Wednesday, February 26, 2014
February 26, 2014: Short Shorts: Eudora Welty
[To commemorate the end of our shortest month—my younger son recently asked me, “Why does February only get 28 days?!”—a series on five great American stories that are as short as they are powerful. Add your favorites in comments!]
On the story that’s both thoroughly grounded and profoundly universal.
I can’t believe I haven’t yet written about Eudora Welty in this space—but my memory indicates that I haven’t, and a search of the blog (with that handy search bar up top) reveals the same. Better late than never, I suppose, and I’m sure this won’t be the last time I’ll write about this unique and very talented 20th century great. To my mind, Welty captured the culture, society, communities, and identities of her native Mississippi just as well as the state’s most famous writer, William Faulkner; and she portrayed African American characters with a complexity and humanity that Faulkner could never quite manage. All of those elements are on display in Welty’s greatest story, and one of the great American short stories period: “The Worn Path” (1941). Again, check it out, and come back and share your thoughts if you would!
Welcome back! When I’ve taught Welty’s story, I’ve tended to focus on drawing out students’ takes on two particularly ambiguous aspects: potential symbolic readings of different parts of Phoenix Jackson’s path (which bears an interesting resemblance to another famous American literary path, Young Goodman Brown’s); and whether her young grandson is indeed dead as the nurse suggests (and what the stakes are of how we answer that question). I’d certainly be interested, again, in your thoughts on either or both of those questions. But I also think attention to such ambiguities shouldn’t take away from our appreciation of Welty’s incredible balance of two often competing elements: a deep specificity about the place and time she’s portraying, and her character’s identity within them; and yet a powerfully universal set of themes to which she connects that character and her life and journey. To do either of those things successfully in a short short story is a great accomplishment; to be both is a sign of true mastery.
So what do you think? This paragraph for rent!
Next short short tomorrow,
PS. Thoughts on this story, or others you’d share?