“As you have seen,” writes Southern author Eudora Welty in One Writer’s Beginnings, “I am a writer who came of a sheltered life. A sheltered life can be daring as well. For all serious daring starts from within.” Certainly most do not connect a sheltered life to a daring one. We tend to think of daring in terms of the Three Musketeers who claim it’s their business to risk their lives. Or we may view adventurers and explores as daring as they set out into uncharted areas of the world and the universe. When people advise someone to be a “risk taker,” I don’t believe they mean “Go live a sheltered life” or “a quiet life.”
The dictionary defines daring as “adventurous or audaciously bold.” Can one be both “audaciously bold” and still be contained within ones home or hometown for much of one’s life? What makes for true daring? Climbing Everest? Thrill seeking? Risking life and limb for the adrenaline of the experience? Or, if one’s a writer, be like Hemingway?
Eudora Welty lived most of her life in the house she grew up in, located in Jackson, Mississippi. Yet from that house, Welty would go on to write novels, short stories and essays that saw deeply into Southern life and human relationships to such a degree that he work has been compared to that of Anton Chekov. She would probe into what lay behind the facade of daily life in a small Southern town in such a way that did not exploit the characters but offered them up in both honesty and generosity of spirit. Her writing is not mean or, like some of her contemporaries, Gothic.
The daring that Welty wrote about was not an outward one, but a daring that goes inward for a deeper truth and authenticity. Her stories are a portraiture that reveals her keen eye, which served her well in both writing and photography. She, like Chekov and Jane Austen (another author she calls “kindred”), write about the “singularity of people.” In her writing, the reader discovers the whole of life in thought, feeling and speech. Welty is deft at revealing what’s going on inside the hearts and minds of those she’s writing about, in such a way that is rooted in the oral tradition of storytelling. With a keen sense of observation, she portrays flawed characters in such clarity and nuance that there is a feeling of familiarity about them: they could be one’s neighbors or family members.
One of her greatest strengths is her ability to write believable dialogue. How is she able to do this ? “Familiarity,” she told in an interview in The Paris Review, “Memory of the way things get said. Once you have heard certain expressions, sentences, you almost never forget them.” Her stories are filled with the narrative of remembering. And she tends her words as skillfully and with as much attention to detail as she did her mother’s garden. “Southerners,” she said, “love a good tale. They are born reciters, great memory retainers, diary keepers, letter exchangers . . . great talkers.”
Eudora Welty was a shy, private woman who revealed very little of herself in such interviews. Writing for her was an “inward thing” and, upon seeing her words in print often felt a “terrible sense of exposure.” “Writing a story or a novel,” she said, “is one way of discovering sequence in experience, of stumbling upon cause and effect in the happenings of a writer’s own life.” That is where her daring comes in. She draws from her own experience, those of people she knows, and her vivid imagination to create stories and novels that resonate with readers. The novelist Reynolds Price described her as “a fierce observer of the wide world around her and its loving consumer.” Welty is neither timid in thought, expression or imagination.
“It is our inward journey,” she writes in her beautiful memoir One Writer’s Beginnings, “that leads us through time – forward or back, seldom in a straight line, most often spiraling. Each of us is moving, changing, with respect to others. As we discover, we remember; remembering, we discover; and most intensely do we experience this when our separate journeys converge. Our living experience at those meeting points is one of the charged dramatic fields of fiction. ”
What greater daring is there to go within oneself and to draw out from those memories and meditations art?
There are many people who remain so outwardly busy as to refrain from any inward daring. They escape reflection with distraction. But all great artists understand that to create there must be the solitude and bravery to face one’s own inconsistencies and hypocrisies as well as one’s own generosity of spirit to create full, well-rounded works of art that both remind and reveal the world around us when we come in contact with it.
“Art is never the voice of a country, it is an even more precious thing,” Welty once said,
“the voice of the individual, doing its best to speak, not comfort of any sort, but truth. And the art that speaks it most unmistakably, most directly, most variously, most fully, is fiction.”
I first encountered her work in her most famous and anthologized short story “Why I Live At the P.O.” and, upon reading that, began to clamor after more; recognizing in her voice that of my own family. Certainly, for me, reading Eudora Welty’s writing is like listening to many of my own relatives speaking and spinning yarns about family history. They remind me of being a child who sat and listened with great attention to adults talking and weaving such stories that made relatives seem as lively as fictional characters. For many years, a paperback of her collection of short stories was always to be found in my car’s glove compartment so that I could take them out and read them whenever I could. In her writing, I found the truth of place. “One place understood,” she once wrote, “helps us understand all places better.” And she was masterful at it.
“My continuing passion is to part a curtain,” she wrote, “that invisible veil of indifference that falls between us and that blinds us to each other’s presence, each other’s wonder, each other’s human plight.” I, for one, am glad that she had the serious daring to do just that.