Eudora's Web

by Joyce Carol Oates
by Eudora WeltyRandom House, $7.95
Eudora Welty’s eighth book, a novel about domestic love, opens with this exquisite passage:
When the rooster crowed, the moon had still not left the world but was going down on flushed cheek, one day short of the full. A long thin cloud crossed it slowdy, drawing itself out like a name being called. The air changed, as if a mile or so away a wooden door had swung open, and a smell, more of warmth than wet, from a river at low stage, moved upward into the clay hills that stood in darkness.
Then a house appeared on its ridge, like an old man’s silver watch pulled once more out of its pocket. A dog leaped up from where he’d lain like a stone and began barking for today as if he meant never to stop.
Then a baby bolted naked out of the house. She monkey-climbed down the steps and ran open-armed into the yard, knocking at the walls of flowers still colorless as faces. . . .
Losing Battles is as musical throughout as these first passages suggest. Its world is natural, and yet a world heavily dependent upon metaphor, upon the seeing of one thing in terms of another: the “natural” seen in terms of something more natural, because it is more bitman. Everything is brought back to its most humble origins; there is a wonderful gravitation backward, downward, inward, to the deepest and most simple and most soothing area of the imagination.
It is the hill country of northeastern Mississippi, a summer in the 1930s. The idyllic hills are subjected, however, to two kinds of time. For many chapters we are entangled in a past that must be lyrically analyzed, repeated, defined, distorted, and finally cherished by the many voices of the novel, which belong mainly to the descendants of one Elvira Jordan Vaughn, “Granny,” who is celebrating her ninetieth birthday. In the opening chapters, as in the opening of a musical composition, a chorus takes over the main “action” of the novel, preparing us for the two or three simple confrontations that are to take place soon. We hear about the young hero, Jack; we hear about his exploits, His courage, his foolishness, his falling in love with the young girl who is his teacher; we hear about the bride herself and about iter infant girl; gradually, as if we were strangers somehow invited to the Renfro home for this celebration, we begin to make sense of all the gossip, setting things in place, understanding how the hero and his bride came to be separated and how they will be joined again. How can we move into the future until the past is explained?
On this Sunday more than fifty people are gathering at the Renfros’. It is a family reunion to celebrate Granny Vaughn’s birthday, in the hills outside a small town called Banner. At first we hear only voices with sketchy bodies attached, the common din of family life—confusing, elliptical, coy—as it centers on the problems of domesticity, particularly the preparation of food. But then, as in an old-fashioned romantic comedy, the images of tinserious “battle" are presented, and we wait impatiently for the young hero, Jack Renfro, to appear. Unfortunately he is in the state prison, hut no one doubts that he will escape in time for his grandmother’s birthday celebration, and to be reunited with his beautiful red-haired wife, Gloria, and to greet his infant daughter, Lady May Renfro, whom he has never seen. The chorus of hill people—Renfros, Beechams, Vaughns, and others—defines the young hero for us long before he actually appears, and he turns out to be the hero of summery comedy, nineteen years old and totally innocent, hotheaded, proud, muscular, loving, and fiercely loyal to his family. Though he is about to be paroled, he doesn’t hesitate to break out of prison a day earlier, in order to arrive well in time for his grandmother’s party.
When jack appears, time begins again; we are removed from some of the concerns of the past and can contemplate the future. The judge who sentenced Jack so harshly (having misunderstood the circumstances of his “stealing” a safe) turns up, with his wife, and is taken in by the Renfros; the day will not be complete until he is “forgiven” for his deed. In fact, everyone will be forgiven. Then there is the more serious matter of the death and funeral of an aged schoolteacher who has taught everyone in Banner at one time or another, and whose protegee Jack’s wife has been. The novel begins with a birthday celebration and ends with the lowering of a coffin into a grave. So the young people pay homage to the mysteries of their idyllic world, and time opens into the future. In the end Jack declares fiercely that though he has lost certain battles,
They can’t take away what no human can take away. My family. . . . My wife and baby girl and all of ‘em at home. And I’ve got my strength. I may not have all the time I used to have—but I can provide.
It is a very human and very convincing little victory.
Losing Battles, like Miss Welty’s earlier Delta Wedding, is a novel filled with voices. It is sweetly musical, and its sour chords (the extreme poverty of these proud people, who will be forced onto welfare before long) are sounded discreetly; one feels, strangely enough, that these fundamental economic problems really are not important. What is important is love—the bonds of blood and memory that hold people together, eccentric and argumentative and ignorant though these people are. The basic unit of humanity is the family, the expanded family and not the selfish little family of modern days. What real people the Renfros are, we think as we read this novel. How exact the tone of their teasing, their scolding, the clashing and harmonizing of their memories!
And yet they are very nearly extinct.
In 1970 the concerns of Losing Battles are extinct. The large, happy family and its outdoor feast are extinct; the loyalty to a postagestamp corner of the world is extinct; the unquestioning Christian faith, the complex and yet very simple web of relationships that give these people their identities, binding them to a particular past and promising for them a particular, inescapable future: all extinct. This is a world that has vanished from literature, and yet one which will remain, most beautifully and paradoxically, only in literature. To know our own origins, or to know alternate possibilities for our own lives, we must study Miss Welty’s fiction, for we will not get this kind of knowledge from life. Its time is past; it is extinct. The simple social ceremonies of these Americans, these birthdays, weddings, and funerals, provide a dizzying motion that turns and turns upon itself, tying everyone together, telescoping years. All is in motion, yes, yet it is stilled, silent, fossilized. The art of Losing Battles lies in its perfection, its symmetry, its irrelevance to all that concerns our troubled contemporary America.
Last spring, the literary quarterly Shenandoah devoted an entire, excellent, issue to Eudora Welty. One of the most interesting contributions was a brief appreciative essay on Jane Austen by Miss Welty herself. Her obvious admiration for this novelist, and certain comments she makes about her novels, help to illuminate the delicate, and occasionally bewildering, art Miss Welty has given us.
Jane Austen, she says, is perhaps in danger of seeming remote to us, or to future readers, for soon she will be “closer in calendar time to Shakespeare” than to us. Much in Austen is taken for granted; much is assumed and is never explained. And this is essential for a certain kind of comedy.
Is there not some good connection between this confidence [of Jane Austen in her society] and the flow of comedy? Comedy is sociable and positive, and exacting: its methods, its boundaries, its point, all belong to the familiar.
The “familiar” may not be commonplace, but it must seem common] dace and it must be presented without hesitation or cynicism; a world so real, so matter-of-fact, that it is absorbed into the novelist’s vision and is the effortless background of his art. Miss Welty’s South is familiar in this way, and yet she brings to it an occasional wry, teasing note that alarms us; is she not, in her own way, a far more skillful writer than Jane Austen? If not more “skillful,” then more honest, more believable, a more trustworthy guide to the densities of ordinary life? Genteel as she is, Eudora Welty is still mercilessly just. Nothing happens in her world that does not deserve to happen. Good fortune eludes Iter people, and catastrophe usually eludes them as well; but nearby, perhaps only a few miles away, the world may be coming tragically unhinged.
She is an original, though she is also a “Southern” writer. If her world comes to seem familiar to us, we must remember that it has been made familiar, even predictable, by her graceful art; in reality, the community of Banner and its fundamentalist Christianity is as remote to most of us as an African nation. Their typical acquiescence to fate is equally remote. The domesticity of their preoccupations puzzles us. And the complicated family connections! Their everlasting concern with one another and with anecdotes from their common past! We find ourselves charmed by all this, gradually, and so it is something of a shock to discover that the beautiful Mrs. Renfro, the ex-schoolteacher, Gloria, feels an almost desperate impatience with this well of love, a desire to break free, to be— perhaps—as free as the rest of us.
Eudora Welty is only partly informed by the kind of intelligent, satirical graciousness we associate with Jane Austen, In many of her short stories—the famous “Petrified Man” or “Why I Live at the P.O.” or “A Curtain of Green”—she reveals a sense of terror that is sharpened by humor, the kind of abrupt, comic-strip juxtaposing of pain and farce that so influenced Flannery O’Connor. And, in an amiable, chatty, domestic novel like Delta Wedding, she is not to be trusted; she shares certain preoccupations with such ungenteel writers as Faulkner and Kafka, but the terror in Miss Welty is perhaps more bitter because it is so sweetly absorbed by the constant bustle of females in their production of food and love. In Delta Wedding, a beautiful, headstrong young girl (rather like Gloria of Losing Battles) prepares for her wedding, is fussed over, bullied, and loved; another girl, a stranger, an outsider who never appears in the novel btit is simply mentioned (she is killed by a train) does not count at all. Why is one human being valued so highly, and another human being valued not at all? Why does society protect one and exclude the other, loving one and destroying the other? Eudora Welty does not answer these questions, nor does she ask them; she causes them to be asked.
There is nothing simple about her vision of life. It is many-faceted, it cannot be reduced to any helpful, minimal statement. So far as I can judge, she has no “ideas” whatsoever. She has no political or spiritual arguments. She has no social arguments. She is aware of, but does not insist upon, the injustices of the economic establishment. And what of her philosophical tone? The tone of “The Petrified Man” and that of “The Bride of the Innisfallen” are quite different; the tone of Losing Battles and that of a recent, marvelous story, “The Demonstrators” (anthologized as the winner of the 1968 O. Henry Prize), are quite different. And yet, one knows immediately that these works are by Eudora Welty.
How to assess this new novel? Well, it is not a work that will appeal to everyone. It does not seem to me as successful a novel as Delta Wedding, nor is it as warmly comic and appealing as The Ponder Heart. Its serious social and psychological concerns are muted, and so it must depend a great deal upon interludes of comedy and charm (there is, perhaps, too much made of the innocent prettiness of starched dresses and the ubiquitous baby, Lady May Renfro, and the casual give-and-take of family life). Miss Welty has taken on a difficult task, to narrow so deliberately her range of vision, to strain her talent for dialogue to its utmost, to put so much dramatic weight upon characters that are appealing, but do not emerge as especially memorable or even very eccentric. Yet the novel mystifies, it insists upon its own integrity—the absolute value of these simpleminded Renfros and their problems. We come to believe in them. They convince us of their existence.
What F.udora Welty has said of Jane Austen is true for her own art:
. . . the more original the work of imagination, the greater the danger of its succumbing to the violence of transportation. Insomuch as it is alive, it must remain fixed in its own time and place, whole and intact, inviolable as a diamond. It abides in its own element, and this of course is the mind. . , . Jane Austen cannot follow’ readers into any other time. . . It is not her world or her time, but her art, that is approachaide. The novels in their radiance are a destination.


Wilfrid Sheed is a novelist and critic noted for his candor and intelligent wit. His new book,

Max Jamison, will be published next month.

Louis Kronenberger writes out of personal friendships with the Knights of the Round Table at the Algonquin in an Age of Gilded Greatness.

Joyce Carol Oates is the author of several prizewinning stories and highly praised novels, the most recent being Them, winner of the National Book Award.

Edward Weeks and Phoebe Adams contribute regularly to this column.

Archibald MacLeish (page 63) has combined his gifts as a poet and playwright with a strong political and social awareness.

Leslie Norris (page 100) is an Englishman whose new book of poetry will appear this month.

Jeannette Nichols (page 105) lives and writes in New Haven.