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Television Reviews : Eudora Welty Seen on PBS Through England’s Eyes

It happens too often to be a fluke.

For reasons no council of sages could ever fathom, foreigners consistently display a surer fix on American culture than Americans do. The French see something in Jerry Lewis that passes right by most of Lewis’ compatriots. The country with the biggest jazz following is Japan. The list goes on.

So it’s no surprise that it took England’s “Omnibus” series on the BBC and director-producer Patchy Wheatley to bring us a sublime portrait of one of America’s great fiction writers. Wheatley’s “Eudora Welty--One Writer’s Beginnings” is the newest edition of the on-going PBS series “The American Experience” (Channels 15 and 28, 9 p.m.).

If the best thing that television can do is compel viewers to read about what they just saw, then this meticulously constructed portrait is television at its best. Wheatley used Welty’s 1984 autobiography, “One Writer’s Beginnings,” as the basis for this exploration into the writer’s mind, guided largely by Welty herself (with brief narration snippets by Charles Kuralt).

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Welty, now 79, still lives in her rambling family home in Jackson, Miss.; so completely has she managed to keep intact the threads to her past that her writing room is where she slept as a child. Though she cautions against the perennial trap of reading the author’s life into the stories, it becomes clear how completely her sense of place in the Deep South formed the basis for the observant, sensual and gentle voice she adopted for her dozens of short stories and three novels.

Two other keys to the making of this modest Southern genius emerge as well: Welty’s nurturing parents, who regarded reading and learning as being as essential as breathing; and memory of the sights, sounds and smells of the past. Wheatley superbly finds a cinematic interpretation for this by interweaving old black-and-white footage and photos (shot by Welty and her father) into the new color footage.

Again and again, the film finds the ideal accompanying images for Welty’s brief recitations of short stories that suggest the power and range of the storyteller’s passion to blend memory and imagination.


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