This Week’s Column:


by Dennis Loy Johnson

July 30, 2001 — I know now that I was lucky to see Eudora Welty give a reading, but I have to admit that at first I wasn't aware of my good fortune.

I was discomfitted by the fact that I was sitting on the floor, for one thing. I'd learned about the reading only when I'd shown up for my Boston University writing class and the teacher, Jayne Anne Phillips, said, "Go to Harvard."

"I tried but they wouldn't have me," I said.

"Eudora Welty is reading. Go," she said, leaving herself.

But by the time I got there the ridiculously small room that fabled institution had reserved for so esteemed a writer was overflowing and all that was left was the space on the floor in front of the lecturn.

So I sat at Eudora Welty's feet and looked up. She was taller than you might expect, but she was still a little old lady, even then, then being twenty years ago. She wore a little old lady dress, she had a little old lady hair style, and she had thick little old lady ankles that made it look as if her stockings were drooping.

She read like a little old lady, too — in a deliciously thick drawl, yes, but slowly, quietly, in a steady tone of voice, licking her fingers to turn the pages. I was further discomfitted to learn it wasn't a reading, it was a lecture — something on the topic of "Learning to see," Welty announced. My experience with lectures, except for one by Mel Blanc, the man who did the voice of Bugs Bunny, was not good at that point in my life.

In any event, Welty commenced describing a long car trip with her parents she made as a little girl. It seemed to be mostly observations and quirky Southern dialogue. "My mother was the navigator," Welty said. "Our road always became her adversary. 'This doesn't surprise me at all,' she'd say as Daddy backed up a mile or so into our own dust on a road that had petered out. 'I could've told you that a road that looked like that had no intention of going anywhere.'"

I waited but Welty never quite turned it into a lecture — never injected any sense of instruction as to why she was telling us this stuff. But it didn't seem exactly a story, either. I found myself collecting the odd details ("My mother's hat rode in back with the children, suspended over our heads in a pillowcase"), my mind wandering to my own experience of family car trips . . .

And then it seemed Welty was talking about other trips — her family got to where they were going, which was the home of her mother's family, which prompted tales of various individuals and still other visits, in a shifting chronology — Welty imagined her father courting her mother at her grandparents' house, and recalled finding, after his death, a memento of his own childhood home.

By the time she was wrapping things up, my mind was crowded with her details, which had mixed with my details. As Welty succinctly limned some lessons she'd retained from the visits — lessons of kinship and individuality amongst others, and lessons about the importance of place — I was considering what I'd gleaned from my own family's trips. But I was also missing the big payoff I'd been waiting for, be it lecture or story.

And then it came — quickly and at the end, the way it often does in a short story: "The events in our lives happen in a sequence in time," Welty said, "but in their significance to ourselves they find their own order, a timetable not necessarily — perhaps not possibly — chronological. The time as we know it subjectively is often the chronology that stories and novels follow: it is the continuous thread of revelation."

It made everything she'd said before that instantly coalesce into meaningfulness. Stories, I realized, don't just work on us by the pow, pow, pow of a plot. They're rooted in a character undergoing revelation, and the patience to listen, like the patience to see, can lead to the reader's own revelations.

Welty eventually published that lecture in a book called "One Writer's Beginnings," and so I've had opportunity to revisit the way her writing itself is a continuous thread of revelation.

And in that way, she lives on, sweetly, and I continue to sit at her feet, looking up.

Last Week’s Column: THE FACT AND FICTION OF BESTSELLER LISTS How bestseller lists are compiled is a mystery, and everybody seems to have their own method. But a new way based on sales figures from the major chains is shaking up the book business.


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