A strong sense of place—in this case Mississippi—along with often larger-than-life characterizations of ordinary folk with all their glorious eccentricities and foibles, and above all a completely distinctive voice, come together in Eudora Welty’s fiction to offer us a world that is sometimes sad, sometimes comic, often petty, and always compassionate.
Here is a baker’s dozen of Welty’s very best, including: “The Wide Net,” in which a pregnant wife threatens to drown herself, despite fear of the water, and a communal dragging of the river turns into a celebratory fish-fry; “Petrified Man,” revealing the savagery of small-town gossip; “Powerhouse,” Welty’s prose answer to jazz improvisation and the emotional heart of the blues; and “Why I Live at the P.O.”, the hilariously one-sided testimony of a postmistress who believes herself wronged by her family. With her highly tuned ear and sharp insight into human behavior, Eudora Welty has crafted stories as vital and unpredictable as they are artful and enduring.
“Miss Welty has written some of the finest short stories of modern times.” —The New York Times
“Eudora Welty is one of our purest, finest, gentlest voices.” —Anne Tyler
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About the Author
Date of Birth:April 13, 1909
Date of Death:July 23, 2001
Place of Birth:Jackson, Mississippi
Place of Death:Jackson, Mississippi
Education:University of Wisconsin
Read an Excerpt
The Wide Net
William Wallace Jamieson's wife Hazel was going to have a baby. But this was October, and it was six months away, and she acted exactly as though it would be tomorrow. When he came in the room she would not speak to him, but would look as straight at nothing as she could, with her eyes glowing. If he only touched her she stuck out her tongue or ran around the table. So one night he went out with two of the boys down the road and stayed out all night. But that was the worst thing yet, because when he came home in the early morning Hazel had vanished. He went through the house not believing his eyes, balancing with both hands out, his yellow cowlick rising on end, and then he turned the kitchen inside out looking for her, but it did no good. Then when he got back to the front room he saw she had left him a little letter, in an envelope. That was doing something behind someone's back. He took out the letter, pushed it open, held it out at a distance from his eyes. ... After one look he was scared to read the exact words, and he crushed the whole thing in his hand instantly, but what it had said was that she would not put up with him after that and was going to the river to drown herself.
"Drown herself. ... But she's in mortal fear of the water!"
He ran out front, his face red like the red of the picked cotton field he ran over, and down in the road he gave a loud shout for Virgil Thomas, who was just going in his own house, to come out again. He could just see the edge of Virgil, he had almost got in, he had one foot inside the door.
They met half-way between the farms, under the shade-tree.
"Haven't you had enough of the night?" asked Virgil. There they were, their pants all covered with dust and dew, and they had had to carry the third man home flat between them.
"I've lost Hazel, she's vanished, she went to drown herself."
"Why, that ain't like Hazel," said Virgil.
William Wallace reached out and shook him. "You heard me. Don't you know we have to drag the river?"
"Right this minute?"
"You ain't got nothing to do till spring."
"Let me go set foot inside the house and speak to my mother and tell her a story, and I'll come back."
"This will take the wide net," said William Wallace. His eyebrows gathered, and he was talking to himself.
"How come Hazel to go and do that way?" asked Virgil as they started out.
William Wallace said, "I reckon she got lonesome."
"That don't argue — drown herself for getting lonesome. My mother gets lonesome."
"Well," said William Wallace. "It argues for Hazel."
"How long is it now since you and her was married?"
"Why, it's been a year."
"It don't seem that long to me. A year!"
"It was this time last year. It seems longer," said William Wallace, breaking a stick off a tree in surprise. They walked along, kicking at the flowers on the road's edge. "I remember the day I seen her first, and that seems a long time ago. She was coming along the road holding a little frying-size chicken from her grandma, under her arm, and she had it real quiet. I spoke to her with nice manners. We knowed each other's names, being bound to, just didn't know each other to speak to. I says, 'Where are you taking the fryer?' and she says, 'Mind your manners,' and I kept on till after while she says, 'If you want to walk me home, take littler steps.' So I didn't lose time. It was just four miles across the field and full of blackberries, and from the top of the hill there was Dover below, looking sizeable-like and clean, spread out between the two churches like that. When we got down, I says to her, 'What kind of water's in this well?' and she says, The best water in the world.' So I drew a bucket and took out a dipper and she drank and I drank. I didn't think it was that remarkable, but I didn't tell her."
"What happened that night?" asked Virgil.
"We ate the chicken," said William Wallace, "and it was tender. Of course that wasn't all they had. The night I was trying their table out, it sure had good things to eat from one end to the other. Her mama and papa sat at the head and foot and we was face to face with each other across it, with I remember a pat of butter between. They had real sweet butter, with a tree drawed down it, elegant-like. Her mama eats like a man. I had brought her a whole hat-ful of berries and she didn't even pass them to her husband. Hazel, she would leap up and take a pitcher of new milk and fill up the glasses. I had heard how they couldn't have a singing at the church without a fight over her."
"Oh, she's a pretty girl, all right," said Virgil. "It's a pity for the ones like her to grow old, and get like their mothers."
"Another thing will be that her mother will get wind of this and come after me," said William Wallace.
"Her mother will eat you alive," said Virgil.
"She's just been watching her chance," said William Wallace. "Why did I think I could stay out all night."
"Just something come over you."
"First it was just a carnival at Carthage, and I had to let them guess my weight ... and after that ..."
"It was nice to be sitting on your neck in a ditch singing," prompted Virgil, "in the moonlight. And playing on the harmonica like you can play."
"Even if Hazel did sit home knowing I was drunk, that wouldn't kill her," said William Wallace. "What she knows ain't ever killed her yet. ... She's smart, too, for a girl," he said.
"She's a lot smarter than her cousins in Beula," said Virgil. "And especially Edna Earle, that never did get to be what you'd call a heavy thinker. Edna Earle could sit and ponder all day on how the little tail of the 'C' got through the 'L' in a Coca-Cola sign."
"Hazel is smart," said William Wallace. They walked on. "You ought to see her pantry shelf, it looks like a hundred jars when you open the door. I don't see how she could turn around and jump in the river."
"It's a woman's trick."
"I always behaved before. Till the one night — last night."
"Yes, but the one night," said Virgil. "And she was waiting to take advantage."
"She jumped in the river because she was scared to death of the water and that was to make it worse," he said. "She remembered how I used to have to pick her up and carry her over the oak-log bridge, how she'd shut her eyes and make a dead-weight and hold me round the neck, just for a little creek. I don't see how she brought herself to jump."
"Jumped backwards," said Virgil. "Didn't look."
When they turned off, it was still early in the pink and green fields. The fumes of morning, sweet and bitter, sprang up where they walked. The insects ticked softly, their strength in reserve; butterflies chopped the air, going to the east, and the birds flew carelessly and sang by fits and starts, not the way they did in the evening in sustained and drowsy songs.
"It's a pretty day for sure," said William Wallace. "It's a pretty day for it."
"I don't see a sign of her ever going along here," said Virgil.
"Well," said William Wallace. "She wouldn't have dropped anything. I never saw a girl to leave less signs of where she's been."
"Not even a plum seed," said Virgil, kicking the grass.
In the grove it was so quiet that once William Wallace gave a jump, as if he could almost hear a sound of himself wondering where she had gone. A descent of energy came down on him in the thick of the woods and he ran at a rabbit and caught it in his hands.
"Rabbit ... Rabbit ..." He acted as if he wanted to take it off to himself and hold it up and talk to it. He laid a palm against its pushing heart. "Now ... There now ..."
"Let her go, William Wallace, let her go." Virgil, chewing on an elderberry whistle he had just made, stood at his shoulder: "What do you want with a live rabbit?"
William Wallace squatted down and set the rabbit on the ground but held it under his hand. It was a little, old, brown rabbit. It did not try to move. "See there?" "Let her go."
"She can go if she wants to, but she don't want to."
Gently he lifted his hand. The round eye was shining at him sideways in the green gloom.
"Anybody can freeze a rabbit, that wants to," said Virgil. Suddenly he gave a far-reaching blast on the whistle, and the rabbit went in a streak. "Was you out catching cotton-tails, or was you out catching your wife?" he said, taking the turn to the open fields. "I come along to keep you on the track."
"Who'll we get, now?" They stood on top of a hill and William Wallace looked critically over the countryside. "Any of the Malones?"
"I was always scared of the Malones," said Virgil. "Too many of them."
"This is my day with the net, and they would have to watch out," said William Wallace. "I reckon some Malones, and the Doyles, will be enough. The six Doyles and their dogs, and you and me, and two little nigger boys is enough, with just a few Malones."
"That ought to be enough," said Virgil, "no matter what."
"I'll bring the Malones, and you bring the Doyles," said William Wallace, and they separated at the spring.
When William Wallace came back, with a string of Malones just showing behind him on the hilltop, he found Virgil with the two little Rippen boys waiting behind him, solemn little towheads. As soon as he walked up, Grady, the one in front, lifted his hand to signal silence and caution to his brother Brucie who began panting merrily and untrustworthily behind him.
Brucie bent readily under William Wallace's hand-pat, and gave him a dreamy look out of the tops of his round eyes, which were pure green-and-white like clover tops. William Wallace gave him a nickel. Grady hung his head; his white hair lay in a little tail in the nape of his neck.
"Let's let them come," said Virgil.
"Well, they can come then, but if we keep letting everybody come it is going to be too many," said William Wallace.
"They'll appreciate it, those little-old boys," said Virgil. Brucie held up at arm's length a long red thread with a bent pin tied on the end; and a look of helpless and intense interest gathered Grady's face like a drawstring — his eyes, one bright with a sty, shone pleadingly under his white bangs, and he snapped his jaw and tried to speak. ... "Their papa was drowned in the Pearl River," said Virgil.
There was a shout from the gully.
"Here come all the Malones," cried William Wallace. "I asked four of them would they come, but the rest of the family invited themselves."
"Did you ever see a time when they didn't," said Virgil. "And yonder from the other direction comes the Doyles, still with biscuit crumbs on their cheeks, I bet, now it's nothing to do but eat as their mother said."
"If two little niggers would come along now, or one big nigger," said William Wallace. And the words were hardly out of his mouth when two little Negro boys came along, going somewhere, one behind the other, stepping high and gay in their overalls, as though they waded in honeydew to the waist.
"Come here, boys. What's your names?"
"Sam and Robbie Bell."
"Come along with us, we're going to drag the river."
"You hear that, Robbie Bell?" said Sam.
The Doyles came noiselessly, their dogs made all the fuss. The Malones, eight giants with great long black eyelashes, were already stamping the ground and pawing each other, ready to go. Everybody went up together to see Doc.
Old Doc owned the wide net. He had a house on top of the hill and he sat and looked out from a rocker on the front porch.
"Climb the hill and come in!" he began to intone across the valley. "Harvest's over ... slipped up on everybody ... cotton's picked, gone to the gin ... hay cut ... molasses made around here. ... Big explosion's over, supervisors elected, some pleased, some not. ... We're hearing talk of war!"
When they got closer, he was saying, "Many's been saved at revival, twenty-two last Sunday including a Doyle, ought to counted two. Hope they'll be a blessing to Dover community besides a shining star in Heaven. Now what?" he asked, for they had arrived and stood gathered in front of the steps.
"If nobody is using your wide net, could we use it?" asked William Wallace.
"You just used it a month ago," said Doc. "It ain't your turn."
Virgil jogged William Wallace's arm and cleared his throat. "This time is kind of special," he said. "We got reason to think William Wallace's wife Hazel is in the river, drowned."
"What reason have you got to think she's in the river drowned?" asked Doc. He took out his old pipe. "I'm asking the husband."
"Because she's not in the house," said William Wallace.
"Vanished?" and he knocked out the pipe.
"Of course a thousand things could have happened to her," said Doc, and he lighted the pipe.
"Hand him up the letter, William Wallace," said Virgil. "We can't wait around till Doomsday for the net while Doc sits back thinkin'."
"I tore it up, right at the first," said William Wallace. "But I know it by heart. It said she was going to jump straight in the Pearl River and that I'd be sorry."
"Where do you come in, Virgil?" asked Doc.
"I was in the same place William Wallace sat on his neck in, all night, and done as much as he done, and come home the same time."
"You-all were out cuttin' up, so Lady Hazel has to jump in the river, is that it? Cause and effect? Anybody want to argue with me? Where do these others come in, Doyles, Malones, and what not?"
"Doc is the smartest man around," said William Wallace, turning to the solidly waiting Doyles, "but it sure takes time."
"These are the ones that's collected to drag the river for her," said Virgil.
"Of course I am not going on record to say so soon that I think she's drowned," Doc said, blowing out blue smoke.
"Do you think ..." William Wallace mounted a step, and his hands both went into fists. "Do you think she was carried off?"
"Now that's the way to argue, see it from all sides," said Doc promptly. "But who by?"
Some Malone whistled, but not so you could tell which one.
"There's no booger around the Dover section that goes around carrying off young girls that's married," stated Doc.
"She was always scared of the Gypsies." William Wallace turned scarlet. "She'd sure turn her ring around on her finger if she passed one, and look in the other direction so they couldn't see she was pretty and carry her off. They come in the end of summer."
"Yes, there are the Gypsies, kidnappers since the world began. But was it to be you that would pay the grand ransom?" asked Doc. He pointed his finger. They all laughed then at how clever old Doc was and clapped William Wallace on the back. But that turned into a scuffle and they fell to the ground.
"Stop it, or you can't have the net," said Doc. "You're scaring my wife's chickens."
"It's time we was gone," said William Wallace.
The big barking dogs jumped to lean their front paws on the men's chests.
"My advice remains, Let well enough alone," said Doc. "Whatever this mysterious event will turn out to be, it has kept one woman from talking a while. However, Lady Hazel is the prettiest girl in Mississippi, you've never seen a prettier one and you never will. A golden-haired girl." He got to his feet with the nimbleness that was always his surprise, and said, "I'll come along with you."
The path they always followed was the Old Natchez Trace. It took them through the deep woods and led them out down below on the Pearl River, where they could begin dragging it upstream to a point near Dover. They walked in silence around William Wallace, not letting him carry anything, but the net dragged heavily and the buckets were full of clatter in a place so dim and still.
Once they went through a forest of cucumber trees and came up on a high ridge. Grady and Brucie who were running ahead all the way stopped in their tracks; a whistle had blown and far down and far away a long freight train was passing. It seemed like a little festival procession, moving with the slowness of ignorance or a dream, from distance to distance, the tiny pink and gray cars like secret boxes. Grady was counting the cars to himself, as if he could certainly see each one clearly, and Brucie watched his lips, hushed and cautious, the way he would watch a bird drinking. Tears suddenly came to Grady's eyes, but it could only be because a tiny man walked along the top of the train, walking and moving on top of the moving train.
They went down again and soon the smell of the river spread over the woods, cool and secret. Every step they took among the great walls of vines and among the passion-flowers started up a little life, a little flight.
"We're walking along in the changing-time," said Doc. "Any day now the change will come. It's going to turn from hot to cold, and we can kill the hog that's ripe and have fresh meat to eat. Come one of these nights and we can wander down here and tree a nice possum. Old Jack Frost will be pinching things up. Old Mr. Winter will be standing in the door. Hickory tree there will be yellow. Sweet-gum red, hickory yellow, dogwood red, sycamore yellow." He went along rapping the tree trunks with his knuckle. "Magnolia and live-oak never die. Remember that. Persimmons will all get fit to eat, and the nuts will be dropping like rain all through the woods here. And run, little quail, run, for well be after you too."
Excerpted from "Thirteen Stories"
Copyright © 1993 Eudora Welty.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
The Wide Net,
Old Mr. Marblehall,
Keela, the Outcast Indian Maiden,
A Worn Path,
A Still Moment,
Lily Daw and the Three Ladies,
Why I Live at the P.O.,
The Bride of the Innisfallen,
Read More from Eudora Welty,
About the Author,
Connect with HMH,