‘Death Of A Traveling Salesman’ by Eudora Welty

Welty, Eudora 1936

Death Of A Traveling Salesman by Eudora Welty, 1936

The magic trick:

Mixing in beautiful sentences with other more conversational writing

This is the first story Eudora Welty published professionally. Remarkable. What a debut. Many, many magic tricks here. I’ll focus on her interesting blend of sentence types throughout the piece.

Welty is all over the map sentence to sentence. Consider this opening trifecta:

  1. R.J. Bowman, who for fourteen years had traveled for a shoe company through Mississippi, drove his Ford along a rutted dirt path. Basic, explanatory, setting up the facts.
  2. It was a long day! Taking the point of view of Bowman suddenly. Almost playful in tone.
  3. The time did not seem to clear the noon hurdle and settle into soft afternoon. Further describing his thoughts and feelings but doing so now with a much more poetic turn.

I love it. Some may argue it’s the sign of a young author not totally in control of her own voice, but I either disagree or don’t care. I suspect it’s a versatility of tone that is very much on purpose. And if it’s not, then let’s call it a happy accident.

Welty goes on telling the story, describing situations matter of factly and then – boom – out of nowhere she just hits you with a beautiful sentence. Lovely metaphors. Superb similes. Let’s see, I’ll pull out a couple more examples from the text.

  • Like a rocket set off, it began to leap and expand into uneven patterns of beats which showered into his brain, and he could not think.
  • There was effort even in the way he was looking, as if he could throw his sight out like a rope.

Mixed in with the story’s more pragmatic sentences, these gems shine all the more. One of the effects is the creation of a world that is not quite real. All the events are shrouded in a kind of warm doom – not ominous exactly but fatalistic to be sure. And that’s quite a trick on Welty’s part.

The selection:

This time, when his heart leapt, something – his soul – seemed to leap too, like a little colt invited out of a pen. He stared at the woman while the frantic nimbleness of his feeling made his head sway. He could not move; there was nothing he could do, unless perhaps he might embrace this woman who sat there growing old and shapeless before him.

But he wanted to leap up, to say to her, I have been sick and I found out then, only then, how lonely I am. Is it too late? My heart puts up a struggle inside me, and you may have heard it, protesting against emptiness. . . . It should be full, he would rush on to tell her, thinking of his heart now as a deep lake, it should be holding love like other hearts. It should be flooded with love. There would be a warm spring day. . . . Come and stand in my heart, whoever you are, and a whole river would cover your feet and rise higher and take your knees in whirlpools, and draw you down to itself, your whole body, your heart too.

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