NOW we know where Eudora Welty finds some of the believable eccentrics who commandeer her award-winning short stories of small-town life in the Deep South. Her fictional schoolteachers, for example, surely must march to the brass bell once swung by the formidable principal of her own Jefferson Davis Grammar School , a certain Miss Duling, who ''dressed as plainly as a Pilgrim on a Thanksgiving poster'' and who ''was impervious to lies or foolish excuses or the insufferable plea of not knowing any better.''
In this intimate and often irreverent recollection of the people and places that shaped her growing-up years, one of the South's most distinguished and most genteel writers steps shyly into the autobiographical spotlight for the first time. She began these pieces only last year, to inaugurate a series of lectures on American civilization at Harvard University, and they are as fresh and welcome as magnolia blossoms in May.
Miss Welty has always been called a feminine writer, apparently because family life, relationships, and conversations are often at the heart of her work. She is also known as a Southern regionalist, and it's true that she has lived all her life in the family home on North Congress Street, in Jackson, Miss., where she was born and where she first learned about calling cards and Sunday afternoon rides, baseball games, and touring evangelists. But like most labels, these only hint at the dimensions of her experience.
''One Writer's Beginnings'' is dedicated to the memory of Eudora Welty's parents, and their legacy weaves a thread through each chapter. Because of the example they set, their only daughter grew up with an insatiable appetite for reading (''The only fear was that of books coming to an end'') and an unquestioning commitment to telling the truth (''It was taken entirely for granted that there wasn't any lying in our family'').
Critics who have harped on the pessimistic, enigmatic, or existential flavor of her storytelling are in for a shining surprise. Here we meet the older sister who snatched up her baby brother's bathtub and danced behind it to ''hear him really crow.'' Here we listen to the young girl who collapsed in laughter at the antics of the Keystone Kops and Buster Keaton, and here, too, we flinch at the sophomoric satire of the freshman reporter who counted S. J. Perelman and Corey Ford among her role models.
Toward the end of this slender volume, the author writes that she never intended to invent a character who would speak for her personally. Over the years, however, she says she has come to feel ''oddly in touch'' with a piano teacher who figures in one of her earliest stories. This Miss Eckhart had a passion for her lifework, and it's a love of giving - ''the desire to give . . . until there is no more left'' - that likewise animates Eudora Welty's life and work.