Authors: Eudora Welty

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American short-story writer and novelist


Eudora Alice Welty is one of the greatest writers of Southern fiction. She was born in Jackson, Mississippi, on April 13, 1909, the daughter of Mary Chestina Andrews Welty, a teacher originally from West Virginia, and Christian Webb Welty, originally from Ohio. Soon after marrying, the young couple moved to Jackson, Mississippi, where Welty’s father eventually became president of a life insurance company. After she left Jackson High School, Welty attended Mississippi State College for Women for two years and then transferred to the University of Wisconsin, where she received her bachelor of arts degree in 1929. By this time, Welty had decided to become an author, but her father considered writing a risky career and persuaded her to study at the Columbia University Graduate School of Business in New York. After studying advertising for a year, Welty returned home to Jackson at the beginning of the Depression. In 1931 her beloved father died.{$I[AN]9810000768}{$I[A]Welty, Eudora}{$I[geo]WOMEN;Welty, Eudora}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Welty, Eudora}{$I[tim]1909;Welty, Eudora}

Eudora Welty

(Richard O. Moore)

At this time, Welty began to write regularly, while working at various jobs, several with newspapers, one with a radio station. The most important position for her literary career was one as a publicity agent for the Works Progress Administration, which sent her all over Mississippi, taking photographs and interviewing people, developing a sense of her native Mississippi, the setting for most of her fiction, and collecting ideas for her stories. In 1936 she had a one-person show of her photographs in New York City; that same year, her first story, “Death of a Traveling Salesman,” appeared in a small magazine called Manuscript. Soon her work was being accepted by The Southern Review, then edited by Robert Penn Warren and Cleanth Brooks, and by other publications of national circulation. In 1941 “A Worn Path” and “Why I Live at the P.O.” were published in The Atlantic Monthly, and “A Worn Path” won second prize in the O. Henry Memorial Contest; that year, too, her first collection of short stories, A Curtain of Green, appeared, with an introduction by Katherine Anne Porter. With her literary reputation established, Welty was now able to devote full time to her writing.

From that time on, Welty’s short stories were published regularly, both in magazines and in collected editions, and just as regularly won prizes. Welty herself received Guggenheim Fellowships in 1942 and in 1949; the second enabled her to travel in France, Italy, and England. Her 1942 novella, The Robber Bridegroom, containing history, legend, and fairy tale, received praise from fellow southerner William Faulkner. In 1946 Welty’s first full novel, Delta Wedding, appeared. Other novels followed, winning critical acclaim, such as the William Dean Howells Medal of the American Academy in 1955 for The Ponder Heart, which was dramatized and ran successfully on Broadway in 1956. During the years that followed, Welty lectured at various colleges and universities, becoming more widely known; however, it was not until the publication in 1970 of Losing Battles that Welty attained national fame. The book which followed in 1972, The Optimist’s Daughter, based on the long illness and death of Welty’s mother, won the Pulitzer Prize.

In addition to Welty’s fame as a fiction writer, works such as The Eye of the Story established her importance as a critic. For the understanding of her own work and of the process of fiction in general, valuable critical comments are found in the memoir One Writer’s Beginnings. In this book, Welty explains how her childhood observation prepared her for the kind of writing she was to do. For example, she says, she noticed that one friend of her mother, whose stories delighted her, always structured her stories in scenes. From the monologues of that same lady, she learned that economical speech does not reveal so much about a character as the rambling, digressive talk that is so typical of the South and which Welty reproduces perfectly. These lessons from her childhood are evident in one of Welty’s most popular short stories, “Petrified Man.” Essentially, the story is one long scene in a beauty shop. Through her own vivid descriptions and through the revealing, gossipy talk of the three characters, Welty not only produces an image of life at a point in time and space but also illustrates her theme: that women can dominate men to the point of turning men into freaks.

Writing from within a society that takes family ties and obligations seriously, Welty frequently chooses a time of crisis or ceremony for a story or a novel, when family and community are brought together and all of their intricate relationships can be revealed. In “The Wide Net,” the disappearance of a young wife, who has left a suicide note, is the excuse for a group of men to come together in order to drag the river for her body. It is ironic that in this seemingly tragic situation, the men find themselves having a good time, and even the young husband briefly forgets the reason for the activity. Typically, both he and his wife (who has not actually killed herself) have learned something by the end of the story: he, that however worrisome she is, he cannot be happy without her, and she, that by cultivating her irrationality, she can enchant and control him. Similar revelations come to the young characters involved in ritual events, such as the marriage in Delta Wedding, the courtroom trial in The Ponder Heart, the family reunion in Losing Battles, and the funerals in “The Wanderers” and in The Optimist’s Daughter. These characters learn that change is part of life, that joy and sorrow are intertwined, and that only through mutual respect and forgiveness can the family and the community survive.

In the 1960’s, Welty was attacked by liberal critics for her failure to crusade for civil rights. Her answer can be found in the essay “Must the Novelist Crusade?” in The Eye of the Story, where she insists that propagandistic writing would destroy the imaginative writer, whose mission is to explore the underlying meaning of human life. By awakening her readers to the dignity of the humblest human being, to the importance of tolerance, and to the good that can be exerted by a family or a community, Welty established her lasting place in literature and may well have accomplished more for humanity than some of her more confrontational contemporaries.

BibliographyChampion, Laurie, ed. The Critical Response to Eudora Welty’s Fiction. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1994.Evans, Elizabeth. Eudora Welty. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1981. This accessible survey discusses both Welty’s fiction and her essays and reviews. The brief literary biography of Welty in the opening chapter is useful and offers interesting information on Welty’s relationship with her publishers and editors in the early part of her long literary career.Devlin, Albert J. Eudora Welty’s Chronicle: A Story of Mississippi Life. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1983. Devlin analyzes certain works, such as Delta Wedding, in great detail. He offers insightful criticism and suggests that Welty’s writing contains a historical structure, spanning from the territorial era to modern times.Georgia Review 53 (Spring, 1999). A special issue on Welty celebrating her ninetieth birthday, with articles by a number of writers, including Doris Betts, as well as a number of critics and admirers of Welty.Kaplansky, Leslie A. “Cinematic Rhythms in the Short Fiction of Eudora Welty.” Studies in Short Fiction 33 (Fall, 1996): 579-589. Discusses the influence of film technique on Welty’s short fiction; argues that in taking advantage of cinematic rhythm in her stories, Welty developed her mastery of technique and style.Manning, Carol S. With Ears Opening Like Morning Glories: Eudora Welty and the Love of Storytelling. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1985. An advanced book offering a critical interpretation of Welty’s writing. Manning believes that the root of Welty’s creativity is the Southern love of storytelling. Offers a select bibliography.Mars, Suzanne. Eudora Welty: A Biography. Orlando, Fla.: Harcourt, 2005. Literary biography provides insight into Welty’s life and writing and serves to refute some popular conceptions of the writer.Marrs, Suzanne. One Writer’s Imagination: The Fiction of Eudora Welty. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2002. A combination of critical analysis and memoir, written by a long-time friend of Welty who is also a scholar and the archivist of Welty’s papers. Discusses the effects of both close personal relationships and social and political events on Welty’s imagination and writing.Mississippi Quarterly 50 (Fall, 1997). A special issue on Welty, with essays comparing Welty to William Faulkner, Edgar Allan Poe, and Nathaniel Hawthorne, and discussions of the women in Welty’s stories, her political thought, her treatment of race and history.Mortimer, Gail L. Daughter of the Swan: Love and Knowledge in Eudora Welty’s Fiction. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1994. Concentrates primarily on the short stories.Pierpont, Claudia Roth. Passionate Minds: Women Rewriting the World. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000. Evocative interpretive essays on the life paths and works of twelve women, including Welty, connecting the circumstances of their lives with the shapes, styles, subjects, and situations of their art.Prenshaw, Peggy Whitman, ed. Conversations with Eudora Welty. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1984. A collection of interviews with Welty spanning the years 1942-1982. Welty talks frankly and revealingly with interviewers such as William F. Buckley, Jr., and Alice Walker about her fiction and her life, addressing such topics as her methods of writing, her southern background, her love of reading, and her admiration for the works of writers such as William Faulkner, Elizabeth Bowen, and Katherine Anne Porter.Thornton, Naoko Fuwa. Strange Felicity: Eudora Welty’s Subtexts on Fiction and Society. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2003. An analysis of Welty’s major works that uncover her views about the role of her fiction in the social and literary worlds.Vande Kieft, Ruth M. Eudora Welty. 1962. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne, 1987. This comprehensive examination of Welty’s fiction offers detailed explications of many of Welty’s works as well as chapters on particular aspects of her writing, such as elements of comedy and Welty’s deliberate desire to “mystify” her readers.Waldron, Ann. Eudora Welty: A Writer’s Life. New York: Doubleday, 1998. The first full-length biography of Welty, but one that was done without her authorization or permission; provides a great deal of detail about Welty’s life and literary career but derives commentary about Welty’s work from reviews and other previous criticism.Westling, Louise. Sacred Groves and Ravaged Gardens: The Fiction of Eudora Welty, Carson McCullers, and Flannery O’Connor. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1985. Westling examines Welty’s fiction, along with the work of other eminent female southern writers, as part of a tradition of southern women’s writing. Westling brings a feminist perspective to bear on such aspects of southern women’s writing as myth, sexuality, and the symbolic power of place. Welty’s fiction is analyzed as a feminine celebration of a matriarchal society in which women can find freedom and fulfillment outside the social strictures of traditional southern life.Weston, Ruth D. Gothic Traditions and Narrative Techniques in the Fiction of Eudora Welty. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1994. Discusses Welty’s use of the gothic tradition in her fiction; provides original readings of a number of Welty’s short stories.
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