Visit with a Southern lady of letters

IT was the voice that was soothing. ``I love to write. I'm never happier.''

It was a slow, unhurried voice, with a soft elegance around the edges. Spoken in a campus library, the words seemed to reach across the decades carrying with them an author's wisdom. But in the case of Eudora Welty, one of the country's foremost Southern writers, the words also seemed imbued with the fragrance of honeysuckle and jasmine and warm winds straight out of the Delta.

``I am a Southerner and I am a writer,'' Miss Welty says by way of explanation, pronouncing it ``Suthahna'' in that relaxed way and bestowing a shy, toothy smile on her audience gathered for Wellesley College's annual Wilson Lecture. ``But we don't really like to be defined as `Southern writers.' ''

It's about as genteel a pshaw as one is likely to get from this distinguished lady of letters, who is considered one of Faulkner's most eminent heirs and one of the country's finest writers. In a career spanning more than half a century, Welty has quietly reigned as one of the most authoritative voices in American literature.

During the course of her 77 years, she has amassed a modest but impressive body of work: four collections of short stories and six longer works, including ``Delta Wedding,'' ``Losing Battles'' and ``A Curtain of Green.'' Her list of honors -- the O. Henry Prize, a National Medal for Literature, a Pulitzer Prize in 1973 for her novel ``The Optimist's Daughter,'' and this year, the National Medal of Arts -- reflects Welty's lofty position in American fiction.

Widely recognized as a master of the modern short story and meticulous chronicler of the Southern character, Welty has been likened to both Jane Austen and Anton Chekhov for her ability to infuse banal domesticity with universal acumen and for her talent in translating geography into individual character. Fellow writer Katherine Anne Porter, one of Welty's most ardent admirers, once described her work as ``evidence of an active and disciplined imagination.''

It was Welty's autobiographical ``One Writer's Beginnings,'' originally delivered as Harvard University's William E. Massey Lectures in 1983, that landed the self-effacing author on the best-seller list and boosted her critical renown into outright popular acclaim. It was late-in-life public adulation that had little effect on this Mississippi native, who still lives in the house her father built and continues to brook ``no interviews.'' During the rare public appearance at this year's Wilson Lecture, Welty took time to read from her own work and briefly answer questions from reporters and students.

``What interests me is communicating a good story. Of course a story has to be personal, but it is not the putting on the page of `me, myself, and I. . . .' Even a frivolous story is based on a serious subject, some kind of backbone,'' Welty says, moving her own fine-boned hand delicately through the air. ``And the most essential element is human truth.''

Indeed, if a theme characterizes Welty's work it is the piercing of the mysteries surrounding human truth. ``My wish was not . . . to point the finger in judgment,'' she once wrote about her work as a photographer for the Works Progress Administration, ``but to part a curtain, that invisible shadow that falls between people, the veil of indifference to each other's presence.''

Later, in ``One Writer's Beginnings,'' Welty described her initial efforts at the typewriter: ``Beginning to write stories about people, I drew near; noting and guessing, apprehending, hoping, drawing my eventual conclusions out of my own heart. . . .''

It is an attitude earmarked by empathy that remains today. ``I never write about real life as real life in my fiction,'' she says. ``I write about similar events or real events, but I translate them into a cast of other players. But I couldn't give them the feelings if I hadn't felt them. You can't make up emotion. In a way, it eases you to be a writer, to transfer things to the fictional world.''

Notwithstanding her shock of white hair and gently folded posture, Welty retains the impression of a lanky, earnest schoolgirl, of a young writer just starting out as a freshman at Mississippi State College for Women.

During her afternoon of taking tea with members of the press, Welty nibbled on a sugar cookie and responded matter-of-factly to questions about her craft.

``Place helps me to define character and scene,'' she says over the quiet click of cameras. ``I don't care for it in a nostalgic sense. I want to make it natural and functional. . . . Yes, I definitely have a visual imagination. . . . Yes, I love revising.'' When she adds that one of her best-known stories, ``Why I Live at the P.O.,'' was written without benefit of revision and ``that I probably could have written it better,'' her audience breaks into a chorus of ``Oh, no's.''

Later, during her reading that night, Welty, now dressed in a rope of pearls and russet-colored dress, is very much the self-described ``wit and humorist of the parochial kind.'' At the podium, she mimics the voices of her northern Mississippi characters peopling ``Losing Battles,'' rolls her eyes, and seems genuinely pleased with the bursts of laughter from her audience.

But it is during her meeting with students the next morning that Welty seems most at ease, most herself. She speaks fondly of memory, her ``most treasured'' commodity as a writer, one that ``unites'' with the imagination to produce fiction. As she described it in ``One Writer's Beginnings,'' ``My imagination takes its strength and guides its direction from what I see and hear and learn and remember of my living world.''

Indeed, it was the intense recollection of that ``sheltered life'' in Jackson, Miss., that drove the writing of her thin autobiography, a book about which Welty says, ``I'm glad I did it now, but it was hard to write. I had never written about myself as me.'' She adds quietly, ``It was hard to write about my parents. I couldn't have done it without the purpose of showing what in my real life contributed to my becoming a writer. I had nothing to go by except honesty.''

Asked if she feels her writing has changed over the years, Welty gives a characteristic verbal shrug. ``I hope I've changed, but that would be a self-examining point of view. No, writing absorbs you in the doing. You don't think of yourself as a writer any more than someone who is married says, `What am I doing today as a wife?' ''

Even now Welty says she is hesitant to read her past work, preferring to concentrate on her fellow authors. She is rereading Peter Taylor's new novel, ``A Summons to Memphis.'' But mostly she stays focused on her own writing at hand. ``I love the work of it,'' she says warmly about her craft. ``When I think of my stories I think only of the work that went into them, not what came out.''

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