Eudora Welty's 1965 essay "Must the Novelist Crusade?" contains lessons for the current political landscape.
Welty wrote her meditation when her native Mississippi was under attack in the national media for its resistance to civil rights for blacks.
In response to a critic who said that Faulkner's books had lost their moral authority because of his state's violent reaction to integration, Welty defended Faulkner's work as having enduring value because it examines the eternal conflicts of the human personality.
She avowed in the Atlantic magazine piece that Faulkner and other fiction writers have the duty to go beyond topical political and social issues to examine the timeless realities of the human heart.
"Where Is the Voice Coming From?"
Welty showed how a wrenching public event, the assassination of civil rights worker Medgar Evers by Byron de La Beckwith, can be transformed into enduring fiction with her New Yorker short story "Where Is the Voice Coming From?"
I reread Welty's "Must the Novelist Crusade?" in connection with 400 American writers signing an open letter opposing Donald Trump's presidential campaign, as noted in Wednesday's Southern Bookman. Welty's essay doesn't explicitly discount such actions.
Her defense of the writer's personal vision over the demands of the public arena is concerned with the novelist's purpose in writing. She says that the novelist must reflect the complexity of the human condition, not seek to advocate for a political or social agenda. Such advocacy corrupts the novelist's voice and his duty to reflect the complex truth of existence.
Welty's examination of the South's perception of national hatred offers deep insight into Trump's appeal. Trump's support among the white working class in the South and elsewhere shows the persistent power of the resentment Welty discusses.
Insights into Trump's appeal
A passage in which Welty distinguishes the voice of the novelist from that of the crusader defines the Trump phenomenon with uncanny accuracy:
"There is still to mention what I think will give us, as the crusader-novelist, the hardest time: our voice will not be our own. The crusader's voice is the voice of the crowd and must rise louder all the time, for there is, of course, the other side to be drowned out. Worse, the voices of most crowds sound alike. Worse still, the voice that seeks to do other than communicate when it makes a noise has something brutal about it; it is no longer using words as words but as something to brandish, with which to threaten, brag or condemn. The noise is the simple assertion of self, the great, mindless, general self. And for all its volume it is ephemeral. Only meaning lasts. Nothing was ever learned in a crowd, from a crowd, or by addressing or trying to please a crowd. Even to deplore, yelling is out of place. To deplore a thing as hideous as the murder of the three civil rights workers demands the quiet in which to absorb it. Enormities can be lessened, cheapened, just as good and delicate things can be. We can and will cheapen all feeling by letting it go savage or parading in it."
Many of the novelists and poets who signed the open letter would agree with Welty's defense of art's enduring relevance. They would also say that the writer has a duty to publicly express political convictions.
Whether the letter has any long-term effectiveness is doubtful; Trump and his supporters would disparage the writers as elitists. Most of their readers likely already oppose Trump and his reckless invective and spewing of sensational lies.
Welty in her essay defends the permanent value of art over the transitory clamor of political and social campaigns. I don't believe that Welty dismisses nonfiction essays meant to influence public opinion or express a personal point of view such as those written by Montaigne, Milton, Addison and Steele, Samuel Johnson, Lincoln and countless others.
"Must the Novelist Crusade" contains assertions that should be examined, questioned and disputed.
Its rhetorical force and moral seriousness make it essential reading for new generations.