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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Southern Renaissance Eudora Welty (1909-2001)

[5169] Ben Shahn, Two Women Walking along Street, Natchez, Mississippi (1935), courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USF33-006093-M4 DLC].

Eudora Alice Welty was born in Jackson, Mississippi, where she lived nearly all of her life. A first-generation Mississippian, Welty grew up in comfortable circumstances and developed an early love of reading. After graduating from the local high school at age sixteen, Welty spent two years at Mississippi State College for Women before transferring to the University of Wisconsin, where she earned a B.A. in English in 1929. She declared her intention of becoming a writer, but decided to go into advertising after her father expressed concern that she would be unable to support herself and that writing was perhaps a waste of time. “He was not a lover of fiction,” Welty once recalled, “because fiction is not true, and for that flaw it was forever inferior to fact.” But Welty continued to write, and her job interviewing poor rural southerners and writing stories as a publicity agent for the Works Progress Administration (WPA) helped her develop her ability to capture dialogue and bring to life the variety of situations that would comprise her later fiction. In addition to her writing, the photographs Welty took to accompany her WPA stories have become an important part of her legacy as a southern storyteller. By 1936 Welty had begun publishing stories in several small but influential southern journals, and she quickly attracted the notice of established writers such as Robert Penn Warren and Katherine Anne Porter. Porter was especially encouraging; she eventually wrote the preface to Welty’s first collection of stories, A Curtain of Green, published in 1941.

Welty’s writing is rooted in the places she knew best–small southern towns peopled with seemingly ordinary characters who love to talk and whose conversation reveals their complex and often wryly amusing interior lives. Many of her best-known and most frequently anthologized stories–such as “Why I Live at the P.O.” or “Petrified Man”–feature characters who seem to thrive on the tension and unpredictability that arises from teasing, taunting, or bickering with each other, yet who generally seem to be friends despite their differences. By dramatizing the ordinary and everyday conversations of her characters, Welty often demonstrates that differences can bring people together, just as much as they can tear them apart.

Welty won numerous literary awards in her lifetime, including three O’Henry prizes, a Pulitzer, the American Book Award, the Modern Language Association Commonwealth Award, and the National Medal of Arts. Her story “Why I Live at the P.O.” also inspired the developer of a popular email program to name his software after her. At the time of her death, Welty was considered by many to be the South’s greatest living writer.

Teaching Tips

  • “Petrified Man” is narrated by an omniscient, third-person voice–a voice outside the story which refers to the characters as “he,” “she,” etc. How does this outside narrator depict Leota and Mrs. Fletcher? Since the story is primarily dialogue, it should be relatively easy for your students to pick out the narrator’s descriptions of the characters. Have them list those descriptions, focusing on the adjectives applied to each character. Using these lists, ask your students to describe how the narrator seems to view these characters. How does this narrative voice affect our overall impression of the story?
  • In The Eye of the Story, a collection of her essays and reviews, Welty wrote that “a fiction writer’s responsibility covers not only what he presents as the facts of a given story but what he chooses to stir up as their implications; in the end, these implications, too, become facts, in the larger, fictional sense. But it is not all right, not in good faith, for things not to mean what they say.” Discuss Welty’s comments with your students in the context of “Petrified Man.” Using the chalkboard or an overhead projector, work with the class to produce two lists. One list should include the “facts” of the story; the other should include the “lies” of the story. What role do the “lies” serve for Leota? Does Mrs. Fletcher really believe them?

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: What kind of relationship do Leota and Mrs. Fletcher seem to have? Describe these two characters. What kind of people are Leota and Mrs. Fletcher? Where does each of them live? How does each woman spend her day? How do they think of themselves? How do they seem to perceive each other? What specific clues does the text give us to help answer these questions?
  2. Context: Like many other southern authors, Welty was greatly influenced by southern oral traditions. In “Losing Battles,” for example, Welty attempted to write an entire narrative comprised solely of her characters’ dialogue with one another. Think about the kinds of stories Leota tells, and compare those with, for example, the stories in Zora Neale Hurston’s Eatonville Anthology. What do the stories have in common? How do they differ? What does such a comparison suggest about southern oral traditions?
  3. Exploration: Like many of the writers in Unit 8, (as well as many of the writers included under the category of the Southern Renaissance), Welty is often considered a regional writer because she writes almost exclusively about a particular geographic area, and that location seems to greatly determine her plots and characters. While this might be a useful way for literary scholars to group authors, it also risks reducing authors to a label that does not adequately describe their work. Consider the types of writing you’ve read that are grouped under the category of “regionalism.” What are the pros and cons of such a label? What does such a label assume about literature? How might it be used by scholars to construct or manipulate the American literary canon? How does the South of Twain, Chopin, and Chesnutt differ from that of Welty and the Southern Agrarians?

Selected Archive Items

[4672] Conrad A. Albrizio, The New Deal (1934), 
courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), Franklin D. Roosevelt Library (NLR). 
A fresco of New York’s Leonardo Da Vinci Art School. Showing working people, the mural was dedicated to President Roosevelt and commissioned by the WPA. Work was an important theme in depression-era art.

[5169] Ben Shahn, Two Women Walking along Street, Natchez, Mississippi (1935), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USF33-006093-M4 DLC].
Eudora Welty was born into a family of means in Mississippi in 1909 and resided there for most of her life. Welty rooted much of her work in the daily life of small southern towns.

[5524] Dorothea Lange, White Sharecropper Family, Formerly Mill Workers in the Gastonia Textile Mills. When the Mills Closed Down Seven Years Ago, They Came to This Farm Near Hartwell, Georgia (1937), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USF34-018147-CDLC].
The less glamorous side of rural southern life; a white share-cropping family seated on the porch of their cabin. This family is an example of the poorer, “everyday people” that writers such as William Faulkner and Eudora Welty focused on in their work.

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American Passages: A Literary Survey


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