Eudora Welty: an appreciative reviewer

September 12, 1994|By Tim Warren | Tim Warren,Sun Staff Writer

Eudora Welty is a gifted short story writer, but she is also an exceptional essayist and, as this book demonstrates, a superb book reviewer. In this collection of 67 reviews that Ms. Welty wrote over 42 years, she demonstrates uncommon intelligence and perception in a genre that often imposes severe limitations upon its practitioner.

Book reviewing may be viewed as the first line of literary criticism. Reviews are written when a book is published, and so reviewers have relatively little time to ponder the works before them. There is also the limitation of space. How can you adequately sum up, in 800 to 1,000 words, a book that may have taken up 10 years of an author's life? A literary critic, on the other hand, has the luxuries of time -- months, or even years -- and ample space.

By definition, then, book reviews are likely to be shallow, seizing upon only a few points. But the extraordinary achievement of Ms. Welty's reviews is, given the constraints of space and time, how well she gets to the essence of a book.

"I'm not a born critic, but I may be a born appreciator," Ms. Welty once told author Reynolds Price. That is readily apparent when one goes through these reviews. For she is a reader who knows exactly what she wants in a work, and when it is present, she can explain and put it into context in a most telling way.

Take the opening paragraph of her review of J. D. Salinger's "Nine Stories," written in 1953 for the New York Times Book Review (in which many of these reviews first appeared). It is a lovely first paragraph, full of praise, but at the same time, we understand completely why she is moved:

"J. D. Salinger's writing is original, first rate, serious and beautiful. Here are nine of his stories, and one further reason that they are so interesting, and so powerful seen all together, is that they are paradoxes. From the outside, they are often very funny; inside, they are about heartbreak, and convey it; they can do this because they are pure. . . ."

Or this, from her 1977 review of "Essays of E. B. White": "What joins all these essays together is the love held by the author for what is transitory in life. The transitory more and more becomes one with the beautiful. It is a love so deep that it includes, may well account for, the humor and the poetry and the melancholy and the dead accuracy filling the essays to the brim, the last respects and the celebrations together."

But "appreciate" does not mean cheerleading. In her 1974 review of Annie Dillard's "Pilgrim at Tinker Creek," she mostly praises the book but faults its self-absorption and its writing style. " . . . the author is given to changing style or shifting moods with disconcerting frequency and abruptness. 'Thanks. For the Memories.' 'This oft was thought, but ne'er so well expressed as by Pliny.' 'The cottage was Paradise enow.' You might be reading letters home from camp, where the moment before you might have thought you were deep into the Book of Leviticus."

One also is struck by the breadth of her interests. Among the authors reviewed here are E. B. White, William Faulkner, Elizabeth Bowen, S. J. Perelman, Colette, Isak Dineson, Virginia Woolf and Ross Macdonald.

As a reviewer, Ms. Welty is no snob: In the introduction to this collection, editor Pearl Amelia McHaney writes that she considered "first novels, best-sellers, southern novels, translations, short story volumes, collected stories, essays, histories, criticism, biographies, memoirs, travel books, journals and letters, photography, children's books and fairy tale collections, even a book on growing healthy house plants."

As exceptional as these reviews are, the book could have used more from Ms. Welty herself on how she sees reviewing. Ms. McHaney says she interviewed the author in preparation for writing the introduction, but rarely quotes her directly.

One does not get the same sense of context supplied in her 1978 collection of essays, "The Eye of the Story" (in which 16 of these reviews were also reprinted). "The Eye of the Story" contained several brilliantly considered chapters on such topics as writing fiction and the art of the short story, and "A Writer's Eye" would have been enhanced by similar observations on reviewing.

Still, "A Writer's Eye" is a remarkably strong collection. One notices not only how, so many decades later, Ms. Welty's evaluations were so on the mark, but also that she made her assessments with such vigor, clarity and grace. It is heartening that such a luminous writer should be a wise and loving reader as well.

Mr. Warren's reviews appear Mondays in The Sun.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "A Writer's Eye: Collected Book Reviews"

Author: Eudora Welty; edited by Pearl Amelia McHaney

Publisher: University Press of Mississippi

0$ Length, price: 280 pages, $27.50

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