Originally opposed to the idea of a biography, toward the end of her life Welty gave Suzanne Marrs, her best friend for 18 years, permission to write my own account of her life. Marrs, who had already written two works on the author’s lifeOne Writer’s Imagination: The Fiction of Eudora Welty and The Welty Collectionhad access to most of Welty’s papers (some have been sealed to preserve the privacy of family members) and Welty’s inner circle of family and friends. Currently a professor of English at Millsaps College in Jackson, Miss., Welty’s birthplace and home base, Marrs is to be commended for her impeccable research into this sheltered and daring existence; her biography is likely to become the touchstone for all scholarly discussion of Welty’s work and life.
The image many readers will have of Welty, who was much beloved during her lifetime (1909-2001), comes from interviews with Dick Cavett, Diane Sawyer, Charles Kuralt and others, or from literary events like the Southern Literary Festival where Welty, who was fond of her native region of the South, celebrated various milestones. While destroying the image of Welty as provincial, Marrs’s Eudora Welty: A Biography re-enforces the image of Welty as a proud Southerner who influenced many other Southern writers.
By local standards, the Weltys were affluent. Chris Welty, Eudora’s father, joined the newly established Lamar Life Insurance Company during a time when Jackson was booming. The Weltys were able to build their first home within two blocks of the state capitol. Welty’s childhood was well documented with photographs taken by her father and placed in albums by her mother, who wrote anecdotal captions. Eudora’s parents had lost an earlier child and were very protective of their daughter. There were books in every room of the house, and Chessie, Welty’s mother, read to her any time of day. Welty fell in love with words as a child and began writing during high school.
Despite her affection for her native Mississippi, Welty attended college at the University of Wisconsin, in Madison, and then moved to New York. Filled with conflicting desires to be both a part of the bigger world and to fulfill familial duties, Welty struggled with the news, less than six months after her move to New York, that her father was dying. Watching him die, and watching her mother experience her own inability to save him, the young woman began to find her voice amid the love, grief, separation and loss that she felt and witnessed. Almost 50 years later, she wrote, I never doubted...that imagining yourself into other people’s lives is exactly what writing fiction is.
Shortly thereafter, Welty returned to the South and settled into a routine of caring for her mother and writing. Welty’s responsibilities as her mother’s caregiver bound her to Mississippi at a time of turmoil associated with the civil rights movement. Always liberal politically, she supported candidates who believed in equal rights. Yearning to be more vocal, she often felt silenced by the need to ensure her mother’s privacy and health care.
Yet she was always connected to the larger world. Robert Penn Warren, Cleanth Brooks and Katherine Anne Porter were early supporters of Welty’s fiction, offering encouragement, help with publication, introductions and letters of recommendation. And just as her literary elders (including William Faulkner) served as her mentors, she in turn gave her time to younger writers, including Reynolds Price, Willie Morris, Barry Hannah, James Whitehead, Ellen Gilchrist and Richard Ford.
Once Welty’s literary reputation was established, accolades and awards followed, including a Guggenheim, election to the National Institute of Arts and Letters, a Howells Medal from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Gold Medal for Fiction, the National Medal for the Arts and a Pulitzer Prize. Over the course of her lifetime, she received almost 40 honorary degrees. Her path would cross with many of the country’s best-known writers, critics and publishers. Her own remarkable oeuvre includes novels, novellas, essays, poetry and short stories.
But literary reputations have a tendency to wax and wane. Eudora Welty: A Biography is cause to reread Welty’s fiction, with an eye toward the ways in which Welty influenced Southern writing and the use of the first-person narrator. We might also wish to review what Welty had to say about racism and the relationships between blacks and whites in light of Mississippi’s successful efforts to right decades-old injustices. Toni Morrison once commented on Welty’s willingness to write about black people in a way that few white men have ever been able to write. It’s not patronizing, not romanticizingit’s the way they should be written about.