- Learning to Listen:The Way a Society Speaks in Eudora Welty’s “Where Is the Voice Coming From?” and “The Demonstrators”
At the March on Washington on August 28, 1963, one month after Eudora Welty published “Where Is the Voice Coming From?,” Bob Dylan performed “Only a Pawn in Their Game” for the first time. In their own ways, both Welty and Dylan reflect upon the motivations behind the Medgar Evers assassination and try to make sense of how something like this murder could occur. Dylan is straightforward in his assessment, and he makes his position clear as he reiterates at the end of each verse, “But it ain’t him to blame / He’s only a pawn in their game.” In these lines, Dylan argues that forces beyond the individual actions of one man are to blame for what happened that June night, and throughout the song he asks listeners to consider how southern society at large encourages violence by pitting whites against their black neighbors. While Welty is often categorized as an apolitical or ahistorical writer,1 in “Where Is the Voice Coming From?” and later in her 1966 “The Demonstrators,” she joins voices with Dylan in critiquing her home state and region. These two stories demonstrate the range of her authorial voice, and in a way that fits with her unique style, show that Welty produces fiction that speaks to the ways that the physical and ideological elements of the South impact and manipulate its citizens.
Both stories take place in Mississippi, and in them, Welty engages with the reality of racially charged violence that surrounded her home state during the 1960s. The fight for civil rights dominated the discourse in the region, and Welty claimed in an interview with Clyde S. White to have felt pressured to take on this subject by “many a midnight call from strangers saying, ‘What the hell do you mean down there, sitting on your ass, not getting out to work for civil rights?’” (“An Interview” 240). She responded by writing “some stories to show what it was really like here, how it was so complicated and how motives were so mixed. How nothing is simple” (240). Her response, both in this interview and in these two stories, appears to turn the fairly straightforward rightness of the Civil Rights Movement into something “complicated” and “mixed.” This understandably caused some discomfort over how Welty engaged with the problems in her region, [End Page 109] and when this is coupled with her seeming denial of a responsibility to “crusade” for any specific cause,2 many have taken the stance that the author was unwilling to stand against the injustices that were occurring in the South. Welty, however, seemed indignant that people did not recognize the way her work addressed the problems she saw around her. As she put it, “I had been writing about injustice all my life. That is what it was all about, injustice” (240). By digging deeply into “Where Is the Voice Coming From?” and “The Demonstrators,” we can begin to see how Welty takes on the problems of racial violence in her home region, but in her characteristic way, she avoids a straightforward assault on the people of Mississippi, and instead of a simple vilification of individuals, she delivers depictions of injustice that illustrate the complicity of the southern environment as a whole. This focus on societal influence does not mean Welty believed those individuals who committed racial violence in the South were without blame. After all, she calls Byron De La Beckwith “a monster” and “a horror,” but the ways she shifts readers’ attention in these stories to consider larger motivations suggest that she wants her audience to look beyond simple demonization and to take into account the society that prejudiced white southerners to commit or tolerate the racially motivated atrocities that occurred in the region (“Seeing” 255).
While “Where Is the Voice Coming From?” and “The Demonstrators” have received critical attention, scholars tend to focus on the individuals in the stories rather than the shared southern environment that shapes them.3 It is understandable that the criticism surrounding these stories does not recognize a consistent...