Updated to add--My Mama's name is Edna Earle, and one of Miss Welty's most popular characters is Edna Earle Ponder, from "The Ponder Heart." Neat-o!
Time to rejoin our vacation. I've decided to go straight to Miss Welty's home and leave downtown Jackson for the next post. It's just a couple of hours out of sequence, no big deal.
My photo of a photo of Miss Welty, hanging on the wall in the Visitor Center that is next door to her home. I don't know how old she is, nor do I know who took the photo. Nevertheless, I really do like this photo of her--it makes me feel that she understands much about life. She looks cool and collected, even though it appears she's sitting outside in the rocker on the porch at the side of the house. You'll see the photo I took of possibly the same rocker when you continue to read this post.
How can I convey to you the import of my getting to visit Miss Welty's home?
You know how much I like to document every thing possible, so you may be surprised at what I'm about to say. I figured all along that no photographs would be allowed inside, so I hardly feel heartbroken at that eventuality. I've got my memories of the size of the rooms, of her beloved books everywhere, of the kitchen window that looks down over the backyard, of seeing her typewriter in her bedroom where she did most of her writing, of the art on the walls (including portraits of her parents), of the example of her editing method--the original cut and paste, let me tell you.
I did have the Nikon D50 in my purse, ready for when we walked through the side and back yards.
Here is the view of a wisteria arbor on the east side of the house, looking down into the backyard. Use your imagination and see delicate, pale purple and white blossoms hanging over your head. See in the distance the garden bench inside a second arbor. Imagine Miss Welty or her mother Chestina seated there on a lovely spring day.
Here's the same arbor, looking up from the backyard. The company where my brother works, Iron Innovations of Clinton, Mississippi, made that lovely handrail. H told me that he measured for it and designed it according to their needs.
Camellias abound in the side yard and outside the living room windows. I wonder what these buds look like now, over a month after I took this photo?
Here's one a bit more open, so delicate.
Miss Welty's bedroom windows, upstairs. The living room windows, downstairs.
Here's the rocker--doesn't it look like the one in the photo of her, above? I'd love it if you'd have a seat in the rocker on her side porch. With your back to the camellias, relax and read the following review of my favorite Eudora Welty book, "Losing Battles." If you get a chance to read it, I'd love to hear what you think about it.
From "The New York Times On the Web," the Books Section:
April 12, 1970
'I call this a reunion to remember, all!'
By JAMES BOATWRIGHT
By Eudora Welty.
In a bleak time, the career of Eudora Welty is instructive. Her dedication and artistic integrity, her clarity of vision, her persistence are altogether remarkable. Since 1936, when her first story was published, she has given us four books of stories, two novellas, a novel, several uncollected stories in The New Yorker over the past few years, and now "Losing Battles," a major work of the imagination and a gift to cause general rejoicing.
The gift is presented on April 13, Miss Welty's 61st birthday, and it appears before us with a liveliness and inventiveness which are almost unseemly. "Losing Battles" is conclusive evidence of what many have long believed: that Eudora Welty possesses the surest comic sense of any American writer alive. It is a comedy that takes no easy liberties, that presents character without fake compassion or amused condescension, a comedy that releases, illuminates, renews our own seeing, that moves in full knowledge of loss, bondage, panic and death.
The time of the novel is all day Sunday and Monday morning during a summer in the 1930's. The place is a farm and the nearby community of Banner in the hill country of northeast Mississippi. At the close of the chief event, a family reunion on Granny Vaughn's 90th birthday, Uncle Noah Webster Beecham says to Gloria, the wife of the hero Jack Renfro: "'Gloria, this has been a story on us all that will never be allowed to be forgotten. . . . Long after you're an old lady without much further stretch to go, sitting back in the same rocking chair Granny's got her little self in now, you'll be hearing it told to Lady May and all her hovering brood. How we brought Jack Renfro back safe from the pen! How you contrived to send a court judge up Banner Top and caused him to sit at our table and pass a night with the family, wife along with him. The story of Jack making it home through thick and thin and into Granny's arms for her biggest and last celebration--for so I have a notion it is--I call this a reunion to remember, all! . . Do you hear me, blessed sweethearts?' He swung over to Granny's chair and folded his arms around her, not letting go, begging for a kiss, not getting it.""
A critic would be rash to ignore such a convenient summary of the novel's action, but he would be equally rash to let it suffice. Uncle Noah is a participant, not an observer, and there is much he either doesn't hear or doesn't recount: the reported death of the schoolteacher who taught them all, Miss Julia Mortimer; tale after tale from the past, involving wretched suffering, murder, maiming, senility, madness, drowning, abandonment.
Uncle Noah's parting speech with its particular felicities and limitations does more than give a synopsis: it points toward the novel's meaning, which is both complex and elusive. Not that the reader will be in any hurry to get there. Even without close scrutiny, the book offers multiple pleasures: it is a joyous, rich, uproarious comic spectacle, teeming with brilliant characters, some introduced for a single scene. Its pulse of life is so strong that this alone may satisfy many a reader; the clearheaded, keenly observed, and loving portrayal of a family's life, a community's, in all its variety, quirkiness, energy.
But more is there than Uncle Noah's and the other voices say, and this brings us to a consideration of the telling of the story. Much of Miss Welty's earlier work, particularly the stories in "The Golden Apples" and "The Bride of the Innisfallen," displays an indirectness, a complexity, of style and narrative in which language, consciousness and event are so delicately manipulated that the story emerges as a kind of difficult and teasing poem; the mediating hand and voice of the creator are powers to reckon with.
"Losing Battles," in contrast, presents a surface of mock objectivity, mock simplicity; it is almost totally dramatic. The narrative offers itself, with a few significant exceptions, as pure dialogue, external event; there is no narrative voice to speak of, and except for one brief passage toward the end of the novel, when we are allowed into the mind of Vaughn, Jack's younger brother, we are denied reflection by any character.
This seems to me a radical and bold experiment in a relatively long novel; it is plausible and it works mainly because the world presented here is one virtually without silence. Someone is always talking and silence is suspicious, a wonder; it implies secrecy, guilt, pride, a rejection of communion, an affirmation of individuality.
In the single interior passage already referred to, Vaughn hears the sound of the night surrounding him: "As he plodded on through the racket, it rang behind him and was ahead of him too. It was all-present enough to spill over into voices, as everything, he was ready to believe now, threatened to do, the closer he might come to where something might happen. The night might turn into more and more voices, all telling it--bragging, lying, singing, pretending, protesting, swearing everything away--but telling it. Even after people gave up each other's company, said good-bye and went home, if there was one left, Vaughn Renfro, the world around him was still one huge, soul-defying reunion."
The concatenation of voices in the long day's reunion has literally defied more than one soul; it dares the soul to break the chain, to remain apart in its own mysteries. The voices seem to say: Here is your own home. Talk.
Gloria Renfro is one of those who won't talk, who try to preserve their mystery and separateness. Her mother-in-law says she has "a sweet voice when she deigns to use it, she's so spotless the sight of her hurts your eyes, she's so neat that once you've hidden her Bible, stolen her baby, put away her curl papers, and wished her writing tablet out of sight, you wouldn't find a trace of her in the company room, and she can be pretty. But you can't read her."
Gloria doesn't want to be read, to add her voice to this babel of voices, and this conflict is at the core of the novel and at the center of Miss Welty's vision. We are all double, at war in our own minds and hearts, and we are inescapably losers in these battles. Being fully human is being participant and observer, torn between our desires for love, safety, blind acceptance, communion, and our equally strong desires for separateness, danger, clear knowledge and individual and primal joy. The intricacies of our double nature have been explored by Miss Welty with the acutest sensibility before, and in "Losing Battles" that exploration yields its richest and most varied discovery.
Gloria is an orphan, of mysterious parentage, whom Miss Julia Mortimer has educated and prepared to follow in her own footsteps; Miss Julia herself is an outsider, an observer, a schoolteacher devoted to a universal, indiscriminate love and concern for her students, in a pitched battle with the ways of natural man, demanding perfection, clarity, knowledge. The announcement of Miss Julia's death is an embarrassment to the reunion; a perverse and serious warrior, she had plagued them when they were young, and she returns to plague them now, with her curse--"You fools--mourn me"--and her desire to be buried beneath the steps of the schoolhouse. Her last days were terrible; those she hadn't turned away no longer bothered to visit her, and death comes to her in the middle of the road as she wanders, mad. Judge Moody says of her ending, "The complete and utter mortification of life!" And those words must be accommodated in the golden romance of Jack and Gloria.
Gloria has chosen to devote all her teaching to one, to her beloved student Jack (which moved Miss Julia to mocking laughter). But Jack is caught in the flood of family, of history. Gloria is a novice in love, possessive and single-minded: "If it wasn't for all the other people around us, our life would be different this minute," and she pinpoints the trouble: "Home ties. Jack Renfro has got family piled all over him." Her impassioned battle cry is Save Jack!
How do you save a man who doesn't want saving, who finds the ties that bind a blessing, who implores Gloria to change her mind, to love his family? ("Not for all the tea in China," she responds.) Jack is a poet of relationship: "When he listened to Uncle Homer it was the same as when he listened to all his family--he leaned forward with his clear eyes fixed on the speaker as though what was now being said would never be said again or repeated by anybody else."
Like George of Miss Welty's "Delta Wedding," Jack is an example of the hero striving to be fully human; like George, he is an adept of love. ("Losing Battles" is similar to "Delta Wedding" in other ways as well.) Although Jack is young, he is already battle-scarred, and he carries out the orders of duty and desire with a keen moral intelligence and a full heart. After Gloria tells him that because of her love for him she has to hate everybody else, he asks that she spare the others some love. When she says she will pity them instead, "Don't pity anybody you could love," he whispers to her. She insists that she can safely pity Miss Julia. I reckon I even love her," said Jack. "I heard her story." Finally Gloria tells him that she gave up Miss Julia and all Miss Julia stood for, and she would willingly give up his family, all for him. He says, "Don't give anybody up. . . or leave anybody out. . . . There's room for everything, and time for everybody, if you take your day the way it comes along and try not to be much later than you can help."
All the other characters in this Breughel-like world are involved in and reflect this conflict, this mystery of love and relation--and the involvement flowers naturally, without a sense of strain or contrivance. Granny Vaughn addresses her dead husband and grandson as if they were present at the reunion; someone tells the story of Jack's grandparents, who one night fled from their children, their whole world of love and duty, and drowned in the Bywy River. (Why did they flee? "A deep question," "a story lost to time.") Bachelors, husbands, spinsters, wives, widows, children are all warriors; they gather on the porch as night falls, and from a distance we see, in the harsh glare of the porch light, their "caves of mouth and eyes opened wide, black with the lonesomeness and hilarity of survival."
But determined analysis of the mystery the characters inhabit may give too somber an impression of the novel. The overwhelming effect is comic--lyrical and touching, as in the counterpoint of voices heard as the household settles for sleep; funny and baffling, when the baby, Lady May, utters her very first words as a storm breaks over the house: "What you huntin', man?"; or joyous and redemptive, even in the midst of defeat, in the novel's last scene: Miss Julia Mortimer, against her wishes, is buried in Banner Cemetery, among the Comforts, Renfros and the rest, an outsider no longer; Jack suffers his final humiliation at the hands of the endearing villain Curly-- he's knocked out, his shirttail is cut off--and he trudges homeward with his wife, singing "Bringing in the Sheaves" for all Banner to hear, an appropriate coda to a beautiful and valuable novel.
Mr. Boatwright is editor of Shenandoah: The Washington and Lee University Review, which last spring published "A Tribute to Eudora Welty."