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Transatlantic Rites of Passage in the Friendship and Fiction of Eudora Welty and Elizabeth Bowen

From: Eudora Welty Review
Volume 4, Spring 2012
pp. 39-67 | 10.1353/ewr.2012.0016

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Winner of the 2011 Ruth Vande Kieft Prize awarded by the Eudora Welty Society

While suffering from homesickness at the University of Wisconsin, Eudora Welty restlessly wandered the library until she stumbled across the poetry of William Butler Yeats and remained thoroughly absorbed in the volume until the library closed. Returning day after day to read the poetry of Yeats and George Russell, Welty found her depression alleviated by the Irish revivalists and the warmth of their mysticism, a mysticism that ameliorated far “more than the pangs of growing up” and fulfilled her “desire to be shown that the human spirit was not like that shivery winter in Wisconsin, that the opposite to all this existed in full” (qtd. in Kreyling 10–11). In her memoirs, Welty describes a story she was in the process of composing, where the central character articulates Welty’s own encounter with Yeats’s poetry:

And I happened to discover Yeats, reading through some of the stacks in the library…. I read “Sailing to Byzantium,” standing up in the stacks, read it by the light of falling snow. It seemed to me that if I could stir, if I could move to take the next step, I could go out into the poem the way I could go out into that snow. That it would be falling on my shoulders. That it would pelt me on its way down—that I could move in it, live in it—that I could die in it, maybe. So after that I had to learn it…. And I told myself that I would. That I accepted the invitation.

(OWB 924–25)1

So began Welty’s literary career as she transfigured the snow of experience into the passion of art, a career that would generate friendships with several Irish writers, including George Russell’s son, Diarmuid, who wrote to Welty in 1940, asking to become her literary agent.2

Welty’s adolescent discovery of the Irish revivalists and Russell’s later discovery of Welty demonstrate the collaborative nature of Irish and southern literature, revealing the extent to which Irish literature and oral traditions infiltrated Welty’s writing, as evidenced in The Golden Apples, which employs Yeats’s “Song of Wandering Aengus” as an intertextual refrain; in The Robber Bridegroom, which fuses Irish, European, and American fairy tales; and in her short story, “The Bride of the Innisfallen,” which she wrote while visiting Ireland in 1951. The Irish influence on Welty’s work continued far beyond Russell’s agency and advocacy, as she looked to Seán O’Faoláin, Mary Lavin, and especially Elizabeth Bowen for literary guidance and friendship. While traveling through Europe on a Guggenheim fellowship in 1949–1950, Welty visited Ireland, where she toured the haunts of Yeats and the Russells, viewed the Book of Kells, and spontaneously contacted Bowen, who had earlier written a glowing review of Welty’s Delta Wedding, proclaiming that it was a “beauty” and would become a classic (Marrs, Eudora 142, 189). Delighted to hear from her, Bowen invited Welty to her estate in County Cork for the weekend, initiating an intimate friendship that spanned the next two decades, a friendship that elucidates transatlantic intersections between Ireland and the American South and unveils pre-existing regional, geopolitical, and literary affinities. Revealing the generic and thematic parallels between Irish and southern literature, the two writers not only rehabilitate the undervalued genre of short fiction—often considered an author’s juvenilia—but also represent their regions’ cultural renaissances through the palingenetic metamorphoses of their young female protagonists.3

Describing Bowen as a true “Southerner,” Welty remembered Bowen once saying that “wherever she went, in the whole world almost, the Southerners were always different from the Northerners. She always felt the congeniality” (“Conversation” 5). Seeing the south of Ireland for the first time, Welty expressed amazement at the “palm trees and fuchsia hedges and pink and blue plastered houses that made you think of Savannah and New Orleans” (“Conversation” 5). In the spring of 1950, Bowen visited Welty in Mississippi, where she proclaimed that the southerners were like the Irish, “warm and gay and friendly” (qtd. in Waldron 215). On a later visit...



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