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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At the time they began corresponding, Welty and Millar were in mourning--her mother and brother Edward had died earlier in the year, just four days apart, and Millar had lost his daughter the month before--and their shared grief opened a channel of intimacy between them. They admired and nurtured each other's work, each dedicating a book to the other. He urged her to save Diarmuid Russell's letters for posterity, and to collect her nonfiction, including her essays on writing. Welty's anguish over Millar's memory loss may have prompted her to begin her brief autobiography, One Writer's Beginnings, lest the fondest details of her life should slip away, too. And comments in one of Millar's letters provided the "key concept" of convergence, "the confluence that love brings to individual lives," for The Optimist's Daughter. As Welty wrote to Millar: "It's about sad things--about a few of those things we can't ever change but must try through fiction to make something with. . . . There is one paragraph in it, Ken, that . . . wouldn't be there now if it hadn't been for our writing each other some letters. You will know."

Millar told her, "Your spirit lives in my mind, and watches my life, as I watch yours." And he apparently felt himself and his work affirmed by her in some gratifying way: "The best thing that can happen to a man is to be known, and by a woman of your great kindness and light and depth."

Welty responded:

We do want to be known truly, and I want to know truly. . . . [Y]ou musn't worry or imagine that anything but good could happen to me from our knowing each other truly--the dark times as well as the bright--for you know as I do there is nothing destructive in it, only everything that moves the other way--Depressed or happy or serene, our spirits have traveled very near to each other and I believe sustained each other--This will go on, dear Ken--Our friendship blesses my life and I wish life could be longer for it.

Though he once told Reynolds Price that "you love Eudora as a friend, I love her as a woman," Millar remained faithful to his wife, the mystery writer Margaret Millar. Nevertheless, he and Welty exchanged several visits and wrote their lengthy and emotionally intimate letters every two weeks from 1966 until the beginning of 1980, when Alzheimer's disease robbed Millar of his ability to communicate. The silence at the end of Millar's life was excruciating for Welty.

It is tempting to regret the lost chance here. But Eudora Welty's was an imagination that labored not to negate or diminish, but "to part a curtain, that invisible shadow that falls between people, the veil of indifference to each other's presence, each other's wonder, each other's human plight." In an early story, "The Whistle," an impoverished husband and wife, burning their last bit of furniture to keep warm, imagine the relationship they have missed: "[It was] as if what they had never said, and what could not be, had its life, too, after all." The same might well have been true of the connection between Welty and Ken Millar--the quiet, slow-to-arrive miracle that, prepared by loneliness and loss and the shortening of days, they were able to accept. Perhaps what they never said, and what could not be, had its life, too.

Ann Stapleton is a writer in Ohio.