2009 literary celebration salutes Welty’s 100th

Published 12:33 am Sunday, February 15, 2009

NATCHEZ — Eudora Welty’s life spanned 92 years, from 1909 until 2001, but her works continue to live.

Welty, born and raised in Jackson, was an accomplished author and photographer who won a Pulitzer Prize for her novel “The Optimist’s Daughter,” but to those who have studied her and knew her, she is more than just a writer.

Welty’s memory and professional accomplishments will be celebrated during the 20th annual Natchez Literary and Cinema Celebration this week in Natchez.

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The theme “Southern Women Writers: Saluting the Eudora Welty Centennial,” was chosen because 2009 would have been Welty’s 100th birthday, but NLCC founder and co-chairman Carolyn Vance Smith said Welty’s accomplishments are such that the theme would have been appropriate without the centennial celebration.

“When you list the top five women writers of all time, Eudora Welty is at the top of the ladder,” Smith said. “She is top rung.”

Mark LaFrancis, director of public information at Copiah-Lincoln Community College Natchez, has spent “over 200 hours” gathering information and footage for a documentary that will be shown during the NLCC.

LaFrancis said he was a fan of Welty’s writing before beginning the documentary but was astonished by the quality of person Welty was.

“Her passion for people was striking, and not just her interaction with people, but her genius at making ordinary people extraordinary in her stories,” he said.

The documentary was put together by LaFrancis with the assistance of his son Mark M. LaFrancis and Cain Madden, current students at Co-Lin Natchez, and Jamie Williams, a former Co-Lin Natchez student.

The documentary is meant to be an educational tool for those who view it.

But during the filming and editing process, La Francis said he was the one being educated. He said he was particularly interested by the recording done by Harvard University of Welty reading from her memoir “One Writer’s Beginnings”

“I was simply a reader of her works and not a Eudora Welty expert on any uncertain terms,” LaFrancis said. “The real extraordinary part for me was to hear Eudora Welty’s talk about her life on the CD set (from Harvard University.

“It was at that time that I realized why she wrote the way she did — using characters from her imagination and real life to tell her stories.”

Her characters are mostly Southern, and her stories are overwhelmingly Southern. But despite her true love of the South, Welty is not considered a regional writer, Dr. J. Janice Coleman, associate professor of literature and composition at Alcorn State University, said.

“The themes of her works are recognized as universal,” Coleman said. “If they weren’t, her works would have been considered regional, but she is considered to be a universal writer.”

Coleman said a theme that runs through many of Welty’s works is the need to rely on others for survival.

Coleman, who will lecture on Welty’s use of Southwest Mississippi in her stories during the NLCC, said Welty’s short story “A Worn Path” is a prime example of the survival theme.

“A Worn Path,” set on the old Natchez Trace, tells the story of a grandmother, Phoenix Jackson, who walks the old Trace to get medicine for her grandson. While in town, Jackson asks for help from the townspeople on several occasions. Coleman said the grandmothers actions illustrate the survival theme.

“She realizes that one human is dependant on another for survivability,” Coleman said. “She asks for help because she knows very well about one human being dependant on another. That is in every place and that is what makes the theme universal.”

Coleman said Welty drew inspiration from the time the author spent in Southwest Mississippi.

“Eudora Welty came to this area in 1930 and early 1940 and spent time in the little towns between Vicksburg and Natchez,” Coleman said. “She has many interesting experiences in these towns.

“When Welty came to this area, she took a trip around the world. She had some experiences in this area that were universal.”

LaFrancis echoed Coleman’s statements about the universality and longevity Welty’s work. He said she continues to be revered as a great writer because her works are unforgettable.

“A good story always lives on,” LaFrancis said. “And a captivating character is captivating for generations.”