Eudora Welty: 20th Century Southern Writer
Eudora Welty was a 20th century author from the Modern Era who lived from 1909-2001 (“Eudora”). She is famous for her detailed stories about Southern life, especially optimistic tales of people in poor rural areas, and she won the Pulitzer Prize in 1973 for her novel The Optimist’s Daughter. She was much loved in her home of Jackson, Mississippi, and across the United States (Waldron 299, 310, 322). Eudora Welty is the most significant Southern author of the 20th century because she wrote detailed, colorful stories about her Mississippi heritage, was a dearly loved heroine and storyteller for the people of the region, acted as the South’s ambassador to the world through her numerous college visits and lectures, and continued producing art throughout her life, exerting more influence over a longer period of time than any other Southern writer.
Though Welty’s writing generally received good reviews, there were some notable exceptions. Time’s review of A Curtain of Green noted she had a “strong taste for melodrama” and a preoccupation with the “demented, the deformed, the queer, the highly spiced” (Waldron 130). Her books The Robber Bridegroom and The Wide Net mystified many reviewers, who found the stories “obscure and fanciful,” “on the threshold of giving up daylight logic altogether” (141, 146). William F. Buckley, Jr. and others wondered how she could stay in the South without taking a more active role in the civil rights movement (163-164, 302). Others called her “parochial” because all her stories took place in the South (242). Finally, many people, perhaps including Welty herself, would say that some other author, perhaps William Faulkner, would better deserve the title of most influential Southern scribe of the century (201).
Eudora Alice Welty lived a “sheltered life” as a child (Welty “One” 104). She was born April 13, 1909, to Christian and Chestina Welty (Waldron 19). Christian met Chestina Andrews, who lived with “her widowed mother and five younger brothers, all left-handed and all banjo players,” while he was working at a lumber mill in West Virginia (18). The couple then moved to Jackson, Mississippi. Eudora was a voracious reader and a favorite of the community as a youth, but her parents’ northern heritage and her physical unattractiveness made her feel like an outsider nevertheless (Welty “A Sweet;” Waldron 10-11, 39). She graduated from Central High School in 1925 at the age of sixteen and attended the Mississippi State College for Women in Columbus for two years (24, 34). She finished her college degree at the University of Wisconsin (35, 41). Welty graduated in 1929 and took business classes at the University of Columbia before returning home in 1931 to tend to her father, who had leukemia and died in a botched blood transfusion (41-43, 47). Eudora tried to continue her New York lifestyle, but her mother asked her to return to Jackson: “And it was the best thing I ever did, to come home and get a job, so I could write at home. The angels were looking after me” (51). Eudora spent most of her life in Jackson (“Eudora”). When Welty was not writing, she held small jobs on the side, including radio clerk (Waldron 49), society columnist (64), newspaper contributor (68), WPA publicity agent (70), archive clerk (97), and book reviewer for the New York Times (150). She also received income from writing short stories for newspapers and later publishing books (86, 88, 91, 93-98, 112-113, 116-117, 128, 134, 136-137, 144, 146, 159, 165, 177-178, 184, 195, 231, 242, 269, 284, 291, 299).
Eudora Welty’s writing is soaked in the local color of Mississippi. Several of her stories revolve around the Natchez Trace, an abandoned 450-mile highway from Nashville to Natchez, MS, once frequented by buffalo, Indians, “missionaries, naturalists, traders, settlers, and highwaymen” (106-107, 111-112, 118, 121-122, 128, 134, 137-139). Welty’s Natchez Trace tales are of robbers, rapists, loving grandmothers, and men in brilliant zoot suits. “The Wide Net” is a story about a man who drags the river for his wife’s body; he and his neighbors have so much fun doing it that they forget why they were doing it in the first place. Welty also uses local color in her novels, including Delta Wedding (154-159), The Ponder Heart (231-233), and Losing Battles, “set in northeast Mississippi, the poorest section of the poorest state, where the people have nothing, except maybe a scrap of eroded land” (291). Reviews usually did not bother Welty, and she did not mind being fanciful and mysterious as long as she was not obscure (146). Welty did not even seem to mind her melodrama: “As you have seen, I am a writer who came of a sheltered life. A sheltered life can be a daring life as well. For all serious daring starts from within [sic]” (Welty “One” 104).
Southerners, particularly the state of Mississippi, loved Eudora Welty and her stories, and they showered her with awards. Mayor Dale Danks of Jackson proclaimed October 27, 1977 “Miss Eudora Welty Day” (310). Mississippi Arts Festival Week, May 1-6, 1973, was a Eudora Welty Celebration. Governor William Waller proclaimed May 2 Eudora Welty Day and gave her the Governor’s Outstanding Mississippian Award. The festival was an “enormous honor.” “No Mississippi writer, not even William Faulkner – especially not William Faulkner – ever received such a tribute from the citizens of the state” (304). Mississippians resented Faulkner; they felt he had slandered their state, and his books were hard to read, but they felt everything Welty said about Mississippi was “good and funny and true.” Late in her life, local papers routinely called Welty “Mississippi’s greatest living writer” and “national treasure” (322). Some say the reason for Welty’s popularity is that she did not criticize her racist neighbors for their civil rights atrocities. Though she wrote two stories about the civil rights movement, “Where Is the Voice Coming From?” and “The Demonstrators,” Welty did not speak out on the issue. When northern critics asked why she did not condemn the racist society in Delta Wedding, she said the “North simply does not comprehend the South and for that reason will always cherish a kind of fury at it, it [sic] doesn’t understand our delights and our pleasures or even anything abstract about our ways” (163-164). In 1972, she told William F. Buckley, Jr. that a writer’s lone responsibility is to write honest stories; he does not have the obligation to pen political tracts (302).
Eudora Welty, heroine of the South, was also its ambassador. In 1954, she was the first woman invited to a Fulbright Conference; she lectured about American literature at Cambridge University in England (Waldron 236-237). She then became the first woman ever invited to a special dinner in the school’s Hall of Peterhouse; Queen Victoria had asked for the same honor and suffered rejection. In the late 1950s, she toured, lectured, or taught at several different schools (240, 258, 266-267, 270-277, 310, 316, 318-320, 327-329). At Stanford University, crowds were so packed that police ejected people from the room, almost inciting a riot. President Nixon appointed Welty to a six-year term on the National Council of the Arts in 1972 (299). Later that year, she received the Gold Medal for the Novel from the National Institute of Arts and Letters, an award given once every ten years; its last winner was William Faulkner (302). She won the 1972 Pulitzer Prize for fiction for her novel The Optimist’s Daughter. On Thursday, January 25, 1996, France awarded Welty the Légion d’honneur (1). The story “Why I Live at the P.O.” inspired programmer Steve Dorner to name his e-mail software program “Eudora,” with the slogan “Bringing the P.O. Where You Live” (113). Early in her career, critics had called Welty parochial because all her stories were from the South, but now they appreciated the perspicacity of these tales (242). Welty was truly proud of her heritage and felt it was not as far into the boondocks as people believed; in “Place and Time: The Southern Writer’s Inheritance,” she noted that one small Mississippi town on the river had seventeen nationally published authors and a Pulitzer Prize winner, Hodding Carter, editing the paper, though she conceded that no one in town would actually buy a book (239).
Another reason for Welty’s superiority over other Southern writers is her longevity. Though other writers had successful careers, few matched the continued output and influence of Welty. Welty wrote and published books for over forty years of her life (Love). Thomas Wolfe and Flannery O’Connor both made significant contributions to literature, but both died after just forty years on Earth (“Flannery;” “Thomas”). Katherine Porter’s body of work received high praise but was “relatively small in comparison to those of other major writers of her time” (“Katherine”). Alice Walker’s Color Purple was a great success, but she is still young, and she has not written another major work in the twenty years since then (“Alice”). Zora Neale Hurston is considered the greatest black female writer of the Harlem Renaissance, but her works faded from the public eye until Alice Walker helped revive them in the 1970s, and her influence was more acutely felt in Harlem than in her birthplace in the South (“Zora”). Harper Lee only published one book, To Kill A Mockingbird (“Harper”). William Faulkner was a prolific writer, but readers dismissed him as an eccentric for many years, and his stories had little effect on native Mississippians, who considered him a pariah (“William;” Waldron 304).
Eudora Welty spent most of her life in Mississippi, and her knowledge of the region permeated her stories. She was the bard of Mississippi, loved and respected by her neighbors and by many other Americans. She enjoyed a long and fruitful career matched by few other artists. A woman who felt like an outsider in her youth, Eudora Welty finished her life one of the most loved and respected people in all of the state of Mississippi, providing joy, entertainment, and hope to all those touched by her stories. Eudora Welty is the most significant Southern writer of the 20th century.
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