Her voice—soft, deep, and southern—warms the stone walls of Goodhart as she reads a lyrical short story, “Ladies in Spring.” In it, Miss Hattie Purcell, who is “most generally on hand at the post office,” but who “calls herself a rainmaker,” proves to be one by bringing down the first spring rain on Royals, Mississippi (626).
Then Eudora Welty reads a passage from her novel Losing Battles, uninterrupted dialogue of a family “talking back and forth like a sort of chorus” about Miss Julia Mortimer, the teacher they had suffered under “all the long way through Banner school” (668).
For seconds after she has finished, there is silence. Then a thunder of applause.
Afterwards at Wyndham [Alumnae House], Miss Welty settles into a chair in the Blue Room to talk to a few members of the English faculty. Her hands, long, thin, and white, flutter over her skirt, alight, and repose, finally, on her lap, just above her knee. On the Oriental rug below, flat silver sandals flash at the edge of her long blue skirt. The deep blue of that skirt and its matching tailored jacket intensifies the blue in those large, round eyes which, under the lights, had seemed to entrance the audience.
Someone compliments her on the reading.
“I hope it wasn’t too long,” she says. “I’ve never read that story in public before, so I didn’t know just how long it would take.”
Laurence Stapleton, former chairman of the English department and Miss Welty’s friend for many years, had suggested that she read that particular story on the first day of spring. And it was, obviously, a good suggestion.
There is an earnest question from the floor. A young woman who teaches a literature class says she’s read somewhere that Miss Welty believes a story ought to have “a thin, taut line” running through it. “So what would be that line in this story?” she asks.
“Well, in this one,” Eudora Welty says, “the line is looser, more oblique than usual. But I guess it is the spring rain and all that the rain calls forth. You know, a girl calling from the woods; Blackie taking off to go fishing; Dewey catching a fish … and then the Mother’s weary cry, ‘Get away from [End Page 45] me!… Oh! If I haven’t had enough out of you!’ meaning ‘It’s that time again. Spring.’”
A story, she goes on to explain, has to be like that. One thing from start to finish. All its pieces “magnetized.” Nothing “extraneous.” She pauses, tucks her head down, almost apologetic. “I don’t explain this very well,” she says. “But I know it.”
For a while the talk turns to the subject of “heroic” schoolteachers, like Miss Julia Mortimer, fiercely dedicated, often, but not always, losing their battles, until one of Bryn Mawr’s teachers, a southerner herself, breaks in:
“Oh, I just loved that line. That wonderful line about Miss Julia. How she read books all the time, even in the daytime … ‘And that’s a thing … surpassing strange for a well woman to do!’”
Miss Welty’s face, framed with soft white hair, lights up, and she leans forward in conspiratorial delight. “That’s my favorite line in the whole book! It didn’t even belong there in that scene. I just put it there tonight. Wrote it out at the bottom of the page. Because I liked it so much.”1
She almost always changes passages a little, and learns something, too, when she reads her work in public. Flaws become suddenly apparent, she says. Her ear catches them. “There were sentences tonight that should have been knocked out.”
Does she read aloud as she writes those sentences?
No. She shakes her head. “But I hear them in my mind.” And then, all of a sudden, she is telling about “the first time I ever lifted my voice to read in public.”
It was long after she had started writing. “In a recording session. Would you believe it? For Caedmon Records.” In the 1950s, two young girls just...