Speaking about her career in the preface to her ‘Collected Stories’, Eudora Welty wrote that “without the love and belief my family gave me, I could not have become a writer to begin with.” Considered in light of what is probably her most anthologized story, ‘Why I Live at the P.O.’, the comment takes on an interesting irony.
As supportive as the writer’s real family was, that unsupportive is the family of the narrator of her most popular story, who finally gathers her belongings, leaves home and goes to live in the ‘next to smallest’ rural Mississippi post office where she works because she can no longer stand the antics of her dysfunctional family. Like many of the characters in Welty’s stories, this narrator is a complex mixture of human traits, not all of them good. She is put upon by her `million years old’ grandfather, Poppa-Daddy, who calls her a hussy and accuses her of trying to make him cut off his beard, a lie he got from her Mama by way of her slippery sister, Stella-Rondo, who stole the narrator’s beau (Mr. Whitaker) and skipped town, only to return with an ‘adopted child’, abandoned by the fickle Mr. Whitaker; all making the P.O. look like a solid living choice over her actual home.
Another frequently anthologized piece, ‘The Death of a Travelling Salesman’, like the P.O. story, pretty much says up front what it’s `about’. We can certainly understand the P.O. girl’s spiteful decision to vacate when we see the comical dysfunction and the snide enmity she faces from her family, but the travelling salesman, Bowman, of Ms. Welty’s first published story, which is written in third person, has a far more dark internal landscape than the P.O. girl. Bowman, as we gather from the title, is about to die, so suspense is maintained by the anticipation of how and when. He’s beset from all sides, lost in the back country, continuing down increasingly inhospitable and desolate gravel roads even as his heart is beginning to act up. Confused, he manages to put his car into a ditch, all the while feeling that his heart’s about to explode in his chest while the sun pushes his head down. In truth, opportunities for a lonely ignoble death abound in the dark landscape of the shoe salesman story and this is what keeps up the tension of the piece. When Sonny, the ‘strong’ backwoods farmer with the ‘hot red face’ takes Bowman out back to fetch his own fire (i.e. firewater), having wondered if Bowman was some `revenuer come sneakin’ here’, suddenly ordering Bowman, “Down on your knees”, we fear the promise of the title is about to be fulfilled.
`A nearly dreamlike lapse into death,’ one anthology calls the story, ‘with its orchestral overtones of pathos and loss, isolation and pain, pity and terror . . .’ (Mark Schorer / The Literature of 20th Century America)
While she is identified with Jackson, Mississippi and spent much of her life there. Eudora Welty took her undergraduate degree in Wisconsin, and spent time studying advertizing at Columbia University in New York City. In an interview for public radio, she allowed that of all her stories, there was only one specifically relating to Jackson: ‘The Worn Path’.
She recalled watching an old lady make her slow way across the Jackson landscape, and it put a story in her mind, about an old woman who was bound on going somewhere. The woman wore a red rag tied around her head, and her name was Phoenix Jackson. Young Eudora went out into the field to `watch them painting’ (local landscape painters), and saw the woman walking the path, bent on going somewhere, and that became the basis for her story ‘The Worn Path,’ which is made edgy and untoward by the revelation that the old woman, Phoenix Jackson, who is confused and has no money, has come seeking medicine for her grandson who’s eaten lye, desperately needs medication and is in constant danger of dying from suffocation.
Eudora Welty ‘concentrates upon portraying individuals, —their thoughts and feelings, their inner life. Gothic elements, as a rule, do not loom large in her fiction. Often her attitude is buoyant rather than tragic, and some of her most memorable fiction embodies fantasy, humor or satire.’ (Literature of the United States / 3rd Ed. / Blair et al)
There’s an edginess imbedded in Welty’s work that is often subtle and elusive, sometimes a mood of vague foreboding, lending tension and a sense of ‘reality’ to the narratives. No story better illustrates this than Keela, the Outcast Indian Maiden.
We are confronted from the onset by an unsettling revelation: Keela, the carnival geek, was really Little Lee Roy: ‘They dressed it . . . in a red dress, and it ate chickens alive,’ Steve tells Max. ‘I sold tickets and I thought it was worth a dime. Honest.’
‘Hee! hee!’ says Little Lee Roy `softly’.
Steve’s `Honest’, says a lot about him. He honestly thought that the Keela show was worth the dime admission, but he’s come to see it differently in the two years since. He leads Max (and the reader) through his three months with the show, and we soon understand that the abuse of chickens for the gaping amusement of county fair bumpkins is only the beginning of the debasement. Little Lee Roy (`whose sons and daughters were off packing plums’ while he was `sitting on the porch’) had been given an `iron bat this long. And tole it if anybody come near, to shake the bar good at em, like this.’ Steve wants to make amends but has nothing to give Little Lee Roy. He punches Max because Max doesn’t even care about the terrible wrong that’s been done. Still, after all that, there’s a dark, untoward truth buried at the bottom of this story, a truth that gives basis to Steve’s self-loathing: as much as we profess to care about others, we’ll often stand by and watch them being abused without ever lifting a finger or even caring.