One Writer's Place in Fiction
by Reynolds Price
Durham, North Carolina
I was a college senior in 1955 when I met Eudora Welty in the middle of the night at the Durham, N.C., train station. She was coming to give her famous lecture "Place in Fiction" at the Woman's College at Duke. In those days, women couldn't leave their dorms after sundown. I'd known Miss Welty's work since I was 14, and I knew she was a great writer. I had strong hopes to be one too, so I took it upon myself to turn up at the station and drive her safely to the hotel. She stayed three days, gave her quietly dazzling lecture, read the only serious short story I'd written and asked me if she could show it to her agent. Could she?
I was 22; she was almost 46. I'd had other well-wishers, but having the unexpected encouragement of a writer whose best work I knew to be the equal of Chekhov's was a permanently enabling gift. Yet the central strand of our mutual desire to continue communication was Eudora's vast endowment for friendship. And that immediate friendship, which would continue to deepen till her death, was founded on a good many footings. Prime among them was a sharing of the work we did -- I the callow beginner, she the master who calmly refused to play master.
We likewise shared a delight in the same kinds of human variety and folly. And though she'd spent her whole life in Mississippi and I'd spent mine in North Carolina, some 800 miles away, we also came from similar Communities and families -- white Southern middle-class worlds of almost maniacally driven tale-tellers.
In fact, it was her steady exploration of that generally but only superficially tranquil middle-class world -- a society of men, women and children attempting to navigate complicated lives in the awful world of racial mayhem left behind by the Civil War -- that made her the most usable example of excellence for succeeding generations of Southern writers. (Faulkner's world was too bizarrely private to be of real use to anyone else, and he steadfastly refused to be of personal help to young writers.) The novelist William Goyen called her "the matrix of us all," and he wasn't far from right.
At the time Eudora and I met, neither of us knew that she'd come to the end of the first great period of her work. The classic short stories and her novel Delta Wedding were behind her, and while she had told me of a "long story" she'd begun about a family reunion that would celebrate the return of a son from prison, she was soon to enter upon a hard time of near silence.
Her mother, with whom she lived most of her life, became ill, and caring for her would consume Eudora's energy and stillness of mind for more than 15 years. During that time, she could write only two short stories, a few essays, a children's book and -- in scattered moments -- a few more incidents for her "long story." Ridden by the now eroded iron laws of family love and duty, she stayed the full and severely punishing course. I was not the only one of her friends who wondered if she'd ever work again. Then, early in 1966, her last surviving brother and her mother both died in the same week.
And almost at once, the gift that had been so severely harnessed burst from her with all the knowledge she'd acquired in the years she'd spent nursing her mother; and she quickly produced the first draft of a story that would grow into her last and best novel, a slender tragedy called, ironically, The Optimist's Daughter.
Next, in another rush, she turned to finishing the "long story." By then it had burgeoned with all the comic knowledge of a lifetime's local observation and reading, and it ended as her largest novel, Losing Battles.
Then, mysteriously, she'd all but finished what she needed to say. She collected her old stories, her essays and her striking photographs; she wrote the beautiful memoir that tells both so much and so little about the inner existence that she was always so adamant in preserving; and she experienced the most rewarding love of her life, a very private one. In those latter years, Eudora frequently told me she was working on a story about the effects on a community of single women, mostly schoolteachers, when one of them is raped. She said it was "threatening to become a novel," and I said, "Let it." But she never showed me any pages; if any of this manuscript survives, we can hope that it will prove publishable.
Her main pleasure toward the end was the company of her friends -- the small circle who shared with her the private language of old companions -- and the armies of younger, exhausting admirers. Surprisingly, for one whose work is so marked by the keen double knife-edge of satire and remorseless honesty, she was treated as the genial and polite Honorary Maiden Aunt of American letters. No other maiden aunt in history can have been, in her heart, less a maiden and less like the greeting-card aunt of one's dreams To almost the end, Eudora Welty was both a fierce observer of the wide world around her and its loving consumer.
A native North Carolinian, Reynolds Price graduated summa cum laude from Duke University and received a B.Litt. degree from Merton College at Oxford University in England, where he was a Rhodes Scholar. He returned to Duke where he is now in his fourth decade of teaching and is a distinguished novelist, poet, dramatist, and essayist.
This essay was originally published in The New York Times, July 27, 2001
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