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The Logic of Dreams

STORIES, ESSAYS & MEMOIR.\o7 By Eudora Welty\f7 .\o7 Edited and annotated by Richard Ford and Michael Kreyling (The Library of America: 978 pp., $35)\f7 ; COMPLETE NOVELS: The Robber Bridegroom, Delta Wedding, The Ponder Heart, Losing Battles, The Optimist's Daughter.\o7 By Eudora Welty\f7 .\o7 Edited and annotated by Richard Ford and Michael Kreyling (The Library of America: 1,014 pp., $35)\f7

October 18, 1998|JENNY UGLOW | Jenny Uglow is the editorial director of Chatto & Windus and a biographer and critic whose most recent book is "Hogarth: A Life and a World."

In one of Eudora Welty's early stories, "A Memory," a young girl lies by a lake. She sees the scene before her as if it were a picture or a brightly lit stage. The noon sun beats down, the water shines like steel:

"I was looking at a rectangle brightly lit, actually glaring at me, with sun, sand, water, a little pavilion, a few solitary people in fixed attitudes, and around it all a border of dark rounded oak trees, like the engraved thunderclouds surrounding illustrations in the Bible."

The theatrical focus, the solitary folk, the fringe of darkness, the threat of storm and the literary, biblical undertows--these are all elements of Welty's art. Yet in "A Memory," she lets her narrator's reminiscences suggest the danger of an artist's neat reordering of life: "Ever since I had begun taking painting lessons, I had made small frames with my fingers to look out at everything." The child who frames the view is nursing a fantasy, an unspoken first love; she is living a dual life, as "observer and dreamer." Suddenly, into her romantic haze spills a crowd of bathers, ferociously alive, ugly, "squirming, ill-assorted." They are so hyper-real that reality itself seems threatened. A dislocating magic is in the air. Metaphor runs riot: on one girl, "fat hung upon her upper arms like an arrested earthslide on a hill," while her sister, "wore a bright green bathing suit like a bottle from which she might, I felt, burst in a rage of churning smoke."

In Welty's stories, unexpected elements continually invade the given frames. In the brief essay "Writing and Analyzing a Story," which the Library of America includes in "Stories, Essays & Memoir," she says that her tales often start from a "pull on the line," some outside signal that "has startled or moved the story-writing mind to complicity." A figure glimpsed from afar or an overheard conversation may provoke her into imagining the life behind the moment; yet once she embarks, the subject of the story may turn out to be something entirely different. The relationships she conjures up take on their own momentum and direction: The "moral, the passionate, the poetic, hence the shaping idea, can't be mapped and plotted." Perhaps this is why her stories, apparently so firmly grounded in social reality, so often take on the miraculous and troubling logic of dreams. Indeed, the jolting dislocation between inner vision and outer world is at the heart of her fiction.

"Stories, Essays, & Memoir" and "Complete Novels" contain the bulk of her published work from 1941 to 1980. They are a treasure trove, a perpetual delight. One cannot but applaud the inclusion of Eudora Welty in the Library of America. Yet like all great writers, she somehow resists the institutional label. Her works leap, alive, off any library shelf. She is playfully aware of the power of print. In the story "A Piece of News," a newspaper article about a Ruby Fisher whose husband shot her in the leg almost convinces another Ruby Fisher that the accident happened to her: As she thinks of her husband, dangerous gulfs yawn beneath known reality, like a quake triggered by a hidden fault.

Welty has her own distinctive place in that great tradition of American writers, descending from Sherwood Anderson and William Faulkner, whose interlinked stories give such powerful and enduring life to a particular place or community. Reading her stories or following the intricate dance of a novel like "Delta Wedding," we are transported to a world that is real, yet not real--just as Welty, as a child, lying sick in bed, would pore over the fairy tales and legends of the 10 volumes of "Our Wonder World." But Welty's enchanted realm is not that of myth, although she ventures there in "Circe," or of fairy tale, despite her clever fusing of the Brothers Grimm with local bandit lore in "The Robber Bridegroom." Instead, her country is her home state of Mississippi, from the delta to the hill country, and especially "the River country," the "little chain of lost towns between Vicksburg and Natchez." The history of the region is an insistent murmur. In "Some Notes on the River Country," she looks back to the "solid blue clay, embalming the fossil horse and the fossil ox and the great mastodon"; to the wind-born soil of the ridges; to the animals who beat the trail of the Old Natchez Trace.

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