Not long ago, I decided it was time to reread To the Lighthouse, or I should say it was time to read it. So many years had passed since I’d first picked it up that I remembered nothing but Mrs. Ramsey and the boat. The copy I bought had the words “with a foreword by Eudora Welty” at the top of the front cover in tiny white letters that all but disappeared into the skyline above the name Virginia Woolf. I didn’t realize the bonus I was getting until I opened the book.
“As it happened,” Welty’s foreword begins, “I came to discover To the Lighthouse for myself. If it seems unbelievable today, this was possible to do in 1930 in Mississippi, when I was young, reading at my own will and as pleasure led me. I might have missed it if it hadn’t been for the strong signal in the title. Blessed with luck and innocence, I fell upon the novel that once and forever opened the door of imaginative fiction for me, and read it cold, in all its wonder and magnitude.”
“Personal discovery is the direct and, I suspect, the appropriate route to To the Lighthouse. Yet discovery, in the reading of a great original work, does not depend on its initial newness to us. No matter how often we begin it again, it seems to expand and expand again ahead of us.”
There could be no truer account of my own experience with The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty, and since I’ve come to praise, it seems only fitting to use her praise of Woolf as the place from which to set sail. My introduction to Welty was the story “A Visit of Charity,” which I read in a seventh grade textbook for English class. I was twelve, slightly younger than the story’s Campfire Girl. Marian is an unsympathetic centerpiece, wanting only to deliver her plant to some old lady and get her credit points, but I was terrified for her nevertheless, as she is shoved into the tiny, sick-smelling room with two old ladies and their claw-like hands. They may have been mad or demented, but mostly they are desperate for her attention and her ability to disrupt the boredom of their day. I had lived enough at twelve to know there were old people out there who wanted to swallow you up, and so my heart went out to this selfish girl. But reading it again at an age much closer to the crones than the Campfire Girl, I find my sympathies shifted. God help those old women, stuffed away in a cheap care facility to wait out their deaths. They have no one to turn their frustrations on but each other. I look at Marian in her little red cap and think, kid, it wouldn’t kill you to sit there for a few minutes and brighten their day.
This is why we have to go back again, because even as the text stays completely true to the writer’s intention, we readers never cease to change. If you’ve read these stories before, I beg you, read them again. Chances are you’ll find them to be completely new.
When To the Lighthouse was published in 1929, Virginia Woolf was forty-seven. Eudora Welty read it a year later at twenty-one. The book you now hold in your hands was first published in 1980, when Welty was seventy-one. A year later she circled back to write the foreword to Woolf’s masterpiece. While I fully understand that this is nothing more than time at work, I find it moving to imagine Welty reading To the Lighthouse when Woolf was still alive, just as Welty was alive when I first found that story. When I was young, English textbooks were dominated by dead male writers, and Welty distinguished herself in my mind not only for her unsettling tale of charity, but for being neither a man nor dead.
The year The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty was published, my mother gave me a copy for my birthday. I was seventeen. Soon thereafter, Welty came to Nashville to give a reading at Vanderbilt and I arrived an hour early to sit on the front row. It was the first time I’d been to a reading. Welty was child-sized, sitting up on the stage behind a table with whoever it was that introduced her that night. I was a few years older than Marian the Campfire Girl at that point, and the great author seemed very close to the ancient women in the Old Ladies’ Home. Before the event began, I walked up on the stage with my book and asked her to sign it for me. I had no idea of protocol in those days but there should have been someone there to stop me. I opened the book for her and she shook her head. “No, no, dear,” she said. “You always want to sign on the title page.” Then she turned the page and signed her name, thereby stopping my heart.
Eudora Welty read “Why I Live at the P.O.” that night, and in doing so thrilled the faithful. It was exactly what we were hoping to hear, and yet in reading this collection again so many years later, I have to wonder if she ever felt confined by those anthologized favorites — “Why I Live at the P.O.,” “A Worn Path,” “Powerhouse,” “The Wide Net” — because while these stories are essential, they fall short in representing the darkness and depth of this book. Reading it now from beginning to end is an experience not unlike going to an artist’s retrospective, walking through room after room of paintings in order to see the full development of a vision. You may linger for an extra moment in front of the canvas most frequently reproduced on postcards and tee-shirts, but what you’re seeing over the course of the exhibition is a life played out in art. We have a tendency to lift out the pieces that are pleasing to us, or that best illustrate a particular point: a collection of stories about place or race or a particular moment in history, but none of that captures Welty’s extraordinary dexterity as she steps from comedy to horror to family drama to farce to the retelling of classic mythology. In the same way her narrative voice is capable of moving from character to character, her style shifts with allegiance to nothing but the compassionate truth. She could accomplish anything because of her complete understanding of the world in which she lived.
When I first read The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty I thought she was a fabulist, a writer endowed with a superior imagination and love of tall tales. Those things are true, of course, but Welty, who spent most all of her life in Jackson, Mississippi, in the house her father built when she was a child, was also telling the truth.
“The reason it’s so impossible to write about Mississippi,” Donna Tartt once told me, “is that everyone thinks you’re exaggerating.” It had never occurred to me that Welty was accurately representing a culture until I married into that culture myself. In the last twenty-five years in which I’ve been going to Mississippi regularly, I’ve come to believe that Welty was to her state what Joan Didion was to California: the clear eye of verisimilitude. I no longer read “Clytie” as Southern gothic because I believe in every member of Clytie’s family as I believe in her impossible ending. When the man and woman leave Galatoire’s in New Orleans and drive south in “No Place for You, My Love,” they might as well be going to the end of the earth. They cross their own version of the River Styx on a ferry and reach a place where the road peters out into a strip of crunchy shells. It may be a metaphor, but it’s also real. Throughout this book the characters speak of the incessant hell of the heat, of the need to lie down in the middle of the day because of it. “It was like riding a stove,” the woman on the ferry thinks. Anyone who’s passed a summer in Mississippi will tell you, it may be art but it’s also a fact.
There is no writer I know of who tells the truth of the landscape like Welty. The natural world is the rock on which these stories are built, and its overbearing presence informs every sentence. “There were thousands, millions of mosquitos and gnats — a universe of them, and on the increase.” I could take this book apart and type it up again, sentence by perfect sentence, to say, this is exactly what Mississippi is like: “Once he dived down and down into the dark water, where it was so still that nothing stirred, not even a fish, and so dark that it was no longer the muddy world of the upper river but the dark clear world of deepness, and he must have believed this was the deepest place in the whole Pearl River, and if she was not here she would not be anywhere.” Everything exists in layers, from the sun to the scorching sky to the highest leaves of the trees to rooftops and porches and grass and dirt, the muddy water in the river and the fish in the water and the quieter, truer place beneath even the fish.
This is the landscape into which Welty repeatedly places her characters. They interact first with the landscape and then, if there’s any energy left after that, with one another. What’s amazing when looking at these stories is how rarely the people speak to one another, or, when they do, how often no one seems to be listening. It’s more likely that the dialogue is interior, which is why “The Key,” a story about two deaf mutes waiting in a train station, is particularly deft. Even in that most verbal favorite, “Why I Live at the P.O.,” Sister can’t clear her good name despite her passionate monologues because no one in her family will listen.
Eudora Welty died on July 23, 2001. I was in my kitchen in Nashville when I heard the news on the radio. Without much thought, I put a black dress in a bag and drove south to Meridian where I spent the night with my mother-in-law. The next morning I drove over to Jackson. I got there hours early, thinking I’d be standing in the street with a throng of short story disciples, but I got a seat in the church. Everyone did. A storm of brief and terrible violence had swept through that morning and instead of making the weather worse, as summer storms are wont to do, it made things better. It was seventy-five degrees as we made our way to the cemetery after the service, something I doubt had ever happened in Jackson in July before. I doubt it will happen again. Greatness had come through once, which is really all that we could hope for, and the world that had been so justly represented took back the one who loved it best.
From the book The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty. Copyright © 2019. Reprinted by permission of Mariner Books, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All Rights Reserved. Get your copy HERE.