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"As you have seen, I am a writer who came of a sheltered life. A sheltered life can be a daring life as well. For all serious daring starts from within."
Eudora Welty, One Writer's Beginnings
By all rights, Eudora Welty should have been miserable every minute of the day when she was growing up.
"The thing you have to understand about Eudora is that she was not a belle," said a man a few years younger than Eudora who grew up in Jackson. "She was not pretty, and that is very important." He talked about this a little more. "Oh, she had friends who were boysnot boyfriendsbut one of them, Frank Lyell, was such a sissy that even his own brother made fun of him."
"It wasn't that Eudora was plain," said a woman who had grown up in Jackson and now lives in Boston. "She was ugly to the point of being grotesque. In the South, that was tantamount to being an old maid. You could either teach school, be a librarian, or teach music, or, if you were far out, teach dancing. That's the way life was then." She added, not especially warmly, "At least Eudora found her feet."
"I was pretty," said one former Jackson belle, now in her eighties, "so our paths didn't cross much. She didn't go to dances or up to the Delta." (The Mississippi Delta had a reputation for raciness. Dances there started at eleven o'clock at night and lasted until breakfast.) "Oh, Eudora had beautiful blue eyes, and beautiful hands," she added. "But she never stood up straight, and she hunched over to hide her height."
A man a few years older than Eudora who was still living in Jackson said he had known who Eudora was, although she had been several classes behind him in high school. "She was not good-looking," he said. He was a nice southern gentleman, uncomfortable with saying something that was not strictly complimentary about a woman, and he shifted in his chair before he blurted out, "That's the only reason I knew who she wasbecause she was...well, different-looking."
"They would be checking off the girls' names who had escorts for a class party or something, and Eudora's name would not be checked off," recalled Sarah Gordon Hicks, a high school classmate. "They would say to my husband, Graham Hicks, 'Would you go pick up Eudora?' And he'd be glad to. He and Bill Wells looked after her. Everybody was glad to. She was not pretty, but everybody loved her. They thought the world of her."
Eudora's personality triumphed over her looks even when she was a teenager. As another woman classmate of Eudora's in high school said, "I wouldn't call her pretty, but Eudora was fun. We were all crazy about her. Everybody liked her. I don't remember her having dates with anyone, but a lot of us were just going out with a crowd."
Eudora was elected "Best All Round Girl" by the members of her senior class in high schoola title not given to an unpopular girl. In fact, all her life most people who met her would say something like this: "The first time I saw her, I thought she was the ugliest person I'd ever seen. Five minutes after I started talking to her, I thought she was the most wonderful person I'd ever known." Her looks mattered to people who were not close to her. People who knew her, even in high school, liked her and forgot her looks.
Jackson was a small town on the verge of growth in the early 1920s. Its population of 22,817 was about to double during the decade, and it would soon surpass Meridian as the largest city in the state. About 13,000 of its residents were white, the rest black, and this small white society was in a sense closed. Almost everybody in town was a native southerner. Therefore, if Eudora's looks made her remarkable when she was growing up in Jackson, her origins also almost made her an outsider. Both her parents had grown up outside the South, her father in Ohio, her mother in West Virginia, which had separated from Virginia because its citizens objected to secession.
"I could never talk about the old family home that was burned during the Civil War," Eudora once said. But then she said another time that because her mother was from West Virginia and her father from Ohio and they held views about the world that sometimes differed from those of the parents of her friends, she learned early on that there wasn't just one side that was right.
There's an old way of telling news in the South, rather like a folk version of "I have good news and bad news for you": "It's a pity that ..., but it's a blessing ..." The pity for Eudora Welty the teenager was that she was not pretty, that she was tall, and that her parents were not from the South. The blessing was that she was smart, that she was nice, and that her father was a prominent, well-liked citizen in town. Christian Welty had joined the Lamar Life Insurance Company soon after he and his wife, Chestina, arrived in Jackson in 1904. He rose steadily in its ranks until, when Eudora was in high school, he was vice president and general manager.
Eudora entered Central High School in 1921, when she was thirteen years old, after spending seven years at Davis School (named, of course, for Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy). She and her classmates had stayed in the same classroom for seven gradesnobody moved aroundand they knew each other quite well by the time they all went to Central High. (All her life Eudora could remember all the new people who had come to Davis School while she was there. The class's first Yankee arrived from Indiana when she was in the fourth grade and said "cor-dju-roy," while Mississippi children said "cor-du-roy."
Jackson had always provided only eleven grades of school, with freshmen entering high school in the eighth grade. The powers that be decided to add a twelfth grade in 1925, the year that Eudora would finish the eleventh grade, so her class would have to remain an extra year. That meant there would be no graduation, no valedictorian, no senior pictures in the yearbook in 1925. To prevent this, the administration selected some of the seventh-graders from all the grammar schools to take a little extra work each year at Central and accomplish four years' work in three. Eudora, who had been an outstanding student at Davis School, was of course selected.
By all accounts, Eudora seems to have enjoyed high school. She had plenty of friends who were boys, if not boyfriends. "They were all devoted to her," said a girl in her class. "They were all intellectual. She could talk to them."
These young men were brainy and funny and astonishingly literary, considering the time and the place; they liked her and remained her friends for life. One was Nash Burger, a classmate who became an editor at the New York Times Book Review, and another was Ralph Hilton, whom she admired because he wrote sports news from Central High for the Jackson Daily News. She gave Hilton two chapters of an untitled work and seven thousand words of notes and asked his opinion. He found the material years later, after he had retired from a diplomatic career and was running a newspaper at Hilton Head, South Carolina, and sent it to the Mississippi State Archives, where her other papers were stored.
Nash had trouble with Latin, especially Virgil. Eudora, who loved Latin, often helped him before class with his translations. She was often so good in Latin that she could read something else during class. Half a century after she finished high school, she confessed that she fell in love with the work of the humorist S. J. Perelman in Cicero class, while the other students were translating "How long, O Catiline, must we endure your orations?" An entire issue of Judge magazine was filled with Perelman's drawings and writings, and she hid it in her lap.
Eudora was a member of the Girgil Club, which was featured in the Quadruplane, the high school annual. Obviously a creation of someone's imagination (probably Eudora's), the Girgil Club had for a motto "Listen, cram and be careful,/For the eighth period you may read," and its colors were black and blue. The club book was the Aeneid.
When Eudora had to write a book report for English class, she always chose one of the "better books"something by Jane Austen or Walter Scott, recalled Nash Burger, while he tended to report on Zane Grey and Edgar Rice Burroughs. Once he gave an oral report on a nonexistent book by an imaginary author, Milton C. Milton (the class had just read "L'Allegro" and "Il Penseroso"), complete with plot summary, characters, and setting, all fabricated. Eudora, who knew what he was doing, raised her hand and said that she would like to read that book. Would Nash bring it to school? Nash promised he would. Every day for several days Eudora repeated her public request, to no avail.
Eudora, Nash, and Ralph Hilton all wanted to be writers and haunted the local library, waiting for the appearance of the annual volumes of Best Short Stories so they could see which authors had won and why. When they had to write their own stories in English class, Eudora's were "invariably smooth, beautifully and painstakingly written." Eudora also wrote for Tiger Talk, the school paper (Bill Wells, her occasional escort, was the editor), and in her senior year was art editor of the yearbook, the Quadruplane, for which she did a drawing of an Olympian athlete.
When construction crews began work on enlarging the Central High building, Eudora wrote an editorial for the school newspaper wondering what would happen to the wisteria vines and noting that the pupils studied while bricks and timbers crashed about them. "Very sentimental," she later said. She also wrote an essay for the Quadruplane, "Youth and Age," in which the New Building talks to the Old Building, saying, "It may be pleasant to be old, but I love being New and Young. I adore it."
The theme for the Quadruplane in 1925 was the Greek myths, and those elected to the Olympic Council (of outstanding seniors) were given Greek names. Eudora was called not only Irene, "Best All Round Girl," but Demeter, "Most Dependable." Under her picture was the legend "Of talents and good things she owns such a store,/You think where they come from there'd never be more."
Graduation brought a flurry of parties for every girl in the senior class"bridge parties, seated teas (where a plate was served with frozen salad or chicken salad), luncheons, teas (olive and pecan sandwiches, cheese straws, beaten biscuits and ham, salted almonds, fudge cake, and mints), buffet suppers, and dinner parties." Many of these parties took place at Shadow Lawn, Anita Perkins Pate's home on the Terry Road, where she provided catered meals that were the height of fashion in Jackson. A feature of the garden at Shadow Lawn was the Cofrana rosebush, planted in 1874 and fifteen feet tall by 1926.
Eudora was a guest at what the local newspaper called in its cozy, hometown voice "a merry party of high school girls" who "enjoyed a Slumber Party' in the home of Miss Doris Comly." After a "delicious" supper, the girls played games and sang until midnight, when they had a "feast" and told ghost stories. "On Saturday morning before returning to their homes, the party had pictures taken so that they all might keep a souvenir of the happy party."