Skip to main content

Eudora Welty

Book critic Maureen Corrigan has an appreciation of writer Eudora Welty who died earlier this week, and a review of Zigzagging Down a Wild Trail by Bobbie Ann Mason

05:32

Other segments from the episode on July 27, 2001

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, July 27, 2001: Interview with Mike Nichols; Commentary on Eudora Welty; Obituary for Eric Barnouw; Review of the film "Ghost world."

Transcript

DATE July 27, 2001 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Filler: By policy of WHYY, this information is restricted and has
been omitted from this transcript

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: Remembering Eudors Welty, and taking a look at Bobbie
Bobbie Ann Mason's "Zigzagging Down a Wild Trail"
PETER CLOWNEY, host:

Literary legend Eudora Welty died on Monday at the age of 92. Book critic
Maureen Corrigan has an appreciation and a look forward.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN reporting:

Eudora Welty belonged to that grand tradition of the demure lady writer with a
gimlet eye. It's a lineage that extends from Jane Austen through Emily
Dickinson and Harriet Beecher Stowe into the 20th century with, among others,
Agatha Christie, Barbara Pym, Anita Brookner and Welty, herself. By most
accounts, all these women were or are shy, deferential, wallflower types, but
on paper they're elegantly sarcastic, irreverent and strangely calm about
recording eruptions of evil that would make a strong man tremble.

Like Agatha Christie, in particular, Eudora Welty seems to have cultivated a
personal dullness so that the curious world would move on by and leave her
alone to write. But critics were always trying to pry into the sources of her
rueful, often dark, vision. For instance, a biography of Welty I reviewed a
few years ago dwelt a lot on her appearance. Welty was undeniably holy and
her male biographer made much of that fact, patronizingly speculating that
to be a plain girl in the Old South of Welty's youth was a tragedy that
forever marked her soul. Maybe, but being no beauty certainly didn't put a
crimp in the ego or sexual style of another Southern woman of roughly the
same generation, Lillian Hellman.

Another critic, the otherwise wonderful feminist literary scholar Carolyn
Heilbrun really ripped into Welty in her best-selling popular study of women's
biographies and autobiographies, "Writing a Woman's Life." Heilbrun thought
that Welty's 1984 autobiography, "One Writer's Beginnings," was dishonest
because it discreetly skated over what ever dysfunction or dirt existed in her
charmed Mississippi childhood. `Nostalgia,' pronounced Heilbrun,
`particularly for childhood, is likely to be a mask for unrecognized anger.'
For years I religiously quoted that sentence to my students in the women's
autobiography course I teach, and we all dutifully read Welty's bittersweet
memoir, which my students always loved, sifting through paragraphs for traces
of rage. We always came up empty.

And then one semester I threw out Heilbrun's criticism and just decided that
in some rare people, a sharp intelligence can co-exist with happiness and
placidity of character. Welty herself advised readers not to look for the
origins of her complex, unflappable literary vision in her life. In the last
sentence of "One Writer's Beginnings," she says, `I am a writer who came of a
sheltered life. A sheltered life can be a daring life as well, for all
serious daring starts from within.'

My favorite Welty story--and I by no means read them all--is the classic "Why
I Live at the P.O." That's the one where a hilariously narcissistic young
female narrator, who's the postmistress of a tiny Southern town, tries to
justify why she's moved out on her mean and madcap family. There's fodder for
a decade's worth of therapy compressed in the opening paragraph of that story
and I thought about reading it aloud here as a tribute to Welty's genius, but
I just don't have the right accent.

I know it's considered reductive to talk about Welty as a Southern writer
but, come on, the voice of Welty's marvelous stories is as rich as the
Mississippi mud. Native New Yorkers like me can only gratefully wallow in it
with our mouths shut.

When I heard the news that Eudora Welty died, I was deep into a new
short-story collection by one of Welty's inheritors, Bobbie Ann Mason, another
of the South's peculiar daughters. Mason's collection, "Zigzagging Down a
Wild Trail" is filled with funny and regretful stories about Southerners at
home and far away in London, Saudi Arabia, California. In addition to being
more far-flung, Mason's characters are raunchier than Welty's, but they often
share the same shrewd, skewed take on life. Mason's characters are mostly
just getting by, giving themselves the occasional kick with booze or bus trips
to the casino or stints in the National Guard.

In one of the most compelling stories, called "Tunica," a young woman named
Liz tries to cut all ties with her estranged husband, a drug dealer, but he's
just too seductive. Mason writes, `Liz's friends frequently instructed her on
what she ought to do, like file a restraining order against her husband; sign
up for kickboxing; join some support group or other. But Liz stubbornly
resisted. Everybody had an answer and a seven-step program. There were more
answers than questions anymore, she believed.' With white gloves on or off,
revelling in the questions, the sheer strangeness of all that is unknowable is
a pleasure the intrepid Welty and the impudent Mason both share. Keats would
have called it `negative capability.' Welty merely would have smiled.

CLOWNEY: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She
reviewed "Zigzagging Down a Wild Trail" by Bobbie Anne Mason.

Coming up, we remember broadcast historian Eric Barnouw. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Profile: Broadcast historian Eric Barnouw dies at age 93
PETER CLOWNEY, host:

Most students of broadcasting have learned about its past from a three-volume
history written by Eric Barnouw. Barnouw died last week at the age of 93.
Barnouw also edited the International Encyclopedia of Communications and he
founded the radio-television-film department at Columbia University.

Eric Barnouw was born in 1908, before the days of broadcasting. In 1996,
Terry Gross asked him to remember his first radio job. He was hired in 1931
by an advertising agency to produce a network radio show sponsored by the
agency's client, Camel cigarettes. The "Camel Quarter Hour" was broadcast on
CBS Radio Network from 7:45 Eastern time six nights a week.

(Soundbite from 1996 FRESH AIR interview)

Mr. ERIC BARNOUW: It was a 15-minute show and it began with Morton Downey
singing `Carolina moon, keep shining, shining on the one that waits for me.'
And that faded down, and then there was an announcement that this was the
"Camel Quarter Hour." And he was identified somewhere as the Camel minstrel.
And then he sang another number and then that was followed by the essential
part of the program, which was Tony Wons, who developed an enormous audience
reading poems at 9:00 in the morning. And he had become a kind of soul mate
to millions of women. They wrote him letters, and so on. And he--the whole
idea of the program was, `If we can get Tony against the same kind of lush
music to do a commercial about Camel cigarettes, it'll bring a lot of women
into the fold.' So this was our idea; to double the market by getting women to
smoke.

TERRY GROSS, host:

Do you remember what the songs to advertise Camel were like? Did he sing
jingles or were they more like romantic ballads about smoking cigarettes?

Mr. BARNOUW: Well, first of all it was sweet music, and then Tony Wons
always began his programs with `Are you listening?.' He spoke very quietly,
very close to the microphone. And he would read a poem in the middle of the
program, and then at the beginning and the end, over the same kind of music,
he would say things like this; that, `Cigarettes; they're as fresh as the dew
that dawn spills on a field of clover.' And, you know, the language was all
like that. And they had just come out with a cellophane-wrapped package,
which ensured freshness. And at that time, Lucky Strike had a program in
which the commercials were delivered by somebody who was referred to as
"Thundering" Thorgensen. He shouted at you. And this was thought to be a
good strategy against "Thundering" Thorgensen because of "Whispering" Tony
Wons.

GROSS: When you started working in radio, what did you like most about radio
and what did you think was the most unsatisfactory part about it? In other
words, what were some of the best and worst programs that you remember?

Mr. BARNOUW: I remember--one thing I remember is that I did not own a radio
and I had never thought of buying one, and after I was hired, I went and
bought one and listened to it all weekend so that I could come in on Monday
morning full of ideas. And so I had no worst or best programs in mind. I
just didn't listen to radio at all.

GROSS: What did you think of it when you started listening?

Mr. BARNOUW: I was intrigued and amazed by it. They--the agency
representative took me around to various programs that they represented. So
the very first program that I saw then--and I didn't criticize it as something
absurd, but it was Vess Reese(ph) and Artie Dunn, two people who sang cheek by
jowl at a tele--at a piano in close harmony. And their program began--let's
see now. Let's see, the Chiclets song, the Chiclets song.

(Singing) `When you're feeling kind of blue, when you wonder what to do, chew
Chiclets and cheer up. When you've lost your appetite, here's the way to set
it right. Chew Chiclets and cheer up. There's a sweet and minty flavor in
each handy yellow box.'

And at that point it would fade down for an announcer, who would step in and
say something else and then they would introduce the songs. And that was the
way that program went.

GROSS: In the early days of radio, was absolutely everything scripted? Say
you and I were having a little interview in the early 1930s, would our lines
be written for us?

Mr. BARNOUW: No, no. But this is what would happen. And I was asked--I was
interviewed over at NBC. And at this time I've forgotten the radio
interviewer's name, but the procedure was that I--the interview was done away
from the studio and a transcript was made and the whole thing was written.
You could not broadcast an interview live. That was the whole idea. And
then--so then we would get a script and it would be edited for policy to see
if there was anything wrong anybody had said that was terrible and
frightening, and so they were edited down. And then we came into a studio
and we read our interview. And that's the way all interviews were done up to
a certain time.

GROSS: Now that explains something. I, for instance, have some radio
transcriptions of George Gershwin on the air.

Mr. BARNOUW: Yeah.

GROSS: And it sounds like he's playing himself. It sounds like he's reading
the part George Gershwin. It sounds very scripted.

Mr. BARNOUW: Absolutely. Yeah, yeah. They were so afraid that somebody
would say something that would somehow change the course of history that they
were--for instance, there was an opera singer who was allowed to go on the
air, and the agency--the station had been warned against her because she does
surprising things. But she said she only wanted to read some nursery rhymes,
so they felt reassured and she did read some nursery rhymes. And one of them
was, `There was an old woman who lived in a shoe. She had so many children
because she didn't know what to do.' And this caused an absolute catastrophe
at the net--I mean, at the station. They had, you know--she was persona non
grata from then on. So that's the kind of thing that they were afraid of.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. BARNOUW: And the thing had been sold--before radio began to get so
commercial, it was sold as an enormous educational opportunity. I mean, the
rhetoric in the early '20s about what radio would do and how it would change
the world and how this was the opportunity for democracy to really prove
itself.

GROSS: Boy, does that sound familiar.

Mr. BARNOUW: Oh, yes.

GROSS: Every time a new medium comes along, we...

Mr. BARNOUW: Oh, yeah.

GROSS: ...we fool ourselves into thinking the same thing about how we will
become perfected.

Mr. BARNOUW: Yeah, the predictions of 1922--I think I call it the euphoria
of 1922 in the history book, I did--was just marvelous. There was even a
former secretary of the Navy who said, `Nobody is now afraid that the
Japanese will ever bomb our Pacific possessions because radio makes secrecy
impossible.'

GROSS: Wow. So tell me, every time you hear predictions about how cable
will change our lives digital or the Internet, the World Wide Web, do you go,
`Oh, sure. I've heard this before.'?

Mr. BARNOUW: I do. They don't even have to tell me something anymore.
Yes. Yes, I have a built-in resistance to it.

CLOWNEY: Eric Barnouw speaking with Terry Gross in 1996. He died last week
at the age of 93. Barnouw wrote the classic three-volume "History of
Broadcasting in the United States."

Coming up, a review of the film "Ghost World." This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: "Ghost World," one of the summer's best films
PETER CLOWNEY, host:

"Ghost World" is the first feature directed by Terry Zwigoff, whose
documentary, "Crum"(ph), was about the cartoonist Art Crum(ph). Zwigoff based
"Ghost World," a story about alienated teens, on the graphic novel by Daniel
Clowes. Zwigoff and Clowes co-wrote the screenplay. Film critic Henry
Sheehan has a review.

HENRY SHEEHAN:

"Ghost World" is one of the best films of this sorry, sorry summer, and like
its fellow independent "Our Song," it's about teen-age girls, although white
and middle-class, rather than black or Latina and poor. Teen-age girls are
great subjects for movies because they are simultaneously such mistresses of
social artifice and exponents of intimacy. Towards the world they adopt a
posture that modulates between indifference and ridicule, attitudes so
instinctively honed that they can destroy a male ego with a whisper and a
giggle. But alone together, behind a closed bedroom door, all pretense
towards cool is abandoned with an honesty before which teen-age boys can only
cower.

"Ghost World" is about a girl who gets those two poles of behavior all mixed
up. Terry Zwigoff's feature is based on a graphic novel series by Daniel
Clowes, and both men worked on the screenplay. Their heroine is played by
Thora Birch, the young actress from "American Beauty," who shows up here with
her devastating sulk perfectly preserved. Birch's Enid, along with her best
friend Rebecca, played by Scarlett Johansson, have just graduated from high
school as the two most angrily alienated kids in their class. At least Enid
believes she graduated. As it turns out, she has to take a summer art class
to get enough credits for her diploma.

This puts a crimp in the girls' plans to get jobs and share an apartment, but
Enid seems to have gotten cold feet about it anyway. She's always despised
conformity, and getting a job is too much like growing up, code for `selling
out.' For Rebecca, not getting a job is too much like copping out. The two
girls are drifting apart at just the moment they expected to be closest
together. Here, the two unknowingly experience that rift when Enid visits
Rebecca at her job at a chain coffe shop.

(Soundbite of "Ghost World")

Ms. THORA BIRCH: (As Enid) I'll have a decaf mocha to go.

Ms. SCARLETT JOHANSSON: (As Rebecca) Mm-hmm. One decaf mocha.

Unidentified Man: Decaf mocha.

Ms. JOHANSSON: (As Rebecca) Can I get you a bisco...

Ms. BIRCH: (As Enid) No, I do not want a biscotti with that.

Ms. JOHANSSON: (As Rebecca) God. Some people are OK, but mostly I just feel
like poisoning everybody.

Ms. BIRCH: (As Enid) Well, at least the wheelchair guy is entertaining.

Ms. JOHANSSON: (As Rebecca) He doesn't even need that wheelchair. He's just
totally lazy.

Ms. BIRCH: (As Enid) That rules.

Ms. JOHANSSON: (As Rebecca) No, it really doesn't. You'll see. You get
totally sick of all the creeps and the losers and weirdos.

Ms. BIRCH: (As Enid) But those are our people.

Ms. JOHANSSON: (As Rebecca) Yeah, well--so when you gonna get a job?

Ms. BIRCH: (As Enid) I'm working on it. Got a few leads. You know, don't
worry about it. I'll get a job next week.

SHEEHAN: Clowes and Zwigoff show unusual empathy for alienated teen-age girls
in general, and with their prize creation Enid in particular. A cartoonist
and the documenter of a cartoonist can't help projecting an idealized version
of themselves into the movie. Enid takes up a friendship with and comes close
to a strange romance with a middle-age record collector named Seymour. Played
by Steve Buscemi in one of the gifted actor's best performances, Seymour is an
Erich Fromm-like recluse who at first is the victim of one of Enid's cruel
practical jokes. But Enid finds Seymour's determination to go his own
eccentric way admirable, and soon she's gone from unknown tormenter to very
nearly a muse.

Zwigoff and Clowes haven't just projected themselves into the movie; they've
come up with a mirror figure, too, an art teacher played by Illeana Douglas,
who is for self-expression as long as the students' expression coincides with
hers. She seems to represent all that's miserably highfalutin to the two
cartoon lovers.

There are times when Enid threatens to morph from a human being into a
Pingpong ball, hurtling between Seymour and the teacher. But the filmmakers
manage to pull back from the programmatic brink. And Birch is such an
intractable embodiment of adolescent pain, resentment and hope that Enid has a
life that's as free from her creators as it turns out to be from her teacher.

CLOWNEY: Henry Sheehan is film critic for the Orange County Register.

(Credits)

CLOWNEY: For Terry Gross, I'm Peter Clowney.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?

Advertisement

Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR

42:29

Lee Isaac Chung Jotted Down Some Family Memories – They Became 'Minari'

Director Lee Isaac Chung's inspiration for Minari, his semi-autobiographical film about a Korean American father who moves his family to a farm in rural Arkansas, began with a list.

41:51

How Bellingcat's Online Sleuths Solve Global Crimes Using Open Source Info

Eliot Higgins is the founder of an online collective that picks apart conspiracy theories and investigates war crimes and hate crimes using clues from the Internet. His new book is We Are Bellingcat.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.

Playing

Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue