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Eudora Welty

When I bumped into my schoolteacher friend Laura over the summer, she mentioned that she was spending her time away from the classroom reading Eudora Welty — just for fun.

There’s no better reason to read Welty, who’s lauded for her greatness but who endures, I think, simply because she’s often such a pleasure on the page. Or so I discovered as a college freshman when we were assigned to read Welty’s short stories.

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She could be funny, perhaps sensing that one answer to the pettiness and casual bigotries of her time was to show how ridiculous they were. In this sour summer of national discontent, we need that kind of spirit more than ever.

Not that Welty was always or even usually a laugh riot. Her novels, short stories and essays could be wistful, too, or even sad, as life can be. One gets that sense in “Death of a Traveling Salesman,” a story that still moves me even though I’ve read it many times. But many of her sentences are so wonderful that even when they point to something tragic, they underline the basic beauty of being alive.

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I’ve just revisited a few lines of Welty that speak about what summer is like in this part of the world. Here, she describes a Southern evening: “The night insects all over the Delta were noisy; a kind of audible twinkling, like a lowly starlight, pervaded the night with a gregarious radiance.”

There’s an equally lovely Welty passage about another sound of summer: “Like thousands of silver bells the frogs rang her through the swamp, which then closed behind her.” She really has an ear for summer in this sentence, too: “The thing that seemed like silence must have been the endless cry of all the crickets and locusts in the world, rising and falling.”

Welty, who died in 2001 at 92, lived and worked in Jackson, Mississippi, but her career got a big boost in the summer of 1939 when she drove to Baton Rouge to visit novelist Katherine Anne Porter, who championed Welty. Welty had been so star-struck by Porter that it took her months to get up the courage for that drive to Louisiana.

In subsequent years, Welty, though scrupulously modest, would inspire that kind of awe in others. I surely felt that way when I sat with her for one of her last interviews on a hot summer day in 1994. She was a perceptive observer, and being the focus of such unblinking attention was a complicated experience.

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I thought about this recently as I read “Languages of Truth,” a new collection of novelist Salman Rushdie’s pieces about his writing life. He mentions meeting Welty in 1982, so exhilarated and flustered by the encounter that he could barely ask her an intelligent question.

Welty's gone now, and what she left are her books. What a bright gift to revisit them. I’m sure my friend Laura had a ball.

Email Danny Heitman at danny@dannyheitman.com.