- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 21, 2009




Edited by Pearl Amelia McHaney

University Press of Mississippi, $35, 350 pages

Reviewed by James E. Person Jr.

“It is an outstanding characteristic of Miss Welty’s genius,” Joyce Carol Oates wrote on one occasion, “that she can write a story that seems to me, in a way, about ‘nothing’ - Flaubert’s ideal, a masterpiece of style - and make it mean very nearly everything.” Ms. Oates’ words easily apply not only to the stories of Eudora Welty (1909-2001) but to her novels, as well - and even to her early and occasional short prose works.

Best known for such outstanding short stories as “A Worn Path” and “Why I Live at the P.O.” as well as her novels “Losing Battles” (1970) and “The Optimist’s Daughter” (1972), Miss Welty was one of a handful of Mississippi-born writers who have been recognized for their major accomplishments in 20th-century literature. Among her compatriots - including William Faulkner, Ellen Gilchrist, Richard Wright, Elizabeth Spencer, and Walker Percy - Miss Welty more then held her own; “The Optimist’s Daughter” won the 1973 Pulitzer Prize in literature, and she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1980: strong measures of her nation’s esteem.

She wrote of the land and people she knew - in her case, the land and people of the early-to-mid 20th-century Deep South - while speaking to the universal human heart, with its quirks and desires, its mixed motives, its measure of meanness and greatness, and instances of immense love expressed within everyday life. This is no easy task, and the astringent critic Allen Tate was moved to describe Miss Welty as “an ‘original’ who has never strained her language for the sake of innovation, and whose originality is in her unstudied observation of people and places, so that we see human nature as it had not been seen before. She is a great craftsman, and thus a perfect case of art added to genius.”

In “Occasions: Selected Writings,” Pearl McHaney, a noted authority on Miss Welty’s work, has gathered a farrago of scattered poems, early short stories, forewords to other writers’ books, and other pieces - even a recipe for chicken pie - to help make the more obscure elements of Miss Welty’s canon more accessible to the interested reader.

In one appreciative essay, Miss Welty describes “the integrity of a thing that springs from and lives on its own nourishing soil. And regardless of how we may grow and come to link up with the larger world, a natural process of development, it is the principle of that first ‘goodness,’ that original integrity, that must be the root of all excellence that can follow, and will always responsibly account for it and bless it.” This passage describes a local bank in Jackson, Miss., but it could as easily describe Miss Welty herself.

Elsewhere, speaking of the nourishing soil of her youth in Jackson, the writer lovingly describes long-ago summers, noting that “the memory of every Southerner lies fixed in summertime” and adding: “From the beginning of our lives, it seems, we knew the big, slow month-after-month turning of sights and sounds and scents, the kaleidoscope of pleasures in the duress of heat - the swimming of ice in china pitchers of tea or lemonade, ceiling fans wheeling on porches, punkahs in the oldest houses in stately back-and-forth above the long table, fans in the hand, church fans, party fans, silk and feather and ivory fans, old ladies’ black fans, children’s fans, on chains that went around the neck. And in the evenings of childhood summers, where in companies we used to play out, pulling by strings those homemade toys, tiny steamboats, candles inside alight, blinking out from crescent moon and star windows as night came down.” Form and substance blend seamlessly, to memorable effect.

Ms. McHaney also has included several early short stories, each well worth reading, and short tributes and forewords dedicated to Katherine Anne Porter, Reynolds Price, Miss Spencer and several other writers and artists. If the inclusion of the recipe for “Aunt Beck’s Chicken Pie” (mentioned in the novel “Losing Battles”) and one or two of the skits seem weak additions to this selection, their presence is more than made up for by the parodic “Women!! Make Turban in Own Home!”- a mirror held up to the bizarre do-it-yourself ideas sometimes published in Popular Mechanics many years ago. In this piece, Miss Welty displays the dry, self-mocking humor typical of the best Southern storytellers: a my-world-and-welcome-to-it journey also characteristic of James Thurber’s best work.

It all began innocently enough one winter day in 1941 when Miss Welty decided to sew herself a Hedy Lamarr-style turban. “There was no reason for making a Hedy Lamarr turban,” she explains, “except that my hair had gotten too long and instead of getting it cut I wondered if I couldn’t just hide it.” By the end of her arduous ordeal - well, let her tell it: “When I got through with it, it was tacky. It had ears. When I brushed my hair and put it on, I looked like a lady in Popular Mechanics, ready for goggles and a rocket ship. It served me right, I suppose. But what with the snow melting and all, and the birds singing, I went down the next day and got a haircut and have been taking life easy ever since.”

Of the writers she admired, Miss Welty was an ardent champion. Reading her deft, death-by-a-thousand-cuts rebuttal of Edmund Wilson’s sniffy review of Faulkner’s “Intruder in the Dust,” each published in the New Yorker, the reader is left wondering how the poor man dared to show his face in public for a week or two. On another topic, Miss Welty’s short assessment of Flannery O’Connor’s significance is one of the most accurate and succinct on record.

Poet and novelist Robert Penn Warren once described Miss Welty as “a writer of great resourcefulness, sensitivity, and intelligence.” That description is amply confirmed in Pearl McHaney’s selection of Miss Welty’s miscellaneous prose.

James E. Person Jr. is the author of “Earl Hamner: From Walton’s Mountain to Tomorrow” (Cumberland House) and has completed a novel.

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