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.
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.