- Pondering Hearts: Studies of Eudora Welty and Josephine Pinckney
In the preface to his book Eudora Welty’s Aesthetics of Place, the Danish scholar Jan Nordby Gretland recalls identifying himself as a “Welty critic” to an Ole Miss student standing next to him at a 1977 book signing in Oxford. In response, “the young woman took two steps back with a speed that indicated the presence of a venomous snake. And with indignation and contempt in her voice she shouted at me: ‘How dare you criticize our Miss Welty!’” The undergraduate’s sweetly misplaced ferocity here is, in many ways, the stuff of Welty’s fiction: we can laugh at her naiveté, but we also recognize ourselves—most of Welty’s readers share a vision of her as “our Miss Welty,” and even after her death in 2001 they have remained enormously protective of her legacy, an anachronistic stance in an age in which a love of celebrity scandal has seeped openly into literary culture. This reverence for Welty is evinced in any number of ways, from the collective admiration of Welty’s most “private” writing—the autobiographical One Writer’s Beginnings, in which Welty reveals very little of her adult life—to the outcry against [End Page 145] Ann Waldron’s 1999 biography, Eudora: A Writer’s Life, which reviewers dismissed, in part, because its identification of Welty as an ugly duckling was “mean-spirited.”
So how, then, should the Welty biographer presume? Can a balance be sought between a reluctant subject, a wary readership, and “the Truth”? In the introduction to Eudora Welty: A Biography, Suzanne Marrs demonstrates that she is well aware of the potential minefields of such a project, and she makes a convincing case for the necessity of such a biography: in the absence of a sustained biographical inquiry, “our Miss Welty” has become a mythic figure—a quiet, if observant, “homebody” who shied away from the political complexities that defined her age. Marrs, who is not only one the most insightful critics of Welty’s work but counted herself among Welty’s friends for fifteen years before beginning this study, is uniquely qualified to debunk these myths. While Welty had actively discouraged other attempts at biography, she gave Marrs her blessing, sharing her unpublished letters, and, as importantly, granting access to her friends. (For her part, Marrs generously suggests that Welty’s endorsement was not merely reflective of her faith in Marrs but the result of a gradual reconsideration of her longheld views on biography.) The result is that Marrs’ account of Welty’s life is both “safe”—Marrs wears her loyalty to Welty on her sleeve, and there is no sense of sensationalism in this book—and revealing: not only has Marrs’ thorough research unearthed lovely and unexpected details of Welty’s rich life, but Marrs quotes liberally from Welty’s letters, allowing Welty’s private voice to be heard apart from authorial intrusion or interpretation. In reading Eudora Welty, the reader is often struck by the intimacy of such an experience.
These letters are most powerful when they directly contrast two of our most enduring misperceptions of Welty: Welty as apolitical and Welty as a reclusive spinster. Welty’s 1965 essay “Must the Novelist Crusade?” contributed to widespread conception that she chose to bury her head in the sand during times of cultural upheaval, most notably the years in which Mississippi served as the bloodiest battleground of the Civil Rights Movement. Marrs rereads Welty’s essay as not a withdrawal from political activism, but a reconfiguring of the notion of political engagement. Marrs also strives to demonstrate that not only was Welty possessed of a sophisticated political consciousness, but, in fact, that her fiction was closely informed by current events. (For example, she reads “A Little Trumph” as Welty’s “opposition to the racial categories on which Hitler insisted, which had...