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.”