A tribute to Eudora Welty on her 90th birthdayFrom her home in inconspicuous Jackson, Mississippi, Eudora Welty has written some of the funniest and most moving stuff of this century, with solid and elegant prose rather than the pyrotechnics of a noisily experimental style. One thing that has always been remarkable about her work is the affection she has for her characters, her deep-grained habit of love for the eccentric outsiders she depicts. Readers have picked up the habit of love for Ms. Welty herself as well, as is thoroughly demonstrated by Hill Street Press's new volume of tributes, a 90th birthday present to her.
Eudora Welty: Writers' Reflections upon First Reading Welty brings together a roster of 22 writers, editors, scholars, and friends to describe their first encounters with Ms. Welty's work. Tributeers range from Richard Bausch to Richard Wilbur, from Alice Munro to Reynolds Price. Several credit their encounters with Welty for the realization that the Southern vernacular could be legitimately literary. Tony Earley writes, incredibly, the voice had the same accent I did. It was the first time I had realized that literature could speak in a language I recognized as my own. Others recall the shock of finding out that a nice lady in a print dress was making work more daring and more honest than their own. Some, like William Maxwell, recall shared experiences, and others describe the pleasure of first hearing Welty read. All are unflagging in their appreciation, overflowing with praise for the first lady of Southern letters.
After these accolades, it's a sharp pleasure to turn back to Ms. Welty's works, in crisp new Modern Library editions. Here are the achingly accurate descriptions of grief in The Optimist's Daughter, the charm and delicacy of Delta Wedding, the hilarity of a story like Why I Live at the P.O., and the perceptiveness and kindness that runs through every sentence she has ever written. Welty has never been fond of the idea of biography, asking that her books be allowed to stand on their own. I thought of this while re-reading the fabulous One Writer's Beginnings, in which Ms. Welty describes her childhood understanding of books: It had been startling and disappointing to me to find out that story books had been written by people, that books were not natural wonders, coming up of themselves like grass. A fresh reading of her books, wonders all, is a fitting way to celebrate her 90th, and to get to know, once again, the writer who draws such ardent reponse from so many talented admirers.
Anne Stringfield is on the staff of the New Yorker.