An introduction to Eudora Welty

Dr. Julia Eichelberger Department of English The College of Charleston

Eudora Welty (1909-2001) is widely regarded as a master of the short story form. She was an astute and compassionate observer of life in rural and small-town Mississippi, the state where she spent most of her life.

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Welty was also an accomplished photographer. She took a series of now-famous portraits of Mississippians she met in the 1930s while working for the WPA.

Sunday School, Holiness Church. Jackson 1935-1936

From “Petrified Man” (1939) to her last novel, The Optimist’s Daughter (1970), Welty wrote fiction that captured the cadences and speech patterns of a variety of residents of the US South.

“Why

I Live at

the P.O.”
Click to hear Welty reading.

Readers also admire Welty’s attention to detail in portraying her characters’ homes, gardens, foods, cultural traditions, and their connections to popular culture.

From an early story, “A Curtain of Green”

She planted every kind of flower that she could find or order from a catalogue—planted thickly and hastily, without stopping to think, without any regard for the ideas that her neighbors might elect in their club as to what constituted an appropriate vista, or an effect of restfulness, or even harmony of color. Just to what end Mrs Larkin worked so strenuously in her garden, her neighbors could not see. They might get sick and die, and she would never send a flower.

Like much literature of the twentieth century, from any region, Welty’s texts explore the relationship between individuals and the social and familial structures that sometimes nurture individuals and sometimes deform them.

from “June Recital,” part of The Golden Apples (1949)

Virgie Rainey, when she was ten or twelve, had naturally curly hair, silky and black, and a great deal of it—uncombed. She was not sent to the barber shop often enough to suit the mothers of other children, who said it was probably dirty hair too. . . once on a rainy day when recess was held in the basement, she said she was going to butt her brains out against the wall, and the teacher, old Mrs. McGillicuddy, had said, “Beat them out, then,” and she had really tried. The rest of the fourth grade stood around expectant and admiring, the smell of open thermos bottles sweetly heavy in the close air. . .

Virgie came with strange kinds of sandwiches—everybody wanted swap her—stewed peach, or perhaps banana. In the other children’s eyes she was as exciting as a gypsy would be. Virgie’s air of abandon that was so strangely endearing made even the Sunday School class think of her in terms of the future—she would go somewhere, somewhere away off, they said then, talking with their chins sunk in their hands —she’d be a missionary. . . Miss Lizzie Stark’s mother, old Mrs. Sad-Talking Morgan, said Virgie would be the first lady governor of Mississippi, that was where she would go. It sounded worse than the infernal regions. . . . “June Recital”

“Where is the Voice Coming From?” was written in 1963, almost immediately after Jackson civil rights leader Medgar Evers was assassinated in his driveway. Horrified, Welty imagined the person who would commit such a crime.

Some of my publications on Welty: • “Historicizing The Ponder Heart.” Eudora Welty Review 1 (2009): 135-142. • “‘The Way for Girls in the World’: Laura’s Escape from Drowning in Delta Wedding.” New Essays on Delta Wedding, ed. Reine Bouton. New York: Rodopi Press, 2008. 47-63. • Prophets of Recognition: Ideology and the Individual in Novels by Ellison, Morrison, Bellow, and Welty. LSU Press, 1999. Some of my conference papers on Welty: “Historical and Literary Lynchings in Eudora Welty’s Fiction.” Society for the Study of Southern Literature, Lafayette, LA, March 2002. “The Discourse of Sexual Violence in Welty’s Narratives of Infidelity.” Eudora Welty Society, South Central Modern Language Association, New Orleans, LA, October 29, 2004. “Bizarre Confluences: Eudora Welty in the Pages of Harper’s Bazaar.” Eudora Welty Society, American Literature Association, San Francisco, May 2008 My last two conference papers treated Welty’s unpublished letters written to two close friends who shared her love of gardening and with whom she sent drafts of her work in progress during the 1940s and 50s. Her private letters are witty, poignant, and lyrical, just as we would expect from reading her published work.

• • • •

Eudora Welty was an accomplished stylist whose lyrical sentences often convey invisible as well as visible realities. Throughout her career she continued to explore new ways of writing and new ways of understanding human subjectivity and the deep, often unseen affinities that connect individuals to one another. Click here to see photos of Welty’s home in Jackson, which is now a museum, and to learn more about the author.

Listen to a panel discussion on Welty’s photography. This was held in New York in honor of her centennial year (2009). Students in my upcoming course, English 350, Spring 2010 (MW 2-3:15), will be able to study all Welty’s stories, three of her novels, and her memoir, as well as her photographs and her biography.

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