Books

Eudora Welty -- A Life in Words

Stephanie Dickison

'My wish, indeed my continuing passion, would be not to point the finger in judgment but to part a curtain, that invisible shadow that falls between people, the veil of indifference to each other's presence, each other's wonder, each other's human plight.'

"Writers and travelers are mesmerized by knowing of their destinations."

I wonder if, as Eudora Welty wrote that, she was aware of where her writing life would take her � a Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the American Book Award, the Gold Medal of the National Institute of Arts and Letters, and a number of O. Henry Awards. A life as a recognized writer and photographer. And perhaps the most startling of all, the e-mail program that was named after her. A woman whose mug, southern demeanor, or style certainly do not bring to mind the latest technologies, is now the name behind one of the biggest programs of the internet age.

What is most known about Ms. Welty is that she is from the South, had a "fierce wit," and wrote short stories that dealt with family situations and human interactions. What made her fascinating, however, was what was revealed over the years through her writing and interviews, her sense of propriety and many complexities.

Her stories incited comments and criticism, sometimes even despite the content of what she wrote. Even though she wrote a story based on the shooting of civil rights leader Medgar Evers in 1963, on the night of the event, she was criticized for not focusing her subject matter on racial injustice. Writing about a murderer "in the first person � which was a very daring thing for me to do," was one of the many ways in which she approached a subject matter, all the while cutting a distinctive writing style throughout.

To try to synopsize Welty's work would do her an injustice, but here she speaks of what is at the base of every story, every movement: "My wish, indeed my continuing passion, would be not to point the finger in judgment but to part a curtain, that invisible shadow that falls between people, the veil of indifference to each other's presence, each other's wonder, each other's human plight." Speaking about her writing method, "I sort of hang stories in my mind for a long time. Everything in it is something I've liked as long as I can remember and just now put down."

She was a photographer, with two books of her accounts through the lens, One Time, One Place and Eudora Welty Photographs. She never married, but rarely discussed it. It "never came up," she said. Eudora never wanted a biography done, saying she wanted her writing to stand on its own. When one woman tried valiantly to do it without Eudora's help, she was met with resistance from Welty as well as her entire community throughout the process.

When the Andrew Carnegie Library in Jackson, a favourite haunt of hers, was torn down and a new one put in its place in 1986, it was renamed the Eudora Welty Library. Considering all of the influential and well-known writers of the last millennium, it is extraordinary that in 1998, the Library of America published a two-volume compilation of her works, the first time an entire edition had been devoted to a living writer. While she inspired Steve Dorner to develop an email program and name it after her, she also inspired some country folk. Country star Nanci Griffith cited her as an influence and a passage from One Writer's Beginnings, Eudora's 1984 memoir based on a series of lectures she gave at Harvard, inspired Mary Chapin Carpenter to write the song and children's book Halley Came To Jackson.

While writers today might look to someone more contemporary, it might be in their best interest to investigate Welty's work and see for themselves the awesome power of the short story, wielded in the hands of someone who not only loved books but loved human nature and behaviour and, of course, loved to tell a good story.

Eudora Welty died in hospital near her home in Jackson, Mississippi on Monday, July 23, 2001. She had been plagued with health problems, the New York Times said, and died of pneumonia. She was 92.

    Bibliography:
  • A Curtain of Green (1941)
  • The Robber Bridegroom (1942)
  • The Wide Net (1943)
  • Delta Wedding (1946)
  • Music From Spain (1948)
  • The Bride of Innisfallen (1955)
  • Ponder Heart (1957)
  • The Shoe Bird (1964 - children's stories)
  • Losing Battles (1970)
  • The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty (1980)
  • One Writer's Beginnings (1984)

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