Eudora Welty, one of the most highly regarded American authors of the twentieth century, created works that are considered classics. She is best known for her short stories, mining deep veins of humanity to create characters who take up permanent residence in readers’ hearts and minds. In addition, Welty wrote long fictionThe Optimist’s Daughter (1972) was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1973and nonfiction. She received many honors, including the Howells Medal for Fiction in 1955 and the Gold Medal for Fiction in 1972. In 1972, she was elected to membership in the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Welty received the Medal of Literature and Medal of Freedom in 1981 as well as the National Medal of the Arts in 1986. In 1996, she was elected to the French Legion of Honor. Two years later, she became the only living writer whose works were included in the distinguished Library of America series. Throughout her long life, Welty made herself accessible to reviewers and scholars, spoke at colleges and universities, appeared on television, supported worthy causes by her presence at fund-raising events, and even responded cordially to strangers who turned up at her home in Jackson.
Welty’s private life, however, was just that. When she was asked questions of a personal nature, she deftly turned the conversation back to her work. An exception was her memorable autobiography One Writer’s Beginnings (1984), and even there, the information about people, happenings, and influences in her early years was included to help the reader understand Eudora Welty, the writer. Readers who do not know details about a beloved author tend to imagine them, anduntil the publication of Eudora Welty: A Biography by Suzanne MarrsWelty has been generally painted in clichés: a gentile southerner tending her garden, perhaps inviting lady friends for tea and sandwiches; a woman of great imagination, able to pour it intuitively into fantastic and unusual characters and situations; a spinster content with her lot in life, living in the family homestead with her mother, devotedly caring for her in old age.
Anne Waldron’s unauthorized bibliography Eudora: A Writer’s Life (1998) was a source of misconceptions, according to Marrs. Waldron suggested that Welty compensated for lack of love and excitement in her life through her stories. Waldron also suggested that Welty was a proverbial ugly duckling, in Marrs’s words, who “sought to overcome the liability of her appearance by being a dutiful daughter and a generous friend.” Welty was both, Marrs explains, “but not by way of compensation.” She calls it a blessing that Welty never read Waldron’s book. By the time it was published, Welty’s memory was failing, and she was unable to read anything longer than a New York Times article.
Shortly after Waldron’s book appeared, Claudia Roth Pierpont published a lengthy article in The New Yorker. Whereas Waldron had focused on Welty’s physical attributes, Marrs explains that Pierpont discussed politics, characterizing Welty as “a born outsider” who “wrote her way into acceptance,” whoin later yearsbecame “a perfect ladya nearly Petrified Womanwith eyes averted and mouth set in a smile.” Marrs refutes such charges, drawing both from her personal experience as Welty’s close friend and from a massive collection of correspondence, manuscripts, date books, and photographssome never before availablethat Welty opened to Marrs. Even considering the more limited material that Waldron and Pierpont had to work with, Marrs finds their conclusions unjust.
Clichés and misconceptions aside, Marrs’s portrait is likely to surprise, perhaps startle, even knowledgeable Welty fans. Although Jackson, Mississippi, was home to Welty virtually all of her life, she traveled extensively and lived for extended periods elsewhere, both in the United States and other countries. As a young woman, Welty journeyed with friends by car to Mexico. In 1944, she interned for several months at The New York Times Book Review, and New York City became her second home. Over the years, Welty visited frequently, sometimes staying in a hotel or sublet apartment, sometimes staying with friends, but always enchanted. The social life that Marrs details sounds grandmeeting friends for drinks, dinner, and the theater; welcoming friends of friends to town with parties; and dancing into the night. Welty had a knack for friendship, literary and otherwise; during the course of her ninety-two years, she kept in touch with close friends around the world and tended to maintain friendships for life.
In 1946-1947, Welty had two extended stays in San Francisco to be near John Robinson, an aspiring writer with whom she was in love. Over the following decade, she traveled three times to Europe, the first in October, 1949. Says Marrs, Welty set sail “as a woman of...
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