Admirers Pay Tribute To Welty

Eudora Welty. AP

It was Eudora Welty's eyes that writer Toni Morrison most vividly recalled when the two authors met decades ago.

"She had these little round, piercing eyes that kept moving in her head. She saw everything," Morrison said Monday. "What amazed me was how comfortable everybody was under her gaze."

Through Welty's eyes, the South came to life in such books as "The Ponder Heart," "Losing Battles" and "The Optimist's Daughter," for which she won the Pulitzer Prize in 1973.

Morrison joined a chorus of admirers in paying tribute to Welty, who died Monday at Baptist Medical Center after battling pneumonia. She was 92.

"It goes without question that she was one of the greatest literary figures that this state — that this country, for that matter — has ever produced," said former Mississippi Gov. William Winter, a friend for 50 years.

Unlike fellow Mississippian William Faulkner, Welty did not imagine her people as tragic figures living out the curse of a sinful past. For her, 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.

She was also praised for "One Time, One Place," a collection of her heart-wrenching photographs of Depression-era Mississippi that showed the pride she saw among even the poorest people.

"If I drove down the street riding with Eudora Welty she would notice things that I let go by," said Suzanne Marrs, a Welty scholar at Millsaps College in Jackson and family friend.

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."

Welty's 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.
Honors and Awards
  • Guggenheim Award, 1942
  • O. Henry Award, 1942, 1943, 1968
  • National Institute of Arts and Letters, 1944
  • William Dean Howells Medal from American Academy of Arts and Letters for "The Ponder Heart," 1955
  • American Book Award, 1961 for "The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty" and "One Writer's Beginnings," 1984
  • Edward McDowell Medal, 1970
  • National Book Award for fiction ("Losing Battles"), 1971
  • Christopher Book Award for "One Time, One Place: Mississippi in the Depression; A Snapshot," 1972
  • Pulitzer Prize in fiction for "The Optimist's Daughter," 1973
  • National Medal for Literature, 1980
  • Common Wealth Awards for Distinguished Service in Literature from Modern Language Association of America, 1984
  • National Book Critics Circle Award for "One Writer's Beginnings," 1984
  • National Medal of Arts, 1987
  • French Legion of Honor, 1996
  • Welty was the first living writer in the Library of America series (1999), when the Library of America released two volumes of works: "Eudora Welty: Complete Novels" and "Eudora Welty: Stories, Essays, and Memoir."

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  • "She was extraordinary," said 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."

    Welty was born on April 13, 1909, in Jackson, where she lived most 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.

    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. 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.

    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, no the political, vision, and I was sticking to that."

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

    In recent years, she made few public appearances. In May 1998, the Mississippi University for Women gave her its first honorary degree, but she did not attend the ceremony.

    Funeral services were set for Thursday. On Wednesday, Welty's casket will be at the Old Capitol Museum for public viewing.

    Survivors include two nieces, Elizabeth Welty Thompson and Mary Alice Welty White, both of Jackson; three grandnephews; and two grandnieces.



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