It was a pilgrimage many years in the making. My recent weekend in Jackson, Mississippi included a trip to the famous Southern author Eudora Welty’s home. There in her immaculate garden I made my apologies.
You see, my first exposure to Eudora was when I was assigned to enter a humorous interpretation of Welty’s “Why I Live at the P.O.” in a high school forensics competition. The trouble was, it was difficult to be humorous when I didn’t see what was funny. I found the short story insipid and was embarrassed by the affected Southern accent required of me. I placed in my category, so I guess I did Eudora’s short story justice, but I was just glad when the competition was over. My next assignment was “The Man with the Broken Fingers” and I found myself much better suited to a characterization of a Holocaust concentration camp resident. (When I screamed out in dramatized pain, I recall it startled a doddering older judge in the first row who had obviously been napping).
The next time I encountered Eudora was in college. My senior honors thesis was on the topic of female heroines and I needed to select a final heroine to round out my cast. My advisor suggested I read Welty’s The Optimist’s Daughter and focus on the protagonist Laurel Hand. Although captivated by Welty’s powerful prose, I saw nothing heroic about Laurel. In fact, she annoyed me.
My advisor and I finally decided it was Laurel’s—and the novel’s—Southern-ness that disturbed me. I had to admit the fact that I saw nothing heroic about a Southern lady; I found the Southern community of which Welty wrote to be annoyingly provincial.
That’s when my advisor reminded me that I am, in fact, a Southern woman. Like it or not.
Laurel Hand ended up being a strong addition to my thesis, but it wasn’t until I reread The Optimist’s Daughter decades later that I viewed her—and the talented author who created her—as heroic. In college, I had not yet grieved for parents, as Laurel does, or experienced the all-consuming love that she felt. I had not yet lost people I loved. In a dusty paperback at the recesses of my bookshelf, Laurel waited until I was mature enough to learn the lessons she had to teach.
The more I read Eudora Welty and learned about her life, the more comfortable I became in my own skin. My novel, Mt. Moriah’s Wake, is a deeply Southern piece of fiction, and I make no apologies for that. In a Fiction Writing course in college I submitted a short story told from the perspective of Jake, a high school jock. I knew the story didn’t work but didn’t know why.
“Ever been a high school boy?” my professor asked. When I laughed and shook my head, he said the four words that became a writing mantra for me: Write what you know.
Eudora wrote what she knew: She wrote of her community and its social mores, and her turn of phrase is undeniable. The author lived her entire adult life in her childhood Tudor home in Jackson, Mississippi. At age 22, she had to return home from New York after her father’s death. The years on Pinehurst Street saw the tragic deaths of her two brothers and prolonged terminal illness of her mother. Welty’s books echo the joys and sorrows she experienced. Although some may view Eudora’s life as sheltered, she owned that adjective: “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” (from One Writer’s Beginnings).
I bought the rights to quote The Optimist’s Daughter in Mt. Moriah’s Wake, including my favorite quotation from that Pulitzer Prize winner:
“… the guilt of outliving those you love is justly to be borne, she thought. Outliving is something we do to them. The fantasies of dying could be no stranger than the fantasies of living. Surviving is perhaps the strangest fantasy of them all.”
Unlike Eudora, I will never win a Pulitzer. I will never learn how to spin a phrase so that it sings like music in the reader’s ears. But perhaps there is more that unites us than divides us. Like Eudora, I also have two brothers. Like her, I gardened with my mother and attended an all girls’ school. Like Eudora, I grew up in a region anchored by magnolias and splendid seasons. Like Eudora, I find solace and inspiration in the natural world. And, like Eudora, I have experienced profound loss and exhilarating love.
During my visit to Eudora’s home and garden, I felt time suspended. Her enchanting environs explained the beauty that flowed from her typewriter. Although I still don’t care for “Why I Live at the P.O,” I regret not having appreciated the power of Eudora’s voice as a young student. I know now just what a Southern oracle she was.
And finally I understand why Eudora’s profound Southern voice resonates: Because she wrote what she knew. And knew who she was.