W. Ralph Eubanks

Eudora Welty's Jackson: "The Help" in Context

In its first weekend, The Help grossed $2.5 million. But I recommend Eudora Welty's "Where Is the Voice Coming From?", featured in The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty to show the full picture of a racially charged decade.

When I went to see the movie The Help last weekend, I didn't want to like it. Yet in spite of its polished portrayal of the civil rights era, the film version of Kathryn Stockett's novel captures a window into the fear and suspicion that lurked between blacks and whites in 1960s Mississippi. Even with the film's Hollywood twists, I recognized on the screen the place where I grew up.

But the next morning, when the glossy celluloid vision of my home state had faded away, I longed for something that reminded me of what a truly dark time it was in Jackson. I found it in The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty: a short piece titled "Where Is the Voice Coming From?"

Critics and fans of The Help question whether a white woman in 1963, like the main character Skeeter Phelan, would be brave enough to rebel against the white establishment. But there were women like Skeeter, though they were few and far between. In the same year in which The Help is set, Eudora Welty wrote "Where Is the Voice Coming From?" bravely capturing the feelings that were in the air in Jackson that year. They were feelings unspoken by many at the time, just as they were missing on-screen in The Help.

Published in The New Yorker, "Where Is the Voice Coming From?" tells the story of the murder of civil rights activist Medgar Evers from the point of view of his assailant. Welty wrote the story the same night that she learned of Evers' murder. When she heard the news, it occurred to her that she knew what was going on in the mind of the man who pulled the trigger. She knew because she had lived all of her life where it happened.

"It was the strangest feeling of horror and compulsion all in one," Welty commented in an interview almost 10 years later. "I just meant by the title that whoever was speaking, I ó the writer ó knew, was in a position to know, what the murderer must be saying and why."

Along with her New Yorker editor William Maxwell, Welty edited the story many times. The result is a masterpiece of short fiction. Knowing a bit about the way that Evers' assailant, Byron De La Beckwith, stalked Evers, I still get a chill every time I read these words:

"And there was his light on, waiting for me. In his garage, if you please. His car's gone. He's out planning still some other ways to do what we tell 'em they can't. I thought I'd beat him home. All I had to do was pick my tree and walk in close behind it."

Eudora Welty believed that a novelist had a responsibility to bring alive both the mystery of humankind and the darkness. That's exactly what she does in this story: As you read the closing line, you know she has captured life in Mississippi as it existed then, as well as the prevailing cultural mindset. The Help does the same thing, but with few hints of darkness. Whether or not you liked The Help's optimistic tone, read "Where Is the Voice Coming From?" to fill in a piece of the story that's missing from the minute the credits begin to roll.

Selected Works

Books
A look at race and identity through three generations of one American Family
A gripping memoir of coming of age in Mississippi in the Civil Rights era.
Articles
Eudora Welty's "Where is the Voice Coming From?" helps show a full picture of Mississippi in 1963.
Four U.S. Poets Laureate have taught at the University of Michigan. The author shares his memories of three of them.
A look back at the joys of summer reading on an old bookmobile
Now is the time to reconsider a policy that must eventually change. But simply replacing race with class isnít the solution.
A look at the changing mind of the South
A Look at the Meaning of Racial Labels
A look at the significance of Martin Luther King's Letter from a Birmingham Jail
An analysis of the comments made by Trent Lott at Strom Thurmondís Birthday Party in 2002.
Essays
When a writer took a DNA ancestry test, his notions of ethnicity were turned upside down.
A Son Relishes Counsel That Comes in Dreams
Has Capitol Hill, barricaded and fenced off, lost its small-town appeal?
A summer trip to Mississippi provides the author and his children a look at Freedom Summer 1964
Fewer of us are reading, and our leaders may have scared even more people away from the pastime.
Reviews
A Review of Abraham Verghese's "Cutting for Stone"
A review of Scott Casper's "Sarah Johnson's Mount Vernon"
A Review of Richard Wright's A Father's Law
A review of Nathan McCall's "Them: A Novel
A Review of Doug Marlette's Magic Time