Eudora Welty

Eudora Welty



Eudora Welty

A biographical essay by
Louise Frazer Mooney


When you fall desperately in love with a writer, the issue of gender is of no matter.  And thus I have loved Eudora Welty from the day I first read her in the 1960s—loved her instinctively—more than Hardy or Dickens or Ford Maddox Ford or any other male writer with whom I had formed passionate attachments.  In a word, Eudora spoke to my bones.

I met Eudora Welty briefly in 1962 during my college days in South Carolina, when my school sponsored the Southern Literary Festival.  Cleanth Brooks came, Andrew Lytle came, and, I believe, Donald Davidson came—the men who together with Robert Penn Warren and John Crowe Ransom had formed the phalanx of the Agrarian Movement, theorists of the New Criticism.  

But my eyes were not on the New Critics; they were on the women-writers in attendance:  Flannery O’Connor and Eudora Welty.  Flannery was on crutches, crippled by lupus, a smallish, unprepossessing woman.  She was a devout Catholic, and seeing her there in her frailty, you would never peg her as the author of a story about a traveling Bible salesman who seduces a one-legged, half-blind woman and afterwards steals her glass eye, steals her artificial leg and leaves her stranded in the hayloft of a barn. 

Despite her frailty, Flannery gave a powerful—a crackerjack—speech:  “People ask me why it is that that Southerners write about ‘freaks,’” she said.  “I tell them it’s because we can still recognize one.”  Flannery also spoke about the challenge of writing in William Faulkner’s slipstream:  “Faulkner has conditioned all of us by his mere existence,” she said.  “No one wants his wagon standing on the tracks when the Dixie Limited comes roaring into town” (qtd. Marrs 291).  That August in 1962, Faulkner died and two years later in August, Flannery succumbed to lupus.  (If you are ill or frail, don’t go south in August.)

Eudora Welty was a tall, big-boned Mississippi woman in a country-woman cottony dress with buttons up the front.   I doubt she ever spent much time in front of a mirror.  In fact, reading her stories, you only incidentally know what people actually look like or what they are wearing.  The only female breasts ever mentioned or measured in the entire Golden Apples are Miss Lizzie Starks’s “big bosom that started down, at the neck of her dress, like a big cloven white hide” (ML 445),” under which Nina Carmichael shelters herself.   You know Virgie has a good head of wildish hair, Miss Eckhart has small ankles and Easter has a stringy bob.  No one needs to tell you that Fatty Bowles has a weight problem.  And when you read that Junior Holifield’s britches are held up by a belt-buckle with a giant “J” on it, you pretty much know what else he is wearing.  You might even guess that when his truck has fallen to rust in the front yard, his widow will transform it into a giant flower pot, if she doesn’t spell out his name in 260 hyacinths in a bed of verbena, instead.

So when I met Eudora Welty, I recognized her the way I would recognize an aunt I hadn’t seen for many years or my Latin teacher or a neighbor who brings a pound cake to the back door when there’s been a death in the family.  The South is full of “aunts,” maiden, married and widowed.  Like Miss Perdita Mayo or Miss Billie Texas Spights, they wander through our lives looking out for us and helping us stay out of trouble. (Or, in my case, doing their level best.)  Except that my aunts didn’t wear country clothes, Eudora was all of them—witty, insightful and nosey— and the grown-up version of my childhood friends as well—the girls in plaid dresses playing skip-rope and Red Rover in the schoolyard.

Unfortunately, few of us have had the kind, gentle and uncluttered upbringing that Eudora had. In 1984, Harvard University Press published her autobiography, One Writer’s Beginnings, which had begun as a series of lectures delivered at Harvard.  One Writer’s Beginnings won the American and National Book Critics Circle awards.  Perhaps as impressive, it was the only Harvard publication that ever landed on the New York Times best-seller list.

It would be hard to imagine a more fetching, more charming, or more appealing autobiography.  As a poignant childhood memoir, it rivals Kipling’s.  But with a significant difference.  Unlike Kipling, Eudora was a thoroughly loved child:  by her parents, her brothers, her grandparents, and throughout her life, she had more friends than she could anyone could say grace over.  Which is to say:  She was well named.

Eudora Alice Welty was born in 1909 in a rented house on North Congress Street in Jackson, Mississippi, to Chestina Andrews Welty, a school teacher from West Virginia, and Christian Webb Welty, an insurance executive from Ohio.  They married and moved to Jackson the year Eudora was born.  Her brother Edward was born in 1912, and her brother Walter was born in 1915. 

I would like to read you the opening lines from One Writer’s Beginnings.

                   When I was young enough to still spend a long time buttoning my shoes in the morning, I’d listen toward the hall:  Daddy upstairs was shaving in the bathroom and Mother downstairs was frying the bacon. They would begin whistling back and forth to each other down the stairwell.  My father would whistle. . ., my mother would try to whistle . . ..  It was their duet.  I drew my buttonhook in and out and listened to it. . [Their song almost floated with laughter . . .. They kept it running between them up and down the stairs, where I was now just about ready to run chattering down and show them my shoes. (OWB unnumbered page)

The Welty household floated with laughter: voices, rising off the Red Seal records through the Victrola—voices of Melba, Galli-Curci and Caruso, voices of Chestina singing to her children and of mother and father singing together.  And it was also a house in which, throughout her childhood, “any room in our house, at any time of day, was there to read in or to be read to” (OWB 841).  The fairy tales: “Grimm, Anderson, the French and English, Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves; Aesop and Reynard the Fox; . . .myths and legends, Robin Hood, King Arthur, St. George and the Dragon, (even the history of Joan of Arc; Edward Lear, a ‘whack’ of Pilgrim’s Progress, a long piece of Gulliver” (OWB 846).  Later, she would read through the ten-volume set of Our Wonder World, Greek and Roman myths, Robert Louis Stevenson, Walter Scott, Mark Twain, Dickens—the classics of a well-read childhood. 

The reading bond between Chestina and Eudora was strong and lasting.  Like her daughter, Chestina was a compulsive reader.  “My mother read Dickens in the spirit as if she would have eloped with him” (OWB 42), wrote Eudora.  As a child Chestina had been given the complete works of Dickens in return for agreeing to let her hair be cut.  Later, when a small fire broke out in the Welty home on North Congress Street, Chestina pulled away from her husband’s restraining arms, rushed into the house to pitch into his waiting arms, one by one, all 51 volumes of the Dickens set.  In her daughter’s expansive reading, Chestina forbid only one book; she must not read Elsie Dinsmore.  Elsie practiced so long and hard on the piano that she fell off the piano stool in a faint; such ardor would set a bad example for her impressionable daughter. 

(Unfortunately, the Jackson Public Library was not so liberal. No child was allowed to take out more than two books a day.  Eudora recalls once roller-skating frantically from her house through the Mississippi Capitol building into the library to check out the day’s book hoard, only to be turned away and sent home for another petticoat because the bright Mississippi sunshine shone disgracefully through her dress.  Today, that library is the Eudora Welty Library.)

I mention Eudora’s childhood reading delights because I feel their influence throughout The Golden Apples.  Consider, for example, the almost-dream-like, enchanted sequences in which the stories are often framed or suspended as if locked in memory:  the evocations of Greek myths, the fairy tale appearance of the angelic Snowdie McClain, the woman with the night–blooming cereus in The Wanderers or the strange black woman who visits Virgie at the story’s conclusion, like an unfathomable otherworld vision. 

And let us not forget the presence of Yeats wandering through The Golden Apples like a visiting deity.

Later, there were trips to the Jackson movie house with other little girls, their crocheted purses swinging from their wrists, and a dime for treats afterward at McIntyre’s drugstore.  Eudora watched with delight Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, the great comedians of the silent screen.  I believe those shadowy clowns also find their place in Eudora’s fiction.  Think of the Laurel and Hardy aspects of Old Man Moody and Mr. Fatty Bowles and their slapstick reaction to the discovery that the McClain house is on fire.  Or Mrs. Lizzie Stark’s misreading of Loch’s frantic attempts to resuscitate Easter.  Though Eudora would have preferred to claim Chaplin or Keaton as her literary mentors, as we know, those kinds of comic interludes also intrude upon the most intense moments in Shakespearean tragedy. 

Jefferson Davis Elementary School was at the end of Congress Street; Eudora entered it already knowing how to read.  It was the kind of school where warrior grammarians taught the basics, where using a double conditional verb as in “I might-could come over for dinner” would land you in the principal’s office or in a week-long after-school detention.  (OWB 870).

In 1925 the family moved into the house her father built at 1119 Pinehurst. It is now owned by the Eudora Welty Foundation and the State of Mississippi and is a museum open to the public.  Eudora lived there till her death in 2001, writing from her second floor bedroom the National Book-award-winning Losing Battles, the Pulitzer-Prize- winning Optimist Daughter, the Golden Apples, and the multiple-award winning One Writer’s Beginnings and planning the onerous lecture schedule that consumed a great part of her later years.  On a given day, passersby would see Miss Eudora from the street sitting at her desk in the home she refused to air-condition because, as she told Roger Mudd, “she insisted on hearing and smelling whatever floated through her windows” and besides “it keeps out the world . . .and the phone doesn’t ring because it’s too hot to dial” (R. Mudd memoir). 

Jackson High School’s most famous alumna graduated the same year of the move to Pinehurst Street.  She was 16 and bound for Mississippi State Women’s College in Columbus, Mississippi.  Her Jackson High classmates included the composer Lehman Engel; the New York Times Book Review editor Nash Burger; the artist Helen Jay Lotterhouse; two college professors Frank Lyell and Bill Hamilton, less well-known lawyers and an Episcopal priest (Marrs, 11).  Life-long friendships were forged there; among them was Eudora’s first love, John Robinson, also a would-be writer. That love, as we shall see, was doomed to fail.

Eudora transferred to the University of Wisconsin for her junior and senior years, where, among others, she studied Virginia Woolf, Faulkner, the Irish poet A.E. (George Russell), and her perennial favorite, William Butler Yeats.  Her years there were not altogether happy ones, however. “The people up there seemed to me,” she wrote in later years "like sticks of flint,” living “in the icy world” of Madison (Marrs ). Eudora graduated in 1929 with a BA in English.  By then, she had acquired an interest in photography and was developing her own prints. 

Christian Welty felt his daughter needed a more practical degree and sent her to Columbia to study business and advertising. Joan Didion, a Californian, once remarked that when she first lived in New York and was homesick, she felt most at home with Southerners:  They never lost their other-belongingness and always knew when the next train to Nashville or train to Savannah was leaving the station.  Eudora was not like that.  That Mississippi girl was simply in love with New York and remained so all her life.  She did not trouble herself unduly with her business degree; instead she immersed herself in the city’s nightlife and cultural life, spending hours in museums, seeing plays, wandering in the parks and making friends.  She had hoped to stay in New York, continue her education and find a job.  But in 1931 she was called back to Jackson because her father was seriously ill. 

John Crowe Ransom once referred to Emily Dickinson as a little homebody poet, and there has always been some temptation to demean Eudora similarly because of her long residence in the remote provinces of the poorest state in the union. So before we move Eudora from New York to Jackson, I would like to fast forward a bit to let you know that no matter what others thought, the literary world adored her.  Diarmuid Russell, the son of A.E., sought her out after she had published only a handful of stories and begged to be her agent; they became life-long friends. She corresponded with E. M. Forster, who asked to visit her in Jackson, Ford Maddox Ford, V.S. Pritchett; she was close to Robert Penn Warren, who published her first short story to appear in a major literary magazine; Katherine Ann Porter who wrote the introduction to her first short story collection; Elizabeth Bowen, Ann Tyler, Henry Green, New Yorker editor William Maxwell, and  Reynolds Price, who, as she often said, was like a son to her. In short, she knew, and was admired by, most of the era’s literary luminaries. The only writer ever turned away from 1911 Pinehurst was Henry Miller.  Chestina wouldn’t let him visit because he had urged Eudora, in the interest of her pocketbook, to write pornography. She lived for a while in San Francisco, traveled throughout Europe, was twice a Guggenheim fellow, lectured at Cambridge, was a visiting writer at Oxford, received the French Legion of Honor and 39 honorary degrees. She loved to party, she drank lots of Bourbon, and when, as we say in the South, ‘she was overserved,’ she told outrageous stories.  She adored her brothers and their families, and, perhaps most telling of all, the friends of her youth were the friends of her old age

Her life was full and, though she would not like to hear this:  It was also glamorous.  But her life was not without struggle, disappointments in love, and loss.  And now I am going to tell you about one of them.

Returning to Jackson from New York, she found her 52-year-old father hospitalized and near death.  As she wrote, “There was a desperate last decision to try a blood transfusion.  How much was known about the compatibility of blood types then or about the procedure itself I’m unable to say. All I know is that there was no question in my mother’s mind as to who the donor was to be”: Chestina and Christian lay side by side on cots with a tube running from her arm to his.  In Eudora’s account, “The doctor made a disparaging sound with his lips, the kind a woman knitting makes when she drops a stitch.  What the doctor meant was that my father had died.  . . . My mother never recovered emotionally.  Though she lived for over thirty years more, and suffered other bitter losses, she never stopped blaming herself” (OWB, qtd. Marrs 36). 

Thereafter, there was no chance that Eudora would ever live in any other city permanently.  Still she continued to travel and lecture extensively, worked for the WPA and at other odd jobs, and between 1942 and 1955, published two collections of short stories, four novels and a play. In 1966, her mother and Eudora’s only surviving brother died within the same week.  Her mother’s last 15 years had been difficult and, for her daughter, demanding.

Eudora was 57 and about to enter into the greatest love affair of her life. 

Readers are always curious about the sex lives of spinster-writers, often more curious about what they haven’t done than what they have done.  A friend told me about an Emily Dickinson chat room in which a high school student had noted:  “You mean Dickinson never had sex?  Bummer.”  I don’t know whether Eudora ever had sex. Or whether Emily did.  I’m pretty sure Jane Austen never did.

Eudora’s first love was John Robinson, whom she met in high school, traveled with to Mexico, moved to San Francisco to be near, and throughout her life corresponded with.  It was a relationship that on his part was often uncertain and troubled.  Still, there was no doubt they were in love and, at least in letters, playfully amorous, but John Robinson was a homosexual.  And that, once acknowledged, was that.

Her second and far more life-sustaining love was the detective writer Ross MacDonald, whose real name was Kenneth Millar.  A huge reader of mysteries, Eudora had written him an admiring letter and he had responded in kind. Then in 1970, when Eudora and Alan Tate were sharing a cab in New York, Tate told her Ken was also in the city staying at the Algonquin.  In fact, his room was next to hers.  Their relationship began in what seemed a magical weekend of parties, long walks and deep discussion.  Ken was married—though unhappily— to another writer of mysteries, Margaret Millar.  From many accounts, she was a bad-tempered, battering and screamingly abusive woman, and she was extremely jealous of Eudora, even when her husband was slipping deeper and deeper into Alzheimer forgetfulness and disability. When he was unimpaired, Eudora and Ken corresponded lovingly and faithfully for a decade, wrote forwards to one another’s books, and met in Jackson and elsewhere. His death in 1983 was very difficult for her, though she was surrounded by their mutual friends who approached Eudora as though she were his widow. 

And were they intimate?   Reynolds Price reports that Ken once confided in him:  “You love her as a friend.  I love her as a woman.”

Overtime, she became the figure known to younger writers and locally as ‘Miss Eudora,’ a woman so loved that when she backed her 1975 Oldsmobile out the garage with a Dukakis sticker on the bumper, Republicans of Jackson trembled. 

Eudora’s final years were hard on her physically and mentally. She suffered terribly from arthritis and was hospitalized twice.  In stature, the woman who had once been 5’10’ was now barely 5’5”, but her home was full of friends and well wishers.  She was a frequent dinner guest and, despite a gradual and dispiriting loss of memory, still a wonderful story teller. In 1998, she learned that her fiction and nonfiction were to be published in two volumes by the Library of America, the only living writer to be so honored. As one of her friends remarked she was still a genteel Southern lady who gave you ice tea and sandwiches.  And  she was still a genius.

She died in 2001, age 92, in her home on Pinehurst Street in the bedroom from which she had composed the stories and novels of that vanishing and conflicted quadrant of America. She lay in state in the capitol building whose halls she used to skate through in her childhood on her way to the library.

Trains are often the scenes of much drama in Eudora’s fiction.  I thought about taking a train to Jackson when she died, stepping off on the dusty platform where chickens would be scattering about, pecking at Queen Ann’s Lace or Chicory.  But no.  That was too romantic and the train ride so long I might miss the funeral.  Of course, an airplane ride would never do.  It had to be a train.  There had to be chickens.

But I haven’t given up.  Today, though Eudora wouldn’t have approved, every room in the house on Pinehurst Street is air-conditioned, so when the Novel Club of Cleveland takes its first field trip as a group to visit the Welty shrine, we will go in comfort, even in heat-killing August.   LFM


Addendum: A Eudora Garden planted with the flowers and trees named in The Golden Apples

Chestina Welty encouraged her daughter, not just in her reading and in her writing.  She also taught her to garden, and Eudora was an ardent student.  You could plant a garden right out of the pages of The Golden Apples, much as people create gardens from Shakespeare.  In your Eudora’s garden, for trees, you would plant hackberry, chokeberry, chinaberry, blackberry, sweet gum, magnolia, and the ubiquitous crepe myrtle, white and red, “hung up in honeysuckle,” flowering just below the moon.  Your flowers would be zinnias, sweet peas, hyacinths, salvia, maman cochet roses, four-o’clocks, periwinkle, moon vine, amaryllis, princess feather, snow-on-the-mountain, and these lilies:  candlestick lilies, apostle lilies, and surprise lilies.  (Don’t plant a night-blooming Cereus, though. “Tomorrow It’ll look like a wrung chicken’s neck.”) Once you are done planting, and everything is blooming and sweet-smelling, you can sit in your Eudora garden and listen for the sounds of Miss Eckhart playing Fur Elise in the empty house next door. 


Works Cited
Primary work:
Welty, Eudora. The Golden Apples. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1949

Secondary work
Marrs, Suzanne. Eudora Welty: a Biography. New York: Houghton Miffen Harcourt, 2005.

Mudd, Roger. “A Shrine to Sourthern Literature, Slightly Frayed.” NYTimes,  May 4 2006

Welty, Eudora. One Writers Beginnings. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1983




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Eudora Welty