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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 scale. For example, in “Eudora Welty’s Mississippi,” Albert J. Devlin focuses on The Robber Bridegroom (1942) and the stories of A Curtain of Green (1941) in demonstrating that Welty has written closely related stories possessing “the amplitude of cultural history.” Such attempts to identify more than stylistic threads spanning Welty’s works—an interest spurred by the publication of Losing Battles and The Optimist’s Daughter, both of which have obvious as well as subtle connections to the earlier fiction—are especially welcome since the diversity of Welty’s fiction, while real, has long been overemphasized and the individual short story, collection, or novel typically treated in isolation from the rest.
Testifying to the diversity of the fiction are the numerous labels which critics have attached to the author since the beginning of her career. Welty has been called romanticist, realist, pessimist, optimist, existentialist, affirmer of life, melodramatist, lyricist, local colorist, universalist. In the first essay of the volume, Chester E. Eisinger introduces two new labels, but rather than adding to the confusion, he has, in effect, hacked a path through the entanglement of labels. Looking at the whole of Welty’s fiction, he proclaims Welty neither one thing nor another—romanticist or realist, regionalist or universalist—but argues that she is two things: both a traditionalist and a modernist. Her “traditionalism” he locates in her realism and her use of fiction to make implicit statements about life, her “modernism” in her concern with style and technique and her valuing of fiction as necessarily an aesthetic experience. That he has successfully identified two major characteristics of her writing is suggested by the correspondence between these characteristics and the two dominant patterns which have emerged in Welty criticism.
The oldest of these patterns is a fascination with the distinctive form and art of Welty’s storytelling—with her use of myth, her subtle and enticing allusions, her sometimes chatty, sometimes mysterious prose style. This interest emerged in response to Welty’s earliest stories and is evident in several essays of the current volume. It has generally been in studies of this vein that critics have been led to call Welty a romanticist, to stress her portrayal of the inner lives of her characters (which, they say, she accomplishes in part through allusions to myth), to describe her concerns (as revealed through both her emphasis on the inner life and her allusions to myth) as universal, and to imply that she, unlike many of her fellow Southern writers, has little to say about the South in particular. The second major pattern in Welty criticism focuses on the author’s portrayal of a concrete physical, social, cultural world situated in a specific time and place. This perception of Welty as a writer of works of social and domestic realism has only taken strong hold since the publication of Losing Battles and The Optimist’s Daughter, although critics trace the realism back to the earlier works as well. Many of the essays in Prenshaw’s collection pursue this strain, including John Edward Hardy’s “Marrying Down in Eudora Welty’s Novels,” Margaret Jones Bolsterli’s “Women’s Vision: The Worlds of Women in Delta Wedding, Losing Battles, and The Optimist’s Daughter,” and (in part) Thomas Daniel Young’s “Social Form and Social Order: An Examination of The Optimist’s Daughter.” The subjects of these informative studies are reflected in their titles.
Some essays bridge these two critical patterns. In a very interesting study, Warren French shows that Welty has used a specific place, the Old Natchez Trace, to create her version of a motif which figures prominently and frequently mythically in American literature: the passing of the frontier. With originality, she makes her version, The Robber Bridegroom, “paradoxically, a legend of civilization,” he says. Also, in perhaps the best basic study of Losing Battles to date, Robert B. Heilman discusses the intertwining of theme, content, and technique in this long novel, his thesis being that Losing Battles is a carefully but subtly structured and unified book. His method is a close reading of the text itself, with brief comparisons to works by other writers. He gives nine pages, for example, to discussing Welty’s prose style. The competence and thoroughness of the study compensate for the tediousness of Heilman’s long lists of examples.
In a volume as large as this one, one cannot expect the essays to be of equal merit and freshness or, for that matter, a consistent viewpoint to be presented. The reader will have to choose between, among other things, Mary Anne Ferguson’s observation that the family in Losing Battles “sees as unnecessary if not absurd any attempt to learn the secret of [Gloria’s] identity” since Gloria “has acquired a name through marriage” and Louise Y. Gossett’s view that Gloria’s “origin is a mystery the family feels it must solve in order to domesticate her.” Each of the three essays on The Golden Apples, a cycle of interrelated stories, treats to some extent the standard topic in analyses of this work: the implications of the stories’ aura of myth. “Golden Apples and Silver Apples” by Julia L. Demmin and Daniel Curley is the most intriguing but also the least convincing. The authors say, for example, that Loch Morrison (“Moon Lake”) “is beginning a life of isolation and wretchedness, a legacy . . . from his having once seen King MacLain and taken some of his knowledge but none of his power—he cannot even save Easter’s life without the direct intervention of King’s surrogate, Ran.” No part of this statement (except that Loch has seen King MacLain) represents what literally happens; the assumptions in the statement depend on the authors’ initial assumption that king and “surrogates” have symbolic roles and mythical powers, but the case they make is flimsy.
Prenshaw has risked repetitiveness by including many discussions of Losing Battles, but there is considerable variety in what the critics make of this unusual novel. Ferguson finds that Losing Battles is “a comic epic in prose,” and much of her argument is enlightening. She presents, however, a more favorable picture of the novel’s major family and their battles and takes the characters more seriously than her thesis would seem to justify. (She sees heroism everywhere; even the three young Renfro girls—a typical seven-year-old, nine-year-old, and sixteen-year-old—“are heroic in their actions and their goals.”) Ferguson does not, however, mean by “a comic epic in prose” the same thing that Henry Fielding meant. She interprets Losing Battles not as a mock epic but as “an epic for our times,” comic in the sense that the Odyssey is comic: “like the Odyssey, Losing Battles is comic in that the hero accomplishes his mission to return home to a waiting wife after overcoming great difficulties which he resolves by cleverness.” Surely Ferguson is off-target here. While hero Jack Renfro is lovable and good and earnest, he is anything but clever. He is an impulsive, naïve nineteen-year-old whose determination and faith in himself sometimes (but rarely) lead to success in spite of his bumbling, preposterous antics. Indeed, as one might expect of a comic epic in the Fielding or Cervantes vein, the implicit parallel between Jack and Odysseus which underlies the action is surely ironic, for Jack’s naïveté and lack of forethought are amusing contrasts to Odysseus’s “prodigious cunning.” As Heilman and Gossett say in their separate essays, in his antics Jack often resembles a Charlie Chaplin figure or the hero of a tall tale. Eisinger, on the other hand, sees Jack as a superhero: Welty “has mythologized her protagonist, making of him a hero in a series of tales. . . . He is a noble man, and Welty has cast him in the mold of a perfect Christian knight of the Middle Ages or of a Renaissance courtier out of Castiglione. . . . She has also endowed him with supernatural powers.” Eisinger seems to be making the mistake of confusing the family’s view of Jack with Welty’s. It is not Welty who “has mythologized her protagonist”; rather, Jack’s relatives do so through their exaggerated tales of his exploits. In fact, by exposing their mythologizing—in showing the reader the real, very human Jack himself—Welty succeeds in demythologizing him.
Even in disagreeing with individual points or individual essays, the reader will learn from Eudora Welty: Critical Essays. Prenshaw’s collection is a valuable contribution to the still sparse body of literature on Eudora Welty’s fiction.
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Some of Eudora Welty’s characters are called “grotesques,” or exaggerated to the point of caricature. Which characters seem to fit that definition?
How does Welty use humor in her works?
How does Welty’s fiction reflect her belief in the continuing presence of the past?
What evidence do you find in Welty’s works of her belief in the value of the family?
How do Welty’s characters deal with community pressures?
Welty typically uses several points of view in a single work in order to show how differently people see reality. In which works is that technique especially effective?
Other Literary Forms
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In addition to her many short stories, Eudora Welty published novels, essays, reviews, an autobiography, a fantasy story for children, and a volume of photographs of Mississippi during the Depression, One Time, One Place: Mississippi in the Depression, A Snapshot Album (1971), taken during her stint as photographer and writer for the Works Progress Administration.
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Eudora Welty possessed a distinctive voice in southern, and indeed in American, fiction. Her vibrant, compelling evocation of the Mississippi landscape, which was her most common setting, led to comparisons between her work and that of other eminent southern writers such as William Faulkner, Carson McCullers, and Flannery O’Connor. Welty’s graceful, lyrical fiction, however, lacks the pessimism that characterizes much of established southern writing, and though her settings are distinctly southern, her themes are universal and do not focus on uniquely southern issues.
The honors and awards that Welty amassed throughout her long career are so many as to defy complete listing in a short space. Among her major achievements are four O. Henry Awards for her short stories (first prizes in 1942, 1943, and 1968, and a second prize in 1941), two Guggenheim Fellowships (1942, 1949), honorary lectureships at Smith College (1952) and the University of Cambridge (1955), election to the National Institute of Arts and Letters (1952) and to the American Academy of Arts and Letters (1971), honorary LL.D. degrees from the University of Wisconsin (1954) and Smith College (1956), a term as Honorary Consultant to the Library of Congress (1958-1961), the William Dean Howells Medal of the American Academy of Arts and Letters for The Ponder Heart (1954), the Gold Medal for Fiction of the National Institute of Arts and Letters (1972), the Pulitzer Prize in fiction (awarded in 1973 for her 1972 novel The Optimist’s Daughter), the National Medal of Literature and Medal of Freedom (1981), the National Medal of Arts (1986), the naming of the Jackson Public Library in her honor (1986), and a Rea Award (1992).
Other literary forms
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In spite of her success and acclaim as a novelist, Eudora Welty always regarded herself as essentially a writer of short stories. In an interview that appeared in the fall, 1972, issue of The Paris Review, she said, “I’m a short-story writer who writes novels the hard way, and by accident.” In 1980, all of her previously collected short fiction and two uncollected stories were published in one volume, The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty. Another new collection, Moon Lake, and Other Stories, was published in the same year, and Retreat was released in 1981. Prior to that, some had appeared in Short Stories (1950) and in Selected Stories of Eudora Welty (1954). Other early short-story collections are A Curtain of Green, and Other Stories (1941); The Wide Net, and Other Stories (1943); The Golden Apples (1949), regarded by some as a loosely structured novel but considered by Welty to be a group of interconnected stories; and The Bride of the Innisfallen, and Other Stories (1955). Welty also published numerous essays and reviews, some of which were collected in The Eye of the Story: Selected Essays and Reviews (1978). In addition, she published a book for children, The Shoe Bird (1964), and books of her own photographs, One Time, One Place: Mississippi in the Depression, a Snapshot Album (1971) and Eudora Welty: Photographs (1989). A memoir, One Writer’s Beginnings, appeared in 1984.
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Although it was not until she wrote Losing Battles and The Optimist’s Daughter that Eudora Welty’s name began to appear on the best-seller lists, her work had long been recognized and appreciated by discerning readers. In five decades of writing and publishing, she received nearly every major award for fiction offered in the United States. Among them are the prestigious William Dean Howells Medal of the American Academy of Arts and Letters for the most distinguished work of American fiction for the years 1950 through 1955, the National Institute of Arts and Letters Gold Medal for the Novel in 1972, the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1973, and the National Medal for Literature at the American Book Awards ceremony in 1980. In addition, she was awarded several honorary doctorates, Guggenheim fellowships, special professorships, and membership in the National Institute of Arts and Letters.
Uninterested in either fame or fortune, Welty simply wanted the opportunity to write and the assurance that there are readers who enjoy her work. She repeatedly expressed gratitude to such writers and editors as Robert Penn Warren, Cleanth Brooks, Albert Erskine, Ford Madox Ford, and Katherine Anne Porter, who were among the first persons of influence to recognize her ability and to promote interest in her early stories. Warren, Brooks, and Erskine accepted some of her first stories for the Southern Review and thus opened the door for subsequent publication in such magazines as The Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s Bazaar, and The New Yorker. This exposure to a national audience also facilitated the publication of her first volume of stories.
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Champion, Laurie, ed. The Critical Response to Eudora Welty’s Fiction. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1994.
Evans, Elizabeth. Eudora Welty. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1981. This accessible survey discusses both Welty’s fiction and her essays and reviews. The brief literary biography of Welty in the opening chapter is useful and offers interesting information on Welty’s relationship with her publishers and editors in the early part of her long literary career.
Devlin, Albert J. Eudora Welty’s Chronicle: A Story of Mississippi Life. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1983. Devlin analyzes certain works, such as Delta Wedding, in great detail. He offers insightful criticism and suggests that Welty’s writing contains a historical structure, spanning from the territorial era to modern times.
Georgia Review 53 (Spring, 1999). A special issue on Welty celebrating her ninetieth birthday, with articles by a number of writers, including Doris Betts, as well as a number of critics and admirers of Welty.
Kaplansky, Leslie A. “Cinematic Rhythms in the Short Fiction of Eudora Welty.” Studies in Short Fiction 33 (Fall, 1996): 579-589. Discusses the influence of film technique on Welty’s short fiction; argues that in taking advantage of cinematic rhythm in her stories, Welty developed her mastery of technique and style.
Manning, Carol S. With Ears Opening Like Morning Glories: Eudora Welty and the Love of Storytelling. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1985. An advanced book offering a critical interpretation of Welty’s writing. Manning believes that the root of Welty’s creativity is the Southern love of storytelling. Offers a select bibliography.
Mars, Suzanne. Eudora Welty: A Biography. Orlando, Fla.: Harcourt, 2005. Literary biography provides insight into Welty’s life and writing and serves to refute some popular conceptions of the writer.
Marrs, Suzanne. One Writer’s Imagination: The Fiction of Eudora Welty. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2002. A combination of critical analysis and memoir, written by a long-time friend of Welty who is also a scholar and the archivist of Welty’s papers. Discusses the effects of both close personal relationships and social and political events on Welty’s imagination and writing.
Mississippi Quarterly 50 (Fall, 1997). A special issue on Welty, with essays comparing Welty to William Faulkner, Edgar Allan Poe, and Nathaniel Hawthorne, and discussions of the women in Welty’s stories, her political thought, her treatment of race and history.
Mortimer, Gail L. Daughter of the Swan: Love and Knowledge in Eudora Welty’s Fiction. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1994. Concentrates primarily on the short stories.
Pierpont, Claudia Roth. Passionate Minds: Women Rewriting the World. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000. Evocative interpretive essays on the life paths and works of twelve women, including Welty, connecting the circumstances of their lives with the shapes, styles, subjects, and situations of their art.
Prenshaw, Peggy Whitman, ed. Conversations with Eudora Welty. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1984. A collection of interviews with Welty spanning the years 1942-1982. Welty talks frankly and revealingly with interviewers such as William F. Buckley, Jr., and Alice Walker about her fiction and her life, addressing such topics as her methods of writing, her southern background, her love of reading, and her admiration for the works of writers such as William Faulkner, Elizabeth Bowen, and Katherine Anne Porter.
Thornton, Naoko Fuwa. Strange Felicity: Eudora Welty’s Subtexts on Fiction and Society. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2003. An analysis of Welty’s major works that uncover her views about the role of her fiction in the social and literary worlds.
Vande Kieft, Ruth M. Eudora Welty. 1962. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne, 1987. This comprehensive examination of Welty’s fiction offers detailed explications of many of Welty’s works as well as chapters on particular aspects of her writing, such as elements of comedy and Welty’s deliberate desire to “mystify” her readers.
Waldron, Ann. Eudora Welty: A Writer’s Life. New York: Doubleday, 1998. The first full-length biography of Welty, but one that was done without her authorization or permission; provides a great deal of detail about Welty’s life and literary career but derives commentary about Welty’s work from reviews and other previous criticism.
Westling, Louise. Sacred Groves and Ravaged Gardens: The Fiction of Eudora Welty, Carson McCullers, and Flannery O’Connor. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1985. Westling examines Welty’s fiction, along with the work of other eminent female southern writers, as part of a tradition of southern women’s writing. Westling brings a feminist perspective to bear on such aspects of southern women’s writing as myth, sexuality, and the symbolic power of place. Welty’s fiction is analyzed as a feminine celebration of a matriarchal society in which women can find freedom and fulfillment outside the social strictures of traditional southern life.
Weston, Ruth D. Gothic Traditions and Narrative Techniques in the Fiction of Eudora Welty. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1994. Discusses Welty’s use of the gothic tradition in her fiction; provides original readings of a number of Welty’s short stories.