A REVIEW OF
New Essays on Eudora Welty, Class, and Race
Edited by Harriet Pollack
University Press of Mississippi
New book from Welty scholars creates groundbreaking work on race and class
By Lauren Rhoades
Special to the Mississippi Clarion Ledger
USA TODAY NETWORK
Published in 2013, “Eudora Welty, Whiteness, and Race” (University of Georgia Press) refutes critics who accused the Mississippi writer of glossing over the subject of Jim Crow-era racism in her work. But this first full-length volume of essays on race and Eudora Welty not only vindicates the writer from accusations of ambivalence and white sentimentality; its essays interpret her dynamic literary representations of race in the South.
“New Essays on Eudora Welty, Class, and Race” (University Press of Mississippi) expands and deepens the conversation started by its predecessor. Editor and distinguished Welty scholar Harriet Pollack writes that the collection seeks “to more clearly understand Welty’s artistic commentary on her time and place.” The twelve essays by both new and familiar contributors cover topics ranging from haunted houses to Depression-era orphanages to film noir, all through the lens of Welty’s novels, stories, and photography.
In unpacking Eudora Welty’s response to the closed society in which she lived, the contributors illuminate issues we still face, like the problematic existence of Confederate memorials, or the representation of minorities in mainstream media.
While most of the essays in the volume focus on Welty’s fiction, contributor Annette Trefzer delves into the forty-six photographs that Welty took of State Fair Parades in her hometown of Jackson, Mississippi. Welty’s photos document the separate “white” and “negro” parades; they also show tightly packed, interracial crowds. Trefzer argues that these parade photos—taken throughout the mid-1930s—represent “transgressive rituals and transformative performances of an increasingly socially mobile culture, both black and white.” No wonder Welty found the subject fascinating.
Her photographs feature parade floats ranging from the humble to the extravagant, reflective of a rising set of African American middle-class opportunities in the Jim Crow South. Welty snapped photos of black women in nurse uniforms gathered around an operating table atop a “medical float.” Another float advertises the black-owned Collins funeral home, which stayed in operation despite threats from the Ku Klux Klan. Welty’s photography shows her not as a “passive spectator but an active observer” of a society in flux.
Writing about nuanced representations of black resistance in Welty’s 1966 story “The Demonstrators,” contributor Ebony Lumumba writes that “it is most valuable to consider Welty’s black characters as representations of a real community who, regardless of who gazed upon them, demonstrated their humanity in the way that they lived.” Welty depicted the world as she saw it. Though an outsider to the African American community, she “allows the personas she created agency to speak for themselves.”
But Welty’s insider understanding is what makes her 1963 story “Where Is the Voice Coming From?” her most chilling indictment of white supremacy. Based on the assassination of civil rights leader Medgar Evers, the story is told from the killer’s point of view. Writing about the assumptions that belie intersections of race and class, Adrienne Akins Warfield compares Welty’s story with singer-songwriter Bob Dylan’s song “Only a Pawn in Their Game.” Both Southern writer and Northern musician assumed Evers’ assassin was a poor and uneducated white man, when in fact Byron de la Beckwith came from an established, well-to-do family. Warfield’s analysis shows a shared—and insidious—impulse between both insider and outsider to “associate racist violence with the economic resentments of lower-class whites.” Her findings reveal uncomfortable parallels in the way we understand racially-motivated hate crimes today.
Essays in this collection offer fresh interpretations of beloved, familiar stories. They read Welty’s texts in conversation with Toni Morrison, William Faulkner, and the hardboiled noir detective genre the author herself devoured. An important addition to the realm of Welty scholarship, “New Essays on Eudora Welty, Class, and Race” provokes its readers to enter Welty’s world and leave questioning their own.
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.