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Hometown remembers author Eudora Welty

Friends and fans gathered in Jackson, Miss., this week to remember the iconic Pulitzer Prize-winning author Eudora Welty's birth with parties, lectures and concerts.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Almost any intro-to-literature college textbook can give an overview of Eudora Welty's work, of how most of her novels and short stories were set in the 20th-century American South but captured a global audience with their intricately developed characters and complex exploration of universal emotions.

What the textbooks can't capture is the extent to which Welty remains an iconic presence in her Mississippi hometown, nearly eight years after she died at age 92.

Friends and fans gathered in Jackson this week to celebrate the centennial of Welty's birth with parties, lectures and concerts.

"She was probably not as appreciated ... as she should have been during her lifetime, but I think now it is obvious she was one of the great writers of the 20th century," said longtime friend William Winter, who served as Mississippi's governor from 1980-84.

Welty won the 1972 Pulitzer Prize for fiction for her short novel "The Optimist's Daughter."

‘Loved ridiculousness’
Many in Jackson remember the author as an unassuming woman who could be seen pushing her own cart at a local grocery store, the Jitney 14, even after she was an established writer. Her autograph, in black marker, still decorates a brick wall at a downtown restaurant that features catfish po' boys and live jazz.

Welty's two nieces, Liz Welty Thompson and Mary Alice Welty White, recall that their "Aunt Dodo" was a droll but practical woman who cultivated their love of the written word and occasionally drove their car pools. (The nickname came about because Liz, the older sister, couldn't pronounce "Eudora" when she was small.)

Welty's friends remember her as a natural raconteur who enjoyed an occasional nip of Maker's Mark bourbon to help the conversation flow. She was a voracious reader and had eclectic musical tastes that encompassed everything from Sergei Rachmaninoff to Fats Waller.

"She loved ridiculousness and loved absurdities and loved to laugh," said fellow Pulitzer-winning novelist Richard Ford, who is also a Jackson native and is 35 years younger than Welty.

In a telephone interview from his home in Maine, Ford said Welty "saw the world being a subject in which funny things were possible.

Across generations
"That isn't to say she saw the world as a joke. ... She refracted the world through her own intelligence and it came out wonderfully mirthful and funny."

Ford met Welty after he had embarked on his own writing career, but he was long aware of her presence in Jackson. Around 1952, he was 8 when his mother pointed out Welty at the Jitney 14.

"I was aware of my mother having regard for her," Ford said.

At the time, he had no aspirations to become an author. "I wasn't a particularly bright 8," Ford deadpanned.

Southern upbringing
Welty was born on April 13, 1909, to a middle-class white family in Jackson. Her mother had a talent for photography. Her father worked for an insurance company and in 1924 oversaw construction of the city's first skyscraper, the 10-story Lamar Life building across from the Governor's Mansion.

Welty spent her childhood in a home just a couple of blocks north of the state Capitol. It's the same street where Ford spent part of his childhood decades later.

In 1925, when Welty was 16, her family moved 1 1/2 miles away, to a two-story, Tudor Revival home where she lived the rest of her life — minus the extended periods she spent in New York and San Francisco.

Welty did most of her writing in her hometown, a place she found both familiar and frustrating. Especially during the first two-thirds of her life, Mississippi was torn by a strict code of racial segregation in which whites held the economic and political power.

During the Depression, Welty traveled her home state extensively as a junior publicist for the Works Progress Administration. When she was off duty, she often crossed society's color barriers and photographed black and white people while they worked, shopped and relaxed.

Welty was disgusted by racism, and wrote one of her most powerful works in response to the June 12, 1963, assassination of Mississippi NAACP leader Medgar Evers. He was killed by a sniper in the driveway of his home, just 4 miles from where Welty lived. The story — "Where Is the Voice Coming From?" — explored the mind-set of a bigot who would commit such a murder. It was published in July 1963 in The New Yorker.

Welty's works, from a series of connected fictional stories in "The Golden Apples" to her autobiographical "One Writer's Beginnings," have been translated into 40 languages, said her biographer and friend, Suzanne Marrs.

During a career that lasted more than six decades, Welty was awarded the U.S. National Medal of Literature and the French Legion of Honor, beside the Pulitzer.

In 1998, Welty became the first living author whose collected works were published by the Library of America.

Still, her work is often overshadowed by that of other novelists who were roughly her contemporaries, including William Faulkner and Richard Wright. Welty socialized with Faulkner, nearly 12 years her senior, on several occasions. She never met Wright, who was seven months older than her. Although their childhood homes were only a few miles apart in Jackson, Welty and Wright occupied vastly different worlds because she was white and he was black. Wright spent his final years in Paris.

Welty's fiction was rooted in a particular place and time but is still relevant, said Pearl McHaney, an English professor at Georgia State University.

Staying relevant
"The biggest misconception is that, 'She's an old white lady from Mississippi and why would we read her today?'" said McHaney, who's president of the Eudora Welty Society, an academic group that promotes studies of the author's work.

Welty was also an unabashed Democrat in a conservative state. Friends recall that she kept a William Winter bumper sticker on her Oldsmobile for years. When Winter became Mississippi governor in January 1980, Welty participated in his inauguration, as did opera star Leontyne Price, another Mississippi native, who is black.

"I introduced Leontyne Price to Eudora and she dropped to her knees and clasped Eudora and said, 'My heroine,'" Winter recalled.

Welty donated her home and its contents to the state when she died in July 2001. The house underwent renovations to repair structural problems caused by shifting clay, and is now open as a museum where tourists can see a wide range of mementos, including a checkbook stub where she jotted random notes.

Welty's typewriter sits in front of three windows that run the width of her second-story bedroom. Marrs said Welty used a manual typewriter until the early 1970s, then switched to an electric model that was easier on her hands. She didn't like the electric.

"She said it was as if the typewriter was always humming, waiting for you," Marrs said.