In a season where people meet old friends once more, and learn once more the reasons that they like them, a collection of short pieces will reacquaint readers with the doyenne of Mississippi writers, the tall, gray-haired, formidable, cheerful Eudora Welty.
Miss Welty is known for her short stories and her novel “The Optimist’s Daughter,” which won her the Pulitzer Prize. There was more to her work than that – or perhaps the parts of her writing draw even more attention than the whole.
In “Occasions,” the University Press of Mississippi has reprinted more than sixty occasional pieces – early stories, skits, magazine articles, introductions, tributes, satirical ballads, letters to the editor. Miss Welty could write comedy (as in her short story “Why I Live at the P.O.”) and speak in deadly earnest (when she talked about writing, or race). In this collection, edited by Pearl Amelia McHaney, she is often just as funny and eloquent as in her better-known longer works.
We knew Miss Welty was a gifted photographer; she was also a gifted critic of photography, as she shows in an introduction to William Eggleston’s collection, “The Democratic Forest.” She parodies “Popular Mechanics” in an article on how housewives can make their own turbans.
Miss Welty holds her own as writer among writers. “Allen Tate was the first poet I ever laid eyes on,” she recalls. Katherine Anne Porter was the first writer she met. She met Elizabeth Spencer when Elizabeth Spencer was president of the Bellhaven College Literary Society and she lived across the street facing Bellhaven.
Of Walker Percy, she writes, “He had elected not to practice medicine, but Walker the novelist was a great diagnostician.” “I get the notion that (his) work is brooded over,” she concludes, “by the great genius of another century and another country, Dean Swift, who diagnosed and transformed into his masterpiece of fiction troubles in kind and character not too unlike our own right now. . . . The original Gulliver, be it remembered, was a physician before he became a traveler.”
Miss Welty wrote for local audiences as well as national and international readers. One might expect that the oddest article collected here would be the essay from the Mississippi Educational Advance of November 1955. Not so. That would be the article from the May 1944 issue of the Mississippi Women’s War Bonds Newsletter. And she had studied Mississippi and its obsessions as closely as a more celebrated writer. She rings an eloquent change on Faulkner’s most-quoted observation, and goes beyond it: “Place must be seen with Time walking on it. Yet Place, ancient Place, remains in essence the same; it is the fleeting scene that changes.” That is a meditation for a passing holiday and the shift from one year to another.
“Occasions: Selected Writings” By Eudora Welty. Edited by Pearl Amelia McHaney. University Press of Mississippi, reissued paperback edition 2018. 350 pages. $30.
Allen Boyer is the Book Editor for Hottytoddy.com. He lives and writes on Staten Island.