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Here’s a gem of an observation from Welty’s On Writing:

The plot is the Why.  Why? is asked and replied to at various depths; the fishes in the sea are bigger the deeper we go.  To learn that character is a more awe-inspiring fish and (in a short story, though not, I think in a novel) one some degrees deeper down than situation, we have only to read Chekhov.

That character is a bigger fish in the sea of writing than plot, many writers have said, but few have said it as eloquently.  I have to admit as well that I’m curious about her distinction of the novel and the short story.  I’d say character is just as important to the novel as the short story, but I can see her point that plot matter more in the novel.  Otherwise, you’d end up with a sequence of chapter episodes rather than a novel as a whole.

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MLK Day seemed an appropriate time to address race and social issues in Welty.  For this, I’ve skipped ahead to her essay, “Must the Novelist Crusade?”  I’ll probably come back to this essay when I blog my way through Eye of the Story, but for now I’m giving an initial once over just to answer a question that’s been brewing in my own mind.

As a resident of the same Mississippi that produced Richard Wright, should Welty have done more to address the racial tensions of her day?  Her stories by and large aren’t about race.  Race seems to play no real part in the stories I’ve been through so far in A Curtain of Green with the exception that on occasion the N word does pop up in conversation.  It pops up, though, in way that is no more than an innocuous slice of realism.  Like it or not, that is how people talked in Mississippi in the 1940s.  She could have gotten a lot worse than that and still been realistic, but she didn’t.

 

She professes to having lived a sheltered life, and perhaps that’s the case.  Though she and Richard Wright both lived in Jackson, from her Belhaven home, she could have been completely ignorant of reality in his neighborhood.  Yet we know she was not an ignorant woman.  She was not blind to the social problems of her day.  Her photographs tell us that much.

 

Her choice not to confront race issues is deliberate then, and it’s natural to wonder why.  Luckily, we don’t have to wonder too hard.  She tells us.

 

In this essay, she says, “The zeal to reform, which quite properly inspires the editorial, has never done fiction much good.”

 

She says a lot more, but for my purposes today, I want to skip ahead to these paragraphs:

 

We in the South are a hated people these days; we were hated first for actual and particular reasons, and now we may be hated still more in some vast unparticularized way. I believe there must be such a thing as sentimental hate.  Our people hate back.

 

I think the worst of it is we are getting stuck in it.  We are trapped like flies with our feet not in honey but in venom.  It’s not love that is the gluey emotion; it’s hate.  As far as writing goes, which is as far as living goes, this is a devastating emotion. This hate seems in part shame for self, in part self-justification, in part panic that life is really changing.

 

And there it is.  She didn’t go out of her way to avoid race issues per se.  What she avoided was getting mired down in the politics of hate and the judgmentalism thereof.  The genius of Welty is in her lack of judgment against characters.  Her characters are what they are, they do what they do, and their consequences come as they may.  All without any attempt by Welty to hit the story or the reader over the head with either condemnation or apologetics. 

 

Her writing follows her own advice when she says, “The ordinary novelist does not argue; he hopes to show, to disclose.”  She also follows her own mandate that “novelists begin the study of people from within.”

 

Maybe Welty’s world between the beauty shop and the Jitney Jungle was limited.  Maybe she did isolate herself from problems that were all too real to others.  But when you read her stories about the inhabitants of that very particular place of her own, what’s disclosed is universal truth of human nature.  I for one am glad that she traded social activism for this powerful if gentle gift of love.

November 2018
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