WHEN EUDORA Welty's A Curtain of Green and Other Stories appeared in 1941, Katherine Anne Porter wrote an introduction, as Welty herself notes in this collection of all her stories. Faulkner, another Mississippian, had already written four of his major works. Allen Tate and other poets and critics had expresed themselves as southern "agrarians." Flannery O'Connor, Tennessee Williams and Carson McCullers were emerging, or shortly to come. That Southern renaissance which would be a dominant force in American writing -- and conspicuously so in the short story -- had well begun.
There were reasons. The South was more than a region; it was now an enclosure. Once a founder of the nation, the South now felt alien within it, and must speak for itself. This it could do, in a common speech spring-fed by both poetry and pawkiness, and from a literary tradition as wide as New England's, if more openly gothic. Supremely, it had a guilt and a defense, a double population and a tragic irony. Writers are born of that doubleness. Of those who responded, Faulkner would most express the good-and-evil, the white hierarchies and the self-hatreds. The younger writers would be touched by more personal psychologies, religious or sexual, which made them conscious eccentrics. Welty, in the golden middle, tells us how things were in her time and place, or recreates the time before, the division not always being certain, since in her work human nature in general is at all times present and accountable.
In A Curtain of Green all of a remarkable writer's modes surface, along with their natural references. "Death of a Traveling Salesman," her first published story, sounds that abiding American theme bred of our distance and peddler isolations: the "drummer" -- here brought smack against the homeplace rural ideal which will reappear less romanticized in the factory pair of "The Whistle," only to flower in the marvelous community joke of "The Wide Net" and to reamify later through all of The Golden Apple's generationally linked tales. Tom, the salesman of "The Hitch-Hiker," is closer kin to those Sherwood Anderson lonelies who despair of their own life-rhythms; all the Welty males will divide into those who wander, or do not. "Lily Daw and the Three Ladies" anticipates the three fates of "Asphodel," and an ever-widening chorale who will watch and judge Pan-Satyr, the deserting male in all his guises, flyaway yellow hair to white linen suits -- from Floyd of "At the Landing" to King MacLain, seducer scarcely tamed by age, to the boarder buck-naked at the top of the stairs.
Howard of "Flowers for Majorie," foundering on the Depression streets of New York as greenhorns in Dreiser or Cather have before him, links with Eugene the townsman, in the San Fancisco of "Music From Spain." The city is the place where one pines or hides. This, the "country" verdict, is also enough the author's to suggest why, though both cities are brilliantly landscaped, neither Howard as murderer nor Eugene's hegira are more than formally affecting, perhaps because a city's surreality is seldom that opposite, that neat. Meanwhile, the Bronte-esque gothic of "Clytie" foreshadows all those Grand Guignol times when on home ground, Welty will make us believe everything.
In the hilarious "Petrified Man" we do, ensconced in a beauty parlor as in a Vermeer into which Mark Twain might be peering, while three-year-old Billy Boy, kissing cousin to little Uncle Bud sipping the three madams' beer in Faulkner's Sanctuary , listens to mysteries no man will penetrate. bIn the story "A Curtain of Green," the wonderful evoking of a known landscape in all its obscure or plain connections with that key Welty word, the "heart," now begins. Two later stories, "First Love," the story of a young boy in Natchez in 1807, and "A Still Moment", in which Audubon meets a visionary and an outlaw on the Old Natchez Trace, are written in the over-noble cadence that even worthy historical writers can fall into. Elsewhere Welty is a peerless naturalist working in an archaic present she has made her own. One might construct a variorum of her images, an almanac of her observations, or do it for one or other of these timeless poetically spry stories -- perhaps "Moon Lake." There is meanwhile an almost honor-bound abstention from the personal "I," except perhaps in "A Memory," that exact memoir of the unchildishness of the young. The "I" in "Kin" or in "Why I Live at the P.O." is a narrated "I," a way of telling.
Finally, still in the early work, we come to "Powerhouse," a jazz story from the home end of Van Vechten's Nigger Heaven . Here the North-style white cult of the Negro as "marvelous, frightening" is flicked. "When somebody, no matter who, gives everything, it makes people feel ashamed of him." If the South is a little proprietary about Powerhouse himself, it can be; it knows, in the phrase, where he lives. In "Keela, the Outcast Indian Maiden" and "A Worn Path," Welty is less overt than she will be later on. Negritude combines with the pitifulnesses of poverty and age, simpleness and crippledom, as in life -- though points are made. The artful individualism of the Negro is one. Old Plez, the "trustworthy nigger" of "Shower of Gold," who can be depended upon to know who the fine white folk are, Solomon, the old husband in "Livvie," are testimony to Negro respectability in the face of all, but also "country" and safe, in the era before Negroes became "blacks" either to whites or to themselves. They are reported with humor and care, as they were or seemed to be -- in the double civilization. Welty's vision is sweet by nature, always humanizing, uncannily objective, but never angry. What the Southerner understands best are parochial life and the powers of exaggeration and fantasy on both sides. One step away from the writers of the era, a freezing limitation may become clear: no one is ever expected to change place. But, the power of the picture in all its other elements is such that the reader does not take that step.
Any writer who jumps suddenly into the hot present does so at peril. "Where Is the Voice Coming From?," finished on the night Medgar Evers was shot, and edited for The New Yorker's next issue, is altogether broader, for all its two pages, than Welty has taught us to expect. "I thought with overwhelming directness: Whoever the murderer is, I know him: not his identity but his coming about, in this time and place," Welty notes. But by that time so did many, and long since. So too "The Demonstrators" (1966), though from a pen never inelegant or untrue, may seem retroactive as the only story in which a white is troubled about "place" In "The Burning," that masterly recreation of the Civil War, is that black Delilah in whom we do believe. "Why do you little niggers talk so much?" says Doc in "The Wide Net." "We always talks this much," says Sam, "but now everybody so quiet they hears us." Is more needed? All literature happened yesterday, or the day before. One has one's particular share of it. Southerners see themselves as legendary in the act of living; Welty embodies that, writing not from advocacy but from heritage. In her gallery, so moving, so tumbling with the hundreds of precise human gestures and enchanting images calling to be collected and cited aloud, so entertaining in the deepest sense, one hears that pure voice vocalizing behind the events. May readers swarm.