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Mon October 31, 2005
Eudora Welty : A Biography.
Was Eudora Welty a reclusive, shy, a provincial, untravelled, unloved, and always at home in Jackson, Mississippi. Much of this is wrong. Welty traveled quite frequently on lecture and reading tours, and accepting many prizes such as the Pulitzer Prize, the Howells Medal and eight O. Henry short story awards. This book has captured her in a way that is accurate, objective, and full of the right kind of intelligent affection.
By Don Noble
Over a lifetime, the experience of reading biographies seems to fall into a few categories. Sometimes one already knows quite a lot about a figure, such as Hemingway or Fitzgerald, and one learns little. Sometimes one knows nearly nothing about the figure, say Sartre or Dreiser, and the reading is an education.
In the case of Eudora Welty, however, I thought I knew something, and most of what I thought I knew was wrong.
Over the years I had thought of her as a reclusive, shy woman, a provincial, untravelled, unloved (romantically speaking), always at home in her Jackson, Mississippi house, sending her fictional letters out into the world, like Emily Dickinson?s poems.
A lot of this was reinforced by the recent unauthorized biography of Welty by Ann Waldron. Ms. Waldron portrayed Welty as dominated by her powerful widowed mother, a desiccated spinster suffering from an ugly duckling complex, and, perhaps, just perhaps, a lesbian.
Yet almost none of this is true. Yes, Welty loved her mother and cared for her in her old age, but they were mutually supportive friends. Welty held no prejudice against homosexuality and thought of the writer Reynolds Price as a beloved son. She had lesbian friends, and she loved them, too, but she does not seem to have been one of them.
Welty traveled an enormous amount. It exhausts me just to think about it. She took many trips to Europe, especially Italy, France, England, and Ireland, and parts of every year were spent in New York and on lecture and reading tours and, of course, in accepting her many many prizes?the Pulitzer Prize, for The Optimist?s Daughter, the Howells Medal, eight O. Henry short story awards, and enough other medals and trophies to make a mantelpiece sag.
She also collected thirty-nine honorary doctorates, from such schools as Columbia, Brandeis, Yale, Harvard, the University of Burgundy in France, sometimes as many as five in one year?but never one from Ole Miss, or, for that matter, Alabama.
Welty, who was an accomplished photographer, also had her picture taken a good many times, and, especially as a younger woman, radiated vitality and a sense of humor and had sparkling, beautiful eyes.
At a party at the house of her agent and friend Diarmuid Russell, Mrs. Russell noted Eudora?s ?striking ability to charm the opposite sex,? but she was not jealous of Welty. In her middle years, Welty fell in love with a married man, Kenneth Millar, who wrote as Ross Macdonald; his wife was very jealous indeed, threatened by this intense but unconsummated relationship.
Since Eudora Welty was a passionate heterosexual, why did she not marry? Because as a young woman, before WWII, she fell in love with John Robinson, who went off to war, returned, and strung her along for years before he finally revealed to her, and perhaps to himself, that he was gay. Welty forgave, but what should have been her great love, wasn?t. Perhaps, in a more tolerant, enlightened future, this kind of painful, destructive, wasteful deception will occur less often. We can hope.
Welty, who was a celebrity, finally, even in Mississippi, was honored in great swaths of the world. She was friends with Katherine Anne Porter, Elizabeth Bowen, and countless other American and European writers. She stayed in Jackson, and, though a liberal Democrat, she was strongly tempted to leave. Welty had written often of the power of place in Southern literature, and she lived what she preached.
Perhaps because the famous Welty lived so long, to the age of 92, we all tend to remember her as a quiet old thing, looking out the parlor window of her house on Pinehurst Street in Jackson. Suzanne Marrs, who was a good friend of Welty for many years, seems to have understood Welty and has captured her in a biography that is accurate, objective, and full of the right kind of intelligent affection.