- Eudora Welty, the Gardener
Although Eudora Welty always referred to the garden at her 1119 Pinehurst, Jackson home as her mother’s garden and to herself as “my mother’s yard boy,” two recent books prove that Welty was a dedicated and passionate gardener in her own right. Julia Eichelberger in Tell About Night Flowers: Eudora Welty’s Gardening Letters, 1940–1949 collects Welty’s letters to her literary agent, Diarmuid Russell, and to her romantic interest, John Robinson, who was away at war during most of this time period. Susan Haltom and Jane Roy Brown in One Writer’s Garden: Eudora Welty’s Home Place detail the planning, construction, and ongoing effort by Welty’s mother, Chestina, and then by Eudora Welty herself, on the Pinehurst garden, placing this one garden in the larger context of gardening in American life. Readers of Welty’s fiction will certainly be surprised by how much time and energy Welty spent gardening. She tells Russell in one letter, “I have lots of energy and full days working, but on flowers, not stories—there is so much to do outside that I may never get through and never get to stories.” She even admits to spending the money she [End Page 130] gets from writing on the garden: “Yes, there is danger that I will pour all my riches into camellias, I have just been waiting for the chance.” Together these books make the case that in addition to the designations “writer” and “photographer” for Eudora Welty, we need to add “gardener.”
The two books differ in their approaches, but both are valuable in building the case for Welty as gardener. Eichelberger’s book gives us the benefit of reading Welty’s letters firsthand in Welty’s own charming and witty prose. Eichelberger has indeed done a great service in bringing these letters out of the archives and into a form that allows more readers to have this firsthand experience. She prefaces the collection of letters with an introduction that serves as a guide for some of the common threads that the reader will find. Eichelberger explains that for Welty, the natural world “was both a physical and spiritual phenomenon” and Welty often described her garden in mystical terms. In one letter Welty even describes in detail a dream about flowers. Eichelberger’s strongest and most interesting point in the introduction is her connection of Welty’s gardening and her artistic development. She finds that gardening discussions in the letters contain early versions of scenes that appear later in her fiction and that “Welty’s letters to Robinson, intended to deepen his connection with her, were rehearsals for another kind of joy—for the fulfillment Welty could celebrate and foster in her art.”
The letters themselves are a delight and pure Welty. Readers may wish that the conversation was not one-sided. (The collection contains only Welty’s letters to the two men; Robinson’s letters to Welty, alas, no longer exist because Welty destroyed them). Eichelberger includes editorial notes along the way to help the reader place the letters into their contexts. From the very beginning of Welty’s correspondence with the literary agent Diarmuid Russell, Welty mixes discussions of her writing with tales from her garden. At one point, trying to describe for Russell the size of an eustylis bulb, she exclaims, “for some reason there is not a thing on this typewriter the size of an eustylis bulb—they ought to have a bulb keyboard, with bulb drawings on the top row and italics below. I can no longer write you on this typewriter.” Often her letters discuss the garden as if she were reporting the daily news: “The sun has been hot. The little petunias I transplanted have to have covers all day. The best time to work is...