Biography of Eudora Welty, American Short-Story Writer

Ulf Andersen Portraits - Eudora Welty
American author Eudora Welty poses while at home in Jackson, Mississippi on January 23, 1988. Ulf Andersen / Getty Images

Eudora Welty (April 13, 1909 – July 23, 2001) was an American writer of short stories, novels, and essays, best known for her realistic portrayal of the South. Her most acclaimed work is the novel The Optimist’s Daughter, which won her a Pulitzer Prize in 1973, as well as the short stories “Life at the P.O.” and “A Worn Path.”

Fast Facts: Eudora Welty

  • Full Name: Eudora Alice Welty
  • Known For: American writer known for her short stories and novels set in the South
  • Born​: April 13, 1909 in Jackson, Mississippi 
  • Parents: Christian Webb Welty and Chestina Andrews Welty
  • Died​: July 23, 2001 in Jackson, Mississippi
  • Education​: Mississippi State College for Women, University of Wisconsin, and Columbia University
  • Selected Works: A Curtain of Green (1941), The Golden Apples (1949), The Optimist’s Daughter (1972), One Writer’s Beginnings (1984) 
  • Awards: Guggenheim Fellowship (1942), Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (1973), American Academy of Arts and Letters Gold Medal for Fiction (1972), National Book Award (1983), Medal of Distinguished Contribution to American Letters (1991), PEN/Malamud Award (1992)
  • Notable Quote​: "The excursion is the same when you go looking for your sorrow as when you go looking for your joy."

Early Life (1909-1931)

Eudora Welty was born on April 13, 1909 in Jackson, Mississippi. Her parents were Christian Webb Welty and Chestina Andrews Welty. Her father, who was an insurance executive, taught her the “love for all instruments that instruct and fascinate”, while she inherited her proclivity for reading and language from her mother, a schoolteacher. The instruments that “instruct and fascinate,” including technology, were present in her fiction, and she also complemented her writerly work with photography. Welty graduated from Central High School in Jackson in 1925.

Eudora Welty
Eudora Welty photographed c. 1945. MPI / Getty Images

After high school, Welty enrolled in the Mississippi State College for Women, where she remained from 1925 to 1927, but then transferred to the University of Wisconsin to complete her studies in English Literature. Her father advised her to study advertising at Columbia University as a safety net, but she graduated during the Great Depression, which made it difficult for her to find work in New York.

Local Reporting (1931-1936)

Eudora Welty returned to Jackson in 1931; her father died of leukemia shortly after her return. She started working in the Jackson media with a job at a local radio station and she also wrote about Jackson society for the Commercial Appeal, a newspaper based in Memphis.

Two years later, in 1933, she started working for the Work Progress Administration, the New-Deal agency that developed public work projects during the Great Depression in order to employ job seekers. There she photographed, carried out interviews and collected stories on daily life in Mississippi. This experience allowed her to obtain a wider perspective on life in the South, and she used that material as a starting point for her stories.

Eudora Welty Portrait
American writer Eudora Welty poses in front of her house at 1119 Pinehurst Street in Jackson, Mississippi. Ulf Andersen / Getty Images

Welty's house, located at 1119 Pinehurst Street, in Jackson, served as a gathering point for her and fellow writers and friends, and was christened the “Night-Blooming Cereus Club.”

She left her job at the Work Progress Administration in 1936 to become a full-time writer.

First Success (1936-1941)

  • Death of a Traveling Salesman (1936)
  • A Curtain of Green (1941)
  • A Worn Path, 1941
  • The Robber Bridegroom.

The 1936 publication of her short story “The Death of a Traveling Salesman,” which appeared in the literary magazine Manuscript and explored the mental toll isolation takes on an individual, was Welty’s springboard into literary fame. It attracted the attention of author Katherine Anne Porter, who became her mentor.

“The Death of a Traveling Salesman” reappeared in her first book of short stories, A Curtain of Green, published in 1941. The collection painted a portrait of Mississippi by highlighting its inhabitants, both black and white, and presenting racial relations in a realistic manner. Other than “Death of a Traveling Salesman,” her collection contains other notable entries, such as “Why I Live at the P.O.” and "A Worn Path." Originally published in The Atlantic Monthly, "Why I Live at the P.O." casts a comical look at family relationships through the eyes of the protagonist who, once she became estranged from her family, took up living at the Post Office. “A Worn Path,” which originally appeared in The Atlantic Monthly as well, tells the story of Phoenix Jackson, an African American woman who journeys along the Natchez Trace, located in Mississippi, overcoming many hurdles, a repeated journey in order to get medicine for her grandson, who swallowed a lye and damaged his throat. "A Worn Path" won her the second-place O. Henry Award in 1941. The collection received praise for her “fanatic love of people,” according to The New York Times. “With a few lines she draws the gesture of a deaf-mute, the windblown skirts of a Negro woman in the fields, the bewilderment of a child in the sickroom of an old people's asylum—and she has told more than many an author might tell in a novel of six hundred pages,” wrote Marianne Hauser in 1941, in her review for The New York Times.

The following year, in 1942, she wrote the novella The Robber Bridegroom, which employed a fairy-tale-like set of characters, with a structure reminiscent of the works of the Grimm Brothers.

The War, the Mississippi Delta, and Europe (1942-1959)

  • The Wide Net and Other Stories (1943)
  • Delta Wedding (1946)
  • Music from Spain (1948)
  • The Golden Apples (1949)
  • The Ponder Heart (1954)
  • Selected Stories (1954)
  • The Bride of the Innisfallen and Other Stories (1955)

Welty was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in March 1942, but instead of using it to travel, she decided to stay at home and write. Her short story “Livvie,” which appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, won her another O. Henry Award. However, as World War II raged on, her brothers and all members of the Night-Blooming Cereus Club were enlisted, which worried her to the point of consumption and she devoted little time to writing.

Despite her difficulties, Welty managed to publish two stories, both set in the Mississippi Delta: “The Delta Cousins” and “A Little Triumph.” She continued researching the area and turned to her friend John Robinson's relatives. Two cousins of Robinson who lived on the delta hosted Eudora and shared the diaries of John’s great-grandmother, Nancy McDougall Robinson. Thanks to these diaries, Welty was able to link the two short stories and turn them into a novel, titled Delta Wedding.

Upon the end of the war, she expressed discontent with the way her state did not uphold the value for which the war was fought, and took a hard stance against anti-Semitism, isolationism, and racism.

In 1949, Welty sailed for Europe for a six-month tour. There, she met with John Robinson, at the time a Fulbright scholar studying Italian in Florence. She also lectured at Oxford and Cambridge, and was the first woman to be allowed to enter the hall of Peterhouse College. When she came back from Europe in 1950, given her independence and financial stability, she tried to buy a home, but realtors in Mississippi would not sell to an unmarried woman. Welty led a private life, overall.

Her novella The Ponder Heart, which originally appeared in The New Yorker in 1953, was republished in book format in 1954. The novella follows the deeds of Daniel Ponder, a rich heir of Clay County, Mississippi, who has an everyman-like disposition towards life. The narrative is told from the perspective of his niece Edna. This “wonderful tragicomedy of good intentions in a durably sinful world,” per The New York Times, was turned into a Tony Award-winning Broadway play in 1956. 

Activism and High Honors (1960–2001)

  • The Shoe bird (1964)
  • Thirteen Stories (1965)
  • Losing Battles (1970)
  • The Optimist’s Daughter (1972)
  • The Eye of the Story (1979)
  • The Collected Stories (1980)
  • Moon Lake and Other Stories (1980)
  • One Writer’s Beginnings (1984)
  • Morgana: Two Stories from The Golden Apples (1988)
  • On Writing (2002)

In 1960, Welty returned to Jackson to care for her elderly mother and two brothers. In 1963, after the assassination of Medgar Evers, the field secretary of the Mississippi chapter of the NAACP, she published the short story “Where Is the Voice Coming From?” in The New Yorker, which was narrated from the assassin’s point of view, in first person. Her 1970 novel Losing Battles, which is set over the course of two days, blended comedy and lyricism. It was her first novel to make the best seller list.

Welty was also a lifelong photographer, and her images often served as an inspiration for her short stories. In 1971, she published a collection of her photographs under the title One Time, One Place; the collection largely depicted life during the Great Depression. The following year, in 1972, she wrote the novel The Optimist’s Daughter, about a woman who travels to New Orleans from Chicago to visit her ailing father following a surgery. There, she gets to know her father's shrew and young second wife, who seems negligent about her ailing husband, and she also reconnects with the friends and family she had left behind when she moved to Chicago. This novel won her the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1973.

In 1979 she published The Eye of the Story, a collection of her essays and reviews that had appeared in the The New York Book Review and other outlets. The compilation contained analysis and criticism of two trends at the time: the confessional novel and long literary biographies lacking original insight.

Writer Eudora Welty Writing in Her Living Room
Writer Eudora Welty in her living room. Corbis / Getty Images

In 1983, Welty gave three afternoon lectures at Harvard University. In those, she talked about her upbringing and about how family and the environment she grew up in shaped her as a writer and as a person. She collected these lectures into a volume, One Writer’s Beginnings, in 1984, which became a best seller and a runner-up for the 1984 National Book Award for Nonfiction. This book was a rare peek into her personal life, which she usually remained private about—and instructed her friends to do the same. She died on July 23, 2001 in Jackson, Mississippi.

Style and Themes

A Southern writer, Eudora Welty placed great importance on the sense of place in her writing. In “A Worn Path,” she describes the Southern landscape in minute detail, while in “The Wide Net,” each character views the river in the story in a different manner. “Place” is also meant figuratively, as it often pertains to the relationship between individuals and their community, which is both natural and paradoxical. For example, in “Why I Live at the P.O.,” Sister, the protagonist, is in conflict with her family, and the conflict is marked by lack of proper communication. Likewise, in The Golden Apples, Miss Eckhart is a piano teacher who leads an independent lifestyle, which allows her to live as she pleases, yet she also longs to start a family and to feel that she belongs in her small town of Morgana, Mississippi. 

She also used mythological imagery to give her hyperlocal situations and characters a universal dimension. For instance, the protagonist of “A Worn Path” is named Phoenix, just like the mythological bird with red and gold plumage known for rising from its ashes. Phoenix wears a handkerchief that’s red with gold undertones, and she is resilient in her quest to get medicine for her grandson. When it comes to representing powerful women, Welty refers to Medusa, the female monster whose stare could petrify mortals; such imagery occurs in “Petrified Man” and elsewhere. 

Welty relied heavily on description. As she outlined in her essay, “The Reading and Writing of Short Stories,” which appeared in The Atlantic Monthly in 1949, she thought that good stories had an element of novelty and mystery, “not the puzzle kind, but the mystery of allurement.” And while she claimed that “beauty comes from development of idea, from after-effect. It often comes from carefulness, lack of confusion, elimination of waste—and yes, those are the rules,” she also cautioned writers to “beware of tidiness.”

Legacy

Eudora Welty’s work has been translated into 40 languages. She personally influenced Mississippi writers such as Richard Ford, Ellen Gilchrist, and Elizabeth Spencer. The popular press, however, has had the tendency to pigeonhole her into the box of “literary aunt,” both because of how privately she lived and because her stories lacked the celebration of the faded aristocracy of the South and the depravation portrayed by authors such as Faulkner and Tennessee Williams.

Sources

  • Bloom, Harold. Eudora Welty. Chelsea House Publ., 1986.
  • Brown, Carolyn J. A Daring Life: A Biography of Eudora Welty. University of Mississippi, 2012.
  • Welty, Eudora, and Ann Patchett. The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty. Mariner Books, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2019.