One nice offshoot of The Help and its new movie version, is all the attention that Eudora Welty is (rightfully) getting, ten years after her death. Welty’s incisive and beautiful ability to expose the South in all its beauty and horrors led the way for me — and for many of Northerners — to understand the culture of the South of the mid-twentieth century.
W. Ralph Eubanks, author and director and director of publishing at the Library of Congress, recently spoke on NPR about Welty, and The Help. He talked about one of Welty’s most haunting stories, titled, “Where Is the Voice Coming From?” I’d read the story before but what I had not known was that Welty wrote “Where is the Voice Coming From?” in the same year in which The Help is set; in fact, Welty wrote the story — a harrowing account of the stalking and murder of civil rights activist Medgar Evers — upon learning of Evers’ murder, on the very day it occurred.
As she writes in the introduction to The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty, “Whoever the murderer is, I know him: not his identity, but his coming about, in this time and place.” And Welty, in just two pages, sets out with clarity and force the time and place that allowed such an event to take place, bringing the murderer into our own horrified consciousness.
Welty accomplished in her short stories what is so very difficult, and she did it cleanly, succinctly, beautifully: she made her world of Jackson, Mississippi, the world of her reader; she made it familiar and disturbing and undeniable. When I read the stories of Eudora Welty, I am observer but also participant; and through that participation, I understand so much, even the very ugly aspects of humanity — our shared humanity — that I would rather deny.
Two years ago (almost to the day) on this blog I reviewed Eudora Welty’s A Curtain of Green, a collection of short stories. I wrote then, “Reading Welty’s stories is like going back in time to a different world, back to a Deep South of stupefying heat and small towns, a time of inequality, injustice, inbreeding, and intense pathos. Welty came from that world, she sprang out of it to turn back and see it with an eviscerating eye and write about it with an incredible (if at times extreme) talent. With her stories she drags us back to that bizarre place and makes us see its charms, its horrors, and its unique place in our American culture.”
Reading “Where is the Voice Coming From?” takes us back to when and where a good man could be murdered for the good he was trying to do. By allowing us to understand why, Welty ensures we will never forget the hatred or the answering indignation of those times — and empowers us to show that same indignation, today. With Welty’s words to move us, complacency doesn’t stand a chance.