War and Poverty
Eudora Welty’s “A Worn Path” was published in 1941, the same year the United States entered World War II. Europe had already been involved in the conflict for several years since Adolph Hitler began enlarging Germany’s empire. Germany declared war on the United States in December, after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor and the U.S.’s declaration of war against Japan. Set against the brewing global conflict, Welty’s tale of rural life in the South may seem out of context for the times. Phoenix Jackson’s world is much smaller than the global world of international warfare. Her world revolves around her home, her grandson, and the rural life of Natchez, Mississippi.
The story was inspired in part by the work Welty was doing in the early 1940s for the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The WPA was established by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1934 as a way to put many unemployed people to work building necessary infrastructure—bridges, dams, power plants—to make the country a modern and efficient world power. Welty was a photographer for the WPA, which also included many arts programs, and as she observed an elderly black woman laboriously crossing a field, the idea for “A Worn Path” emerged. Poverty during these years was a reality for many, particularly for blacks and particularly for rural Southerners. Phoenix Jackson was both of these. Quite possibly, Phoenix was old enough to have been born into slavery, or at the very least into the era of sharecropping that followed. Most tobacco and cotton plantations—two of the primary industries of the South at the turn of the century—were owned by wealthy whites who allowed the blacks to work for them in return for an overpriced room and board of meagre proportions. For her generation, their economic situation was grim, and it was only exacerbated by the Great Depression. Phoenix wears red rags in her hair and an apron of sugar sacks. At the clinic, the nurse writes “charity” next to her name. The two nickels Phoenix acquires in the story seem may have seemed like a small fortune to her, and the paper windmill she wants to buy for her grandson is most likely a luxury and quite possibly the only store-bought toy he would have received that year.
Short Stories for Students, Volume 2, Eudora Welty, Edited by Kathleen Wilson, Published by Gale Research, New York, 1997.