Travel “A Worn Path” with Eudora Welty for the Classroom
“One place understood helps us understand all places better”?
Eudora Welty was a Mississippi author who lived and wrote of life in the rural American South in her hometown, Jackson, Mississippi, in the early to mid-20th century. In her lifetime, Welty was awarded many honors including the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, a National Book Award, and the National Medal of Arts. In praise of Welty, Katherine Anne Porter once wrote: “There is no blurring at the edges, but evidences of an active and disciplined imagination working firmly in a strong line of continuity, the waking faculty of daylight reason recollecting and recording the crazy logic of the dream.”
Welty’s home in Jackson was close by the Natchez Trace which she used as the setting for her story “A Worn Path.” (1941) The “Ole Trace,” as this ancient trail is referred to by locals, runs from Nashville, Tennessee, to Natchez, Mississippi and served as a main artery for the transport of people, goods, and services through that region. Welty’s inspiration for the story came as she sat with a painter friend out on the Trace and observed an elderly women walking laboriously down the trail. That vision led her to wonder where the woman might be coming from and going to. During the early 1940s when “A Worn Path” was written, Welty worked as a photographer for the Works Progress Administration. Undoubtedly, her experiences in the WPA contributed to themes in the story.
Eudora Welty and “A Worn Path” fall squarely within the 9–10 grade band of exemplary texts though they are not explicitly listed in the CCSS Appendix. “A Worn Path” often appears on English teachers’ syllabi as a related text to follow a study of Homer’s Odyssey, a CCSS 9–10 grade exemplar for Poetry. The passage the main character undertakes in “A Worn Path” can indeed be viewed as a pilgrimage and a 20th-century manifestation of the hero’s journey archetype.
EDSITEment lesson Character in Place: Eudora Welty’s “A Worn Path” for the Common Core serves as an application for the following Anchor Standard: CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.1 Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text. It invites students to describe and analyze Welty’s use of characterization and setting to communicate the struggle and reward of that journey for the heroic main character—poor, black, and elderly—during the Great Depression.
The story’s protagonist, Phoenix Jackson, is an aged, impoverished, rural African American woman in pursuit of medicine for her grandson. In the course of a single day, Welty’s character, Phoenix, encounters multiple obstacles in the form of various white people whose treatment of her ranges from patronizing to insensitive. As such, her story depicts the Depression in the United States from the vantage point of a victim insufficiently represented in art—though a victim who, like the mythological phoenix her name evokes, resists annihilation, Phoenix transcends the abuse she experiences.
Common Core applications
Activity 1 enlists Worksheet 1. Characterization to prepare students for a class-wide discussion of characterization in the story. Follow up questions focus on descriptions of the main character and other characters as well as instances of figurative language and how those literary devices advance the story. Students are encouraged to present evidence from the text when formulating their answers. Activity 2 uses Worksheet 2. Setting to prepare students for a class-wide discussion of setting in the story by focusing on and fleshing out Welty’s detailed descriptions of place. Follow up questions focus on the impact of setting on meaning. Students consider how setting affects their appreciation and understanding of the story CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.3 Analyze the impact of the author’s choices regarding how to develop and relate elements of a story or drama (e.g., where a story is set, how the action is ordered, how the characters are introduced and developed).
Activity 3 presents students with basic ways of combining text and imagery through a creative writing and drawing activity that has them render a new plot event into their own graphic panel. Students consider how imagery and text communicate together and separately. They see firsthand how meaning becomes more complex and multi-layered as words and pictures rely on each other. CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.11-12.3 Analyze a complex set of ideas or sequence of events and explain how specific individuals, ideas, or events interact and develop over the course of the text and CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.11-12.3 Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, well-chosen details, and well-structured event sequences.
“A Worn Path” is marked by intense and dramatic imagery that illuminates one character’s difficult and triumphant journey through a single day. Through this CCSS application students understanding moves into creative extension and the story becomes their own.