives.(8) [End Page 12]
Polk concludes exorbitantly, putting on a par Faulkner and Shakespeare:
Faulkner of course saw what he saw, as Shakespeare did, and we are immeasurably the richer for it. But he didn’t see it all, nobody can, and like Shakespeare he saw what his tradition allowed him to see.