One writer's beginnings

by Eudora Welty (Afterword)

Hardcover, 1984




Cambridge, Mass. : Harvard University Press, 1984.


In a "continuous thread of revelation" Eudora Welty 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.

User reviews

LibraryThing member dmsteyn
I came to this short book through a friend of my mother’s, who, knowing that I am interested in writing, thought that I might enjoy a peek into the creative maturing of one of her favourite writers. And enjoy it I did, despite not having read any of Welty’s novels or short stories. The book had
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its origins in three lectures to inaugurate the William E. Massey lecture series in 1983 at Harvard, which explains its length. It is a bit of a non-fictional Künstlerroman, with its focus on how Welty’s childhood and her family influenced the development of her creative writing. It is very well-written, which one would expect, but it is also quite touching – Welty’s evocations of her family’s day-to-day life in early twentieth-century America are poignant and deeply felt, with a touch of sadness that never drops into sentimentality. Growing up in the South (Jackson, Mississippi, to be precise) had a large influence on Welty, but the memoir is more concerned with the personal aspects of family life than public affairs. For instance, Welty mentions the furore caused by Faulkner’s Sanctuary only in passing (in fact, she does not even mention Faulkner’s name), and she says little about racial tensions, that other elephant in the room. I had little trouble with this, as the scope of the book is so personal, with little room for extraneous detail.

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.
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LibraryThing member janeajones
I've been reading one book by Eudora Welty per summer for the past few years. I've been rationing them out, because there aren't many, and I prefer to savor each, rather than greedily devouring them quickly. Her writing is so lovely and evocative and redolent of summer days. But I broke down this
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summer and took One Writer's Beginnings with me on vacation after having finished The Optimist's Daughter.

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."
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LibraryThing member RandyMetcalfe
Begun as a series of three lectures delivered at Harvard in 1983, Eudora Welty’s One Writer’s Beginnings traces the confluence of events and history, persons and places, that at that late point looking back upon her writing career she takes to constitute her vision or her voice. While much of
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any writer’s beginnings will inevitably concern their particular childhood — teachers, key events, distant relatives to whom one learns relation — Welty’s lens plays as much upon her parents as upon herself. And so we learn of her father’s move from Ohio to West Virginia, where he met Eudora’s mother. And we learn how the two young newlyweds made a conscious decision to set out for pastures new, settling in Jackson, Mississippi, where later Eudora is born and raised and where her parents remain the rest of the lives, barring holiday excursions usually to family back in West Virginia or Ohio.

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.
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LibraryThing member richardderus
The unassuming, delight-filled, unsparingly indulgent prose of Miss Eudora's fiction is surpassed in this expansion and revision of her Massey Lecture in the History of American Civilization, delivered at Harvard in 1983. For anyone unacquainted with Miss Eudora's literary output, I recommend
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starting with short fiction ("The Bride of the Innisfallen" is a good starter, followed by "Why I Live at the P.O."), moving on to her chef d'ouevre, the novel "The Ponder Heart"; this memoir, all 104pp of it, should come after one knows whether one is able to appreciate the particularities and glories of Miss Eudora's work. While I think she would appeal to any able-minded reader, I know from experience that her beautiful sentences sound like preciosity to some readers: eg, "Over a stronghold of a face, the blue hat of the lady in the raincoat was settled on like an Indian bonnet, or, rather, like an old hat, which it was." ("The Bride of the Innisfallen")

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.
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LibraryThing member dreamingtereza
Thoroughly entertaining! Welty is a great storyteller.
LibraryThing member melydia
I confess, I have not read any of Ms. Welty's stories. The only reason I'd even heard of this book was because some famous author listed it as required reading for all aspiring writers. Having read it, I'm not entirely sure why. Sure, it's a lovely painting of life in early 20th century
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Mississippi, but besides making the point of "good writers can come from any background" there isn't much to be gained in terms of writing advice. So while I may recommend it as a descriptive and nostalgic memoir, I would not include it in my personal list of a writer's essential texts.
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LibraryThing member Jim53
Ms. Welty breaks her brief memoir into three pieces. The first two describe her family and upbringing, with emphasis on its effects on her thinking and chpoice of a career. She inherits her mother's love of books and reading; her sense of place is strong. In the final section, she reflects more on
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the differences between experience and memory, and how writing tends to reflect memory, in that its order is one of revelation rather than of linear time. A scene is a weaker construct than a situation, which gives the scene context. Very nicely written. Not a writing how-to or an exhaustive autobiography, but some interesting insights into the process of writing and how it is based on seeing and listening.
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LibraryThing member ccayne
I liked the second half much better than the first. I read this sporadically at lunch and this book didn't lend itself to interrupted reading. Learning about her life and life in the south was very interesting, especially how her parents both left their homes for a common place.
LibraryThing member penelopemarzec
I found this interesting from a historical perspective, though it offered little as an instructional book on writing. It is a gentle look backward in time.
LibraryThing member penelopemarzec
I found this interesting from a historical perspective, though it offered little as an instructional book on writing. It is a gentle look backward in time.
LibraryThing member varielle
A brief memoir of Eudora Welty's childhood in Mississippi and the people who influenced the writer she became, it is a pleasant slice of southern life in the early 20th century. Many of the memorable people in her formative years later reappear incognito as characters in her stories. Her family
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history and accompanying mysteries are contemplated from the aspect of a child trying to figure out the world around her. It doesn't speak of how to right so much as it is about her font of inspiration.
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LibraryThing member detailmuse
It had been startling and disappointing to me to find out that story books had been written by people, that books were not natural wonders, coming up of themselves like grass.

This short, gentle memoir hints at how the writer-Welty was formed. Its three sections (“Listening,” “Learning to
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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.
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LibraryThing member Gingermama
Sweet little gem of a book...
LibraryThing member scottjpearson
Eudora Welty, master of the American short story, needs no introduction. Her writing chronicles life in Mississippi before and during the Depression era. This memoir was originally given as three lectures at Harvard University in April, 1983. Together, they constitute a repository of our knowledge
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of Welty’s upbringing and early adulthood – and importantly, her literary influences.

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.
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LibraryThing member viviennestrauss
I don't know exactly what I was expecting from this little book but I wasn't expecting to practically weep through the entire thing. Welty's relationship with her parents made me think of mine with my parents and how little I truly know about either of them.
LibraryThing member FKarr
As always, I most enjoyed the genealogy and family history she shared. Not being a writer, I found her description of how she found her characters to be unconvincing. Was she deceiving herself though when she wrote that looking back on the life of her parents and family the the steps -almost
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stepping stones - they chose were inevitable, were the only path that could have been chosen for the family?
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