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.”
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.