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A literary intelligence beholden only to feeling

On Writing: Eudora Welty, The Modern Library: 106 pp., $14.95 Making a Literary Life: Advice for Writers and Other Dreamers, Carolyn See, Random House: 288 pp., $23.95

November 03, 2002|Sven Birkerts | Sven Birkerts is the author of five books of essays and the recent memoir, "My Sky Blue Trades."

Posthumous gatherings of previously uncollected pieces all too often comprise outtakes, lectures and ephemeral prose that an author might not have intended for posterity. Thus, one feels a certain skepticism about the Modern Library's decision to collect seven essays of Eudora Welty. At first encounter, "On Writing" appeared to be pitched at topics of somewhat narrow writerly interest, suggesting that they were meant as reflections on craft for the interested student and practitioner, as opposed to a broader readership. This was clearly not a book in the deeper sense, not a coherent intended whole, its parts resonating purposefully. A quarter century separated the writing of the first piece and the last; tone and approach were not uniform; there was no core concept or bias on which to hang the main points that Welty was making. Taken together, the essays disclosed a sensibility bound to specifics far more than to a sustained overview.

A second reading, however, overrides one's reservations. Sentence by sentence, insight by insight, Welty's inspired literary intelligence shines. These are not, it's true, essays likely to interest the lay reader. But they are not just shoptalk either. They are written to be read by the person who has given serious thought to the philosophical as well as practical questions that attend the writing of fiction. To that receptive intelligence, they offer insights about the inner process of writing that feel almost confidential. Reading, taking in these views and vistas at a walking pace -- for there is no rushing, ever, with Welty's prose -- we encounter once again the intuitive sensibility, the instructed heart and the truth-risking edge that have made Welty arguably the finest 20th century American short-story writer.

Welty, who died last year at 92, was, at her core, in her fiction as well as her burnished memoir, "One Writer's Beginnings," a Pascalian, promoting the heart's reasons over those of reason itself. She looked at fiction -- her own and the work of her fellow practitioners (everyone from Flaubert to D.H. Lawrence to Elizabeth Bowen to William Faulkner) -- always as a living expression of spirit that is not amenable to dissection.

In the essay "Writing and Analyzing a Story," she comes as close to stating a credo as is possible for a writer of her temperament. "I would rather submit a story to the test of its outside world," she writes, "to show what it was doing and how it went about it, than to the method of critical analysis which would pick the story up by its heels (as if it had swallowed a button) to examine the writing process as analysis in reverse, as though any story -- or any system of feeling -- could be more accessible to understanding for being hung upside down."

The button is a beautiful touch, as is the image of hanging the work by its heels. Indeed, the trace of Welty's shape-making imagination, her delight in bringing ideas to larger life, is everywhere to be seen. Taking up the central (for Welty especially) issue of place in fiction, she telegraphs her engagement from the very start: "Place is one of the lesser angels that watch over the racing hand of fiction, perhaps the one that gazes benignly enough from off to one side, while others, like character, plot, symbolic meaning, and so on, are doing a good deal of wing-beating about her chair, and feeling, who in my eyes carries the crown, soars highest of them all and rightly relegates place into the shade."

I will be pardoned for using this small billboard space mainly to promote the excellence -- the incandescent precision -- of Welty's prose. The reviewer, inspired, is but a shill for the attractions of a given book. And in this book they are so obviously those of charged figurative language in the service of elusive yet essential insights. In the essay, "Place in Fiction," to take another instance, Welty links setting to point of view and condenses her conclusion to bouillon-cube density: "Conscientiously used, point of view will discover, explore, see through -- it may sometimes divine and prophesy. Misused, it turns opaque almost at once and gets in the way of the book. And when the good novel is finished, its cooled outside shape ... has all the burden of communicating that initial, spontaneous, overwhelming, driving charge of personal inner feeling that was the novel's reason for being. The measure of this representation of life corresponds most tellingly with the novel's life expectancy: whenever its world of outside appearance grows dim or false to the eye, the novel has expired."

We are brought back, again and again in these pieces, to a grateful recognition of Welty's bedrock certainty: that the universal nestles, always, in the radiant particular. As she writes, "The open mind and the receptive heart -- which are at last and with fortune's smile the informed mind and the experienced heart -- are to be gained anywhere, any time, without necessarily moving an inch from any present address."

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