Happy birthday, Eudora_lowres

Eudora Welty

As another commencement season arrives, I’ve been thinking about Eudora Welty, the great Southern writer who was poised for literary fame when she visited her mentor and fellow writer Katharine Anne Porter in Baton Rouge in 1939.

But just a few years earlier, Welty's future didn't seem so bright. When she left college in 1931, there was no dream job waiting for her. She took a lowlier job instead — an expedient that, for all its seeming lack of promise, helped shape her into the internationally renowned author she eventually became.

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For this month’s graduates, the lesson seems clear. In spite of a hot job market, your ideal gig might not be waiting for you after you get your diploma. But any job, however humble, just might be the one to change your life.

Welty comes to mind because “Photographs,” a 1989 coffee-table book of pictures she took during the Great Depression, has just been reissued by University Press of Mississippi. Those photographs — and what they taught Welty about being a storyteller — came about through a professional path she never would have chosen.

When Welty left Columbia University, she was prepared to make a home in New York City. It seemed a natural fit for a young woman with literary aspirations. Then her father got sick, forcing Welty to return to Mississippi. 

With few other options in the Great Depression, Welty took an unassuming job as a junior publicist for the Works Progress Administration, a New Deal agency putting people to work in Mississippi and across the country. She was required to travel her home state, writing news releases about federal projects and pitching them to small-town newspapers. Much of the job bored Welty, including the publicity pictures she sometimes had to shoot. Even so, the experience was deepening her.

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Until then, Welty, who died in 2001 at 92, had been the sheltered daughter in an affluent Jackson family. Taking the back roads, connecting with both white and black people from all walks of life, she was truly seeing Mississippi for the first time, a vision that would inform her Pulitzer Prize-winning fiction. Meanwhile, Welty used her off-hours to take the kinds of pictures she liked — deeply moving portraits of people and landscapes that sharpened her ability to pay attention. It was an invaluable skill for a budding writer.

After her stint at the WPA, an assignment that had looked like a dead-end job, Welty “was a different person — more confident, surer of the direction her life would take,” says biographer Suzanne Marrs.

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In 1971, looking back on that unglamorous post-college job that had helped her grow in ways she never could have imagined, Welty landed on a truth any graduate should take to heart. “Insight doesn’t happen often in the click of a moment, like a lucky snapshot,” she wrote, “but comes in its own time and more slowly and from nowhere but within.”


Follow Danny Heitman on Twitter, @Danny_Heitman.