Discussion Topics

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?

Eudora Welty

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...

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Other Literary Forms

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.

Achievements

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

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.

Achievements

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

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.

Bibliography

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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...

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