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One Writer’s Garden: Eudora Welty’s Home Place (review)

From: Eudora Welty Review
Volume 4, Spring 2012
pp. 163-166 | 10.1353/ewr.2012.0001

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Although I had a cursory acquaintance with a few of Eudora Welty’s works as a youth, I never read her writing in a serious, sustained way before adulthood. As I read, I leapt from work to work, propelled by a sort of giddiness inspired by the sheer mastery of Welty’s craft, nowhere more apparent than in her uncanny and virtually infallible ability to find the perfect word or expression to maintain absolute verisimilitude. Having grown up in a sleepy southern town whose rusty water tower decades later still spells out the town motto in peeling paint, “great and growing”—the city’s lofty ambition always outstripping its chronically limited means—I brought to the texts an intimate knowledge of the texture of southern life that Welty never once contradicted in her richly detailed prose.

I also brought to her works a more specialized knowledge, a substantial body of practical experience gained from what was then three unbroken decades of cultivating plants in the South, both commercially and as a hobbyist. My father, a scientist and avid plant collector, introduced me at a young age to plants and their care, and horticulture has been an obsession ever since. After reading several works by Welty, I began to notice that, despite regular appearances of plants in her writing, never is a single plant out of place, never do cultivars bloom in the wrong season, never does the author sound a false note in her descriptions of culture, growth habit, or bloom. No amount of research by an author can explain the horticultural correctness on display in Welty’s works; Welty, I speculated after only a few works, must have had considerable experience growing plants.

I soon learned that Welty’s fastidious concern in her fiction for where and how plants should grow does signal a gardener of unusual talent and experience. How she came by that experience, mostly working at her mother’s side in the garden behind the family home at 1119 Pinehurst Street in Jackson, Mississippi, is the subject of a particularly engaging new volume, One Writer’s Garden: Eudora Welty’s Home Place, by authors Susan Haltom and Jane Roy Brown and photographer Langdon Clay. Welty’s garden found a remarkably charismatic and able champion in Haltom, who visited Welty in 1994 as an employee of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History (MDAH). Haltom describes her first visit with Welty and the long process of restoring what Welty always referred to as “her mother’s garden” in a slender, twenty-page epilogue that, along with the final chapter abutting it, combine to create as fine a piece of writing about Welty as one can imagine being put to paper. No Welty fan will want to miss this, and even those who know nothing of Welty or her works will find it rewarding.

Upset about the condition of her yard—the crisis heightened by an Associated Press story describing in exaggerated detail the disrepair of the old garden behind her house—Welty called the MDAH. Haltom immediately helped organize a small volunteer force to start removing the smilax and honeysuckle that had grown unchecked for two decades or more, an enormous task given how quickly those plants spread in Jackson’s moist, southern climate. In the newly cleared spaces, Haltom began renovating the flower beds, but she quickly came to have a more ambitious vision, the creation of a period garden for visitors to enjoy once the house turned into a literary museum after Welty’s death. Optimistic about the garden’s historical restoration yet unsure what that entailed, Haltom sought experienced help from the Garden Conservancy, who adopted the garden and helped her plan the restoration, stage by stage. Surveyors mapped every plant that had survived the hard years of neglect, and Haltom prepared a cultural landscape report determining that the end of the garden’s “period of significance” was 1945, which became the target year for the restoration. Most importantly, Haltom had countless opportunities to speak with Welty over the next several years, and Haltom’s particularly adept skills as a listener show abundantly in the emotional depth and nuanced insight of Welty’s presence...



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