Welty, Eudora (Alice)
WELTY, Eudora (Alice)
Nationality: American. Born: Jackson, Mississippi, 13 April 1909. Education: Mississippi State College for Women, Columbus, 1925-27; University of Wisconsin, Madison, B.A. 1929; Columbia University School for Advertising, New York, 1930-31. Career: Part-time journalist, 1931-32; publicity agent, Works Progress Administration (WPA), 1933-36; temporary staff member, New York Times Book Review, 1946. Honorary Consultant in American Letters, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., 1958. Lives in Jackson. Awards: Bread Loaf Writers Conference fellowship, 1940; O. Henry award, 1942, 1943, 1968; Guggenheim fellowship, 1942, 1948; American Academy grant, 1944, Howells medal, 1955, and gold medal, 1972; Ford fellowship, for drama; Brandeis University Creative Arts award, 1965; Edward MacDowell medal, 1970; Pulitzer prize, 1973; National medal for literature, 1980; Presidential Medal of Freedom, 1980; American Book award, for paperback, 1983; Bobst award, 1984; Common Wealth award, 1984; Mystery Writers of America award, 1985; National Medal of Arts, 1987. D.Litt.: Denison University, Granville, Ohio, 1971; Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts; University of Wisconsin, Madison; University of the South, Sewanee, Tennessee; Washington and Lee University, Lexington, Virginia. Member: American Academy, 1971; Chevalier, Order of Arts and Letters (France), 1987.
A Curtain of Green. 1941.
The Robber Bridegroom (novella). 1942.
The Wide Net and Other Stories. 1943.
Music from Spain. 1948.
The Golden Apples. 1949.
Selected Stories. 1954.
The Bride of the Innisfallen and Other Stories. 1955.
Thirteen Stories, edited by Ruth M. Vande Kieft. 1965.
The Collected Stories. 1980.
Moon Lake and Other Stories. 1980.
A Worn Path. 1991.
Why I Live at the P.O. and Other Stories. 1995.
Delta Wedding. 1946.
The Ponder Heart. 1954.
Losing Battles. 1970.
The Optimist's Daughter. 1972.
A Flock of Guinea Hens Seen from a Car. 1970.
Short Stories (essay). 1949.
Place in Fiction. 1957.
Three Papers on Fiction. 1962.
The Shoe Bird (for children). 1964.
A Sweet Devouring (on children's literature). 1969.
One Time, One Place: Mississippi in the Depression: A Snapshot Album. 1971.
A Pageant of Birds. 1975.
Fairy Tale of the Natchez Trace. 1975.
The Eye of the Story: Selected Essays and Reviews. 1978.
Ida M'Toy (memoir). 1979.
Miracles of Perception: The Art of Willa Cather, with AlfredKnopf and Yehudi Menuhin. 1980.
Conversations with Welty, edited by Peggy Whitman Prenshaw. 1984.
One Writer's Beginnings. 1984.
More Conversations with Eudora Welty. 1996.
Stories, Essays, and Memoir. 1998.
Editor, with Roland A. Sharp, The Norton Book of Friendship. 1991.*
by Noel Polk, in Mississippi Quarterly, Fall 1973; Welty: A Reference Guide by Victor H. Thompson, 1976; Welty: A Critical Bibliography by Bethany C. Swearingen, 1984; The Welty Collection: A Guide to the Welty Manuscripts and Documents at the Mississippi Department of Archives and History by Suzanne Marrs, 1988; Eudora Welty: A Bibliography of Her Work by Noel Polk, 1993.
Welty by Ruth M. Vande Kieft, 1962, revised edition, 1986; A Season of Dreams: The Fiction of Welty by Alfred Appel, Jr., 1965; Welty by Joseph A. Bryant, Jr., 1968; The Rhetoric of Welty's Short Stories by Zelma Turner Howard, 1973; A Still Moment: Essays on the Art of Welty edited by John F. Desmond, 1978; Welty: Critical Essays edited by Peggy Whitman Prenshaw, 1979; Welty: A Form of Thanks edited by Ann J. Abadie and Louis D. Dollarhide, 1979; Welty's Achievement of Order by Michael Kreyling, 1980; Welty by Elizabeth Evans, 1981; Tissue of Lies: Welty and the Southern Romance by Jennifer L. Randisi, 1982; Welty's Chronicle: A Story of Mississippi Life by Albert J. Devlin, 1983, and Welty: A Life in Literature edited by Devlin, 1988; With Ears Opening Like Morning Glories: Welty and the Love of Storytelling by Carol S. Manning, 1985; Welty by Louise Westling, 1989; Welty: Eye of the Storyteller edited by Dawn Trouard, 1989; Welty: Seeing Black and White by Robert MacNeil, 1990; The Heart of the Story: Welty's Short Fiction by Peter Schmidt, 1991; "Eudora Welty Issue" in The Southern Quarterly, Fall 1993; Eudora Welty's Aesthetics of Place by Jan Nordby Gretlund, 1994; Daughter of the Swan: Love and Knowledge in Eudora Welty's Fiction by Gail L. Mortimer, 1994; The Still Moment: Eudora Welty, Portrait of a Writer by Paul Binding, 1994; Eudora Welty and Virginia Woolf: Gender, Genre, and Influence by Suzan Harrison, 1997; Eudora Welty: A Writer's Life by Ann Waldron, 1998.* * *
Known for her novels and short stories set in the South, Eudora Welty was, early in her career, often dismissed by critics as a regionalist. Though the label remains accurate, Welty's work is now recognized for the broadness of its themes and for its complexity and depth. On the surface Welty's work often reads like small-town gossip, folksy, meddlesome, and comic, due to her masterful use of colloquial speech and her extraordinary gift for storytelling. As stated by one critic upon the publication of her collected stories, however, Welty "is bigger, and stranger, than we have supposed."
Throughout her career Welty has freely discussed her artistic creed in interviews, lectures, and essays. This material enhances Welty's critical stature and clarifies the universality of her topics. In One Writer's Beginnings she speaks of her family life, childhood interests, and the values that influenced her work, emphasizing how she never "invades" the lives of real people, particularly someone she knows and loves. Rather, she develops composite, imaginative characters. "My imagination," she has said, "takes its strength and guides its direction from what I see and hear and learn and feel and remember from the living world." Welty's fiction typically examines the complexities in the lives of seemingly uncomplicated people. Her characters live outside the dominant fabric of society and range from a feebleminded young woman, a battered wife, an adulterer, and a deaf-mute couple to a circus freak, field hands, and hitchhikers.
Welty's most imaginative character development came in The Golden Apples, a collection of short stories some critics have called a novel, though Welty rejects the classification. All of the stories revolve around the lives of eight families and their friends, servants, and neighbors and the villagers of the fictional town of Morgana, Mississippi. Welty's creation of an imagined town has led her to be readily compared to William Faulkner and to James Joyce, though the stories in Joyce's The Dubliners do not intersect, as do Welty's. The Golden Apples has also been compared to a photography show, in which the artistic effect is cumulative.
This sense of place, epitomized by The Golden Apples but prominent throughout Welty's work, is a cornerstone of her fiction. In "Place in Fiction" from The Eye of the Story, Welty wrote that "it is by knowing where you stand that you grow able to judge where you are…. Sense of place gives equilibrium; extended, it is sense of direction too…. Place absorbs our earliest notice and attention, it bestows on us our original awareness; and our critical powers spring up from the study of it and the growth of experience inside it…. It never really stops informing us, for it is forever astir, alive, changing, reflecting, like the mind of man itself." While Welty roots her characters in a particular place like Morgana or along the Old Natchez Trace—as with the eight selections in her second collection, The Wide Net and Other Stories—she nevertheless develops around them themes of remarkable breadth and catholicity. She may narrate events in small-town life, but the tension in her stories derives from basic human needs and frustrations, such as the failure to be understood. In the words of Robert H. Brinkmeyer, Welty's fiction "explores the dynamics of growth, or the missed opportunities for growth, that occur in the charged relationship between a person and something other than the person."
The missed opportunity for growth is frequently a consequence of failed communication among Welty's characters. The absence of communication and understanding leads to both real and imagined violence in more than a few of her stories. For example, in "A Piece of News" an abused wife imagines that she reads in the newspaper about her own death at the hands of her husband, while in "Clytie" an old maid commits suicide in a rain barrel rather than live with her alcoholic brother, her badgering older sister, and her speechless father, a victim of a stroke. In "A Curtain of Green" a depressed widow briefly contemplates stabbing her gardener. All three of these women feel cornered by life, and each is unable to share or to move beyond her personal anguish. In "Powerhouse" a lonely jazz singer improvises a song about his wife's suicide. He fabricates the death to explain why he has the blues. Even though he can give voice to his depression, Powerhouse discovers that some of his listeners are more concerned about the truth of the tale than they are about its creator's troubled condition.
Robert Penn Warren viewed the thwarted communication in Welty's fiction as being symptomatic of a larger theme that he called love and separateness. Welty's characters "are compelled to seek one another in the hope of forming permanent bonds of mutual service," he said, "not primarily from an instinct to continue the species, but from a profound hunger, mysterious in cause, for individual gift and receipt of mutual care. So intense is the hunger however that, more often than not, it achieves no more than its own frustration—the consumption and obliteration of one or both of the mates." Such is the case in "The Key," "The Whistle," "Flowers for Marjorie," "The Wide Net," "Livvie," "At the Landing," and "No Place for You, My Love."
Ruth M. Vande Kieft describes this same aspect of Welty's vision as a "doubleness" in which the seeming opposites of life are aligned to emphasize their actual closeness, love being close to hate, hope to despair, and living to dying. For example, in "First Love" Welty erases the lines between dreams, visions, and reality when a deaf-mute becomes convinced that Aaron Burr is secretly using his room while plotting a defense. Welty's deliberate vagueness and her intentional blurring of usually polarized experiences make much of her fiction elusive, enigmatic, and charged with mystery.
Doc, in Welty's story "The Wide Net," gets to the heart of what this doubleness signifies when he says, "The excursion is the same when you go looking for your sorrow as when you go looking for your joy." As Gail L. Mortimer has pointed out, Welty cautions us not to overlook the journey that is living as our lives become preoccupied with trying to achieve the destinations we envision. For instance, in "Death of a Traveling Salesman" R. J. Bowman sells shoes on the road and assumes that he outfits his customers to meet life's adventures. Yet Bowman's life of travels is a shallow model. He becomes lost on back roads and drives off a ravine and entangles his car in grapevines. Seeking assistance, he walks to the house of an inarticulate field hand whose wife is pregnant. After the husband uprights the car, Bowman wishes that he could spend the night. The couple share a private bond, which the salesman suddenly desires. Self-absorbed, he had neglected to consider life's meaning. The couple refuse his attempt to leave money, for their happiness cannot be purchased. Bowman then dies of a massive heart attack as he approaches his car.
As an avid photographer in her younger years, Welty gained an eye for detail, nuance, and shade. When discussing her snapshot album of Depression-era Mississippi, One Time, One Place, Welty explained how the camera taught her "a storywriter's truth: the thing to wait on … is the moment in which people reveal themselves." Her descriptive capabilities led Reynolds Price to characterize her work, particularly the early stories, as being "compulsively metaphoric." Welty's experiments with point of view are at their most masterful in "June Recital," in which the narrative freely shifts between past and present events and between the observations of Cassie and Loch Morrison as each relate events in the life of Miss Eckhart, a German-speaking piano teacher. Throughout her work Welty employs an amazing range of narrative styles, including farce, satire, horror, lyric, pastoral, and mystery. Her versatility in style and genre has led to her ready comparison to Anton Chekhov, one of her own favorite authors.
—Barbara A. Looney