An encouragement to a life of reading and writing
In 1963, Eudora Welty published a work of short fiction in the New Yorker, titled “Where is The Voice Coming From?” It concerned the killing of a black civil rights leader in Mississippi by a white Southerner. Notably, it was written from the point of view of the murderer, rather than from the point of view of the victim.
The story was almost undoubtedly inspired by the killing of Medgar Evers, a leader of the NAACP, in Jackson, Mississippi, by the Klansman Byron De La Beckwith. The murder and its aftermath later became the subject of the 1996 film Ghosts of Mississippi. When Welty was composing the story, the identity of the killer was not yet known to anyone. Welty was working entirely from her understanding of the people she lived among. In the preface to her Collected Stories, she wrote:
“That hot August night when Medgar Evers, the local civil rights leader, was shot down from behind in Jackson, I thought, with overwhelming directness: Whoever the murderer is, I know him: not his identity, but his coming about, in this time and place. That is, I ought to have learned by now, from here, what such a man, intent on such a deed, had going on in his mind. I wrote his story — my fiction — in the first person: about that character’s point of view, I felt, through my shock and revolt, I could make no mistake. The story pushed its way up through a long novel I was in the middle of writing, and was finished on the same night the shooting had taken place.”
Famously, after Byron De La Beckwith’s arrest, and before the story’s publication, Welty and her editors were forced to change many of the story’s details, because she had so precisely imagined the crime from the killer’s point of view that she had effectively predicted things that made the story read like reported nonfiction in light of the information the police investigation was revealing.
This is the kind of knowledge that the reading and writing of literature — of short stories, of poems, of essays, of letters — trains a person to learn to inhabit. There are at least two cultivated intelligences Eudora Welty was drawing upon when she tried to reconstruct the point of view of Evers’s killer. First, by years of reading, she had developed an extraordinary capacity for empathy, which is not a compassionate emotional response like sympathy, but which is, rather, an intelligent stretching out into an attempt at understanding what the interior life of another person must be like. What does the other want, need, and desire? What has been withheld from him or her? What is the sum total of his or her knowledge of the world? What preoccupations guide the special logic from which he or she makes crucial decisions? By reading literature, which privileges the subjective over the objective, and which privileges the exigencies of the individual over the metrics of science, the reader is able to simulate the experience of having lived many hundreds of individual lives not one’s own, an experience which destroys solipsism, or the idea that one’s perception of the world is what the world entirely is
The second intelligence was the intelligence of the writer, an intelligence that begins in reading and finally must manifest itself in writing. The reading creates in the writer the habits of mind that make possible a new sharpness of observation, and an ever-widening possibility of insight.
Welty was nearing the end of her career as a writer when she wrote “Where is The Voice Coming From?” It has become, arguably, her most important story. It is also, remarkably, one of her shortest. Reading it today, it seems effortless, but of course, it was the culmination of a lifetime of effort. This, perhaps, is the price of what can pass for prophecy in our time, and it is not a terribly exacting price. It is pleasurable to devote one’s life to reading and writing, and it is worthy.
Kyle Minor is a lecturer in the Department of English.
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