02 April 2011

Book Review: What There is to Say, We Have Said: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and William Maxwell

 This review has been a long time coming, I'm afraid. I requested an ARC of it from my Houghton Mifflin Harcourt sales rep, Holly Ruck, back before Christmas 2010 as soon as I saw it catalogued.  You see, the woman who edited this correspondence is my beloved college advisor, Suzanne Marrs, and as a former resident of Jackson, Mississippi, I have long been enamored of Eudora Welty.  I had never read Miss Welty until I attended Millsaps College, located just across the street from the neighborhood where Miss Welty grew up.  (You'll soon come to find that those privileged enough to meet Eudora Welty refer to her as "Miss Welty."  To call her Eudora presumes too much acquaintance and to call her merely Welty in anything other than an academic setting feels too cold.  She is always "Miss Welty" to me, a lowly college student and later a bookseller, privileged to meet her a few times during my sojourn in Jackson. My DH, who collaborated with her as an illustrator of her work, sometimes forgets his Southern sensibilities and thus vexes me every time he calls her "Eudora" in my presence.  My dear mentor, John Evans of Lemuria Bookstore, who was a bourbon drinking buddy of hers and thus knew her better, always refers to her Miss Welty, or at least Miss Eudora.)

I should start off by admitting that I do not often read collections of correspondence.  My most recent one before this was the extraordinary collection of letters between Avis DeVoto and Julia Child, As Always, Julia, published last fall by the same publisher.  It was a revelation, I have to say.  It feels so intimate to read somebody else's correspondence, and when the correspondence is between two women as extraordinary as those two women were, reading the book is like a revelation.

My experience with Child and DeVoto, plus my personal connection to the Welty/Maxwell book, prompted me to request it. I've been an avid fan of Miss Welty's short stories and her memoir since my first year in college, when I first read One Writer's Beginnings, followed by The Golden Apples, in an advanced standing freshman English course that Suzanne Marrs taught, and I've been a devotee ever since of both writer and professor.

Since I moved north to New England from Mississippi, I frequently find myself in the position of defending the South, particularly my home state, from accusations of everything from not owning indoor plumbing to illiteracy.  I always retort that Mississippi certainly has its share of problems, but that I'm not sure any other US state can boast that it has produced the country's greatest novelist (William Faulkner), short story writer (Miss Welty), playwright (Tennessee Williams) AND musical contribution (Elvis Presley) of the twentieth century, so they'd better back down or be prepared for fisticuffs.  After hemming and hawing (Uh, Hemingway...Steinbeck...uh...oh, nevermind) they inevitably back down.

Miss Welty is famously funny among her circle of friends and family but has somehow acquired the reputation today of being somewhat dour or stodgy (from those who have never read her, I suspect).  Yes, her story Why I Live at the P.O. is frequently cited as humorous, but there is an impishness that lurks beneath the surface of her writing, as this excerpt will show.  It's from early on in the book, when Miss Welty writes to The New Yorker in 1933 to apply for a position.  Maxwell went to work there just three years later.  If you don't find this funny, you either don't read English as a first language, or there is something wrong with you:

Gentlemen,
I suppose you'd be more interested in even a sleight-o'-hand trick than you'd be in an application for a position with your magazine, but as usual you can't have the thing you want most.  
I am 23 years old, six weeks on the loose in N.Y. However, I was a New Yorker for a whole year in 1930-31 while attending advertising classes in Columbia's School of Business.  Actually, I am a southerner, from Mississippi, the nation's most backwards state...I have a B. A. ('29) from the University of Wisconsin, where I majored in English without a care in the world.  For the last eighteen months I was languishing in my own office in  radio station in Jackson, Miss., writing continuities, dramas, mule feed advertisements, and life insurance playlets; now I have given that up. 
As to what I might do for you--I have seen an untoward amount of picture galleries and 15 cent movies lately, and could review them with my old prosperous detachment, I think; in fact, I recently coined a general word for Matisse's pictures after seeing his latest at the Marie Harriman: concubineapple.  That shows you how my mind works -- quick, and away from the point.  I read simply voraciously, and can drum up an opinion afterwards.
...How I would like to work for you! A little paragraph each morning--a little paragraph each night, if you can't hire me from daylight to dark, although I would work like a slave.  I can also draw like Mr. Thurber, in case he goes off the deep end. I have studied flower painting. 
There is no telling where I may apply, if you turn me down; I realize this will not phase you, but consider my other alternative: the U of N. C. offers for $12.00 to let me dance in Vachel Lindsay's Congo.  I congo on.  I rest my case, repeating that I am a hard worker. 
Truly yours,   
Eudora Welty

I defy anybody to read that application for employment letter and not want to immediately delve into this collection of letters!  Let me just iterate that it's a treat to read the gently humourous and gently refined correspondence between these two literary giants of the twentieth century.  I feel that those who embark on this journey with them will not be disappointed.  This is not so much a pick-it-up-and-read-straight-through kind of book, but rather one to dip into from time to time, to travel back on the wings of these letters to a more courteous time, where casual cruelty and barbed words held no place with these writers.  The letters span nearly 50 years of the twentieth century and thus are not immune from the difficulties of their time.  While the civil rights movement isn't a huge presence in this correspondence, it still colors much of it.  Medgar Evers was murdered in cold blood in Jackson, not far as the crow flies from Miss Welty's house, which prompted her writing the chilling and eerie story, "Where the Voice is Coming From," published later in The New Yorker.

14 comments:

  1. Gah. I'm so jealous that you have so many connections to Eudora Welty. I've only read a handful of her short stories, but I'm reading the Suzanne Marrs biography on and off. "Miss Welty" sounds like a wonderful person with a great sense of humor. :)

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  2. Hi, Darlyn . "So many connections" is definitely overstating it, unless you're counting the one degree of separation that I have from her with three people in my life. Then I guess it counts. :) Having only met Miss Welty a few times myself only made me bold enough to call her "Miss Welty, ma'am."

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  3. I have recently read five of her stories and heard one read at the New Yorker Fiction podcast-I really liked her work and enjoyed greatly the correspondence samples you shared with us-do you know how many of her stories were published in The New Yorker?

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  4. I actually don't know how many were published in The New Yorker, but I could probably look it up in the index if the ARC has a complete index--I just have to wrestle it out of my husband's possession first. I know that what became the Optimist's Daughter started off as a story in the New Yorker, plus the story you allude to, plus maybe Losing Battles? I can't recall, I'm afraid...

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  5. I LOVE the application ;) So awesome!

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  6. Yes, isn't it great? The first time I read that I was having dinner on a layover in the MSP airport with my husband and I really did spray assorted particles of food on our table when I read her newly-coined "cocubineapple."

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  7. I have been very interested in Miss Welty for a few years now. I think I'll give this a try.

    I received Big Girl Small in the mail on Monday. It's not an ARC. I wonder how that happened.

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  8. Ah, defending the South among the Yankees. Carla may have told you these stories, but in graduate school at IU I can't tell you how many people said, "I'll take a job anywhere but in the South." And then I kicked them in their shins.

    I have to confess, I've always thought of Eudora Welty as kind of humorless, but the letter is quite hilarious. Are there letters in here from when she's living in Belhaven?

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  9. Robyn, I'd like to see you in shin-kicking action, I think.

    I do think that this New Yorker application later is much more straightforwardly funny than much of her work, but I was using it as a hook. Most of the letters in this book were written from her Belhaven home. Are you a flower gardener, particularly rose? She and Maxwell spend a lot of time discussing their flowers.

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  10. I was made to read Why I Live At the P.O. in grade school, but other than that I've never read any Eudora Welty. This has gotten me interested in her, though. Thanks!

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  11. That application is hilarious - how can an employer not ask her for an interview?

    I've never read a collection of correspondence, not sure if it'll work for me. I must check a few collections out.

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  12. Monica, reading letter collections isn't for everybody, it's true. But I just had to post this particular letter of Miss Welty's to show her sense of humor!

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  13. I anxiously await the book for delivery in May. I did receive this week a Welty biography by Suzanne Marr.

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  14. As a lover of epistolary novels in general (and also being wowed by the collection of letters between Julia Child and Avis DeVoto), I suspect I'll enjoy this book, too. But, having never read anything by her, would you recommend I read some of Miss Welty's short stories and essays prior to diving into the letter collection?

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Please, sir, may I have some more? (Comments, that is!)