- Eudora Welty's Fiction and Photography: The Body of the Other Woman by Harriet Pollack
The critical taproot of Eudora Welty's Fiction and Photography stretches deeply into Harriet Pollack's past, a fact made evident in the book's Acknowledgements and Preface, which together portray the genesis of the ideas and interests that inform this intricate and meticulous assessment of Welty's work. The heavy theoretical lifting, though, she saves for the Introduction, which asserts a clutch of philosophical and critical influences—Mary Douglas, Michel Foucault, Sandra Lee Bartky, Susan Bordo, Judith Butler, Mary Russo, and Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, to give just some of the names produced—that scaffold Pollack's central observation: the body of the other woman in Welty's fiction and photography emblematizes a fundamental desire to stage daring moments of exposure. Few critics who know Welty's work would object to this penetrating characterization of purpose, but some may prefer a simplification of the theoretical discussion to minimize ambiguity and deliver greater focus in the Introduction and in later chapters.
Falling into two parts, the study begins in chapter one with readings of "Welty's girl stories" to show across the breadth of her career how the trope of exposure functions to destroy cultural hypocrisies attending class, race, and gender (23). Narratives addressed include well-known stories from the thirties and forties, such as "A Memory," "The Winds," and "June Recital," combined with a consideration of Welty's final novel The Optimist's Daughter, published in 1972. The most compelling passages in this chapter put these familiar stories into conversation with unpublished and sometimes unnamed texts, such as "Courtney Bard," an unfinished novel, and "Beautiful Ohio" from Welty's youth. Juxtapositions of this sort—common in the book—have the exciting effect of invigorating the old with the new and inviting scholars to explore treasures still only partially unearthed in the Welty archive, a resource that Pollack has mined well and that has opened new paths for her and potentially for others. [End Page 101]
Shifting from fiction to photography, chapter two elaborates the place allocated to the "black female body," bodies Welty captured on film that Pollack views as seminal to the bodies she represented in fiction (70). She sets Welty's photographs of the thirties against the backdrop of European and American photographic traditions that usually distorted and/or destroyed the humanity of their black subjects. Collecting thirty-six images that range across time and space, she demonstrates in often supple and captivating prose the political context in which Welty operated as a young woman photographer and her refusal to accept the authority of received models for picture making. Reproducing images of Welty's, such as Ida M'Toy in "Born in This Hand," "Bird Pageant," and "Woman with Ice Pick," Pollack shows that unlike many of Welty's predecessors and contemporaries, she created pictures signifying "self-invention and determination," as well as those of "imaginative play" (94, 95).
Moving back to fiction, chapter three takes a strongly biographical turn. The details of Welty's difficult and finally aborted romance with John Robinson supply Pollack with an opportunity to read the life into the work and to ponder intriguingly whether her experience of sharing his "closet" may have contributed to her "preference for the plot of the other woman" (99). Sustained, and perhaps excessive, attention to letters passing between Welty and Robinson as well as treatments of stories by Robinson and Welty's gay friend Hubert Creekmore offer moments of illumination, especially in the reading of "Music from Spain," but the biographical focus tends to obscure emphasis on the body of the other woman, especially as Welty represents it in the stories of The Bride of the Innisfallen, over which Pollack passes very quickly. The problem of maintaining focus, one possibly traceable to the conceptual indeterminacy suggested earlier and evident in the long titles and subtitles and heavy prefacing of intentions, persists and builds in part two...