- Pivoting Between Modernities
I come to this roundtable as neither a Welty scholar nor a southernist. I teach American literature, primarily twentieth-century and contemporary, with some excursions into other national traditions and time periods. My baseline interest in the anthology, then, was less in new approaches to teaching Welty than in simply approaching the idea of teaching her at all. I had never considered adding Welty to my syllabi, mostly because she did not fit cleanly into the purview of any of my courses (US Modernisms, Faulkner and Latin America, Contemporary Fiction, and so forth), but also because I was not entirely clear of the mindset Mae Miller Claxton and Julia Eichelberger advert to at the start of their introduction: categorizing Welty as “a ‘regionalist’ writer, a white southern ‘lady’ too polite to criticize the society she emerged from” (xiii). Having read The Golden Apples and a few other scattered pieces and profiles, I knew there was more to Welty than that, but had not imagined that she would provide sufficient critical traction or lyrical transport to justify stretching the bounds of one of my classes to include her. I’m happy to say that the anthology has provided me with ample grounds—as well as ample means—to reconsider.
I adopted a relatively limited and pragmatic reading strategy for the anthology, one that I thought might be emblematic of that which others with similar teaching profiles might follow. I began by locating in the index all appearances of authors who have held more or less regular places in my courses: James Agee, Emily Dickinson, T. S. Eliot, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, James Joyce, Toni Morrison, Octavio Paz, Edgar Allan Poe, Leslie Marmon Silko, and Virginia Woolf. I read in full, with care and with pencil in hand, the essays in which these authors appear. I added those essays flagged by the index’s entries on modernism and postmodernism, and a few pieces with titles that otherwise pointed directly to my teaching but that had not made it past the filters: Ebony Lumumba’s “The Matter of Black Lives in American Literature: Welty’s Nonfiction and Photography,” Annette Trefzer on “Welty’s Place in the Undergraduate Theory Classroom,” and Virginia Ottley Craighill’s “Finding the Freshman Voice: Using One Writer’s Beginnings in the Classroom.” To a one, I found the essays crisp, articulate, thoroughly engaging. More than once I found myself inescapably caught [End Page 150] up in a piece I was meant to be paging by on the way to a different destination. While the voices vary significantly, they are uniformly cogent, highly cognizant of audience and of the exigencies of the form, and admirably balanced between nuts-and-bolts suggestions and larger conceptual frames.
Regarding the frame that I brought to the reading myself—Welty’s amenability to cohabiting comfortably with the canonical modernist and postmodernist figures already on my syllabi—I found a healthy degree of debate between contributors. Several critics draw on Welty’s stylistic and structural choices to place her at the core of modernism. Gary Richards, for example, is eager to use Welty’s “affinity—stylistically and personally—with LGBT writers, including E. M. Forster, Virginia Woolf, and Reynolds Price,” to “squarely position Welty within global queer modernism” (112). Stephen M. Fuller situates her “side-by-side with Joyce … Faulkner, Woolf, and Lawrence” on the basis of “the use of narrative formlessness as a method for breaking with established patterns in fiction and creating new ones” (144). Harriet Pollack, adverting to Welty’s penchant for “‘the female swerve,’ a woman’s dissident revoicing of literary history’s familiar narratives, elements, and patterns,” praises her “innovative play … with a reader’s experience and competencies, producing surprised expectations” that add up to make her “a paramount modernist” (25, 29). Such estimations help to unsettle any reflexive turn to the most radical sentence-level experimentation as the acid test of modernist bona fides, but as one drawn to precisely...