"The Southern story is all of our story, and that's important for students to keep in mind."
With her fellow Mississippian William Faulkner, Eudora Welty is considered one of the greatest of southern writers. But while Faulkner is recognized for his exploration of big questions associated with American culture, Welty has often been depicted as displaying "a wonderful ear for gossiping women's voices" in comedies called "demure" and "delightful." And despite being a primary voice in the decades immediately surrounding the civil rights movement, she has for too long been characterized as uninterested in race. Professor of English Harriet Pollack will have none of that.
Pollack thinks it's time to put aside the clichés so often bestowed on women writers, and take another look at Welty. "My effort has been to bring her to light as a writer who is bitingly satiric, a cultural critic," Pollack says. Pollack's latest book, Eudora Welty, Whiteness and Race, is a collection of essays by critics presenting a new interpretation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning author from Mississippi. Pollack argues that Welty's comic stories and novels, contrary to ignoring race, "have made the color line and white privilege visible, revealing lives lived in shared spaces but separated by social hierarchy and segregation."
Already at work on her next book project, Pollack is turning her attention to Welty's photography as well as her writing in The Body of the Other Woman in the Fiction and Photography of Eudora Welty. In it, Pollack again argues for a new interpretation of Welty's work, and in particular of her 1930's photographs, this time recognizing that they extended the representation of the black body, "innovating in a few startling ways that deserve much greater recognition," she says.
Racial issues are so prominent in Southern literature that it's easy for a reader to forget that the story of race, and more broadly, the story of difference, is told all over the country. "The Southern story is all of our story, and that's important for students to keep in mind," Pollack says. "We call the South the devil but the story we are talking about is the very American one."
As Pollack has guided her students through stories of racial difference, she has become fascinated with another way that people vary – the difference between readers reading. Writers try to control the meaning of their work, but as Welty herself observed, a writer may spend a year or more searching for just the right words, only to have them shade off into ideas in readers' minds, says Pollack.
"I'm interested in looking at the question of how readers read differently, of trying to figure out what is happening in one person or another as they read the printed word, the author's word, and then take it some place," she says. Pollack and her students explore these questions in a course titled Faulkner, Welty and the Reading Process.
Posted December 2012
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