Adieo, Eudora:  She was the last of a generation.  Now Critique looks back on the life of a remarkable woman.  Reported by Janie Franz

On July 23, 2001, the literary world lost a treasure. Eudora Welty, a keen observer of human nature and Southern idiom, died of pneumonia at the age of 92. She had published five novels, 15 short story collections, one book of children’s stories, four books of photography, one skit, and two collections of interviews. She won the 1973 Pulitzer Prize for fiction for The Optimist’s Daugher, a novel.
         A private woman, Welty was reluctant to reveal details of her personal life, especially as critics and would-be biographers wanted to turn those incidents into Freudian justifications for her work. And there have been speculations about Welty’s sexuality and her lack of it, her insistence on uplifting socio-economic issues, her genteel Southern upbringing; there have been suspicions about her use of the fairy tale as a literary vehicle. There have been conferences (recently, too) that equate Welty’s writing with feminist upheaval, modernism, anti-modernism, the political experience of the South, and even the symbolism and international implications of Welty’s use of Southern vegetation.
         I say, "Hogwash!" and I think Eudora Welty would agree. Welty was a Southerner by birth alone and did not have an Old South heritage. Her father was a Yankee from Ohio who sold insurance, and her mother was a schoolteacher from West Virginia. They moved to Jackson, Mississippi, where Welty was born. Though her mother may have had aspirations to become part of the exclusive, genteel society of the Old South, there is no evidence that she actually coffeekatched with pillars of the Jackson community. But Welty herself lived long enough in Jackson to more than qualify as a Southern writer.
         Welty also made distinctions about writing and literary criticism, which she herself wrote. She insisted that her work should tell everything that the reader needed to know. She endured the implications that literary critics placed on her short stories and novels, allowing them to find whatever they wanted in her work because that was the privilege of the critic.
         She, I think, wrote whatever struck her fancy, and I don’t believe–Gasp!–that she had a plan for each story. In interviews, Welty would not reveal her intentions for a story. "It is not from criticism but from this world that stories come in the beginning; their origins are living reference plain to the writer’s eye, even though to his eye alone," she said in 1989’s Eye of the Writer.
         This seems to indicate that Welty started a story with a person, a particular place, or an idea and then just let the story happen. It’s been said that only amateur writers talk of letting their characters take over and write the story. That criticism has also been linked to classic writer Nathaniel Hawthorne, for some critics say his Hester Pryne turned out such a strong protagonist because her character got away from its creator.
         Welty said of her first story, "Death of a Traveling Salesman," that she let her main character lead her. "In writing the story, I approached [the cabin] and went inside with my traveling salesman, and had him … figure out what was there (One Writer’s Beginnings, 1987)." That experience ended up as the heart of the story and as a main theme that resonated throughout her writing career. Her writing related a fascination with human relationships.
         It is not such a far leap to say that writers like Welty who explored free writing are the godparents of meditative writing that has become popular recently as a strategy for overcoming writer’s block. Such a strategy is espoused by Gabriele Rico, author of Writing the Natural Way. Rico suggests that writers write anything, even nonsense, for a specified time first thing in the morning. This unlocks the creative flow. Within that experience, there will be a nugget, which can be expanded upon throughout the writer’s day.
         Regardless, Welty wrote easily and naturally about people. The use of dialogue that captures the character and flavor of a time and place is the cornerstone of her work. Stories such as "The Petrified Man," and "Why I Live at the P.O." offer insular, small town perspectives that drip with acid descriptions balanced by a black humor that only an astute observer of human nature could produce. Welty obviously listened carefully to people, especially what women say to and about each other. This may have been a trait that she developed living in a small town or through her years working as a reporter and a publicist for the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in the 1930s. Her extensive interviews with plain folk who told their stories with Southernisms and quirky turns of phrase intact surely helped shape the dialogue of Welty’s stories.
         Though she depicted the lives of outrageous people or everyday people in outrageous situations, Welty always insisted that her work was not political, that no story had a political or socio-economic issue as its message. She created each story to stand in relation to the conditions that were the characters’ reality. If the nightmare of poverty is to be faced, it is the circumstance in which the characters move and breathe. It is not part of a larger crusade to right a wrong or uplift a cause.
         I have some relations who were bigger than life and who did some outrageous things, things that the world at large would find shocking. But these family stories are gut-bustingly funny and tell a lot about how those relatives got through the life they had to endure. Welty’s characters are like that. They cope within a social culture many wouldn’t understand or, at least, would hide from public view.
         Welty’s characters are real. Townspeople gossip about anything new that comes to town and about the secret affairs they just know are happening right under their noses ("The Petrified Man"). Families drift apart, brothers don’t talk to each other, or sisters move out of the family home because of jealousy or spite ("Why I Live at the P.O."). And matriarchs call their families together to celebrate birthdays just to watch them fight. This is life; it was Welty’s world.
         Readers came to know these characters as they would the neighbors down the street. We laughed with them and even shed a tear or two. Through them, we learned about mortality and storytelling. We also were drawn closer to the storyteller.
         Welty inspired. I remember attending a writers’ conference over twenty years ago. Eudora Welty was there, as well as Tillie Olson, who had just won the Pulitzer for Tell Me a Riddle. Olson held court at an autograph session, surrounded by a group of young sorority women. She told them not to write, that it wasn’t a profession in which they should be interested. Yet, there was a sense of elevation or ego around her that said that only through suffering or some other circumstance could someone get a book in print. (Granted, it took Olson twenty years to write her famous novel, hiding her aspirations from an abusive mate and taking out her typewriter only late at night when her husband was asleep.)
         I got my copy of Tell Me a Riddle autographed and went over to Eudora Welty, who was standing alone in a corner. I had adored her reading of "The Petrified Man." Though it is a tale with a dark streak, I laughed all the way through it. I offered my book to Welty and made a comment about the reading. Then I said something about the crowd around Tillie Olson. Welty looked up and quietly said, "Well, she only wrote one book!"
         I almost choked! As a result of that day, Eudora Welty became my inspiration. She had been a newspaperwoman and had a clean style that sometimes read more like a script than a story. In the pre-computer days, she literally cut and pasted her work. I took that to heart until I owned my own computer. And her characters, though from a different part of the South, resembled some of my own relations.
         Welty inspired many others, and not all of them writers. Some she might have even been willing to add to her family of characters. One such person is Steve Dormer, who created a computer mail program in 1990 at the University of Illinois-Urbana for the National Center for Supercomputing Applications. It took him a year to write 50,000 lines of code. When it came to naming the program, Dormer thought of Welty’s story, "Why I Live at the P.O." which he had read in college. Instead of living at the post office, he was bringing the post office to where people lived. He named the program Eudora.
         Country singer/songwriter Nanci Griffith claims Welty as an influence. Singer Mary Chapin Carpenter also was inspired by Welty. Carpenter wrote the children’s book, Halley Came to Jackson, after reading Welty’s autobiography, One Writer’s Beginning.
And it can be speculated that the grand lady herself also influenced Bailey White. White, a writer from Georgia whose readings have been featured on National Public Radio, is able to capture not only the Southern cadence but also the quirky humanness that Welty wrote so well.
         Adieu, Eudora Welty. You’ll be missed, but we’ll be pondering and laughing with your legacy of characters for a long time.

Janie Franz holds a BA in anthropology and has worked as a freelance writer and/or editor for publications including High Plains Reader, Grand Forks Herald, and Red River Valley Magazine. For the past eight years, she has been employed as the owner of J. Freeman Franz Writing Services, thus garnering extensive experience in ghost writing, manuscript preparation, and editing.