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 …