Full disclosure: I don’t really like Eudora Welty’s writing. When it comes to Southern lit, I mostly prefer Faulkner’s wild-eyed rednecks or Flannery O’Connor’s fragile weirdos. And I especially dig the rough south characters of Larry Brown and Harry Crews. But, objectively speaking, I recognize the beauty of Welty’s fiction and her picture-perfect depictions of the upstanding citizens who populate the rural hamlets of her stories and novels.
Welty’s books remind me of my mother and my grandmothers, all of whom lived in Jackson, Mississippi, and all of whom love their flower gardens. I’m no kind of gardener, but I try to keep a few pots in my courtyard with a few of my favorite flowers, and I feel enough of an obligation to and affection toward the women in my life to keep those plants alive. Maybe that’s why, even though I’m not crazy about Welty’s books, I still find myself gravitating toward her as a person. She and her characters are familiar to me in a way that the Bundrens, the Compsons, and the Sutpens are not.
My favorite Welty novel, the one work that I really love, is The Optimist’s Daughter. It’s a late novel, and it’s Welty most personal work of fiction. It’s widely accepted that Laurel, the daughter in the book’s title, is a stand-in for Welty, and Laurel’s struggles to come to terms with the death of her parents comes from Welty’s own family life.
The first time I read the book, it was a minor detail in the first few pages that reeled me in. Judge McKelva, the titular optimist, is explaining to his doctor a recent problem with his eye.
“I date this little disturbance from George Washington’s Birthday,” Judge McKelva said.
“Because George Washington’s Birthday is the time-honored day to prune roses back home,” said the Doctor’s amicable voice.
It’s an odd detail, but I knew where Welty was going. It was something I picked up from my grandmother. I don’t remember exactly where or when I learned it, but it’s one of those rules that was ingrained in me early, like always holding the door open for ladies at church, or not using your fingers to eat anything that doesn’t have a bone. These days, I don’t have any roses to prune and my table manners are atrocious, but I do regularly trip over myself in an awkward rush to open doors for ladies. Some things you can’t unlearn.
Toward the end of the The Optimist’s Daughter, Laurel returns to the family home in Mount Salus, Mississippi, before flying back to her new home in Chicago. She sits in her late mother’s garden as she mourns the passing of her father. She’s surrounded by her mother’s friends, town gossips all, and she idly weeds the garden as they chatter. The scene lasts a whole chapter, and if you ever visit the garden at the Eudora Welty House, it’s like stepping right into the book.
“Once you leave after this, you’ll always come back as a visitor,” Mrs. Pease warned Laurel. “Feel free, of course--but it was always my opinion that people don’t really want visitors.”