In 1929, my grandparents Eugene and Martha Ferris moved to Jackson, Mississippi, and bought a home on Laurel Street. The Welty family lived three blocks away with their children Walter, Edward, and Eudora. My grandmother often told me about the Weltys, who were among her close friends in Jackson.
At the age of twelve, I remember seeing Eudora Welty and a group of her friends when they visited our farm to picnic and sketch the landscape. They sat on a hillside below our home, and after they left, my mother told me that one of the group was an important writer.
I first read Welty’s work at Brooks School, and in my senior year at Davidson College, I invited her to be our book-of-the-year speaker. Much to the amazement of our faculty in the English department, she accepted. I borrowed a school car and met her when she arrived by train one evening at the Charlotte depot. The next morning she read “A Worn Path” before the student assembly in her soft voice, and during the afternoon we walked around the campus where wisteria vines were in full bloom.
Four years later I was working in the folklore collections at the Mississippi state archives when Charlotte Capers, the director, showed me unpublished photographs that Welty had taken for the Works Progress Administration. In these photographs, Welty captured the faces and landscapes of Mississippi with a power and honesty that became a standard for my research as a folklorist.
During the summer of 1975, I visited Welty at her home on Pinehurst Street, and we spoke about those photographs and her writing. Over the years that followed, I visited her regularly and recorded other interviews, film, and videotape with her.
Each time we visited, I brought a large bottle of Maker’s Mark that we opened and shared together. Welty’s wit was always unexpected and refreshingly on point. One day I phoned her and asked, “Eudora, I wondered if we might get together on Saturday.”
She replied, “That would be fine. What time would suit you?”
“Would ten thirty be all right?”
“Did you say seven thirty?”
“No. Ten thirty.”
“Oh, good. For a moment there I thought you were testing our friendship.”
We visited many times over the years. She came to Yale twice, the first time to speak to my students and the second to receive an honorary degree. Later at the University of Mississippi she read from “Why I Live at the P.O.” when the William Faulkner postage stamp was issued. She visited our farm and had dinner there with Cleanth Brooks, Tinkham Brooks, and Charlotte Capers.
Our visits in her home were always memorable, intimate moments as we sat in her living room and spoke about friends and ideas. Welty kept a framed note from Bill Clinton on her mantle, and her oil portrait hung on the wall across from it. When I left, she always walked me to the front door and stood inside the screen door until I walked to my car and drove away.
Welty’s voice reminded me of my grandmother Martha Ferris. Its familiar, nurturing sound assured me I was with a friend who understood all that I knew and would ever be.
As for Jackson, I have always liked being here. My family—my father and mother—were both from away, and they came here when they married. It was kind of adventurous for them. They were making a new life. And my father—he was a businessman—had decided that Mississippi was a place with a future. He was interested in civilized life. I was the firstborn of the first generation in Jackson. He was from Ohio, and my mother from West Virginia. I always felt very lucky—and they did, too—that they had come here.
When I was growing up, Jackson had much more of an identity than now because it was smaller. It was so small that one knew everybody, practically. It was a very free and easy life. Children could go out by themselves in the after-noon and play in the park, go to the picture show, and move about the city on their bicycles, just as if it were their own front yard. There was no sense of danger happening in town. That was a nice way to grow up. The town was easier to know, all of which is gone now, of course, because Jackson is a city.
We had wonderful school principals and teachers that I still remember with great affection and awe. I am sure I was ignorant of all kinds of things. I had no political knowledge. My father was a Republican in Jackson. I do not think anybody but the Pullman porter was a Republican—he was a black man. You know, there were not any Republicans extant around here. My mother was a Democrat. And of course they argued politically at the breakfast table. I early got an idea that there were complications about our system down here.
I met Robert Penn Warren [known to his friends as “Red”] and Cleanth Brooks in Baton Rouge, and our friendship was certainly warm and long lasting. They were so good to me from the beginning. When I was totally unknown, they encouraged me and helped me in every way. I was indebted to both of them. You did not meet people like them, at least in my world. It was a long time before I got to meet them, either one. But when I did go down to Baton Rouge and met them, we had a grand time. I felt so picked out, so favored. They published me in the Southern Review. They were the first people to publish my work anywhere. I was very close to them, even though we did not meet very often.
Then Red came and did a lecture at Belhaven College, across the street from my house in Jackson. I told him about Governor Ross Barnett, and he laughed so hard I thought he was going to strangle. He just loved all those political tales from Mississippi. He said, “Every time I think about that night I still laugh till my ribs hurt.” He loved choice things like that.
I remember going out after programs at the National Institute of Arts and Letters when the Warrens were living in Connecticut. They invited me to come home with them, and that was lots of fun. I always had such a good time with Red, in particular, because his sense of humor was laid right around here, you know, Mississippi and our politics and everything.