Advertisement

From the Archives: Eudora Welty, Voice of Southern Simplicity, Dies

From the Archives: Eudora Welty, Voice of Southern Simplicity, Dies
Eudora Welty in 1980. (Chicago Tribune)

Eudora Welty, one of modern America's most celebrated writers, a lyrical homebody who found great moments in the commonplace, died Monday in Jackson, Miss. She was 92.

Welty, who won international acclaim for writing about her native Mississippi, died after a long battle with pneumonia, said a spokeswoman at the Baptist Medical Center in Jackson. She had made few public appearances in recent years, and doctors had posted notes on her hospital door turning away fans--though Welty later added a handwritten apology.

Advertisement

Her work, in both word and image, earned her many prizes, including a Pulitzer in 1973, a Medal of Freedom from President Jimmy Carter and in 1998 the only Library of America anthology devoted to a living writer.

Two of her books were turned into Broadway plays. She also published three collections of superb photographs.

Unlike other great Southern writers such as William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, Robert Penn Warren and Richard Wright, Welty did not dwell on the dramatic.

Instead, she inspected the little things, like washing clothes, getting married, running away from home and the way people talk around the kitchen table.

"There's no doubt she was one of the most important American writers in the second half of the 20th century," said Ted Ownby, a historian at the University of Mississippi's Center for the Study of Southern Culture. "Unlike most modernist writing, which tries so hard to get inside the head of one person, Welty emphasized that we're part of a group. She brought that to life. She showed that we only exist as we relate to other people."

Welty saw her middle-class life as perfect material, and she spent most of her years writing in the one-story house where she grew up.

"I am a writer who came of a sheltered life," she wrote in her memoir, "One Writer's Beginnings," which was developed from a series of lectures she gave at Harvard. "A sheltered life can be a daring life as well. For all serious daring starts from within."

Her major works include "The Robber Bridegroom," "Delta Wedding," "The Ponder Heart," and "The Optimist's Daughter." Her own favorite was the 1949 collection "The Golden Apples," a group of stories set in the fictional town of Morgana, Miss.

She Gave Birth to Rich Characters

Welty never married or became a mother. "It never came up," she said in an interview a few years ago.

But she gave birth to one rich character after another, and many were blessed with unforgettable names: Lilly Daw, Papa-Daddy, Phoenix Jackson and Teacake Magee.

"I have been told, both in approval and in accusation, that I seem to love all my characters," Welty wrote in 1980. "What I do in writing of any character is try to enter into the mind, heart and skin of a human being who is not myself."

Said author and critic Elizabeth Hardwick:

"She had her own voice and her own tone and her own subject matter. There was no one quite like her in American literature."

Advertisement

Welty was born April 13, 1909, in Jackson, Miss.

Her father, Christian, was an insurance man. Her mother, Chestina Andrews, was a literary junkie who once raced into a burning house to save a set of Dickens. She had two younger brothers, Edward and Walter.

Her mother's passion would be passed down to Welty, who even as a little girl was fascinated by where books came from.

"It had been startling and disappointing to me to find out that story books had been written by people, that books were not natural wonders, coming up of themselves like grass," Welty wrote in her autobiography.

"Yet regardless of where they came from, I cannot remember a time when I was not in love with them--with the books themselves, cover and binding and the paper they were printed on."

She taught herself the craft of storytelling by eavesdropping, often on her mother.

"Long before I wrote stories, I listened for stories," Welty wrote. "When their elders sit and begin, children are just waiting and hoping for one to come out, like a mouse from its hole."

Her mother also sang to her, which helped her as a writer.

"There has never been a line read that I didn't hear," she wrote. "As my eyes followed the sentence, a voice was saying it silently to me."

When she was about 6 she had a heart ailment and was confined to bed for several months. The isolation made her focus intensely on the littlest things around her, the murmurings in the room, other people's movements.

"A conscious act grew out of this by the time I began to write stories: getting my distance, a prerequisite of my understanding of human events, is the way I begin work," she said.

"Just as, of course, it was an initial step when, in my first journalism job, I stumbled into making pictures with a camera. Frame, proportion, perspective, the values of light and shade, all are determined by the distance of the observing eye."

Welty lived in Jackson almost all her life, in the home her father built. She left to attend Mississippi University for Women and later the University of Wisconsin. She also studied business at Columbia University in New York.

Her first jobs were in journalism, working for local newspapers and radio stations and serving as a publicity agent for President Franklin Roosevelt's WPA, the agency formed to provide work for people in Depression-era America. Her territory was her home state, at that time as poor and backward as it's ever been.

It was during her WPA travels that she learned to handle a camera and focus on the everyman: the tomato packer, old women wringing out laundry, the lonely roadside bootlegger, the hog butcher.

Her travels inspired her first short story collection, "A Curtain of Green," which was published in 1941. It showcases some of her most beloved work, including "Why I Live at the P.O.," a story about a girl who runs away to live in the back of the second-smallest post office in Mississippi. Many of the stories are funny. Most are simple.

A Style That's 'Exhilarating, Even Gay'

Her style is "exhilarating, even gay," wrote Robert Penn Warren, "as though [Welty] were innocently delighted with the variety of things that stories could be and still be stories."

In 1942, she published her first novel, "The Robber Bridegroom," a modern fairy tale that fuses Southern history with Greek myth.

During World War II, Welty reviewed war dispatches for the New York Times Book Review. She used the pseudonym Michael Ravenna because an editor had complained that a Southern woman shouldn't write about war.

Fiction, though, was her first love and once the fire was lit, there was no putting it out. The 1940s and 1950s were prolific decades. Top works included "The Wide Net and Other Stories" (1943), "Delta Wedding" (1946), 'The Golden Apples" (1949) and "The Ponder Heart" (1954). She won a Guggenheim Fellowship and several O. Henry Awards for short story writing.

Although the shooting of civil rights leader Medgar Evers in 1963 inspired Welty's haunting story "Where Is the Voice Coming From?," the author was criticized for not writing more stories about racial injustice.

Her response: "I think I've always written stories about that. Not as propaganda, but I've written stories about human injustice as much as I've written about anything."

Advertisement

Some of her stories were sympathetic to the struggles of black people, including "A Worn Path," which follows a poor black woman through her daily routine.

She continued to write and teach through the 1960s and 1970s. Her friends tended to be literary types, such as Daniel Aaron, an English professor at Harvard. He remembers drinking Scotch and dancing with Welty at the Algonquin Hotel in New York City.

"She was terribly funny and witty," Aaron said.

She won a Pulitzer Prize in 1973 for "The Optimist's Daughter," a book about a very adult child who is trying to figure out which parent to emulate, her past-obsessed mother or her upbeat father.

In the 1980s, she did more traveling than writing, though she published her autobiography, "One Writer's Beginnings," in 1984.

In the 1990s, her health began to fail. Here was a slender, elegant woman with twinkling blue eyes finally resigning to age.

"She was not able to get around so well," said Pearl McHaney, editor of the Eudora Welty Newsletter and a professor at Georgia State University.

McHaney helped throw her a 90th birthday party two years ago, but Welty's arthritis was so bad she didn't come. She couldn't write or type anymore either.

But her condition didn't stop her from publishing a final book in 2000, "Country Churchyards," a collection of photographs of country churches. It was her third photo book.

Her legacy is enormous, though her work is not for everyone.

"We still teach a lot of her, but it's funny," said Ownby, the Mississippi historian. "Most male students don't get her. She writes about gossip and the things people say and the things people don't say. Many men ask, 'What's going on here? Where's the drama? Where's the plot?' "

Shelby Foote, another Southern historian and a friend of Welty, said it took only five minutes with the author to see her gift.

"There was something very vital about her," Foote said Monday, after learning of her death. "There was an almost girlish wonderment of the world that never left."

Times researcher Edith Stanley contributed to this report.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Eudora Welty: A Writing Life

An excerpt from "Petrified Man," included in Eudora Welty's first collection of short stories, "A Curtain of Green," published in 1941:

"Reach in my purse and git me a cigarette without no powder in it if you kin, Mrs. Fletcher, honey," said Leota to her ten o'clock shampoo-and-set customer. "I don't like no perfumed cigarettes."

Mrs. Fletcher gladly reached over to the lavender shelf under the lavender-framed mirror, shook a hair net loose from the clasp of the patent-leather bag, and slapped her hand down quickly on a powder puff which burst out when the purse was opened.

"Why, look at the peanuts, Leota!" said Mrs. Fletcher in her marveling voice.

"Honey, them goobers has been in my purse a week if they's been in it a day. Mrs. Pike bought them peanuts."

"Who's Mrs. Pike?" asked Mrs. Fletcher, settling back. Hidden in this den of curling fluid and henna packs, separated by a lavender swing-door from the other customers, who were being gratified in other booths, she could give her curiosity its freedom. She looked expectantly at the black part in Leota's yellow curls as she bent to light the cigarette. . . .

"Mrs. Pike is a lovely girl, you'd be crazy about her, Mrs. Fletcher. But she can't sit still a minute. We went to the travelin' freak show yestiddy after work. . . . What, you ain't been?"

"No, I despise freaks," declared Mrs. Fletcher.

"Aw. Well, honey, talking about (you) bein pregnant an' all, you ought to see those twins in a bottle, you really owe it to yourself ..."

"Well, honey, what Mrs. Pike liked was the pygmies ... you know the teeniest men in the universe...

"But they got this man, this petrified man, that ever'thing ever since he was nine years old, when it goes through his digestion, see, somehow Mrs. Pike says it goes to his joints and has been turning to stone."

"How awful!" said Mrs. Fletcher.

HER MAJOR WORKS

"A Curtain of Green," short stories, 1941

"The Robber Bridegroom," novel, 1942

"The Wide Net," short stories, 1943

"Delta Wedding," novel, 1946

"The Golden Apples," short stories, 1949

"The Ponder Heart," novel, 1954

"The Bride of the Innisfallen," short stories, 1955

"The Shoe Bird," children's story, 1964

"Losing Battles," novel, 1970

"One Time, One Place," photographs, 1971

"The Optimist's Daughter," novel, 1972 (Pulitzer Prize, 1973)

"The Eye of the Story," essays and reviews, 1978

"The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty," short stories, 1980

"One Writer's Beginnings," version of lectures given at Harvard, 1985

"Eudora Welty Photographs," 1989

SOME AWARDS AND HONORS

Guggenheim Award, 1942

O. Henry Award, 1942, 1943, 1968

National Institute of Arts and Letters, 1944

William Dean Howells Medal from American Academy of Arts and Letters for "The Ponder Heart," 1955

American Book Award for "The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty," 1961, and "One Writer's Beginnings," 1984

Edward MacDowell Medal, 1970

National Book Award for fiction, "Losing Battles," 1971

Christopher Book Award for "One Time, One Place: Mississippi in the Depression," 1972

Pulitzer Prize in fiction for "The Optimist's Daughter," 1973

National Medal for Literature, 1980

National Book Critics Circle Award for "One Writer's Beginnings," 1984

National Medal of Arts, 1987

French Legion of Honor, 1996

First living writer in the Library of America series, 1999, when it released two volumes of her works: "Eudora Welty: Complete Novels" and "Eudora Welty: Stories, Essays, and Memoir"

Source: Associated Press

Advertisement
Advertisement