- Eudora Welty and Productive Discomfort in the Classroom
Mae Miller Claxton and Julia Eichelberger’s new collection Teaching the Works of Eudora Welty offers a rich series of reflections on Welty’s place in the twenty-first century classroom. The authors are Welty scholars, southern historians, composition teachers, graduate students, and activists from a strikingly diverse set of institutions—high schools, community colleges, writing centers, and universities, both in the US and abroad. They share a variety of approaches, strategies, and exercises for teaching Welty and investigate the capacity of Welty’s works to foster discussions of literary form; composition; southern, regional, and colonial history; and gender, sexuality, race, and disability. The collection will no doubt prove an invaluable resource to writers, teachers, and scholars in an array of fields.
Here, I would like to draw out a common thread that I found in the collection—one that, I believe, captures one of Welty’s most profound affordances for twenty-first century teaching. Many of the contributors emphasize how Welty’s works have, in various ways, fostered moments of profound but productive discomfort in the classroom. Whether due to Welty’s narrative experimentation, her engagement with charged political and social concerns, or her resistance to stable categorization as a writer, her works seem uniquely positioned to create moments of confusion, awkwardness, disagreement, and uneasiness in the classroom—moments that, these contributors seem to suggest, have the potential to animate our teaching and energize our students.
Although, as David McWhirter points out, scholars rarely put Welty in the same camp as other, more experimental modernist authors (think Joyce or Faulkner), the essays in this collection reminded me of the narrative and linguistic difficulties of Welty’s works—and thus their potential to generate frustration and confusion in the classroom (133). Christin Marie Taylor [End Page 141] highlights Welty’s “overwhelming prose style,” and Susan V. Donaldson discusses Welty’s use of unreliable narrators and her “deft handling of limited third-person narration” (72; 45). As Annette Trefzer argues, Welty’s stories often require surprising amounts of close attention, as they “often seem to withhold rather than offer a sense of illumination” (122). Although Welty’s narrative techniques might at first seem more accessible and less overtly radical or abstract than those of some of her modernist counterparts, Welty’s fiction nonetheless issues surprising challenges to literature students who must develop new close-reading and textual analysis skills in order to confront the prose of a writer they may have at first associated with “mere” southern regionalism. As a result, Welty’s stories make students, as Taylor writes, “more comfortable with uncertainty when … they have learned to think through the thick of things” (76).
Many of the essays in Teaching Eudora Welty consider Welty’s potential to spark challenging political conversations in the classroom, particularly given her embeddedness in the Jim Crow South and her engagement with issues of race, class, gender, and sexuality. Jacob Agner writes about Welty’s attention to racial representation—unusual for a white, southern writer in the early twenty-first century. Agner suggests that stories such as “Powerhouse” reflect Welty’s self-conscious awareness of the ways in which “racial identity has been constructed in American literature” (84). Similarly, Claxton suggests that Welty possessed a distinct understanding of the Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Natchez communities in Mississippi, which she deployed to critique American westward expansion (56). In such moments, Claxton argues, Welty’s work urges students to confront histories and narratives with which they might be unfamiliar: “The students in my classes often react with chagrin to what they have not been taught. ‘Why hasn’t anyone told me about this?’” (59).
Other contributors propose that Welty’s depictions of race, class, gender, and sexuality propel students to reevaluate political tensions occurring in their own worlds. Stuart Christie reflects on teaching Welty in Hong Kong during the Fall 2014 “Umbrella Movement,” a series of citywide protests and boycotts concerning Hong Kong Basic Law’s Article 45. Christie...