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.
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."
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."
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.