Uncommon Reading – Eudora Welty on Virginia Woolf on Hemingway

The manuscript book in which Woolf wrote "Mrs. Dalloway." Photo by the author.
The manuscript book in which Woolf wrote “Mrs. Dalloway.” Photo by the author.

One of the underrated pleasures of the internet is all the old stuff we can now read — goodies that 20 years ago you could read only by going to a major library and hunting. A few weeks back, someone or something pointed me to a sort of English major’s dream hiding within The New York Times of 21 September 1958:  Eudora Welty reviewing Virginia Woolf reviewing other books. We get to see one highly original and lively mind peeking into the workings of another as that other peers into yet others.  The entire short piece is a pleasure, but let me call out three choice bits here:

1.  Welty on Woolf on Hemingway. Lord above. In the mid-1920s, Woolf reviewed Hemingway’s first book, “Men Without Women,” his second story collection. This was before it had become dead-clear that Hemingway, like Woolf, would profoundly change 20th-century fiction. And here Welty is hysterical:

Of course, an editor who sent out a new book called “Men Without Women” to Virginia Woolf knew what he was doing. The New York Herald Tribune received a very farsighted review. (The title she decided merely “to stare out of countenance.”) She thought Hemingway’s characters talked too much, but she would, “if life were longer,” care to read the stories again. Hemingway “lets his dexterity, like the bullfighter’s cloak, get between him and the fact…. But the true writer stands close up to the bull and lets the horns – call them life, truth, reality, whatever you like – pass him close each time.”

I like the bit about Hemingway’s dexterity getting in the way. He might have said similar about Woolf, which would have made both of them wrong, since the veil they cast between us and the material is part of their magic: like one of those Instagram filters that actually makes everything more intense.

2. Welty on Woolf’s basic and rich gift:

In the early pieces there are no early sentences…. She scatters treasure everywhere she reads. “The novelist [of all those practicing the arts] … is terribly exposed to life …. He can no more cease to receive impressions than a fish in mid-ocean can cease to let the water run through his gills.”

Which is Woolf herself, of course. Which gets me to

3.  Woolf’s sensitivity, which is of special interest to me as I write my book on temperament and human sensitivity to experience:

What a beautiful mind! That was the thing. Lucid, passionate, independent, acute, proudly and incessantly nourished, eccentric for honorable reasons, sensitive or every reason, it has marked us forever. Hers was a sensitivity beside which a Geiger counter is a child’s toy made of a couple of tin cans and a rather common piece of string. Allow it its blind spots, for it could detect pure gold. It could detect purity. In the presence of poetic fire it sent out showers of sparks of its own. It was a mind like some marvelous enchanter’s instrument that her beloved Elizabethans might have got rumor of and written poems about.

Get the rest at the Times: Uncommon Reader.

Also: The Quiet Greatness of Eudora Welty, a fine page at the National Endownment of the Humanities

Elsewhere at Neuron Culture:

Virginia Woolf Was a Plant Sensitive and Tough

The Agony of Editing Virginia Woolf’s Early Journals

How To Pick Apart Great Writing: Joan Didion on Ernest Hemingway