The winner of second prize in the prestigious O Henry Memorial Awards handed out in 1941 was a short story written by a newcomer to the world of serious American fiction, a woman straight out of William Faulkner’s backyard. That woman was Eudora Welty and that story was “A Worn Path.” Proving she was hardly a one-trick pony, Welty would go on to nab top honors from the same awards the next two years in a row. Definitively proving that coming in second is nothing to be ashamed, “A Worn Path” has far eclipsed those two winning stories as well as the story that beat it out in 1941 to become one of the most anthologized American short stories of all time.
One common bond among so many stories that stand the test of time to move beyond the success initially enjoyed by others which appeared around the same time is the inclusion of allusions to ancient myths. “A Worn Path” positively overflows with symbolic connections to mythic figures of the past. The protagonist of the story bears the highly resonant name of Phoenix Jackson and apart from its conjoining of two well-known American cities (one of which Welty called home) that name immediately endows the story a tie to mythological themes like spiritual rebirth and, indeed, ultimately it becomes apparent to the well-informed reader that the reason the titular path is so worn is because it harkens all the way back to the journey through the underworld the Egyptian gatekeeper Osiris.
The mythological phoenix is not the only allusion to legends of the past that readers encounter as they follow the elderly black lady from the south named Phoenix on her odyssey of renewal. Buzzards, scarecrows, dogs, a white hunter and even hustling and bustling Christmas shoppers all take on an allegorical aspect presented as modern day Herculean tasks which must be overcome in order for Granny Jackson to reach her destination and come out cleansed. Like any great story that relies heavily on symbolic association, the level of meaning and enjoying that is taken away from “A Worn Path” depends to a great extent on how much recognition is brought into it.
For those with a solid education in the classics, every single word of “A Worn Path” is like a shiny bit of gold left behind by Welty to help follow her trail. For those don’t Osiris from Isis, “A Worn Path” is simply a wonderfully entertaining story told with great style and remarkably progressive insight into the true stage of racial inequality by a white Southern writer born left less than a half century after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.