Eudora Welty on Austen, Chekhov, and Woolf

Literature, Writers

INTERVIEWER

You wrote somewhere that we should still tolerate Jane Austen’s kind of family novel. Is Austen a kindred spirit?

EUDORA WELTY

Tolerate? I should just think so! I love and admire all she does, and profoundly, but I don’t read her or anyone else for “kindredness.” The piece you’re referring to was written on assignment for Brief Lives, an anthology Louis Kronenberger was editing. He did offer me either Jane Austen or Chekhov, and Chekhov I do dare to think is more “kindred.” I feel closer to him in spirit, but I couldn’t read Russian, which I felt whoever wrote about him should be able to do. Chekhov is one of us—so close to today’s world, to my mind, and very close to the South—which Stark Young pointed out a long time ago.

INTERVIEWER

Why is Chekhov close to today’s South?

WELTY

He loved the singularity in people, the individuality. He took for granted the sense of family. He had the sense of fate overtaking a way of life, and his Russian humor seems to me kin to the humor of a Southerner. It’s the kind that lies mostly in character. You know, inUncle Vanya and The Cherry Orchard, how people are always gathered together and talking and talking, no one’s really listening. Yet there’s a great love and understanding that prevails through it, and a knowledge and acceptance of each other’s idiosyncrasies, a tolerance of them, and also an acute enjoyment of the dramatic. Like in The Three Sisters, when the fire is going on, how they talk right on through their exhaustion, and Vershinin says, “I feel a strange excitement in the air,” and laughs and sings and talks about the future. That kind of responsiveness to the world, to whatever happens, out of their own deeps of character seems very southern to me. Anyway, I took a temperamental delight in Chekhov, and gradually the connection was borne in upon me.

INTERVIEWER

Do you ever return to Virginia Woolf?

WELTY

Yes. She was the one who opened the door. When I read To the Lighthouse, I felt, Heavens, what is this? I was so excited by the experience I couldn’t sleep or eat. I’ve read it many times since, though more often these days I go back to her diary. Any day you open it to will be tragic, and yet all the marvelous things she says about her work, about working, leave you filled with joy that’s stronger than your misery for her. Remember—“I’m not very far along, but I think I have my statues against the sky”? Isn’t that beautiful?

From Eudora Welty’s interview with The Paris Review.

“Lily Daw and the Three Ladies” — Eudora Welty

Literature, Writers

“Lily Daw and the Three Ladies”

by Eudora Welty

Mrs Watts and Mrs Carson were both in the post office in Victory when the letter came from the Ellisville Institute for the Feeble Minded of Mississippi. Aimee Slocum, with her hand still full of mail, ran out in front and handed it straight to Mrs Watts, and they all three read it together. Mrs Watts held it taut between her pink hands, and Mrs Carson underscored each line slowly with her thimbled finger. Everybody else in the post office wondered what was up now.

“What will Lily say,” beamed Mrs Carson at last, “when we tell her we’re sending her to Ellisville!”

“She’ll be tickled to death,” said Mrs Watts, and added in a guttural voice to a deaf lady, “Lily Daw’s getting in at Ellisville!”

“Don’t you all dare go off and tell Lily without me!” called Aimee Slocum, trotting back to finish putting up the mail.

“Do you suppose they’ll look after her down there?” Mrs Carson began to carry on a conversation with a group of Baptist ladies waiting in the post office. She was the Baptist preacher’s wife.

“I’ve always heard it was lovely down there, but crowded,” said one.

“Lily lets people walk over her so,” said another.

“Last night at the tent show—-” said another, and then popped her hand over her mouth.

“Don’t mind me, I know there are such things in the world,” said Mrs Carson, looking down and fingering the tape measure which hung over her bosom.

“Oh, Mrs Carson. Well, anyway, last night at the tent show, why, the man was just before making Lily buy a ticket to get in.”

“A ticket!”

“Till my husband went up and explained she wasn’t bright, and so did everybody else.”

The ladies all clucked their tongues.

“Oh, it was a very nice show,” said the lady who had gone. “And Lily acted so nice. She was a perfect lady–just set in her seat and stared.”

“Oh, she can be a lady–she can be,” said Mrs Carson, shaking her head and turning her eyes up. “That’s just what breaks your heart.”

“Yes’m, she kept her eyes on–what’s that thing makes all the commotion?–the xylophone,” said the lady. “Didn’t turn her head to the right or to the left the whole time. Set in front of me.”

“The point is, what did she do after the show?” asked Mrs Watts practically. “Lily has gotten so she is very mature for her age.”

“Oh, Etta!” protested Mrs Carson, looking at her wildly for a moment.

“And that’s how come we are sending her to Ellisville,” finished Mrs Watts.

“I’m ready, you all,” said Aimee Slocum, running out with white powder all over her face. “Mail’s up. I don’t know how good it’s up.”

“Well, of course, I do hope it’s for the best,” said several of the other ladies. They did not go at once to take their mail out of their boxes; they felt a little left out.

The three women stood at the foot of the water tank.

“To find Lily is a different thing,” said Aimee Slocum.

“Where in the wide world do you suppose she’d be?” It was Mrs Watts who was carrying the letter.

“I don’t see a sign of her either on this side of the street or on the other side,” Mrs Carson declared as they walked along.

Ed Newton was stringing Redbird school tablets on the wire across the store.

“A Still Moment” — Eudora Welty

Books, Literature, Writers

“A Still Moment”

by Eudora Welty

Lorenzo Dow rode the Old Natchez Trace at top speed upon a race horse, and the cry of the itinerant Man of God, “I must have souls! And souls I must have!” rang in his own windy ears. He rode as if never to stop, toward his night’s appointment.

It was the hour of sunset. All the souls that he had saved and all those he had not took dusky shapes in the mist that hung between the high banks, and seemed by their great number and density to block his way, and showed no signs of melting or changing back into mist, so that he feared his passage was to be difficult forever. The poor souls that were not saved were darker and more pitiful than those that were, and still there was not any of the radiance he would have hoped to see in such a congregation.

“Light up, in God’s name!” he called, in the pain of his disappointment.

Then a whole swarm of fireflies instantly flickered all around him, up and down, back and forth, first one golden light and then another, flashing without any of the weariness that had held back the souls. These were the signs sent from God that he had not seen the accumulated radiance of saved souls because he was not able, and that his eyes were more able to see the fireflies of the Lord than His blessed souls.

“Lord, give me the strength to see the angels when I am in Paradise,” he said. “Do not let my eyes remain in this failing proportion to my – loving heart always.”

He gasped and held on. It was that day’s complexity of horse-trading that had left him in the end with a Spanish race horse for which he was bound to send money in November from Georgia. Riding faster on the beast and still faster until he felt as if he were flying he sent thoughts of i love with matching speed to his wife Peggy in Massachusetts. He found it effortless to love at a distance. He could look at the flowering trees and love Peggy in fullness, just as he could see his visions and love God. And Peggy, to whom he had not spoken until he could speak fateful words (“Would she accept of such an object as him?”), Peggy, the bride, with whom he had spent a few hours of time, showing of herself a small round handwriting, declared all in one letter, her first, that she felt the same as he, and that the fear was never of separation, but only of death.

Lorenzo well knew that it was Death that opened underfoot, that rippled by at night, that was the silence the birds did their singing in. He was close to death, closer than any animal or bird. On the back of one horse after another, winding them all, he was always riding toward it or away from it, and the Lord sent him directions with protection in His mind.

Just then he rode into a thicket of Indians taking aim with their new guns. One stepped out and took the horse by the bridle, it stopped at a touch, and the rest made a closing circle. The guns pointed.

“Incline!” The inner voice spoke sternly and with its customary lightning-quickness.

“A Still Moment” by Eudora Welty

Books, Literature, Writers

“A Still Moment” by Eudora Welty

Lorenzo Dow rode the Old Natchez Trace at top speed upon a race horse, and the cry of the itinerant Man of God, “I must have souls! And souls I must have!” rang in his own windy ears. He rode as if never to stop, toward his night’s appointment.

It was the hour of sunset. All the souls that he had saved and all those he had not took dusky shapes in the mist that hung between the high banks, and seemed by their great number and density to block his way, and showed no signs of melting or changing back into mist, so that he feared his passage was to be difficult forever. The poor souls that were not saved were darker and more pitiful than those that were, and still there was not any of the radiance he would have hoped to see in such a congregation.

“Light up, in God’s name!” he called, in the pain of his disappointment.

Then a whole swarm of fireflies instantly flickered all around him, up and down, back and forth, first one golden light and then another, flashing without any of the weariness that had held back the souls. These were the signs sent from God that he had not seen the accumulated radiance of saved souls because he was not able, and that his eyes were more able to see the fireflies of the Lord than His blessed souls.

“Lord, give me the strength to see the angels when I am in Paradise,” he said. “Do not let my eyes remain in this failing proportion to my – loving heart always.”

He gasped and held on. It was that day’s complexity of horse- trading that had left him in the end with a Spanish race horse for which he was bound to send money in November from Georgia. Riding faster on the beast and still faster until he felt as if he were flying he sent thoughts of love with matching speed to his wife Peggy in Massachusetts. He found it effortless to love at a distance. He could look at the flowering trees and love Peggy in fullness, just as he could see his visions and love God. And Peggy, to whom he had not spoken until he could speak fateful words (“Would she accept of such an object as him?”), Peggy, the bride, with whom he had spent a few hours of time, showing of herself a small round handwriting, declared all in one letter, her first, that she felt the same as he, and that the fear was never of separation, but only of death.

Lorenzo well knew that it was Death that opened underfoot, that rippled by at night, that was the silence the birds did their singing in. He was close to death, closer than any animal or bird. On the back of one horse after another, winding them all, he was always riding toward it or away from it, and the Lord sent him directions with protection in His mind.

Just then he rode into a thicket of Indians taking aim with their new guns. One stepped out and took the horse by the bridle, it stopped at a touch, and the rest made a closing circle. The guns pointed.

“Incline!” The inner voice spoke sternly and with its customary lightning-quickness.

Lorenzo inclined all the way forward and put his head to the horse’s silky mane, his body to its body, until a bullet meant for him would endanger the horse and make his death of no value. Prone he rode out through the circle of Indians, his obedience to the voice leaving him almost fearless, almost careless with joy.

But as he straightened and pressed ahead, care caught up with him again. Turning half-beast and half-divine, dividing himself like a heathen Centaur, he had escaped his death once more. But was it to be always by some metamorphosis of himself that he escaped, some humiliation of his faith, some admission to strength and argumentation and not frailty? Each time when he acted so it was at the command of an instinct that he took at once as the word of an angel, until too late, when he knew it was the word of the Devil. He had roared like a tiger at Indians, he had submerged himself in water blowing the savage bubbles of the alligator, and they skirted him by. He had prostrated himself to appear dead, and deceived bears. But all the time God would have protected him in His own way, less hurried, more divine.

Even now he saw a serpent crossing the Trace, giving out knowing glances.

He cried, “I know you now!,” and the serpent gave him one look out of which all the fire had been taken, and went away in two darts into the tangle.

He rode on, all expectation, and the voices in the throats of the wild beasts went, almost without his noticing when, into words. “Praise God,” they said. “Deliver us from one another.” Birds especially sang of divine love which was the one ceaseless protection. “Peace, in peace,” were their words so many times when they spoke from the briars, in a courteous sort of inflection, and he turned his countenance toward all perched creatures with a benevolence striving to match their own.

“Powerhouse” — Eudora Welty

Books, Literature, Writers

“Powerhouse” by Eudora Welty

Powerhouse is playing!

He’s here on tour from the city–”Powerhouse and His Keyboard”– “Powerhouse and His Tasmanians”–think of the things he calls himself! There’s no one in the world like him. You can’t tell what he is. “Nigger man”?–he looks more Asiatic, monkey, Jewish, Babylonian, Peruvian, fanatic, devil. He has pale gray eyes, heavy lids, maybe horny like a lizard’s, but big glowing eyes when they’re open. He has African feet of the greatest size, stomping, both together, on each side of the pedals. He’s not coal black– beverage colored–looks like a preacher when his mouth is shut, but then it opens–vast and obscene. And his mouth is going every minute: like a monkey’s when it looks for something. Improvising, coming on a light and childish melody–smooch–he loves it with his mouth.

Is it possible that he could be this! When you have him there performing for you, that’s what you feel. You know people on a stage–and people of a darker race–so likely to be marvelous, frightening.

This is a white dance. Powerhouse is not a show-off like the Harlem boys, not drunk, not crazy–he’s in a trance; he’s a person of joy, a fanatic. He listens as much as he performs, a look of hideous, powerful rapture on his face. Big arched eyebrows that never stop traveling, like a Jew’s–wandering-Jew eyebrows. When he plays he beats down piano and seat and wears them away. He is in motion every moment–what could be more obscene? There he is with his great head, fat stomach, and little round piston legs, and long yellow-sectioned strong big fingers, at rest about the size of bananas. Of course you know how he sounds–you’ve heard him on records–but still you need to see him. He’s going all the time, like skating around the skating rink or rowing a boat. It makes everybody crowd around, here in this shadowless steel-trussed hall with the rose-like posters of Nelson Eddy and the testimonial for the mind-reading horse in handwriting magnified five hundred times. Then all quietly he lays his finger on a key with the promise and serenity of a sibyl touching the book.

Powerhouse is so monstrous he sends everybody into oblivion. When any group, any performers, come to town, don’t people always come out and hover near, leaning inward about them, to learn what it is? What is it? Listen. Remember how it was with the acrobats. Watch them carefully, hear the least word, especially what they say to one another, in another language–don’t let them escape you; it’s the only time for hallucination, the last time. They can’t stay. They’ll be somewhere else this time tomorrow.

Powerhouse has as much as possible done by signals. Everybody, laughing as if to hide a weakness, will sooner or later hand him up a written request. Powerhouse reads each one, studying with a secret face: that is the face which looks like a mask–anybody’s; there is a moment when he makes a decision. Then a light slides under his eyelids, and he says, “92!” or some combination of figures–never a name. Before a number the band is all frantic, misbehaving, pushing, like children in a schoolroom, and he is the teacher getting silence. His hands over the keys, he says sternly, “You-all ready? You-all ready to do some serious walking?”–waits–then, STAMP. Quiet. STAMP, for the second time This is absolute. Then a set of rhythmic kicks against the floor to communicate the tempo. Then, O Lord! say the distended eyes from beyond the boundary of the trumpets, Hello and good-bye, and they are all down the first note like a waterfall.

“A Visit of Charity” — Eudora Welty

Books, Literature, Writers

“A Visit of Charity” by Eudora Welty

It was mid-morning—a very cold, bright day. Holding a potted plant before her, a girl of fourteen jumped off the bus in front of the Old Ladies’ Home, on the outskirts of town. She wore a red coat, and her straight yellow hair was hanging down loose from the pointed white cap all the little girls were wearing that year. She stopped for a moment beside one of the prickly dark shrubs with which the city had beautified the Home, and then proceeded slowly toward the building, which was of whitewashed brick and reflected the winter sunlight like a block of ice. As she walked vaguely up the steps she shifted the small pot from hand to hand; then she had to set it down and remove her mittens before she could open the heavy door.

“I’m a Campfire Girl…I have to pay a visit to sold old lady,” she told the nurse at the desk. This was a woman in a white uniform who looked as if she were cold; she had close-cut hair which stood up on the very top of her head exactly like a sea wave. Marian, the little girl, did not tell her that this visit would give her a minimum of only three points in her score.

“Acquainted with any of our residents?” asked the nurse. She lifted one eyebrow and spoke like a man.

“With any old ladies? No—but—that is, any of them will do,” Marian stammered. With her free hand she pushed her hair behind her ears, as she did when it was time to study Science.

The nurse shrugged and rose. “You have a nice multiflora cineraria there,” she remarked as she walked ahead down the hall of closed doors to pick out an old lady.

There was loose, bulging linoleum on the floor. Marian felt as if she were walking on the waves, but the nurse paid no attention to it. There was a smell in the hall like the interior of a clock. Everything was silent until, behind one of the doors, an old lady of some kind cleared her throat like a sheep bleating. This decided the nurse. Stopping in her tracks, she first extended her arm, bent her elbow, and leaned forward from the hips, all to examine the watched strapped to her wrist; then she gave a loud double-rap on the door.

“There are two in each room,” the nurse remarked over her shoulder.

“Two what?” asked Marian without thinking. The sound like a sheep’s bleating almost made her turn around and run back.

We Peruse the Latest Issue of Oxford American: Barry Hannah, Eudora Welty, Black Republicans, and Fried Green Tomatoes

Books, Literature, Writers

The spring issue of Oxford American is out now, sporting a Barry Hannah cover. In addition to a review of Hannah’s Long, Last, Happy: New and Collected  Stories, the issue features eight pages of remembrances by Hannah’s students, fans, and friends (along with pictures, of course). In fact, John Oliver Hodges’s review of Long, Last, Happy is really a memoir itself. Here’s an anecdote he shares—

Barry called me his amanuensis, and as such I heard him talk a bit about his feelings on fathers and sons and beautiful women, heartache, football, stool softener, and Krystal hamburgers. On the day that Ole Miss beat Gainesville, 31-30, it happened that we were in Tuscaloosa. To celebrate the win, we drove around the town in his silver Chrysler, his pistol in its holster under the seat. He gave me the grand tour, and as I drove, I videotaped him talking beside me, drinking a Budweiser tallboy (a rare treat to lessen the abiding pain), and smoking a USA, his brand. As we approached the green shack by the tracks where he wrote Ray, he said, “It was probably the saddest time in my life.”

(Quick editorial note: I’m glad that Hannah and Hodges could celebrate Ole Miss’s narrow victory, but Tebow and the Gators did go on to win every other game of the season, including the SEC Championship and the BCS title bowl. So there).

In addition to the Hannah stuff, there’s a great essay on fried green tomatoes, a look at what it means to be a black Republican, an appreciation of Southern hip-hop, stories and poems, and a series of letters by Eudora Welty, including her hilarious application to The New Yorker. Good stuff.

While I’m shilling for Oxford American, I might as well point out that they’re hosting a Summit for Ambitious Writers this June. It’s on top of a freaking mountain! Biblioklept fave Wells Tower will be there. Sounds cool.