Eudora Welty: A Life of Stories : 78-Year-Old Novelist Finds Strength and Continuity in the Written Word

Times Staff Writer

On her semiannual trip to New York several years ago, Eudora Welty decided to take a couple of "New York friends" out to dinner. They settled in at a cozy East Side bistro and within minutes, another customer was approaching their table.

"Hey, aren't you from Mississippi?" the elegant, white-haired writer recalled being asked by one of the strangers. "I'm from Mississippi too."

Without a second thought, the woman joined the Welty party. When her dinner partner showed up, she also pulled up a chair.

"They began telling me all the news," Welty recalled. "I didn't know what my New York friends were thinking."

Taxis on a rainy New York night are scarcer than sunshine. By the time the group got up to leave, it was pouring outside. Welty's new pals promptly sent a waiter to find a cab. Heading back downtown toward the Algonquin, where Welty always stays in New York, her big-city chums marveled at the turn of events that had transformed their Big Apple dinner into a Mississippi state reunion.

"My friend said: 'Now we believe your stories,' " Welty added. "And I said: 'Now you know. These are the people that make me write them.' "

Sitting on an overstuffed couch in the Algonquin's dimly lit lobby, Welty, a slender, inconspicuous figure in a simple gray dress, looked pleased with this explanation.

"I don't make them up," she said of the characters who have inhabited her fiction these last 50 or so years. "I don't have to."

Beauticians, bartenders, piano players and people with purple hats, Welty's people come from afternoons spent visiting with old friends, from walks through the streets of her native Jackson, Miss., from snippets of conversations overheard on a bus. It grates Welty that, at 78, her left ear has now given out. Sometimes, sitting on a bus or a train, she hears only a fragment of a particularly juicy sounding tale.

'I Miss the Payoff'

"I miss the payoff," Welty grumbled. "It makes me mad. I want to say: 'Would you repeat that?' "

Such is the plight of the habitual observer. Though "I never was any good until after I got out of college" (first at Mississippi State Women's College; later, the University of Wisconsin), and though she never took a single writing class, Welty knew as a child that she wanted to write. She loved words, loved the way they rolled together and spun off her pen.

"I love using the language," Welty said during a visit here to meet with her publisher and to preside at the Whiting Foundation's writing awards ceremony. "That's really the reason I still write."

Welty's writing--short stories, novels and a best-selling memoir--has all but consumed her life. She has traveled extensively, often using payments from lectures or writing projects to live two months here, three months there, always gathering people and material for her stories. Through no philosophical objection ("I'm not anti-man," she has said), she never married. She's had no surfeit of beaus over the years, but romantically, she once told an interviewer, "nothing ever seemed to me to work out like I wanted it to."

But Welty has been lucky professionally. In 1932, fresh from the two-year program at Columbia University's graduate school of business that bought her, most of all, some time in New York, she returned to Mississippi and a job writing for the federal Works Project Administration. In her spare time, she set about writing fiction. Entirely ignorant of the publishing process but determined to be published, she sold the first story she submitted.

The buyer was "a little tiny regional magazine, one you've never heard of." It took Welty six additional years of pounding away at her typewriter to be published by "something of national sphere," the Atlantic Monthly.

"But I didn't care," she said. "I just wanted to write. I didn't even appreciate how low my chances were."

What Welty did appreciate was the wealth of information she was reveling in as she crisscrossed Mississippi, poring over county archives and the state's rich lode of historical documents. By "1940-something, I don't know, 1941? '42? '43?," Welty had already published her first collection of stories, "A Curtain of Green." She had dreamed of spending a year writing in France, but when she was finally awarded a Guggenheim Foundation grant that would allow her to do it, "there was World War II." Instead, she plunged still deeper into the mysteries of Mississippi.

"You think of it as the Deep South," Welty said. "But we really were a frontier state. You could look right across the Mississippi River and see forever, nothing but wilderness."

She became fascinated with Natchez, a place "with a reputation for being antebellum, but it is much, much older." Their pockets laden with gold after trading in New Orleans, travelers would head back overland, through rugged country "beset with who knows what? Outlaws! Bears! Indians!"

The voyagers, Welty discovered, would "spend the night in little roadside inns, usually run by the English, by the way." Quite understandably, "that led to the greatest sorts of crimes."

For Welty, this information led, eventually, to "The Robber Bridegroom." First published in 1942, this tale of innocence and horror, the story of the planter's daughter and her bandit lover, seemed to Welty to reflect the element "that was almost like fairy tales" that she kept uncovering in her state's history.

"Like Grimm, with the house in the woods," Welty said. "It was just an amazing world, with these strange figures roaming through the wilderness."

A Timeless Story

"The Robber Bridegroom" sold for years, and went on to become a musical, popular on Broadway and in regional theaters. The book is a standard in school curricula. As a testament to its timelessness, on Nov. 27 Harcourt Brace Jovanovich will issue a new edition of "The Robber Bridegroom," with illustrations by wood-print artist Barry Moser.

But her success was not as painless as it may look in the hindsight of history. Friends discouraged her, she realizes now, fretting as she innocently mailed off stories to unknown editors and obscure publications.

"I got millions of rejection slips," she said. "What would be so good was if someone would write something on the bottom, like 'try us again.' That would send your Adrenalin flowing, almost as good as an acceptance."

Writing at home in Mississippi, in the comfortable, two-story house her father built in 1925, even the rejection slips became vital forms of contact with a distant outside world.

"To me it was a way to find out how you were doing," Welty said. "I never would have shown what I was writing to anyone at home. They would have said: 'Oh, dear, that's so good.' "

Yet Mississippi and the South as a whole fostered "hundreds of writers," Welty said. "It wasn't a group, like the Algonquin Round Table, but there have always been writers there." Maybe this literary fecundity has to do with the "oral tradition of the frontier, absolutely," Welty said, "the history of tall tales." Who knows?, she said, "Maybe it's the muddy old Mississippi."

Or perhaps, the secret is continuity. The Southern family, Welty said, "is aware of its roots. You know what happens in a family, you can follow something back to what a great-grandfather did." From family, "you get a sense of story. It's cherished. It's rooted."

Proud of her heritage, loyal to the second-floor bedroom in her home in Jackson where she still prefers to do her writing, Welty resists characterization as a "Southern writer" or any other kind of writer. "Nobody wants to be pigeonholed," she said. And anyway, though set largely in the South and filled with predominantly Southern characters, "my stories are about people people."

Society Columnist

Those people, Welty said, "come out of the air." From her early days as a society columnist for the Jackson Daily News, she learned about writing fast, typing her tales "quickly, so I can look at them while they're still fresh." But however rough their form, the stories exist in their entirety before she commits them to paper.

"I think all true, really good stories are that way, they exist as a whole," she said. "I mean, I have to have the whole thing in my head. I couldn't begin without the destination, the direction."

The appeal of Welty's stories, about love, death, madness, memory, seems universal. She has won so many awards she has forgotten all their names, but they include the Pulitzer Prize, the National Medal for Literature, the National Medal of Arts, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Chosen recently to become a chevalier, or knight, of France's L'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, Welty took particular delight in how her local newspaper played the story above an article about the arrival of Pope John Paul II. "Welty to Be Made Knight," the headline declared, to Welty's enduring amusement.

Treasured in Jackson as a pillar of the region's artistic community, not to mention a fixture of the area's shopping malls in her 1978 Oldsmobile, Welty is a familiar figure also outside her hometown. At the Algonquin, strangers recognize her; for example, a splendidly turned-out woman in a hat, dripping in antique jewelry, wants Welty to know how much she admires her. Once, traveling on a speaking engagement, a student approached Welty and asked her to sign a copy of "Moby Dick," and when she showed up at the polls to vote in Jackson one year, the registrar calmly handed her three books she wanted Welty to sign.

For Welty this is proof less of her own writing talents than of the contagious and essential pleasure of reading.

Whiting Awards

"We, readers and writers, compose an ongoing search party," she told the crowd gathered for the Whiting Awards ceremony here. "Tireless, our lives long, open to hope and astonishment, we keep at it. . . .

"Reading, we pursue discovery of human life through the word. Writing, we search out the word by way of life."

It gives Welty hope, this philosophy, as she worries about this country's mounting problem of illiteracy. "Because their teachers make them read me," Welty said she regularly receives parcels of letters from schoolchildren. Too often: "They can't make a sentence, they can't spell and their thoughts aren't connected."

Given her choice, Welty would urge a return to the classics. She thanks her mother for forcing her to memorize poetry, even while washing dishes; her father for encouraging her to study Latin, "the only reason I know any grammar at all." But these days, "You can't advocate that at all." She laughed. "I started to say Latin is Greek to them."

Welty is impatient now to return to Jackson, back to her schedule of mornings at the electric typewriter to which arthritis has reluctantly relegated her, and afternoons with good friends and a tumbler or two of equally good bourbon. Welty is a great socializer, one pal in Jackson said, friends "with every third person on the street." But she is also happy holed up at home with a good book, preferably a mystery novel.

"I think there is so much writers can learn from mystery stories," said this friend, and fan, of the late mystery writer Ross MacDonald. "Everything has to be there for a reason, and the dialogue has to be responsible for all the action."

Still Eager to Write

Welty is eager, too, to get back to the stories she began years ago, before she was sidetracked on what became an unexpected best seller that owes its origins to Welty's reluctance to deliver a series of lectures to a graduate seminar at Harvard University.

"I said there was nothing I could tell graduate students at Harvard," Welty remembered. "I was scared to pieces. I couldn't imagine how I could connect, with my different age and background, with those students."

But the school persisted, urging Welty to write the lectures first, perhaps to be published in book form. "One Writer's Beginnings," in which Welty wrote about childhood influences on her career, became a major hit for both Welty and the Harvard University Press.

"We all lost our minds with amazement," Welty said.

In the process, Welty also lost track of some of her story people. "I have to find out if they're still alive," she said of her fictional characters. "If they're not, I'll have to throw them out."

Welty is not worried. There are plenty more inside her head where those came from. All they need, she said, is some uninterrupted time at the typewriter.

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