A 2016 Edgar Award finalist, the “intimate, luminous portrait of a friendship” of two American literary icons (Kirkus, starred review).
In 1970, Ross Macdonald wrote a letter to Eudora Welty, beginning a thirteen-year correspondence between fellow writers and kindred spirits. Though separated by background, geography, genre, and his marriage, the two authors shared their lives in witty, wry, tender, and at times profoundly romantic letters, each drawing on the other for inspiration, comfort, and strength. They brought their literary talents to bear on a wide range of topics, discussing each others' publications, the process of translating life into fiction, the nature of the writer’s block each encountered, books they were reading, and friends and colleagues they cherished. They also discussed the world around them, the Vietnam War, the Nixon, Carter, and Reagan presidencies, and the environmental threats facing the nation. The letters reveal the impact each had on the other’s work, and they show the personal support Welty provided when Alzheimer’s destroyed Macdonald’s ability to communicate and write.
The editors of this collection, who are the definitive biographers of these two literary figures, have provided extensive commentary and an introduction. They also include Welty’s story fragment “Henry,” which addresses Macdonald’s disease. With its mixture of correspondence and narrative, Meanwhile There Are Letters provides a singular reading experience: a prose portrait of two remarkable artists and one unforgettable relationship.
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About the Author
Suzanne Marrs is Professor of English and Welty Foundation Scholar-in-Residence at Millsaps College. Her award-winning books about Eudora Welty include One Writer’s Imagination: The Fiction of Eudora Welty (2002), Eudora Welty, A Biography (2005), and What There Is to Say We Have Said: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and William Maxwell (2011), which she edited. She is a professor of English and Welty Foundation Scholar-in-Residence at Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi, where she lives.
Tom Nolan has been a freelance writer since age eighteen and has contributed to dozens of magazines and newspapers, including Rolling Stone, Ploughshares, and Oxford American. For twenty-five years he has reviewed crime fiction for the Wall Street Journal. Nolan’s book Ross Macdonald: A Biography (Scribner, 1999)for which he interviewed Eudora Weltywas nominated for the Edgar Award, the Anthony Award, and the Macavity Award (which it won). His most recent work is Artie Shaw, King of the Clarinet: His Life and Times (Norton, 2010, 2011). He lives in Glendale, California.
Read an Excerpt
Meanwhile There are Letters
The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and Ross Donald
By Suzanne Marrs, Tom Nolan
Skyhorse PublishingCopyright © 2015 Suzanne Marrs & Tom Nolan
All rights reserved.
"I love and need and learn from my friends, they are the continuity of my life."
* * *
In 1970 Eudora Welty finally published a long novel she had been working on since 1955. The story of a family reunion in 1930s hill country Mississippi, Losing Battles was a cause for celebration at home — Welty's friends threw a party featuring all the food mentioned in the novel, including fried chicken necks — and a cause for celebration nationally. The New York Times Book Review dispatched Walter Clemons to interview Welty, and the two got on famously, talking not only about her new novel but also about her love of mysteries, especially those by Ross Macdonald: "Oh yes! I've read all his books, I think. I once wrote Ross Macdonald a fan letter, but I never mailed it. I was afraid he'd think it — icky." The newspaper account of that never-mailed fan letter called forth one from Kenneth Millar, a.k.a. Ross Macdonald, one that would be both mailed and received.
Kenneth Millar to Eudora Welty, May 3, 1970
Dear Miss Welty:
This is my first fan letter. If you write another book like Losing Battles, it will not be my last. I read that wonderful secular comedy with enjoyment and delight, and in the course of reading it discovered a fact about language that had never been quite clear to me before: There is a recognizable North American language which speaks to all of us in the accents of home; and you have invested and preserved it at its truest. (My uncles and aunts in Canada used essentially the same language — words, imagery, jokes — as your Banner people.) This will of course come as no surprise to you.
I have other reasons to be grateful to you. You spoke of me most generously to the NY Times reviewer. No compliment has ever pleased me more. You may live to regret it, for I'm getting off to you a large heavy collection of my novels called "Archer at Large," just out.
Eudora Welty to Kenneth Millar, May 10, 1970
Dear Mr. Millar,
That was a fine surprise you gave me, and what pleasure — Thank you for your letter. It was bread coming back before it had been cast upon the waters, after I hadn't sent you mine.
I'm so pleased you liked my book! What you say about a recognizable North American language that speaks to us all is a new thought to me — I had no way of learning about it, and if you think I've got at some of that essence, I'm more pleased than I can tell you. It also takes some of the load off my mind about the impertinence of thrusting so much Southern dialogue at readers from far away — But I believe in the risk too, because it seems to me only the local and only the particular do speak, that only what is true at home makes the sticks to build the fire with whatever imagination. It is lovely to know that an unknown Canada and an always known Mississippi have no trouble talking to each other.
Your book hasn't come yet so I am still looking forward. Thank you for such generosity. I've been reading your books as they came out since away back when you were John Ross Macdonald, and it's not only the first reading but returning to them that gives me a great deal of pleasure. Isn't The Chill in the new collection? I love that one in particular. What fascinates me is reading with the sense of the one who has invented the characters and the one, himself a character, who is in progress of finding out their secrets down to the last, identifying them for good, moving them one by one into their right places & locking them into the whole to make the pattern — these two making one, the same "I" telling the story. It's so right. It must be what happens with all fiction writers in their own ways. It's in the writing that I learn what is the real case with my characters — People come first, then knowing about them, listening back. But in the form you use, the method is pure, the scrupulous search or strategy is the same thing as the truth it's uncovering — And this is not only compelling but moving. It's the real beauty of the novels' construction, to me. But all the details as you go are so fine too — I really enjoy your work sentence by sentence, so it's a treat to be getting Archer at Large — Thank you again. And please give my regards to your wife, who also has my admiration.
Millar was as familiar with Welty's work as she was with his, having followed it since her stories had appeared in the 1930s in the Southern Review. He told his publisher, Alfred Knopf, that receiving this letter from Welty seemed the nicest thing that had happened to him since Knopf had taken him on as an author in 1947. Other happy letters would follow in 1970, but the next extant one reported a tragedy.
Kenneth Millar to Eudora Welty, December 14, 1970
Dear Miss Welty:
I haven't been able to answer your beautiful letter, which filled me with joy and made me cry, but will let the quotation opposite allude to it. I must also thank you for the gift of your book, mutatis mutandis. I'll reciprocate soon. You didn't know my daughter Linda but you have suffered grievous losses in recent years and would perhaps wish to be told that Linda died last month, very suddenly, aged 31, of a stroke in her sleep. She left her husband Joe and their son, who have become central in our lives. But I am willing now to grow old and die, after a while. Our very best wishes, seasonal and personal,
[Millar's moving letter is written on a card reprinting the Navajo "Prayer, Mountaintop Way":
Restore all for me in beauty,
Make beautiful all that is before me,
Make beautiful all that is behind me,
Make beautiful my words.
It is done in beauty.
It is done in beauty.
It is done in beauty.
It is done in beauty.]
The brief life of Linda Jane Millar had been marked by emotional pain, mental illness, and public trauma. A bright teen but a social misfit in her Santa Barbara high school, Linda drank alcohol in secret and was involved in a 1956 hit-and-run accident in which a thirteen-year-old boy was killed. Three years later, still on probation from that disastrous event, while at college in Davis, California, Linda disappeared for eight days, during which Ken Millar took part in a much-publicized, three-city search for "the mystery writer's missing daughter "— who was found, with the help of private detectives, in Reno, Nevada. Linda married a computer engineer in 1961 and had a son in 1963. The three were living in Inglewood, California, in November 1970, and had just spent a fine afternoon with Linda's parents in Santa Barbara. "Life is so very good on certain days," Millar wrote his Knopf editor in its immediate afterglow, "that one almost lives in fear of having to pay for it in full." Four nights later, Linda died in her sleep.
Welty too had, as Millar noted in his letter, "suffered grievous losses in recent years." In 1959, her brother Walter had died as the result of complications from a crippling form of arthritis, and then in 1966, her mother and her brother Edward died within days of each other, her mother from a stroke, Edward from a brain infection that struck while he was hospitalized for a broken neck. Twenty-five years earlier, Welty had witnessed her father's death during a blood transfusion. She well understood the pain Ken Millar and his wife were enduring.
Eudora Welty to Kenneth Millar, December 19, 1970
Dear Mr. Millar,
Thank you for writing to me — I've only just got home after two weeks away and found your card — the grief of what has happened to you, its beautiful prayer. I am sorry — I believe you feel as I do. I don't think myself that numbness is really merciful — not for long. Do you remember what Forster said in The Longest Journey —"They'll come saying, 'Bear up — trust to time. No, no, they're wrong. Mind it. In God's name, mind such a thing.'" It's good that the little boy is seven — that gives him a good strong memory, and the memory will be the right one, unharmed — It will be like the Prayer, Mountaintop Way somehow, maybe. You saw this — I hope it will be for you.
There was also a telegram under my door from the NY Times asking if I could review your new book — which I'd so much like the chance to do — but the telegram was days old, & I'm afraid they couldn't have waited on my late reply. I'm glad to know about the book.
This is a frivolous little Christmas card, but I'm sending it anyway because it's about a bit of wildlife — The man who wanted to do it, a young NYC book dealer, had never seen a guinea and neither had his artist — I guess they don't streak across 5th Avenue very often — So these were copied out of the dictionary — Anyway, it might amuse you. Many wishes to you both,
Eudora Welty to Kenneth Millar, January 15, 197
Dear Mr. Millar,
The Underground Man is extraordinary, and I did get to review it after all for the Times. If you'd feel like looking it over, I made you a carbon, and if I did you wrong somewhere there'd be time to cut, at least — they'll be cutting, themselves, most likely, because although I know better than send more than they ask for, that's just what I did. It's a beautiful book. You can see I thought so.
Many good wishes to you and I hope things go a little easier these days.
It had seemed before to Ken Millar that he often experienced the extremes of bad and good fortune at the same time. Now, in the wake of Linda's death, came the remarkable news that his latest novel would be reviewed — celebrated — by perhaps the most admired writer in America, in the country's most influential book-paper.
Kenneth Millar to Eudora Welty, January 19, 1971. Telegram.
MY DEPEST THANKS FOR YOUR MAGNIFICENT REVIEW BLUSHING I FIND NOTHIN G I WISH CHANGED REGARDS KENETH MILAR.
Kenneth Millar to Eudora Welty, January 19, 1971
Dear Miss Welty:
How generous you are, and how fortunate I am that the Times sent you my book after all, and that you were willing to review it. As you know a writer and his work don't really exist until they've been read. You have given me the fullest and most explicit reading I've ever had, or that I ever expected. I exist as a writer more completely thanks to you.
It's particularly gratifying that you should like my boy. Ronny is a fairly exact portrait of my dear grandson Jimmie, now seven going on eight (and the line about "Calling Space Control" is Jimmie's own). By the kind of irony and recompense that Archer and you are familiar with, Jimmie has come more into our care in recent months. He and his daddy spend their weekends with us, which is a lucky thing for Margaret and me. We're doing all right, except sometimes when one wakes up at three o'clock in the morning when, to revise Fitzgerald's line, it's always the dark night of the soul. But that overstates the case and may give you the impression that we are in trouble. Perhaps we are but not greatly more so than most people manage to endure and survive.
Your review filled me with joy, as your earlier letter did. I have been able to encourage other writers, but never until now have the tables been turned so blessedly on me. To you I can confess that I left the academic world to write popular fiction in the hope of coming back by underground tunnels and devious ways into the light again, dripping with darkness. You encourage me to think that there was some strange merit in this romantic plan.
Margaret sends her love with mine. If you haven't seen her excellent last year's book, Beyond This Point Are Monsters, we'd like to send you a copy.
P.S. — It was particularly thoughtful of you to send me a carbon of your review. I assume you received the wire I sent you last night but, service being what it is, perhaps I should reiterate, blushingly, that there is nothing in it I'd like to cut. I did make one change in the proofs of the book which should probably be put into your quote on the last line of the final page, 11: "and jailbirded him" becomes "jailbirding him," preceded by a comma.
Eudora Welty to Kenneth Millar, January 24, 1971
Dear Mr. Millar,
Your telegram came early next morning, while I was having my coffee, and made me feel happy all day. Then your letter — relief in full, and I am so pleased you found the review did convey what I meant it to and didn't wrong the book along the way. The easy part was saying what I thought, but you know it was that part about the fairy and romance where you might have wished I hadn't felt called on to say so much. And the hard part was trying to give a good notion of the nature and power of that plot without doing any harm to its secrets. It was a great pleasure to write it but I had to watch out the whole way not to indulge in the piece I would really like to do, where it would be all right to follow all those things through and say what you'd really done in the light of the whole. You could tell how I'd had to cut at it with the scissors, and where, in what I did get down. So thank you for your understanding. I counted on it, on its being all right to ask you (though in general I suppose it would be a nutty thing — a fairly good thing, too — for reviewers to consult the authors), feeling we would have wanted the same kind of rightness in the review. What you said made me proud.
As you know, they think the world of you at The Times, and it was such a plum for them to give me this — the galleys were just about worn out before they ever quit passing them around among the staff. Walter Clemons said they'd try not to cut much of the too-long review (he says they like it), he would be the one and he loves the book — when he sends a proof I'll fix it about the jailbirding. Those Snows! — One of the things I hated most to leave out in my piece was that interview — chillier than The Chill, the end of The Chill, that last line — but sustained the whole way, absolutely hair-raising and at the same time so hair-raisingly funny, with the mother following every line of the son's "confession" with a correction of his grammar.
I'm glad that's your little boy. I sort of felt the "Calling Space Control" line was real — nobody could have made up that seat-belt buckle. He was lovely all the way.
Yes indeed I've read Beyond This Point Are Monsters and like it enormously. It's so nice of her and you to offer to send me a copy — I did own one, but someone I lent it to has run off with it and I would delight in having it back on my shelves. I've read you both since the beginning, which means I read Margaret Millar first, the books as they came out — so that goes back a good long time. So many years of pleasure to thank you for — and being able to say it to two writers in the same house — it's fine, I can say it twice — thank you. I wish I had something new to send — I haven't, but I might send something old — it's in the same spirit.
The clipping's from the local paper the other day — how these little tatters and remnants of those things go drifting about the world. And I doubt if the man has any idea of who he's named after — his mother just thought the sound was right, somehow. I must stop. I can't tell you how pleased I was to hear from you, so quickly. As for coming up into the light, I see you do it in every book, and "dripping with darkness" you make it a pretty splendid way to show something forth. Whatever it is you may ever wish to do, my best wishes to it — as we all must wish for one another.
Welty's review of The Underground Man , which would appear in the February 14, 1971, New York Times Book Review , treated Millar's novel as a work of serious fiction deserving the close attention of Times readers: "The Underground Man is written so close to the nerve of today as to expose most of the apprehensions we live with," Welty declared, as she expressed admiration for Macdonald's craftsmanship. "It is the character of Archer," she noted, "whose first-person narrative forms all Mr. Macdonald's novels that makes it matter to us. [...] As a detective and as a man he takes the human situation with full seriousness. He cares. And good and evil both are real to him." This character, she further contended, comes to us in a prose style of "delicacy and tension, very tightly made, with a spring in it. It doesn't allow a static sentence or one without pertinence."
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1 "I love and need and learn from my friends, they are the continuity of my life.": 1970-1971 1
Chapter 2 "We haven't known each other terribly long, but we know each other well.": 1972 63
Chapter 3 "Love-& connections": 1973 104
Chapter 4 "If one of your letters could be rotten there'd be nothing sound left in heaven or on earth.": 1974 184
Chapter 5 "Simple but infinitely complex expressions of love and courtesy": 1975 233
Chapter 6 "I dreamed I was sending you the dream I was dreaming.": 1976 282
Chapter 7 "Sometimes your insight is so dazzling that I have to shut my eyes.": 1977 324
Chapter 8 "Our friendship blesses my life and I wish life could be longer for it.": 1978 373
Chapter 9 "What we need is one another.": 1979 415
Chapter 10 "Every day of my life I think of you with love.": 1980-1982 441
Appendix "Henry," an unfinished story by Eudora Welty 462