THE CALLA LILY DIALOGUES

EUDORA WELTY: One Time, One Place

Calla Lily ProfileArleen Solomon Rotchin3 Comments

Eudora Welty’s collections of photographs following her return from Columbia 

University to Mississippi in the 1930’s document the Depression.  As a publicity agent for the Work Progress Administration established by FDR in 1933, she found herself traveling all over the 82 counties of the state which gave her introductions, the chance to see for herself the nature of the place where she had been born.

Because of the years in which she was most active behind the camera Welty invites obvious comparison with Walker Evans’ Depression-era photographs which largely defined the period for subsequent generations.

Her generous view of African Americans, which was so obvious in her photographs, was a revolutionary position for a white writer in the Jim Crow South.   Welty took photography seriously, and even if she had never published a word of prose, her pictures alone would probably have secured her legacy as a gifted documentarian of the Great Depression.

One Writer’s Beginnings recounts Welty’s early years as the daughter of a prominent insurance executive and a mother so devoted to reading that she once risked her life to save her set of Dickens novels from a house fire.

She was basically a shy and reticent lady to undertake her own literary biography, to relive her memories both painful and pleasant, to go through letters and photos of her parents and grandparents.

In our house on North Congress Street, in Jackson, Mississippi, where I was born, the oldest of 3 children in 1909, we grew up to the striking of clocks.There was a mission-style oak grandfather clock standing in the hall, which sent its gong like strokes through the living room, dining room, kitchen and pantry, and up the sounding board of the stairwell.  Through the night, it could find its way into our ears, sometimes, even on the sleeping porch, midnight it could wake us up.  My parents had a smaller striking clock that could answer it.

Eudora Welty’s home was built by her parents in 1925.  She lived in it for nearly 80 years and did her writing in an upstairs bedroom.  The house was declared a National Historic Landmark in 2004.

Even as she continued to make a home in the house where she had spent most of her childhood, Welty was deeply connected to the wider world.  She eagerly followed the news, maintained close friendships with other writers, was on a first name basis with several national journalists, including Jim Lehrer and Roger Mudd, and was often recruited to lecture.

She gave inspired public readings of her stories—performances that reminded listeners how much her art was grounded in the grand oral tradition of the South.

‘Colleges keep inviting me because I’m so well behaved,’ Welty said. ‘I’m always on time and I don’t get drunk or hole up in a hotel with my lover.’

Sly humor and modesty were her trademark.

Welty’s photographs have been collected in several beautiful books, including One Time, One Place, Eudora Welty Photographs and Eudora Welty as Photographer.    Her prose is a joy to read, especially when she draws upon the talent she honed as a photographer and uses words, rather than film, to make pictures on a page.

Like Virginia Woolf, a writer she dearly admired, Welty used prose as vividly as paint to make images so tangible that the reader can feel his hand running across their surface.  Like Woolf, Welty enriched her craft as a writer of fiction with a complementary career as a gifted literary critic.                                                                        

Eudora Welty’s main subject for her stories and her photographs is the intricacies of human relationships, particularly as revealed through her characters’ interactions in intimate social encounters.  Among her themes are the subjectivity and ambiguity of people’s perception of character and the presence of virtue hidden beneath an obscuring surface of convention, insensitivity and social prejudice.  Her outlook is hopeful.

Over her lifetime, Welty accumulated many national and international honors. Although she was recognized as the master of the short story, she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for her novel The Optimist’s Daughter.  She also received 8 O. Henry prizes; the Gold Medal for Fiction, given by the National Institute of Arts and Letters; the Legion d’Honneur from the French government and in 1988 she became the first living author whose works were collected in a full-length anthology by the Library of America.

She died in Jackson, Mississippi,  July 23, 2001