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For over fifty years, Eudora Welty and William Maxwell, two of our most admired writers, penned letters to each other. They shared their worries about work and family, literary opinions and scuttlebutt, moments of despair and hilarity. Living half a continent apart, their friendship was nourished and maintained by their correspondence.
What There Is to Say We Have Said bears witness to Welty and Maxwell’s editorial relationships—both in his capacity as New Yorker editor ...
For over fifty years, Eudora Welty and William Maxwell, two of our most admired writers, penned letters to each other. They shared their worries about work and family, literary opinions and scuttlebutt, moments of despair and hilarity. Living half a continent apart, their friendship was nourished and maintained by their correspondence.
What There Is to Say We Have Said bears witness to Welty and Maxwell’s editorial relationships—both in his capacity as New Yorker editor and in their collegial back-andforth on their work. It’s also a chronicle of the literary world of the time; read talk of James Thurber, William Shawn, Katherine Anne Porter, J. D. Salinger, Isak Dinesen, William Faulkner, John Updike, Virginia Woolf, Walker Percy, Ford Madox Ford, John Cheever, and many more. It is a treasure trove of reading recommendations.
Here, Suzanne Marrs—Welty’s biographer and friend—offers an unprecedented window into two intertwined lives. Through careful collection of more than 300 letters as well as her own insightful introductions, she has created a record of a remarkable friendship and a lyrical homage to the forgotten art of letter writing.
Warm, chatty letters over six decades between a short-story master and herNew Yorker editor.
When they met in 1942, Eudora Welty (1909–2001) had yet to appear in the New Yorker, though William Maxwell (1908–2000) was already an ardent admirer. It took him another nine years to persuade founder Harold Ross, who found Welty's work suspiciously "arty," to publish "The Bride of Innisfallen." The correspondence kicks into high gear with an exchange of letters over that story's galley proofs, revealing Maxwell as a sensitive and respectful editor. Their friendship was by then firmly established and embraced Maxwell's wife Emmy; editor Marrs (English/Millsaps Coll; Eudora Welty,2005, etc.) includes a few of her letters as well. Welty and Maxwell share the pangs of creation—both were painstaking writers who often took a long time to gestate short works—as well as tips about gardening and updates on their families. The Maxwells met Welty's mother and beloved nieces several times; Welty adored the couple's two daughters, whom she saw on her frequent stopovers in New York. The writers exult together as honors are showered on both in later years: Welty garnered a Pulitzer prize forThe Optimist's Daughter, and Maxwell's novellaSo Long, See You Tomorrow in 1980 won the Howells Medal, which Welty had received 25 years earlier for a novella dedicated to the Maxwells (The Ponder Heart). Even as old age, ailments and the deaths of friends and relatives assail them, the tone of their letters is almost always positive and supportive. Indeed, both writers were such thoroughly nice people that readers may occasionally wish for a bit of mean-spirited gossip of the sort that enlivens Virginia Woolf's correspondence. Still, it's inspiring to see a literary friendship apparently untainted by competitiveness or jealousy, though the sameness of tone makes this better for browsing than a cover-to-cover read.
Thoroughly annotated and judiciously selected—a vivid snapshot of 20th-century intellectual life and an informative glimpse of the author-editor relationship, as well a tender portrait of devoted friendship.
"An epistolary feast for literary fans [and] a confidence booster for aspiring writers everywhere. A–"
"If friendship is an art, this volume is its masterpiece."
"A remarkable testimony to friendship, literature, and an abiding love of life...An invitation to draw up a chair and enjoy two good friends as interested in their rose gardens as their writing."
"A vivid picture of twentieth-century intellectual life and a record of a remarkable friendship... Glorious."
"Full of great tidbits about The New Yorker back in the day ... Charming."
—The New Yorker
"A raft of tender, day-to-day details ... Like eavesdroppers on a party line, we’re privy to everything ... In today’s world of texting, Twitter and Facebook, where our empathy for others is often reduced to a ‘like’ button, coming across such a sustained account of a friendship is like shining a flashlight on the cave walls at Lascaux ... How fortunate we are that their kinship endured long enough for them to say everything there was to say."
"Beautifully expressive ... [Marrs] has performed an important service here ... A valuable record of the authors’ writing process ... Maxwell and Welty, of course, loved to write, and writers and readers will be awed to learn of both the macro and the micro."
—Cleveland Plain Dealer
"[Maxwell and Welty’s] love, a source of sustenance and strength between two great writers, is also a bright tonic for the readers of this volume, which affirms Welty’s belief that to read someone’s letters ‘is in some way to admit him to our friendship.’"
—Christian Science Monitor
"These loving and revealing letters guide us back to the fiction of both authors."
—Wall Street Journal
"A valuable portrait of a unique and lasting friendship, and a celebration of a certain kind of joy that is rapidly disappearing—the joy of writing and sending, receiving and reading personal letters."
"This collection of letters takes us into the world of Eudora and William. We get to see how their friendship deepened over time and became something special."
—San Francisco Book Review
"To read What There Is to Say We Have Said is to feel the noise and speed of the present era fall away, to sense the natural world reasserting itself. Time slows, and you arrive in a more pastoral moment."
—The Progressive Reader
"For 50 years, Welty and Maxwell communicated in full detail, with deep and genuine affection, serving up revelations about themselves that give these literary figures a greatly wonderful human dimension . . . This is one of the richest and most riveting collections of famous-people letters to emerge in some time." —Booklist
"Inspiring . . . A vivid snapshot of 20th-century intellectual life and an informative glimpse of the author-editor relationship, as well a tender portrait of devoted friendship."
"The correspondence of this volume [is] gracefully edited and annotated by Welty’s biographer Marrs . . . Both correspondents were blessed with personality-plus, mirrored in these letters."
"How rewarding to become the third person present in the discoveries of life and literature between Eudora Welty and William Maxwell. I have always believed the only ‘knowing’ one can have of a fiction writers is through the fiction itself; but here, in the personal medium of to-and-fro wit and vitality, is to be had further experience of the writer Eudora Welty, whose stories, in particular, have opened my vision of human relations."
"Something truly special happened each time Eudora Welty and William Maxwell wrote a letter to the other. Suzanne Marrs has collected more than 300 of those letters and set them into a time and context. Anyone who relishes and celebrates the magic use of words, storytelling and friendship will treasure the end result forever."
"This book lets us in on the happy fact that two splendid writers, who did not sacrifice humanity to career, were warmly admitted to each other’s lives. Its generosity of tone is such that the readers feels not a trespasser but a guest. Suzanne Marrs’s editing is worthy of a delightful text."
"A complex improvisation carried on for years by two artists for whom nothing in the realm of literature or feeling was remote."
"A literary revelation. Suzanne Marrs’s editing of this rich collection is superlative."
—Roger Mudd, journalist and broadcaster
Letters, reading them and writing them, claimed the rapt attention of Eudora Welty and William Maxwell throughout their adult lives, and books of letters by fellow authors—Lord Byron, Anton Chekhov, Roger Fry, William Faulkner, Robert Louis Stevenson, and H. L . Mencken, for instance—
they found particularly engaging. In 1983, Maxwell collected and edited a book of his friend Sylvia Townsend Warner’s letters, and eight years later Welty included many letters when she coedited The Norton Book of Friendship.
In the introduction to that book, she noted:
All letters, old and new, are the still-existing parts of a life. To read them
now is to be present when some discovery of truth—or perhaps untruth,
some flash of light—is just occurring. It is clamorous with the moment’s
happiness or pain. To come upon a personal truth of a human being
however little known, and now gone forever, is in some way to admit
him to our friendship. What we’ve been told need not be momentous,
but it can be as good as receiving the darting glance from some very
bright eye, still mischievous and mischief-making, arriving from fifty or
a hundred years ago.1
For both Welty and Maxwell, letters provided a way of expanding the range of their friendships. Letters provided a more comprehensive sense of the person who, whether or not that person was someone they had actually known, stood behind the stories, poems, and essays they valued or found interesting.
Although Welty and Maxwell awarded letters a modest place in the hierarchy of literary genres, it was a place of importance to them. So it is not surprising that in 1976, when a second volume of Virginia Woolf’s letters came into print, both Welty and Maxwell, two longtime admirers of Woolf and two of America’s most distinguished fiction writers, separately reviewed the book.
These reviews (by two old friends whose literary opinions rarely diverged)
struck dissonant tones but had a common focus. Welty opened her review by quoting from Woolf’s novel Jacob’s Room: “Life would split asunder without letters.” That statement, Welty went on to suggest, described the role correspondence played not only for Woolf’s characters but also for the writer herself. “A need for intimacy,” Welty asserted, “lies at the very core of Virginia Woolf’s life. Besides the physical, there are other orders of intimacy, other ways to keep life from splitting asunder. Lightly as it may touch on the moment, almost any letter she writes is to some degree an expression of this passion, of which the eventual work of art was The Waves.”2
To Welty, even letters filled with lacerating wit were a way of reaching for connection.
Maxwell did not fully agree with this assessment. Instead of discussing a desire for intimacy in Woolf’s letters, he described a lack of self-assurance:
“Even though Virginia Woolf was, I think, a writer of the first rank, she could not rest secure in the knowledge of her talent; the prevailing tone of the letters written in her maturity is disparagement.” Particularly distasteful to Maxwell was Woolf’s habit of ridiculing others, and he felt that “strangers get off lightly compared to what happens when she is writing about friends.” Though he sought to avoid moral judgments based on material not intended for publication and though he recognized that no friendship is without its prickly moments, Maxwell felt that Woolf could take “pleasure in being cruel.” Still, there were letters of a different sort, and Maxwell particularly lauded one that Welty also admired. In that 1922 letter, Woolf acknowledged her own vulnerability to doubt and sent encouragement to a young, then unpublished Gerald Brenan.3
The Virginia Woolfs who emerged from the Welty and Maxwell reviews were strikingly different people, but undergirding both reviews was a belief that letters should be a way of embracing, supporting, and uniting with friends and that letters communicate most profoundly when they do not mask vulnerabilities. This shared belief is everywhere evident in the letters Eudora Welty and William Maxwell themselves wrote. “Orders of intimacy”
other than the physical are often tragically missing from the lives of characters in their stories and novels. There the powerful need for friendship is typically defined by its lack. Not so in their correspondence.
Welty shared intimate and voluminous exchanges of letters with many friends, including her agent Diarmuid Russell; fiction editor Mary Louise Aswell; childhood friend Frank Lyell; and the two men she loved over the course of her life, John Robinson and Ross Macdonald. Welty and these friends saved the letters they exchanged, and as her friends faced death,
they stipulated that the letters Welty had written be returned to her. Although Welty at one point considered destroying these two-sided correspondences she came to possess, she ultimately willed them to the Mississippi Department of Archives and History.
Maxwell’s correspondence with friends was as extensive and generous as Welty’s. He corresponded with fellow writers such as Frank O’Connor,
Sylvia Townsend Warner, John Updike, John Cheever, and Larry Woiwode.
He allowed his correspondence with Warner and O’Connor to be published.
In the late 1990s, he gave his alma mater, the University of Illinois,
a huge collection of his papers, including many letters from Eudora Welty.
His estate has made his remaining letters from Welty available for this book,
and Maxwell’s letters to her are preserved as digital scans at the Eudora Welty House, a museum in Jackson, Mississippi.4
For more than fifty years, Welty and Maxwell wrote to each other, sharing their worries about work and family, their likes and dislikes, their griefs and joys, their moments of despair and hilarity. Reading their letters admits us into the friendship of these two intellectual, imaginative, and erudite individuals.
We learn that they were great in-takers—at times fascinated, at times appalled by the world about them, but always describing it vividly with deft turns of phrase. Their letters often sparkle with humor, but their humor can also take on an ironic dimension. A generosity of spirit pervades the correspondence but is never saccharine. Although literary friendships are famous for going bad, Welty and Maxwell weathered inevitable moments of discontent. Issues of jealousy, resentment, cruelty, or condescension never threatened their relationship, which began in 1942, deepened over time, and found eloquent expression in their letters. In those letters,
neither engaged in posturing or affectation. Instead, they both achieved the
“triumphant vulnerability” that can result from daring to trust, empathize,
Near the end of her introduction to The Norton Book of Friendship,
Welty asked, “Did friendship between human beings come about in the first place along with—or through—the inspiration of language?” And then she attempted to answer her own question:
It can be safe to say that when we learned to speak to, and listen to,
rather than to strike or be struck by, our fellow human beings, we found
something worth keeping alive, worth the possessing, for the rest of time.
Might it possibly have been the other way round—that the promptings
of friendship guided us into learning to express ourselves, teaching ourselves,
between us, a language to keep it by? Friendship might have
been the first, as well as the best, teacher of communication.6
Friendship and life as a writer, Welty implicitly suggested, can be closely related, and the writer need not make (as distinguished psychologist Howard Gardner believes creative individuals typically do) a Faustian bargain,
opting for an ascetic existence, isolating herself, or exploiting others in the quest for artistic fulfillment. Instead, Welty asserted, friendship and the word can “rise from the same prompting.”7
For Eudora Welty and William Maxwell, the pleasures of friendship and the love of language certainly rose “from the same prompting.” They met in 1942 in New York when both attended a party given by Harper’s Bazaar fiction editor Mary Louise Aswell. For Mr. Maxwell, Miss Welty immediately proved as compelling a storyteller in person as she was in the fiction he wanted to acquire for The New Yorker, where for three days a week he worked as an editor. Immediately after their meeting, he wrote to ask her for submissions, but Welty, who had just published a novella and completed a collection of stories, had no unpromised pieces to offer as 1942 drew to a close. She instead suggested that Maxwell contact her agent, Diarmuid Russell, about future work. Russell, however, had reason to be skeptical of The New Yorker. From 1940 to 1941, the magazine had rejected three Welty stories and an essay, and Russell chose not to send its editorial staff the two Welty stories he circulated in 1943 and 1944. Neither did he send them her novel Delta Wedding, which the Atlantic Monthly published in four installments in 1946.
In September of that year, Welty told her agent that Maxwell had again written to ask for a story, and on October 31 Russell offered “The Whole World Knows” to The New Yorker. Maxwell lobbied long and hard to have the story accepted but was defeated by the magazine’s founder and editor,
Harold Ross, who found the story too “arty.”8 Maxwell did not object in 1947 when first Welty’s “Hello and Good-Bye” (“one of her lighter efforts”)
and then “Music from Spain” (one of her longer efforts) failed to gain acceptance at the magazine.9 But he had nevertheless won Welty’s regard. Because they lived half a continent apart and were able to meet only once or twice a year, when Eudora made pilgrimages to New York, the bonds of friendship between them would be nourished, as they would subsequently be maintained and strengthened, by correspondence. Although there was no sustained correspondence between Welty and Maxwell from January 1943 to August 1949, the two clearly grew closer during these years and occasionally wrote to each other. By summer’s end in 1949, Maxwell was comfortably addressing Welty as “Eudora,” telling her of his household chores, signing himself “Bill,” and sending his love along with that of his wife, Emmy.
Eventually, the trust built by their ongoing friendship enriched their relationship as editor and author. In 1951, Bill and his colleague Gus Lobrano finally convinced The New Yorker to accept a Welty story. “The Bride of the Innisfallen” was the first of seven pieces Eudora published there, and Bill was her editor for all of them. From the start, Eudora had confidence in Bill’s judgment and he in hers, always editing her work with a light hand.
He paid careful attention to details of punctuation or verb tense but left final decisions about such matters to Eudora. If any substantive revisions seemed advisable, he suggested rather than attempting to impose a change.
For instance, in editing “The Ponder Heart” for the December 5, 1953, issue of The New Yorker, he offered this suggestion about a somewhat confusing time sequence: “This is the only serious query that I have to make to you. It would [. . .] be an enormous help to the reader if you could suggest somehow [. . .] that the whole business about Miss Teacake took place before Uncle Daniel was consigned to the asylum. I have suggested an insert which you may find clumsy, but which might give you a clue to how to do it.”10 Similarly, in editing the periodical version of “The Optimist’s Daughter,”
which occupied almost an entire New Yorker issue in March 1969, Bill wrote:
You have until the week before the story appears to decide on the title,
and whatever you decide is all right with us. Meanwhile, I will continue
to tell you what I think, but not, you understand, trying to persuade you.
I am still partial to “The Optimist’s Daughter”, because, by its ironic
tone, it suggests a certain distance between the writer and the woman in
the story, and because it also, again by its irony, suggests, matches somehow,
the full horror of the subject matter. The Flickering Light of Vision
is, by comparison, abstract, and to me less inviting. Also, I like titles
that don’t state the idea of the thing but are more oblique.11
Eudora clearly valued Bill’s advice, and in these instances as in many others, she followed his suggestions, although at times she was, to use Bill’s words, “firm about the unhelpful suggestions.”12 Bill found that his role as Eudora’s New Yorker editor brought him great joy, and he happily answered requests for advice even when New Yorker publication was not involved.
For example, in 1961, when he read a partial draft of Losing Battles, a long novel not completed until 1970, he could not contain his enthusiasm:
Well I find it very hard not knowing how they got the car down in time
for the funeral. Or what part Miss Footsie Kilgore played in the operation.
Don’t worry about the form. It has it. And don’t whatever you do
cut any of the physical descriptions of the place, the night, the moon,
etc. The whole going to bed passage is so beautiful that it is like reading
an opera. The mind supplies the music. Harold Brodkey has a theory
that most novels run out of gas, that is to say the original inspiration, after
the first seventy or a hundred pages. And then the novelist gets his
second wind, with a different inspiration. This doesn’t run out of gas,
but it takes on a certain musical solidity when they are at the table and
begin to talk about Miss Florence Hand. Partly from the fact that they
talk so long about her, and up until that point have refused to stick to
any one subject for longer than three sentences. Anyway, it builds, all
the way to the end of part III. There are a hundred remarks that delighted
me they were so much like the people I remember. And made
me laugh out loud. The only book I ever read that it reminds me of
is Delta Wedding, it is so completely just like you and nobody else. It
also has the richness of being the only thing you have been working
on all these years. One feels that, more and more. Now what else can I
Bill’s delight in the novel was like his response to a visit from Eudora—
friend and editor were one. Eudora herself adopted a sort of editorial stance in their friendship as she encouraged Bill’s work on The Château (1961),
work that like hers on Losing Battles took place in fits and starts over many years. And at times Bill turned to Eudora for editorial advice. Before he settled on So Long, See You Tomorrow as the title for his last novel (1980), he wrote to her, “I wanted originally to call it ‘The Palace at 4 AM’ but unfortunately Howard Moss had used that title for a play. Does this title seem all right?”14
Clearly, Eudora and Bill produced both titles and books that were more than all right. Eudora’s five collections of stories, three novellas, and two novels were matched by Bill’s six novels and five story collections. Both wrote books for children. Both published collections of their essays. Both wrote books dealing with family history. And both proved impatient with the conventions of genre. The stories in Eudora’s The Golden Apples (1949), for instance, are tightly interwoven, with protagonists in one story becoming minor characters in others, but she chose “not to bother with plot-threads and all that, but just to take up these people whenever and wherever in their lives that might interest me.”15 She preferred the irresolution of experience to the tying of bows. Bill was similarly experimental in So Long,
See You Tomorrow, shifting between memoir and fiction and for a time pre-
senting the story from the viewpoint of a dog. Even using the dog proved a wise choice.
Bill’s and Eudora’s willingness to take literary risks led not only to a sense of artistic fulfillment but also to a tandem set of awards. Over the course of his career, Bill received a National Book Award and the William Dean Howells Medal for fiction (both for So Long, See You Tomorrow), the PEN/
Malamud Award, the Gold Medal for Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the Ivan Sandrof Award for Lifetime Achievement in Publishing from the National Book Critics Circle. For her part, Eudora received the Howells Medal for fiction (for The Ponder Heart), the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (for The Optimist’s Daughter), the Gold Medal for Fiction from the American Academy, the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the National Medal of the Arts, and the French Legion of Honor.
Ultimately, the Library of America included two volumes of her work and two volumes of Bill’s in its series of books designed to keep “America’s best and most significant writing” always in print.16
Of course, Eudora and Bill’s relationship was sustained by more than their professional association and accomplishments. Their common love of writing sprang from an uncommon passion for reading. In their letters,
Bill and Eudora discussed works by authors ranging from Jane Austen to Virginia Woolf, from William Faulkner to Frank O’Connor, from Willa Cather to Langston Hughes, from Agatha Christie to M. R . James, from Lady Charlotte Guest to Lady Ottoline Morrell, from Frederic Mistral to Larry Woiwode. And they discussed encounters with fellow writers. In January
1959, for instance, Bill and Emmy attended a dinner for Isak Dinesen.
After dinner, Dinesen read from her story “The Deluge at Norderney” for a film series on outstanding contemporary writers. Of his dinner conversation with Dinesen, Bill wrote:
She didn’t do more than consider and reply to my remarks, until the
dessert, and then something, I forget what, the fact that I had just finished
making a doll house, perhaps, for my daughter, made her melt,
and she talked to me—but still not personally, not as if she liked me or
ever wanted to see me again. But in such a way as to make me love her
forever. Her voice is so beautiful, the accent isn’t either British or Amer-
ican. It has notes that are like cello music. It’s like listening to Hayden.
And those burning black eyes. It is several years too late to be her friend,
but it is not too late to remember what she is like, as long as I live.
Of the filming and refilming of her reading, he noted:
For nearly four hours we listened to that story, and looked at that extraordinary
face, without for one second tiring of either one. And you could
look because she never looked back. She looked at the camera as if it
loved to hear stories more than anything in this world, and I certainly
hope it did. She was able to repeat and recapture phrasing, cadences,
pitch of voice, even fleeting expressions, time after time, as if she were
an actress. She did not even look tired, until it was all, at last, over, and
then suddenly when I turned around, she was sitting, in that black fur
coat, but rather longhaired, not caracul or Persian lamb or anything ordinary,
with a black chiffon scarf over her head, leaving a white wedge
of face, with two burning black eyes in it, and the whole body in the
posture of exhaustion.17
Eudora demonstrated a similar reverence for the creative individual when she described hearing octogenarian Padraic Colum read at the 1964
Suffield (Connecticut) Writer-Reader Conference, where she was also on the program:
If I had had to walk all the way from Jackson and work free all the week
through, I would have gladly because of Padraic Colum. Imagine having
him in the same place as you and telling stories, reciting poems of
anyone anywhere any time in the whole history, and just remarking [. . .]
To think of his still being with us and the liveliest one for miles around—
the last link with all that. Last night came his lecture in the barn, which
is the Suffield Academy Theatre, and of course it was so much more
than a lecture—about growing up in his grandmother’s house, with the
peat fire which you look down on, and so is so much better than other
fires, and the greyhounds sleeping “in a loop” on the hearth, and the
story-teller coming, taking a seat (in his grandmother’s house there was
always a pile of clean grass and leaves kept ready near the hearth for any
wanderer) and beginning “Now by the power that has seized me, I will
tell you:” (better than that, can’t remember right now).18
The enthusiasm with which Bill and Eudora listened to and read the works of fellow writers was but one of many enthusiasms they shared. A love of gardening at times seemed to rival their love of literature. Their letters include references to almost sixty different roses that one or the other grew, to nurseries where plants could be obtained, to books on the art of cultivating roses or on the history of gardening. But neither Bill nor Eudora was content merely to tend a garden and to read and write stories. They both supported liberal Democratic candidates for public office, with twotime presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson at the top of the list. Both loved the theater and reported on plays they had seen. And both loved the rewards of travel. As Eudora told Diarmuid Russell, “I would agree to try almost anything for a trip.”19 Bill might not have made so expansive a declaration, but encounters with different cultures, the sight of architectural wonders, and the opportunity to see great works of art delighted them both. Eudora recounted her pleasure in seeing the Barnes collection in Philadelphia:
Today I got taken to see the Barnes—you know how hard it is to see,
and now, as I felt nearly every step I took to stand before another picture,
I wish for you to see it. Have you ever? I can’t even send you a card
with a reproduction of a single one, because no reproductions have ever
been made. The Cezannes—50? 60? of absolutely radiant staggering
beauty And drawings!—the Monets—Picassos (Blues & Pink—Saltambiques
(sp?))—a dozen wild Rousseaus—a Van Gogh Postman with a
green beard and a sty, not my favorite painter, but just to show you. I felt
drenched by the whole color of blue—and Matisse! Dozens, dozens of
prime Odalesques & girls & goldfishes, lights & airs & chaises & [readers]
& you know—It was a great feeling of being in the Presence.20
Bill told Eudora of a glorious visit to London and especially to the Tate Gallery:
“We have had such a happy time in London [. . .] The weather like Rupert Brooke’s poem. And all the squares full of flowering trees and daffodils.
There were five huge rooms full of Turners at the Tate, a big Constable show, and the original drawings for The Tailor of Gloucester—which drove me half out of my mind with pleasure—” Eudora offered this description of Wales: “After changing trains madly all day I came into Harlech about
6:30 of an afternoon and it was like coming into the center of a big jewel—
all of it glows, mountains, sea, dunes, castle, clouds, hedges and stones.”21
And both Bill and Eudora shared stories of their travels to Ireland, England,
France, and Italy.
In 1983, after more than forty years of friendship, Bill read a draft of Eudora’s autobiographical work, One Writer’s Beginnings, and realized that the groundwork of their friendship had been laid long before they met. “There were enough similarities in our two childhoods,” he wrote, “to make me feel [. . .] that we grew up on a tandem bicycle.”22 Born in 1908 and 1909,
respectively, Bill and Eudora spent their youths in small towns that were much alike, despite the fact that Lincoln, Illinois, was in the North and Jackson, Mississippi, in the South. The clothes children wore, the books they read, the wind-up Victrola they played, the atmosphere of the schoolroom and the Sunday school, the movies they saw, the family car rides shared with neighbors, and the sewing women who came to the house—all had produced shared memories. So, too, had their encounters with the evils of racism and with the social conventions of white middle-class life. And there were other similarities—their fathers’ common employment in the insurance business, their mothers’ elaborate precautions against the spreading of illness, the very ways the two future writers managed to read long past bedtime. The death of Bill’s mother when he was only ten and of Eudora’s father when she was but twenty-two shaped their respective writing careers,
though these losses were treated differently in their fiction. Bill’s writing was clearly autobiographical, Eudora’s less frequently and more indirectly so.
As she told Bill about the use of a deeply troubling real-life event, “I’m glad you think the disguises are deep enough.”23
Both Bill and Eudora spent their undergraduate years at midwestern universities—he at the University of Illinois and she at the University of Wisconsin—and both spent a year of graduate study on the East Coast,
Bill at Harvard and Eudora at Columbia. Neither felt suited for a life as a teacher, and the dreams of both centered on New York City. Having already published Bright Center of Heaven, Bill settled in New York in 1936, working at The New Yorker and publishing They Came Like Swallows the next year. Eudora had a one-woman photographic show in New York in 1936,
found a literary agent there in 1940, published her first book (A Curtain of Green) in 1941, and began a pattern of regular visits to the city.
The tandem nature of their lives, established before they met and continuing afterward, was a strong bond between them, but a difference in their lives created a bond that was equally strong. Although neither of the two significant romantic relationships in Eudora’s life led to marriage, her recollection of her own parents’ mutual devotion had established for her the enriching,
if complicating, nature of family life. Surely, this is a key reason Eudora embraced the entire Maxwell family. She responded to Bill’s love of his wife, Emmy, and their daughters, a love that is expressed more vividly in his letters to Eudora than in any previously published work about him.
“Did you ever hear Emmy really laugh?” Bill asks in one of his letters, and then adds, “It’s like the fountains of Rome.” When Emmy had to be away from home, Bill suffered. Of one such time, he wrote to Eudora, “The silence in the house is deafening, but Em left me one of her best soups, and some short ribs of beef to heat up in the oven when the potatoes are nearly baked, and I will get through the evening somehow, but I must say it is no way to live.” His love of Emmy was matched by his love of their two daughters,
Kate and Brookie. Shortly after Kate’s birth, he wrote to Eudora about the joys of her first days at home: “I got to carry [Kate] from her bed in the back room, to the chair and ottoman in the living room where Emmy nurses her in the day time. And carrying her back again, I would feel that little head collapse on my shoulder, and turn against the side of my neck.
In my youth I was continually susceptible to ecstatic pleasure of one kind or another, and sometimes I have thought I must have overdone it, because it seldom came any more. But here it is again.” Two years later, he sent Eudora this description of Brookie:
Well actually she’s as shy as a robin, when it comes to perching on anybody’s
lap for any length of time. She did this morning, so she could
get at the lid of the sugar bowl, which has a china rose on it (Japanese
onion pattern), and she lights on me in the evening while I am mixing
drinks because from my left arm she can see quite well into the liquor
cupboard, the ice box, and the kitchen cupboard, and eventually get
her hands on a piece of ice. Do you gather that she has Emmy’s big eyes
and is adorable?24
The desperation that had descended on Bill when his mother died in
1919 and that had prompted a suicide attempt during his college years was long since gone; he and Emmy had established their own deeply cherished family.
This sort of family life was not Eudora’s own, and the lack of it, Bill felt,
was the source of a melancholy that troubled Eudora later in life. “There is also the matter of living alone,” he wrote to her. “If you live with somebody you are saved (often by petty irritation),” he noted wryly, “from having to confront despair.” But although she lived alone after her mother’s death in 1966, Eudora was not without family. She had loved her parents and two brothers deeply and enjoyed spending time with her two nieces. When the girls were young, she took them on trips, like the one in 1956 when they met “Mr. Maxwell” in New York. After this vacation, Eudora assured Bill,
“For your future reference—except that you don’t need me to say it—two girls are more fun than one on a far excursion—they do so much for each other to have a good time.” Later, after having lost both her parents and her brothers, Eudora rejoiced when her nieces themselves became parents.
Of Elizabeth Welty Thompson’s first child, she told Bill, “Do you know what happened? Gruss an Aachen opened its first flower on the morning that my niece Elizabeth had her first baby—I took her the flower, and she told me she pressed it and put it in a book. I thought you’d like to know it was a real and wonderful as well as lovely Gruss.” The rose lover Bill, who had received a Gruss an Aachen rooted by Eudora’s mother just before the birth of his daughter Kate and who had himself recently sent Eudora a new Gruss, knew how lovely both baby and rose must be. Ultimately, Bill felt that Eudora was part of his own family. In 1986, when she sent him a copy of a limited edition book inaugurating the Eudora Welty Chair of Southern Studies at Millsaps College, Bill responded, “Such a beautifully made little book. And that fact that you wanted us to have it reinforced an idea that occurred to me recently, which is that we have become your family. I hope this is correct.”25
In The Outermost Dream, a collection of his essays and reviews, Bill began by saying, “I can never get enough of knowing about other people’s lives.”
And letters are perhaps our best source of information about other people’s lives—they are of the moment. But letters also exist, as James G. Watson has asserted, “midway between art and life.”26 Despite the spontaneity with which Eudora and Bill composed their letters, and despite the vulnerabilities they revealed, these two friends were inevitably selecting which of the myriad details of their lives to report—which topics to avoid and which to focus on. Eudora’s interest in politics, for instance, was intense, but her letters to Bill seldom broach political issues. For Bill’s part, nowhere in his letters to Eudora does he reveal the occasional tension his daughter Kate recalls in her relationship with her father.27
Of course, all writers of letters construct as well as unveil images of themselves,
but few letter writers can create the sort of prose Eudora and Bill did.
Their letters are filled with vibrant, beautifully crafted descriptions, some of which I have already cited, and with distinctive expressions that beg to be quoted: Eudora anticipates that a journey will be “a hard day’s Greyhound into night,” invoking both the Beatles and Eugene O’Neill; Bill calls innocence
“the crowning accomplishment of maturity.” Eudora reports that Jane Austen’s house “looks big, but is really small. The opposite of her novels.”
Bill asserts that in the last line of E. M. Forster’s The Hill of Devi, “Forster’s mind had taken its stand confidently, and then been interrupted by a cry from his heart.”28 The letters containing lines like these often possess their own storylike architecture and thematic motifs. They have circular and associative structures, moving between past and present as they develop and then return to the starting point. Such letters deserve to be read as literature,
for they satisfy the two demands that Bill asserted we should make of an author: “that his characters have the breath of life in them and that behind the interplay of action and ideas, perhaps at times even intruding on it, there is a presence we feel, often in the very first sentence.” For Bill,
“the greater the literary artist, the clearer our recognition is of the presence,
the voice, the invisible signature of the mind in which the whole fancy took place originally.”29
William Maxwell and Eudora Welty both brought the “breath of life” to their letters—letters that close with visible signatures but are pervaded by “the invisible signature of the mind.” The keen intellect, the sense of humor, the lack of self-absorption, the embracing of experience in all its complexity,
the capacity for love, the generosity of spirit, and the ability to face loss and death—these constitute the invisible signatures of Welty and Maxwell, signatures that are as powerfully present in their letters as in their fiction.
In an effort to reveal the artistry that characterizes the correspondence between Eudora and Bill, I have rejected the use of excerpts and have included complete letters, except for eight that exist only as fragments, eight that have a very few lines excluded at the reasonable request of the Maxwell estate, and eight in which, for the sake of their privacy, I have deleted the names of individuals mentioned. Deciding to use complete letters does, however, create one negative consequence. Not all of the almost five hundred extant letters, many of them quite long, are collected here. The Maxwell estate asked that two, which focus on individuals other than Bill,
Emmy, and Eudora, not be used. In selecting which of the other letters to include, I wanted to keep in balance the number by each writer, but numbers alone could not guarantee balance. After 1981, Eudora’s letters tend to be shorter in length than Bill’s, and without doubt, as Eudora notes in her letters, the writer’s block that affected her fiction ultimately affected her correspondence. In any case, there are a total of 197 extant letters from Bill to Eudora and 109 from Emmy to Eudora. Eudora’s extant letters include
88 to Bill, 9 to Emmy, and 87 to Bill and Emmy. From these, I have chosen to include in this volume 156 letters written by Bill, 170 by Eudora, and 19
by Emmy. The focus here lies on the exchange between the two writers, although Emmy was an integral part of the Welty–Maxwell correspondence:
Eudora’s fondness for Emmy matched her regard for Bill and was returned.
I have excluded brief thank-you notes, cover letters for enclosures, or letters I was unable to date with any confidence. I have also excluded letters that reiterate information, concerns, or patterns of language that have been fully established elsewhere in the correspondence.
The selected letters appear chronologically so that they may provide the autobiography of a friendship. I have also included a brief introduction to each chronological period and occasionally have inserted connecting commentary between letters in an effort to ensure narrative continuity. The heading for each letter identifies the author, recipient, and date. For the most part, Eudora wrote and received letters in Jackson, Mississippi; Bill in New York City or in nearby Yorktown Heights, New York, where the Maxwells had a “country” house. I have not included these default locations in the headings. However, when letters were written at or mailed to other locations,
I have included that information whenever possible. I have provided explanatory notes that identify books, persons, or events being discussed or establish the biographical or historical context of the letters. Following the example Bill Maxwell set in his edition of Sylvia Townsend Warner’s letters,
I apologize in advance for any notes “that may strike the reader as egregious.”
Throughout this volume, the letters stand as written except for silent corrections of obvious and unintentional typographical errors—spelling “treasure”
as “toreasure,” for instance. Even clearly unintended typos stand when Bill and Eudora have commented on them. Eccentricities of punctuation and spelling are unaltered: commas and periods frequently lie outside quotation marks, dashes abound, parentheses appear within parentheses, and names such as Dylan and Haydn may be spelled “Dillon” and “Hayden.”
(Bill was a confessed misspeller.) When errors seem likely to result in confusion for the reader, I have made corrections in square brackets. In addition,
I have placed square brackets around ellipses, clarifying information,
or dates that I supplied. The original letters are peppered with marginal notes, which I have silently incorporated according to Bill’s and Eudora’s indications. Neither Bill nor Eudora ever used a computer, with its ease of formatting. Two-thirds of their letters were typed, and to underline titles, as they often neglected to do, would have slowed the typing process. Such lack of formatting is retained here. I hope that these editorial practices will help readers to experience the spontaneity with which the letters were composed and the ease that Bill and Eudora felt in writing to each other.
Working with these letters—transcribing, annotating, and introducing them—has been a joy and an honor for me. Eudora was my close friend,
and in her letters I had the opportunity to hear again the conversational voice that had for almost twenty years enriched my life. I did not know Bill Maxwell personally, but it is my great good fortune to have met him in these letters. Like Eudora, he possessed a genius for friendship that equaled his genius as a writer. Having their correspondence in print will allow a host of readers to participate in their friendship, to relish the language that conveys it, and to return to their magnificent fiction with heightened understanding and insight.
1. “Never Lose Letters from an Editor”: 1942–1943 17
2. “Wonderful to Be a Writer. Wonderful to Grow Roses.
Wonderful to Care”: 1943–1954 21
3. “Similar Discoveries”: 1954–1959 70
4. “Stubborn Enough to Be a Writer”: 1960–1966 141
5. “Your Heart Down on Paper”: 1966–1970 194
6. “So Much Honor Coming Down on My Head”: 1971–1980 278
7. “What There Is to Say We Have Said”: 1981–1996 370
Posted June 15, 2011
No text was provided for this review.