Archive for Tuesday, July 24, 2001

Pulitzer-winner Welty dies at 92

July 24, 2001


— Eudora Welty, the wise, meticulous writer whose loving depictions of small-town Mississippi brought her international acclaim, died Monday. She was 92.

Welty, who was also praised for her heart-wrenching photographs of poverty in Depression-era Mississippi, died at Baptist Medical Center. She had been battling pneumonia, said Ginger Coke, a hospital spokeswoman.

Welty, author of "The Ponder Heart," "Losing Battles" and "The Optimist's Daughter," for which she won the Pulitzer Prize in 1973, said fiction provided her with the most productive tool for analyzing human personality.

"I'm not any kind of prophet, but I think it's in our nature to talk, to tell stories, appreciate stories," she said in a 1991 interview. "I think you write about whatever's current. ... They won't be the same kind of stories, but they'll be about human beings."

She was adored by critics, fellow writers and even some musicians. Country star Nanci Griffith cited her as an influence, and an incident from Welty's memoir, "One Writer's Beginnings," inspired Mary Chapin Carpenter to write the song and children's book "Halley Came to Jackson."

"She was extraordinary," said the author and critic Elizabeth Hardwick. "She had her own voice and her own tone and her own subject matter. There was no one quite like her in American literature."

Other works include "Delta Wedding" in 1946 and "Losing Battles" in 1971. "The Ponder Heart" and "The Robber Bridegroom" were made into Broadway plays. Her personal favorite was the 1949 collection "The Golden Apples," interrelated stories set in the fictional town of Morgana, Miss.

In 1998, the Library of America published a two-volume compilation of her works, the first time an entire edition had been devoted to a living writer.

Unlike fellow Mississippian William Faulkner, she did not imagine her people as tragic figures living out the curse of a sinful past. For Welty, the present was drama enough, a time for gossip and family squabbles, for private journeys and mysterious passions.

Her characters included the likes of Clytie, a frustrated spinster who drowns herself in a rain barrel; Lilly Daw, a feeble-minded girl who falls in love with a xylophone player; Miss Teacake Magee, who sings at her own wedding; and a couple of deaf-mutes who suffer indignities.

"I have been told, both in approval and in accusation, that I seem to love all my characters. What I do in writing of any character is try to enter into the mind, heart, and skin of a human being who is not myself," Welty wrote in 1980.

She once called herself "a natural observer, and to me the details tell everything. One detail can tell more than any descriptive passage in general, you know. That's the way my eye sees, so I just use it."

Writer Shelby Foote, also a Mississippian, said Monday that "no one who ever spent as much as five minutes in her presence avoided being extremely fond of her. ... She had a childlike wonder she never lost."

Growing up

Welty was born in Jackson on April 13, 1909, and lived there almost all her life. She attended Mississippi University for Women, later graduating from the University of Wisconsin and doing postgraduate work at Columbia University in New York.

Early in her career, Welty worked for newspapers and radio stations and served as publicity agent for President Franklin Roosevelt's Works Progress Administration, the agency formed to provide work for people in Depression-era America.

She took her celebrated photographs of Mississippians as she traveled the state for the WPA. They show the pride she saw among even the poorest people. She published pictures of Mississippians washing laundry by hand, tending a bootleg still and slaughtering hogs.

She credited agent Diarmuid Russell with helping get her early fiction published. When he first offered to represent her, she recalled in an interview, "I wrote back and said, 'Yes, be my agent.' He wrote back, 'Not so fast, how do you know I won't be a crook?"'

"He got me into the Atlantic Monthly, and that changed my life," she said.

Welty's first story collection, "A Curtain of Green," was published in 1941 and contained some of her most beloved work, including "A Worn Path" and "Why I Live at the P.O." Years later the latter story, about a Post Office worker, inspired the developer of the Eudora e-mail program to name it for her.

Her first novel, "The Robber Bridegroom," appeared in 1942.

An alter ego

During World War II, Welty wrote reviews on battlefield reports for The New York Times Book Review. She used the pseudonym "Michael Ravenna"; an editor had complained a Southern woman, despite literary talents, was not an authority on the war.

"Michael Ravenna's sage judgments came to be quoted prominently in publishers' ads, and invitations from radio networks to appear on their programs had to be politely declined on the grounds that he had been called away to the battlefronts," a colleague of Welty's once wrote.

Although the shooting of civil rights leader Medgar Evers in 1963 inspired Welty's haunting story "Where is the Voice Coming From?", the author was criticized in the 1960s for not writing stories about racial injustice.

"I think I've always written stories about that," she said in later years. "Not as propaganda, but I've written stories about human injustice as much as I've written about anything. ... I was looking at it in the human, not the political, vision, and I was sticking to that."

"One Time, One Place," a book of 100 black-and-white photographs published in 1971, focused exclusively on Welty's Depression era pictures. A 1989 book, "Eudora Welty Photographs," features more than 200 pictures, some taken on her travels around the world.

Welty never married and dedicated her life to her work. She lived in the Jackson home that her father built in the 1920s and continued her writing.

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