Between 1941 and 1955, Eudora Welty produced seven books of fiction. In the next fourteen years, she published only one book, an unremarkable children’s story. Thus, the appearance in 1970 of Losing Battles, a long comic novel of stunning originality, was, as one reviewer said, an occasion for rejoicing. Winning immediate critical acclaim and a large audience, Losing Battles established a writer who was little known outside academia—and known there chiefly as a Mississippi writer of exquisite short stories—as a major American author. When The Optimist’s Daughter arrived two years later, it was greeted with the same critical and public enthusiasm, although an earlier version of this short novel, published in The New Yorker in 1969, had gone almost unnoticed. In fact, The Optimist’s Daughter earned Welty more than one literary award, including the Pulitzer Prize, for which Losing Battles had previously been unsuccessfully nominated.
Losing Battles, one might say, initiated a Welty “renaissance” and sparked a Welty revival. It was followed in the 1970’s by not only The Optimist’s Daughter but also One Time, One Place (1971), a selection of photographs Welty had taken during the Depression, and The Eye of the Story (1978), an anthology of Welty’s nonfiction. In 1980, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich brought out The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty, making available in one volume the short stories the author has published over a forty-year career. Today, all of Welty’s fiction is in print, including her much neglected first novel, Delta Wedding (1946), which finally joined the paperback list in 1979.
Since 1970, then, Welty has begun to receive the attention and acclaim she has long deserved. Not only has her list of literary awards grown, but also she has been interviewed repeatedly for newspapers, television, and literary journals, has given readings from her fiction at colleges across the nation, and has been honored at several literary conferences and local, state, and national events. The most significant evidence of her growing reputation, however, may be the proliferation of scholarly studies of her work.
Whereas only two books on her works were published before 1970, four such books appeared between 1978 and 1980 alone. In Eudora Welty’s Achievement of Order (1980), Michael Kreyling follows noted Welty scholar Ruth M. Vande Kieft (Eudora Welty, 1962) in discussing Welty as a universal writer whose themes and literary kinships are not particularly regional. The other three recent books are collections of essays which present a variety of theses and interpretations. A Still Moment: Essays on the Art of Eudora Welty, edited by John F. Desmond (1978), and Eudora Welty: A Form of Thanks, edited by Louis Dollarhide and Ann J. Abadie (1979), are slim volumes of less than one hundred fifty pages each. A Still Moment contains ten essays, six of them under twelve pages long; four are excellent, including Desmond’s own study of The Optimist’s Daughter. The second volume is less objective in tone, being the papers which invited speakers delivered at a symposium honoring Welty at the University of Mississippi in 1977. Two of the seven are purely laudatory, not intended as literary analysis, but all are interesting and several are valuable additions to Welty scholarship. The third volume, by far the largest, Eudora Welty: Critical Essays, edited by Peggy Whitman Prenshaw, covers the Welty canon more comprehensively than has any prior text.
Prenshaw, assistant dean of the Graduate School at the University of Southern Mississippi, editor of The Southern Quarterly, and author of a fine essay in Eudora Welty: A Form of Thanks, has brought together twenty-seven previously unpublished essays, most of them by (as she says in her Introduction) “established Welty scholars or scholars known widely for their studies of American fiction.” She divides the twenty-seven into four categories, listing nine under “General Studies,” eight under “Early Fiction,” six under “Later Fiction” (Losing Battles and The Optimist’s Daughter), and four under “Photography and Criticism.” With five essays devoted to it and several of the general studies allotting considerable space to it as well, Losing Battles receives by far the most attention. Yet, all but two of Welty’s other books are subjects of individual essays as well. One does not miss discussion of Welty’s children’s book; but given the size and breadth of coverage of Eudora Welty: Critical Essays, it is not only disappointing but also surprising that The Bride of the Innisfallen (1955), a collection of short stories, has been largely ignored, especially since the editor found space for not one but two essays on Welty’s photography and two on her nonfiction. Of course, this omission may have been unavoidable: Prenshaw may not have received any essays (or any she considered publishable) on this the least popular of Welty’s fiction.
While there are informative and rewarding essays throughout the volume, the “General Studies” section may prove the most valuable. Here, the critics suggest ways of seeing Welty’s varied fiction whole or point out patterns linking a number of her books. Several authors of essays in the other sections attempt a similar approach on a smaller...