Eudora Welty, Photographer (TPR #17)

If I had to name my favorite Southern Writer, I would probably end up landing on Eudora Welty. Astonishingly, however, my admiration - even veneration - of this woman does not connect to any story or novel that I admire most. Her work is remarkable - strong, beautiful, intelligent, and well-worthy of the accolades it has received over the years - but it is her voice, her being in the world that I mourned when she passed away in 2001. I wrote this short piece at the time, trying to make sense of my grief:

How do we mourn the passing of someone we’ve never seen?  Wandering the stacks of the local library, I allow my fingers to trail over the bindings of the DIY and self-help books with no success - nothing on the subject of grieving for strangers.  And yet, stranger is not the word to use.  Perhaps there is no word to define the relationship between reader and beloved author.  But when someone with as much presence as Eudora Welty dies, the void left demands definition.

I first read Welty when I was in college, but it has never been exactly or only the fiction that drew me to her.  I don’t recall particularly identifying with any one character in her stories, and I don’t include Welty’s novels in any of my “all-time favorites” lists.  But I love the way she wrote.  And why choose to identify with the fictional character when I could see myself in the real thing, in Ms. Welty herself?  Every time I read her slim memoir, One Writer’s Beginnings, I want to call Ms. Welty and say, “Yes!  Me too!  That’s it exactly!”  I can only imagine that she has touched many others in similar ways.  She was the consummate real person, in all her eccentricities, and for that reality, she was beloved by all who knew her and many who did not.

So, with no instruction provided or further guidance to seek, I forge ahead in my grief.  I return to the library.  I locate the unauthorized biography on Eudora Welty and gingerly pull each of her works of fiction down from the shelves.  I hunt up archived magazine articles and interviews and circle them all around me on the floor, ignoring the stares.  I make myself comfortable there, amid her life’s work, and I once again begin One Writer’s Beginnings, allowing myself to feel her weighty presence in each page, in each precisely chosen word.  
I think I've read all her fiction over the years. I've read one biography and have another on my shelf. But what I had not yet examined was her book of photographs One Time, One Place: Mississippi in the Depression. Welty worked as a WPA publicity agent during the depression. This job required her to travel all over Mississippi, observing and writing up regular happenings like county fairs and judge installation. Her photographs were not officially part of the job, but the job made her see so much, and the results are astounding. They are among the most inspiring things I have ever encountered. She sees her photography as something separate from her writing, just a thing she did after college, but she also sees the connectivity of it, as seen in this passage:
I learned quickly enough when to click the shutter, but what I was becoming aware of more slowly was a story-writer's truth: the thing to wait on, to reach there in time for, is the moment in which people reveal themselves. You have to be ready, in yourself; you have to know the moment when you see it. The human face and the human body are eloquent in themselves, and stubborn and wayward, and a snapshot is a moment's glimpse (as a story may be a long look, a growing contemplation) into what never stops moving, never ceases to express for itself something of our common feeling. Every feeling waits upon its gesture. Then when it does come, how unpredictable it turns out to be. (foreword 7-8)
I am continually astounded by her words. And I only wish I could have met her during her life. As a founding member of the Fellowship of Southern Writers, she has been many times in my hometown, but I never had the chance to encounter her there. Maybe one day, I'll make it to her hometown and try to "meet" her there. And maybe you can meet her - and the impressive subjects of her photographs - through One Time, One Place or the more expansive collection of her work published in 1989, or perhaps in the Paris Review interview from volume II.

I must say I was thoroughly unimpressed with her interviewer. In fact, it was quite a distraction for me because I was growing angry with her increasingly inane questions. For example, the published interview opens, "You wrote somewhere that we should still tolerate Jane Austen's kind of family novel. Is Austen a kindred spirit?" I do not have the original text of the essay being referred to here, but based on Ms. Welty's response, I'm thinking this question was terribly misguided. Here's the polite, but biting, return:
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." 
And then a few questions later, when she asks, "Do you ever return to Virginia Woolf"? I actually wrote in the margin: "Is this interviewer an idiot?" That Ms. Welty does not resort to such name-calling or dripping sarcasm as I likely would have is a testimony to her grace. But enough complaining. This post has already gone on too long. Here's one passage from the interview that I am so glad to have. Welty is responding to a question about the oral tradition in the south:
I think it accounts for the pleasure people take in a story told. It's a treasure I helped myself to. I took it for my ways and means, and that's proper and justified: Our people talk that way. They learn and teach and think and enjoy that way. (124)
Yes, Ms. Welty! That's it exactly.

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