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Eudora (Alice) Welty Biography

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Nationality: American. Born: Jackson, Mississippi, 1909. Education: Mississippi State College for Women, Columbus, 1925-27; University of Wisconsin, Madison, B.A. 1929; Columbia University School for Advertising, New York, 1930-31. Career: Part-time journalist, 1931-32; publicity agent, Works Progress Administration (WPA), 1933-36; staff member, New York Times Book Review, during World War II. Honorary Consultant in American Letters, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., 1958. Awards: Bread Loaf Writers Conference fellowship, 1940; O. Henry award, 1942, 1943, 1968; Guggenheim fellowship, 1942, 1948; American Academy grant, 1944, Howells Medal, 1955, and gold medal, 1972; Ford fellowship, for drama; Brandeis University Creative Arts award, 1965; Edward MacDowell medal 1970; Pulitzer prize, 1973; National Medal for Literature, 1980; Presidential Medal of Freedom, 1980; American Book award, for paperback, 1983; Bobst award, 1984; Common Wealth award, 1984; Mystery Writers of America award, 1985; National Medal of Arts, 1987; National Endowment for the Arts Award, 1989; National Book Foundation Medal, 1991; Charles Frankel prize, 1992; French Legion of Honor, 1996. D. Litt.: Denison University, Granville, Ohio, 1971; Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts; University of Wisconsin, Madison; University of the South, Sewanee, Tennessee; Washington and Lee University, Lexington, Virginia. Member: American Academy, 1971; Chevalier, Order of Arts and Letters (France), 1987.

PUBLICATIONS

Novels

The Robber Bridegroom. New York, Doubleday, 1942; London, Lane, 1944.

Delta Wedding. New York, Harcourt Brace, 1946; London, Lane, 1947.

The Ponder Heart. New York, Harcourt Brace, and London, HamishHamilton, 1954.

Losing Battles. New York, Random House, 1970; London, ViragoPress, 1982.

The Optimist's Daughter. New York, Random House, 1972; London, Deutsch, 1973.

Complete Novels. New York, Library of America, 1998.

Short Stories

A Curtain of Green. New York, Doubleday, 1941; London, Lane, 1943.

The Wide Net and Other Stories. New York, Harcourt Brace, 1943;London, Lane, 1945.

Music from Spain. Greenville, Mississippi, Levee Press, 1948.

The Golden Apples. New York, Harcourt Brace, 1949; London, Lane, 1950.

Selected Stories. New York, Modern Library, 1954.

The Bride of Innisfallen and Other Stories. New York, HarcourtBrace, and London, Hamish Hamilton, 1955.

Thirteen Stories, edited by Ruth M. Vande Kieft. New York, HarcourtBrace, 1965.

The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty. New York, Harcourt Brace, 1980; London, Boyars, 1981.

Moon Lake and Other Stories. Franklin Center, Pennsylvania, Franklin Library 1980.

Retreat. Jackson, Mississippi, Palaemon Press, 1981.

Stories, Essays and Memoir. New York, Library of America, 1998.

The First Story. Jackson, University Press of Mississippi, 1999.

Poetry

A Flock of Guinea Hens Seen from a Car. New York, AlbondocaniPress, 1970.

Other

Short Stories (essay). New York, Harcourt Brace, 1949.

Place in Fiction. New York, House of Books, 1957.

Three Papers on Fiction. Northampton, Massachusetts, Smith College, 1962.

The Shoe Bird (for children). New York, Harcourt Brace, 1964.

A Sweet Devouring (on children's literature). New York, AlbondocaniPress, 1969.

One Time, One Place: Mississippi in the Depression: A Snapshot Album. New York, Random House, 1971.

A Pageant of Birds. New York, Albondocani Press, 1975.

Fairy Tale of the Natchez Trace. Jackson, Mississippi HistoricalSociety, 1975.

The Eye of the Story: Selected Essays and Reviews. New York, Random House, 1978; London, Virago Press, 1987.

Ida M'Toy (memoir). Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 1979.

Miracles of Perception: The Art of Willa Cather, with Alfred Knopf and Yehudi Menuhin. Charlottesville, Virginia, Alderman Library, 1980.

Conversations with Eudora Welty, edited by Peggy Whitman Prenshaw. Jackson, University Press of Mississippi, 1984.

One Writer's Beginnings. Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard University Press, 1984; London, Faber, 1985.

Photographs. Jackson, University Press of Mississippi, 1989.

A Worn Path (for children). Mankato, Minnesota, Creative Education, 1991.

A Writer's Eye: Collected Book Reviews, edited by Pearl AmeliaMcHaney. Jackson, University Press of Mississippi, 1994.

Country Churchyards. Jackson, University Press of Mississippi, 2000.

Editor, with Ronald A. Sharp, The Norton Book of Friendship. NewYork, Norton, 1991.

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Bibliography:

In Mississippi Quarterly (Mississippi State), Fall 1973, and Eudora Welty—A Bibliography of Her Work, Jackson, University Press of Mississippi, 1994, both by Noel Polk; Eudora Welty: A Reference Guide by Victor H. Thompson, Boston, Hall, 1976; Eudora Welty: A Critical Bibliography by Bethany C. Swearingen, Jackson, University Press of Mississippi, 1984; The Welty Collection: A Guide to the Eudora Welty Manuscripts and Documents at the Mississippi Department of Archives and History by Suzanne Marrs, Jackson, University Press of Mississippi, 1988.

Manuscript Collection:

Mississippi Department of Archives and History, Jackson.

Critical Studies (selection):

Eudora Welty by Ruth M. Vande Kieft, New York, Twayne, 1962, revised edition, 1986; A Season of Dreams: The Fiction of Eudora Welty by Alfred Appel, Jr., Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 1965; Eudora Welty by Joseph A. Bryant, Jr., Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1968; The Rhetoric of Eudora Welty's Short Stories by Zelma Turner Howard, Jackson, University Press of Mississippi, 1973; A Still Moment: Essays on the Art of Eudora Welty edited by John F. Desmond, Metuchen, New Jersey, Scarecrow Press, 1978; Eudora Welty: Critical Essays edited by Peggy Whitman Prenshaw, Jackson, University Press of Mississippi, 1979; Eudora Welty: A Form of Thanks edited by Ann J. Abadie and Louis D. Dollarhide, Jackson, University Press of Mississippi, 1979; Eudora Welty's Achievement of Order by Michael Kreyling, Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 1980; Eudora Welty by Elizabeth Evans, New York, Ungar, 1981; Tissue of Lies: Eudora Welty and the Southern Romance by Jennifer L. Randisi, Boston, University Press of America, 1982; Eudora Welty's Chronicle: A Story of Mississippi Life by Albert J. Devlin, Jackson, University Press of Mississippi, 1983, and Welty: A Life in Literature edited by Devlin, University Press of Mississippi, 1988; With Ears Opening Like Morning Glories: Eudora Welty and the Love of Storytelling by Carol S. Manning, Westport, Connecticut, Greenwood Press, 1985; Eudora Welty by Louise Westling, London, Macmillan, 1989; Eudora Welty: Eye of the Storyteller edited by Dawn Trouard, Kent, Ohio, Kent State University Press, 1989; Eudora Welty: Seeing Black and White by Robert MacNeil, Jackson, University Press of Mississippi, 1990; Serious Daring from Within: Female Narrative Strategies in Eudora Welty's Novels by Franziska Gygax, New York, Greenwood, 1990; Eudora Welty: Seeing Black and White by Robert MacNeil, Jackson, University Press of Mississippi, 1990; The Heart of the Story: Eudora Welty's Short Fiction by Peter Schmidt, Jackson, University Press of Mississippi, 1991; The Critical Response to Eudora Welty's Fiction by Laurie Champion, Westport, Connecticut, Greenwood Press, 1994; Daughter of the Swan: Love and Knowledge in Eudora Welty's Fiction by Gail Mortimer (Gail Linda), Athens, University of Georgia Press, 1994; The Dragon's Blood: Feminist Intertextuality in Eudora Welty's "The Golden Apples" by Rebecca Mark, Jackson, University Press of Mississippi, 1994; Eudora Welty's Aesthetics of Place by Jan Nordby Gretlund, Newark, University of Delaware Press, 1994; The Still Moment by Paul Binding, London, Virago, 1994; More Conversations with Eudora Welty, edited by Peggy Whitman Prenshaw, Jackson, University Press of Mississippi, 1996; A Reader's Guide to the Short Stories of Eudora Welty by Diane R. Pingatore, New York, G.K. Hall, and London, Prentice Hall International, 1996; Eudora Welty and Virginia Woolf: Gender, Genre, and Influence by Suzan Harrison, Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 1997; Eudora Welty: A Study of the Short Fiction by Carol Ann Johnston, New York, Twayne Publishers, and London, Prentice Hall International, 1997; The Late Novels of Eudora Welty, edited by Jan Nordby Gretlund and Karl-Heinz Westarp, Columbia, University of South Carolina Press, 1998; Understanding Eudora Welty by Michael Kreyling, Columbia, University of South Carolina Press, 1999; Eudora Welty, edited by Harold Bloom, Broomall, Pennsylvania, Chelsea House Publishers, 1999; Eudora Welty: Writers' Reflections Upon First Reading Welty, edited by Pearl Amelia McHaney, Athens, Georgia, Hill Street Press, 1999; Prophets of Recognition: Ideology and the Individual in Novels by Ralph Ellison, Toni Morrison, Saul Bellow, and Eudora Welty by Julia Eichelberger, Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 1999; Eudora Welty and Politics: Did the Writer Crusade?, edited by Harriet Pollack and Suzanne Marrs, Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 2000.

* * *

For Peggy Whitman Prenshaw's collection of tributes, I described Eudora Welty as a rare phenomenon in American letters, "a civilized writer." To explain my meaning, I must turn to Ruth M. Vande Kieft's introduction to the revised version of her Eudora Welty. Though Vande Kieft does not employ my term, she explains that as an artist Welty "does not seem to have felt any deep personal alienation from her culture, made no strong protests about the encroachment of industrialism or passing of the old order." Unlike the modernists, she is a writer who has accepted, as the price of civilization, its discontents.

This acceptance finds form in her still too much neglected first novel, The Robber Bridegroom, which comes as close as any American fiction to providing a myth of the nation's maturing as, with the passing of the frontier, the wilderness gives way to the mercantile state. "All things are double," planter Clement Musgrove observes ruefully as his own pastoral world that has replaced the Indian wild gives way in its turn to urban society. As for Jamie Lockhart, the two-faced hero of this serio-comic fantasy, Welty notes that "the outward transfer from bandit to merchant had been almost too easy to count it a change at all." The transformation is only cosmetic; merchants use the same gifts as bandits to operate legally in polite society.

Even in her first published story, "Death of a Traveling Salesman," Welty had subtly countered the Wastelanders of the 1920s and 1930s by counterpointing the death of the titular figure (that Arthur Miller would later confirm as emblematic of the dying world) with a Promethean bringer of fire as head of a family just emerging from barbarism to give promise of civilization's renewal.

The kind of memorable stories collected in Welty's first book, A Curtain of Green—"Why I Live at the P.O.," "Petrified Man," "A Visit of Charity," and the lilting jazz text "Powerhouse"—had been enthusiastically received by Cleanth Brook's and Robert Penn Warren's Southern Review, house organ of the New Criticism that flourished on ironic portrayals of the differences between people's expectations and their fulfillment. Unlike other writers, however, Welty was able to expand her vision with changing times. With two stories in her next collection, The Wide Net, employing such historical figures as Aaron Burr ("First Love") and the bandit Murrell, the Man of God Lorenzo Dow, and the naturalist Audubon in "A Still Moment," Welty seemed embarked (as in The Robber Bridegroom) on creating a mythology that earlier aspirants had failed to produce for the emerging nation. In "A Still Moment" she had indeed captured as tellingly as Melville in Billy Budd the awful cost of civilization in the destruction of beauty as the quiet naturalist-artist horrifies the two wild men into whose company he has fallen by his cool shooting of a beautiful heron to use as a model for a painting.

Welty did not linger in the distant past, but returned with her next novel, Delta Wedding, to the world where she best found her voice (as she describes the climactic step in her development in the autobiographical One Writer's Beginnings), the Mississippi of her own lifetime where outsiders were beginning to challenge the rule of imperiously aristocratic family-clans that had dominated the society. Against the most tranquil background that Welty could summon up, she depicts the struggle of an uncle's bride and a niece's groom from what the Fairchilds regard as an inferior class to claim their spouses from a deeply loving but overprotective and tradition-ridden family.

Family dominates also The Golden Apples. Welty includes this work in her Collected Stories, but it is really what Forrest Ingram calls "a short-story cycle," a novel composed of tales that can be read individually but that gain additional meaning when considered in relationship to each other. Welty explains in One Writer's Beginnings how stories that she had originally written about various characters "under different names, at different periods in their lives, in situations not yet interlocking but ready for it," grew into "a shadowing of Greek mythological figures, gods and heroes that wander in various guises, at various times, in and out, emblems of the characters' heady dreams." Focused on "one location already evoked," the portentously named town of Morgana, Mississippi, the meandering tales demonstrate how these provincial versions of universal types, though some wander afar and some stay at home, all return at last to their origins.

Despite the principle of the eternal return seemingly underlying this story-sequence, Welty over the next decade began casting about to evoke what she regards as supremely important in fiction, "a sense of place," about somewhere beyond contemporary Mississippi—the Civil War in "The Burning," the Mississippi delta beyond New Orleans in "No Place for You, My Love," and dreamlike regions as far afield as Italy and Cork, Ireland, in "Going to Naples" and "The Bride of Innisfallen," in the stories collected in the volume named for the last mentioned. None of these experiments, however, had quite the authenticity of a story included with them, "Ladies in Spring," and the separately published novelette The Ponder Heart, both of which take place in the rural Mississippi to which Welty returned, like her characters in The Golden Apples, after wandering.

The Ponder Heart, which went on to become a successful play after first being published in its entirety in one issue of the New Yorker, exemplifies the narrative form Welty handles with the most consummate skill, the first-person monologue of a figure with whom she by no means identifies, but whose mind she can read and whose words she can capture with the skill of the mockingbird, mimicking the sounds of its Southern "place." This tale, told by a busybody small-town hotel-keeper about the surprising outcome of the trial of her elderly uncle Daniel Ponder for literally tickling his teenaged bride to death, appropriately won the William Dean Howells award of the American Academy of Arts and Letters for the most distinguished work of American fiction for the years 1950 to 1955; for it was Howells who had in The Rise of Silas Lapham laid down the challenge to American writers to which Welty's work has become the major response, "… it is certain that our manners and customs go for more in life than our qualities. The price that we pay for civilization is the fine yet impassable differentiation of these. Perhaps we pay too much." Whatever Welty's views of Howell's last speculation, after her triumphs with The Ponder Heart, she settled down to working in the same vein for fifteen years as she was preoccupied with her longest and most complex novel, Losing Battles, the chronicle in many voices (that she reads aloud magically) of the reunion of an immense clan of subsistence farmers in one of the poorest backwoods regions of the northeast Mississippi hills. In part Losing Battles returns (as does later The Optimist's Daughter) to the story of an outside bride's attempts to rescue (as she sees it) the husband for whom she has given up her own ambitions to improve her place in the world from the clutches of his dependent family. As the story takes shape, however, Julia Mortimer—the kind of schoolteacher whom Welty admits in One Writer's Beginnings she has most often written about, although she dies beyond the principal scenes of the novel during the day and a half of its action—takes over as the focal figure. She is the embodiment of the enlightened disciplinarian who, though constantly losing battles, has never surrendered in the war to share her illumination with her charges in the waste land at the margin of civilization. A marvelous mixture of comedy and pathos, the long folk-like tale is a remarkable tribute to the indomitability of the human spirit, especially the female spirit in the role that Howells celebrated as the poised guardian of civilized culture.

The writing of the novel was interrupted by two of Welty's most powerful stories that did not appear in book form until her stories were collected in 1980. "Where Is the Voice Coming From?," written in a single night after the shooting of civil rights leader Medgar Evers, is the internal monologue of his killer, for which, Welty explains in One Writer's Beginnings, she entered "into the mind and inside the skin of a character who could hardly have been more alien or repugnant to me." "The Demonstrators" is an almost equally harrowing account of a small community's white doctor's involvement in some sordid affairs of the blacks during the years of the civil rights crises that he perceives necessitate the transformation of his traditional community. Most remarkable about the two stories is their revelation of the intensity that the most crucial experiences of her "place" can evoke from her.

Perhaps under the impact of such recent events, even Welty's good humor and civilized virtues have been sorely tried, as is suggested by her most recent novel, The Optimist's Daughter, in which she reverts to the ironic mode of her earliest stories to depict the plight of a woman who has lost her beloved husband, her mother, and her father as she is deprived of her inheritance and driven out of her home place by her father's young second wife, a redneck (never Welty's term) from Texas (envisioned here as beyond the edge of civilization). Despite all the honors that Welty has justifiably received and despite her avowal in One Writer's Beginnings that "Of all my strong emotions, anger is the one least responsible for my work," the ironically titled The Optimist's Daughter seems an acknowledgment that like Julia Mortimer, she and her society have been fighting losing battles, although the struggle has been worthwhile in honoring what she describes as her reverence for "the holiness of life."

—Warren French

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