Born: April 13, 1909
Died: July 22, 2001
American writer and editor
Eudora Welty is considered one of the most important authors of the twentieth century. Although the majority of her stories are set in the American South and reflect the region's language and culture, critics agree that Welty's treatment of universal (covering or including all) themes and her wide-ranging artistic influences clearly cross all regional boundaries.
Eudora Alice Welty, the oldest of her family's three children and the only girl, was born on April 13, 1909, in Jackson, Mississippi. That neither of her parents came from the Deep South may have given her some detachment from her culture and helped her become a careful observer of its manners. Her father, Christian Welty, had been raised on a farm in Ohio and had become a country school teacher in West Virginia. Marrying a fellow teacher, Chestina Andrews, he moved to Jackson to improve his fortunes by entering business. From bookkeeper in an insurance company, he eventually advanced to president. Welty described hers as a happy childhood in a close-knit, bookish family. One of her earliest memories was the sound of her parents' voices reading favorite books to one another in the evenings.
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 bachelor of arts degree 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 City during 1930 and 1931. The years in Wisconsin and New York broadened Welty's horizons, and the time she spent in New York City was especially meaningful for it was during the peak of The Harlem Renaissance, an artistic awakening that produced many African American artists. Welty and her friends went to dances in Harlem clubs and to musical and theatrical performances all over the city.
Welty returned to Jackson in 1931 after her father's death and worked as a part-time journalist, copywriter, and photographer for the Works Progress Administration (WPA), which was aimed at providing jobs for writers. The latter job took her on assignments throughout Mississippi, and she began using these experiences as material for short stories. In June 1936, her story "Death of a Traveling Salesman" was accepted for publication in the journal Manuscript, and within two years her work had appeared in such respected publications as the Atlantic and the Southern Review.
Critical response to Welty's first collection of stories, A Curtain of Green (1941), was highly favorable, with many commentators predicting that a first performance so impressive would no doubt lead to even greater achievements. Yet when The Wide Net, and Other Stories was published two years later, critics were split as some praised the work and others slammed it.
As Welty continued to develop her vision her fictional techniques gained wider acceptance. Indeed, her most complex and highly symbolic collection of stories, The Golden Apples, won critical acclaim, and she received a number of prizes and awards throughout the following decade, including the William Dean Howells Medal of the Academy of Arts and Letters for her novella The Ponder Heart (1954).
Occupied primarily with teaching, traveling, and lecturing between 1955 and 1970, Welty produced little fiction. These were years of personal difficulty, as she nursed her mother through a long fatal illness and lost both of her brothers. She was nevertheless at work on long projects, notably Losing Battles, which she continued to shape for a decade. Then, in the early 1970s, she published two novels, Losing Battles (1970), which received mixed reviews, and the more critically successful The Optimist's Daughter (1972), which won a Pulitzer Prize.
Although Welty had published no new volumes of short stories since The Bride of Innisfallen in 1955, the release of her Collected Stories in 1980 renewed interest in her short fiction and brought all-around praise. In addition, the 1984 publication of Welty's One Writer's Beginnings, an autobiographical (having to do with a book written about oneself) work describing her own artistic development, further clarified her work and inspired critics to reinterpret many of her stories. She continued to protect the essential privacy of her daily life, however, by discouraging biographic inquiries, carefully screening interviews, and devoting most of her energies to her work. During the later 1970s this work consisted largely of collecting her nonfiction writings for publication as The Eye of the Story and of assembling her short stories as The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty. With these two important collections she rounded out the shape of her life's work in literary commentary and fiction.
An invitation to give a series of lectures at Harvard in 1983 resulted in the three autobiographical pieces published as One Writer's Beginnings the next year. Perhaps because she wished to forestall (keep away) potential biographers or because she came to accept public interest in a writer's early experiences in shaping her vision, Welty provided in One Writer's Beginnings a recreation of the world that nourished her own imagination. Characteristically, however, she left out family difficulties and other personal matters, focusing instead on the family love of books and storytelling, the values and examples her parents provided, and the physical sensations of life in Jackson that influenced her literary sensitivities.
Welty's fictional chronicle of Mississippi life adds a major comic vision to American literature, a vision that supports the power of community and family life and at the same time explores the need for peace. In his 1944 essay, Robert Penn Warren (1905–1989) identifies these twin themes in Welty's work as love and separateness. While much of modern American fiction has focused on isolation and the failure of love, Welty's stories show how tolerance and generosity allow people to adapt to each other's weaknesses 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.
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 American fiction writer. Her position was confirmed in 1984 when her autobiographical One Writer's Beginnings made the best-seller lists with sales over one hundred thousand copies. During the early decades of her career, she was respected by fellow writers but often dismissed by critics as an oversensitive "feminine" writer. The late 1970s and 1980s, however, saw a critical reevaluation (the act of examining the same thing over again) of her work.
In August of 2000, Country Churchyards, with photographs by Welty, excerpts from her previous writings, and new essays by other writers, was published. Welty was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, New York, on October 7, 2000. Welty died at the age of ninety-two on July 22, 2001, in Jackson, Mississippi.
For More Information
Aevlin, Albert J. Welty: A Life in Literature. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1987.
Carson, Barbara Harrell. Eudora Welty: Two Pictures at Once in Her Frame. Troy, NY: Whitston, 1992.
MacNeil, Robert. Eudora Welty: Seeing Black and White. Jackson: University of Press of Mississippi, 1990.
Welty, Eudora. One Writer's Beginnings. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984.
"Welty, Eudora." UXL Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 23, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/welty-eudora
"Welty, Eudora." UXL Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved February 23, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/welty-eudora
Modern Language Association
The Chicago Manual of Style
American Psychological Association
Eudora Welty (born 1909) is considered one of the most important authors of the twentieth century. Although the majority of her stories are set in the American South and reflect the region's language and culture, critics agree that Welty's treatment of universal themes and her wide-ranging artistic influences clearly transcend regional boundaries.
Born in Jackson, Mississippi at a time when that city had not yet lost its rural atmosphere, Welty grew up in the bucolic South she so often evokes in her stories. She attended the Mississippi State College for Women and the University of Wisconsin, where she majored in English Literature, then studied advertising at Columbia University; however, graduating at the height of the Great Depression, she was unable to find work in her chosen field. Returning to Jackson in 1931, Welty worked as a part-time journalist and copywriter and as a WPA photographer. The latter job took her on assignments throughout Mississippi, and she began using these experiences as material for short stories. In June, 1936, her story "Death of a Traveling Salesman" was accepted for publication in the journal Manuscript, and within two years her work had appeared in such prestigious publications as the Atlantic and the Southern Review. Critical response to Welty's first collection of stories, A Curtain of Green (1941), was highly favorable, with many commentators predicting that a first performance so impressive would no doubt lead to even greater achievements. Yet when The Wide Net, and Other Stories was published two years later, several critics, most notably Diana Trilling, deplored Welty's marked shift away from the colorful realism of her earlier stories toward a more impressionistic style, objecting in particular to her increased use of symbol and metaphor to convey themes. Other critics responded favorably, including Robert Penn Warren, who wrote that in Welty's work, "the items of fiction (scene, action, character, etc.) are presented not as document but as comment, not as a report but as a thing made, not as history but as idea."
As Welty continued to refine her vision her fictional techniques gained wider acceptance. Indeed, her most complex and highly symbolic collection of stories, The Golden Apples, won critical acclaim, and she received a number of prizes and awards throughout the following decade, including the William Dean Howells Medal of the Academy of Arts and Letters for her novella The Ponder Heart (1954). Occupied primarily with teaching, traveling, and lecturing between 1955 and 1970, Welty produced little fiction. Then, in the early 1970s, she published two novels, Losing Battles (1970), which received mixed reviews, and the more critically successful The Optimist's Daughter (1972), which won a Pulitzer Prize. Although Welty has published no new volumes of short stories since The Bride of Innisfallen in 1955, the release of her Collected Stories in 1980 renewed interest in her short fiction and brought unanimous praise. In addition, the 1984 publication of Welty's One Writer's Beginnings, an autobiographical work chronicling her own artistic development, further illuminated her work and inspired critics to reinterpret many of her stories.
In his seminal 1944 essay on The Wide Net, and Other Stories, Robert Penn Warren located the essence of Welty's fictional technique in a phrase from her story "First Love": "Whatever happened, it happened in extraordinary times, in a season of dreams." It is, states Warren, "as though the author cannot be quite sure what did happen, cannot quite undertake to resolve the meaning of the recorded event, cannot, in fact, be too sure of recording all of the event." This tentative approach to narrative exposition points to Welty's primary goal in creating fiction, which is not simply to relate a series of events, but to convey a strong sense of her character's experience of that specific moment in time, always acknowledging the ambiguous nature of reality. In order to do so, she selects those details which can best vivify the narrative, frequently using metaphors and similes to communicate sensory impressions. The resulting stories are highly impressionistic. Welty typically uses traditional symbols and mythical allusions in her work and, in the opinion of many, it is through linking the particular with the general and the mundane with the metaphysical that she attains her transcendent vision of human existence.
Welty's stories display a marked diversity in content, form, and mood. Many of her stories are light and humorous, while others deal with the tragic and the grotesque. Her humorous stories frequently rely upon the comic possibilities of language, as in both "Why I Live at the P.O." and The Ponder Heart, which exploit the humor in the speech patterns and colorful idiom of their southern narrators. In addition, Welty employs irony to comic effect, and many critics consider this aspect of her work one of its chief strengths. Opinions are divided, however, on the effectiveness of Welty's use of the grotesque. While Trilling and others find Welty's inclusion of such elements as the carnival exhibits in "Petrified Man" exploitative and superfluous, Eunice Glenn maintains that Welty created "scenes of horror" in order to "make everyday life appear as it often does, without the use of a magnifying glass, to the person with extraordinary acuteness of feeling."
Critics of Welty's work agree that these same literary techniques which produced her finest stories have also been the cause of her most outstanding failures, noting that she is at her best when objective observation and subjective revelation are kept in balance and that where the former is neglected, she is ineffective. They remark further, however, that such instances are comparatively rare in Welty's work. Many contemporary critics consider Welty's skillful use of language her single greatest achievement, citing in particular the poetic richness of her narratives and her acute sensitivity to the subtleties and peculiarities of human speech. Yet the majority of commentators concur with Glenn's assertion that "it is her profound search of human consciousness and her illumination of the underlying causes of the compulsions and fears of modern man that would seem to comprise the principal value of Miss Welty's work."
While critics do not concur on all aspects of Welty's fiction, the preeminence of her work remains unquestioned. Despite some early resistance to her style, Welty has garnered much critical and popular respect for both her humorous colloquial stories and her more experimental works. Although she is known chiefly as a southern writer, the transcendent humanity conveyed in her stories places her beyond regional classification, and she is widely regarded as one of the foremost fiction writers in America.
Abadie, Ann J. and Louis D. Dollarhide, editors, Eudora Welty: A Form of Thanks, University Press of Mississippi, 1979.
Aevlin, Albert J., Welty: A Life in Literature, 1987.
Appel, Alfred, Jr., A Season of Dreams: The Fiction of Eudora Welty, Louisiana State University Press, 1965.
Balakian, Nona and Charles Simmons, editors, The Creative Present, Doubleday, 1963.
Bloom, Harold, editor, Welty, 1986.
Bryant, Joseph A., Jr., Eudora Welty, University of Minnesota Press, 1968.
Carson, Barbara Harrell, Eudora Welty: Two Pictures at Once in Her Frame, Whitston, 1992. □
"Eudora Welty." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 23, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/eudora-welty
"Eudora Welty." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved February 23, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/eudora-welty
Modern Language Association
The Chicago Manual of Style
American Psychological Association
Eudora Welty, 1909–2001, American author, b. Jackson, Miss., grad. Univ. of Wisconsin, 1929. One of the important American regional writers of the 20th cent. and one of the finest short-story writers of any time or place, Welty usually wrote about the inhabitants of rural Mississippi. Her characters are comic, eccentric, often grotesque, but nonetheless charming; their reality is augmented by Welty's fierce wit and her skill at capturing their dialect and speech patterns. Among her collections of short stories are A Curtain of Green (1941), The Wide Net (1943), and The Bride of Innisfallen (1955). Her collected stories were published in 1980, the same year she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Welty's novels include Delta Wedding (1946), The Ponder Heart (1954; dramatized 1956), Losing Battles (1970), and The Optimist's Daughter (1972; Pulitzer Prize), about the contemporary loosening of home and family ties and its effect on grief, love, and the acknowledgment of loss. Her complete novels appeared in 1998. She also published a novella, The Robber Bridegroom (1942); a collection of her photographs of Mississippi in the 1930s, One Time: One Place (1972); and numerous essays and reviews.
See her autobiographical One Writer's Beginnings (1984); P. W. Prenshaw, ed., Conversations with Eudora Welty (1984); biographies by A. Waldron (1998) and S. Marrs (2005); studies by E. Evans (1981), A. J. Devlin (1983, 1987), R. M. Vande Kieft (1962, rev. ed. 1987), C. S. Manning (1985), W. C. Turner and L. E. Harding, ed. (1989), L. Westling (1989), P. Schmidt (1991), G. L. Mortimer (1994), C. A. Johnston (1997), M. Kreyling (1999), and S. Marrs (2002); P. A. McHenry, ed., Eudora Welty as Photographer (2009); bibliography by N. Polk (1994).
"Welty, Eudora." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 23, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/welty-eudora
"Welty, Eudora." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved February 23, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/welty-eudora
Modern Language Association
The Chicago Manual of Style
American Psychological Association
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; staff member, New York Times Book Review, during World War II. Honorary Consultant in American Letters, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., 1958. 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; National Endowment for the Arts Award, 1989; National Book Foundation Medal, 1991; Charles Frankel prize, 1992; French Legion of Honor, 1996. 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. Address: 1119 Pinehurst Street, Jackson, Mississippi 39202, U.S.A.
The Robber Bridegroom. New York, Doubleday, 1942; London, Lane, 1944.
Delta Wedding. New York, Harcourt Brace, 1946; London, Lane, 1947.
The Ponder Heart. New York, Harcourt Brace, and London, HamishHamilton, 1954.
Losing Battles. New York, Random House, 1970; London, ViragoPress, 1982.
The Optimist's Daughter. New York, Random House, 1972; London, Deutsch, 1973.
Complete Novels. New York, Library of America, 1998.
A Curtain of Green. New York, Doubleday, 1941; London, Lane, 1943.
The Wide Net and Other Stories. New York, Harcourt Brace, 1943;London, Lane, 1945.
Music from Spain. Greenville, Mississippi, Levee Press, 1948.
The Golden Apples. New York, Harcourt Brace, 1949; London, Lane, 1950.
Selected Stories. New York, Modern Library, 1954.
The Bride of Innisfallen and Other Stories. New York, HarcourtBrace, and London, Hamish Hamilton, 1955.
Thirteen Stories, edited by Ruth M. Vande Kieft. New York, HarcourtBrace, 1965.
The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty. New York, Harcourt Brace, 1980; London, Boyars, 1981.
Moon Lake and Other Stories. Franklin Center, Pennsylvania, Franklin Library 1980.
Retreat. Jackson, Mississippi, Palaemon Press, 1981.
Stories, Essays and Memoir. New York, Library of America, 1998.
The First Story. Jackson, University Press of Mississippi, 1999.
A Flock of Guinea Hens Seen from a Car. New York, AlbondocaniPress, 1970.
Short Stories (essay). New York, Harcourt Brace, 1949.
Place in Fiction. New York, House of Books, 1957.
Three Papers on Fiction. Northampton, Massachusetts, Smith College, 1962.
The Shoe Bird (for children). New York, Harcourt Brace, 1964.
A Sweet Devouring (on children's literature). New York, AlbondocaniPress, 1969.
One Time, One Place: Mississippi in the Depression: A Snapshot Album. New York, Random House, 1971.
A Pageant of Birds. New York, Albondocani Press, 1975.
Fairy Tale of the Natchez Trace. Jackson, Mississippi HistoricalSociety, 1975.
The Eye of the Story: Selected Essays and Reviews. New York, Random House, 1978; London, Virago Press, 1987.
Ida M'Toy (memoir). Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 1979.
Miracles of Perception: The Art of Willa Cather, with Alfred Knopf and Yehudi Menuhin. Charlottesville, Virginia, Alderman Library, 1980.
Conversations with Eudora Welty, edited by Peggy Whitman Prenshaw. Jackson, University Press of Mississippi, 1984.
One Writer's Beginnings. Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard University Press, 1984; London, Faber, 1985.
Photographs. Jackson, University Press of Mississippi, 1989.
A Worn Path (for children). Mankato, Minnesota, Creative Education, 1991.
A Writer's Eye: Collected Book Reviews, edited by Pearl AmeliaMcHaney. Jackson, University Press of Mississippi, 1994.
Country Churchyards. Jackson, University Press of Mississippi, 2000.
Editor, with Ronald A. Sharp, The Norton Book of Friendship. NewYork, Norton, 1991.*
In Mississippi Quarterly (Mississippi State), Fall 1973, and Eudora Welty—A Bibliography of Her Work, Jackson, University Press of Mississippi, 1994, both by Noel Polk; Eudora Welty: A Reference Guide by Victor H. Thompson, Boston, Hall, 1976; Eudora Welty: A Critical Bibliography by Bethany C. Swearingen, Jackson, University Press of Mississippi, 1984; The Welty Collection: A Guide to the Eudora Welty Manuscripts and Documents at the Mississippi Department of Archives and History by Suzanne Marrs, Jackson, University Press of Mississippi, 1988.
Mississippi Department of Archives and History, Jackson.
Critical Studies (selection):
Eudora Welty by Ruth M. Vande Kieft, New York, Twayne, 1962, revised edition, 1986; A Season of Dreams: The Fiction of Eudora Welty by Alfred Appel, Jr., Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 1965; Eudora Welty by Joseph A. Bryant, Jr., Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1968; The Rhetoric of Eudora Welty's Short Stories by Zelma Turner Howard, Jackson, University Press of Mississippi, 1973; A Still Moment: Essays on the Art of Eudora Welty edited by John F. Desmond, Metuchen, New Jersey, Scarecrow Press, 1978; Eudora Welty: Critical Essays edited by Peggy Whitman Prenshaw, Jackson, University Press of Mississippi, 1979; Eudora Welty: A Form of Thanks edited by Ann J. Abadie and Louis D. Dollarhide, Jackson, University Press of Mississippi, 1979; Eudora Welty's Achievement of Order by Michael Kreyling, Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 1980; Eudora Welty by Elizabeth Evans, New York, Ungar, 1981; Tissue of Lies: Eudora Welty and the Southern Romance by Jennifer L. Randisi, Boston, University Press of America, 1982; Eudora Welty's Chronicle: A Story of Mississippi Life by Albert J. Devlin, Jackson, University Press of Mississippi, 1983, and Welty: A Life in Literature edited by Devlin, University Press of Mississippi, 1988; With Ears Opening Like Morning Glories: Eudora Welty and the Love of Storytelling by Carol S. Manning, Westport, Connecticut, Greenwood Press, 1985; Eudora Welty by Louise Westling, London, Macmillan, 1989; Eudora Welty: Eye of the Storyteller edited by Dawn Trouard, Kent, Ohio, Kent State University Press, 1989; Eudora Welty: Seeing Black and White by Robert MacNeil, Jackson, University Press of Mississippi, 1990; Serious Daring from Within: Female Narrative Strategies in Eudora Welty's Novels by Franziska Gygax, New York, Greenwood, 1990; Eudora Welty: Seeing Black and White by Robert MacNeil, Jackson, University Press of Mississippi, 1990; The Heart of the Story: Eudora Welty's Short Fiction by Peter Schmidt, Jackson, University Press of Mississippi, 1991; The Critical Response to Eudora Welty's Fiction by Laurie Champion, Westport, Connecticut, Greenwood Press, 1994; Daughter of the Swan: Love and Knowledge in Eudora Welty's Fiction by Gail Mortimer (Gail Linda), Athens, University of Georgia Press, 1994; The Dragon's Blood: Feminist Intertextuality in Eudora Welty's "The Golden Apples" by Rebecca Mark, Jackson, University Press of Mississippi, 1994; Eudora Welty's Aesthetics of Place by Jan Nordby Gretlund, Newark, University of Delaware Press, 1994; The Still Moment by Paul Binding, London, Virago, 1994; More Conversations with Eudora Welty, edited by Peggy Whitman Prenshaw, Jackson, University Press of Mississippi, 1996; A Reader's Guide to the Short Stories of Eudora Welty by Diane R. Pingatore, New York, G.K. Hall, and London, Prentice Hall International, 1996; Eudora Welty and Virginia Woolf: Gender, Genre, and Influence by Suzan Harrison, Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 1997; Eudora Welty: A Study of the Short Fiction by Carol Ann Johnston, New York, Twayne Publishers, and London, Prentice Hall International, 1997; The Late Novels of Eudora Welty, edited by Jan Nordby Gretlund and Karl-Heinz Westarp, Columbia, University of South Carolina Press, 1998; Understanding Eudora Welty by Michael Kreyling, Columbia, University of South Carolina Press, 1999; Eudora Welty, edited by Harold Bloom, Broomall, Pennsylvania, Chelsea House Publishers, 1999; Eudora Welty: Writers' Reflections Upon First Reading Welty, edited by Pearl Amelia McHaney, Athens, Georgia, Hill Street Press, 1999; Prophets of Recognition: Ideology and the Individual in Novels by Ralph Ellison, Toni Morrison, Saul Bellow, and Eudora Welty by Julia Eichelberger, Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 1999; Eudora Welty and Politics: Did the Writer Crusade?, edited by Harriet Pollack and Suzanne Marrs, Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 2000.* * *
For Peggy Whitman Prenshaw's collection of tributes, I described Eudora Welty as a rare phenomenon in American letters, "a civilized writer." To explain my meaning, I must turn to Ruth M. Vande Kieft's introduction to the revised version of her Eudora Welty. Though Vande Kieft does not employ my term, she explains that as an artist Welty "does not seem to have felt any deep personal alienation from her culture, made no strong protests about the encroachment of industrialism or passing of the old order." Unlike the modernists, she is a writer who has accepted, as the price of civilization, its discontents.
This acceptance finds form in her still too much neglected first novel, The Robber Bridegroom, which comes as close as any American fiction to providing a myth of the nation's maturing as, with the passing of the frontier, the wilderness gives way to the mercantile state. "All things are double," planter Clement Musgrove observes ruefully as his own pastoral world that has replaced the Indian wild gives way in its turn to urban society. As for Jamie Lockhart, the two-faced hero of this serio-comic fantasy, Welty notes that "the outward transfer from bandit to merchant had been almost too easy to count it a change at all." The transformation is only cosmetic; merchants use the same gifts as bandits to operate legally in polite society.
Even in her first published story, "Death of a Traveling Salesman," Welty had subtly countered the Wastelanders of the 1920s and 1930s by counterpointing the death of the titular figure (that Arthur Miller would later confirm as emblematic of the dying world) with a Promethean bringer of fire as head of a family just emerging from barbarism to give promise of civilization's renewal.
The kind of memorable stories collected in Welty's first book, A Curtain of Green —"Why I Live at the P.O.," "Petrified Man," "A Visit of Charity," and the lilting jazz text "Powerhouse"—had been enthusiastically received by Cleanth Brook's and Robert Penn Warren's Southern Review, house organ of the New Criticism that flourished on ironic portrayals of the differences between people's expectations and their fulfillment. Unlike other writers, however, Welty was able to expand her vision with changing times. With two stories in her next collection, The Wide Net, employing such historical figures as Aaron Burr ("First Love") and the bandit Murrell, the Man of God Lorenzo Dow, and the naturalist Audubon in "A Still Moment," Welty seemed embarked (as in The Robber Bridegroom ) on creating a mythology that earlier aspirants had failed to produce for the emerging nation. In "A Still Moment" she had indeed captured as tellingly as Melville in Billy Budd the awful cost of civilization in the destruction of beauty as the quiet naturalist-artist horrifies the two wild men into whose company he has fallen by his cool shooting of a beautiful heron to use as a model for a painting.
Welty did not linger in the distant past, but returned with her next novel, Delta Wedding, to the world where she best found her voice (as she describes the climactic step in her development in the autobiographical One Writer's Beginnings ), the Mississippi of her own lifetime where outsiders were beginning to challenge the rule of imperiously aristocratic family-clans that had dominated the society. Against the most tranquil background that Welty could summon up, she depicts the struggle of an uncle's bride and a niece's groom from what the Fairchilds regard as an inferior class to claim their spouses from a deeply loving but overprotective and tradition-ridden family.
Family dominates also The Golden Apples. Welty includes this work in her Collected Stories, but it is really what Forrest Ingram calls "a short-story cycle," a novel composed of tales that can be read individually but that gain additional meaning when considered in relationship to each other. Welty explains in One Writer's Beginnings how stories that she had originally written about various characters "under different names, at different periods in their lives, in situations not yet interlocking but ready for it," grew into "a shadowing of Greek mythological figures, gods and heroes that wander in various guises, at various times, in and out, emblems of the characters' heady dreams." Focused on "one location already evoked," the portentously named town of Morgana, Mississippi, the meandering tales demonstrate how these provincial versions of universal types, though some wander afar and some stay at home, all return at last to their origins.
Despite the principle of the eternal return seemingly underlying this story-sequence, Welty over the next decade began casting about to evoke what she regards as supremely important in fiction, "a sense of place," about somewhere beyond contemporary Mississippi—the Civil War in "The Burning," the Mississippi delta beyond New Orleans in "No Place for You, My Love," and dreamlike regions as far afield as Italy and Cork, Ireland, in "Going to Naples" and "The Bride of Innisfallen," in the stories collected in the volume named for the last mentioned. None of these experiments, however, had quite the authenticity of a story included with them, "Ladies in Spring," and the separately published novelette The Ponder Heart, both of which take place in the rural Mississippi to which Welty returned, like her characters in The Golden Apples, after wandering.
The Ponder Heart, which went on to become a successful play after first being published in its entirety in one issue of the New Yorker, exemplifies the narrative form Welty handles with the most consummate skill, the first-person monologue of a figure with whom she by no means identifies, but whose mind she can read and whose words she can capture with the skill of the mockingbird, mimicking the sounds of its Southern "place." This tale, told by a busybody small-town hotel-keeper about the surprising outcome of the trial of her elderly uncle Daniel Ponder for literally tickling his teenaged bride to death, appropriately won the William Dean Howells award of the American Academy of Arts and Letters for the most distinguished work of American fiction for the years 1950 to 1955; for it was Howells who had in The Rise of Silas Lapham laid down the challenge to American writers to which Welty's work has become the major response, "… it is certain that our manners and customs go for more in life than our qualities. The price that we pay for civilization is the fine yet impassable differentiation of these. Perhaps we pay too much." Whatever Welty's views of Howell's last speculation, after her triumphs with The Ponder Heart, she settled down to working in the same vein for fifteen years as she was preoccupied with her longest and most complex novel, Losing Battles, the chronicle in many voices (that she reads aloud magically) of the reunion of an immense clan of subsistence farmers in one of the poorest backwoods regions of the northeast Mississippi hills. In part Losing Battles returns (as does later The Optimist's Daughter ) to the story of an outside bride's attempts to rescue (as she sees it) the husband for whom she has given up her own ambitions to improve her place in the world from the clutches of his dependent family. As the story takes shape, however, Julia Mortimer—the kind of schoolteacher whom Welty admits in One Writer's Beginnings she has most often written about, although she dies beyond the principal scenes of the novel during the day and a half of its action—takes over as the focal figure. She is the embodiment of the enlightened disciplinarian who, though constantly losing battles, has never surrendered in the war to share her illumination with her charges in the waste land at the margin of civilization. A marvelous mixture of comedy and pathos, the long folk-like tale is a remarkable tribute to the indomitability of the human spirit, especially the female spirit in the role that Howells celebrated as the poised guardian of civilized culture.
The writing of the novel was interrupted by two of Welty's most powerful stories that did not appear in book form until her stories were collected in 1980. "Where Is the Voice Coming From?," written in a single night after the shooting of civil rights leader Medgar Evers, is the internal monologue of his killer, for which, Welty explains in One Writer's Beginnings, she entered "into the mind and inside the skin of a character who could hardly have been more alien or repugnant to me." "The Demonstrators" is an almost equally harrowing account of a small community's white doctor's involvement in some sordid affairs of the blacks during the years of the civil rights crises that he perceives necessitate the transformation of his traditional community. Most remarkable about the two stories is their revelation of the intensity that the most crucial experiences of her "place" can evoke from her.
Perhaps under the impact of such recent events, even Welty's good humor and civilized virtues have been sorely tried, as is suggested by her most recent novel, The Optimist's Daughter, in which she reverts to the ironic mode of her earliest stories to depict the plight of a woman who has lost her beloved husband, her mother, and her father as she is deprived of her inheritance and driven out of her home place by her father's young second wife, a redneck (never Welty's term) from Texas (envisioned here as beyond the edge of civilization). Despite all the honors that Welty has justifiably received and despite her avowal in One Writer's Beginnings that "Of all my strong emotions, anger is the one least responsible for my work," the ironically titled The Optimist's Daughter seems an acknowledgment that like Julia Mortimer, she and her society have been fighting losing battles, although the struggle has been worthwhile in honoring what she describes as her reverence for "the holiness of life."
"Welty, Eudora (Alice)." Contemporary Novelists. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 23, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/welty-eudora-alice
"Welty, Eudora (Alice)." Contemporary Novelists. . Retrieved February 23, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/welty-eudora-alice
Modern Language Association
The Chicago Manual of Style
American Psychological Association
"Welty, Eudora." World Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 23, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/welty-eudora
"Welty, Eudora." World Encyclopedia. . Retrieved February 23, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/welty-eudora