Born 13 April 1909, Jackson, Mississippi
Daughter of Christian W. and Mary Andrews Welty
Although she is thoroughly Southern, Welty's family came from Ohio (her father's home) and West Virginia (her mother's home, which figures prominently in The Optimist's Daughter). Welty's childhood in Jackson was in a household of readers and in a town not yet industrialized, where schools and parks and grocery stores were all within walking distance of her home. Welty attended Mississippi State College for Women from 1925 to 1927, received her B.A. in 1929 from the University of Wisconsin, and spent 1930 to 1931 at Columbia University, studying advertising. With jobs scarce in Depression days and with her father's death in 1931, Welty returned to Jackson, where she has continued to live. Various jobs with local newspapers, Jackson radio station WJDX, and the Works Progress Authority (WPA) occupied her in the mid-1930s; but all the while she was writing, and her first story, "Death of a Traveling Salesman," appeared in Manuscript (May-June 1936).
Predictably, it was not easy to convince an editor to publish a collection of Welty's short stories before a novel appeared, but Doubleday, Doran did bring out A Curtain of Green, and Other Stories in 1941. The volume, distinguished in having an introduction by Katherine Anne Porter, brought Welty critical acclaim, and readers still find it contains many favorite stories—"Petrified Man," "Why I Live at the P.O.," "Keela, the Outcast Indian Maiden." These stories establish Welty's voice in portraying lower-middle class characters with convincing dialogue, in her lyrical descriptive power, and in her sense of place.
Reviewers were generally puzzled by The Wide Net, and Other Stories (1943), finding this second collection's stories (with the exception of "Livvie") radically different and less accessible than those in the first. Welty's third collection, The Golden Apples (1949), presents seven interrelated stories based on three generations of families in Morgana, Mississippi, whose lives intertwine publicly and privately. It is a work that draws heavily on myth to give added dimension to the lives and deeds of characters whose daily activities are of great interest.
Of the stories in Welty's fourth collection, not all are set in the South. The title story takes place in the boat train running from London to Cork, and "Going to Naples" aboard the Pomona en route to Palermo and Naples; "Circe" portrays the goddess on her enchanted island with Ulysses and his crew.
Welty's first novel, The Robber Bridegroom (1942), is a short work integrating stories of the Old Natchez Trace and remnants of Grimms' fairy tales and American frontier humor to relate the story of Clement Musgrove, his fair daughter Rosamond, and Jamie Lockhart, her "robber bridegroom." As Welty has pointed out, this work is not a historical historical novel, and many critics see it as "an examination of the theme of disenchantment in the pursuit of a pastoral, and fundamentally American, Eden." Delta Wedding (1946), Welty's first full-length novel, had its origin in a short story, "The Delta Cousins." The novel is set in 1923, a year chosen for its relative calm so that domestic concerns in the Fairchild household might take precedence over outside involvements in a narrative presenting a Southern demiparadise on the verge of social change. Welty's comic masterpiece, The Ponder Heart (1954), has enjoyed success as a short novel and then as a Broadway play (adapted by Joseph Fields and Jerome Chodorov), in which the antics of Uncle Daniel and Bonnie Dee Peacock, Miss Teacake Magee, Mr. Truex Bodkin, the Peacock clan, and the populace of Clay, Mississippi, combine with the firm narrative voice of Edna Earle Ponder to form a work of boundless humor.
Two more novels appeared much later. After a virtual silence of 15 years, Welty published Losing Battles in 1970. A work of brilliant parts, Losing Battles is a long novel and has not pleased all readers; its diffusion and loose structure, however, are for many compensated by its comic richness—its eccentric characters, amusing situations, and details of places, names, and objects. Telescoped into a day-and-a-half, the novel presents the community of Banner, Mississippi, during the Depression, with kin and neighboring connections joined by choice or chance at the Beecham family reunion. It is an expression of Welty's persistent emphasis on the mystery surrounding human relationships and on the redeeming power of love.
For The Optimist's Daughter (1972) Welty won the Pulitzer Prize, an award many thought she should have received already. This novel presents both lower-middle class characters and the upper-middle-class citizens of Mount Salus, Mississippi. The second marriage of Judge Clinton McKelva to Wanda Fay Chisom evokes consternation in the town gossips, forces the Judge's daughter, Laurel McKelva Hand, to reassess her life, and in the end leaves her able to give up the ties of the past and to live in the present.
In addition to fiction, Welty has written introductions—for Jackson cookbooks, an anthology of suspense stories, and collections of others' stories—as well as occasional essays, reviews, and critical articles. The Eye of the Story (1978), containing 20 essays and 15 book reviews, attests to her skill as a critic. One Time, One Place (1971) marked the publication of photographs Welty had taken in the 1930s during her various assignments for the WPA in Mississippi. The photographs are of the Mississippi countryside, its black farmers and teachers and workers, its churches, its crossroad stores, its houses and shacks. They reflect Welty's keen eye and her sensitive response to man and nature as surely as does her fiction.
A prominent theme in Welty's work, in the stories as well as the novels, is the mystery of human life and human relationships. For example, the nameless couple in "No Place for You, My Love" have come from unhappy relationships and meet by chance in a New Orleans restaurant. Their day together, however, does not result in a solution of the situations they left nor does it lead them into a love affair with each other. The force of mutability is another theme insistently at work as young characters discover love for the first time, as mothers and fathers watch their daughters grow up and marry and move away, as characters become aware of the approach of old age, as life is measured by the rituals of birthdays, reunions, weddings, and funerals. Some of these changes bring almost insufferable loneliness to characters: Miss Eckhart, in "June Recital," loses all contact with pupils and society; Snowdie MacLain of "Shower of Gold" lives through the years of her husband's wandering; Virgie Rainey approaches middle age in "The Wanderers," with her career as a pianist unrealized and her love life a series of second-rate affairs; in "The Whole World Knows," Eugene MacLain, unhappy with his wife and living in San Francisco, far away from Morgana, the town of his youth, grieves for his dead daughter.
Equally important as a theme in Welty's fiction is the restorative power of love. Gloria and Jack Renfro (Losing Battles) may fail in their respective roles as intellectual and financial saviors, and their private world of marriage seems continually threatened by the imposing force and sheer numbers of the Beecham and Renfro families. The fact and power of their love, however, cannot be denied. Some characters experience an excess of love and joy, quite beyond their ability to communicate—Marjorie in "Flowers for Marjorie," the American girl in "The Bride of Innisfallen," the deaf boy in "First Love," and Hazel in "The Wide Net." If any writer has ever brought to life the dignity of the human spirit, Welty has certainly done so in the old, dying Solomon, husband to a young wife ("Livvie"); in the simple couple, Sonny and his woman ("Death of a Traveling Salesman"); and most assuredly in Phoenix Jackson in "A Worn Path," whose persistent journey of selfless love and devotion indeed numbers her among the saints.
In Welty's first volume, Katherine Anne Porter praised her range of mood, place, tone, and material, and this wide range has been present in Welty's subsequent work. If place is usually the South, it is place particularized, made concrete, rendered visually and aurally. If, as some critics have charged, Welty has not often taken the South's social turmoil as subject matter, she has always been sensitive to the injustice of human beings to each other, has dealt with that injustice in her fiction, and has rightly maintained the necessity for a writer to be a writer, not a tractarian. (Her most explicit statement on this point is the essay "Must the Novelist Crusade?" in The Eye of the Story.) Welty's writing skill is particularly evident in the inevitably "right" dialogue, the tale-telling that reflects an individual's character. Welty has had success with scenes built on external confrontations as well as on internal meditation and reflection ("vortexes of quiet," they are called in "The Bride of Innisfallen"). She makes use of surrealism, of dream and fantasy and myth, of accurate details gleaned from careful observation and from a lifelong habit of insatiable reading.
A distinguishing feature of Welty's fiction is what she calls "that dateless quality"—detail. The varieties of roses in Ethel's garden in "Kin," the contents of the luncheon basket in "The Bride of Innisfallen," Granny's birthday gifts in Losing Battles, or the wedding activities in Delta Wedding are carefully and rightly chosen. Character names and place names emerge after thoughtful selection, as illustrated by Welty's explanation of the young husband's name change in "Death of a Traveling Salesman": "Rafe" in the 1936 version became "Sonny" when that story appeared in A Curtain of Green in 1941. The change was not only to a more indigenous name but to one that heightened an intended ambiguity.
The spirit of celebration, of lived life, is of singular importance in much of Welty's fiction. While there are always serious matters at the heart of her fiction, it is also true that the comic spirit is a significant force, not merely entertaining but also conveying thoughtful commentary. Standard comic devices are found: disingenuous characters (Leota in "Petrified Man"), eccentric characters (Aunt Cleo in Losing Battles), and homely figures of speech. In "Why I Live at the P.O.," Sister valiantly cooks away, trying "to stretch two chickens over five people and a completely unexpected child into the bargain without one moment's notice." Comedy of situation, comic one-liners, and ironic juxtapositions—used by Welty in a variety of stories—confirm the presence of the comic spirit at the base of Welty's fiction. She writes, in the essay "The Radiance of Jane Austen," that comedy "is social and positive, and exacting. Its methods, its boundaries, its point, all belong to the familiar." For Welty, the comic spirit is true and natural.
The publication of The Collected Stories (1980, winner of the American Book Award in 1981) gave critics the opportunity to reassess three decades of Welty's work. Reviewers were particularly impressed with the range of her work. Indeed, Walter Clemons found her "an experimental writer with access to the demonic…. She is bigger and stranger than we have supposed." If some of Welty's prose has occasionally been described as deformed, if she has sometimes been charged with presenting an imprecise landscape and using vague language, most of her fiction challenges our reading power, speaks to our hearts, and convinces us her world of fiction embodies the best and truest of human experience.
Her work spanning a period of more than 50 years, Welty ranks among the most extraordinary writers of the 20th century. Her lyrical passages, her transcendence of conventional narrative form, and her concern for the inner stirrings of her characters have invited comparisons to Virginia Woolf. Into commonplace events and surroundings Welty can infuse an illusory quality, invoking myths, and interweaving shades of memory. In this dreamlike light, she strikes what is true and concrete in human relationships. The unbridgeable gulfs that separate us, the experiences drawing us together—these, she writes, are her "true subjects."
In 1984 Welty published her autobiography One Writer's Beginnings. In this book, she celebrates the clarifying power of memory, capturing her past in a stream of individual moments and events. With all the humor and attention to detail Welty exhibits in her fiction, the author recreates the Jackson, Mississippi, of her childhood, once again painting a lasting portrait of the American South. Throughout One Writer's Beginnings, Welty focuses on her development as a writer. As a young girl, surrounded by books, reading constantly, Welty had begun to attune her ear to the rhythms and cadences of the written word. In addition, the gossip and anecdotes flying recklessly about her small hometown provided a fertile environment in which she learned the art of telling tales. Welty devotes the third and final chapter of One Writer's Beginnings to reflections on her career and on writing in general, offering a window on both the forces that move a master artist and the act of creation itself. The book achieved universal acclaim, and received an American Book award.
In 1989 Welty published Photographs, her second collection of what she likes to refer to as "snapshots." She also continued to contribute articles to such publications as Atlantic, the New Yorker, and the New York Times Review of Books.
Welty possesses the coveted honors America awards its writers: including the American Book Award, National Medal for Literature (1980), the American Academy of Arts and Letters Howells Medal, the National Institute of Arts and Letters Gold Medal for the Novel, the Presidential Medal of Freedom (1980), Commonwealth Award for distinguished service in literature from the Modern Language Association (1984), the Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et Lettres (1987), and the National Medal of Art (1987), the National Book Foundation Medal (1991), the Cleanth Brooks Medal in Southern Letters (1991), the PEN/Malamud Award for excellence in the short story (1993), induction into France's Legion of Honor (1996), and numerous honorary degrees.
Selecting Welty as the first living author for inclusion in the monumental Library of America series, the publisher cited Salman Rushdie's remark that her work is "impossible to overpraise." In honor of Welty's 90th birthday, 22 contributors describe her impact in Eudora Welty: Writers' Reflections upon First Reading Welty (1999). Barry Hannah marvels at her "soul-traveling magic" in creating such characters as a jazz virtuoso and a lonely salesman, and Doris Betts reflects that she "has influenced generations of writers while her lucid and luminous prose defies imitation."
At the end of the decade, osteoporosis made it difficult for Welty to leave her home in Jackson, and arthritis brought a stop to the writing career began in the 1930s. Her final book-length project was an anthology, the Norton Book of Friendship (1991), coedited with Ronald A. Sharp. A revised, silver anniversary edition of One Time, One Place, Welty's book of Depression-era photographs, appeared in 1996; "The Death of a Traveling Salesman" (1936) was reprinted in The First Story (1999), along with Welty's essay about the story's composition.
Although no comprehensive collection has been made of her letters, Michael Kreyling's Author and Agent: Eudora Welty and Diarmuid Russell (1991) is structured around more than 30 years of correspondence between Welty and the literary agent who offered her his assistance in 1940. Another important gathering is A Writer's Eye: Collected Book Reviews (1994), Pearl Amelia McHaney's edition of the 67 reviews Welty wrote between 1942 and 1984. According to McHaney, these pieces (most of them published in the New York Times Book Review) are "as sensory-laden, as thoughtful, and as well-crafted as her stories," whether she is discussing books about World War II or volumes of fairy tales.
Scholars have studied the full range of Welty's work, from the short stories that are considered her greatest achievement to her photographs, her bestselling 1984 memoir, and her longer fiction, most notably Delta Wedding (1946) and Losing Battles (1970). Emphasizing her "compassionate vision and memorable incantation," the novelist Reynolds Price predicts that American authors will continue to find Welty "a guide to both the threatening shades and the brilliant peaks of human life."
The Bride of Innisfallen (1955). The Shoe Bird (1964). One Time, One Place: Mississippi in the Depression. A Snapshot Album (1971). A Worn Path (editor, with Ronald A. Sharp, 1991).
The manuscripts and papers of Eudora Welty are housed in the Department of Archives and History (Jackson, Mississippi) and at the Humanties Research Center of the University of Texas at Austin.
Appel, A., Jr., Eudora Welty (1965). Binding, P., The Still Moment: Eudora Welty, Portrait of a Writer (1994). Bloom, H., Eudora Welty (1986). Brantley, W., Feminine Sense in Southern Memoir: Smith, Glasgow, Welty, and Hurston (1993). Bryant, J. A., Jr., Eudora Welty (1968). Carson, B. H., Eudora Welty: Two Pictures at Once in Her Frame (1992). Champion, L., ed., The Critical Response to Eudora Welty's Fiction (1994). Civil War Women: The Civil War Seen Through Women's Eyes in Stories by Louisa May Alcott, Kate Chopin, Eudora Welty, and Other Great Women Writers (reissue, 1990). Desmond, J. F., ed., A Still Moment: Essays on the Art of Eudora Welty (1978). Devlin, A., Eudora Welty's Chronicle: A Story of Mississippi Life (1983). Devlin, A., ed., Eudora Welty: A Life in Literature (1987). Dollarhide, L., and A. Abadie, eds., Eudora Welty: A Form of Thanks (1979). Gretlund, N. J., and K. Westarp, eds., The Late Novels of Eudora Welty (1998). Gygax, F., Serious Daring from Within: Feminine Narrative Strategies in Eudora Welty's Novels (1990). Harrison, S., Eudora Welty and Virginia Woolf: Gender, Genre, and Influence (1997). Howard, Z., The Rhetoric of Eudora Welty's Short Stories (1973). Isaacs, N., Eudora Welty (1968). Kreyling, M., The Achievement of Eudora Welty (1980). Kreyling, M., Author and Agent: Eudora Welty and Diarmuid Russell (1991). Johnston, C. A. Eudora Welty: A Study of the Short Fiction (1997). MacKethan, L. H., Daughters of Time: Creating Woman's Voice in Southern Story (1990). Manning, C., With Opening like Morning Glories: Eudora Welty and the Love of Storytelling (1985). Manz-Kunz, M., Eudora Welty: Aspects of Reality in Her Short Fiction (1971). Marsh, R., The Dragon's Blood: Feminist Intertextuality in Eudora Welty's Golden Apples (1994). McHaney, P. A., ed., Eudora Welty: Writers' Reflections upon First Reading Eudora Welty (1999). Mortimer, G., Daughter of the Swan: Love and Knowledge in Eudora Welty's Fiction (1994). Pingatore, D. R., A Reader's Guide to the Short Stories of Eudora Welty (1996). Polk, N., Eudora Welty: A Bibliography of Her Work (1994). Prenshaw, P., ed., Eudora Welty: Critical Essays (1979). Prenshaw, P., Conversations with Eudora Welty (1984). Prenshaw, P., ed., More Conversations with Eudora Welty (1996). Schmidt, P., The Heart of the Story: Eudora Welty's Short Fiction (1991). Senter, Lester (vocals), The Memory Is a Living Thing: Songs Based on the Writings of Eudora Welty (CD, 1996). Spacks, P., Gossip (1985). Trouard, D., ed., Eudora Welty: Eye of the Storyteller (1989). Turner, W., and L. Harding, eds., Critical Essays on Eudora Welty (1989). Vande Kieft, R., Eudora Welty (1962). Waldron, A., Eudora: A Writer's Life (1998) Westling, L., Sacred Groves and Ravaged Gardens: The Fiction of Eudora Welty, Carson McCullers, and Flannery O'Connor (1985). Weston, R., Gothic Traditions and Narrative Techniques in the Fiction of Eudora Welty (1994). Westling, L., Sacred Groves and Ravaged Gardens: The Fiction of Eudora Welty, Carson McCullers, and Flannery O'Connor (1985).
ANR (1991). CLC (1998). DLB (1991;1994). FC (1990). Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995).
Atlantic (Mar. 1984). Boston Globe Magazine (29 Nov. 1992). Brightleaf: A Southern Review of Books (Winter 1998). Delta Review (Nov. 1977). Eudora Welty Newsletter. Mississippi Quarterly (1973; 1986; 1997). Newsweek (20 Feb. 1984). New Yorker (20 Feb. 1984, 5 Oct. 1998). NYTBR (19 Feb. 1984, 22 Oct. 1989, 22 April 1990). Oxford American (Nov./Dec. 1998). Shenandoah (1969). Southern Literary Journal (Spring 1989). Southern Quarterly (Fall 1990, Fall 1993). Southern Review (Spring 1990, Autumn 1997). TLS (20 July 1984).
UPDATED BY JEROME CHOU
JOAN WYLIE HALL
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."
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.
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. □