Anne Tyler: A Visit With Eudora Welty
She lives in one of those towns that seem to have outgrown themselves overnight, sprouting--on reclaimed swampland--a profusion of modern hospitals and real estate offices, travel agencies and a Drive-Thru Beer Barn. (She can remember, she says, when Jackson, Miss., was so small that you could go on foot anywhere you wanted: On summer evenings you'd pass the neighbors' lawn scented with petunias, hear their pianos through the open windows. Everybody's life was more accessible.) And when her father, a country boy from Ohio, built his family a house back in 1925, he chose a spot near Belhaven College so he'd be sure to keep a bit of green around them, but that college has added so many parking lots, and there are so many cars whizzing by nowadays.
Still, Eudora Welty's street is shaded by tall trees. Her driveway is a sheet of pine needles, and her house is dark and cool, with high ceilings, polished floors, comfortable furniture and a wonderfully stark old kitchen. She has lived here since she was in high school (and lived in Jackson all her life). Now she is alone, the last of a family of five. She loves the house, she says, but worries that she isn't able to keep it up properly: A porch she screened with $44 from the Southern Review, during the Depression, needs screening once again for a price so high that she has simply closed it off. One corner of the foundation has had to be rescued from sinking into the clay, which she describes as "shifting about like an elephant's hide."
But the house seems solid and well tended, and it's clear that she has the vitality to fill its spare rooms. Every flat surface is covered with tidy stacks of books and papers. A collection of widely varied paintings--each with its own special reason for being there-- hangs on wires from the picture rails. One of them is portrait of Eudora Welty as a young woman--blond-haired, with large and luminous eyes.
Her hair is white now, and she walks with some care and wears an Ace bandage around her wrist to ease a touch of arthritis. But the eyes are still as luminous as ever, radiating kindness and. . .attention, you would have to call it; but attention of a special quality, when some gentle amusement accompanying it. When she laughs, you can see how she must have looked as a girl--shy and delighted. She will often pause in the middle of a sentence to say, "Oh, I'm just enjoying this so much!" and she does seem to be that rare kind of person who takes an active joy in small, present moments. In particular, she is pleased by words, by ways of saying things, snatches of dialogue overheard, objects' names discovered and properly applied. (She likes to read technical manuals and diagrams with the parts labeled. Her whole face lights up when she describes how she heard a country woman confess to a "gnawing and a craving" for something. "Wasn't that a wonderful way of putting it?" she asks. "A gnawing and a craving.")
Even in conversation, the proper word matters deeply to her and is worth a brief pause while she hunts for it. She searches for a way to describe a recent heat wave: The heat, she says, was like something waiting for you, something out to get you; when you climbed the stairs at night, even the stair railing felt like, oh, like warm toast. She shares my fear of merging into freeway traffic because, she says, it's like entering a round of hot-pepper in a jump-rope game: " 'Oh, well,' you think, 'maybe the next time it comes by. . . .' " (I always did know freeways reminded me of something; I just couldn't decided what it as.) And when she re-read her collected stories, some of which date back to the 1930's; "It was the strangest experience. It was like watching a negative develop, slowly coming clear before your eyes. It was like recovering a memory."
A couple of her stories, she says, she really had wished to drop from the collection, but was persuaded not to. Others, the very earliest, were written in the days before she learned to rewrite ("I didn't know you could rewrite"), and although she left them as they were, she has privately revised her own printed copies by hand. Still others continue to satisfy her--especially those in "The Golden Apples" --and she laughs at herself for saying how much she loves "June Recital" and "The Wanderers." But her pleasure in these stories is, I think, part and parcel of her whole attitude toward writing: She sees it as truly joyful work, as something she can hardly wait to get down to in the mornings.
Unlike most writers she imposes no schedule on herself. Instead she waits for things to "brood"--usually situations from her own life which, in time, are alchemized into something entirely different, with different characters and plots. From then on, it goes very quickly. She wakes early, has coffee and sets to work. She writes as long as she can keep at it, maybe pausing for a brief tomato sandwich at noon. (And she can tell you exactly who used to make the best tomato sandwiches in Jackson, back during her grade- school days when everybody swapped lunches. It was Frances MacWillie's grandmother, Mrs. Nannie MacWillie.)
What's written she types soon afterward; she feels that her handwriting is too intimate to re-read objectively. Then she scribble revisions all over the manuscript, and cuts up parts of pages and pins them into different locations with dressmakers' pins--sometimes moving whole scenes, sometimes a single word. Her favorite working time is summer, when everything is quiet and it's "too hot to go forth" and she can sit next to an open window. (The danger is that passing friend can interrupt her: "I saw you just sitting at your typewriter. . . .")
Describing the process of writing, she is matter-of-fact. It's simply her life's work, which has occupied her for more than 40 years. She speaks with calm faith of her own instincts, and is pleased to have been blessed with a visual mind--"the best shorthand a writer can have." When she's asked who first set her on her path (this woman who has, whether she knows it or not, set so many later writers on their paths), she says that she doesn't believe she ever did get anything from other writers. "It's the experience of living," she says--leaving unanswered, as I suppose she must, the question of just how she, and not some next-door neighbor, mined the stuff of books from the ordinary experiences of growing up in Jackson, Miss., daughter of an insurance man and a schoolteacher; of begging her brothers to teach her golf; bicycling to the library in two petticoats so the librarian wouldn't say, "I can see straight through you," and send her home; and spending her honor roll prize--a free pass--to watch her favorite third baseman play ball.
And where (she wonders aloud) did she get the idea she was bound to succeed as a writer, sending off stories on her own as she did and promptly receiving them back? How long would she have gone on doing that?
Fortunately, she didn't have to find out. Diarmuid Russell--then just starting as a literary agent--offered to represent her. He was downright fierce about representing her, at one time remarking that if a certain story were rejected, the editor "ought to be horse- whipped." (It wasn't rejected.) And there were others who took a special interest in her-- notably the editor John Woodburn, and Katherine Anne Porter. (Katherine Anne Porter invited her to visit. Eudora Welty was so overwhelmed that she only got there after a false start, turning back at Natchez when her courage failed.) A photo she deeps from around this period shows a party honoring the publication of her first book: a tableful of admiring editors, a heartbreakingly young Diarmuid Russell, and in their midst Eudora Welty, all dressed up and wearing a corsage and looking like a bashful, charming schoolgirl. She does not admit to belonging to a literary community, but what she means is that she was never part of a formal circle of writers. You sense, in fact, that she would be uncomfortable in self-consciously literary environment. (once she went to the writers colony at Yaddo but didn't get a thing done, and spent her time attending the races and "running around with a bunch of Spaniards." She'd suspected all along, she says, that a place like that wouldn't work out for her.)
Certainly, though, she has had an abundance of literary friendships, which she has preserved and cherished over the years. She speaks warmly of Robert Penn Warren; and she likes to recall how Reynolds Price, while still a Duke student, met her train in a pure white suit at 3 A.M. when she came to lead a workshop. But some other friends are gone now. Elizabeth Bowen was especially dear to her. Katherine Anne Porter's long illness and death have left her deeply saddened. And Diarmuid Russell, she says, is someone she still thinks of every day of her life.
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