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The Continuous Thread of Revelation: Eudora Welty on Writing, Time, and Embracing the Nonlinearity of How We Become Who We Are

“Greater than scene… is situation. Greater than situation is implication. Greater than all of these is a single, entire human being, who will never be confined in any frame.”

The Continuous Thread of Revelation: Eudora Welty on Writing, Time, and Embracing the Nonlinearity of How We Become Who We Are

To be human is to unfold in time but remain discontinuous. We are living non sequiturs seeking artificial cohesion through the revisions our memory, that capricious seamstress, performs in threading the stories we tell ourselves about who we are. It is, after all, nothing but a supreme feat of storytelling to draw a continuous thread between one’s childhood self and one’s present-day self, since hardly anything makes these two entities “the same person” — not their height, not their social stature, not their beliefs, not their circle of friends, not even the very cells in their bodies. Somewhere in the lacuna between the experiencing self and the remembering self, we create ourselves in what is literally a matter of making sense — of craftsmanship — for, as Oliver Sacks so poignantly observed, it is narrative that holds our identity together.

But while this self-composition is native to the human experience, there is a subset of humans who have elected the transmutation of discontinuity into cohesion as their life’s work and have made temporality the raw material of their craft: writers. The essence of that craftsmanship is what Pulitzer-winning author Eudora Welty (April 13, 1909–July 23, 2001) explores in a passage from One Writer’s Beginnings (public library) — her three-part memoir adapted from the inaugural Massey Lectures she delivered at Harvard in 1983, shortly after she was awarded the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and exactly half a century after The New Yorker rejected her brilliant job application.

Eudora Welty

Welty writes:

The events in our lives happen in a sequence in time, but in their significance to ourselves they find their own order, a timetable not necessarily — perhaps not possibly — chronological. The time as we know it subjectively is often the chronology that stories and novels follow: it is the continuous thread of revelation.

Drawing on one of her short stories, whose protagonist holds up her fingers to frame what she is about to paint before she beings painting it, Welty reflects on the evolution of her own understanding of writing and selfhood — a beautiful counterpoint to today’s fashionable fragmentation of the wholeness of personhood into sub-identities:

The frame through which I viewed the world changed too, with time. Greater than scene, I came to see, is situation. Greater than situation is implication. Greater than all of these is a single, entire human being, who will never be confined in any frame.

With an eye to the retrospective pattern-recognition by which we wrest our personhood from our experience — an existential act on which Joan Didion had some magnificent advice — Welty adds:

Writing a story or a novel is one way of discovering sequence in experience, of stumbling upon cause and effect in the happenings of a writer’s own life. This has been the case with me. Connections slowly emerge. Like distant landmarks you are approaching, cause and effect begin to align themselves, draw closer together. Experiences too indefinite of outline in themselves to be recognized for themselves connect and are identified as a larger shape. And suddenly a light is thrown back, as when your train makes a curve, showing that there has been a mountain of meaning rising behind you on the way you’ve come, is rising there still, proven now through retrospect.

Complement this particular passage of Welty’s altogether fantastic One Writer’s Beginnings with anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson on the nonlinearity of how we become who we are and with more life-earned insight into the craft of writing from Susan Sontag, James Baldwin, Gabriel García Márquez, Ernest Hemingway, Zadie Smith, T.S. Eliot, and other titans of literature, then revisit Welty on friendship, the difficult art on seeing one another, and a rare recording of her reading her comic and quietly heartbreaking masterpiece “Why I Live at the P.O.”

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Eudora Welty on the Difficult Art of Seeing Each Other and the Power of Photography as a Dignifying Force

“If exposure is essential, still more so is the reflection. Insight doesn’t happen often on the click of the moment, like a lucky snapshot, but comes in its own time and more slowly and from nowhere but within.”

“When we learned to speak to, and listen to, rather than to strike or be struck by, our fellow human beings, we found something worth keeping alive, worth possessing, for the rest of time,” Eudora Welty (April 13, 1909–July 23, 2001) wrote in her beautiful reflection on how friendship helped human language evolve. But long before she turned to language as her raw material and became one of the most beloved authors of the twentieth century, she poured her warmhearted storytelling genius into another humanizing art of speaking and listening: photography.

Just after Welty returned home to Mississippi from college, the Great Depression struck. When her disarming job application to the New Yorker fell on deaf ears, Welty, like many of her generation, found her first full-time job with the Works Progress Administration. She was hired as a junior publicity agent for the Mississippi State office and dispatched to the state’s eighty-two counties, where she set about understanding daily life in the Union’s poorest state and those who lived it — she traveled on dirt roads, helped set up country fair booths, talked to cow farmers, interviewed local judges, and rode on the bookmobile route “distributing books into open hands like the treasure that they are.”

Eudora Welty, 1930s
Eudora Welty, 1930s

Along the way, Welty took several hundred photographs of the people she met — portraits of personhood captured with caring and compassionate eyes, testaments to the tenacity of human dignity even amid the direst of circumstances. Nearly four decades later, one hundred of these striking duotone photographs were collected in One Time, One Place: Mississippi in the Depression (public library), published in 1971 — two years before Welty received the Pulitzer Prize for her novel The Optimist’s Daughter. That Welty released the book just as the Civil Rights movement was gathering critical momentum was hardly coincidental — a choice of timing that lent her sympathetic, deeply humane photographs new layers of meaning, layers that come unpeeled anew today.

"Woman in Thirties" by Eudora Welty, the opening photograph in One Time, One Place: Mississippi in the Depression
“Woman in Thirties” by Eudora Welty, the opening photograph in One Time, One Place: Mississippi in the Depression

In the preface, penned in March of 1971, Welty considers how the camera, when operated with a sensitive and sympathetic curiosity, can dignify its subjects, becoming a tool of trust and mutual understanding:

In taking all these pictures, I was attended, I now know, by an angel — a presence of trust. In particular, the photographs of black persons by a white person may not testify soon again to such intimacy. It is trust that dates the pictures now, more than the vanished years. And had I no shame as a white person for what message might lie in my pictures of black persons? No, I was too busy imagining myself into their lives to be open to any generalities. I wished no more to indict anybody, to prove or disprove anything by my pictures, than I would have wished to do harm to the people in them, or have expected any harm from them to come to me.

[…]

When a heroic face like that of the woman in the buttoned sweater … looks back at me from her picture, what I respond to now, just as I did the first time, is not the Depression, not the Black, not the South, not even the perennially sorry state of the whole world, but the story of her life in her face. And though I did not take these pictures to prove anything, I think they most assuredly do show something — which is to make a far better claim for them. Her face to me is full of meaning more truthful and more terrible and, I think, more noble than any generalization about people could have prepared me for or could describe for me now. I learned from my own pictures, one by one, and had to; for I think we are the breakers of our own hearts.

Welty articulates the vital difference between capturing reality and conveying truth:

I learned quickly enough when to click the shutter, but what I was becoming aware of more slowly was a story-writer’s truth: the thing to wait on, to reach there in time for, is the moment in which people reveal themselves. You have to be ready, in yourself; you have to know the moment when you see it. The human face and the human body are eloquent in themselves, and stubborn and wayward, and a snapshot is a moment’s glimpse (as a story may be a long look, a growing contemplation) into what never stops moving, never ceases to express for itself something of our common feeling. Every feeling waits upon its gesture. Then when it does come, how unpredictable it turns out to be, after all.

In a sentiment of unshakable poignancy amid today’s media culture — a culture where the nuanced realities and complexities of entire lives are reduced to fragmentary glimpses and soundbites — Welty reminds us of the monumental difference between what Susan Sontag called “aesthetic consumerism” and what one might call aesthetic contemplation, to which there are no shortcuts and which is the only path, however long and winding, to truly seeing one another:

We come to terms as well as we can with our lifelong exposure to the world, and we use whatever devices we may need to survive. But eventually, of course, our knowledge depends upon the living relationship between what we see going on and ourselves. If exposure is essential, still more so is the reflection. Insight doesn’t happen often on the click of the moment, like a lucky snapshot, but comes in its own time and more slowly and from nowhere but within. The sharpest recognition is surely that which is charged with sympathy as well as with shock — it is a form of human vision. And that is of course a gift. We struggle through any pain or darkness in nothing but hope that we may receive it, and through any term of work in the prayer to keep it.

[…]

My wish, indeed my continuing passion, would be not to point the finger in judgment but to part a curtain, that invisible shadow that falls between people, the veil of indifference to each other’s presence, each other’s wonder, each other’s human plight.

One Time, One Place radiates precisely this seeingness of our human wonder and human plight. Complement Welty’s insightful prefatory words with Teju Cole on how the paradox of photography illustrates the central anxiety of human life and Annie Dillard on the two ways of looking and the secret to truly seeing, then revisit Welty on friendship.

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Eudora Welty on Friendship as an Evolutionary Mechanism for Language

“When we learned to speak to, and listen to, rather than to strike or be struck by, our fellow human beings, we found something worth keeping alive, worth possessing, for the rest of time.”

Eudora Welty on Friendship as an Evolutionary Mechanism for Language

“I sometimes awake in the night and think of friendship and its possibilities,” Henry David Thoreau wrote in his diary as he turned forty and found himself contemplating the most succulent fruits of existence. But where exactly does the sweetness of friendship reside? How is it synthesized on the tongue of being?

In my recent effort to counter the commodification of the word “friend” and reclaim the meaning of friendship through a taxonomy of platonic relationships, I was led to something rather beautiful and rather forgotten that Eudora Welty (April 13, 1909–July 23, 2001) wrote on the subject in The Norton Book of Friendship (public library) — a 1991 treasure trove of literature’s greatest letters, poems, stories, essays, and other wisdom on friendship, which Welty edited together with her dear friend Ronald A. Sharp.

eudorawelty1

In her introduction to the anthology, Welty considers one of the central perplexities of friendship — the way in which it weaves itself in and out of what we call love, a word with very particular cultural baggage, and the way in which we, in our effort to disentangle this entwinement into neater and more comprehensible categories, draw a somewhat arbitrary line between the two. She writes:

Friendship and love … know each other and avail themselves of each other. The solidest friendship is that of friends who love one another.

To this I would add that in the fullest and most rewarding of friendships, the two friends are always a little bit in love with one another. We need not classify the type of love as erotic, romantic, creative, intellectual, spiritual, or some other kind, only to know that a great friendship cycles, at one point or another, through each type.

Welty examines the singular magnetism of friendship in our lives and in our art:

“Friendship” is inherently a magnet. As with its own drawing power, it locates and draws to the surface, spreads before our eyes poems, stories, essays, letters, in the widest variety.

[…]

Certainly friendship has proved a magnet to literature, an everlasting magnet. History, poetry, drama, letters have been drawn to the subject of friendship, not simply to celebrate it but to discover, perceive, learn from it the nature of ourselves, of humankind, the relationships we share in our world.

Friendship has inherited its literary treasury; it lies in the language… And in that treasury’s further stories of pure gold are the works of the imagination, some old as time, some coined only yesterday.

Welty’s most salient point has to do with precisely this linguistic dimension of friendship — it might be the basic necessities of friendship, she suggests, that sparked in us the evolutionary need for language. It’s a notion both wonderfully poetic and rather plausible — we know that music and language helped us evolve, and what is friendship if not learning the song of another’s heart and singing it back to them?

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from a vintage ode to friendship by Janice May Udry

Welty writes:

Did friendship between human beings come about in the first place along with — or through — the inspiration of language? It can be safe to say that when we learned to speak to, and listen to, rather than to strike or be struck by, our fellow human beings, we found something worth keeping alive, worth possessing, for the rest of time. Might it possibly have been the other way round — that the promptings of friendship guided us into learning to express ourselves, teaching ourselves, between us, a language to keep it by? Friendship might have been the first, as well as the best, teacher of communication. Which came first, friendship or the spoken word? They could rise from the same prompting: to draw together, not to pull away, not to threaten any longer.

Friendship lives, as do we ourselves, in an ephemeral world. How much its life depends on the written word. The English language itself is friendship’s greatest treasure…. Do we not owe friendship, as we owe Shakespeare, to language?

The Norton Book of Friendship is itself a great treasury, containing such gems as Emily Dickinson’s letter to her best friend, foundational meditations on friendship by Aristotle, Cicero, and Montaigne, John Donne’s touching ode to a friend, and Aesop’s classic fables of friendship. Complement it with C.S. Lewis on the purpose of friendship, Emerson on its two pillars, Andrew Sullivan on why friendship can be a greater gift than romantic love, and John O’Donohue on the ancient Celtic notion of “soul-friend,” then revisit Welty on the poetics of space, her impossibly charming job application to the New Yorker, and this rare recording of her reading her quietly heartbreaking masterpiece “Why I Live at the P.O.”

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Eudora Welty Reads Her Comic and Quietly Heartbreaking Masterpiece “Why I Live at the P.O.”

“Here I am, and here I’ll stay. I want the world to know I’m happy.”

Eudora Welty Reads Her Comic and Quietly Heartbreaking Masterpiece “Why I Live at the P.O.”

“No art ever came out of not risking your neck,” the great writer and photographer Eudora Welty (April 13, 1909–July 23, 2001) quipped in her reflections on writing. And risk she did — exactly forty years before she received the Pulitzer Prize, which was followed by the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Welty sent the New Yorker what is possibly the most charming job application of all time, only to be rejected. Undeterred, she continued writing. A few years later, she published her first book of short stories, A Curtain of Green (public library). She was instantly recognized as a formidable talent, received a Guggenheim Fellowship, and was invited to join the staff of The New York Times Book Review.

Among the stories in the collection was the marvelous “Why I Live at the P.O.,” inspired by a photograph Welty once took of a woman ironing behind a tiny post office in the South. (That, lest we forget, is the power of an evocative photograph — a single still image invites the fertile imagination to construct a living story, an entire world.) In this recording salvaged from a 1998 cassette, Welty reads this comical yet quietly heartbreaking depiction of family relationships, which remains one of her most beloved and anthologized stories — please enjoy:

Complement with Welty’s terrific New Yorker job application, then treat yourself to other wonderful archival recordings of great writers reading their work: J.R.R. Tolkien reads (and sings) from The Lord of the Rings, Mary Oliver reads from Blue Horses, Frank O’Hara reads his “Metaphysical Poem,” Susan Sontag reads her short story “Debriefing,” Dorothy Parker reads her poem “Inscription for the Ceiling of a Bedroom,” and Chinua Achebe reads his little-known poetry.

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