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An Appreciation

A Dreamer and Observer Who Saw the Truth in Small Things

July 27, 2001|SUSAN SALTER REYNOLDS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"Through some intensity," Eudora Welty wrote in the story "A Memory," "I had come almost into a dual life, as observer and dreamer. I felt a necessity for absolute conformity to my ideas in any happening I witnessed."

The speaker was a child at the time of this memory, and she had, by chance, touched the wrist of a boy she had never talked with. She was in love for the first time, and she realized in the moment described that she would never feel again with such intensity: "The truth is that never since has any passion I have felt remained so hopelessly unexpressed within me."

Here are the ingredients of a writer we can trust: attention, desire and memory. You can call these different things: detail, passion and story. You can call them voice, arc and metaphor. Or clarity, vision and meaning.

Eudora Welty, who died on Monday at 92, held them, all three, like cards in a winning hand. She played them like a carny, like a teamster, like the child of privilege she was. She played them with arrogance in her stories, with humor and respect for her readers.

The story of Welty's I never forget is "A Worn Path," perhaps because the image of old Phoenix Jackson walking through the woods is the purest story line I know. It has the rhythm and persistence of a beautiful, simple melody. The image is photographic. It begins:

"It was December--a bright frozen day in the early morning. Far out in the country there was an old Negro woman with her head tied in a red rag, coming along a path through the pinewoods. Her name was Phoenix Jackson. She was very old and small and she walked slowly in the dark pine shadows, moving a little from side to side in her steps, with the balanced heaviness and lightness of a pendulum in a grandfather clock. She carried a thin, small cane made from an umbrella, and with this she kept tapping the frozen earth in front of her. This made a grave and persistent noise in the still air, that seemed meditative like the chirping of a solitary little bird."

How do you know that Phoenix Jackson is a strong woman? How do you know that she has achieved a clarity and sense of purpose the young can only wish for? How do you know she looks and smells like the very woods she walks in? How do you explain all this information that is passed on a flat page with no colors, no sounds, no context?

When you can write, there's no need to gild the lily. Like Emily Dickinson in Amherst, Mass., Welty rarely strayed from Jackson, Miss. Like Dickinson, she never married. "It never came up," she told an interviewer. Like Dickinson and Jane Austen, Welty saw the truth of the world in very small things.

An old woman walking through the woods can be planted, a tiny seed, just like any flowering bush, and flame on in a reader's memory until it bears fruit or flower. I don't understand what Phoenix Jackson's walk means, yet. I know I will someday. There is great mystery in the act of writing; a mysterious communication from one soul to another, a very specific message just for you, the reader. Eudora Welty knew it. Don't ever doubt it.

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