61. (Eudora Welty)

Eudora Welty is as inaccessible a writer of short fiction as any. Like Hawthorne, she writes short stories that sit at a distance from realism. It is not the supernatural, per se, that sets her stories apart from realism; it is instead their being stubbornly captivated by a gravitational pull towards allegory. In the hands of Hawthorne and Welty, the short story forces before the reader the brute physical properties of a material world that cannot be fixed and placed in a realist scheme. Her characters, her objects, her nature all seem to occupy the same peculiar ground between solidity and weightlessness, like bodies that cast no shadows or shades that are mistaken for bodies:

She wore a dark striped dress reaching down to her shoe tops, and an equally long apron of bleached sugar sacks, with a full pocket: all neat and tidy, but every time she took a step she might have fallen over her shoelaceswhich dragged from her unlaced shoes. She looked straight ahead. Her eyes were blue with age. Her skin had a pattern all its own of numberless branching wrinkles and as though a whole little tree stood in the middle of her forehead, but a golden color ran underneath, and two knobs of her cheeks were illumined by a yellow burning under the dark.

Hawthorne and Welty have set us back to the realism of Dante, which was only half-realism. And like Dante, Welty is most comfortable in Purgatory, though she presents vistas of Hell and, maybe, intimations of Paradise. These are not three modes, at any rate; they are three states of existence, none of which is that of our world. Hawthorne similarly holds a passport to all three. It is a shame that brutal, relentlessly pure, and intolerant realism has overtaken so many contemporary American short stories. No other modern form of writing has been as successful as finding a vehicle to reach the places that Dante discovered. Eliot is the poet who comes nearest. But Beckett may be said, in short fiction, and long, to be nearer than Eliot. But Welty offers as good a Dante as any, in “The Worn Path,” for one (though I would stress that the stories might all be read in the light of Dante, even if not all of them as are so obviously imitations):

“I wasn’t as old as I thought,” she said.

But she sat down to rest. She spread her skirt on the bank above her and folded her hands over her knees. Up above her was a tree in a pearly cloud of mistletoe. She did not dare to close her eyes, and when a little boy brought her a plate with a slice of marble-cake on it she spoke to him. “That would be acceptable,” she said. But when she went to take it there was just her own hand in the air.

So she left that tree, and had to go through a barbed-wire fence. There she had to creep and crawl, spreading her knees and stretching her fingers like a baby trying to climb the steps. But she talked loudly to herself: she could not let her dress be torn now, so late on the day, and she could not pay for having her arm or her leg sawed off if she got caught fast where she was.

At last she was safe through the fence and risen up out in the clearing. Big dead trees, like black men with one arm, were standing in the purple stalks of the withered cotton field. There sat a buzzard.

“Who you watching?”

In the furrow she made her way along.

“Glad this not the season for bulls,” she said, looking sideways, “and the good Lord made his snakes to curl up and sleep in winter. A pleasure I don’t see no two-headed snake coming around that tree, where it come once. It took a while to get by him, back in the summer.”

She passed through the old cotton and went into a field of dead corn. It whispered and shook and was taller than her head. “Through the maze now,” she said, for there was no path.

Then there was something, tall, black, and skinny there, moving before her.

At first she took it for a man. It could have been a man dancing in the field. But she stood still and listened, and it did not make a sound. It was as silent as a ghost.

“Ghost,” she said sharply, “who be you the ghost of? For I have heard of nary death close by.”

But there was no answer–only the ragged dancing in the wind.

She shut her eyes, reached out her hand, and touched a sleeve. She found a coat and inside that an emptiness, cold as ice.

But for Welty as for Dante, the fantastic ability to conjure and sustain a scene that is both material and immaterial, worldly and otherworldly, present and absent, static and changing is only so good as it exposes and apprehends some feeling, urge, error, or hope that, in the guise by which she offers it, is made to seem fundamentally human—-and that we arrive at in repeated moments of perpetually novel recognition. Welty, like Dante, summons a quality of world–a quality of substance and time—in which these stand forth with clarity:

“You mustn’t take up our time this way, Aunt Phoenix,” the nurse said. “Tell us quickly about your grandson, and get it over. He isn’t dead, is he?”

At last there came a flicker and then a flame of comprehension across her face, and she spoke.

“My grandson. It was my memory had left me. There I sat and forgot why I made my long trip.”

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