The Southern Literary Journal 34.2 (2002) 64-72
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Hurston and Welty, Janie and Livvie
Carol S. Manning
Though they were born only about ten years apart and both grew up in the South, Zora Neale Hurston and Eudora Welty could hardly have lived more different lives. Hurston was motherless from the age of eight and had a troubled relationship with her father, whereas Welty was raised by two loving, sheltering, supportive parents. Hurston left home for good when she was about fourteen, supporting herself through a variety of jobs in Washington, D.C., New York, and several other cities. Welty, on the other hand, lived most of her life in the family home in Jackson, Mississippi. Hurston became known as a flamboyant and sometimes raunchy extrovert, whereas Welty was a furiously private individual invariably described by interviewers as a gracious, self-effacing southern lady. Hurston died in poverty and obscurity at age sixty, whereas Welty was mourned around the world when she died at age ninety-two in 2001.
Yet different as their lives were, Hurston and Welty exhibit remarkable similarities as writers. A hint of the similarities appears in the similar criticism that their works have sometimes evoked. Both authors have, on more than one occasion, been accused of not writing serious or significant fiction—in particular, of not addressing the social and racial problems of the South. In a review of Their Eyes Were Watching God published [End Page 64] in 1937, Richard Wright accused Hurston of creating a novel that "carries no theme, no message, no thought" (17). Welty faced such criticism especially during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. She recalls that, after three Civil Rights workers were murdered in Mississippi in the early 1960s, a midnight telephone caller asked her, "All right, Eudora Welty, what are you going to do about it? Sit down there with your mouth shut?" ("Must the Novelist Crusade?" 147).
In responding to such criticism, Hurston and Welty voice virtually the same philosophy of art. Fiction, they have said, is not the place for lecturing but for reflecting life. In 1936, Hurston reportedly answered criticism of Jonah's Gourd Vine by saying, "I did not make it a lecture on the race problem . . . because . . . I was writing a novel and not a treatise on sociology. There is where many Negro novelists make their mistakes. They confuse art with sociology" (Ford 8). Welty responded most explicitly in her essay "Must the Novelist Crusade?," published in 1965: "The novelist and the crusader who writes both have their own place-in the novel and the editorial respectively, equally valid whether or not the two happen to be in agreement. In my own view, writing fiction places the novelist and the crusader on opposite sides" (147). For Hurston and Welty, the purpose of the fiction writer is to get at life, not to condone or condemn. As Welty explained, "The character we care about in a novel we may not approve of or agree with-that's beside the point. But he has got to seem alive" (150).
In reflecting life in their fiction, both authors draw frequently and generously on the multi-faceted oral culture of the South. In portraying the talking, gossiping, tale-telling, fussing, exaggerating, and evasiveness of small-town and rural southerners, they reveal much about a way of life, its flaws along with its merits. Their use of the oral culture—and its influence on their prose styles—is probably the largest and most complex similarity between the two writers, and it deserves a book-length study. In this short article, I take on instead a smaller, more precise task. My focus is two of their works that could almost have been written by the same person.
For years, I have been intrigued by parallels between the Logan Killicks section of Hurston's novel Their EyesWereWatching God, published in 1937, and Welty's short story "Livvie," first published five years later. "Livvie" is one of a handful of stories in which Welty focuses on black rather than white characters...