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.
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.
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.
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).