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.