The Magazine

Eudora in Love

The emotional life of a great American writer.

Sep 4, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 47 • By ANN STAPLETON
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Eudora Welty

A Biography

by Suzanne Marrs

Harcourt, 672 pp., $28

"What the reader hopes most to see in a biography is the work of the intelligent scholar who also feels an affinity for his subject."

That was Eudora Welty, in a 1971 review of a Ford Madox Ford biography, and it describes her own biographer-to-be, Suzanne Marrs. In her introduction to The Norton Book of Friendship, Welty wrote, "When friends meet . . . to pay tribute to one of their number who has died . . . they are drawing a circle around that friend. Speaking in turn one after the other, joining themselves together anew, they keep what they know of him intact." This book is that circle, drawn around one of our finest fiction writers by those who love (or loved) her: The trusted friend Marrs, researching and writing the life; the surrogate son Reynolds Price, offering his own memories and a fond endorsement of the finished product; the intimates like Ken Millar, supporting the text with affectionate letters. Here, as she had hoped for Ford, Eudora Welty has "fall[en] into good hands."

Delighting in Welty's penchant for the absurd, Marrs finds proof that the seriously mischievous sense of humor on display in stories like "Why I Live at the P.O." and "Lily Daw and the Three Ladies" (in which the so-called normals are as freaky as the so-called freaks are normal) was evident early on. At 12, for the amusement of her brother Edward, Welty "published" her first book, The Glorious Apology, the tale of Fitzhugh Green (son of Artimus H. Green, the "whispering saxophonist"), complete with blurbs: "HEAR WHAT THE CRITICS SAY ABOUT IT! ANDREW VOLSTEAD-- 'Never heard of it.' WAYNE B. WHEELER-- 'I haven't read it.' JOHN ROACH STRATTON--'I know nothing about it.'"

That Welty's talents ran more along the lines of the creative than the reportorial can be seen in this tongue-in-cheek sketch written for the Jackson Daily News when Welty was 21:

In the days of the cave man, the vacation was extremely simple. Only the men went on them. No man is going to drag a woman 40 miles. Of course the simple cave man could not say a complicated word like "vacation." He called it "Koko" or "Phew-phew" instead of "Boop poop pah doop," but all the same he managed to get away from the grind. Jerking a few of his wife's bangs, he would say, along about June, "Well, pet, I'm off tomorrow on my Koko. You can fix that towel rack in the bathroom while I'm away. Don't follow me. And have some sandwiches ready when I get back." And that was that.

According to Marrs, the great mistress of the short story form was also, as they say in baseball, a gamer. On a road trip she made with Reynolds Price, the son she never had, no accommodations were to be found. When Price finally located a questionable rental trailer, and asked Welty whether she would be amenable to the idea (she was 62 at the time), she answered, with characteristic aplomb, "I could sleep in a gunny sack in the back of a pick-up truck." And when he poured "stiff drinks of bourbon and offered a toast to [the trailer's] entirely plastic surroundings," Welty, "seated on the long plastic couch . . . raised her plastic glass," saying, "in her usual dead-level quiet voice, 'If this sofa could talk, we'd have to burn it.'"

That Marrs has packed this volume with a mind-boggling (and occasionally tedious) number of visits to friends, and forays into the arts world, appears to be a madness with method. By giving us a sustained look at Welty's personal planner, Marrs painstakingly (lunch date by theater ticket) demonstrates that, contrary to her stay-at-home image, Welty traveled widely, almost obsessively, throughout her life. By all accounts a most unpretentious person, she was also a sophisticated woman with a broad aesthetic experience--easily moving from Segovia to Fats Waller, Rodin to Picasso, Stieglitz to S.J. Perelman, and Oklahoma! to Orson Welles's all-black Macbeth, with its Hecate both male and nude.

Headed back to Jackson from New York, where she often stayed for weeks or months at a time, Welty wrote of her regret at leaving the city: "It will seem strange no longer [to] be going to work--through clouds of caramel popcorn & fish, constantly invited to send my name on a live turtle, let a Gypsy read my future, develop my muscles or dance with 50 queens upstairs." And yet, if New York consistently attracted her, it was Mississippi, so back-of-her-own-hand familiar and relentlessly strange, so seductively beautiful and backward, that remained the locus of her genius, the deep, true source of her writing life.