Remembering Eudora Welty
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ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Over a period of 60 years, Eudora Welty published three books of photographs, five novels, and dozens of stories, book reviews and other essays. She wrote, she said, because she loved it.
EUDORA WELTY: I love to write. I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t love to, because it’s hard. I mean, I worked very hard at it, but I love it.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: She also loved and revered Jackson, Mississippi, where she was born in 1909 in a house just a few blocks from the state capitol. Jackson was, for Welty, what Oxford, Mississippi, was for William Faulkner. “Jackson sets my stage,” she once said, “and I can push off from that base.” She knew other worlds, too, having graduated from the University of Wisconsin and studied advertising in New York at Columbia University’s graduate school of business. She wanted to be a writer from a young age, but her first attempts to get her stories published were not successful.
EUDORA WELTY: I went… What everyone goes through, that routine of sending stories off through the mail to the different magazines and everything came back, of course, for about a year or maybe more. But I finally heard about a magazine that took early works by unknown writers. Of course it didn’t pay ‘em anything, but they published them, and somebody would read it. You know, that was the thing.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: In 1941, A Curtain of Green, her first collection of short stories, was published. Then came many years of publishing stories, novels, essays and reviews. She won the O. Henry award three times, as well as the National Book Award, the National Medal of Arts, and in 1973, a Pulitzer for her novel, The Optimist’s Daughter. She was forthright in answering those who criticized her for not writing more explicitly about racial injustice during the turbulence of the civil rights movement.
EUDORA WELTY: I’m not an editorial writer, I’m a fiction writer. But I have always dealt with those questions in fiction, since long before the civil rights movement came. I was writing about justice and injustice and exploitation and misunderstandings and lack of communication and so on.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: During the Depression, she had worked as a publicist for the Mississippi office of the Works Progress Administration. She took pictures then and later published them in books.
EUDORA WELTY: Everybody was poor. A lot of people had never had a photograph of themselves and told me that, and I sent them copies and they remembered… Even the grandchildren of some of those people come to see me. They’re glad they’ve got that. It’s a record again. Nothing was intended except to show how things were.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Eudora Welty died yesterday at a hospital near Jackson, Mississippi. She was 92 yeas old.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: For more on the life of Eudora Welty, we’re joined by her friend, Suzanne Mars, a Professor of English at Milsapps College in Jackson, Mississippi. She has spent the last 20 years studying Eudora Welty’s work and is the author of The Welty Collection, a guide to the author’s manuscripts. And Richard Bausch, the author of eight novels and five volumes of stories; he is a recent inductee into the fellowship of Southern Writers. He wrote about Welty in a collection of writers’ reflections upon first reading her. Ms. Marrs, what is it about Eudora Welty’s writing that led you to spend 20 years of your life working on her?
SUZANNE MARRS, Milsapps College: I love her writing. I loved hearing her voice on your piece just now. I think what drew me to Eudora Welty’s work, is number one, the depth and complexity of her vision. Now thinking about her death, I think about a novel like The Optimist’s Daughter that deals with the fact of our mortality with the nature of loss and how we have to cope with loss and what role memory plays and how memory is shifting and evolving and therefore alive, and the way that people are… endure in the love of their friends. There’s a line in the novel that says, “life is nothing but the continuity of its love.” So that kind of complexity of vision but also the beauty of her language, her sensitivity to conversation, to the language of everyday people, her observation of detail; she was a great in-taker. She just was in love with life, and she was interested in everything going on around her. She was able to create lives for her characters that were rich and deep and surprising, to live lives other than her own, not just to talk about herself but to empathize and develop those characters.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I’m going to interrupt you one minute. Mr. Bausch, what is it about her writing you love?
RICHARD BAUSCH, Writer: I like to think about what Robert Penn warren said about her, which is another pretty fair country writer who said that it’s easy to praise Ms. Welty’s writing and it’s difficult to analyze it because there it is in its shining unity. To me… She was introduced to me by the writer George Garrett when I was about 26 years old, he took hold of my shirt and said, “you have to read this lady.” For me, her stories are so alive and so surprising without being…without… You never feel as if it hasn’t been earned, you never feel that it wasn’t inevitable, what happens. And yet there is this amazing sense of surprise and vividness, life.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mr. Bausch, she even helped you regain your sanity at one point. You write about that in your book.
RICHARD BAUSCH: Absolutely.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Tell us about that.
RICHARD BAUSCH: I was reading The Ponder Heart. I was going through a period of time where I was fearing for my sanity. There’s this marvelous line in The Ponder Heart about the unruly mind that does whatever it wants. I had been writing about the unruly spirit most of my life. It dawned on me that what I was dealing with was just my own imagination. I told her that. I got to tell her. I said, “you actually saved my life, I think, once long ago when I was in my 20s.”
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Ms. Marrs, you mentioned her beautiful language. I’m interested in the words that you and other people use to describe that language. One of my favorite phrases was, somebody referred to her “gently fierce omniscient pen.” I love that “gently fierce.” How would you put it?
SUZANNE MARRS: I like that too. She can be fierce in certain stories. In a story like… She can be very poetic. Her language in the stories, in the collection called The Wide Net, are rather poetic. But then you’ll find the most colloquial usage possible in other short stories, so that you have this kind of great flexibility of style, virtuosity of style.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mr. Bausch, someone else used the words “glimmering and fragile, but also deep and coarse as a sea net.” How did she achieve that?
RICHARD BAUSCH: I think, you know, the thing about Ms. Eudora was charm. She had this enormous charm. At the heart of all of her efforts as a writer was a very deep and real humility. I was on an elevator with her once in Chattanooga. And we were heading down to this lobby where there was a reception for her. She reached up to her, you know, chest and I said, “What’s the matter?” She said, “I forgot my name tag.” I said, “Well, Ms. Eudora, there’s nobody who doesn’t know who you are down there. It’s in your honor.” She said, “Nevertheless, I have to go get my name tag.” We stopped and went back to her room to get it. And that impressed me so much. She never felt as if… She was a lot like her friend William Maxwell who used to say, “I’m sure there must be somebody better prepared to do this than I am.” She never got a big head about any of it. It was something she loved to do, and she was just very, very good at it.
SUZANNE MARRS: I was in that elevator with you.
RICHARD BAUSCH: Were you there?
SUZANNE MARRS: I was there. When she wanted her name tag, yes.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Tell us more about her as a person. You knew her very well, I know.
SUZANNE MARRS: I knew her well. She was a very… She was a lot of fun. It was wonderful to be in her presence. She was a great storyteller, as well as story writer. And she had a very wry sense of humor. Just a turn of phrase would be very amusing, as she… as we watched, for instance, the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour many a night together.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: There’s a wonderful line in the Katherine Anne Porter introduction to one of her books that says that “when she would walk downtown in Jackson, people would say ‘when did you write that story.’” Not why or what or how but when as if she was so busy in the town, that when would she have time to write?
SUZANNE MARRS: She used to tell a story about being called up by some ladies’ club who would like her to come and not read one of her stories, but just tell it in your own words; and she was always amused by that. The people in town wanted to hear her tell it in her own words. And it was fun to hear her tell stories in her own words.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mr. Bausch, what’s her influence on American writing?
RICHARD BAUSCH: Oh, it’s enormous. It’s enormous. There’s a story I like to tell about Eudora’s sense of humor that the writer Clyde Edgerton tells that toward… This was only a couple of years ago. She had begun very slightly to lose some of her short-term memory. She was aware of it. They were going to a restaurant in Jackson. She kept saying to Clyde, “you have to get the bluefish. Don’t forget the bluefish.” So they all got to the restaurant. She ordered the bluefish and Clyde did, too. The couple that were with them ordered something else. A little while after they had been talking they were sipping Bourbon, and she said “did we order, Clyde?” He said, “yes.” She said, “what did I order?” And he said, “the blue fish” and Eudora said, “I’m not surprised.”
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mr. Bausch, what is her influence on writers? Give us some examples of people she’s influenced a lot beside yourself.
RICHARD BAUSCH: She’s influenced… I think that her influence on American style is just pervasive. I mean, I’ve said to people for a long time that the fact that she didn’t win a Nobel Prize boggles my mind. I mean, she’s had such an effect on the short story. In fact, in a lot of ways she revivified the form, she and Catherine Ann Porter. I think it’s one of the reasons why they were such good friends. They were so much better than Hemingway, for instance, who has this great reputation. He was a wonderful short story writer but he couldn’t write with those two women if he had 12 lifetimes to try to do it in.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Suzanne Marrs, how would you describe her influence on American writing?
SUZANNE MARRS: I think it’s been profound. Two young writers I know who credit her with their development, Kaye Gibbons and Clyde Edgerton, she’s had a profound influence on American writers. I was going to say my favorite short story collection by Eudora Welty is The Golden Apples. I think those interrelated stories exemplify some of what Richard Bausch was discussing — wonderful achievement to bring those stories together, but not try to seek the unity of a novel in the book.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Suzanne mars and Richard Bausch, thanks a lot for being with us.
SUZANNE MARRS: Thank you.
JIM LEHRER: Again, the major stories of this Tuesday: The White House confirmed a cabinet-level group has recommended legal status for many of the three million Mexicans living in the United States illegally. And a Chinese court convicted two scholars with U.S. Ties of spying for Taiwan. Both were sentenced to ten-year prison terms.
JIM LEHRER: A few personal words, if I may, before we go tonight. Two great Americans died these last few days; Eudora Welty yesterday, Katharine Graham a week ago today. Though strikingly different in background, style and manner, they were most definitely two of a kind.
Each was the best there was at what she did: Mrs. Graham as publisher of a newspaper when courage and conviction were needed in the search for factual truths; Ms. Welty as the creator of stories with characters who searched for the meaning of spiritual and emotional truths. Both were delightful company. They loved to laugh and to party. Mrs. Graham’s parties featured Presidents and princesses, French food and expensive wine. Ms. Welty’s guests were mostly writers and other eccentrics; her refreshments were often stale corn chips and warm bourbon– warm because the ice trays in her refrigerator were never filled up properly. Most of her life was spent in a modest home on Pinehurst Street in Jackson, Mississippi; Mrs. Graham’s in less modest places in Georgetown, Martha’s Vineyard and elsewhere. Mrs. Graham also traveled everywhere. Ms. Welty seldom left Jackson.
But she closed her book, One Writer’s Beginnings with some words that applied to Mrs. Graham’s life as well as to her own. Ms. Welty said, “As you have seen, I am a writer who came of a sheltered life. A sheltered life can be a daring life as well. For all serious daring starts from within.” Katharine Graham’s acts of daring also came from within. They were indeed two of the best we’ll ever see or know.
Two of a kind: Eudora Welty and Katharine Graham. May you both rest in peace.