Celebrate the South

Author Frances Mayes’s Ode to Eudora Welty

Saluting a Southern Lady of Letters

Photo: Photograph courtesy of the Eudora Welty family

Read Eudora Welty. Start with the short stories. They’re sharp, funny, and deeply humane. I especially love her novel The Optimist’s Daughter, a meditation on memory and place, Southern style. Read every word she produced—the experience will bring you to the taproot of the region.

Welty wrote in Jackson, Mississippi. After her education in the North and the Midwest, she returned to 1119 Pinehurst Street, where she spent her time gardening, participating in the intense social life of a Southern city, reviewing books, roaming the countryside photographing people. And writing from the heart of a place. She knew that where something happens is what happens. Her ear was fine-tuned to the local idiom. I love coming upon a phrase like “I swan!” “I can just hear that,” we say as we read.

Southerners can small talk each other to death without a trace of boredom crossing anyone’s face. Welty captures cadence, the lulling storyteller voice, loops of lyric, then brings them up short with sharp declarative sentences—she used the tone of conversation without succumbing to talking, talking, talking.

Here’s what most of us never admit: Southerners are the most private people on the globe. Within tight interconnections of family, the real caring for each other, the incessant stories, the visiting, Welty is onto the truth that all these rituals offer an elaborate continuity for solitary figures.

You can tour her Tudor Revival house and garden. When I visited, the word that came to mind was plain. Her desk and typewriter stand along the window wall of a bedroom. The house is colorless but full of books. Books everywhere, even stacked on the sofa. Walking through, I recognized: This was liberation.

Years ago, I happened to stand behind Eudora Welty in line at an airport shop. She was buying mints. Elderly and hunched, she counted out the change. As she turned, I said, “Miss Welty, I just have to say how much I admire your work.”

She snapped her purse and put her hand on my arm. “Well, thank you. You are just so sweet to say so.”

Her Southern grace abides in all her work.

Of the monumental twentieth-century writers—note that I do not limit my claim to Southern writers—she had the biggest heart. I insist: Take a trip to your nearest bookstore. eudorawelty.org

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