A Pondered Life

Welty: Complete Novels

by Eudora Welty, edited by Richard Ford and Michael Kreyling
Library of America, 1,012 pp., $35.00

Sixteen years ago I was in Jackson, Mississippi, and the owner of the bed- and-breakfast at which I was staying gave me Eudora Welty’s address at 1119 Pinehurst Street, across from Bellhaven College. Miss Welty loves visitors, I was told, and I should feel free and welcome to go knock on her door. I was surprised that Welty was being openly offered up this way as a public site to a casual tourist fresh from Faulkner’s Rowan Oak. For a minute I saw Welty as perhaps a kind of political prisoner, held hostage by southern graciousness—perhaps even the Jackson Chamber of Commerce—for I knew that no writer in her writer’s heart welcomes impromptu visits from people she doesn’t know. But a writer’s heart is often dressed up in the local protective coloring of her address. And no writer is entirely a writer—she is also many other things. But the writer part—the accident of mind that prompts the private, secreting away of phrases and ideas—is never understood the way a neighborhood might imagine, because it is never really glimpsed, though this is seldom acknowledged.

I was once also in Baltimore the year Anne Tyler won the Pulitzer Prize. Tyler was a Welty devotee and the first to interview her at length in The New York Times. Two journalists recounted that they had knocked on Tyler’s front door to get her response to winning the prize and that, unlike Welty, she had sent them away with a brusque “I’m sorry. I’m working right now.” I expressed amazement that Tyler had opened her door at all: surely that was the southern part of her, hospitably opening it. But the midwestern part—the Midwest, erroneously known for its friendliness, is natively skeptical of open arms and excellent manners—had declined a visit. Personally, if I saw strangers approaching my door, I would probably phone 911. Despite two southern grandfathers and a childhood during which I was told I was “half-southern,” it is quite possible I do not have a southern bone in my body.

Nonetheless, sixteen years ago, clutching directions, I did scout out Welty’s house, and though I would never have been so lowdown as to have gotten out of the car, like the most craven sort of paparazzi I stopped long enough to lean out the window and take a picture of the house—a spacious faux-Tudor, set back from the curb, on a long, cared-for lawn—and then I rolled away, wondering if I’d seen the front curtains move. When I returned from my trip I pasted the photo in a scrapbook.

That Welty had charismatic friendliness in abundance—her combination of shyness and gregariousness won over everyone—was never in her lifetime in doubt. She was a natural storyteller, a wit, and a clown. “If this sofa could talk,” she said once to Reynolds Price, looking at the bedraggled plastic furnishings of the only rental room Price could find for them in Tuscaloosa, “we would have to burn it.” All of Welty’s endearing qualities are underscored by Suzanne Marrs’s recent biography of her, the only one ever authorized by Welty. An unauthorized one appeared in 1998, Eudora: A Writer’s Life, by Ann Waldron (who without Welty’s approval began to feel shunned by Welty’s fiercely protective friends and a bit sorry for herself, perceiving that she was rather literally disapproved of, the perennially “uninvited guest”). Welty at the time of Waldron’s completed book was eighty-nine and unable to read for long spells. (Thank goodness, suggests Jacksonian Marrs, the anointed biographer.) Still, despite the biblical saying, a prophet is not often without honor in her own country: Welty was a goddess in Jackson. What a prophet is often without is privacy, peace, and any real depth of comprehension among her fellow citizens. And although this is not the task or accomplishment of literary biography, that Suzanne Marrs has waited until after Welty’s death to publish Eudora Welty is certainly a beginning to all three.

It is also a work of love as biographies often have to be just to get written. But of course, unlike a work of disinterested investigation, there can be problems: a work of love may suddenly turn, in exhaustion, upon its subject; it may never look hard in certain corners out of fear of risking itself; it can grow defensive or caressing. Still, literary biography has its practitioners and even more so its readers—some looking for instruction, some looking for secrets, some simply curious to discover how a life can be lived one way on the outside and yet another way on the inside without derailing and tumbling into madness; some wanting to see if that contradiction is, as Flaubert, another writer who lived with his mother, famously suggested, the very thing that keeps sanity in place. Or if the safe living that ensures the daring art is also what keeps the grown-up a child, or a community pet, or unhappy, or drunk.

The element that is most often looked for by both biographer and reader, however, is how the life is revealed in the work, and so the work is read backward—as a source for the life—and the misstep of biographical overreading begins to mar, so to speak, the discussion of the work. I’m afraid this is sometimes done so blithely in Suzanne Marrs’s book that, leaving no room for the beautiful deformities of invention, she actually refers to one character—Courtney in an early story of Welty’s—as “aka Eudora,” as if a fictional character were an alias, or someone the author is doing business as. Oh, well: it is a hazard of literary biography that few have avoided. Still, the phrase “aka Eudora,” it seems to me, sets a new rhetorical standard for refusal even to try.

This aside, Marrs’s biography, with its access to documents, friends, and the subject herself, inevitably proves an interesting and engaging addition to our understanding of Welty and to a lesser extent Welty’s great ear for the voices and stories of southern life, whether it be a poor black woman shooing animals from her path at Christmas time or a white murderer mired in folksy hate. It is also an explicit and sharp retort to Waldron’s earlier biography and to the criticisms leveled by Claudia Roth Pierpont in a 1999 New Yorker article. The former work, though sympathetic and vividly written, is scattered with gossipy quotes, several about Welty’s supposed physical unattractiveness. The latter took Welty to task for politely turning her back on the subject of race in Mississippi, allegedly to ingratiate herself socially with Jackson insiders. Marrs’s book takes on a defensive tone as she attempts to offer correctives. To counter the latter, she leans heavily on a quote by Toni Morrison that Welty wrote “about black people in a way that few white men have ever been able to write. It’s not patronizing, not romanticizing—it’s the way they should be written about,” and offers up Welty’s few friendships with African-Americans, most of whom were her caretakers in her old age. To counter the former, Marrs offers descriptions of Welty’s large and luminous eyes.

It is interesting that Marrs’s best potential counterarguments to each lie in photography. Welty was hardly unattractive: she was tall, thin, and in photo after photo bears a striking resemblance to the musician Joni Mitchell. Welty’s occasional relationship with black people, as glimpsed in her stunning collection of Depression-era photographs, One Time, One Place(1971), was warm and interested, the gazes of her subjects often meeting her halfway, in the middle distance between the camera and the photograph, as if to say they understand this strange white lady with her camera, that she is not just benign but perhaps in her open curiosity good-humored and good-hearted as well. There is mutual trust, no mutual fear.

For many of her subjects this was the first picture ever taken of them. “Whatever you might think of those lives as symbols of a bad time,” wrote Welty, “the human beings who were living them thought a good deal more of them than that.” These photographs part a curtain of indifference “to each other’s presence, each other’s wonder, each other’s human plight,” she wrote in 1971, just eight years after she had declined to be interviewed on television by Ralph Ellison for fear of the trouble and hostility an interview by a black man might stir up for her and her mother. “In the massive correspondence available for research,” writes Marrs, “Eudora used the word niggerfour times as a descriptor.” Four? Such an unrousing defense counters Pierpont’s hypothesis far less well than a simple look at what Welty did with an inexpensive camera that her father had bequeathed her.

Welty was born in 1909, the oldest of three children, and the only daughter of a strong-willed Appalachian woman and an insurance man from Ohio, recently moved to the burgeoning town of Jackson to take a position with the Lamar Life Insurance Company. (Welty’s parents had met when her father had a summer job in a logging camp near her mother’s West Virginia home.) Welty had her father’s affable face and his interest in photography; from her mother she inherited a passion for reading (though she rebelliously rejected her mother’s beloved Dickens and also failed to read Middlemarch until she was sixty-five). She loved Woolf, Austen, and S.J. Perelman. To Woolf she once wrote a rather nervy fan letter in which she declared that Bernard in The Waves was an “unworthy medium” for Woolf’s genius; of To the Lighthouse, which she loved, she wrote to Woolf:

It dissolved all the sediment of loneliness of my dull days into a perfect amorphous stream of motion and intensity that flows clear and penetrative over the mosaic of my imagination, or perhaps yours. It was light under a door I shall never open.

Of Austen Welty wrote, as if of her own work, “How could it be possible for these novels to seem remote? For one thing, the noise! What a commotion comes out of their pages!” As a published writer, she also wrote to Perelman, whom she had revered and imitated when younger, and he wrote her back:

I hope you won’t think I’m being unduly familiar when I ask for permission to kiss the hem of your expensive garment, but I’m an obscure member of the Welty Fan Club, whose other name, I understand, is Legion. Another paid-up member, he asks me to inform you, is Ogden Nash. None of this will pay your grocer’s bill, I admit, but it may stave off boredom.

As a schoolgirl she was a popular if sheltered child, close with her brothers—funny, theatrical, she was voted “Best All Round Girl” by her high school senior class. That she graduated from high school the same year Richard Wright graduated valedictorian from the black high school in segregated Jackson seems astonishing, as does the fact that Wright and Welty even later never met.

She went off to college to become an artist of some sort, first to the Mississippi State College for Women, where to a friend she said of the daily prayer meetings, “The way it makes me feel is what I call hell,” then to Randolph-Macon, which she left (when they wouldn’t take all her transfer credits) for the University of Wisconsin in Madison. A friend from Jackson wrote her at the time:

You have become quite a will-o-the-wisp. I read in the paper where you are off for Randolph Macon, Ward Belmont, or some such place and then comes a post from Wisconsin in gleeful vein narrating how you are an art-student in the beer-drinking country.

The displaced Welty found Wisconsinites cold and “flinty” but she fell under the spell of a young eighteenth-century literature professor, Ricardo Quintana (who exists now in the corridors of the Wisconsin English Department as a small reading room and a named professorship), and in between experiments with bathtub gin and “needle beer,” a corked nonalcoholic beer into which raw alcohol was inserted with a syringe—this was Prohibition in beer country—she became his most brilliant student (whether he knew this or not). After graduating from Wisconsin she enrolled in an advertising/secretarial program at Columbia, and there began her long, complicated love affair with New York City.

It is both amusing and heartbreaking to read the spirited and desperately humorous letters of application that Welty sent out—to The New Yorker, to Scribner’s, to National Geographic—begging for any sort of job. “I am a Southerner, from Mississippi, the nation’s most backward state,” she wrote in one. “How I would like to work for you!” She longed to stay in New York, though her mother was calling her home (her father was dying) and her attempts to find desirable work—even after her father died and she went back to the city again to pound the pavement—all failed. (Later in life she would spend summers in New York writing book reviews for the Times under a pseudonym.) Back home, though her writing progressed—she began to write short stories and they began to be published, first in Manuscript magazine then later in The Atlantic Monthly and Harper’s—she was often sick of Jackson and her young adulthood seems to have alternated between productive spells of home life and flurries of ineffectual attempts to get out. “I feel like burning the Clarion Ledger every morning,” she wrote in one letter.

Well, I just won’t go into it. And the Legislature a disgrace every day, and altogether Mississippi seems to get more hopeless all the time. Jeeze! The other day a bill was proposed wherebody (whereby anybody) who didn’t like Mississippi could get a free ticket out of it, the state to provide the RR fare and a ten dollar bill to spend when you’ve got out. Hooray! I’ll be the first one—I’ll go somewhere nice and be a twenty-minute queen.

By this time, however, she was more than a little in love with a Jacksonian, John Robinson. He was also a writer (with Welty’s help he had a story published in The New Yorker before she ever did), though more uncertain in his talent and ambition, and she had known him for years and corresponded with him throughout his military service in Africa and Italy during the war. She retained lifelong contact with him, and for long stretches they were close; Welty’s 1946 novel Delta Wedding is dedicated to him and uses historical material about his local ancestors, which he provided. Robinson’s homosexuality, however, would eventually make her see that intimate romance was impossible.

She had a gift for friendship but was not lucky in love. Another romantic infatuation came later in life—one with the married Ken Millar, a detective novelist who wrote famously and successfully under the name Ross MacDonald. She was probably seduced by Elizabeth Bowen on a trip she took to Ireland in 1950 (one particular Welty letter strongly suggests it) and she remained good friends with Bowen until Bowen’s death, but Marrs takes great pains to dispel any idea that Welty was a lesbian. If the lady doth protest too much, it seems that perhaps this is part of the task of the authorized biography: rumor dismissal, perhaps even counterintelligence. But it does seem clear that although she had many gay friends, male and female, Welty, like so many other women writers, had a predilection for the handsome, literary, unavailable man, though Elizabeth Bowen, it will be noted, was often said to resemble just that.

Elsewhere, Marrs’s biography becomes pretty much a rat-a-tat-tat of Welty’s many publications, trips, parties, and dinners. Welty seemed to love any populated room that did not have Carson McCullers in it. (McCullers was notoriously disliked by many.) In trying to combat the image of Welty as a reclusive spinster, Marrs may have erred in the other direction, making “Eudora,” as both she and Waldron call her, seem tirelessly social, a rollicking Holly Go-Welty, dining with the David Rockefellers, sailing off to Europe. Marrs’s book can seem a reaction formation to such comments as this, from the president of Dartmouth, who said rather humiliatingly of Welty, while bestowing her with an honor:

Eudora Welty has taught us that we have worlds to learn from a woman who has never married, who has rarely traveled, and who still lives in the home in which she spent her childhood.

In response, Marrs recounts high-spirited sojourns in Mexico and New Orleans, mining them for every vaguely wild moment or slight adventure they contain. Details from party games are included as if their fun could possibly be discerned from this vantage point. Once Welty’s career is well underway, a peripatetic existence takes hold and a typical Marrs passage reads:

From New York, Eudora went first to the University of Tennessee, then to Kenyon College for her twenty-third honorary degree and a reunion with old friend Robert Daniel. After a brief stop at home, she headed to Memphis for her twenty-fourth honorary degree, this one from Southwestern College, and then to Washington….

Who is Robert Daniel again? We have forgotten.

Marrs presents Welty—probably inadvertently—as a girl who could not say no (to any social obligation, speaking invitation, or tedious award). Welty once even gave a reading at the Citadel; “I’m considering giving my reading in Confederate dress with sword gestures,” she joked. She even spoke at the California high school graduation of the daughter of a former Miss Mississippi. Because she was asked. This generosity became well known and perhaps exploited. Even Marrs requested that Welty come speak to her undergraduates at Millsaps. Welty had little peace, though also often didn’t seem expressly to desire any. Having as a young writer befriended two literary grande dames (Katherine Anne Porter and Bowen) she gamely stepped forward when her turn came. And there was a bit of the actress in her (she had won accolades in high school plays) which she could summon and which would often get her through. Naturally modest, however, she often felt “honoraried” to death. Only her friends William Maxwell and Reynolds Price are on the record as being concerned for her on this matter. At times it seems she was using prizes and readings the way Melville used whaling ships, as a way to see the world. But it was not successful. She was pestered and her writing languished.

The more awards she received (which included thirty-nine honorary doctorates), with little new writing coming forth, the more ridiculous and depressed she sometimes felt. Once when she was away a thief broke into her Jackson home and made off with her typewriter, instruction manual, seat cushion, and gold membership pin from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. “He’s sitting at my typewriter now, on my cushion, writing, and wearing my pin,” Welty joked. She suffered two substantial bouts of writer’s block, though this condition may have been indistinguishable from fatigue at nursing her ill mother, the upsetting early deaths of her brothers and father, painful arthritis in her hands, and the general loss of good friends and her longtime agent, Diarmuid Russell, almost all of whom she outlived.

In addition to her photography, which surely will endure, she will be remembered for a handful of writings—which is really all any writer, even a great one, can hope for. The less ambitious of the novels—the exquisitely grief-stricken The Optimist’s Daughter, which movingly dramatizes the loneliness of a young woman who has outlived everyone she loves (“Surviving is perhaps the strangest fantasy of them all,” she thinks) and possibly even The Ponder Heart—may also be her most successful, and with their delicate melancholy and quick, dark hilarity they seem of a piece with her most accomplished short stories.

Each of these slender novels possesses the structure and theatricality of a play, and The Ponder Heart did in fact become a Broadway hit; with its tart and lively voices—“Edna Earle could sit and ponder all day on how the little tail of the ‘C’ got through the ‘L’ in a Coca-Cola sign”—it seems a natural outgrowth of the earlier “Why I Live at the P.O.,” Welty’s comic masterpiece that in its spritzing monologue about sibling rivalry cleverly updates and transforms the parable of the Prodigal Son. “She’s always had anything in the world she wanted and then she’d throw it away,” fumes the jealous sister and narrator of “Why I Live at the P.O.,” who has cleared out of her house in righteous indignation to live at the post office where she works. “Papa-Daddy gave her this gorgeous Add-a-Pearl necklace when she was eight years old and she threw it away playing baseball when she was nine, with only two pearls.” (This biblical fracturing and reconstruction is an aspect of the story neither of her biographers mentions, though what is mentioned is that the e-mail software system Eudora was named after Welty because its inventor felt that while developing it he was living at the P.O.*)

In another, very different story, “No Place for You, My Love,” in which two dislocated strangers in New Orleans take up with each other for a mysterious afternoon, we can not only experience another end of Welty’s interesting range (which roams from vernacular shtick to Chekhovian Zen), but in its comic-tragic vision of the fateful and moody visitations of love, feel an influence cast forward to the stories of Alice Munro and Richard Ford, both of whose work explores the sudden crossings of erotic lines by characters who proceed without much explanation but with private clarity and spiritual adventure. This story, along with “Why I Live at the P.O.” and perhaps “A Worn Path” and “The Petrified Man” as well, seems likely for the long haul as it is determined by the canon-making mechanisms of story anthologies; another currently anthologized one, “Powerhouse,” may not. Despite its intentions—to honor Fats Waller—it is so off-puttingly laced with racial clichés that it may have difficulty being understood as Welty or Marrs would have it be: as an hommage deliberately constructed from the white prejudice all black musicians faced. “And his mouth is going every minute: like a monkey’s when it looks for something…. Big, arched eyebrows that never stop traveling, like a Jew’s—wandering Jew eyebrows.” Reading “Powerhouse” today is uncomfortable and baffling.

Welty’s own brief autobiography, the lovely One Writer’s Beginnings, was her best-selling book, and may continue to be. Money she made from it she offered repeatedly to friends who were sick. In its pages she speaks of finding the nickels that were laid upon the eyes of a baby sister who had died before Welty was born, nickels Welty was forbidden to take. These nickels, containing both life and death, are like Welty’s stories themselves: treasure lifted from the pockets of the living and the faces of the dead, unspendable objects of both lightness and density, invested with largeness while remaining unsweetly small. In trying to get them published in New York Welty boarded many a train with high hopes and a hundred dollars which she could make last two days, theater included. Editors might heap her with praise and still say no. “All this,” she wrote, “would go on the train with me, up there and back. It was part of my flying landscape.”

Marrs’s biography piques our interest in the contemporary writers Welty herself so valued: V.S. Pritchett, whose stories she esteemed above any other living writer’s; her mentor, Katherine Anne Porter, whose beautiful prose style and difficult personality prompted Welty to worry that Porter’s perfectionist tinkering was life-robbing, risking the creation of a lovely casket of a book, and (as some have said) of a person; Reynolds Price, who was like an adored son to her and who seems in fact adorable; and Welty muse and inamorato Ken Millar, whose detective novels one is inclined now more than ever to investigate. The Eye of the Story is dedicated to him.

If there are minor faults in Marrs’s biography, how not in a book so teeming with detail? Nonetheless, even a trivial misrepresentation can rattle a reader’s faith. One example here might be Marrs’s characterization of the Hotel des Saints-Pères, where Welty stayed in Paris, as “shabby”; this seems Marrs once again combatting Welty’s image as a perfect lady and straining to present Welty as a bohemian, slumming on the Left Bank, when in fact Welty continually stayed at very nice places when she traveled, and the Hotel des Saints-Pères (last I looked) is one, just as it was when Edna Millay lived there in the 1920s. Another may be the delayed mention of Welty’s height, which comes so late in the biography that it is startling: Welty was five feet ten, though osteoporosis eventually shrank her to five-three.

If there are larger problems in the book, one might be Marrs’s very gingerly handling of Welty’s relationship with her mother, Chestina, which was assumed by many to be stormy. (After a stroke the first thing Chestina said to her daughter when she was able to speak, in a tiny voice, was that the doctor was a moron.) Chestina in fact emerges more clearly in Waldron’s unauthorized biography than in Marrs’s authorized one. As the mother–daughter correspondence cannot be made available for another fifteen years (someone is waiting for the grandchildren to die?), Welty’s mother remains an elusive figure—controlling, snobbish, perhaps racist in the few glimpses we get of her—and Welty would necessarily have been at odds with her when young and more forgiving later on. As Welty wrote in The Optimist’s Daughter, “Is there any sleeping person you can be entirely sure you have not misjudged?” Henry Green, another writer Welty greatly admired, once wrote to her in warning, “Don’t forget about aged parents—they are FIENDS.”

Welty would not have been thrilled with any biography—and even for an authorized biographer Welty’s desire to “retain an inner self that is a ‘deep black hiding place’” makes her a difficult subject. She was not brave politically—she was suspicious of group-think of any sort, whether it contained southern benightedness or northern sanctimoniousness—and in an essay “Must the Writer Crusade?” the exasperated title speaks for itself. She dismissed feminism as “noisiness” and once, when asked whether she’d been brought up to believe a woman’s place was in the home, she replied, “I don’t think I was ever told where it was.” She felt she was already writing about injustice of various kinds; she voted Democratic: that should be enough. Any whiff of Yankee bias irked her and she was rightly suspicious of the literary term “regionalism,” though her friend V.S. Pritchett in a review of The Ponder Heart defended the traditions of regional writing, saying, “They are a protest by old communities, enriched by wounds, against the success of mass, or polyglot culture.” Even in her own work, moreover, Welty wrote, “How did it leave us—the old safe, slow way people used to know of learning how one another feels?” This from the point of view of a northern character having lunch at Galatoire’s. (In the very same story southernness is seen as the less naive stance: a look, a mask of “life-is-a-dream irony, which could turn to pure challenge at the drop of a hat.”)

In letters Welty wrote, especially toward the end of her life, she said she often dreamed in galley proofs, and the struggle of the dream consisted of trying to make corrections on the type. She wrote at a desk with her back to the window, the quiet cruise and trespass of tourists insufficiently obscured outside. If her life had fallen into a trap or two, well, the world is full of traps of all sorts and one can find some writer or other in each and every one of them. Literary biography is like detective fiction for those who don’t need suspense.

  1. *

    Ann Waldron, Eudora: A Writer’s Life, p. 113.