Meridian Star

Columns

April 4, 2014

Happy birthday — The Optimist’s Daughter …

MERIDIAN — Mississippi’s voice of creativity, an author of short stories and novels about our Southland, Eudora Welty, who helped put Mississippi on the Literary Trail, nationwide and throughout the world, has an April birthday. She was born in Jackson, Miss., April 13, 1909.

         She is perhaps best known for The Optimist’s Daughter, a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1973. The short novel, by Miss Welty, deals with the death of her main character’s father as well as deep-seated memories of friends and family. The protagonist, Laurel, reminisces about her childhood home and through complex emotions of loss and love, she finds an understanding of the sweetness of her hometown, the closeness of her Mississippi folk  living in the fictional town of Mount Salus, Mississippi.

    Eudora drew from personal experience in order to capture the emotions and lifestyles of those in her life’s circle. Her father, Christian Welty, built the childhood home when he and his wife, Chestina, first moved to Jackson. The home was a place of learning, where certain things were done at certain times – all in the endeavor of education. Eudora, the oldest and only daughter of the family, recalled in her autobiography One Writer’s Beginnings the importance of reading in her childhood home.

        This is worth repeating … importance of reading in her childhood home.

    Miss Welty often reminisced about those early years, the closeness of her family, and the interest of her parents pertaining to the education of their children. She explained, “You learned the alphabet like you learned your address and phone number in case you got lost.”

    Eudora attended Central High School in Jackson, and then enrolled in Mississippi State College for Women, Columbus, eventually graduating Columbia University Graduate School, New York City. It seemed she was on her way toward a fabulous career, but in 1931, tragedy struck the Welty family, when her father passed away. His death was an overwhelming loss for the entire family, especially Eudora. She immediately returned to Jackson to help her mother and younger brothers through the difficult situation.

    It was at this time Eudora began the pathway of her life’s destiny – a writer. She took a job at a local radio station and as well wrote a society column for the Commercial Appeal newspaper. America’s Great Depression was in full swing during the 1930s and jobs were scarce, but Eudora was fortunate to secure employment through the Works Progress Administration, where she collected stories, conducted interviews, and took photos of daily life in Mississippi, featuring all economic and social classes. Thus began a lifetime quest of fleshing-out-characters, with pen and paper – creating Mississippi characters in short stories and novels.

    With these life lesson experiences, Eudora’s written work emerged and in a mighty way. Death of a Traveling Salesman, Why I Live at the P.O., Petrified Man, A Worn Path, and the collection of short stories, A Curtain of Green were some of her writings published prior to 1941. The literary world began to take notice of this lady named Eudora writing passionately in Mississippi – telling stories of heartache, triumphs, soul-searching, and at times, abundant humor.

    Eventually Eudora’s mother and both brothers died leaving her with heartfelt memories, such as she features in perhaps her best work, The Optimist’s Daughter. Her written work continued producing The Golden Apples, The Ponder Heart, The Bride of Innisfallen, and in 1984, Welty published One Writer's Beginnings, an autobiographical account describing her own artistic development.

    Throughout Eudora’s life, one important element rang true. The influence of her childhood home, the educational commitments inspired by her parents, the importance of reading every day brought forth by her mother’s words, “any room in our house, at any time in the day was to be read in or read to.”

    It was in 2009, Eudora’s 100th Birthday Celebration in Natchez, I was invited to portray her – perhaps only in the tiniest of ways, but momentous to me, I read her humorous short story, Why I Live at the P.O. Once again, I was overwhelmed by her creativity and the depth of her characterizations.

         Happy birthday, Eudora Welty, truly The Optimist’s Daughter …  

    Anne McKee is a writer and storyteller. See her website: www.annemckee.net

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