Other Orders of Intimacy

 

Eudora Welty: A Biography
by Suzanne Marrs
Harcourt, 2005, 638 pp.

How do you write the biography of a woman who has publicly said: "I've always been tenacious in my feeling that we don't need to know a writer's life in order to understand his work and I have really felt very opposed to a lot of biographies"? It was with a combination of love and courage that Suzanne Marrs--Eudora Welty scholar in residence at the Mississippi Archives from 1985 through 1986 and later a professor at Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi--undertook her recently published Eudora Welty: A Biography. The two women met in 1983 and remained friends until Welty's death in 2001. Near the end of her life, Welty approved Marrs' project and granted her access to previously private papers and letters.

Perhaps because of her fondness for Welty, Marrs handles gently the intimate details of her life--notably, her long, frustrating love for fellow Jacksonian John Robinson, who realized, a decade into their relationship, that he was gay, and her later, intense correspondence with Ken Millar (better known as mystery writer Ross Macdonald). We never know for sure whether either relationship was sexual, though both were clearly passionate.

Welty came to have a reputation as the maiden aunt of Southern letters, living in her mother's home in Jackson, digging the iris beds and pruning the tea roses. On the contrary, Marrs shows us a woman who traveled widely, was politically engaged and extraordinarily committed to the many close friendships that sustained her throughout her life. In 1973, when her beloved friend and agent Diarmuid Russell died, Millar wrote to Welty, "I don't know of anyone who has given more than you have to other people, or has more love resurging back to her."

After Millar's death in 1983, Welty and Robinson (whose brother was dying of viral hepatitis) met every day for a month to talk, providing a depth of comfort most married couples might envy. What struck me most, watching Marrs successfully dismantle Welty's spinster image, was how narrowly our culture defines love. "Besides the physical," Welty once said, "there are other orders of intimacy, other ways to keep life from splitting asunder."

We see Welty best when Marrs gives us her voice directly, in long quotes from letters to the many friends who comprised these "other orders." That many of them happen to be famous writers--Katherine Anne Porter, Elizabeth Bowen, Jean Stafford, Reynolds Price, and E.M. Forster, to name a few--adds to the interest, but what's most wonderful is always Welty herself. She is quick to note the one human detail that ignites a scene with meaning. Writing to her friend Frank Lyell about a celebration in Jackson after the end of World War II, she observes: "I saw a lady walking down Capitol St. holding a flag with 5 stars on it right over her stomach--where the sons all came from in the first place."

Given the succinct power of her images, it's not surprising to learn that Welty was also an accomplished photographer who held several one-woman shows in New York and published two books of photographs. The three photos that Marrs includes in her book could be scenes from Welty's stories; they are clearly products of the same, keen sense of observation and show Welty's skill at distilling experience into a single image.

There's a wicked pleasure to be had in hearing Welty use her observational skills to poke fun at the literary establishment. She wrote, again to Lyell, that the 1940 Bread Loaf writers' conference was "rare, literary, talky when you wish it were quiet." The writer's colony Yaddo she characterized (to John Robinson) as "a terrible gloomy mansion with indoor fountains that sound like the worst thing you can imagine, just a little trickle in the hush that envelopes the place, and hundreds of marble cupids and some little gilded Norwegian sleighs, and bishop's chairs, and other bric-a-brac." And "up at the mansion--don't look now, but it's Carson McCullers. The little devil, there she is, as horrible as ever."

It's a delight to learn that Welty was so much fun--though we ought to have known that from the sly humor of her work. Early on, Marrs makes a point of relating that Welty snuck off campus while attending Mississippi State College for Women to dine at the forbidden Gilmer Hotel; and "always a good dancer" won a Charleston contest; and drank champagne in Paris at three in the morning. She also shows us a woman who closely followed the events of World War II, the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, and the Watergate hearings. During her adult life, Welty spent nearly as much time in New York City as she did in Jackson, including a two-month stint at the New York Times Book Review in 1944.

Over the years, Welty wrote impassioned editorials to Jackson newspapers and to publications in New York City, but more often chose to address charged issues through her stories. In 1957, frustrated, she wrote to Diarmuid Russell: "I've been telephoned by syndicates and networks and asked what I had to say about [the forced integration of Little Rock High School and the resulting violence], and I said that all I ever had to say about anything was expressed only in fiction." Welty believed that fiction was political. Her stories, Marrs says, "confront questions of love and death, passion and repression, tolerance and bigotry, just as fully as do stories with more lurid plots, but in the use of the mundane, they suggest that life's terrors lie close at hand, not in a distant past or an exceptional event."

Many critics saw only the "mundane" and labeled Welty, along with Faulkner and others, as regional or "Southern" writers. Welty despised this simplification. "Regional" is a careless term, she asserted in her 1954 Cambridge University lecture Place in Fiction, as well as a condescending one, because what it does is fail to differentiate between the localized raw material of life and its outcome as art. ˜Regional" is an outsider's term; it has no meaning for the insider who is doing the writing, because as far as he knows he is simply writing about life. Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, Thomas Hardy, Cervantes, Ivan Turgenev, and the authors of the books of the Old Testament, Welty pointed out, all confined themselves to regions, great or small but are they regional? Then who from the start of time has not been so?

At times, reading Eudora Welty, I felt distracted by flurries of facts and dates. The opening chapter begins in typical, chronological fashion: "On April 13, 1909, Eudora Alice Welty was born, and is flush with paper dolls and high school friends and Welty's parents whistling to each other on the stairs charming details, but I found myself skimming them for evidence of Welty the writer. Throughout, entire paragraphs are devoted to almost day-by-day itineraries of her many trips to collect awards and honorary degrees or give speeches at colleges around the country. In Marrs' defense, this listing shows how active Welty's life was; it wasn't until she was in her late eighties that she began to turn down speaking engagements but I often wished I could be spared the details of whom she'd lunched with in order to move on to more substantive passages, especially knowing that Marrs is capable of making interesting connections between Welty's life and her work.

Conversations Welty overheard or landscapes she glimpsed appear in her stories, Marrs demonstrates, as do more complex, emotional experiences. Marrs suggests that Welty's conflicting feelings of guilt and freedom at the death of her mother found their way into The Optimist's Daughter, the novella that earned her the Pulitzer Prize in 1973. The book is suffused with a passion that rises unexpectedly from the simple language and structure of the story, giving it the immediacy of understated truth.

In a letter to John Robinson, Welty wrote: "When a story is going on, then you feel things highly and even more than you knew you might, and they reveal themselves to you in a way that gives some pain, too, but in the work is resolved, and let go. Writing," she said, "purifies experience, and what hurts must about experience may not be its pain, which is pertinent but its dross, its alloy." It's this alloy that gives such emotional weight to Welty's stories.

Perhaps the greatest tribute I can pay to Marrs is to say that I finished Eudora Welty in the morning, walked into a bookstore that afternoon, bought a copy of The Optimist's Daughter, and read it that night. There, I found classic Welty characters, real from the second they open their mouths, caught in tangles of kinship, love, and hate that have no easy solutions. You care about Welty's characters not because they're like you or even remind you of anyone you know but because they're alive. Thank you, Suzanne Marrs, for sending me back to them.

Trish Crapo, a freelance writer and editor, lives on an organic farm in Leyden, Massachusetts. Her poems have appeared in anthologies and journals, most recently Southern Poetry Review. Her chapbook, Walk Through Paradise Backwards was published by Slate Roof: A Publishing Collective. She is writing a novel.


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