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In this definitive and ...
In this definitive and authoritative account, Suzanne Marrs restores Welty's story to human proportions, tracing Welty's life from her roots in Jackson, Mississippi, to her rise to international stature. Making generous use of Welty's correspondence-particularly with contemporaries and admirers, including Katherine Anne Porter, E. M. Forster, and Elizabeth Bowen-Marrs has provided a fitting and fascinating tribute to one of the finest writers of the twentieth century.
Shelter and Beyond
On April 13, 1909, Eudora Alice Welty was born to Christian Webb and Chestina Andrews Welty. The young couple had been living in Jackson, Mississippi, since their marriage five years earlier. He had come from Ohio, she from West Virginia; they had met when Chris, as he was known, worked one summer at a logging camp near her home. Courtship had led to love, and they had chosen to begin their married life in Mississippi's rapidly growing capital city; Jackson's population had been slightly less than eight thousand in 1900, but by 1910 it would have more than tripled. In this booming town, the Weltys prospered: In 1906 Chris joined the newly established Lamar Life Insurance Company as its cashier, becoming the assistant secretary by year's end, and in 1908 the couple built their first house, on North Congress Street. Though Chestina, or Chessie as her husband called her, kept a cow and chickens in the backyard, the Weltys lived within six blocks of Chris's office and of the downtown theaters, department stores, and grocers; within two blocks of the state capitol; and within three blocks of Galloway Methodist Church, to which they belonged. They also lived across the street from a grammar school and within sight of a cemetery. Their first child, a son born in 1906, lay in that cemetery, having died at the age of fifteen months. This loss had been devastating, but now the birth of a daughter was cause for both great rejoicing and great resolve. Chris and Chessie would be protective parents indeed.
An ardent amateur photographer as well as an excited new father, Chris constantly snapped pictures of his daughter-as a babe in her mother's arms; in a specially ordered bonnet; on her first Christmas; on a trip to West Virginia and Ohio the summer after her birth; at home, attempting her first steps; with a miniature baby carriage and doll; in the yard with her mother's chickens; in a fine dress for her three-year-old birthday party. Chestina gathered these pictures and many others into an album and wrote captions for the photos; below a picture of Chris and Eudora she wrote "a proud Daddy," and below one of herself with the baby, she added "and mother too." From the first, Eudora Welty was reared in an atmosphere of abundant parental love.1
She was also reared in a book-filled environment. By the time she was two or three years old, Eudora knew, as she wrote in her autobiography, that "any room in our house, at any time of day, was there to read in, or to be read to. My mother read to me. She'd read to me in the big bedroom in the mornings, when we were in her rocker together, which ticked in rhythm as we rocked, as though we had a cricket accompanying the story. She'd read to me in the diningroom on winter afternoons in front of the coal fire, with our cuckoo clock ending the story with 'Cuckoo,' and at night when I'd got in my own bed. I must have given her no peace. Sometimes she read to me in the kitchen while she sat churning, and the churning sobbed along with any story."2 From the start, Eudora loved the written word, and her keen ear for language and inflection began to develop long before she could read for herself. After she became a reader on her own, Eudora followed a pattern set by her mother and would often have several books underway, one for each of the various rooms in her house.
Having spent three years as an only child, Eudora might have felt displaced when her brothers, Edward Jefferson Welty and Walter Andrews Welty, were born in 1912 and 1915. But though Chris took a photo of Eudora pouting behind Chessie and the newly arrived Edward, Chessie's photo caption noted that her daughter was "not as sorry as she looks." Indeed, she was not. She and Edward proved kindred spirts from the start: "I can't think I had much of a sense of humor as long as I remained the only child. When my brother Edward came along after I was three, we both became comics, making each other laugh. We set each other off, as we did for life, from the minute he learned to talk. A sense of the absurd was communicated between us probably before that." Though Walter even as an infant proved more serious than his older siblings, his sister doted on him and sought to entertain him: Once, she reported, "I snatched up his baby bathtub and got behind it and danced for him, to hear him really crow. On the pink bottom of his tub I'd drawn a face with crayons, and all he could see of anybody's being there was my legs prancing under it." And of course Eudora's parents were proud of the new additions to their family. When the city of Jackson held a baby parade in 1916, the Jackson Clarion-Ledger reported that Christian Welty participated with three-and-a-half-year-old Edward, who was on a velocipede-or tricycle, as we know it today-and that Chestina Welty strolled with six-month-old Walter in his baby carriage decorated with roses.3
The closeness of family life was something Eudora treasured. In One Writer's Beginnings, she recalled hearing her parents perform their own version of Franz Lehar's "The Merry Widow Waltz" as she buttoned her shoes in the morning: "They would begin whistling back and forth to each other up and down the stairwell. My father would whistle his phrase, my mother would try to whistle, then hum hers back. It was their duet. I drew my buttonhook in and out and listened to it-I knew it was 'The Merry Widow.' The difference was, their song almost floated with laughter: how different from the record, which growled from the beginning, as if the Victrola were only slowly being wound up." And she loved to lie in bed listening to her parents across the room talk or read to each other: "I don't remember that any secrets were revealed to me, nor do I remember any avid curiosity on my part to learn something I wasn't supposed to-perhaps I was too young to know what to listen for. But I was present in the room with the chief secret there was-the two of them, father and mother, sitting there as one."4 The strength of her parents' union betokened a larger union of parents and children. Family activities for the Weltys were constant. They went for early-morning swims, they attended lectures, concerts, and plays brought by the Circuit Chautauqua to Poindexter Park, they looked at the stars through Chris's telescope, they flew homemade kites in pastures outside of town, they consulted the dictionary to determine the meaning of words that had baffled one of them during dinner conversation, and they journeyed to Ohio and West Virginia to visit grandparents, uncles, and cousins. Each summer mother and children also journeyed about fifteen miles from Jackson and spent several weeks trying to escape the city heat. Their destination was a small resort called Hubbard's Wells, a place where healthful waters could be drunk, where paper lanterns hung from the trees, and where local pianist Eddie Stiles provided live entertainment some evenings. Chris joined his family on weekends.
Back home in Jackson, the Welty children were part of a lively neighborhood. They joined other children in riding velocipedes, and eventually, bicycles (Eudora was proud to own a "Princess" bicycle). With friends they played hopscotch and jacks, jumped rope, and roller-skated. At twilight they pulled their "choo-choo boats" made from shoe boxes, with holes cut out in the shape of the moon and stars and with lighted candles inside. And they shared rides in pony carts.
Eudora and her friends loved strolling to the movies.
Setting out in the early summer afternoon on foot, by way of Smith Park to Capitol Street and down it, passing the Pythian Castle with its hot stone breath, through the one spot of shade beneath Mrs. Black's awning, crossing Town Creek-then visible and uncontained-we went carrying parasols over our heads and little crocheted bags over our wrists containing the ten or fifteen cents for the ticket (with a nickel or dime further for McIntyre's Drug Store after the show), and we had our choice-the Majestic or the Istrione. At the Majestic we could sit in a box-always empty, because airless as a bureau drawer; at the Istrione, which was said to occupy the site of an old livery stable, we might see Alice Brady in "Drums of Jeopardy" and at the same time have a rat run over our feet. As far as I recall, there was no movie we were not allowed to see, until we got old enough not to see "The Shiek."
The little girls, Eudora also recalled, spent entire summer days making "batteries" of paper dolls and having them perform "exciting scenes we thought up."5 The future story writer was at an early age actively engaging her imagination.
Other activities were for children and adults alike. In Smith Park, neighborhood families picnicked or attended evening band concerts together. And parents, Chris and Chessie included, often organized more far-flung expeditions for the children, traveling to the clay banks on the Terry road or to the military park in Vicksburg. When a family whom Chessie saw as disreputable established residence on Congress Street, she sought to deny her children their company, but her daughter was eager to transcend class boundaries. In an early and never-published novella, Courtney, a character clearly based upon Eudora, longs to play with the Hockin children, whose family has rented an apartment across the street. Her mother discourages this practice: "I can't understand how those Hockins could have gotten into this neighborhood. They are as common as they can be. Courtney, I would rather you didn't play with them so much, dear." The Hockins in this story are deemed objectionable not because of lineage or poverty but because they are loud, indecorous, impolite, even unbathed. The mother in Eudora's 1942 story "The Winds" makes class distinctions based on similar criteria, even as her daughter Josie looks up to the disreputable Cornella. Such aspects of this story, Eudora told her agent Diarmuid Russell, "were little fragments out of my own life and what I sent you is the first story I've tried directly attempting to remember exact real sensations."6
Copyright © 2005 by Suzanne Marrs
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Posted September 21, 2007