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Why I Live at the P.O.

Eudora Welty

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Plot Overview

Born in Jackson, Mississippi, on April 13, 1909, Eudora Welty was a versatile artist, succeeding as both a photographer and writer. In many ways, her early work as a photographer, in which she captured the lives of the rural poor for the Works Project Administration, honed her sharp eye for detail and shaped her belief that there was an infinite number of ways of looking at a given situation. As a writer, Welty managed to step out of the shadows of William Faulkner, the esteemed writer from Mississippi, and carve a niche for herself in the writing world. She produced five novels in her lifetime: The Robber Bridegroom (1942), Delta Wedding (1946), The Ponder Heart (1954), Losing Battles (1970), and The Optimist’s Daughter (1972), which won the Pulitzer Prize. She is generally most well known for her short stories and quickly proved herself to be a master of the form. She published her first short story, “Death of a Traveling Salesman,” in 1936, eventually going on to publish four collections of stories during her lifetime.

Welty spent the vast majority of her life in Jackson, living in her childhood home, and never married or had children. Other than basic biographical information, little is known about Welty, and she deliberately kept many details of her personal life private. She believed that her work should stand on its own terms and that interpretations should not be based on her life or experiences. She did, however, publish an autobiography, One Writer’s Beginnings (1983), in which she describes her growing-up years, her education and jobs, her photography, her family, and the people and experiences that influenced her development as a writer.

Unlike the writing of her southern contemporaries, who included Katherine Anne Porter, Flannery O’Connor, and Carson McCullers, Welty’s writing is not haunted by the past or the collective guilt over the South’s history of slavery, a theme that courses through much writing from southern authors in the early twentieth century. Instead, Welty focused on individual lives and families who are thrown together by circumstance and form whatever bonds they need to survive. Her work often explores the lives of people who live in stifling parochial worlds, although she also includes plenty of humor and local color. Welty believed that confined settings and suffocating circumstances were key to defining her characters. She found inspiration in the people who surrounded her while growing up in Mississippi, and the speech of the vibrant characters whom she created conveys the sly humor and idiomatic phrases of the area.

In 1941, “Why I Live at the P.O.” was published in the Atlantic Monthly magazine and also appeared in her first story collection, A Curtain of Green and Other Stories. Welty was inspired to write the story after seeing an ironing board in a rural post office. Considered one of her best short stories, “Why I Live at the P.O.” demonstrates typical Welty flair: quirky humor; a lonely, odd protagonist trapped in a stifling environment; and a family who provides love and alienation in equal measures.

In July 2001, at age ninety-two, Welty died at a hospital in Jackson.

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