- - Monday, August 3, 2015

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

MEANWHILE THERE ARE LETTERS: THE CORRESPONDENCE OF EUDORA WELTY AND ROSS MACDONALD

Edited by Suzanne Marrs and Tom Nolan

Arcade Publishing, $35, 538 pages, illustrated

This captivating collection of letters between two very different writers is old-fashioned in the best sense of the term. It is, on one level, a literary correspondence between two very different writers who nonetheless shared tastes, not only in books, but in politics, current events and culture. But there is not just a meeting of minds here, but of hearts also, two very lonely and needy ones. Needy has unfortunately too often become a pejorative term, signifying a clinging, overly demanding quality. When I use the word here, however, I mean it in its purest sense, a yearning and desire, a dignified, necessary hunger for intimacy. So, in the autumn of their lives, Eudora Welty and Kenneth Millar, who wrote under the name of Ross Macdonald, found their soul mates and began a relationship that became the most significant in each of their lives, its chastity and decorum framing but in no way diminishing its ardor and depth.

Welty and Macdonald each lived in an emotional void when they established this remarkable connection. He had married young, to another mystery writer, Margaret Millar, but his letters show that although there was still respect and devotion both as writers and as spouses, not only was all passion spent, but they lived separate emotional lives. He took his vow “till death do us part” very seriously, though, despite occasional desire to escape and capture something superior. Welty was a woman of great integrity and certainly not the stuff homewreckers are made of, no matter how she yearned for the satisfactions of true union with another.

Hobbled by a genteel Mississippi family and world to which she both did and did not belong, and trapped in a body which was unlikely, especially in youth, to attract suitors, her romantic life had been a series of disappointments. (On a personal note, I would like to say that when I met her in her early 70s, despite her odd appearance, she was possessed not only of an obvious personal charm and natural grace but of a palpable sense of being in Chaucer’s marvelous phrase, her “owene woman, wel at ese.”) A handsome man himself, Macdonald I'd suspect responded to this aspect when he met her as well as to the qualities of heart, soul and mind she possessed in such abundance. The book quotes him describing her in 1974: “Pathos, gentleness, courage, feminine fluorescence and iron discipline, the blessed light at the windows.”

The choice of editors for this book could not have been better. Suzanne Marrs, who lives in Welty’s hometown of Jackson, Miss., has written extensively about her, and edited a previous collection of her correspondence with another writer, William Maxwell, while Tom Nolan wrote an award-winning biography of Macdonald. Their informative, useful notes and insightful introduction show not only the depth of their knowledge of these writers’ lives and oeuvres, but also just how attuned they are to both. Their one-sentence summary of the collection is perfect:

“Those letters reveal the loving friendship of two writers, a single woman in Mississippi and a married man in California, whose unique bond at once observed the proprieties and expanded the boundaries of how close two kindred, creative people, might become through thought, will and the written word.”

Though their relationship was primarily epistolary, Welty and Macdonald did meet on a few occasions. Perhaps the most moving of these was the last, when, after not seeing him for five years, “you are in my thoughts every day and dear to my heart,” Welty felt impelled to fly to his home in Santa Barbara to make an effort to break through the increasing impediment of his advancing Alzheimer’s. The editor’s quote her typically scrupulous yet immensely moving description: “The loss of abstract thought and all the wonderful workings of his mind was terrible, but even the non-sequitur of his thinking didn’t keep his character from its firmness and kindheartedness.” Macdonald’s letter-writing days were past, but the connection forged in their dozen years of correspondence had been well and truly established.

I feel certain that if Welty and Macdonald had met and corresponded in the age of emails, or for that matter, fax, they would have embraced it as a way of being even closer to one another than good old-fashioned snail mail allowed. Given the passion — yes, that’s not too strong a word for all the dedicatedly chaste quality of their relationship — between them, I believe they would have cherished the immediacy of written contact. You can often sense them chafing against the frustration of waiting for replies; as the editors so aptly put it: “Their letters, it seems to us, constitute a triumph over time and distance.” Contra Marshall McLuhan, I am a firm believer in the message rather than the medium being determinative, and surely this pair would have written in their indelibly unique style in faxes and emails just as they did in these lovely stamped, addressed letters.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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