First published in 1939, and considered an early indication of Eudora Welty’s promise as a leading figure in Southern realism, “Petrified Man” has gone on to be one of the most anthologized and analyzed short stories of her extensive oeuvre.
The story’s high regard is somewhat ironic given Welty’s earlier difficulties getting it published. Two years prior to publication, Welty submitted the manuscript to a recently established quarterly literary magazine, the Southern Review. Welty’s submission was returned with a rejection letter from its two esteemed editors, Robert Penn Warren and Cleanth Brooks, admitting that it was of high quality and indicating that anything else of such quality she might submit would almost certainly be published. Crushed, Welty burned the manuscript of “Petrified Man.” According to scholar Mark Winchell, “Brooks and Warren had liked the story all along, but had deferred to [editor-in-chief Charles Pipkin], who insisted it be rejected. Uncomfortable with the decision, Warren simply defied Pipkin with his belated note of acceptance.”
Shortly thereafter, Welty received another mailing from Warren with the news that the editors had quickly come to regret their decision to reject the story and informing her that if she wished to return a copy, it would be published. By that time, of course, the story no longer existed anywhere but in her head; thus, Welty rewrote the entire story from memory.
That rewrite is the version of “Petrified Man” which would be published in the Spring 1939 edition of the Southern Review and become an essential component in giving Eudora Welty her reputation as one of the towering literary figures of 20th-century America.