Welty, Eudora 1909–2001

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Welty, Eudora 1909–2001

(Michael Ravenna, Eudora Alice Welty)

PERSONAL: Born April 13, 1909, in Jackson, MS; died of pneumonia, July 23, 2001, in Jackson, MS; daughter of Christian Webb (an insurance company president) and Chestina (Andrews) Welty. Education: Attended Mississippi State College for Women (now Mississippi University for Women), 1926–27; University of Wisconsin, B.A., 1929; attended Columbia University Graduate School of Business, 1930–31.

CAREER: Worked for newspapers and radio stations in Mississippi during early depression years, and as a publicity agent for the state office of the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Was briefly a member of the New York Times Book Review staff, in New York, NY. Honorary consultant in American letters, Library of Congress, beginning 1958.

MEMBER: American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.

AWARDS, HONORS: Guggenheim fellowship, 1942; O. Henry Award, 1942, 1943, 1968; National Institute of Arts and Letters, 1944, grant in literature, 1972, Gold Medal for fiction writing; William Dean Howells Medal from American Academy of Arts and Letters, 1955, for The Ponder Heart; Creative Arts Medal for fiction, Brandeis University, 1966; Edward MacDowell Medal, 1970; National Book Award nomination in fiction, 1971, for Losing Battles; Christopher Book Award, 1972, for One Time, One Place: Mississippi in the Depression; A Snapshot; National Institute of Arts and Letters Gold Medal, 1972; Pulitzer Prize in fiction, 1973, for The Optimist's Daughter; National Medal for Literature, 1980; The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty was named an American Library Association notable book for 1980; Presidential Medal of Freedom, 1980; American Book Award, 1981, for The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty, 1984, for One Writer's Beginnings; Common Wealth Award for Distinguished Service in Literature from Modern Language Association of America, 1984; National Book Critics Circle Award and Los Angeles Times Book Prize nominations, both 1984, for One Writer's Beginnings; Reader of the Year Award from Mystery Writers of America, 1985; National Medal of Arts, 1987; Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, 1987; National Book Foundation Medal, 1991; Helmerich Distinguished Author Award and Cleanth Brooks Letters (France), 1991; Frankel Prize, National Endowment for the Humanities, 1992; PEN/Malamud Award for excellence in the short story, 1993; inducted into National Women's Hall of Fame, 2000. D. Litt. from University of North Carolina, University of the South, Washington University, Smith College, University of Wisconsin, Western College for Women, Millsaps College, Yale University, Harvard University, and University of Dijon (France).


A Curtain of Green (short stories), with a preface by Katherine Anne Porter, Doubleday (Garden City, NY), 1941, published as A Curtain of Green, and Other Stories, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1964.

The Robber Bridegroom (novella), Doubleday (New York, NY), 1942.

The Wide Net, and Other Stories, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1943.

Delta Wedding (novel), Harcourt (New York, NY), 1946.

Music from Spain, Levee Press (Greenville, MS), 1948.

Short Stories (address delivered at University of Washington), Harcourt (New York, NY), 1949.

The Golden Apples (connected stories), Harcourt (New York, NY), 1949.

Selected Stories (contains all of the short stories in A Curtain of Green, and The Wide Net, and Other Stories), introduction by Katherine Anne Porter, Modern Library (New York, NY), 1953.

The Ponder Heart (novel), Harcourt (New York, NY), 1954.

The Bride of Innisfallen, and Other Stories, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1955.

Place in Fiction (lectures for Conference on American Studies in Cambridge, England), House of Books (New York, NY), 1957.

John Rood (catalog of sculpture exhibition), (New York, NY), 1958.

Three Papers on Fiction (addresses), Smith College (Northampton, MA), 1962.

The Shoe Bird (juvenile), Harcourt (New York, NY), 1964.

Thirteen Stories, edited and introduction by Ruth M. Vande Kieft, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1965.

A Sweet Devouring (nonfiction), Albondocani Press (New York, NY), 1969.

Losing Battles (novel), Random House (New York, NY), 1970.

A Flock of Guinea Hens Seen from a Car (poem), Albondocani Press (New York, NY), 1970.

One Time, One Place: Mississippi in the Depression; A Snapshot Album, illustrated with photographs by Welty, Random House (New York, NY), 1971, revised edition, University Press of Mississippi (Jackson, MS), 1996.

The Optimist's Daughter (novelette), Random House (New York, NY), 1972.

The Eye of the Story (selected essays and reviews), Random House (New York, NY), 1978.

Miracles of Perception, The Library (Charlottesville, VA), 1980.

The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1980.

One Writer's Beginnings (lectures; includes Beginnings), Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 1984.

Morgana: Two Stories from "The Golden Apples," University Press of Mississippi (Jackson, MS), 1988.

Photographs, University Press of Mississippi (Jackson, MS), 1989.

Eudora Welty's "The Hitch-hikers," edited by Larry Ketron, Dramatists Play Service (New York, NY), 1990.

(Editor, with Ronald A. Sharp) The Norton Book of Friendship, Norton (New York, NY), 1991.

A Worn Path, Creative Education (Mankato, MN), 1991.

(Author of text) Beginnings: For Solo Voice and Piano or Chamber Orchestra (score), music by Luigi Zaninelli, Shawnee Press (Delaware Gap, PA), 1992.

A Writer's Eye: Collected Book Reviews, edited by Pearl A. McHaney, University Press of Mississippi (Jackson, MS), 1994.

Stories, Essays, and Memoir, Library of America (New York, NY), 1998.

Complete Novels, Library of America (New York, NY), 1998.

The First Story, University Press of Mississippi (Jackson, MS), 1999.

(Contributor and photographer) Country Churchyards, University Press of Mississippi (Jackson, MS), 2000.

On Writing, Modern Library (New York, NY), 2002.

Contributor to Southern Review, Atlantic, Harper's Bazaar, Manuscript, New Yorker, and other periodicals. Also contributor of articles under pseudonym, Michael Ravenna, to New York Times Book Review. Author of introduction of Novel-Writing in an Apocalyptic Time, by Walker Percy, Faust, 1986; The Democratic Forest, by William Eggleston, Doubleday, 1989; and The Capers Papers, by Charlotte Capers, University Press of Mississippi, 1992.

ADAPTATIONS: The Ponder Heart was adapted for the stage and first produced on Broadway in 1956, and was adapted as an opera bouffe and produced in 1982; The Robber Bridegroom was adapted for the stage as a musical and first produced in 1978; "The Hitch-hikers" was adapted for the stage in 1986; "Lily Daw and the Three Ladies" was adapted for the stage.

SIDELIGHTS: With the publication of The Eye of the Story and The Collected Stories, Eudora Welty achieved the recognition she has long deserved as an important contemporary American fiction writer. Her position was confirmed in 1984 when her autobiographical One Writer's Beginnings made the best-seller lists with sales exceeding 100,000 copies. During the early decades of her career, she was respected by fellow writers but often dismissed by critics as a regionalist, a miniaturist, or an oversensitive "feminine" writer. The late 1970s and 1980s, however, saw a critical reevaluation of her work. Michael Kreyling affirmed in Eudora Welty's Achievement of Order that the value of her work is not that it is "primarily regional writing, or even excellent regional writing, but [that it conveys] the vision of a certain artist who must be considered with her peers—[Virginia] Woolf, [Elizabeth] Bowen, and [E. M.] Forster."

Marked by a subtle, lyrical narrative state, Welty's work typically explores the intricacies of the interior life and the small heroisms of ordinary people. In an article appearing in Eudora Welty: Critical Essays, Chester E. Eisinger described the writer's unique combination of realistic and modernist traditions: "Her work reflects the careful disorder of Chekhovian fiction and the accurate yet spontaneous rendering of detail that belonged to [Anton Chekhov's] slice of life technique. It reflects the modernism,… that characterized Woolf's fiction: The door she opened for Welty, she herself had passed through with [James] Joyce, [Franz] Kafka, [Marcel] Proust, [Robert] Musil, and the other twentieth-century makers of experimental, avant-garde fiction."

Raised in a close-knit bookish family, Welty and her two brothers had a happy childhood. Welty's education in the Jackson schools was followed by two years at Mississippi State College for Women between 1925 and 1927, and then by two more years at the University of Wisconsin and a B.A. in 1929. Her father, who believed that she could never earn a living by writing stories, encouraged her to study advertising at the Columbia University Graduate School of Business in New York during 1930–1931.

Welty returned to Jackson, Mississippi, in 1931 after her father's sudden death. To support herself, Welty first tried various small jobs with local newspapers and with radio station WJDX, which her father had started in the tower of his insurance building. Then, in 1933, she was offered a position as a publicity agent for the Works Progress Administration (WPA). "I did reporting, interviewing," she explained to Jean Todd Freeman in an interview collected in Conversations with Eudora Welty. "It took me all over Mississippi, which is the most important thing to me, because I'd never seen it…. [The experience] was the real germ of my wanting to become a real writer, a true writer." It was at this time that Welty learned the art of seeing and capturing significant moments in the lives of ordinary people. She took hundreds of photographs of Mississippians of all social classes, capturing them at work and at leisure with their friends and families. In 1989, the majority of these photographs, along with an interview with the author and a foreword by Reynolds Price, were published as Photographs. Stuart Wright, writing in Sewanee Review, noted that Welty's photographs were indeed "the work of an amateur," but added that the photographs "have immense charm and naturalness attests to the honesty behind her motives and passion."

Welty's job gave her a first-hand look at the Depression-struck lives of rural and small-town people in a state that had always been the poorest in the nation. She captured their struggles and triumphs in stories, beginning with "Death of a Traveling Salesman," which was published in the literary magazine Manuscript in 1936. Other stories followed during the next five years, including some of her most famous—"Why I Live at the P.O.," "Powerhouse," "A Worn Path," "Petrified Man," "Lily Daw and the Three Ladies." Six stories were accepted by Southern Review between 1937 and 1939 and earned her the friendship and admiration of writers Albert Erskine, Robert Penn Warren, Katherine Anne Porter, and Ford Madox Ford. In a 1949 Kenyon Review essay Warren commented on the contrast between "the said, or violent, or warped" subjects of the stories and a tone that is "exhilarating, even gay, as though the author were innocently delighted … with the variety of things that stories could be and still be stories." In 1941 a collection of these stories was published as A Curtain of Green with a preface by Katherine Anne Porter. As Ruth Vande Kieft explained in Eudora Welty, the stories "are largely concerned with the mysteries of the inner life, the enigma of man's being—his relation to the universe; what is secret, concealed, inviolable in any human being, resulting in distance or separation between human beings; the puzzles and difficulties we have about our own feelings, our meaning, and our identity."

Welty's first sustained experiment with folk materials appeared in 1942 as The Robber Bridegroom, a bold fusing of Mississippi history, tall tale, and fairytales of mysterious seducers drawn from British and Germanic sources as well as from the Greek story of Cupid and Psyche. Here, as Carol Manning explained in With Ears Opening Like Morning Glories: Eudora Welty and the Love of Storytelling, the innocent tone of the narrative counteracts the dire stuff of robberies, murders, and the depredations of a cruel stepmother. To many early reviewers the result seemed pure magic. Alfred Kazin claimed in a review for the New York Herald Tribune Books that Welty had captured "the lost fabulous innocence of our departed frontier, the easy carelessness, the fond bragging and colossal buckskin strut." Although some commentators found it lacking in substance, Kreyling defended the book as a valuable addition to the pastoral tradition in American literature: "Welty seems to be saying that the dream of a pastoral paradise on Earth is always one step ahead of the dreamers; it is, sadly, only possible in a dream world removed from contact with human flesh and imperfections. But still worth dreaming."

Welty continued to experiment with such materials in her next collection, The Wide Net, and Other Stories. Here she explored the interrelationships of everyday Mississippi life with the timeless themes and patterns of myth, creating for her apparently ordinary characters a universality that links them with all times and cultures. In an essay appearing in Eudora Welty: Critical Essays, Garvin Davenport believed each story in the book presented "at least one character who confronts or encounters a situation which is in some way dark, mysterious or dreamlike. Each such encounter contributes to an awakening or renewal—sometimes only temporarily—of that character's potential for emotional enrichment and experiential meaning."

Welty's first novel, Delta Wedding, marks a significant change in her focus. Welty shifts from the dreamlike atmosphere of The Wide Net to the ordinary milieu of family life in the Mississippi Delta. Many of the circumstances of the Fairchild family in Delta Wedding recall those of the Ramsay family in Woolf's To the Lighthouse. The center of the Fairchild family is a mother of eight who continually ministers to her husband, her children, and a wider circle of relatives and friends. The novel is organized around domestic imagery of cooking and eating, wedding preparations, and diplomatic maneuvers to avert conflicts and soothe hurt feelings so that the wedding, on which the work centers, can occur.

The narrative technique in Delta Wedding is similar to Woolf's in its use of multiple perspectives. In Welty's case the observers are all female, from nine-year-old Laura McRaven, a visiting cousin, to the mother, Ellen Fairchild, and her many daughters. In an interview collected in Conversations with Eudora Welty, the writer told Jo Brans that the world of Delta Wedding is a matriarchy but that it is not at all hostile to men. Men, instead, are the objects of loving attention and perform the occasional acts of heroism that are necessary to pro-tect the charmed and fertile pastoral world of the plantation. Chief among these men is Uncle George Fairchild, who reenacts in modern form the mythic rescue of a maiden from a dragon by St. George. In this case, the dragon is an approaching train, and George Fairchild's rush to pull his niece from the track symbolically expresses his function for the whole Fairchild family. Manning argued that with Delta Wedding "the Southern family and community replace the isolated individual and the abnormal one as Welty's favorite focus."

Delta Wedding was followed in 1949 by The Golden Apples, a closely related group of stories that functions almost as a novel. The Golden Apples depicts several families in the little town of Morgana, Mississippi, during the 1930s or early 1940s, focusing particularly on the defiant and talented Virgie Rainey, who rejects the conventional life of a Southern lady and creates an independent existence for herself while helping her widowed mother run her dairy farm. Fertility myths weave through these stories with particular attention given to the Pan-like figure of King Maclain, who wanders in and out of town seducing maidens like a mythical satyr and then disappearing in almost a twinkling of cloven hooves. But the main emphasis remains on the lives of the townspeople—the growing pains of children, the tragicomic disappointment of the fierce German music teacher Miss Eckhart, the near-drowning of an orphan girl at summer camp, and then the aging of the community and blighting of the lives of many characters who began as children full of possibility in the early stories. In a PMLA essay, Patricia Yeager emphasized Welty's subversive exploration to traditional gender distinctions in these stories, arguing that she deliberately transgresses masculine and feminine symbolic boundaries in order to call them into question. For Yeager, "the most interesting and persistent rhetorical strategy Welty employs is to continually shift the figure and ground of her story, allowing male discourse and female desire to contrast with, to comment on, and to influence each other as each becomes the ground on which the figure of the other begins to interact."

Welty's next book, The Ponder Heart, is a comic tour de force that concentrates many of her favorite themes in the dramatic events of an eccentric Southern gentleman's life. Set in the small town of Clay, Mississippi, The Ponder Heart is ostensibly an examination of the "heart" or character of Uncle Daniel Ponder, narrated by his spinster niece Edna Earle. Uncle Daniel is one of Welty's typical male heroes who unaccountably marries a selfish and brassy lower-class girl. In a tone combining sympathy and outrage, Edna Earle describes her uncle's wooing of seventeen-year-old Bonnie Dee Peacock in a dime store, their elopement, her desertion, return, death and burial, and Uncle Daniel's trial for murder. Playful use of cliche, giddy inversion of social conventions, and the juxtaposition of kindly motives and silly disasters prevent the story from ever moving outside the realm of farce. When Uncle Daniel literally tickles his wife to death in an attempt to distract her from her fear of a thunderstorm, readers can only laugh and recognize the ridiculous dimensions of the most painful human experiences.

In 1955, Welty published another collection of short stories, The Bride of Innisfallen, and Other Stories, experimenting with a more allusive style. Three of the stories—"Circe," "Going to Naples," and "The Bride of Innisfallen"—are set in Europe and lack the vivid sense of place that gives solidity to most of Welty's fiction. The other four stories operate in familiar Mississippi settings. With the exception of "The Burning," a cryptic account of the burning of a plantation by Yankee soldiers during the Civil War, most continue Welty's comedy of small-town manners: adulterous trysts are foiled by rain and curious children ("Ladies in Spring") or by heat and spiritual fatigue ("No Place for You, My Love"), and a visiting niece offers bemused observations on and childhood memories of her Mississippi relatives' social milieu ("Kin").

Welty received the Pulitzer Prize for her novel The Optimist's Daughter. The sparest of her novels, it recounts an adult daughter's return to Mississippi to be with her elderly father during an eye operation and then to preside over his funeral a few weeks later. As Laurel Hand confronts her memories of both parents, she comes to understand the pain of her mother's dying years and their effect on her father. Laurel is reconciled to her father's unwise second marriage to a ruthless young woman, and at the same time finally recognizes her own grief for the husband she has lost many years before. Welty's exploration of grief in The Optimist's Daughter, which was in part a working-out of her own losses during the 1960s, contains many autobiographical elements, particularly in the portrait of Laurel's mother. But the novel is also a close fictional examination of the interdependence of child and parents. In an interview collected in Conversations with Eudora Welty, Welty told Martha van Noppen that she "tried to give that feeling of support and dependence that just ran in an endless line among the three of them [mother, father, and daughter]." Finally, Laurel Hand works through her grief to achieve a calmer and more practical accommodation with the past.

On Writing was Welty's last publication before her death in 2001. The book contains seven essays written to help readers better understand literature. Writing for the Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service, Jay Goldin described some of the essays as "grand, sweeping," and "overarching." According to Goldin, Welty "examines literature with the same gimlet eye that, in creating her fictional world, she so often turned on life." Goldin noted that only a few of Welty's ideas in the book are original, but believed "that makes them no less valid."

Welty's fictional chronicle of Mississippi life adds a major comic vision to American literature, a vision that affirms the sustaining power of community and family life and at the same time explores the need for solitude. In his 1944 essay, Robert Penn Warren aptly identified these twin themes in Welty's work as love and separateness. While much of modern American fiction has emphasized alienation and the failure of love, Welty's stories show how tolerance and generosity allow people to adapt to each other's foibles and to painful change. Welty's fiction particularly celebrates the love of men and women, the fleeting joys of childhood, and the many dimensions and stages of women's lives. Welty spent her life in Jackson, Mississippi, in the house her family built when she was sixteen. "I am a writer who came of a sheltered life," Welty noted in her autobiography. "A sheltered life can be a daring life as well. For all serious daring starts from within."



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