Review

'Letters' inscribes a grand love affair with words between Ross Macdonald and Eudora Welty

Ross Macdonald and Eudora Welty were titans of fiction: he a mystery writer whose work, like his California compatriots in noir Raymond Chandler and Walter Mosley, encompassed not just murder but the social and political entwined in cities like L.A. and fictional Santa Teresa; she a novelist and short-story writer who added to the literary fame of Jackson, Miss., with her Pulitzer Prize-winning fiction exploring familial and historical passions in small-town Mississippi.

Their relationship is hard to categorize — not love unrequited or unfulfilled because the two were equally enamored and in near-constant communication. But in the age of Instagram and Tinder and Snapchat, to read "Meanwhile There Are Letters: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and Ross Macdonald" is to see the definition of old-fashioned epistolary love. Written, not spoken, not posted, not illustrated with emojis or presented for inspection.

Their delicacy and reserve, cautious and formal, is nonetheless passionate and intense at times. This remarkable book collects more than a decade's worth of written and mailed correspondence between the two writers — he who was emphatically married (though his marriage is represented as dutiful and often painful by the time of their letters) and she who remained single and died in the same town in which she was born and had nursed her brother and parents when they became ill and died.

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Suzanne Marrs, the author of "Eudora Welty: A Biography," and Tom Nolan, the author of "Ross Macdonald: A Biography," have spent years collaborating on this project, and their careful, insightful commentary around the letters makes the book read as satisfyingly as a novel of two people whose true loves were always language and description and story as the only way to reconcile the heart with the world.

Welty and Macdonald (whose real name was Ken Millar) couldn't have been more different in their early lives. She was born in 1909 in Jackson, and the lyrical self-portrait of her childhood and young adult existence in that place, which she published as "One Writer's Beginnings," remains among my favorite memoirs. She was surrounded by loving family and neighbors and knew each house, her school, her church, her trees and fields.

Millar, born in 1915 in Los Gatos, Calif., was taken to Vancouver by his Canadian parents as a baby; they soon divorced and from then on his life was a series of moves to relatives and boarding houses and disarray. His rough childhood and adolescence are mirrored in his novels, which are also among my favorite books. In nearly every novel, a young man or woman is victim or witness during a crime and is often searching for a real parent who is guilty of abandonment, deception and cruelty to a child.

Though both writers had already received acclaim, awards and bestseller status, when Millar launched their correspondence on May 3, 1970, it began: "Dear Miss Welty: This is my first fan letter. If you write another book like 'Losing Battles,' it will not be my last."

This was in response to her confession during an interview with the New York Times after the novel's publication that she loved mysteries, especially those by Ross Macdonald, and that she'd written a fan letter to him but never mailed it because "he'd think it — icky."

Their insecurities, their confessions, and for a writer, the way everything comes back to the struggle of work and then the worry of reception — that was all fascinating. The secretive characters, hidden lives and desires of their fictional creations are somehow reflected in the language and tone of their letters to each other. Both reflect constantly on other writers — F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ford Madox Ford, Elizabeth Bowen, among others.

But in Welty there is an unaffected eloquence in her descriptions of the natural world: "It's a quiet Sunday evening, a gentle rain has stopped, a camellia named Bernice Bodey has opened a flower, and a white-throated sparrow is singing," she wrote on Dec. 5, 1971. Welty describes "white ibises pecking about like chickens on the runways" in New Orleans.

Millar writes much more of family, with his only daughter having died tragically and young not long before the letters began, and his grandson visiting frequently, and wife Margaret with several chronic illnesses. But most affecting is his eternal worry, and faint, oblique resentment at bad reviews, always at the edges of his letters nervousness about work. It is as if his unsettled young life never receded.

In these letters, their lives are revealed with such caution that it is a big deal the first time he signs "Love, Ken." And Welty sent that love back in very certain terms. She dedicated her 1977 essay collection to him, and he wrote back on July 10, 1977: "The gift you propose to me is the kind of thing that might happen once in a lifetime if a man is lucky — like being knighted by a queen — not one with a sword though, with a human hand."

The human hand is everywhere evident here — the letters written so carefully, addressed and stamped and sent by post, the wait for response, which took sometimes only a few days, sometimes weeks as the terrible irony of Millar's developing Alzheimer's disease robbed him of his memory and ability to write fiction and letters to his beloved.

She was beloved. The heartbreak of Welty, who knew the loss of his finely tuned critical faculties, his love for images like the ones I remember so well from his novels, was immense. There were no visible changes in his face on her last visit to him, one of the few times they saw each other in person. But the diminished letters were evidence enough.

And the last entries in this fine book are the pages of an unfinished story by Welty called "Henry," published here for the first time, in which that queen, with her human hand, tried to remake their relationship into fiction, a married man with dementia, and his wife, and the woman who loves him. But one line toward the end of her last draft, written in 1984, is evocative and final: "I am seeing everywhere around me his mind that I love emptied of all it held, all that packed it, pressed it, lighted it up — memory."

Straight's most recent novel is the California noir "Between Heaven and Here." Her next book is set on Prince Edward Island.

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Meanwhile There Are Letters
The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and Ross Macdonald

Edited by Suzanne Marrs and Tom Nolan
Arcade: 568 pp., $35

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