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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Loving her home state, yet deploring racism, Welty preferred to agitate from the inside, believing the act of fiction writing to be so inherently subversive as to require no external comment. Though establishing Welty's bona fides is of concern to Marrs, she also recognizes that the body of Welty's work, with its overriding faith in individual experience--or what Marrs calls "the emancipating effect of imagining oneself into other and different lives"--is far more "radical" than the agitprop of the era. "Keela, the Outcast Indian Maiden," about a small, club-footed black father forced to wear a dress and eat live chickens in a carnival act, dares to take racism as only a starting point on its journey into the essential separateness, and the redemptive inner life, of that strangest of sideshow oddities, the human being. "The personal, the personal, the personal" was for Welty "the source, the ground of meaning in art [and] in life"--indeed, "the meaning itself."

Welty's ability to imagine her way into other lives, so essential to her writing, might help explain her rare talent for relationships. Welty was deeply bound to her parents and two brothers; she maintained lifelong ties with Jacksonians from her schooldays; and she developed fond friendships with fellow writers such as Katherine Ann Porter and Elizabeth Bowen. She felt a particular affinity for E.M. Forster, in whose writing about India she sensed a parallel to her own complicated relationship with Mississippi. (The nervousness of their first meeting was eased by the arrival of a drunken waiter, who "came lurching on like a Shakespearean clown.")

In 1943, William Faulkner, the "Dixie Limited" himself, as Flannery O'Connor once called him, referring to the desire of Southern novelists not to be standing on the tracks when the great one roared by, wrote to her: "Dear Welty, You are doing fine. You are doing all right."

Marrs emphasizes that, far from being "the Benign and Beamish Maiden Aunt of American Letters," as Reynolds Price (in protest) described the stereotype, or the ugly duckling of Anne Waldron's (unauthorized) 1998 biography, Welty was said to possess a "striking ability to charm the opposite sex." She especially enjoyed the company of V.S. Pritchett, the New Yorker fiction editor William Maxwell, and Diarmuid Russell, her agent and "soulmate," who also functioned as her first and best loved editor. Her faith in the world was repeatedly sustained by her affection for the people in it, Welty wrote to Ken Millar: "I love and need and learn from my friends, they are the continuity of my life."

A friend for more than 17 years, Marrs was given access to hundreds of Welty's personal letters and granted entry into her heretofore closely guarded private life. (Her love for Ken Millar was terra incognita to her previous biographer.) In her late twenties, Welty drew close to the "keenly intelligent, well-read, handsome" John Robinson, a fellow Jackson High alumnus who shared her sense of humor and love for the arts. The two spent the next 14 years in and out of each other's company. At Robinson's urging, Welty twice followed him to San Francisco to live, and they spent time together on the Côte d'Azur and in Florence, as well as in Jackson.

Deeply in love, Welty hoped for a future with Robinson. Unbeknownst to her, however, he was struggling to suppress his homosexuality; and in 1951, when he became seriously involved with a younger man, she realized that the marriage she envisioned would never take place. Although there was a cooling-off between the two, they remained close, and later, when Welty was distraught over the death of Ken Millar, and Robinson was losing his brother, the old friends were able to console one another.

The lovely, painful surprise of this tale--and what gives the last third of the book a luminous, if contained, grace--is Marrs's revelation of a late love affair of sorts. When Welty was 57, she received a card from Ken Millar, also known as Ross Macdonald the mystery writer, thanking her for "your beautiful letter, which filled me with joy and made me cry." This tender directive would come to characterize a deep, loving relationship, lived largely through letters, that "would transcend separation and sustain both their lives."