Implications of Race
Eudora Welty's "A Worn Path," written in 1940, is one of the author's most frequently anthologized stories, but this by no means indicates that it is her easiest. There is a depth of ambiguity in it. Twentieth-century critics have chosen, for the most part, to examine the role race plays in the story and through that to either condemn Welty or exalt her for her views. But race is certainly not the story's only concern. Questions of age, service, dedication, and myth also inform the story.
However, it is with race that any discussion of Welty's story must begin. Welty comes from Mississippi, in many ways the most notoriously troubled of Southern states. Born there in 1909 (to Northern parents), she grew up and has spent most of her life in Jackson. She grew up in an era where the Civil War and Reconstruction were still remembered by many of her neighbors, and she herself has lived through the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s and the Southern renaissance of the 1980s and 1990s. However, politics very rarely enters her work directly. Her stories deal with race relations on a personal level.
Welty has discussed the genesis of "A Worn Path'' in numerous interviews. The inspiration for Phoenix Jackson was an ancient black woman whom Welty saw walking across the countryside as Welty was sitting under a tree near the Natchez Trace with a painter friend. "I watched her cross that landscape in the half-distance,'' she explains, "and when I got home I wrote that story that she had made me think of." In another interview, she added that "I knew she was going somewhere. I knew she was bent on an errand, even at that distance. It was not anything casual. It was a purposeful, measured journey she was making—you wouldn't go on an errand like that—unless it were for someone else, you know. Unless it were an emergency."
"A Worn Path" traces the journey of an ancient black woman who walks to Natchez, Mississippi, in order to obtain medicine for her grandson, who permanently injured himself by swallowing lye. On this, most of her critics agree, but that is as far as they go. One group holds that Welty's portrayal of the black race through her main character, Phoenix Jackson, is eminently sympathetic; another feels that Welty shares with many other Southern writers a tendency to portray blacks as long-suffering and enduring, and in doing so robs them of their true complexity as human beings.
Crucial to any assessment of this question is whether Phoenix Jackson is intended to stand as a representative of her race. Certainly, she plays into one stereotypical Southern image of blacks: the ancient, plodding, superstitious grandmother who talks to herself. Welty seems to undercut this image by introducing the hunter, who treats Jackson as precisely that kind of a stereotype. "I know you old colored people!" he tells her. "Wouldn't miss going to town to see Santa Claus!" He seems like a buffoon here, but when he drops his nickel and she picks it up, critics see the action as either indicative of another pejorative stereotype of blacks (craftiness and dishonesty) or as illustrative of her superiority over him. Similarly, critics disagree on the significance of the white woman in Natchez tying Jackson's shoe. Is this an indication, as one critic holds, of "courtesy warranted by virtue of her age and her 'fealty' to the white race,'' or is it a comical representation of black helplessness?
The position that Welty's characterization of Jackson relies heavily on stereotypes is quite convincing. There is a long tradition of white Southern writers exalting the primitiveness of blacks: a move that, while not racist in intent (their primitiveness is used to teach more "sophisticated" whites about the virtues of simplicity), is somewhat demeaning in effect. If Jackson is meant to represent blacks as a whole, what are we to make of her "naivete and helplessness''? If her great age is in one respect an asset, does it not also suggest that blacks are...
(The entire section is 6,128 words.)