Harvard University Press, 1995. ISBN 0674639278.
Reviewed by Duffie Bart
Posted on 10/24/2005
For someone like myself, who is fascinated by the writing process, there is no book I value more than this book by Eudora Welty. The book, beautifully illustrated with family photographs, consists of three lectures delivered by Miss Welty at Harvard University in April 1983. A paragraph written by Miss Welty and inserted at the beginning of the book, in my view, perfectly illustrates the eloquence and subtleties of biography:
"When I was young enough to still spend a long time buttoning my shoes in the morning, I'd listen toward the hall: Daddy upstairs was shaving in the bathroom and Mother downstairs was frying the bacon. They would begin whistling back and forth to each other up and down the stairwell. My father would whistle his phrase, my mother would try to whistle, then hum hers back. It was their duet. I drew my buttonhook in and out and listened to it - I knew it was 'The Merry Widow.' The difference was, their song almost floated with laughter: how different from the record, which growled from the beginning, as if the Victrola were only slowly being wound up. They kept it running between them, up and down the stairs where I was now just about ready to run clattering down and show them my shoes."
One Writer's Beginnings is divided into three sections, representing the three individual lectures: Listening, Learning to See, and Finding a Voice. As I read "Listening," I felt another good title for it would be "Observing." Miss Welty knows her two parents as, I believe, few children know their parents. Her acute powers of observation—the differences and similarities between these two important people in her life, their separate tastes and talents, the daily habits of their household—are insightful and fascinating to read. This section makes clear how reading and being read to were as regular a ritual in her life as eating three meals a day. I love her observation that "It had been startling and disappointing to me to find out that story books had been written by people, that books were not natural wonders, coming up of themselves like grass." The author's observations about her life and the people around her are both sensitive and incisive. I quickly realized her reason for calling this chapter "Listening." She does not merely take in the literal content of words. Since childhood, apparently, she heard the cadences of words and the less obvious message of their inner meanings. This has been a particularly helpful revelation for me. With my strict German background, I tend to respond literally to what I hear and see, to what I read and write. Even journalism today does not limit itself to mere reporting, and I gained enormously from reading Miss Welty describe this aspect of her writing. What she does so well is to convey her own feelings inherent in words rather than merely their factual content. In short, she trusts what she hears, she trusts her inner voice that listens... and this is the source of all her writing.
Thus, it is not surprising to learn that Miss Welty was unable to feel comfortable with organized religion, that her reverence for the holiness and mystery of life was found in the great churches she visited and her contemplation of the King James Version of the Bible with its beginning offering: "In the beginning was the Word."
In the section "Learning to See," Miss Welty describes her love of traveling—road trips in the car for shopping sprees, to visit grandparents. She writes of how Ohio (where her father grew up) had her father "around the heart" as her mother adored West Virginia from whence she came...before her parents settled in Jackson, Mississippi, where Miss Welty lived her entire life. She observes and gives examples illustrating that her father, the optimist, was the one prepared for the worst, and her mother, the pessimist, was the daredevil. How many children see their parents that clearly? In this chapter, we learn a bit about the personalities of Miss Welty's grandparents. Her observations are replete with her love of them...not merely factual recountings of their backgrounds.
Perhaps it is here that another of Miss Welty's distinctions lies—her love of the people about whom she writes. Her love and respect for them is as plain between the lines as it is in the words she uses to define herself and her family in this revealing biography. My heart opens as I read her memories on the page, so filled with love are they.
It is clear I love every page of this small book, but I confess that my favorite chapter is the last one—"Finding a Voice." I love it best perhaps because it tells of one particular rail trip Miss Welty took with her father and reveals how the support for her becoming a writer came from her mother. She shares her feelings about her college experience, her discovery of poetry, and a host of helpful comments to do with her writing. I love that she writes: "I was always my own teacher." She shares her belief that a writer should remain "invisble," not "effaced" but invisible. A good example of this is her description of a soldier who had unexpectedly stepped off a halted train and was walking across a field into the distance. Rather than describe what she felt in watching him disappear, Miss Welty writes from the soldier's point of view: "...I felt us going out of sight for him, diminishing and soon to be forgotten." Another helpful reminder for me was her discovery that "...all begins with the particular, never the general."
There is too much of value in this book for any review to convey it adequately. However, I cannot end before quoting her last brief paragraph: "...I am a writer who came of a sheltered life. A sheltered life can be a daring life as well. For all serious daring starts from within."
There could be no better ending to this treasure of a book.
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