Welty’s ‘Tyrannous Eye’

Most people know of Eudora Welty as a fiction writer, the author of such works as the Pulitzer-Prize-winning “The Optimist’s Daughter.” But Welty considered a career as a photographer before she ever published a story, and wrote a large body of non-fiction – including essays, letters, and autobiography – after she made her name.

McHaney and Welty in 1990

McHaney and Welty in 1990

In a new book, “A Tyrannous Eye: Eudora Welty’s Nonfiction and Photographs,” Pearl McHaney, associate dean for fine arts and associate professor of English, considers these less-known aspects of Welty’s work. McHaney argues that they show the same aesthetic priorities as her better-known works of fiction.

“Welty believes in empathy with her reader,” McHaney said. “She is always very interested in the truth of feelings.”

Welty did not believe, however, in wrapping up loose ends – her work is full of dreams and memories, and often does more to provoke questions than to answer them, McHaney said.

Take, for example, one of Welty’s photographs, which shows an African-American man buying a ticket to the “Colored” section of a segregated movie theater in the mid-1930’s.


Other photographers took similar photos at the time, two of which are reprinted in “A Tyrannous Eye.” The other two photos are visibly ironic: one shows an entrance next to a movie poster that features white actors next to the title “Call of the Savage,”; the other shows an entrance next to a soft drink advertisement that reads in part “Good For Life!”

Welty’s photo, on the other hand, shoots straight into the entrance, which is shadowed and dark. We see a man buying a ticket, but we can’t see where he’s going.

“She’s not giving you answers,” McHaney said. “She’s giving you experience.”

McHaney has studied Eudora Welty for her entire career. She knew Welty (who died in 2001), and the author even asked McHaney to edit a collection of her book reviews, A Writer’s Eye. McHaney said that she never tires of her long-term relationship with Welty’s work, however.

“She’s an exceptional writer,” McHaney said. “I can read her time and time again and always discover something new – and that something new is always astonishing.”