- Sister Act:Margaret Walker and Eudora Welty
In a journal entry dated Tuesday, November 11, 1980, Margaret Walker wrote that Eudora Welty "and I did our act together for Mrs. Early's class" at Southern Methodist University (Journal 107, 314).1 Suzanne Marrs, author of Eudora Welty: A Biography, also recalls hearing Welty "say 'sister act' several times" in reference to her presence on the same panels as Walker ("Re: Clarification"). This "sister act" came at the end of their lives, in the 1980s and '90s, when both were recognized several times by their hometown of Jackson and the state of Mississippi for their long careers and bodies of work. The paths they traveled to reach this intersection of common recognition were quite different, however. Almost exact contemporaries—Welty lived from 1909 to 2001 and Walker from 1915 to 1998—they share similar timelines and histories, both having lived through the Depression, World War II, and the Civil Rights Movement. But as one was white and one was black, their stories are very different, as were their paths to becoming nationally known writers.2
Both Welty and Walker were born into families where education was given the highest priority. In her memoir One Writer's Beginnings, Welty acknowledges the debt she owes to her parents for instilling within her a love of reading: "Indeed, my parents could not give me books enough. They must have sacrificed to give me on my sixth or seventh birthday—it was after I became a reader for myself—the ten-volume set of Our Wonder World" (OWB 846). She also fondly recalls getting her first library card and making trips to the library on her bicycle every day because she was limited to checking out two books at a time: "I coasted the two new books home, jumped out of my petticoat, read (I suppose I ate and bathed and answered questions put to me), then in all hope put my petticoat back on and rode those two books back to the library to get my next two" ("A Sweet Devouring" 799). Walker, too, credits her parents for nurturing within her a love of books. She tells John Griffin Jones in a 1982 interview, "I grew up in a home surrounded by books and music . . . my father's books were his most prized possession. . . . They [Margaret's parents] began housekeeping with books and a piano. A typewriter and their books and the piano were all their worldly possessions beside their clothes. They had no furniture" ("Margaret Walker Alexander" 123). [End Page 29]
Welty grew up in Jackson; she lived in her first house on Congress Street from 1909 to 1925, and it was in this house, located across the street from her elementary school and conveniently near the library and later Jackson High School, that she developed what she calls her "knowledge of the word" (OWB 846). Walker, on the other hand, was born in Birmingham, Alabama, and moved several times as a child. Her parents were both educators, but her father was also a Methodist preacher; he supplemented his meager pastoral income by teaching. Walker's father moved his growing family to Meridian, Mississippi, when he and his wife were both offered teaching positions at the Haven Institute, a Methodist school. Walker started school at age five at Haven (like Welty, learning to read quite young and ready for school before most of her peers) and remembers her time in Meridian as "happy . . . I stayed that year in the first grade but I read with the fourth grade children" (Autobiography 25).
Meridian was not a happy place for Walker's mother, however. Walker writes, "Mama . . . never cared for life in Mississippi," and she was relieved when the family returned to Birmingham (Autobiography 28). Walker continued her schooling, but it was not as convenient for Walker as it was for Welty to get to school. After living in a series of dormitories, rented rooms, and Methodist parsonages, the Walkers bought a small house, which Walker describes as "a real achievement" (29). It was located outside the city limits, and she was required to walk "a long way through a white neighborhood...