Eudora Welty, born on this day in 1909, doesn’t want us talking about her life. Her work, she felt, is the thing that answers every question about its doing. She published her first story when she was twenty-six, and went on to win the Pulitzer Prize. She is as important a writer as her fellow Mississippian William Faulkner, and her work is collected in two Library of America volumes. Living in her family home until her death in 2001, she politely refused most literary pilgrims, and only stopped writing because her arthritis made it impossible.
Welty wrote about the South during a crucial time for civil rights, but said more than once that she was not a political writer, and that she wouldn’t use her fiction to advance any causes. Her role was to reflect her environment, as Marcel Proust did his and Jane Austen did hers, not to seek justice. Claudia Roth Pierpont pointed out in a 1998 New Yorker article on Welty that her 1946 novel Delta Wedding is populated by Southern aristocrats whose “empire is maintained by contented Negroes … who give little sign of wanting the world any other way.”
But on the summer night in 1963 that civil rights activist Medgar Evers was murdered in Jackson, where Welty had lived most of her life, she wrote the story that would be called “Where is the Voice Coming From?” The killer wasn’t known yet, but Welty felt she knew him. In fact, her fictional account of the murder turned out to be so close to what really happened that when the New Yorker published the story a few weeks later, they had to change some of Welty’s details for legal reasons. Welty didn’t need a mug shot to picture someone who’d kill a civil rights leader. Her lifetime of chronicling the South was more than enough.