Eudora Welty was a renowned Southern writer, famous for her short stories, novels, and memoirs.
Welty was born on April 13, 1909 to a loving family in Jackson, Mississippi. Of her parents, she said in her memoir, “It was my mother who emotionally and imaginatively supported me in my wish to become a writer. It was my father who gave me the first dictionary of my own, a Webster’s Collegiate... It was also he who expressed his reservations that I wouldn’t achieve financial success by becoming a writer, a sensible fear; nevertheless he fitted me with my first typewriter, my little red Royal Portable, which I carried off to the University of Wisconsin. It was also he who advised me, after I’d told him I still meant to try writing, even though I didn’t expect to sell my stories to The Saturday Evening Post which paid well, to go ahead and try myself—but to prepare to earn my living in another way.”
Welty attended the University of Wisconsin and earned a B.A. She then went to Columbia University for graduate work, studying advertising, but finished her degree as the Great Depression worsened and thus struggled to find work. In the 1930s she worked for a radio station, was a society columnist, and took photos as a publicity agent for the Works Progress Administration. Her manifold experiences such as these would shape her literary work—especially the photo documentation of the way real people lived in the rural South during the greatest economic downtown in the country’s history. Her friend, writer William Maxwell, observed that in hiring Welty, “the Works Progress Administration was making a gift of the utmost importance to American letters... It obliged her to go where she would not otherwise have gone and see people and places she might not ever have seen. A writer’s material derives nearly always from experience. Because of this job she came to know the state of Mississippi by heart and could never come to the end of what she might want to write about.”
Welty’s first published short story was “Death of a Traveling Salesman,” debuting in a literary magazine in 1936. Welty said, “Writing ‘Death of a Traveling Salesman’ opened my eyes. And I had received the shock of having touched, for the first time, on my real subject: human relationships. Daydreaming had started me on the way; but story writing, once I was truly in its grip, took me and shook me awake.” The story caught writer Katherine Anne Porter’s eye, and she began to mentor Welty.
In 1941 Welty published A Curtain of Green and Other Stories to great acclaim. She followed it up with The Robber Bridegroom a year later, drawing comparisons to her fellow Southern Gothic writer, William Faulkner. She also wrote several novels, including Delta Wedding (1946), The Ponder Heart (1954), and Losing Battles (1970). She wrote two memoirs, One Writer’s Beginnings (1983) and On Writing (2002), and contributed criticism to The New York Times for many years.
Welty traveled to Europe in 1949 after publishing her second acclaimed book of short stories, The Golden Apples (1949). Her travels influenced later works such as “Circe.”
Welty was honored with the Pulitzer Prize for The Optimist’s Daughter (1972), an American Book Award, the National Medal for Literature, the Order of the South, the National Endowment for the Humanities’ Charles Frankel Prize, the Legion d’Honneur, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and the O. Henry Award for Short Stories six times; she also received honorary degrees from Harvard and Yale, among other institutions.
Welty died at age 92 in 2001 in Jackson. She did not marry or have children. Her house in Jackson is now a National Historic Landmark, open to the public as a museum.