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 form. —Eudora Welty, One Writer’s Beginnings I owe a special debt to Jan Nordby Gretlund for his Eudora Welty’s Aesthetics of Place (Odense, Denmark: Odense University Press; Newark: University of Delaware Press, ¡994). Given his extensive and intensive analysis of Welty’s ﬁction, which he makes in response not only to that ﬁction but also to the considerable body of historical and critical work that has been done on it, Professor Gretlund establishes both a scholarly and a critical context upon which my speculative concerns depend. It is in the light of his study that I have written what follows, intending to bring to the support of our common concern for literature a metaphysical dimension of concern which I believe appropriate to literary criticism.
Eudora Welty has understood from the beginning a responsibility to the truth of things in response to the wonder and delight she is granted by life itself, and both the delight and the responsibility have governed her deportment in creation as person and as artist. Her long remembering of that deportment, in celebrating existence as ﬁction writer, she gives us in her Massey lectures at Harvard in April of ¡983, published as One Writer’s Beginnings. She recalls that, “beginning to write stories about people, I drew near slowly, noting and guessing, apprehending, hoping, drawing my eventual conclusions out of my own heart.” As artist, concerned with imitating the actions of human nature—the possible or probable—she was from childhood shyly aware (as she would put it) of her own participation in humanity that requires a certain deportment as person, but also as an artist presenting simulacra of persons through her special gift as artist. Now because piety requires a recognition of limit by the artist as both in himself and in the attendant complex of existence upon which his art depends, place becomes of considerable importance. Fiction in particular is an “incarnational” art, requiring from nature a substantiating presence in the artist’s signs, lest abstraction reduce the ﬁctional “persons” (the simulacra) and the enveloping world they inhabit to the two-dimensional, an old complaint against lesser ﬁctions. One wants the three-dimensional in a persuasive imitation of the action of nature. That is the issue touched upon when we speak of ﬁction’s art as incarnational. Nor is this necessity to dramatic making any the less, however stylized the made thing may be. Oedipus Rex, surely, echoes a three-dimensional nature—man’s nature—despite masks and high shoes and formal choruses. And the subtlety of Chekhov’s art is possible because Chekhov 19
Eudora Welty and Walker Percy
(one of Welty’s favorite writers) is himself so closely (in a physical sense) attuned to proximate reality—to persons and their complex circumstances in nature. It is in recognizing this dimension of Welty’s art that Jan Gretlund writes so persuasively of her in his Eudora Welty’s Aesthetics of Place. From the beginning, then, Welty, long before she realized her calling to be that of the poet—the maker of imitations of human nature through words—recognized as already under way a feeding of her heart by place, by things “at hand” as we say. The world impinging upon consciousness does so only in a place and at this present moment. That means that the encompassing world is ﬁrst of all local. It is within the immediate range of our senses as they mediate to consciousness the mystery of creation itself. And further, it is a mystery of limit, without which no thing could even exist, not even the most gifted artist. For even by that superlative title (artist), we name limit. Many of our most gifted writers in the 20th century struggle long to discover place and the limits of place that make art possible. We especially ﬁnd the struggle in...
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