Eudora Welty, Whiteness, and Race
Edited by Harriet Pollack, University of Georgia Press
Reviewed by Patrick Osborne
Over the last few decades, literary critics have struggled to interpret Eudora Welty’s treatment of race in her collected works and, for the most part, speculate that she was either blind or ambivalent to racism during her lifetime. Harriet Pollack’s Eudora Welty, Whiteness, and Race is a cogent collection of essays that strives to counter previous approaches to Welty scholarship by elucidating her attitude concerning racial issues in both her literature and photography. The authors conclude that, contrary to past scholarship, Welty was indeed concerned with issues of race and that much of her work aims to make the color line visible to her audience. Furthermore, they suggest Welty’s awareness of her own whiteness acts as a focal point for her perceptions of race in America. Eudora Welty, Whiteness, and Race makes a strong contribution to Welty scholarship and provides a number of invigorating readings that challenge and amend previous assumptions concerning race in Welty’s body of work.
Employing several interdisciplinary approaches to Welty’s collected works, the twelve essays in Eudora Welty, Whiteness, and Race begin with an examination of Welty’s biography, subsequently delineate her attitude towards the civil rights movement, and conclude with several analyses of her African American characters. Suzanne Marrs opens the collection with an interesting anecdote about her own struggle to understand her friend’s attitude towards race after reading several letters in Welty’s home that contained racial slurs. Marrs implores that Welty’s use of racial slurs in her correspondences was ironic, and provides a compelling history of Welty’s involvement in racial politics following WWII. Susan V. Donaldson argues that Welty’s work, much like that of Richard Wright, penetrates, satirizes, and subverts racial inequality by challenging the white gaze. Keri Watson interprets Welty’s photograph, Making a Date, Grenada, Mississippi, as a cultural artifact that records the African American experience in Mississippi during 1930. She demonstrates that the photograph constructs various meanings throughout history that ultimately challenges society’s understanding of race relations. Mea Miller Claxton analyzes imagery of stores and markets in Welty’s literature and photography, and suggests that she employed the images to critique the Jim Crow South by illustrating places where discrimination was commonplace.
In the continually festering rift in fiction between the high and the low, there is often an insistence that the issue of mixing the two has been talked to death—that we are Over It Already, and Really, We’re Fine With It Now. As fully-functioning, multimodal consumers of modern culture, we might insist, we are past drawing a line between literary and genre fiction—between the kinds of writing we are allowed to say we like, and the kinds we’re only allowed to say we like if we also say we know we shouldn’t.
Several essays in Eudora Welty, Whiteness, and Race evoke Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark to interpret Welty’s representations of African American characters in her collected works. David McWhirter, for example, argues Welty’s work is prolific in its use of African American characters and, rather than simply serving as symbols, calls the audience’s attention to the structure of black and white relations in Southern Mississippi. Sarah Ford suggests Welty’s African American characters provide her literature comical social commentary that critiques white hegemony. Jean C. Grittith elucidates the manner Welty’s literature features black and white men in violent encounters that produce a peculiar intimacy, and Donnie McMahand unravels Welty’s employment of black bodies to demonstrate the character’s battle for agency and rebellion against the white gaze. Patricia Yeager examines Delilah’s lack of possession of material objects in Welty’s “The Burning” as a symbol system that challenges social stratification. Rebecca Mark argues that critics have been misreading “The Demonstrators” as a detective story, and subsequently amends previous readings by suggesting that, rather than committing a double murder, the African American community performs a political drama that metaphorically questions racial inequality. Julia Eichelberger concludes the collection by reiterating the primary aim of Eudora Welty, Whiteness, and Race. She illustrates how Welty’s attitude towards race shifted throughout her lifetime, and contends that her treatment of race was indeed progressive rather than non-existent or ambivalent.
The twelve essays presented in Eudora Welty, Whiteness, and Race should benefit any scholar desiring to better understand Welty’s stance on race relations. The collection greatly contributes to criticism concerning Welty, and, in many cases, fills significant gaps in previous scholarship that neglect her treatment of race.
Harriet Pollack, Professor (Ph.D. University of Virginia), is currently writing about and teaching courses that consider the body in Southern Literature and photography in the contexts of Southern history and cultural trauma. She recently edited Eudora Welty,
Whiteness, and Race, and with Christopher Metress, Emmet Till in Literary Memory and Imagination, a book about the racial murder that began the civil rights movement.
Patrick Osborne is a PhD student in Literature. He received his B.A. in English from the University of Georgia and completed his M.A. at Georgia State University. His research interests include Nineteenth-Century British literature and popular culture. Much of his recent scholarship examines literary texts using theories pertinent to the field of criminology. His article, “Evaluating the Presence of Social Strain in Rockstar Games’ Grand Theft Auto IV,” was recently published in Studies in Popular Culture and his “Breaking Contract/Keeping Covenant: Rediscovering God’s Grace in George Lillo’s The London Merchant” appears in Literature and Belief.