Eudora Welty Biography

Eudora Welty had good ears, the kind that can pick up and process the subtleties of a dialogue or an accent—the kind of ears that can make for great writing. And a great writer she undoubtedly was. Her most celebrated medium was the short story, and her main subject was the family, though she personally never married. Her favorite setting was generally the South, in particular Mississippi, where she spent the majority of her life. Imbuing her work with both a sense of humor and respect, Welty created characters that are often lonely and complex, full of longing but strangely fulfilled. Besides four collections of celebrated short stories, she also wrote an influential nonfiction book, On Writing (1942). Her main advice to new writers? Learn to listen, of course.

Facts and Trivia

  • Although many of her stories feature eccentric and strong women, feminist scholars shunned Welty’s work for a long time because of negative comments she made about the feminist movement in the 1970s.
  • Welty also had great eyes. She was an accomplished photographer who for three years during the 1930s took pictures of the Depression-stricken South.
  • Intensely private, Welty refused to talk about personal influences in her work, preferring that the writing speak for itself.
  • Welty was the first woman to enter Peterhouse College in Cambridge.
  • Welty maintained her sense of humor until the end. When a doctor asked her if there was anything he could do as she lay dying, she quipped, “No, but thanks for inviting me to the party.”

Biography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 957

Eudora Welty was born in Jackson, Mississippi, on April 13, 1909. Her father, Christian Webb Welty, was originally from rural Ohio; he had met Mary Chestina (“Chessie”) Andrews when he was working in West Virginia, where she was a teacher in the mountain schools near her home. To the dismay of her five adoring brothers, the new bride and her husband decided to move to Jackson. There Christian became a successful businessman. Eudora was their second child. As she recalls in One Writer’s Beginnings (1984), her parents did not speak freely of the baby boy who had died at birth, but Eudora was aware of being cherished and even sheltered.

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Welty was an observant child. Sounds and sights, musical harmonies and the cadences of human voices, the coming and the fading of the seasons, the subtle changes in human beings—all were fascinating to her. With her two younger brothers, Welty could disappear into the world of the imagination. There were also trips north and east to visit both of her parents’ families. Her world was filled with stimuli, yet it was safe; the serenity that is evident in her fiction began with a happy childhood in a family filled with love.

Encouraged by her mother, Welty read a wide variety of books. Soon she was also writing. Her gifts were not only literary, however; in high school and later in college, she took lessons in drawing and painting. This visual gift was to be utilized in her photographs as well as in the memorable descriptive passages in her fiction.

After she graduated in 1925 from Central High School in Jackson, Welty spent two years at Mississippi State College for Women. In 1927, she transferred to the University of Wisconsin, where she majored in English. In One Writer’s Beginnings, she recalls the moment when she knew that literature must be her life; as she explains it, a poem by William Butler Yeats so imbued her with passion that she believed she could live within it, possessing it and possessed by it.

However, after Welty graduated from college in 1929, she followed her father’s advice: She went to New York City and entered the School of Business at Columbia University, studying advertising, so that she would be able to get a job. Unfortunately, when the Depression hit, there were no jobs in New York. In 1931, Welty returned to Jackson. That year, she suffered a great loss in the death of her father, who called himself the family optimist.

During the next several years, Welty worked for a radio station, several newspapers, and, perhaps most important, as a junior publicity agent for the Works Progress Administration. This job took her all over Mississippi; she interviewed ordinary people, wrote articles, and took photographs. Although she was writing regularly, it was her photographs that Welty first tried to sell. In 1936, she had a one-woman show of them in New York; that same year marked the appearance of her first published story, “Death of a Traveling Salesman.” It was not the work of an apprentice but of a polished, mature writer whose vision and approach were uniquely her own.

After “Death of a Traveling Salesman,” Welty’s stories began appearing regularly in The Southern Review and in mass-circulation magazines such as The Atlantic. In 1941, her first book-length collection, A Curtain of Green, and Other Stories, was published. This volume was followed by a novel, The Robber Bridegroom (1942), the story of a magical romance that ends when the lovers see each other as the ordinary people they really are.

Now a full-time writer, Welty entered her most productive period. She published The Wide Net, and Other Stories (1943); a novel, Delta Wedding (1946); another short-story collection, The Golden Apples (1949); the novella The Ponder Heart (1954); and The Bride of the Innisfallen, and Other Stories (1955). A number of the works produced during this time were singled out for literary honors. For example, in 1942, “The Wide Net” won an O. Henry Award, and “Livvie Is Back” won the same prize in 1943. The Ponder Heart won the William Dean Howells medal; it was dramatized and became a Broadway hit in 1956.

During the next three decades, Welty published less frequently. She spent a great deal of time working on what was to be her most complex novel, Losing Battles (1970). She also had to deal with family problems, her mother’s long illness and death and the death of a brother. One outcome of these experiences was her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Optimist’s Daughter (1972). In 1980, her short fiction was brought together in a single volume entitled The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty, which won the American Book Award. In 1978, Welty published The Eye of the Story, a collection of essays and reviews that reveals much about her views of art. Two other important nonfiction works of Welty’s later years were the autobiographical One Writer’s Beginnings (1984) and A Writer’s Eye: Collected Book Reviews (1994). Two posthumous works were On Writing (2002), which consisted of seven essays about literature, and Some Notes on River Country (2003).

The people of her native state often demonstrated their pride in Welty’s accomplishments. The governor proclaimed May 2, 1973, to be Eudora Welty Day, and on April 13, 1984, the whole state joined in a celebration of the writer’s seventy-fifth birthday. Welty’s achievements were also recognized nationally and internationally. In 1980, she received both the National Medal of Literature and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and in 1996, she was awarded the French Legion of Honor.

Eudora Welty died of pneumonia on July 23, 2001, in Jackson, Mississippi. She had spent her life in her native state, observing ordinary people and writing about ordinary events. In the process, she had become one of America’s most important writers and one of the most beloved.

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