At the end of a lackluster discussion of Eudora Welty’s “Why I Live at the P.O.” in a college English class last fall, one of my students raised her hand. “I know that Welty is supposed to be really good,” she said, “but I don’t get it.” She objected to the clichés, the cartoonishness.
But does Eudora feel cliché because she invented certain Southern clichés? She read the extremes of Southerners, of human behavior, and immortalized our foibles in words that would influence the next few generations of writers. As Tony Earley observed, “I have a theory—perhaps unformed and, without question, unsubstantiated—that most bad Southern writing is descended directly from Eudora Welty’s ‘Why I Live at the P.O.’”
I defended Welty’s greatness during that class—I even played them an excerpt of the author reading the story aloud, her mouth rolling fast around the syllables like gumballs—but over the course of the semester I couldn’t help marking a shift in how young Southerners, black and white, read the Southern giants: not in awe, but with a sense of exhaustion.
We moved through Mark Twain—hokey—and Flannery O’Connor—melodramatic—and William Faulkner—impenetrable. Southern whiteness doesn’t age well. But even Richard Wright, Zora Neale Hurston, and Alice Walker, however electric their language, felt familiar to these students; yes, those old burdens again. What my students saw was a reflection not of the world they lived in, but the world they inherited. And though we Southerners are unendingly proud of our literary heritage, it bears the marks of a brutality we’re struggling to move past.
The Welty that felt most real to them was “Where Is the Voice Coming From?” In this 1963 story published less than a month after the assassination of Medgar Evers, Welty wormed her way into the addled brain of the white man who murdered him—a man who turned out in actuality to be Byron de la Beckwith, as supernaturally close as a man can get to an invented character. This wasn’t using racism as a setting, but as a problem. It was asking why in the same way my students were.