Considered by many literary critics to be America's greatest living writer, Welty's many honors included the Pulitzer Prize in 1973 for "The Optimist's Daughter." The recipient of numerous honorary degrees, including ones from Harvard and Yale, Welty was also recognized internationally. In 1987, France knighted her. Welty's autobiography, "One Writer's Beginnings" became the longest-running book on The New York Times' best-seller list in 1984. It described how the daughter of a Mississippi insurance salesman grew into an astute observer of human nature with a keen sense of place in story-telling. Welty translated that knowledge into essays, short stories, novels and photography over eight decades. Her first published story, "Death of a Traveling Salesman," came in 1936. Her last book was "Church Courtyards," published by the University Press of Mississippi last year.
Welty's love of photography began during the 1930s. She was working for the Works Progress Administration, a job that took her across Mississippi, and she took her camera along. Besides photographing people, Welty snapped images of a Mississippi that no longer exists, except in her stories. Some of Welty's photos were exhibited in small New York galleries in 1936 and 1937. Today, they are highly-valued collector's items.
Welty never married and lived alone until several years ago when failing health demanded that she hire nurses and a caretaker in the house she had occupied with her parents and siblings in the historic Belhaven section of Jackson, the state's capital. Nothing about the Tudor-styled house on the oak-canopied street alerted passersby to the status of Welty's literary existence. An oak tree planted by Welty's mother decades ago still stands in the front yard.
Welty shopped almost daily at the old Jitney-Jungle grocery story only a few blocks from her home. Fans too timid to knock on her front door often went to the store and waited for her to appear. But Welty was always gracious to her adoring fans, particularly young writers. As her health declined, her doctors ordered her to post a sign at the entrance of her home forbidding visitors without an appointment. But Welty, always the gracious southern lady, thought the message was too curt. Beneath the warning, in a spiderly script, she had scrawled a penciled note of apology.
The Mississippi writers Welty mentored and befriended reads like a "Who's Who of American literature, including the late Willie Morris, Richard Ford, Ellen Gilchrist. Forty-eight-year-old Carolyn Haines, author of the critically acclaimed novels "Summer of the Redeemers" and "Touched," said Welty's work played a tremendous role in her decision to become a writer:
" I was sitting in my eighth-grade English class, reading 'The Wide Net' with it hidden behind my English grammar book. I was supposed to be diagramming sentences, but Miss Welty had my mind millions of miles away. I remember it so well because it was the first time in my life that I realized a person could write about people who talked like me, and that realization changed my life."