A Tyrannous Eye: Eudora Welty’s Nonfiction and Photographs by Pearl McHaney

A Tyrannous Eye: Eudora Welty’s Nonfiction and Photographs
By Pearl McHaney
University Press of Mississippi
256 pages

McHaney illuminates Eudora Welty’s many artistic achievements

By Lauren Rhoades
Special to the Mississippi Clarion-Ledger

Pearl McHaney’s “A Tyrannous Eye: Eudora Welty’s Nonfiction and Photographs,” now out in paperback, plunges into the world of Welty’s journalism, photography, letters, book reviews, essays, and autobiography. McHaney is a distinguished Welty scholar, having edited multiple volumes of Welty’s work. “A Tyrannous Eye” is the first full-length treatment of Welty’s criticism and visual work; it offers readers insight into the renowned Mississippi author’s versatility as a writer and artist.

The book’s title comes from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s 1844 essay “The Poet” in which Emerson laments: “We have yet had no genius in America, with tyrannous eye, which knew the value of our incomparable materials.”

Could Eudora Welty, writing a century later from the upstairs bedroom of her home in Jackson, fit the bill for this American genius with tyrannous eye? McHaney’s answer, which she bolsters with extensive archival research and biographical context, is a resounding yes. Welty, she writes, looks “straight into the heart of the subject, not distracted or digressive, judging the frames, the proportions, and perspectives of the writer and the reader simultaneously.”

Each chapter focuses on a single genre, though the book itself is “a whole that is more than the sum of its parts; comments composed in one genre illuminate another.” McHaney explores Welty’s early journalistic writing for radio and newspapers, offering fresh examples of the wry humor and lyrical detail which would later come to characterize her fiction. This excerpt from Welty’s 1933 society column in the “Memphis Commercial Appeal” is especially delightful: “Speaking of feathers [Welty hadn’t], no bride has worn them yet, although they all read in “Vogue” that they could do it. However, the next best thing—a maid of honor wore the color chartreuse.”

McHaney also addresses and corrects two myths about Welty’s photography: first, that she was an amateur, hobbyist photographer (“She was a serious photographer; that is, she took the art of photographing seriously,” McHaney writes); and second, that Welty took her photos for the WPA (unlike Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange, she did not “take directives from [Roy] Stryker [of the WPA] or anyone else about what to photograph”).

For years, Welty pursued photography as a career path, and her photographs show an eye for composition, pattern, shadow, and, most telling, narrative. “I never posed anybody–that was on principle,” Welty said. “I let my subjects go on with what they were doing and, by framing or cutting and selection, found what composition arose from that…”

Few people know that Welty was also an accomplished book reviewer. McHaney highlights the author’s honest appraisals of works by writers such as Virginia Woolf, E.B. White, Isak Dinesen, J.D. Salinger, and Annie Dillard (surprisingly, “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek” was one of her few negative reviews). Welty published sixty-seven book reviews throughout her life, fifty-eight of which appeared in the New York Times Book Review.

But she shied away from the role of critic. “I may be a born appreciator,” Welty admitted. “I like to write about things I like.” Among the writers she most appreciated was that “big mountain,” Faulkner. Defending him against critics who called his work “provincial,” Welty argued that Faulkner “‘is poetically the most accurate man alive; he has looked into the heart of the matter, and got it down for good.’”

With clarity and discernment, McHaney validates Welty’s statement that “a work of art is infinitely accommodating.” “A Tyrannous Eye” is for the Welty scholar and the humble reader alike. Each will walk away with a greater appreciation for the depth and breadth of Eudora Welty’s artistry.

Lauren Rhoades is director of the Eudora Welty House & Garden in Jackson. She is currently pursuing an MFA in creative writing at Mississippi University for Women.


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