Study Guide

Eudora Welty

Eudora Welty Essay - Welty, Eudora (Vol. 105)

Welty, Eudora (Vol. 105)

Introduction

Eudora Welty 1909–

American short story writer and novelist.

The following entry presents an overview of Welty's career. For further information on her life and works, see Eudora Welty Criticism (Volume 1), and volumes 2, 5, 14, 22.

Eudora Welty has long been respected by her fellow writers, but it was not until the publication of her Collected Stories of Eudora Welty (1980) that she received serious critical attention. Early in her career Welty was dismissed by reviewers as a regionalist, since most of her stories are set in Mississippi. However, upon close examination of her work, critics began to see the universal themes in Welty's fiction and the skill with which she evokes a sense of place.

Biographical Information

Welty was born in 1909 and grew up in Jackson, Mississippi. She was the oldest of three children and the only girl. Her father, Christian Welty, grew up in Ohio in a very reserved family of Swiss heritage. Her mother, Chestina Andrews, grew up in the mountains of West Virginia and never felt at home in Mississippi. In contrast to her husband's background, Chestina Andrews grew up in a spirited and gregarious family, and Welty's visits with her grandmother and five uncles in West Virginia were memorable for her. Later Welty would tell of these experiences in her One Writer's Beginnings (1984) and fictionally as part of The Optimist's Daughter (1972). Welty was surrounded with books as a child. Her father kept an extensive library, and her mother often read aloud to her. After completing public school in Jackson, Welty attended Mississippi State College for Women from 1925 to 1927. She went on to receive her B.A. from the University of Wisconsin in 1929. Welty then attended Columbia University Graduate School of Business in New York from 1930–1931 to study advertising. She was forced to return home to Jackson in 1931 when her father died suddenly. In the early 1930s Welty held a variety of odd jobs with local newspapers and a radio station until she got a position as a publicity agent for the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The job took her throughout the state of Mississippi, which helped inspire her as an artist. Welty began taking photographs of a variety of images and people she encountered in the state. Although she was unsuccessful at finding a publisher for the collection at the time, the photographs were later published in 1971 as One Time, One Place: Mississippi in the Depres-sion; A Snapshot Album (1971). Her job at the WPA also inspired Welty to begin writing about the Depression era. Her first short story, "Death of a Traveling Salesman," was published in Manuscript in 1936. Her first collection, titled A Curtain of Green (1941), followed in 1941. Welty has continued to live and write from her family home in Jackson, Mississippi, including novels and essays in addition to her short stories. Her novel The Optimist's Daughter won the Pulitzer Prize in 1972.

Major Works

Very few of Welty's works are written in the first-person narrative. She prefers a conversational style with a multitude of voices. The best example of this is her novel Losing Battles (1970), which is set during the Depression. The story revolves around the family of Granny Vaughn, which gathers in Banner, Mississippi, to celebrate Granny's 90th birthday. The novel is a collection of different family members' tales as they get together for this reunion. Past and present merge as each character tells their story. One of the major characters, the schoolteacher Julia Mortimer, is not even alive in the present of the narrative. She dies shortly before the reunion, but her presence is strongly felt throughout the novel. Welty does not normally use her direct experience in her fiction, and she feels that a reader does not need every biographical detail about a writer to understand his work. However, elements of her life are reflected in portions of her writing. The Optimist's Daughter is her most autobiographical work of fiction, and there are many parallel scenes between the novel and personal scenes described in her memoir One Writer's Beginnings. The memoir is based on a series of lectures Welty gave at Harvard University about the development of her life as a writer. It is not a straight autobiography or a manual on the techniques of writing; it is simply a personal look at her journey of developing her talents as a writer. There are three sections, "Listening," "Learning to See," and "Finding a Voice." Each section shares personal memories and how, as a writer, Welty absorbed and filtered her experiences.

Critical Reception

Since most of her work is set in Mississippi, Welty was dismissed as a regionalist early in her career. Reviewers eventually recognized the depth and universal themes present in her fiction, however. Maureen Howard asserts, "Eudora Welty is not a regionalist: She is a Southern writer who has lived all her life in Jackson, Miss. It is not surprising that she draws strength from this setting for most of the stories, but it is a mark of her great skill that her perceptions of courthouse towns, poor shacks and farms, the discarded levee are so various and unlimiting." In fact it is her ability to convey her strong sense of place that has caused many reviewers to laud her work. Some critics assert that the appeal of Welty's fiction and her ability to overcome the label of regionalist derives from the fact that she writes from two perspectives. From living in the state almost her entire life, Welty knows Mississippi and its people so intimately that she is able to vividly convey them in her fiction. The fact that her parents were not Southerners, however, gave her the opportunity to view her subject as an outsider. Welty is often praised for her use of dialect and the conversational style of her writing. In describing the varied voices in Losing Battles, Paul Bailey said, "Such talk—varied, spontaneous, recognizably absurd—is a pleasure to read because it is always revealing of character." Many critics comment on the folklore influence on her work, especially in The Golden Apples (1949) and The Robber Bridegroom (1942).

Principal Works

A Curtain of Green (short stories) 1941
The Robber Bridegroom (novella) 1942
The Wide Net, and Other Stories (short stories) 1943
Delta Wedding (novel) 1946
The Golden Apples (short stories) 1949
Short Stories (essay) 1949
Selected Stories (short stories) 1953
The Ponder Heart (short stories) 1954
The Bride of Innisfallen, and Other Stories (short stories) 1955
Place in Fiction (lectures) 1957
The Shoe Bird (juvenilia) 1964
Thirteen Stories (short stories) 1965
A Sweet Devouring (nonfiction) 1969
A Flock of Guinea Hens Seen from a Car (poem) 1970
Losing Battles (novel) 1970
One Time, One Place: Mississippi in the Depression: A Snapshot Album (photographs) 1971
The Optimist's Daughter (novel) 1972
The Eye of the Story (essays and reviews) 1978
Moon Lake and Other Stories (short stories) 1980
The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty (short stories) 1980
One Writer's Beginnings (lectures) 1984
Eudora Welty Photographs (photographs) 1989

Criticism

Maureen Howard (review date 2 November 1980)

SOURCE: "A Collection of Discoveries," in The New York Times Book Review, November 2, 1980, pp. 1, 31, 32.

[In the following review, Howard discusses Welty's Collected Stories, and how her range developed throughout her career.]

In reading The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty, there is a particular pleasure in following her performance over the years. Her range is remarkable—her way of telling us that stories are as different as human faces, that beyond the common features of plot and narrative, there are discoveries to be made each time. In "A Memory" (which seems to be about her childhood), she writes, "To watch everything about me I regarded grimly...

(The entire section is 2182 words.)

Eudora Welty with Jo Brans (interview date Summer 1981)

SOURCE: "Struggling against the Plaid: An Interview with Eudora Welty," reprinted in Listen to the Voices: Conversations with Contemporary Writers, Jo Brans, Southern Methodist University Press, 1988. (Originally printed in Southwest Review, Vol. 66, No. 3, Summer, 1981, pp. 255-66.)

[In the following interview, Welty discusses her approach to writing and some of her characterizations.]

Eudora Welty is the author of five collections of short stories, a book of photographs, a volume of essays, and five novels. For her novel The Ponder Heart she received the American Academy of Arts and Letters Howells Medal in 1955, and for The Optimist's Daughter...

(The entire section is 4704 words.)

Paul Bailey (review date 4 June 1982)

SOURCE: "Gloriously ordinary," in TLS, No. 4131, June 4, 1982, p. 608.

[In the following review, Bailey discusses Welty's Losing Battles and states that "The prevailing tone is one of glorious ordinariness, but one that never sinks into the terminally cute…."]

The belated publication in Britain of this exceptionally beautiful novel, which first came out in the United States in 1970, is both welcome and timely, coming as it does so soon after the appearance here of its author's Collected Stories. These two books alone are evidence enough that Eudora Welty is a writer of considerable distinction.

"What I do in writing of any character is...

(The entire section is 831 words.)

Nancy B. Sederberg (review date Fall 1983)

SOURCE: "Welty's 'Death of a Traveling Salesman,'" in The Explicator, Vol. 42, No. 1, Fall, 1983, pp. 52-4.

[In the following review, Sederberg analyzes the different symbolic associations of the name Bowman in Welty's "Death of a Traveling Salesman."]

The name R. J. Bowman in Eudora Welty's "Death of a Traveling Salesman" evokes meanings beyond those suggested either by Welty herself or prior critics. In a recent reminiscence, "Looking Back at the First Story," Welty recalls a real-life prototype for Bowman, Mr. Archie Johnson, a neighbor who in the 1930's traveled remote Mississippi roads as a Highway Department inspector and land buyer. On a literal level, the name...

(The entire section is 1020 words.)

Eudora Welty with Tom Royals and John Little (interview date 1984)

SOURCE: "A Conversation with Eudora Welty," in Conversations with Eudora Welty, edited by Peggy Whitman Prenshaw, University Press of Mississippi, 1984, pp. 252-67.

[In the following interview, Welty discusses her approach to writing and presents insights into some of her characters and stories.]

[Royals:] What do you think about the concept of what we're trying to do here, that is to say, to interview a writer and try to arrive at something worthwhile through the medium?

[Welty:] I don't rightly know. I've always been tenacious in my feeling that we don't need to know a writer's life in order to understand his work and I have really felt very...

(The entire section is 5796 words.)

Eric Homberger (review date 20 July 1984)

SOURCE: A review of One Writer's Beginnings, in TLS, No. 4242, July 20, 1984, p. 806.

[In the following review, Homberger states that Welty's "One Writer's Beginnings is a reminder that the imagination can be as nourished by Jackson, Mississippi, as by Henry James's London, Kafka's Prague or Kundera's Brno."]

When in 1965, during the civil rights movement, Eudora Welty wrote that "Entering the hearts and minds of our own people is no harder now than it ever was", the most common response was a subdued sense of shock at a writer so little carried away by the dramatic struggles taking place around her.

The argument that Welty's work fails...

(The entire section is 766 words.)

Eudora Welty with Barbara Lazear Ascher (interview date Autumn 1984)

SOURCE: "A Visit with Eudora Welty," in The Yale Review, Vol. 74, No. 1, Autumn, 1984, pp. 147-53.

[In the following interview, Welty discusses how she develops her characters and what she thinks about writing.]

She's worn a pretty hat for the occasion, an occasion she says she has dreaded ever since she decided to make an exception to her rule, no interviews. Her smile is shy, her voice soft and hesitant: "You look like a Virginia girl." She reaches for my bag, but I protest—after all, she is seventy-five. Her hair is white. She is slight and walks with slow care in a shiny new pair of loafers. Her azure knit dress is the color of her eyes. The next day, when we...

(The entire section is 3267 words.)

Lee Smith (review date Spring 1985)

SOURCE: "Eudora Welty's Beginnings," in The Southern Literary Journal, Vol. XVII, No. 2, Spring, 1985, pp. 120-26.

[In the following review, Smith discusses what Welty teaches about the sensibility of the writer in her One Writer's Beginnings.]

One Writer's Beginnings is a crucial book for the serious Eudora Welty scholar; for the reader who has been charmed and beguiled and moved over the years by her wonderful stories and novels; and for the beginning or not-so-beginning writer who has any interest in where it all comes from, anyway: fiction, I mean, and what in the world it has to do with life. The book originated in a set of three lectures delivered at...

(The entire section is 2896 words.)

Daniel Aaron (review date 2 May 1985)

SOURCE: "Clytie's Legs," in London Review of Books, Vol. 7, No. 8, May 2, 1985, pp. 15-6.

[In the following review, Aaron discusses several of Welty's works and asserts that "it is by design, by her calculated disclosures, that this storyteller makes herself and her writing powerful and free."]

Eudora Welty's fictional territory stretches as far as the Northern States of her native America, and to Europe too, but its heartland is Jackson, Mississippi and its environs, a country more accessible and neighbourly than Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha. The dust and heat are the same, the people comparably rooted and earthy. Yet Faulkner's South, for all of its authentic...

(The entire section is 3860 words.)

Harriet Pollack (essay date Fall 1986)

SOURCE: "Words Between Strangers: On Welty, Her Style, and Her Audience," Mississippi Quarterly, Vol. XXXIX, No. 4, Fall, 1986, pp. 481-505.

[In the following essay, Pollack analyzes Welty's relationship with her readers.]

Eudora Welty often speaks of her storytelling in terms that suggest it is a strategy for dealing with separateness. She identifies the source of her work as "attentiveness and care for the world … and a wish to connect with it," and she tells us that her "continuing passion" is "to part a curtain … that falls between people." But paradoxically, while Welty expresses her desire for "connection," she nonetheless prefers what she calls...

(The entire section is 8491 words.)

Suzanne Marrs (essay date October 1986)

SOURCE: "The Metaphor of Race in Eudora Welty's Fiction," in The Southern Review, Vol. 22, No. 4, October, 1986, pp. 697-707.

[In the following essay, Marrs discusses certain aspects of African-American culture that Welty portrays in Delta Wedding and The Golden Apples including: "separateness despite intimate contact, a consequent and paradoxical freedom from white conventions, and a once common belief in ghosts and magic potions."]

During the 1930s and early 1940s Eudora Welty was almost as busy with her camera as with her typewriter. She photographed scenes and faces, tried to sell a book of her pictures, and gave a one-woman photographic show in New...

(The entire section is 4783 words.)

Barbara Harrell Carson (essay date Spring 1988)

SOURCE: "Eudora Welty's Dance with Darkness: The Robber Bridegroom," in The Southern Literary Journal, Vol. XX, No. 2, Spring, 1988, pp. 51-68.

[In the following essay, Harrell Carson discusses the integration of fairy tale and history in Welty's The Robber Bridegroom.]

The nature and purpose of the relationship between fairy tale and reality in Eudora Welty's The Robber Bridegroom has been discussed since the earliest reviews. In what is probably the most perceptive long critical analysis of the work, Michael Kreyling has seen in the mixture of fairy tale and history an expression of the tension between pastoral dream and capitalistic reality in America....

(The entire section is 7303 words.)

Floyd C. Watkins (essay date Spring 1988)

SOURCE: "Death and the Mountains in The Optimist's Daughter," in Essays in Literature, Vol. 15, No. 1, Spring, 1988, pp. 77-85.

[In the following essay, Watkins discusses the importance of mountains in Welty's life and in her novel The Optimist's Daughter.]

The pervasive relationship between character and place in fiction is especially important and subtle in the fiction of Eudora Welty. Place derives not only from natural geographical characteristics but also from human history and the events that have happened there. In one of several lectures and essays on the subject, Weky comments on the endurance of life in place, which transcends time, locality, and...

(The entire section is 4554 words.)

James Walter (essay date Fall 1988)

SOURCE: "Place Dissolved In Grace: Welty's Losing Battles," in The Southern Literary Journal, Vol. XXI, No. 1, Fall, 1988, pp. 39-53.

[In the following essay, Walter discusses Welty's Losing Battles.]

The more one gets to know Eudora Welty's characters and to observe her construction of worlds in words and images, the more difficulty one has in seeing a division between objective and subjective, outward and inward. Her physical locales, though faithful renderings of the world's appearance in convincing visual detail, are always also figures of the thought, emotions, and dreams of her characters and narrators; and usually what wisdom her characters achieve is by...

(The entire section is 6079 words.)

Eudora Welty with Sally Wolff (interview date January 1990)

SOURCE: "Some Talk about Autobiography: An Interview with Eudora Welty," in The Southern Review, Vol. 26, No. 1, January, 1990, pp. 81-8.

[In the following interview, conducted in July, 1988, Welty discusses the autobiographical aspects of her novel The Optimist's Daughter which correspond to sections of her lectures presented in One Writer's Beginning.]

The inspiration for this interview came partly as a result of a conference on southern autobiography at Arkansas State in the spring of 1988. In July of that year I visited Eudora Welty at her home in Jackson, Mississippi, where we discussed correspondences between One Writer's Beginnings and her...

(The entire section is 3358 words.)

Jan Nordby Gretlund (essay date Fall 1992)

SOURCE: "Welty's Losing Battles," in The Explicator, Vol. 51, No. 1, Fall, 1992, pp. 49-50.

[In the following review, Nordby Gretlund discusses the scene in Welty's Losing Battles in which Granny invites Vaughn to get in bed with her, and asserts that the scene is a case of mistaken identity, not a revelation of a dark side of the family.]

It is my impression that there is an intense search among critics for censure by Welty of the farmers in her novel Losing Battles. I think that the subconscious rejection of her blatant celebration of the Beecham-Renfros stems from an unsatisfied urge among Welty's admirers to locate passages in her fiction that...

(The entire section is 791 words.)

Sally Wolff (essay date Fall 1992)

SOURCE: "'Among Those Missing': Phil Hand's Disappearance from The Optimist's Daughter," in Southern Literary Journal, Vol. 25, No. 1, Fall, 1992, pp. 74-88.

[In the following essay, Wolff discusses how the character of Philip Hand, from Welty's The Optimist's Daughter, was changed as the author revised the work.]

Eudora Welty published The Optimist's Daughter first as a short story in the New Yorker in 1969 and subsequently as a novel in 1972. Radically revising the character of Philip Hand during successive interim versions of the story, initially omitting and then adding, Welty finally excised most material that elaborates his character...

(The entire section is 5496 words.)

Eben E. Bass (essay date Spring 1993)

SOURCE: "The Languages of Losing Battles," in Studies in American Fiction, Vol. 21, No. 1, Spring, 1993, pp. 67-82.

[In the following essay, Bass analyzes the female characters' use of written and spoken language in Welty's Losing Battles and states "Though the feminine language modes of Losing Battles are 'opposites,' they serve a common goal: querying and challenging male-authored decrees."]

Although they serve a common end, written and spoken language complement and compete with each other in Eudora Welty's Losing Battles. Teaching, writing, and books are the province of Julia Mortimer, who dies on the morning of Granny Vaughn's reunion....

(The entire section is 6899 words.)

Gary M. Ciuba (essay date Fall 1993)

SOURCE: "Time and Confluence: Self and Structure in Welty's One Writer's Beginnings," in The Southern Literary Journal, Vol. XXVI, No. 1, Fall, 1993, pp. 78-93.

[In the following essay, Ciuba discusses Welty's One Writer's Beginnings, asserting that Welty's "narrative confluence abolishes distances and divisions in time, links generations, connects seemingly disparate events into the pattern of a lifetime."]

The first picture in the photo album that forms part of One Writer's Beginnings shows the young Eudora Welty in a telling moment: the delighted child is clenching her father's pocket watch, dangling its fob before the camera. "Life doesn't hold...

(The entire section is 6476 words.)

Alexandr Vaschenko (essay date Fall 1993)

SOURCE: "That Which 'The Whole World Knows': Functions of Folklore in Eudora Welty's Stories," in The Southern Quarterly, Vol. XXXII, No. 1, Fall, 1993, pp. 9-15.

[In the following essay, Vaschenko discusses the folklore elements present in Welty's short fiction.]

When it is approached, the subject defined appears to be a part of the general mystery that the stories of Eudora Welty present for any attentive reader. Yet the literary and the folk do intertwine in such an unprecedented way in her narration that this constitutes a challenge for any critical mind.

This approach to the short stories and novellas of Welty reveals some of their complexity of...

(The entire section is 3218 words.)

Carol Shields (review date 12 August 1994)

SOURCE: "Wafts of the South," in TLS, No. 4767, August 12, 1994, pp. 20-1.

[In the following review, Shields discusses three books: a biography of Eudora Welty, a collection of her book reviews, and her novel The Optimist's Daughter.]

Eudora Welty was born in 1909 in Jackson, Mississippi, where she still lives. This stern rootedness has always compounded the wonderment in Miss Welty's admirers, for there is, first, her long list of writing accomplishments to contemplate, and then an accompanying respect for her serene, unwriterly willingness to stay put. She is, in a sense, a curiosity in American literary history, a writer who stayed home, who has lived, in fact, in...

(The entire section is 2480 words.)