Eudora Welty (born 1909) is considered one of the most important authors of the twentieth century. Although the majority of her stories are set in the American South and reflect the region's language and culture, critics agree that Welty's treatment of universal themes and her wide-ranging artistic influences clearly transcend regional boundaries.
Born in Jackson, Mississippi at a time when that city had not yet lost its rural atmosphere, Welty grew up in the bucolic South she so often evokes in her stories. She attended the Mississippi State College for Women and the University of Wisconsin, where she majored in English Literature, then studied advertising at Columbia University; however, graduating at the height of the Great Depression, she was unable to find work in her chosen field. Returning to Jackson in 1931, Welty worked as a part-time journalist and copywriter and as a WPA photographer. The latter job took her on assignments throughout Mississippi, and she began using these experiences as material for short stories. In June, 1936, her story "Death of a Traveling Salesman" was accepted for publication in the journal Manuscript, and within two years her work had appeared in such prestigious publications as the Atlantic and the Southern Review. Critical response to Welty's first collection of stories, A Curtain of Green (1941), was highly favorable, with many commentators predicting that a first performance so impressive would no doubt lead to even greater achievements. Yet when The Wide Net, and Other Stories was published two years later, several critics, most notably Diana Trilling, deplored Welty's marked shift away from the colorful realism of her earlier stories toward a more impressionistic style, objecting in particular to her increased use of symbol and metaphor to convey themes. Other critics responded favorably, including Robert Penn Warren, who wrote that in Welty's work, "the items of fiction (scene, action, character, etc.) are presented not as document but as comment, not as a report but as a thing made, not as history but as idea."
As Welty continued to refine her vision her fictional techniques gained wider acceptance. Indeed, her most complex and highly symbolic collection of stories, The Golden Apples, won critical acclaim, and she received a number of prizes and awards throughout the following decade, including the William Dean Howells Medal of the Academy of Arts and Letters for her novella The Ponder Heart (1954). Occupied primarily with teaching, traveling, and lecturing between 1955 and 1970, Welty produced little fiction. Then, in the early 1970s, she published two novels, Losing Battles (1970), which received mixed reviews, and the more critically successful The Optimist's Daughter (1972), which won a Pulitzer Prize. Although Welty has published no new volumes of short stories since The Bride of Innisfallen in 1955, the release of her Collected Stories in 1980 renewed interest in her short fiction and brought unanimous praise. In addition, the 1984 publication of Welty's One Writer's Beginnings, an autobiographical work chronicling her own artistic development, further illuminated her work and inspired critics to reinterpret many of her stories.
In his seminal 1944 essay on The Wide Net, and Other Stories, Robert Penn Warren located the essence of Welty's fictional technique in a phrase from her story "First Love": "Whatever happened, it happened in extraordinary times, in a season of dreams." It is, states Warren, "as though the author cannot be quite sure what did happen, cannot quite undertake to resolve the meaning of the recorded event, cannot, in fact, be too sure of recording all of the event." This tentative approach to narrative exposition points to Welty's primary goal in creating fiction, which is not simply to relate a series of events, but to convey a strong sense of her character's experience of that specific moment in time, always acknowledging the ambiguous nature of reality. In order to do so, she selects those details which can best vivify the narrative, frequently using metaphors and similes to communicate sensory impressions. The resulting stories are highly impressionistic. Welty typically uses traditional symbols and mythical allusions in her work and, in the opinion of many, it is through linking the particular with the general and the mundane with the metaphysical that she attains her transcendent vision of human existence.
Welty's stories display a marked diversity in content, form, and mood. Many of her stories are light and humorous, while others deal with the tragic and the grotesque. Her humorous stories frequently rely upon the comic possibilities of language, as in both "Why I Live at the P.O." and The Ponder Heart, which exploit the humor in the speech patterns and colorful idiom of their southern narrators. In addition, Welty employs irony to comic effect, and many critics consider this aspect of her work one of its chief strengths. Opinions are divided, however, on the effectiveness of Welty's use of the grotesque. While Trilling and others find Welty's inclusion of such elements as the carnival exhibits in "Petrified Man" exploitative and superfluous, Eunice Glenn maintains that Welty created "scenes of horror" in order to "make everyday life appear as it often does, without the use of a magnifying glass, to the person with extraordinary acuteness of feeling."
Critics of Welty's work agree that these same literary techniques which produced her finest stories have also been the cause of her most outstanding failures, noting that she is at her best when objective observation and subjective revelation are kept in balance and that where the former is neglected, she is ineffective. They remark further, however, that such instances are comparatively rare in Welty's work. Many contemporary critics consider Welty's skillful use of language her single greatest achievement, citing in particular the poetic richness of her narratives and her acute sensitivity to the subtleties and peculiarities of human speech. Yet the majority of commentators concur with Glenn's assertion that "it is her profound search of human consciousness and her illumination of the underlying causes of the compulsions and fears of modern man that would seem to comprise the principal value of Miss Welty's work."
While critics do not concur on all aspects of Welty's fiction, the preeminence of her work remains unquestioned. Despite some early resistance to her style, Welty has garnered much critical and popular respect for both her humorous colloquial stories and her more experimental works. Although she is known chiefly as a southern writer, the transcendent humanity conveyed in her stories places her beyond regional classification, and she is widely regarded as one of the foremost fiction writers in America.
Further Reading on Eudora Welty
Abadie, Ann J. and Louis D. Dollarhide, editors, Eudora Welty: A Form of Thanks, University Press of Mississippi, 1979.
Aevlin, Albert J., Welty: A Life in Literature, 1987.
Appel, Alfred, Jr., A Season of Dreams: The Fiction of Eudora Welty, Louisiana State University Press, 1965.
Balakian, Nona and Charles Simmons, editors, The Creative Present, Doubleday, 1963.
Bloom, Harold, editor, Welty, 1986.
Bryant, Joseph A., Jr., Eudora Welty, University of Minnesota Press, 1968.
Carson, Barbara Harrell, Eudora Welty: Two Pictures at Once in Her Frame, Whitston, 1992.