Published on February 26th, 2015 | by Rafael Alvarez0
“Why I Live at the P.O.”: Eudora Welty Classic Accepted For Publication 74 Years Ago This Month
Today we honor Eudora Alice Welty (1909–2001), the sheltered girl from Jackson who grew into one of the nation’s finest on-the-page storytellers of all-time.
The occasion is the anniversary of the acceptance for publication of her famous work, “Why I Live at the P.O.,” which was acquired by the Atlantic Monthly on February 12, 1941, the same year the magazine published “A Worn Path.”
Both of those stories can be found in The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty, which won the National Book Award in 1983. The Pulitzer Prize for Literature was awarded to Welty in 1973 for the novel, The Optimist’s Daughter.
A favorite of fellow writers as varied as Ray Bradbury and her friend and fellow Mississippian Richard Ford, Welty said of her childhood, “I am a writer who came of a sheltered life. A sheltered life can be a daring life as well.
“…all serious daring starts from within.”
It is deep within, specifically the complicated blueprints of family dynamics, from which Welty’s best work proceeds.
And the much anthologized “Why I Live at the P.O.” has always been at the forefront of her best work. In 1998, the Memphis-born actress and filmmaker Jodie Markell made a half-hour film of the story starring Catherine Kellner and Robert Morse and Ms. Markell.
It’s a fabulous tale—imagine Garcia Marquez ensconced in a small Mississippi town, nothing but kimonos and firecrackers—and takes place on the Fourth of July. You might say it’s a story of Independence (“say goodbye, it’s Independence
Day …”) as a much put-upon woman named Sister leaves her family to move into the tiny post-office where she works.
We are often reminded that it is “the next to smallest p.o. in the entire state of Mississippi,” but in Sister’s mind, it offers more breathing room than her own home.
Early in the Great Depression in New York City, where she studied advertising at Columbia University after taking a degree in English from the University of Wisconsin, Welty took photographs.
Her wanderings took her to jazz in Harlem and the pictures she took were often of working people who could not find work.
Of this time, she wrote: “Making pictures of people in all sorts of situations, I learned that every feeling waits upon its gesture, and I had to be prepared to recognize this moment when I saw it. These were things a story writer needed to know.”
An image she captured while employed by FDR’s Works Progress Administration inspired the “P.O.” story, one of a woman ironing at the back of a small post office.
Welty took pictures through the 1950s. The work can be seen in two collections of her photographs: One Time, One Place (1971), and Photographs (1989).
To see the floors Welty trod and the walls that sheltered her as her genius developed, visit the Tudor-styled home she lived from college graduation to her death from pneumonia at 1119 Pinehurst Street in Jackson, now a museum.
For the author’s own take on her work, see Conversations with Eudora Welty, edited by Peggy Whitman Prenshaw, University Press of Mississippi.
And to call upon Miss Welty, visit the Greenwood Cemetery in Jackson, North West Street at George Street. There you can read a quote from The Optimist’s Daughter upon her headstone.