Eudora Welty 1909–-2001
American novelist, short story writer, photographer, and essayist. See also, "A Worn Path" Criticism.
Welty is recognized as an important contemporary American author of short fiction. Although the majority of her stories are set in the American South and reflect the region's language and culture, Welty's treatment of universal themes and her wide-ranging artistic influences clearly transcend regional boundaries. Welty is frequently linked with modernist authors such as James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, and some of her works, including the stories in The Golden Apples (1949), are similar in their creation of complex fictional worlds that are only made comprehensible through a network of symbols and allusions, drawn primarily from classical mythology. Some features of Welty's best-known stories are an authentic replication of southern dialect, as in the story “Why I Live at the P.O.” from Welty's A Curtain of Green (1941), a skillful manipulation of realistic detail, and the application of elements of fantasy to create vivid character portraits.
Born in Jackson, Mississippi, at a time when the city had not yet lost its rural atmosphere, Welty grew up in the bucolic South she so often evoked in her stories. She attended the Mississippi State College for Women and the University of Wisconsin, where she majored in English literature; Welty also studied advertising at Columbia University. However, graduating at the height of the Depression, she was unable to find work and returned to Jackson in 1931. There Welty worked as a part-time journalist and copywriter, and as a Works Progress Administration (WPA) publicity agent. Welty's WPA job took her on assignments reporting and interviewing throughout Mississippi, during which she took hundreds of photographs of ordinary citizens. It was the profundity of these experiences that first inspired Welty to seriously write short stories. In June 1936 her story “Death of a Traveling Salesman” was accepted for publication in the Detroit journal Manuscript and within two years her work 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, was mostly 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 (1943) 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 theme. Other critics responded positively, 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 much acclaim and Welty 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 novelette The Optimist's Daughter (1972), which won a Pulitzer Prize. While Welty did not publish any new volumes of short stories after The Bride of the Innisfallen in 1955, the release of The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty in 1980 renewed interest in her short fiction and brought critical praise. In addition, the 1984 publication of Welty's One Writer's Beginnings, an autobiographical chronicle of her artistic development, further illuminated her oeuvre and inspired commentators to reinterpret many of her past stories. Welty died in her birthplace, Jackson, Mississippi, on July 23, 2001. Author Richard Ford, a fellow southerner and past neighbor of Welty's, has been named literary executor of her estate and will decide whether to issue any new work by Welty who ceased publishing in 1973, but continued to write until her death.
In his seminal 1944 essay on The Wide Net, and Other Stories, Robert Penn Warren located the essence of Welty's fictive 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.” This tentative approach to narrative exegesis suggests Welty's primary goal in creating fiction, which was not to simply relate a series of events, but to convey a strong sense of her character's experience in a specific moment in time, always acknowledging the ambiguous nature of reality. In order to do so, Welty selected those details that can best vivify the tale, frequently using metaphors and similes to communicate sensory impressions, while revealing only those incidents that enter her characters' inwardness. The resulting stories are highly impressionistic. Welty typically used 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 attained her transcendent vision of being. Welty's stories display a marked diversity in content, form, and mood. Many of her stories are facile and humorous, while others employ the tragic and the grotesque. Her jocular stories frequently rely on the comic possibilities of language, as in both “Why I Live at the P.O.” and The Ponder Heart, which both exploit the levity in the speech pattern and colorful idiom of their southern narrators. In addition, Welty also used irony to comic effect and many critics consider this aspect of her work to be one of its chief strengths. Opinions are divided, however, on the effectiveness of Welty's use of the fantastic. While Trilling and others find inclusion of such elements as the carnival exhibits in “Petrified Man,” from A Curtain of Green, exploitative and superfluous, Eunice Glenn maintains that in the story Welty created “scenes of horror” in order to “make everyday life appear as it often does, without the use a magnifying glass, to the person with extraordinary acuteness of feeling.”
Critics of Welty's work agree that the same literary techniques that 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. Commentators 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. The majority of reviewers 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 Welty's work.”
A Curtain of Green 1941
The Robber Bridegroom 1942
The Wide Net, and Other Stories 1943
The Golden Apples 1949
Short Stories [address delivered at University of Washington] 1949
Selected Stories 1953
The Ponder Heart 1954
The Bride of the Innisfallen 1955
Thirteen Stories [edited and introduced by Ruth M. Vande Kieft] 1965
The Optimist's Daughter 1972
The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty 1980
Morgana: Two Stories from The Golden Apples 1988
Stories, Essays, and Memoir 1998
The First Story [contains Welty's first published story “The Death of a Traveling Salesman” and her essay about the story] 1999
Delta Wedding (novel) 1946
Losing Battles (novel) 1970
One Time, One Place: Mississippi in the Depression, A Snapshot Album [illustrated with photographs by Welty] (nonfiction) 1971
The Eye of the Story (nonfiction) 1978
One Writer's Beginnings (autobiography) 1984
Photographs (nonfiction) 1989
A Writer's Eye: Collected Book Reviews (criticism) 1994...
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SOURCE: Vande Kieft, Ruth M. “The Mysteries of Eudora Welty.” In Eudora Welty, pp. 25–54. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1962.
[In the following essay, Vande Kieft analyzes Welty's representation of human inner life in fiction.]
One cannot undertake to write about the stories of Eudora Welty without feelings of trepidation and of hope because she has provided her readers and critics both with ominous warnings and with delightful allurements. It is as if the welcome mat were clearly out before her door while the sign on the gate post read “Keep Out,” or as if she had given us a map to reach her but had not promised it wouldn't turn out to be the sketch of a labyrinth in which we would get hopelessly lost. The allurements are chiefly in the stories themselves. The warnings have been posted (quite unofficially) in a small volume on Short Stories (1950)1 and in the essay called “How I Write” (1955). Following are some of the warnings:
I have been baffled by analysis and criticism of some of my stories. When I see these analyses—most usually, “reduced to elements”—sometimes I think, “This is none of me”. … Not that I am too proud to like being reduced, especially—but that I could not remember starting with those elements—with anything that I could so label.
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SOURCE: Vande Kieft, Ruth M. “The Search for the Golden Apples.” In Eudora Welty, pp. 111–49. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1962.
[In the following essay, Vande Kieft discusses the unifying elements of the stories in The Golden Apples.]
The most complex and encompassing of Miss Welty's works is The Golden Apples, a book which can be read not merely as a collection of short stories but as a novel which gathers up several of the motifs of her earlier fiction. The unity of the book derives not only from its focus on the characters who within a forty-year span live and die in one small Mississippi town, Morgana, but from its richly thematic, symbolic, mythical patterns of organization. The best approach to that unity is through the Yeats poem from which Miss Welty draws her title:
THE SONG OF THE WANDERING AENGUS
I went out to the hazel wood Because a fire was in my head, And cut and peeled a hazel wand, And hooked a berry to a thread; And when white moths were on the wing, And moth-like stars were flickering out, I dropped the berry in a stream And caught a little silver trout.
When I had laid it on the floor I went to blow the fire aflame, But something rustled on the floor, And some one called me by my name: It had become a glimmering girl With apple blossoms in her hair Who called me by my name and ran And...
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SOURCE: Hoffman, Frederick J. “Eudora Welty and Carson McCullers.” In The Art of Southern Fiction: A Study of Some Novelists, pp. 51–9, 63–5. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1967.
[In the following essay, Hoffman explains Welty's use of location in her writing.]
In terms of career, Eudora Welty belongs to the middle generation of modern Southern writers. Her first publication was a short story of amazing effectiveness, “Death of a Traveling Salesman,” which appeared in a Detroit little magazine, Manuscript, for June, 1936.1 From 1936 through 1955 there was a burst of activity, with seven books, four novels, and three collections of stories published. Since 1955, with the exception of fiction and nonfiction pieces in magazines, she has slowed down considerably.
Since Miss Welty has spent much of her creative talent on places in Mississippi, the subject of place has been very important to her. Not that she is a regionalist, or a local-colorist, but that the qualities of setting are pre-eminently influential on her work. In an essay of 1956 she testifies to its role.2 The novel from the start, she says
has been bound up in the local, the “real,” the present, the ordinary day-to-day of human experience. Where the imagination comes in is in directing the use of all this … Fiction is properly...
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SOURCE: Oates, Joyce Carol. “The Critics.” In Eudora Welty: A Study of the Short Fiction, edited by Carol Ann Johnston, pp. 169–72. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1997.
[In the following essay, originally published in 1969, Oates comments on Welty's subtle use of horror.]
What shocks us about this art is its delicate blending of the casual and the tragic, the essential femininity of the narration and the subject, the reality, which is narrated. How can the conversational and slightly arch tone of her fiction give way to such amazing revelations? That horror may evolve out of gentility—and, even in stories dealing with the very poor or the very unenlightened, Miss Welty is always “genteel”—is something we are not prepared to accept. Our natural instinct is to insist that horror be emphasized, underlined, somehow exaggerated so that we may absorb it in a way satisfying to our sensibilities. Fiction about crime and criminals suggests always the supreme importance of crime and criminals; it is a statement of moral value. The kind of black comic-naturalism that has descended from Celine also insists, heavily, upon a moral point, about the crazy depravity of the world and the endless combinations and permutations in which it may be located … and this too, though it is constructed as a kind of joke or a series of jokes, may be related to a sense of proportion, a feeling that outrages certainly...
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SOURCE: Yaeger, Patricia S. “‘Because a Fire Was in My Head’: Eudora Welty and the Dialogic Imagination.” In Welty: A Life in Literature, edited by Albert J. Devlin, pp. 139–67. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1987.
[In the following essay, originally published in 1984, Yaeger discusses the stories of The Golden Apples in the context of feminist and postmodernist criticism.]
Woman's language has recently become the subject of a set of elaborate and contradictory mystifications. While a number of American feminist critics have begun to join French theorists in asserting that language is a patriarchal institution, French feminists like Hélène Cixous, Marguerite Duras, and Luce Irigaray additionally insist that this institution can be transcended, that woman's writing is an ecstatic possibility, a labor of mystery that can take place in some fruitful void beyond man's experience. “We the precocious, we the repressed of culture,” says Cixous in “The Laugh of the Medusa.” “Our lovely mouths gagged with pollen, our wind knocked out of us, we the labyrinths, the ladders, the trampled spaces, the bevies—.”1 If past repressions have become the source of woman's strength, the discovery of her secret and self-perpetuating language will give woman “access to her native strength; it will give her back her goods, her pleasures, her organs, her immense bodily...
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SOURCE: Wall, Carey. “‘June Recital’: Virgie Rainey Saved.” In Eudora Welty: Eye of the Storyteller, edited by Dawn Trouard, pp. 14–31. Kent: The Kent State University Press, 1989.
[In the following essay, Wall argues against a normative interpretation of “June Recital,” positing instead that critics should follow Welty's example of eschewing moral and behavioral judgment of the characters and focus instead on the reasons for their actions.]
“They were the two of them still linked together.”
“June Recital”'s action constructs the relations between the townspeople of Morgana, Mississippi; the music teacher, Miss Eckhart, who arrives without explanation to live and work there; and Virgie Rainey, the talented and free-spirited daughter of the town's “poor” family. Morgana holds itself apart from these “different” people—the German woman whose manners are alien and the Morgana girl who refuses to acknowledge the social supremacy the leading families assign themselves. Basically, the townspeople ostracize Miss Eckhart, and they express their jealousy of Virgie Rainey's talent by linking her with Miss Eckhart. Cassie Morrison, another of Miss Eckhart's pupils, is the insider through whose memory and reflections we learn the history of these social relationships. She informs us that the old relationship the town has constructed to deal with the woman and the girl...
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SOURCE: Schmidt, Peter. “Sibyls in Eudora Welty's Stories.” In Eudora Welty: Eye of the Storyteller, edited by Dawn Trouard, pp. 78–93. Kent: The Kent State University Press, 1989.
[In the following essay, Schmidt examines Welty's references to the sibyls of classical mythology—particularly the figure of Medusa—and Welty's place in the canon of women writers who have used sibyls as metaphors for their writing.]
she carries a book but it is not the tome of ancient wisdom,
the pages, I imagine, are the blank pages of the unwritten volume of the new;
all you say, is implicit, all that and much more;
but she is not shut up in a cave like a Sibyl …
she is Psyche, the butterfly, out of the cocoon.
References to sibyls figure crucially in at least three of Welty's most important stories, “Powerhouse,” “Music from Spain,” and “The Wanderers,” though they may also be found in other stories, including “Petrified Man,” “Clytie,” “Moon Lake,” “The Burning,” and “Circe.” They are also often twinned with references to Medusa. Here are the three most important passages:
Then all quietly he [Powerhouse] lays his finger on a key with the promise and serenity of a sibyl touching the book.
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SOURCE: Burgess, Cheryll. “From Metaphor to Manifestation: The Artist in Eudora Welty's A Curtain of Green.” In Eudora Welty: Eye of the Storyteller, edited by Dawn Trouard, pp. 133–41. Kent: The Kent State University Press, 1989.
[In the following essay, Burgess attempts to find instances of Welty's artistic self-consciousness in the stories of A Curtain of Green.]
“This could never have been a popular view,” admits Eudora Welty, referring to Willa Cather's lifelong opinion that “[a]rtists … are perhaps greater, and more deserving to be made way for, than other human beings” (Eye 59). While she attempts to understand and to explain why Cather sets apart the artist in value, Welty herself strikes a humbler pose. Whereas Cather's novels introduce numerous semiautobiographical artists, characters of commanding stature, Welty's corpus contains very few portraits of the artist. She does not vaunt her role, even from behind the veil of fiction.
Despite such personal modesty, Welty generously praises the accomplishments and extols the special gifts of other authors—Jane Austen, Henry Green, Katherine Anne Porter, William Faulkner, and Willa Cather, to name but a few. Moreover, Welty's essays on writing prove her to be an artist highly conscious of her craft, respectful of its demands. These critical statements on art and artists lead to fresh readings of...
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SOURCE: Schmidt, Peter. “Misogyny and the Medusa's Gaze: Welty's Tragic Stories.” In The Heart of the Story: Eudora Welty's Short Fiction, pp. 49–108. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1991.
[In the following essay, Schmidt argues that Welty's most successful stories amalgamate the forms of tragedy and comedy.]
From the very beginning of her career as a story writer, Welty tried her hand at writing tragedy. The earliest tragic story of those included in The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty is “Death of a Traveling Salesman” (1936), the first of a series of stories about troubled male wanderers; the most recent stories in the same collection, “Where Is the Voice Coming From?” (1963) and “The Demonstrators” (1966), depict an entire society that seems tragically to have lost its bearings. Reynolds Price has argued that at the beginning of Welty's career she kept her tragic stories strictly separate from her comic ones, whereas later she did not: “In [Welty's] early work—till 1955—she tended to separate [tragedy and comedy] as firmly as a Greek dramatist. There is some tentative mingling in the larger works, Delta Wedding and the linked stories of The Golden Apples; but by far the greater number of the early stories divide cleanly—into rural comedy or farce, pathos or tragic lament, romance or lyric celebration, lethal satire” (“The Onlooker...
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Pollack, Harriet. “Words Between Strangers: On Welty, Her Style, and Her Audience.” In Welty: A Life in Literature, edited by Albert J. Devlin, pp. 54–81. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1987.
Analyzes the apparent paradox in Welty's themes of human connection coupled with her narrative techniques of obstruction.
Additional coverage of Welty's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: American Writers; American Writers Retrospective Supplement, Vol. 1; Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction: Biography & Resources, Vol. 3; Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography, 1941-1968; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12R; Contemporary Authors Bibliography Series, Vol. 1; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 32, 65; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 1, 2, 5, 14, 22, 33, 105; Contemporary Novelists; Contemporary Southern Writers; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 2, 102, 143; Dictionary of Literary Biography Documentary Series, Vol. 12; Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook, Vol. 87; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: British Edition; DISCovering Authors: Canadian Edition; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-studied Authors, Novelists;DISCovering Authors 3.0;...
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