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Eudora Welty is renowned for her inventive, insightful, comic works about the Deep South, her native Mississippi in particular. An important tenet of Eudora Welty’s fictional theory is that attachment to place, or ”regionalism,” is not restrictive, but rather it becomes a means to universality in great literature, a way of getting to the roots of what is constant in human experience. Her fiction, including the modern fairytale The Robber Bridegroom (1942) and the Pulitzer Prize-winning novella The Optimist’s Daughter, certainly bears out her theory, as Welty’s work is enjoyed by readers around the world.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
A Home Full of Books and Love
Eudora Alice Welty was born on April 13, 1909, the only daughter, with two brothers, of Mary Chestina Andrews and Christian Webb Welty. As a young woman Welty’s mother had been a teacher, passionately devoted to books and learning, who rode out on her horse every day to teach in a one-room school in West Virginia. Eudora Welty inherited from her mother a strong independence of spirit, the capacity for risk taking, and the love of tales told within the large mountain family. The Welty home in Jackson, Mississippi, was full of books, and Welty had her own library card at a very young age. The family nurtured Welty’s artistic and educational pursuits and supported her pursuit of a degree in English from the University of Wisconsin, which she received in 1929.
Pragmatism Leads to the Big Apple
At her father’s urging, Welty studied advertising for a year at the Columbia Graduate School of Business in New York during 1930-1931, an attempt on her part to find a means of practical employment. The years in Wisconsin and New York broadened Welty’s horizons, and the time she spent in New York City was especially meaningful. The Harlem Renaissance, an artistic movement that rejoiced in the unique identity of the African American culture, was at its height. The movement was centered in the African American neighborhood of Harlem, New York, between the First and Second World Wars. For the first time in the history of the United States, African American art, literature, and music received attention from mainstream America. Jazz was heard on the radio, literature by African American writers such as poet Langston Hughes was widely published, and Harlem clubs featuring African American musicians such as Cab Calloway were popular spots for integrated crowds. Welty and her friends ventured to dances in Harlem clubs and to musical and theatrical performances all over New York City.
Life Doesn’t Hold Still
Her father’s sudden death in 1931 brought an end to Welty’s northern adventures. She went home to Jackson to help her mother and brothers. To support herself, Welty first tried various small jobs with local newspapers and with radio station WJDX, which her father had started in the tower of his insurance building. After the stock market crashed in 1929, unemployment and poverty soared, leading the nation into the Great Depression. To help stimulate the economy and put the unemployed to work, the federal government designed a new agency, the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The WPA constructed buildings, built parks, repaired roads, and built thousands of miles of highways. The WPA even had an employment plan for artists in which public buildings were given sculptures or murals, traveling theaters toured the nation, and writers and photographers were commissioned to record the moment for history. In 1933 Welty was offered a position as a publicity agent for the WPA. She traveled for three years around the eighty-two counties of Mississippi doing feature stories on local projects, gathering impressions and photographs of the varied people, groups, landscapes, and towns she visited. These impressions fed her imagination for many years: pictures taken, literally and figuratively, set in ”that time, that place” (Mississippi in the Great Depression), formed the basis of much of her fiction. Welty was learning the art of seeing and capturing significant moments in the lives of ordinary people, an art she first practiced with a camera, then with the pen. In reference to the influence that photography had on her works, Welty said in her autobiographical work One Writer’s Beginnings (1984), ”Life doesn’t hold still.”
Discovery Is Followed by Rapid Success
Welty’s first modest success came in 1936, when she arranged a one-woman show of her unposed photographs of Mississippi black people. The photos were shown in a small gallery on Madison Avenue in New York City. Seeing firsthand the Depression-struck lives of rural and smalltown people in the nation’s poorest state, Welty was stimulated to capture their struggles and triumphs in stories, beginning with ”Death of a Traveling Salesman,” which was published in the literary magazine Manuscript in 1936. Other stories followed during the next five years, including some of her most famous: ”Why I Live at the P.O.,” ”Powerhouse,” ”A Worn Path,” ”Petrified Man,” and ”Lily Daw and the Three Ladies.” These early works established Welty’s characteristic comic touch with dialogue and with recording the incongruous developments of everyday life. Here she also developed a way of treating poverty, loss, and pain with a respectful, discrete lightness.
Welty produced her first three major publications— A Curtain of Green (1941), The Robber Bridegroom (1942), and The Wide Net and Other Stories (1943)— within a three-year period. Together they established the distinguishing marks of her fiction: the importance of place; the impulse to celebrate life; the exploration of human mystery; the theme of love and separateness; the sense of multiplicity in life; and an elusive, changing, and lyrical style. These stories are mostly about country people, black and white, though others are placed in small towns and cities. Whatever the setting, Welty has been precise in her depiction of the social structures that go with place and time.
Exploring the Depths of the Novel
It was the lure of possibilities in form that led Eudora Welty to the writing of longer fictional works. Delta Wedding (1946) was Eudora Welty’s initial experiment with a full-length novel. Another novella, The Ponder Heart (1954), was both a popular and critical success. It is the dramatic monologue of Edna Earle Ponder, small-town hotel manager and niece of her generous, fond, and foolish conveyor of love and money, Uncle Daniel Ponder. He literally tickles his silly little wife to death when a lightning fireball rolls into the room, and his trial turns into farce when he actually throws his money away in the courtroom. Because of its comic high spirits and adroit use of the Southern dialect, the novella won Eudora Welty the William Dean Howells Medal of the American Academy for the most distinguished work of American fiction between 1950 and 1955.
A Best Seller Evolves after Fifteen Years
During the next fifteen years, Eudora Welty did not publish any lengthy works. At this time Mississippi and the South were going through the turbulence of the civil rights movement. Welty didn’t directly involve herself in the movement but rather remained an observer or chronicler. Welty completed and published her longest novel, Losing Battles (1970), and appeared on the best-seller lists for the first time. Welty continued to publish short stories through the eighties, but it was her autobiographical book One Writer’s Beginnings that became widely popular. Perhaps because she wished to forestall potential biographers, or because she came to accept public interest in how a writer’s early experiences shape her vision, Welty provided in the book a re-creation of the world that nourished her own imagination, especially the influence her mother had in her life. Eudora Welty died in Jackson, Mississippi, on July 23, 2001.
Works in Literary Context
Welty’s fictional chronicles of Mississippi life add a major comic vision to American literature, a vision that affirms the sustaining power of community and family life and at the same time explores the need for solitude. While much of modern American fiction has emphasized alienation and the failure of love, Welty’s stories show how tolerance and generosity allow people to adapt to each other’s foibles and to painful change.
Welty’s stories are almost entirely filled with Southerners, Mississippi Southerners. Black and white both, though mostly white, they are as authentically Southern as they come in their language, gestures, moods, madnesses, everything to the finest detail. With her novel Delta Wedding, Welty skillfully chronicles the traditions of the Southern family and community. She works through themes that accompany the emphasis on community, including the precariousness of marriage and the intimate suffering it involves, the weight of family tradition and the accompanying tension caused by the need of the young to break out and affirm their individuality, and the stark and hopeless loss that the living must accommodate after the death of parents and mates. Her depictions of the Southern traditions are often compared to those of her fellow Mississippian, William Faulkner, whose novels such as The Sound and the Fury (1929) also chronicle Southern family life.
Welty’s fiction also reflects a whimsical and innocent style characteristic of traditional folk tales, like those preserved by the brothers Grimm. The Grimm tales ”Hansel and Gretel,” “Rapunzel,” and ”Little Red Riding Hood” reveal the capricious and cruel side of life. Welty’s first sustained experiment with folk materials appeared in 1942 with The Robber Bridegroom, a bold fusion of Mississippi history, tall tale, and fairytales of mysterious seducers clearly drawn from British and Germanic sources. The innocent tone of the narrative counteracts the dire stuff of robberies, murders, and the depredations of a cruel stepmother. The humor, dialect, and dialogue are reminiscent of the Southern oral tradition captured in Joel Chandler Harris’s Uncle Remus stories.
Works in Critical Context
Potential editors were initially reluctant to publish Welty’s work because of fear that they were too complex to appeal to the common reader. Later, some critics raised objections to what seemed a needless obscurity, a confusing blend of reality and fantasy in her work. Elaborateness, subtlety, and sophistication of narrative technique are distinguishing marks of Welty’s stories. Some critics savored this style, others did not.
A Curtain of Green
When A Curtain of Green appeared in 1941, it was to generally high critical acclaim, and though the audience was to become larger than predicted, it remained, for many years small and discriminating. One objection was to Southern “gothic” decadence in A Curtain of Green. To many critics, Welty’s earliest stories remain the best, and her reputation rests on the perennial freshness and lyrical poignancy—or brilliant comedy—of a dozen or more of her early stories. Michael Kreyling declared in Eudora Welty’s Achievement of Order (1980) that the value of her work is not that it is ”primarily regional writing, or even excellent regional writing, but [that it conveys] the vision of a certain artist who must be considered with her peers—[Virginia] Woolf, [Elizabeth] Bowen, and [E. M.] Forster.”
The Robber Bridegroom
The greater objectivity in narrative method in Welty’s novels met with wide approval, and many general readers and critics regarded these works as Welty’s finest achievement. The Robber Bridegroom, to many early reviewers, was pure magic. In the New York Times Book Review, Marianne Hauser calls it ”a modern fairy tale, where irony and humor, outright nonsense, deep wisdom and surrealistic extravaganzas become a poetic unity through the power of a pure, exquisite style.” Although some other commentators found it lacking in substance, Michael Kreyling defends The Robber Bridegroom as a valuable addition to the pastoral tradition in American literature: ”Welty seems to be saying that the dream of a pastoral paradise on earth is always one step ahead of the dreamers; it is, sadly, only possible in a dream world removed from contact with human flesh and imperfections. But still worth dreaming.”
- Appel, Alfred, Jr. A Season of Dreams: The Fiction of Eudora Welty. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1965.
- Champion, Laurie, ed. The Critical Response to Eudora Welty’s Eiction. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1994.
- Devlin, Albert. Eudora Welty’s Chronicle: A Story of Mississippi Life. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1983.
- Evans, Elizabeth.Eudora Welty. New York: F. Ungar, 1981.
- Kreyling, Michael.Eudora Welty’s Achievement of Order. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1980.
- Manning, Carol, ed. The Female Tradition in Southern Literature. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993.
- Marrs, Suzanne.Eudora Welty: A Biography. Orlando, Fla.: Harcourt, 2005.
- Presnhaw, Peggy Whitman, ed. Conversations with Eudora Welty. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1993.
- Randisi, Jennifer Lynn. A Tissue of Lies: Eudora Welty and the Southern Romance. Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, 1982.
- Schmidt, Peter. The Heart of the Story: Eudora Welty’s Short Fiction. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1991.
- Vande Kieft, Ruth M. Eudora Welty. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1987.
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