Welty’s “A Worn Path” an exemplar of empathy & implication.Eudora Welty’s short story “A Worn Path” depicts an aged African American woman, Phoenix Jackson, making an arduous journey through woods and fields along the Natchez Trace, an ancient trail, to the small city of Natchez, Mississippi. She’s challenged by the terrain and menaced by a stray dog and by a white quail hunter. Reading “The Worn Path” again, for the first time since I was an undergraduate, summoned its effect on me at twenty. Then, I marveled at why she went to town, revealed near the end, as if her motive was a trick Welty planted. This time, I marveled at how Welty got her there.
What sent me to this masterpiece of empathy and imagination again was that last week I stumbled across Lee Smith’s essay in Garden & Gun magazine about how James Still and Welty influenced her. In their work, Smith recognized her own subject—her people, as they say in the South. What happened is that Welty came to Hollins College to read, and 19-year-old Smith watched and listened, transfixed. Welty read “A Worn Path,” Smith writes, in “her fast light voice that seemed to sing along with the words of the story.”
Here are some of the short story’s resonant sentences depicting Phoenix’s heroic journey toward town:
Putting her right foot out, she mounted the log and shut her eyes. Lifting her skirt, leveling her cane fiercely before her, like a festival figure in some parade, she began to march across. Then she opened her eyes and she was safe on the other side.
“I wasn’t as old as I thought,” she said. . . .
So she left that tree, and had to go through a barbed-wire fence. There she had to creep and crawl, spreading her knees and stretching her fingers like a baby trying to climb the steps. But she talked loudly to herself: she could not let her dress be torn now, so late in the day, and she could not pay for having her arm or her leg sawed off if she got caught fast where she was.
She kicked her foot over the furrow, and with mouth drawn down, shook her head once or twice in a little strutting way. . . . .
Then she went on, parting her way from side to side with the cane, through the whispering [corn]field. At last she came to the end, to a wagon track where the silver grass blew between the red ruts. The quail were walking around like pullets, seeming all dainty and unseen. . . .
Deep, deep the road went down between the high green-colored banks. Overhead the live-oaks met, and it was as dark as a cave. . . .
Over she went in the ditch, like a little puff of milkweed. . . .
He patted the stuffed bag he carried, and there hung down a little closed claw. It was one of the bob-whites, with its beak hooked bitterly to show it was dead. . . .
Her fingers slid down and along the ground under the piece of money with the grace and care they would have in lifting an egg from under a setting hen.
There’s the magic of her “little strutting way,” though it may help if you love poultry. I imprinted on chickens about the time I walked. So I can testify to the perfection of quail “walking around like pullets,” but what’s thrilling is how such comparisons arise from Phoenix’s old-time country consciousness. Pick any metaphor above that you can test. As a new grandpa, I rejoice in “stretching her fingers like a baby trying to climb the steps” too. Welty looked, and she saw. But maybe you don’t have to know babies or setting hens, because if an image is perfect, imagination engages.
By the time the hero of “The Worn Path” meets the white bully and some clueless city folks in town, we know her well. And as she tries to get help in town, the story’s full implication blossoms. Having given life to an old lady in a hard situation, Welty achieved one of narrative’s highest arts—associated with fiction but possible in nonfiction—of giving readers an experience and letting them add two and two for themselves.
Welty’s comment, in her fine memoir One Writer’s Beginnings, applies:
Greater than scene, I came to see, is situation. Greater than situation is implication. Greater than all of these is a single, entire human being, who will never be confined in any frame.
“A Worn Path” appeared in Welty’s first collection, in 1941, A Curtain of Green. The book includes two other often-anthologized stories, the comedic masterpieces “Why I Live at the P.O.” and “Petrified Man.” Welty was 32. Marianne Hauser raved in her review for the New York Times:
To explain just why these stories impress one so appears as difficult as to define why an ordinary face, encountered by chance in the street, might suddenly reveal miraculous beauty, through a smile perhaps, or through an unexpected expression of sadness.
Many of the stories are dark, weird and often unspeakably sad in mood, yet there is no trace of personal frustration in them, neither harshness nor sentimental resignation; but an alert, constant awareness of life as a whole, and that profound, intuitive understanding of life which enables the artist to accept it.
Welty’s writing, fiction and memoir, brings us the kind of stories we urgently tell loved ones, or simply turn over in our minds for a lifetime. They brim with human life and tug at us with that selfsame mystery.