Friday, June 21, 2013

Letters about what they loved: Eudora Welty & William Maxwell

Francine Prose calls her a genius. One of America's most lauded authors, Jackson, Mississippi's Eudora Welty was certainly no naif: she was well-traveled and well-educated (the State College for Women, the University of Wisconsin, and Columbia). After school she interned as a writer/editor at The New York Times Book Review and tried unsuccessfully to land a job at the New Yorker. Fellow fiction writer William Maxwell was its fiction editor from 1936–1975 and championed her unique prose long before his colleagues came around to publishing it. 
Welty first started corresponding with Maxwell in 1942 when she was 33 and he 34. She’d already published “A Curtain of Green” (1941), her first collection of stories, and novella “The Robber Bridegroom” (1942). Amazingly, at that time the New Yorker regularly rejected the work she submitted, and it wasn’t until 1951 that Maxwell was able to persuade his masters to accept “The Bride of the Innisfallen.” The next year the magazine took “Kin” and “No Place for You, My Love.”—Michael Dirda, The Washington Post
What There Is to Say We Have Said: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and William Maxwell reflects their shared love of horticulture and other writers every bit as much as the business of literature they had in common. Its title comes from a phrase in one of the last missives to her: “what there is to say we have said, in one way or the other. You know how much we love you.” The plural points up the fact that he was married and she was not. As Prose writes in a New York Times review of Suzanne Marrs' biography of Welty,
Though she seems to have had an immense talent for friendship, Welty was less successful in her choice of suitable love objects. With compassion and without sensationalism, Marrs describes Welty's decade-long involvement with John Robinson, a relationship complicated by the fact that Robinson was homosexual. Eudora's other great passion was for Kenneth Millar (better known as the mystery novelist Ross Macdonald), another literary admirer with whom she corresponded and whom she eventually met, by accident, when both were staying at the Algonquin Hotel in 1971. Millar [above right] lived in Santa Barbara and was married to the writer Margaret Millar, who was deeply jealous of Welty and delighted in publicly berating her husband. Welty and Millar's somewhat unusual affair was largely epistolary, punctuated by intense meetings. As Marrs reports, it's unclear whether the romance was ever consummated. Still, there's no doubting the ardor of their connection. “You love Eudora as a friend,” Millar told Reynolds Price. “I love her as a woman.”
“It’s been 95 and 96 the last couple of weeks, regular courtroom weather, Edna Earle would say. Figs look hopeful this year, after none for the last two, and just the thought of a bowl of cold ripe ones with cream on them for breakfast is worth all the rest of July to the undersigned. I wish I could see you some... Now and then a few of us go up to a little country hotel and sit on the upstairs porch and rock awhile quietly, having drinks in the shade and country stillness, or we sit in the dark in somebody’s Jackson porch to talk & play records.”
Photo by Dominique Nabokov
In a Nov. 16, 1966 note, Welty talks about planting bulbs – “and soft fine days outdoors to do it, just perfect” – and reading Persuasion. She calls Austen “the only power to get me whole through some days.” Maxwell in turn gives bulletins on his roses: “Paul’s Lemon Pillar and Spanish Beauty moved to the basement, for the winter, with Lady Hillingdon and Souv. de Malmaison – all showed a tendency to die back to the ground every winter, so I am letting them come in with us.” In another letter he exclaims, “Well it’s wonderful to be alive. Wonderful to be a writer. Wonderful to grow roses. Wonderful to care. Isn’t it?”
Katherine Hepburn, Alice Tully, Eudora Welty, Hope Williams at Morgan Library, May 1985 

You can read the first chapter of Suzanne Marrs' biography of Welty here. And here is Welty reading one of the great short stories of all time, “Why I Live at the P.O.” (Love the way she pronounces “spoiled.”)


  1. This is super cool. I've always had a love for letter writing. It's always romantic even when it's not

  2. He had good taste in correspondents; there's another book of letters between him and Sylvia Townsend Warner.

  3. Ms. Welty reads muchtoofast. However swiftly one's eyes can scan words, when one is listening, one can't guess at the punctuation. A period needs a full stop.
    Trite as it may sound, a letter is a gift of the heart. Nothing lightens the step like a friendly letter in the pocket, awaiting quietly your leisure, to be enjoyed when the mood is right. And it does not have to be a boring chronicle ("Today, I ordered succotash on a dare,") The writer can create a persona, invent an idyll, ponder in verse, in short, design a visit to delight and distract the reader for a spell.
    Have I tried to be such a correspondent? Yes. Have I found reciprocity? No, or not yet. But the day is young.

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