Friday, March 27, 2009

One Writer's Beginnings by Eudora Welty

The sensible thing to do would have been to read some of Eudora Welty's novels/collections and then start on her memoir (though I have read two or three of her short stories). But One Writer's Beginnings was already on my shelf, and I've wanted to read it ever since I was assigned excerpts in a college writing class.

This is the sort of memoir that very private people write--almost the opposite of a tell-all. My copy is only 114 pages (with photographs). One Writer's Beginnings is based off of three lectures Welty gave covering her childhood impressions and how these affected her writing self. And Welty is very careful to present her writing self instead of her "personal" self (as much as the two can be separated):

Around the age of six, perhaps, I was standing by myself in our front yard waiting for supper, just at that hour in a late summer day when the sun is already below the horizon and the risen full moon in the visible sky stops being chalky and begins to take on light. There comes the moment, and I saw it then, when the moon goes from flat to round. For the first time it met my eyes as a globe. The word "moon" came into my mouth as though fed to me out of a silver spoon. Held in my mouth the moon became a word. It had the roundness of a Concord grape Grandpa took off his vine and gave to me to suck out of its skin and swallow whole, in Ohio (11).

The entire book is woven out of these small moments made beautiful by Welty's vivid but straight-forward prose (I couldn't help but fall in love with her line about "the insect murmur" of the electric fan). In contrast to these writerly details, Welty only briefly (though poignantly) mentions her father's early death to leukemia.

My father, I believe, was unconscious. My mother was looking at him. I could see her fervent face: there was no doubt as to what she was thinking. This time, she would save his life, as he'd saved hers so long ago, when she was dying of septicemia. What he'd done for her in giving her the champagne, she would be able to do for him now in giving him her own blood.

All at once his face turned dusky red all over. The doctor made a disparaging sound with his lips, the kind a woman knitting makes when she drops a stitch. What the doctor meant by it was that my father had died.

My mother never recovered emotionally. Though she lived for over thirty years more, and suffered other bitter losses, she never stopped blaming herself. She saw this as her failure to save his life (101).

This is the most revealing passage in the memoir, partially because this is the most difficult thing Welty says about anyone in her family, and partially because it reveals how determined Welty is to present herself as an observer only. She never tells the reader how her father's death effects her--there is a curious, ladylike distance between the supposed subject of the narration and reader. The reader is left with only a vague, ghost-like image of Welty herself. The real subject of the story is story itself.

If Welty had been more revealing, I might have found her story more interesting (I took my time finishing it--in spite of her skill and the book's brevity). In many ways, however, I appreciate Welty's determination to protect her in privacy. (She was, supposedly, pressured into writing a memoir by her friends.)

On the other hand, Carolyn G. Heilbrun (in the introduction to a book I haven't read yet--it's on the list) claims that Welty's memoir is overly nostalgic and a dishonest representation of life and writing to other aspiring female authors.

I'm not sure how I feel about this. I don't particularly believe that anyone "owes" the world her complete, unedited life--if I ever wrote a memoir, I would certainly edit some scenes out, and I tend to expect memoir writers to do the same.

But is there a point where an incomplete truth joins the ranks of lies? I'd say yes. But I wouldn't say that One Writer's Beginnings has quite crossed that line. There is something uncomfortable about finding such large gaps in a memoir, but the gaps are so obvious, it's as if Welty is saying, "No, this isn't all. But really, is that any of your business, dear?"

(Image from Amazon.)

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