Eudora Welty Essays

Eudora Welty


BornEudora Alice Welty
(1909-04-13)April 13, 1909
Jackson, Mississippi, United States
DiedJuly 23, 2001(2001-07-23) (aged 92)
Jackson, Mississippi, United States
OccupationAuthor, photographer
Parent(s)Christian Webb Welty
Mary Chestina (Andrews) Welty
AwardsPulitzer Prize for Fiction
1973 The Optimist's Daughter

Eudora Alice Welty (April 13, 1909 – July 23, 2001) was an American short story writer and novelist who wrote about the American South. Her novel The Optimist's Daughter won the Pulitzer Prize in 1973. Welty was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom among numerous awards including the Order of the South. She was the first living author to have her works published by the Library of America. Her house in Jackson, Mississippi, has been designated as a National Historic Landmark and is open to the public as a house museum.


Eudora Welty was born in Jackson, Mississippi, on April 13, 1909, the daughter of Christian Webb Welty (1879–1931) and Mary Chestina (Andrews) Welty (1883–1966). She grew up with younger brothers Edward Jefferson and Walter Andrews.[1] Eudora’s mother was a school teacher. Eudora soon developed a love of reading reinforced by her mother, who believed that "any room in our house, at any time in the day, was there to read in, or to be read to."[2] Her father, who worked as an insurance executive, was intrigued by gadgets and machines and inspired in Eudora a love of all things mechanical. She later used technology for symbolism in her stories and also became an avid photographer, like her father.[3]

Near the time of her high school graduation, Eudora moved with her family to a house built for them at 1119 Pinehurst Street, which remained her permanent address until her death. Wyatt C. Hedrick designed the Weltys' Tudor Revival-style home, which is now known as the Eudora Welty House and Garden.[4]

From 1925 to 1927, Welty studied at the Mississippi State College for Women, then transferred to the University of Wisconsin to complete her studies in English literature. She studied advertising at Columbia University at the suggestion of her father. Because Welty graduated at the height of the Great Depression, she struggled to find work in New York.

Soon after Welty returned to Jackson in 1931, her father died of leukemia. She took a job at a local radio station and wrote about Jackson society for the Memphis newspaper Commercial Appeal.[5] In 1933, she began work for the Works Progress Administration. As a publicity agent, she collected stories, conducted interviews, and took photographs of daily life in Mississippi. She gained a wider view of Southern life and the human relationships that she drew from for her short stories.[6] During this time she also held meetings in her house with fellow writers and friends, a group she called the Night-Blooming Cereus Club. Three years later, she left her job to become a full-time writer.[3]

In 1936, she published "The Death of a Traveling Salesman" in the literary magazine Manuscript and soon published stories in several other notable publications, including The Sewanee Review and The New Yorker.[7] She strengthened her place as an influential Southern writer when she published her first book of short stories, A Curtain of Green. Her new-found success won her a seat on the staff of The New York Times book review as well as a Guggenheim Fellowship, which enabled her to travel to France, England, Ireland, and Germany.[8] While abroad, she spent some time as a resident lecturer at Oxford and Cambridge. In 1960, she returned home to Jackson to care for her elderly mother and two brothers.[9]

After Medgar Evers, president of the NAACP in Mississippi, was assassinated, she published a story, "Where Is the Voice Coming From?" in The New Yorker. She wrote it in the first person as the assassin.

In 1973, she received the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for her novel The Optimist's Daughter.[8][10] In 1971, she published a collection of her photographs depicting the Great Depression titled One Time, One Place. She lectured at Harvard University and eventually adapted her talks as a three-part memoir titled One Writer's Beginnings.[3][11] She continued to live in her family house in Jackson until her death from natural causes on July 23, 2001.[12] She is buried in Greenwood Cemetery in Jackson. Her headstone has a quote from The Optimist's Daughter: "For her life, any life, she had to believe, was nothing but the continuity of its love."[13]

Throughout the 1970s, Welty carried on a lengthy correspondence with novelist Ross Macdonald, creator of the Lew Archer series of detective novels.[14]


While Welty worked as a publicity agent for the Works Progress Administration, she took photographs of people from all economic and social classes in her spare time. From the early 1930s, her photographs show Mississippi's rural poor and the effects of the Great Depression.[15] Collections of her photographs were published as One Time, One Place (1971) and Photographs (1989). Her photography was the basis for several of her short stories, including "Why I Live at the P.O.", which was inspired by a woman she photographed ironing in the back of a small post office. Although focused on her writing, Welty continued to take photographs until the 1950s.[16]

Writing career and major works[edit]

Welty's first short story, "Death of a Traveling Salesman", was published in 1936. Her work attracted the attention of author Katherine Anne Porter, who became a mentor to Welty and wrote the foreword to Welty's first short story collection, A Curtain of Green, in 1941. The book established Welty as one of American literature's leading lights and featured the stories "Why I Live at the P.O.", "Petrified Man", and the frequently anthologized "A Worn Path". Excited by the printing of Welty's works in publications such as The Atlantic Monthly, the Junior League of Jackson, of which Welty was a member, requested permission from the publishers to reprint some of her works. She eventually published over forty short stories, five novels, three works of nonfiction, and one children's book.

The short story "Why I Live at the P.O." was published with two others in 1941 by The Atlantic Monthly.[17] It was republished later that year in Welty's first collection of short stories, A Curtain of Green. The story is about Sister and how she becomes estranged from her family and ends up living at the post office where she works. Seen by critics as quality Southern literature, the story comically captures family relationships. Like most of her short stories, Welty masterfully captures Southern idiom and places importance on location and customs.[18] "A Worn Path" was also published in The Atlantic Monthly and A Curtain of Green. It is seen as one of Welty's finest short stories, winning the second place O. Henry Award in 1941.[19]

Welty's debut novel, The Robber Bridegroom (1942), deviated from her previous psychologically inclined works, presenting static, fairy-tale characters. Some critics suggest that she worried about "encroaching on the turf of the male literary giant to the north of her in Oxford, Mississippi—William Faulkner",[20] and therefore wrote in a fairy-tale style instead of a historical one. Most critics and readers saw it as a modern Southern fairy-tale and noted that it employs themes and characters reminiscent of the Grimm Brothers' works.[21]

Immediately after the murder of Medgar Evers in 1963, Welty wrote Where Is the Voice Coming From?. As Welty later said, she wondered, "Whoever the murderer is, I know him: not his identity, but his coming about, in this time and place. That is, I ought to have learned by now, from here, what such a man, intent on such a deed, had going on in his mind. I wrote his story—my fiction—in the first person: about that character's point of view".[22] Welty's story was published in The New Yorker soon after Byron de la Beckwith's arrest.

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, The Optimist's Daughter (1972) is believed by some to be Welty's best novel. It was written at a much later date than the bulk of her work. As poet Howard Moss wrote in The New York Times, the book is "a miracle of compression, the kind of book, small in scope but profound in its implications, that rewards a lifetime of work". The plot focuses on family struggles when the daughter and the second wife of a judge confront each other in the limited confines of a hospital room while the judge undergoes eye surgery.

Welty gave a series of addresses at Harvard University, revised and published as One Writer's Beginnings (Harvard, 1983). It was the first book published by Harvard University Press to be a New York Times Best Seller (at least 32 weeks on the list), and runner up for the 1984 National Book Award for Nonfiction.[11][23]

In 1992, she was awarded the Rea Award for the Short Story for her lifetime contributions to the American short story. Welty was a charter member of the Fellowship of Southern Writers, founded in 1987. She also taught creative writing at colleges and in workshops. She lived near Jackson's Belhaven College and was a common sight among the people of her hometown.

Literary criticism related to Welty's fiction[edit]

Eudora Welty was a prolific writer who created stories in multiple genres. Throughout her writing are the recurring themes of the paradox of human relationships, the importance of place (a recurring theme in most Southern writing), and the importance of mythological influences that help shape the theme.[citation needed]

Welty said that her interest in the relationships between individuals and their communities stems from her natural abilities as an observer.[24] Perhaps the best examples can be found within the short stories in A Curtain of Green. "Why I Live at the P.O." comically illustrates the conflict between Sister and her immediate community, her family. This particular story uses lack of proper communication to highlight the underlying theme of the paradox of human connection. Another example is Miss Eckhart of The Golden Apples, who is considered an outsider in her town. Welty shows that this piano teacher’s independent lifestyle allows her to follow her passions, but also highlights Miss Eckhart's longing to start a family and to be seen by the community as someone who belongs in Morgana.[3] Her stories are often characterized by the struggle to retain identity while keeping community relationships.

Place is vitally important to Welty. She believed that place is what makes fiction seem real, because with place come customs, feelings, and associations. Place answers the questions, "What happened? Who's here? Who's coming?" Place is a prompt to memory; thus the human mind is what makes place significant. This is the job of the storyteller. “A Worn Path” is one short story that proves how place shapes how a story is perceived. Within the tale, the main character, Phoenix, must fight to overcome the barriers within the vividly described Southern landscape as she makes her trek to the nearest town. "The Wide Net" is another of Welty’s short stories that uses place to define mood and plot. The river in the story is viewed differently by each character. Some see it as a food source, others see it as deadly, and some see it as a sign that "the outside world is full of endurance".[25]

Welty is noted for using mythology to connect her specific characters and locations to universal truths and themes. Examples can be found within the short story "A Worn Path", the novel Delta Wedding, and the collection of short stories The Golden Apples. In "A Worn Path", the character Phoenix has much in common with the mythical bird. Phoenixes are said to be red and gold and are known for their endurance and dignity. Phoenix, the old Black woman, is described as being clad in a red handkerchief with undertones of gold and is noble and enduring in her difficult quest for the medicine to save her grandson. In "Death of a Traveling Salesman", the husband is given characteristics common to Prometheus. He comes home after bringing fire to his boss and is full of male libido and physical strength. Welty also refers to the figure of Medusa, who in "The Petrified Man" and other stories is used to represent powerful or vulgar women.

Locations can also allude to mythology, as Welty proves in her novel Delta Wedding. As Professor Veronica Makowsky from the University of Connecticut writes, the setting of the Mississippi Delta has "suggestions of the goddess of love, Aphrodite or Venus-shells like that upon which Venus rose from the sea and female genitalia, as in the mound of Venus and Delta of Venus".[26] The title The Golden Apples refers to the difference between people who seek silver apples and those who seek golden apples. It is drawn from W.B. Yeats' poem, "The Song of Wandering Aengus". It also refers to myths of a golden apple being awarded after a contest. Welty used the symbol to illuminate the two types of attitudes her characters could take about life.[27]


  • 1941: O. Henry Award, second place, "A Worn Path"
  • 1942: O. Henry Award, first place, "The Wide Net"
  • 1943: O. Henry Award, first place, "Livvie is Back"
  • 1954: William Dean Howells medal for fiction, The Ponder Heart[28]
  • 1968: O. Henry Award, first place, "The Demonstrators”
  • 1969: Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences[29]
  • 1973: Pulitzer Prize, The Optimist's Daughter[10]
  • 1979: Honorary Doctorate of Letters from University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign in Urbana, Illinois[30]
  • 1980: Presidential Medal of Freedom[28]
  • 1981: Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from Randolph-Macon Woman's College in Lynchburg, Virginia
  • 1983: National Book Award for the first paperback edition of The Collected Works of Eudora Welty[31][a]
  • 1983: Invited by Harvard University to give the first annual Massey Lectures in the History of American Civilization, revised and published as One Writer's Beginnings[3][11]
  • 1983: St. Louis Literary Award from the Saint Louis University Library Associates[32][33]
  • 1985: Achievement Award, American Association of University Women
  • 1986: National Medal of Arts.
  • 1990: Welty was a recipient of the Governor's Award for Excellence in the Arts, Lifetime Achievement, which was the state of Mississippi's recognition of her extraordinary contribution to American Letters.
  • 1991: National Book FoundationMedal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters[34][35]
  • 1991: Peggy V. Helmerich Distinguished Author Award[35][36] The Helmerich Award is presented annually by the Tulsa Library Trust.
  • 1992: Rea Award for the Short Story[37]
  • 1992: PEN/Malamud Award for the Short Story[37]
  • 1993: Charles Frankel Prize, National Endowment for the Humanities[37]
  • 1993: Distinguished Alumni Award, American Association of State Colleges and Universities[37]
  • 1996: Made a Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur by the French government
  • 1998: First living author to have her works published in the prestigious Library of America series.[3]
  • 2000: America Award for a lifetime contribution to international writing.


  • Steve Dorner in 1990 named his e-mail program "Eudora," inspired by Welty's story "Why I Live at the P.O."[38] Welty was reportedly "pleased and amused" by the tribute.[39]
  • In 1973, the state of Mississippi established May 2 as "Eudora Welty Day".[40]
  • Each October, Mississippi University for Women hosts the "Eudora Welty Writers' Symposium" to promote and celebrate the work of contemporary Southern writers.[41]
  • Mississippi State University sculpture professor, Critz Campbell, has designed furniture inspired by Welty that has been featured in Smithsonian magazine, The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, Elle magazine, and the Discovery Channel.
  • A portrait of Eudora Welty hangs in the National Portrait Gallery of the Smithsonian; it was painted by her friend, Mildred Nungester Wolfe.


Short story collections[edit]

  • A Curtain of Green, 1941
  • The Wide Net and Other Stories, 1943
  • Music from Spain, 1948
  • The Golden Apples, 1949
  • Selected Stories, 1954
  • The Bride of the Innisfallen and Other Stories, 1955
  • Thirteen Stories, 1965
  • The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty, 1980
  • Moon Lake and Other Stories, 1980
  • Morgana: Two Stories from The Golden Apples, 1988



See also[edit]




  1. ^"Eudora Welty Biography". Retrieved November 28, 2011.
  2. ^Welty, p. 841
  3. ^ abcdefJohnston, Carol Ann. "Mississippi Writer's Page: Eudora Welty". MWP: University of Mississippi. Retrieved November 28, 2011.
  4. ^"HouseArchived October 5, 2011, at the Wayback Machine.". Eudora Welty Foundation. Retrieved November 28, 2011.
  5. ^Makowsky, pp. 341–342
  6. ^Marrs, p. 52
  7. ^Marrs, p. 50
  8. ^ ab"HouseArchived March 15, 2011, at the Wayback Machine.". Eudora Welty Foundation. Retrieved November 28, 2011.
  9. ^Makowsky, p. 342
  10. ^ ab"Fiction". Past winners & finalists by category. The Pulitzer Prizes. Retrieved 2013-11-19.
  11. ^ abc"Welty Book is First Harvard U. Best Seller", Edwin McDowell, The New York Times, March 13, 1984, page C16.
  12. ^Makowsky, p. 341
  13. ^Eudora Welty at Find a Grave
  14. ^Louis Bayard (2015) Review: Eudora Welty and Ross Macdonald, Conjoined by a Torrent of Words, The New York Times JULY 13, 2015, accessed 14 April 2016
  15. ^T.A. Frail, "Eudora Welty as Photographer", Smithsonian magazine, April 2009. Retrieved 20 May 2013.
  16. ^Rosenberg, Karen (January 14, 2009). "Eudora Welty's work as a young writer: Taking pictures". The New York Times. Retrieved May 26, 2009.
  17. ^Marrs, p. 70
  18. ^Hauser, Marianne. (November 16, 1941.) "A Curtain of Green". The New York Times. Retrieved November 28, 2011.
  19. ^Makowsky, p. 345
  20. ^Makowsky, p. 347
  21. ^Hauser, Marianne. (November 1, 1942.) "Miss Welty's Fairy Tale". The New York Times. Retrieved November 28, 2011.
  22. ^Welty, p. xi
  23. ^"Three Writers Win Book Awards", The New York Times, November 16, 1984, page C32.
  24. ^Welty, p. 862
  25. ^Welty, p. 220
  26. ^Makowsky, p. 349
  27. ^Makowsky, p. 350
  28. ^ abDawidoff, Nicholas. (August 10, 1995.) "At Home with Eudora Welty: Only the Typewriter Is Silent". The New York Times. Retrieved November 28, 2011.
  29. ^"Book of Members, 1780–2010: Chapter W"(PDF). American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved July 24, 2014. 
  30. ^
  31. ^"National Book Awards – 1983". National Book Foundation. Retrieved 2012-01-26.
    (With essay by Robin Black from the Awards 60-year anniversary blog.)
  32. ^Website of St. Louis Literary Award
  33. ^Saint Louis University Library Associates. "Recipients of the Saint Louis Literary Award". Retrieved July 25, 2016. 
  34. ^"Distinguished Contribution to American Letters". National Book Foundation. Retrieved 2012-03-11.
    (With acceptance speech by Welty.)
  35. ^ abMarrs, p. 547
  36. ^Dana Sterling, "Welty reads to audience at Helmerich award dinner", Tulsa World, December 7, 1991.
  37. ^ abcdMarrs, p. 549
  38. ^"Historical Backgrounder". Retrieved November 28, 2011.
  39. ^Thomas, Jo (1997-01-21). "For Inventor of Eudora, Great Fame, No Fortune". The New York Times. Retrieved 10 August 2014. 
  40. ^"[1]". Mississippi Writers and Musicians, Retrieved March 17, 2012
  41. ^"Eudora Welty Writers' Symposium" Mississippi University for Women. Retrieved November 28, 2011.


  • Ford, Richard, and Michael Kreyling, eds. Welty: Stories, Collections, & Memoir. New York: Penguin Putnam Inc., 1998. Print.
  • Makowsky, Veronica. Eudora Welty. American Writers. Ed. Stephen Wagley. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1998. 343–356. Print.
  • Marrs, Suzanne. Eudora Welty: A Biography. Orlando: Harcourt, Inc., 2005. Print. 50–52.
  • Welty, Eudora. The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1980. ISBN 978-0-15-618921-7.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]


Writings on[edit]

Eudora Welty 1909–-2001

American novelist, short story writer, photographer, and essayist. See also, "A Worn Path" Criticism.

Welty is recognized as an important contemporary American author of short fiction. Although the majority of her stories are set in the American South and reflect the region's language and culture, Welty's treatment of universal themes and her wide-ranging artistic influences clearly transcend regional boundaries. Welty is frequently linked with modernist authors such as James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, and some of her works, including the stories in The Golden Apples (1949), are similar in their creation of complex fictional worlds that are only made comprehensible through a network of symbols and allusions, drawn primarily from classical mythology. Some features of Welty's best-known stories are an authentic replication of southern dialect, as in the story “Why I Live at the P.O.” from Welty's A Curtain of Green (1941), a skillful manipulation of realistic detail, and the application of elements of fantasy to create vivid character portraits.

Biographical Information

Born in Jackson, Mississippi, at a time when the city had not yet lost its rural atmosphere, Welty grew up in the bucolic South she so often evoked in her stories. She attended the Mississippi State College for Women and the University of Wisconsin, where she majored in English literature; Welty also studied advertising at Columbia University. However, graduating at the height of the Depression, she was unable to find work and returned to Jackson in 1931. There Welty worked as a part-time journalist and copywriter, and as a Works Progress Administration (WPA) publicity agent. Welty's WPA job took her on assignments reporting and interviewing throughout Mississippi, during which she took hundreds of photographs of ordinary citizens. It was the profundity of these experiences that first inspired Welty to seriously write short stories. In June 1936 her story “Death of a Traveling Salesman” was accepted for publication in the Detroit journal Manuscript and within two years her work appeared in such prestigious publications as the Atlantic and the Southern Review. Critical response to Welty's first collection of stories, A Curtain of Green, was mostly favorable, with many commentators predicting that a first performance so impressive would no doubt lead to even greater achievements. Yet when The Wide Net, and Other Stories (1943) was published two years later, several critics, most notably Diana Trilling, deplored Welty's marked shift away from the colorful realism of her earlier stories toward a more impressionistic style, objecting in particular to her increased use of symbol and metaphor to convey theme. Other critics responded positively, including Robert Penn Warren, who wrote that in Welty's work, “the items of fiction (scene, action, character, etc.) are presented not as document but as comment, not as a report but as a thing made, not as history but as idea.” As Welty continued to refine her vision, her fictional techniques gained wider acceptance. Indeed, her most complex and highly symbolic collection of stories, The Golden Apples, won much acclaim and Welty received a number of prizes and awards throughout the following decade, including the William Dean Howells Medal of the Academy of Arts and Letters for her novella The Ponder Heart (1954). Occupied primarily with teaching, traveling, and lecturing between 1955 and 1970, Welty produced little fiction. Then, in the early 1970s, she published two novels, Losing Battles (1970), which received mixed reviews, and the more critically successful novelette The Optimist's Daughter (1972), which won a Pulitzer Prize. While Welty did not publish any new volumes of short stories after The Bride of the Innisfallen in 1955, the release of The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty in 1980 renewed interest in her short fiction and brought critical praise. In addition, the 1984 publication of Welty's One Writer's Beginnings, an autobiographical chronicle of her artistic development, further illuminated her oeuvre and inspired commentators to reinterpret many of her past stories. Welty died in her birthplace, Jackson, Mississippi, on July 23, 2001. Author Richard Ford, a fellow southerner and past neighbor of Welty's, has been named literary executor of her estate and will decide whether to issue any new work by Welty who ceased publishing in 1973, but continued to write until her death.

Major Works

In his seminal 1944 essay on The Wide Net, and Other Stories, Robert Penn Warren located the essence of Welty's fictive technique in a phrase from her story “First Love”: “Whatever happened, it happened in extraordinary times, in a season of dreams.” It is, states Warren, “as though the author cannot be quite sure what did happen, cannot quite undertake to resolve the meaning of the recorded event.” This tentative approach to narrative exegesis suggests Welty's primary goal in creating fiction, which was not to simply relate a series of events, but to convey a strong sense of her character's experience in a specific moment in time, always acknowledging the ambiguous nature of reality. In order to do so, Welty selected those details that can best vivify the tale, frequently using metaphors and similes to communicate sensory impressions, while revealing only those incidents that enter her characters' inwardness. The resulting stories are highly impressionistic. Welty typically used traditional symbols and mythical allusions in her work, and in the opinion of many it is through linking the particular with the general and the mundane with the metaphysical that she attained her transcendent vision of being. Welty's stories display a marked diversity in content, form, and mood. Many of her stories are facile and humorous, while others employ the tragic and the grotesque. Her jocular stories frequently rely on the comic possibilities of language, as in both “Why I Live at the P.O.” and The Ponder Heart, which both exploit the levity in the speech pattern and colorful idiom of their southern narrators. In addition, Welty also used irony to comic effect and many critics consider this aspect of her work to be one of its chief strengths. Opinions are divided, however, on the effectiveness of Welty's use of the fantastic. While Trilling and others find inclusion of such elements as the carnival exhibits in “Petrified Man,” from A Curtain of Green, exploitative and superfluous, Eunice Glenn maintains that in the story Welty created “scenes of horror” in order to “make everyday life appear as it often does, without the use a magnifying glass, to the person with extraordinary acuteness of feeling.”

Critical Reception

Critics of Welty's work agree that the same literary techniques that produced her finest stories have also been the cause of her most outstanding failures, noting that she is at her best when objective observation and subjective revelation are kept in balance, and that where the former is neglected, she is ineffective. Commentators remark further, however, that such instances are comparatively rare in Welty's work. Many contemporary critics consider Welty's skillful use of language her single greatest achievement, citing in particular the poetic richness of her narratives and her acute sensitivity to the subtleties and peculiarities of human speech. The majority of reviewers concur with Glenn's assertion that “it is her profound search of human consciousness and her illumination of the underlying causes of the compulsions and fears of modern man that would seem to comprise the principal value of Welty's work.”


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