Saturday, August 13, 2005


By Suzanne Marrs

Harcourt, $27.95,

652 pages, illus.

In her lifetime Eudora Welty knew celebrity. In addition to her Pulitzer Prize for “The Optimist’s Daughter” (1973), she was a recipient of the National Medal of Literature, the Medal of Freedom, nearly 40 honorary degrees and (in 1996) the French Legion d’Honneur, which was presented to the 87-year-old writer at the House Chamber of the Old Capitol in Jackson, Miss., the city in which she was born.

By any measure, Welty lived to enjoy a consummately successful literary life. This, combined with the fact that her childhood was happy (if sheltered) leaves little drama for a biographer to pick over. Moreover, Welty herself wrote the story of her life in the well received autobiography “One Writer’s Beginnings” (1984), causing one to wonder what a biography of this extraordinary writer’s seemingly ordinary, though acclaimed, life could possibly reveal.

There is no doubt that Welty was her own best historian, and Suzanne Marrs, who first earned the friendship of the author before embarking on this authorized biography, makes ample use of the writer’s letters and recollections about the significant people and events in her life. In the pacing and precision of this fine book, one often hears the tones and rhythms that made Welty’s fiction stand apart.

Welty was sensitive to the language of storytelling, and in addition to closely looking at much of Welty’s oeuvre, which included four collections of stories, five novels, two collections of photographs, three works of nonfiction and one children’s book, the biographer pauses to let the author speak for herself about writing, as she did in a lecture delivered at Smith College in 1962. Of the highly successful speech called “Words into Fiction,” Ms. Marrs writes:

“At a key moment in the lecture, Eudora described a childhood visit to Mammoth Cave in Kentucky, where she waited in complete darkness, apprehensive about what was to come, when suddenly ‘a light was struck. And we stood in a prism. The chamber was bathed in color, and there was nothing else, we and our guide alike were blotted out by radiance.’ This experience, she told her audience, was a metaphor for the act of writing. ‘Without the act of human understanding — and it is a double act through which we make sense to each other — experience is the worst kind of emptiness; it is obliteration, black or prismatic, as meaningless as was indeed that loveless cave. Before there is meaning, there has to occur some personal act of vision. And it is this that is continuously projected as the novelist writes, and again as we, each to ourselves, read.”

Welty’s life itself was not without love. The daughter of an insurance executive from Ohio and a mother from West Virginia, she had two younger brothers, Edward and Walter, with whom she was very close. Publishing several stories in children’s magazines in her teens, she went on to attend college at Mississippi State College for Women, the University of Wisconsin and Columbia University, before returning to Jackson when her father died in 1931.

In “Eudora Welty: A Biography,” Ms. Marrs chronicles the writer’s passage from her close-knit Southern family and friends to becoming a worldly writer. One is struck by many things in this book but two facts stand out: Eudora Welty traveled widely and had a surpassing knack for forging lasting friendships, including Reynolds Price, Katherine Ann Porter and Diarmuid Russell, among many others. The subject of her relationships with men is somewhat strained by the author’s determination to debunk and surpass Ann Waldron’s unauthorized biography “Eudora,” a feat she would have accomplished even without considering the important, though unconsummated romances in the writer’s life with fellow writer Kenneth Millar and John Robinson, a friend of many years who most likely was homosexual.

From these friends we get the best look at Welty’s character, perspectives that place her far from the image of the sheltered old maid that many have been too quick to accept as the summation of her life.

Ms. Marrs writes, “She was not, as Reynolds Price astutely comments, ‘the mild, sonorous, affirmative kind of artist whom America loves to clasp to its bosom,’ but was instead a writer with ‘a granite core in every tale: as complete and unassailable an image of human relations as any in our art, tragic of necessity but also comic.’”

And so the biographer proceeds offering glimpses of Welty’s most memorable stories, “Lily Daw and the Three Ladies,” in which the retarded Lily Daw is protected from an abusive father only to be subjected to a different kind of tyranny from her protectors, “Powerhouse,” the story of a black jazz musician performing in the South and the memorably comic “Why I Live at the P.O.”

These passages regarding Welty’s fiction make one yearn for the fiction itself, to have it stand alone without the intrusion into the artist’s life. But as long as there are biographies that must be written, Ms. Marrs’ gentle, and conscientious telling is an excellent resource. Away from the issue of whether there were romances in Eudora Welty’s life or not, whether the author was homely or not — Katherine Ann Porter weighs in on this subject in a startling way — and how the author considered the race problems of her state, World War II and its aftermath, this book is testimony to a life well lived. And it is a treat to know how Eudora Welty appreciated Mae West and George Solti, and it is even a bigger treat to be reminded what writers from William Faulkner to Mary Lee Settle thought of her. In the end, it is perhaps Settle’s words that one remembers:

“The short story may be an American invention, but the tale is world-wide, as ancient as myth told by the fire at night; quiet, seductive, portentous, amoral. It is in this classic company that Eudora Welty takes her rightful place, with the ironic tenderness of Chekhov, the almost feral edge of Maupassant, the ominousness of Poe and Bierce, the lacy strength of Henry Green. She is probably the finest Mozartian stylist writing in the English language in this century.”

After reading this worthy book, much of the writer’s life may remain a mystery as it should. As for the prizes, however, there is no mystery.

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