Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Eudora Welty (copy)

As readers blow out Richard Wright’s centennial candles, another cake awaits decorating. Eudora Welty lovers are planning celebrations statewide since she was born April 13, 1909 in Jackson, Mississippi. Of course, Welty’s home for 76 years will be the centerpiece for activities with staff offering free tours on her birthday.

If one cannot attend the festivities in Jackson, the “Mississippi Reads” program encourages citizens to read her Collected Stories. As the title infers, the book is a collection of Welty’s short stories and essays which provide an easy avenue for studying her works by digesting a little at a time.

Since Thanksgiving, I have read numerous titles in the collection. My favorite is A Worn Path. First published in The Atlantic Monthly in 1941, it received second place honors during the O. Henry Awards that year. I deem it first place.

A Worn Path describes an elderly woman’s journey to town in order to obtain medicine for her grandson. It is early morning and the frost covers the earth as she begins her walk somewhere on the Natchez Trail into Natchez.

Her name is Phoenix Jackson, and she is ill prepared for the journey. Although the sun shines bright, it is bitterly cold, and for warmth she wears a long dress, a red rag on her head, a thin sack apron, and unlaced shoes. Her cane, made from a tatter umbrella, rights her slender body as best it can, but still she stumbles on the uneven path.

Along the way she encounters hurdles. A ghost in the field becomes a scarecrow as her eyes and mind slowly focus. A black dog comes at her, and she backs it off with her cane only to tumble into a ravine from which she cannot get out. A hunter extracts her from the gully and tries to talk her into returning home.

Phoenix is a metaphor for life as she encounters obstacles on her journey but must press on. This rich story took shape after Welty, looking outside her train window, saw a black woman crossing an open field. Why was she crossing the field? Where was she going? It is amazing when one realizes a character as diverse as Phoenix was developed solely from a passing glance.

Consider this the year you take up the Eudora Welty banner. Read her stories, read her books, and grab another Mississippian for discussion.

Errata: This article takes on a whole new spin now that I have an interview with Miss Welty indicating she was out with artist friends when she saw the woman cross on the horizon. I am so sorry. I thought I read somewhere that it was while she was on a train!