Now available as an audio CD, in Eudora Welty's own voice, or as a book. Eudora Welty was born in 1909 in Jackson, Mississippi. In a "continuous thread of revelation" she sketches her autobiography and tells us how her family and her surroundings contributed to the shaping not only of her personality but of her writing. Homely and commonplace sights, sounds, and objects resonate with the emotions of recollection: the striking clocks, the Victrola, her orphaned father's coverless little book saved since boyhood, the tall mountains of the West Virginia back country that become a metaphor for her mother's sturdy independence, Eudora's earliest box camera that suspended a moment forever and taught her that every feeling awaits a gesture. She has recreated this vanished world with the same subtlety and insight that mark her fiction. Even if Eudora Welty were not a major writer, her description of growing up in the South--of the interplay between black and white, between town and countryside, between dedicated schoolteachers and the public they taught--would he notable. That she is a splendid writer of fiction gives her own experience a family likeness to others in the generation of young Southerners that produced a literary renaissance. Until publication of this book, she had discouraged biographical investigations. It undoubtedly was not easy for this shy and reticent lady to undertake her own literary biography, to relive her own memories (painful as well as pleasant), to go through letters and photographs of her parents and grandparents. But we are in her debt, for the distillation of experience she offers us is a rare pleasure for her admirers, a treat to everyone who loves good writing and anyone who is interested in the seeds of creativity.
The book is a set of three memoir episodes that began as a series of lectures at Harvard in 1983 to inaugurate the William E. Massey lecture series. "Listening" recounts Welty's memories of her early childhood in Jackson, MS; "Learning to See" takes the Welty family and her audience on the road to West Virginia and Ohio where Eudora and her family travelled in the summers to visit her parents' families; and in "Finding a Voice," Welty ponders some of her early writing influences. While the third section is interesting, it is in the first two that Welty's storytelling gifts shine. She lets us breathe the air of the post WWI decades of small town and country life in America.
The idea of driving thousands of miles in a 1917 Model T with two children in the back seat absolutely boggles my mind.
Edward and I rode with our legs straight out in front of over some suitcases. The rest of the suitcases rode just outside the doors, trapped on the running boards. Cars weren't made with trunks. The tools were kept under the back seat and were heard from in syncopation with the bumps, we'd jump out of the car so Daddy could get them out and jack up the car to patch and vulcanize a tire, or haul out the tow rope or the tire chains. If it rained so hare we couldn't see the road in from of us, we waited it out, snapped in behind the rain curtains and playing "Twenty Questions."
Because of this focus on family and personal experiences, the book can seem a bit parochial, but this is a minor caveat. I also found Welty’s densely-knotted family relations somewhat confusing at times. Not because the different people she remembers are not all memorable characters in their own right; I would just like a family tree at the beginning of the book. What I really did enjoy is Welty’s recounting of her and her family’s reading habits. Her mother seems to have been the main influence on Welty’s reading: she once ran into a burning house to save her complete collection of Dickens. And, despite her father’s disdain for fiction (because, unlike fact, it was not ‘true’) he did not stand in Welty’s way of becoming a writer. Unfortunately, he died before she became published, which leads to a sense of regret throughout the book.
Welty’s development as an author is reflected in the titles of the book’s segments: ‘Listening’, ‘Learning to See’, and ‘Finding a Voice’, and is given concrete form through her reflections on events in her young life. How she managed to remember so much in her seventies is beyond me, but it led to a wonderful little book, which I read in two sittings. I think anyone can find something resonant in it, but the book is especially insightful for those bitten by the bugs of reading and writing.
Welty has an assured and comfortable gait as she wanders amongst these paths of memory. Without appearing to fixate on telling individuals or activities, she gently associates some of her early experiences with characters in her later stories or novels. More important, perhaps, is the insight she draws from such associations, as though through telling her personal past she is reading her own fiction. The effect is one of clear and penetrating analysis without rancour.
The writing is always a pleasure to read and, though brief, it would be hard not to feel at the end as though one had learned a great deal about Welty, as a writer, through this canvassing of some of her important memories. Gently recommended along with a reminder to go back and read Welty’s fiction — all of it.
This, to me, is equalled in English by Nabokov's terse clarity, and by little else; but it has been cited to me several times as unendurably cutesy or simply overwritten. I so completely disagree that it's hard to credit the opinion-havers with a shred of taste; however, there are tastes, and there are tastes, so I move on from my digression.
"One Writer's Beginnings" is told in a narrative voice much like her fiction; it is constructed like the linear tale that a life is when it is reflected on at leisure; and there are so many things in her history, from 1909 and her birth until her last entry in the lecture, a trip by train to New York during the Great Depression as a WPA junior publicity agent, that clearly formed a consciousness of time and place and rightness of things that she uses to such telling effect in her stories. An anecdote early in the book of her parents' morning routine of whistling and humming back and forth up and down the stairs phrases from "The Merry Widow Waltz" illuminates for me the means by which this shy, never-married lady "got" the signals of relationship that are so necessary to the parties in happiness. Another moment, the discovery of two nickels preserved in a hidden box, teaches me that Miss Eudora never felt any unmixed emotion (I won't tell that story, it must be read to be understood) and that is why "The Ponder Heart" is such a landmark in Southern ficiton.
The death of Miss Eudora's beloved father in 1931 is simply too painful for her to go into; she elides the details and leaves us to infer her pain. It fits with her lifelong lack of interest in talking about herself, but it leaves the reader without an anchor in what had to be a turbulent passage in her life. I can't fault the lady for her reticence, but in this as in several other areas, it would have behooved Miss Eudora to have let others guide her in preparing these talks so as to answer more questions.
Well, and therein the rub: It was the last thing she ever wanted to do, answer questions, and it's also why she wrote such marvelous stories, to answer them all unasked.
Miss Eudora Welty, thank you for it all, and a safe journey into the future for your gifts to us who follow along behind you.
This short, gentle memoir hints at how the writer-Welty was formed. Its three sections (“Listening,” “Learning to See,” and “Finding a Voice”) were adapted from three lectures she gave at Harvard University in 1983. They capture her sweet childhood; her extended family and life in the South; and her education, early writing and reflections on writing.
As you have seen, I am a writer who came of a sheltered life. A sheltered life can be a daring life as well. For all serious daring starts from within.
Welty focuses on her family history and varied inspirations for her characters. Through her family and travels, she saw enough of human life to imagine her distinctive characters. She portrays herself as coming from a “sheltered” background yet clearly imbibed everything from what’s going on around her. She saw Mississippi first-hand by traveling to take pictures of real life in the Depression. She also travelled widely – to New York and to school in Wisconsin – and learned from those environments.
She comes off as an ambitious young lady who makes the most of every opportunity handed to her. She learned about life as it came to her, as it presented itself to her. She did not follow a grand plan to success but started with detail. Indeed, after having benefitted from her father’s pre-Depression success in the life insurance industry in Jackson, Mississippi, she eschewed the field of business generally in favor of a writer’s observationally rich yet financially meager life.
In a new edition out in late 2020, Simon and Schuster repackages this work to seek a wider audience of contemporary readers. Literary researchers will find this book especially interesting. Further, a wider audience of writers and book fanatics, who might have been exposed to Welty’s craftsmanship through her short stories or her photographs, might indulge their curiosity by learning about specific experiences that formed this very American writer. To borrow Welty’s imagery, the words flow smoothly from her experiences to the reader. In this “confluence” of a great writer’s mind with their own minds, readers can extend their understanding of the wide world and of deep humanity.