Emory Report
April 6, 2009
Volume 61, Number 26


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April 6
, 2009
Talks, exhibit link Eudora Welty to Emory

By Margie Fishman

An author with a quintessential sense of Southern place, Eudora Welty could spin a metaphor from the mundane with ease. A hibiscus plant dotted with orange blossoms became a sunrise; campaign buttons cascading down a lapel transformed into a waterfall.

For Welty, “the art of creating metaphorical language was as natural as breathing air,” wrote Sally Wolff King, assistant vice president and adjunct professor of English. A personal friend, Wolff King visited the author once a year for 18 years until Welty’s death in 2001.

To celebrate the centennial of Welty’s birth, Emory will host two lectures and a library exhibit honoring her artistry. Peggy Whitman Prenshaw, humanities scholar in residence at Millsaps College in Welty’s hometown of Jackson, Miss., will speak about “Eudora Welty and the Writing Life” on April 9 at 5 p.m. in the Jones Room of Woodruff Library. At 7:30 p.m., Elizabeth White, Welty’s great-niece and an Atlanta lawyer, will discuss the personal side of her Pulitzer Prize-winning aunt in “Observations: Eudora Welty at Home and in the World,” also on April 9.

The event, one of several Welty celebrations happening nationwide this spring, is co-sponsored by the Office of the President, the Creativity & Arts Initiative, the Hightower Fund, the Department of English, the Manuscript, Archives and Rare Book Library and the Druid Hills Bookstore.

From April 8–10, a small exhibit of Welty’s papers and first edition books will be on display on Woodruff’s second floor. These include “A Curtain of Green,” Welty’s first collection of short stories — published in 1941 and credited for establishing her as one of American literature’s leading lights — and “The Robber Bridegroom,” her first novel published one year later. Several pieces come from the private collection of Floyd C. Watkins, donated to the University.

Watkins retired from Emory in 1988 as Charles Howard Candler Professor of American Literature. He taught Welty in his classes and shared his personal work with the author, says Elizabeth Chase, a graduate assistant in the English department who helped assemble the exhibit.

In one letter on display, Welty responds to an introduction of Watkins’ proposed book on her work, “The Natchez Trace in the New World.” Welty wrote: “I read it with a good deal of curiosity and some awe, since it develops — and very generously — a thesis that would have never occurred to me.”

Another letter, from Southern author Flannery O’Connor to long-time correspondent Elizabeth “Betty” Hester, references Welty among the Southern literary elite, alongside William Faulkner.

As Welty grew into an established writer, she wrestled with the shadow of Faulkner, the Mississippi native and Nobel Laureate. She compared writing after Faulkner to living near a mountain. “Mountains cannot be moved,” explains Wolff King. “But those who live near them learn to go around them and keep moving.” In 1973, Welty won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for her novel, “The Optimist’s Daughter.” She received an honorary degree from Emory in 1982.

Upon meeting the author, Wolff King, then an Emory graduate student writing her dissertation on Welty, recalled her intense focus on dialogue and voice. A private person, Welty developed a lasting friendship with Wolff King, who published several papers on the author and worked in her rose garden in Jackson one summer.

“I found her to be an extraordinarily modest and kind woman,” Wolff King recalls, “with a brilliant mind, quick wit and a hilarious sense of humor, but with a deep sense of the tragic.”