The winner of second prize in the prestigious O. Henry Awards for the year 1941 was a short story written by a relative newcomer to the world of American fiction, a woman straight out of William Faulkner’s backyard. That woman was Eudora Welty and her story was “A Worn Path.”
In the 1930s Welty had traveled throughout rural Mississippi as a junior publicity agent for the Works Progress Administration, documenting black lives in particular. Her sympathy for the people she saw suffering both from the Great Depression and from continuing racial oppression is manifest in her photographs. As she moved from photographing to chronicling in prose, she explained, “Away one day off in Tishomingo County, I knew this anyway: that 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.”
The Atlantic Monthly published the story in 1941; it was included in her story collection A Curtain of Green from that same year. Almost immediately it attracted attention, and has been a fixture of short story anthologies and critical work ever since. Scholars make connections to ancient Egypt, the Bible, pilgrimage, mythology, and more.
Connecting her story to the process of writing, Welty said in 1978, “In the matter of function, old Phoenix's way might even do as I sort of parallel to your way of work if you are a writer of stories. The way to get there is the all‐important, all‐absorbing problem, and this problem is your reason for undertaking the story. Your only guide, too, is your sureness about your subject, about what this subject is. Like Phoenix, you work all your life to find your way, through all the obstructions and the false appearances and the upsets you may have brought on yourself, to reach a meaning—using inventions of your imagination, perhaps helped out by your dreams and bits of good luck. And finally too, like Phoenix, you have to assume that what you are working in aid of is life.”