Welty, Eudora (1909–2001)
Welty, Eudora (1909–2001)
American writer, considered one of the greatest literary figures of the 20th century, whose short stories, novels, and essays evoke the vibrant culture of her native Mississippi. Born Eudora Alice Welty on April 13, 1909, in Jackson, Mississippi; died of pneumonia, age 92, at Baptist Medical Center in Jackson on July 23, 2001; daughter of Christian Webb Welty and Mary Chestina (Andrews) Welty; attended two years at Mississippi State College for Women, 1925–27; University of Wisconsin, B.A. in English literature, 1929; studied advertising at Columbia University School of Business, 1930–31; never married; no children.
Honors and awards:
four-time winner of the O. Henry Award (second prize 1941, first prize 1942, 1943, 1968); twice awarded Guggenheim fellowships (1942, 1949); elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters (1952); William Dean Howells Medal of the American Academy of Arts and Letters for The Ponder Heart (1954); honorary LL.D. degrees from University of Wisconsin (1954) and Smith College (1956); honorary lecturer at Cambridge University (1955) and Smith College (1956); honorary consultant to the Library of Congress (1958–61); elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters (1971); Gold Medal for Fiction of the National Institute of Arts and Letters (1972); Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for The Optimist's Daughter (1973); National Medal of Literature and Medal of Freedom (1981); National Medal of Arts (1986); Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et Lettres in France (1987); inducted into the Women's Hall of Fame at Seneca Falls, New York (autumn 2000).
Born and raised in Jackson, Mississippi; lived in New York City (1930–31); returned to Mississippi upon the death of her father (1931); served as publicity agent for the Works Project Administration (1933–36); published first short stories (1936); published many short stories and novels (1940s–1950s), while traveling throughout U.S. and Europe; won Pulitzer Prize (1973); gave William E. Massey lectures at Harvard University (1983); resided throughout life in Jackson, Mississippi.
(short stories) A Curtain of Green (Doubleday, 1941); (novel) The Robber Bridegroom (1942); (short stories) The Wide Net and Other Stories (1943); (short stories) Delta Wedding (1946); (short stories) The Golden Apples (1949); Selected Stories and The Ponder Heart (1954); Three Papers on Fiction (1962); (juvenile) The Shoe Bird (1964); (novel) Losing Battles (1970); (short novel) The Optimist's Daughter (1972); (nonfiction) The Eye of the Story (1978); The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty (1980); One Writer's Beginnings (1984).
Eudora Welty was praised throughout her literary career for giving voice to the distinctive culture of the American South. Her life was spent primarily in the heart of the South, in Jackson, Mississippi, and her keen observations of the peculiarities of Southern life allowed her to capture in writing the rural Southern attitudes, family structures, relations between races, and speech patterns which are now disappearing in the wake of the growing urbanization and dedication to mass media of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Throughout her career, Welty's works enjoyed wide appeal that has continued after her death, not only with Southern audiences, but with Northern, Western, and European audiences as well.
Welty's upbringing most certainly contributed to her later choice of vocation. She was born on April 13, 1909, in Jackson, Mississippi, the daughter of a former schoolteacher, Chestina Welty , and a gentle and nurturing bookkeeper, Christian Webb Welty. Eudora recalled that both her parents "were from families without much money. They were educated, as it turned out, through their own efforts." The Weltys had an affectionate marriage, and the household was harmonious and scholarly. The loss of their first child, a son, before Eudora's birth made them fiercely protective of Eudora and her two younger brothers, Edward (born 1912) and Walter (born 1915). Chestina Welty was a voracious reader all of her life, and she encouraged her children to cultivate the same passion. Christian and Chestina were sufficiently well-off to provide their children with many books and toys; Eudora recalled she had little interest in the dolls that she received but was thrilled to receive a ten-volume set of children's books entitled Our Wonder World when she was nine years old. While confined to bed as a child because of a "fast-beating heart," she recalled, "[i]t did give me a glorious opportunity to do what I loved to do: Read. 'Cause I lay on the bed with books all around me…. So that really was a feeling of being per fectly free to read to my heart's content. Or look out the window to my heart's content." Like all well-brought-up Southern girls of her day, Welty also learned to play the piano and to paint; she especially enjoyed working with watercolors.
Welty's upbringing was surprisingly progressive for that time. She was encouraged to excel in her studies, and she was a frequent visitor to the city library, only blocks away from her home. She came into contact with many strong women who no doubt encouraged her to seek her own path. The librarian, Mrs. Calloway, she remembered as a fearsome personage: "Like a dragon she sat at her desk, facing the front door, and refused entrance to any girl whose skirt could be seen through. She allowed patrons to take out only two books at a time and refused to accept them back until at least a day later." The president of Welty's elementary school, Lorena Duling , likewise inspired fear and admiration, not only among her students, but with community leaders as well. When she needed something, Miss Duling "telephoned the mayor, or the chief of police, or the president of the power company, or the head doctor at the hospital, or the judge in charge of a case, or whoever, and calling them by their first names, told them what to do."
A sheltered life can be a daring life as well. For all serious daring starts from within.
When Welty completed her elementary and secondary education in 1925, she longed to leave Jackson and experience the wider world. Her parents encouraged her to attend college but were fearful to send her so far away from home, as she was only 16. Eudora relented, and for two years she attended Mississippi State College for Women, 150 miles away in Columbus, Mississippi. Two years later, she persuaded her parents to allow her to transfer to the University of Wisconsin, where she studied English literature and graduated with a bachelor of arts degree in 1929. After graduation, Welty traveled to New York City, where she studied advertising at the Columbia University School of Business from 1930 to 1931. She blissfully remembered the time she spent in the big city, where she attended plays and concerts and the ballet, and spent every Sunday at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Welty's exploration of the wider world was suddenly cut short in 1931. The Great Depression had struck the nation, and Eudora received word that her father had fallen ill with leukemia. She immediately returned to Jackson, where her mother was willing to go to any lengths to save her husband. Eudora recalls her mother lying on a cot by her father's, in a desperate attempt to save his life with a blood transfusion. A tube was passed from Chestina's arm to her husband's, but the transfusion was not successful. Welty had a vivid recollection of her father's death: "All at once his face turned dusky red all over. The doctor made a disparaging sound with his lips, the kind a woman knitting makes when she drops a stitch. What the doctor meant by it was that my father had died." By the time of his death at the age of 52, Christian Welty had worked his way up in the Lamar Life Insurance Company in Jackson from bookkeeper to president of the company. His death was a horrible blow for the family and the community.
The death of her father placed a burden upon Welty to help support her two brothers, who were still in school. The most obvious possibility open to a young, unmarried woman with an education was to become a teacher. Eudora had no interest in pursuing this profession, lacking, as she stated, "the instructing turn of mind, the selflessness, the patience." Instead she worked odd jobs in writing and advertising for various newspapers and Jackson radio station WJDX, until in 1933 she was hired as a publicity agent for the Works Progress Administration (WPA). From 1933 to 1936, she traveled to all of Mississippi's towns and rural areas to chronicle successful projects completed through the WPA. She interviewed local officials and wrote newspaper reports. She remembered this experience as "the real germ of my wanting to become a real writer, a true writer. It caused me to attempt it. It made me see, for the first time, what life was really like in this state. It was a revelation." In the process she took over 1,200 photographs of the people she met. Her budding interest in photography would later have a great impact on her literary style: "I learned that every feeling waits upon its gesture, and I had to be prepared to recognize this moment when I saw it. These were things a story writer needed to know."
During her time with the WPA, Welty began writing short stories about the people and culture of Mississippi. From the beginning, her work emphasized "hearing" the dialogue between characters. As she later noted, "I love dialogue, and when I read or write something, I can hear it." In 1936, she submitted two of her stories, "Death of a Travelling Salesman" and "Magic" to Manuscript, a small literary magazine. Both were accepted for publication. The editor wrote back to Welty, describing "Death of a Travelling Salesman," "one of the best stories we have ever read." Emboldened by her success, Welty began sending her stories to more prestigious literary journals; some won national prizes. Three days after the appearance of her stories in Manuscript, a New York publisher wrote to request that she send some of her material to be considered for publication, but when she submitted a collection of short stories he sent them back with the admonition, "It is quite impossible to publish a volume of stories by a relatively unknown author under the present conditions of the book market." Her stories, he insisted, "show an acute but somewhat unfocussed sensibility. They are charming but vague. Sometimes the architecture of the stories is at war with the content…. Often you have no story to tell at all, but rather a state of mood to convey." He suggested that she write a novel.
Welty's first attempt as a novelist was less than successful. The Cheated, which she submitted to Houghton Mifflin in 1938, was rejected as too vague: "You have apprehended rather than thought out the situations and characters, with the result that much of the story has the quality of a dream or fantasy," was the editor's critique. Although she continued to publish her short stories in such prestigious magazines as Harper's Bazaar and Atlantic Monthly, she floundered in search of a publishing career. In 1940, she secured an agent, Diarmuid Russell, and finally in 1941, her first collection of stories was published by Doubleday as A Curtain of Green. The following year, her first novel, The Robber Bridegroom, was published, and her writing career was firmly established.
Prizes and travel opportunities quickly followed. In 1942, she placed first in the distinguished O. Henry Short Story award, and placed first again the following year, the first writer ever
to do so. She received a Guggenheim fellowship in 1942, and two years later the American Academy of Arts and Letters awarded her $1,000. Welty spent the summer of 1944 in New York City as a staff writer for The New York Times Book Review. Her publications continued to appear regularly. In 1943, she published a collection called The Wide Net and Other Stories. In 1946, she published Delta Wedding; although it received mixed reviews, it soon became a bestseller. Her collection of stories published in 1949 as The Golden Apples all centered around the fictional town of Morgana, Mississippi. That year, another Guggenheim fellowship allowed her to go to Britain and Europe for extended travel. While in Ireland, she stayed at Bowen's Court with Elizabeth Bowen , who described Welty as "very unwriterish and bien élevée. A Southern girl from the state of Mississippi; quiet, self-contained, easy, outwardly old-fashioned, very funny indeed when she starts talking. No one would pick her out on sight as 'an interesting woman.' Actually I think she's a genius rather than an interesting woman, which I am glad of as I prefer the former."
The 1950s were also a very busy and productive time for Welty. She won the O. Henry prize once more in 1951, and was elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters the following year. In 1954, she published Selected Stories and The Ponder Heart, which received the 1955 William Dean Howells Medal of the Academy of Arts and Letters. She was also selected to give a lecture on "Place in Fiction" that year at Cambridge University. In 1956, a theatrical version of The Ponder Heart opened on Broadway, where it was "modestly successful."
Welty's travels slowed somewhat in the 1960s, as her mother's declining health kept her closer to home. She continued to write prodigiously, however. In 1962, she published Three Papers on Fiction, and in 1964 she issued her first children's book, The Shoe Bird. She spent ten years working on a novel, which she published in 1970 as Losing Battles. Both her mother and her brother Edward died in 1966. As a means of dealing with her grief, Welty wrote another short novel, The Optimist's Daughter, which she dedicated to her mother when it was published in 1972. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1973.
In 1978, Welty published her first collection of nonfiction, entitled The Eye of the Story. In 1980, The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty was released. Three years later, she was invited to deliver the William E. Massey lectures at Harvard University. These were published in 1984 as One Writer's Beginnings, which became another bestseller. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Welty continued to produce stories and essays, to lead conferences and give lectures. She received medals from both Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, and in 1987 was made a Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et Lettres by the French government.
Throughout her life, Welty remained an intensely private person. In an interview, she remarked, "Your private life should be kept private. My own, I don't think would particularly interest anybody, for that matter. But I'd guard it; I feel strongly about that. They'd have a hard time trying to find something about me. I think I'd better burn everything up. It's best to burn letters, but at least I've never kept diaries or journals." Because of her position as a role model for Southern women, Eudora Welty was sometimes pressured to give her views on the modern feminist movement. But she never viewed her upbringing in the intensely conservative South as a roadblock to her literary potential. Welty believed that a piece of literature should be divorced from the writer's gender, race, or background. An author's work, she always maintained, must stand alone. Despite her own celebrity, she never lost her sense of perspective. She was as candid about her early failures as she was about her own successes. In recalling her early work, she remembered having "all the weaknesses of the headlong. I never rewrote, I just wrote. The plots in those stories are weak because I didn't know enough to worry about plots."
Welty's characters provide the focus of all her works. She described a literary character as "a taproot that goes clear down…. [W]hat you want is an essence, a dramatic entity, the human being to be shown as unlike any other human being. That's what human beings are, and you've got to show them that way." It was her ability to portray Southerners as fully developed human beings that enabled her to highlight their peculiarities without reducing them to caricatures. As the years passed, she was increasingly cited as one of the century's greatest American writers. In 1999, the Library of America published a two-volume set of Welty's collected works, the first time a living author had been so honored. Her 90th birthday later that year saw the publication of a spate of books and journal articles about her writing and celebrations hosted by fellow writers, friends, and devoted fans. In autumn 2000, she was inducted into the Women's Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, New York. Welty died on July 23, 2001, leaving behind a wealth of literature invaluable to readers of all cultures. "My wish, my continuing passion," she once wrote, "would be not to point the finger in judgment but to part a curtain, that invisible shadow that falls between people, the veil of indifference to each other's presence, each other's wonder, each other's human plight."
The Boston Sunday Globe. September 20, 1998, p. N2.
Evans, Elizabeth. Eudora Welty. NY: Frederick Ungar, 1981.
Firing Line, "The Southern Imagination," William F. Buckley, Jr. interviewing Eudora Welty and Walker Percy. Columbia, SC: SECA, 1972.
Isaacs, Neil. Eudora Welty. Austin, TX: Steck-Vaughn, 1969.
Magill, Frank N., ed. Great Women Writers: The Lives and Works of 135 of the World's Most Important Women Writers, from Antiquity to the Present. NY: Henry Holt, 1994.
Newsweek. August 6, 2001, p. 60.
Obituary in The Boston Globe. July 24, 2001, pp. A1, A9.
Obituary in The Day [New London, CT]. July 24, 2001, p. A3.
Obituary in The New York Times. July 24, 2001, pp. A1, B8.
Powell, Dannye Romine. Parting the Curtains: Interviews with Southern Writers. Winston-Salem, NC: John F. Blair, 1994.
Preston, Charlotte Ann. "Eudora Welty's Still and Silent Lives." Master's thesis, Kansas State University, Manhattan, Kansas, 1976.
Westling, Louise. Eudora Welty. Totowa, NJ: Barnes & Noble, 1989.
McHaney, Pearl Amelia, comp. Eudora Welty: Writers' Reflections Upon First Reading Welty. Hill Street Press, 1999.
Waldron, Ann. Eudora. NY: Doubleday, 1999 (unauthorized biography).
Kimberly Estep Spangler , Assistant Professor of History and Chair, Division of Religion and Humanities, Friends University, Wichita, Kansas