First published in July 2018.
I very much enjoy Eudora Welty’s fiction, but know comparatively little about her childhood. I read the wonderful What There Is To Say We Have Said a couple of years ago, which features much of the correspondence between Welty and another favourite author of mine, William Maxwell. This autobiographical work, which is composed of a wealth of memories largely from Welty’s Mississippi childhood, works as a wonderful companion volume.
Of One Writer’s Beginnings, William Maxwell writes, ‘It is all wonderful… The parts of the book that are about her family… are by turns hilarious and affecting. They are a kind of present… from Miss Welty to her audience.’ Penelope Lively believes it to be a piece of ‘entrancing reading’, and Paul Binding writes in the New Statesman: ‘A writer for whom “genius” is for once a not inappropriate word… A book of great sensitivity – as controlled and yet aspiring as a lyric poem.’
In One Writer’s Beginnings, which was first published in 1984, Welty decided to tell her story in one ‘continuous thread of revelation’. The book provides, says its blurb, ‘… an exploration of memory by one of America’s finest writers, whose many honours include the Pulitzer Prize, the American Book Award for Fiction, and the Gold Medal for the novel.’ This book consists of three essays – ‘Listening’, ‘Learning to See’, and ‘Finding a Voice’ – which have been transcribed from a set of three lectures which Welty gave at Harvard University in April 1983.
When ‘Listening’ begins, Welty’s words set the scene immediately: ‘In our house on North Congress Street in Jackson, Mississippi, where I was born, the oldest of three children, in 1909, we grew up to the striking of clocks.’ Throughout, Welty’s voice is lyrical, candid, and often quite moving. She reveals her deep love of books, which was present even when she was a tiny child. ‘I learned,’ she writes, ‘from the age of two or three that any room in our house, at any time of day, was there to read in, or be read to.’ Welty’s writing is particularly beautiful when she discusses her love of stories: ‘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. Yet regardless of where they came from, I cannot remember a time when I was not in love with them – with the books themselves, cover and binding and the paper they were printed on, with their smell and their weight and with their possession in my arms, captured and carried off to myself. Still illiterate, I was ready for them, committed to all the reading I could give them.’
In a series of vignettes, Welty talks about stargazing, singing, childhood illness, learning the alphabet, religion, schooling, and the quirks of her in some ways unconventional parents, amongst other things. The imagery which she conjures up is often lovely; for instance: ‘All children in those small-town, unhurried days had a vast inner life going on in the movies. Whole families attended together in the evenings, at least once a week, and children were allowed to go without chaperone in the long summer afternoons – schoolmates with their best friends, pairs of little girls trotting on foot the short distance through the park to town under their Japanese parasols.’ When she discusses the travels which she went on with her family each summer, she writes of their positive effect upon her later writing: ‘I think now, in looking back on these summer trips – this one and a number later, made in the car and on the train – that another element in them must have been influencing my mind. The trips were wholes unto themselves. They were stories. Not only in form, but their taking on direction, movement, development, change. They changed something in my life: each trip made its particular revelation, though I could not have found words for it. But with the passage of time, I could look back on them and see them bringing me news, discoveries, premonitions, promises – I still can; they still do.’
One Writer’s Beginnings spans Welty’s childhood, and includes comparatively brief reflections about her time at college, and the early days of her writing career. She is insightful about the creation of her characters, and the knowledge which one must have as an author to create enough depth. ‘Characters take on a life sometimes by luck,’ writes Welty, ‘but I suspect it is when you can write most entirely out of yourself, inside the skin, heart, mind, and soul of a person who is not yourself, that a character becomes in his own right another human being on the page.’
One Writer’s Beginnings is a beautifully written celebration of stories, of Welty’s own, and of those which filled her girlhood. I was pulled in immediately, transported to the Deep South in the early twentieth century. This is a joyous account, filled with depth and insight. Welty’s voice is utterly charming, and sometimes quite profound. I shall close this review with one of the most wonderful quotes from the book: ‘The memory is a living thing – it too is in transit. But during the moment, all that is remembered joins and lives – the old and the young, the past and the present, the living and the dead.’