The Southern Literary Journal 37.1 (2004) 167-172
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Politics and the White Southern Woman Writer
Even we shall lie enfolded in perspective one day: what we hoped along with what we did, what we didn't do, and not only what we were but what we missed being, what others yet to come might dare to be. For we are our own crusade. Before ever we write, we are.
A telling confusion between novels and novelists lurks at the heart of Eudora Welty's famous essay "Must the Novelist Crusade?" Of course good novels do not crusade, but that's not the point: good novelists frequently do. Welty must have known—to cite but two examples—of Zola's campaign for Dreyfus and, more immediately, Katherine Anne Porter's crusading for Sacco and Vanzetti. Yet when Welty allegedly receives a midnight call "over long distance" from a "stranger" who asks "All right, Eudora Welty, what are you going to do about it? Sit down there with your mouth shut?" Welty interprets the question—which interestingly figures the midnight tug of conscience as the belligerent yammering of the outside agitator leading us to ask where the voice is really coming from—as a call not, say, to march with King, but to write [End Page 167] bad, polemical fiction. Enabled in part by the caller's allegedly addressing her by her pen name, this elision of any distinction between person and writer frees her from having to imagine taking action except in the latter role—action which aesthetic integrity precludes her from taking. As Dana Carvey's Church Lady—the Flannery O'Connor of the 1990s, from her Yaegerian "poetics of torture" right down to her granny glasses—so often put it, "how convenient."
Thanks to Eudora Welty and Politics: Must the Novelist Crusade? we now have a much better sense of what Welty did at least dare to be. And, thanks to Revising Flannery O'Connor: Southern Literary Culture and the Problem of Female Authorship, we have a better sense of what O'Connor did not. The essays in the first book—an important contribution to Welty scholarship that may even be said to define the present moment for Welty criticism—are a bit uneven in quality, and there is a certain diffusion to the collection because the word politics can and must be defined in so many different ways. Perhaps the most important implication of the collection is that Welty's photography is much more unabashedly edgy and political than the rest of her creative output. The medium may have liberated Welty from responsibility for the content of her work: as Barbara Ladd reminds us in her essay, Welty felt that "in a photograph one can 'compose' or 'frame' the subject but cannot, in quite the same way, 'choose' or invent the subject." It seems important, too, that her photographs were shown in New York City; such a venue may have freed Welty a bit from the constraints of writing fiction that might always be read "back home." One implication of the collection's emphasis on the photography, therefore, seems to be that Welty's fiction may have been written more out of something like the pre-civil rights "tight place" of African American articulation Houston Baker has recently identified.
The individual essays are difficult to summarize in this brief space. The best is probably Harriet Pollack and Suzanne Marrs' "Seeing Welty's Political Vision in her Photographs." The authors define that "political vision" to encompass photographs both of actual political rallies and of white female and African American subjects. Pollack and Marrs are enviable and provocative readers of photographs, and this essay—which includes reproductions of the images...