- What There Is to Say We Have Said: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and William Maxwell. Edited by Suzanne Marrs.
In the spring of 1976, William Maxwell left his job as fiction editor of the New Yorker, where he had worked for four decades, in order to concentrate on his own writing. This came as unhappy news to any number of writers, for he had nursed along many of the best, giving them sympathy, patience, understanding, and a light but firm editorial hand. None was more distressed than Eudora Welty, with whom he had worked for nearly a quarter-century and who was especially dependent on his counsel, not to mention on a friendship that had long since deepened into platonic love. Welty telephoned in late April and, in his absence, unburdened herself to Maxwell’s wife, Emily, about her worries. On April 23, Maxwell wrote her a letter, reassuring her that all would continue as before at the magazine, albeit under different hands, and telling her that his own work was going well:
As for what I am writing, I have four beginning pages that are so nearly right I am afraid to talk about it: if you have a part that is right, I tell myself, then all that is necessary is to match the rest to it. I guess what I really want to say is that my turning wholly to writing brings us closer together, as being engrossed in the same occupation always does people. Think of the old women making quilts together every Wednesday in the tower of my grandmother’s Christian Church. That’s you and me.
That wise and comforting letter comes close to the midpoint of this ample selection from the correspondence between these two writers, one famous and the other considerably less so, but both among the most accomplished novelists, short-story writers, and memoirists of their day. They were decidedly—but never fussily—old-fashioned people, as Maxwell’s reference to the quilt-makers reminds us, and this is a decidedly old-fashioned book. Plenty of emotion lurks beneath the surface of many of these letters, and very occasionally it is allowed to bubble over, but even when it does it is expressed with restraint, for these were people of an era when manners mattered and reticence, or self-control, was among the cardinal virtues.
The first of their letters was written in 1942, though the correspondence did not really begin in earnest until a decade later, and the last in 1996, after which the health of both writers went into sharp decline; Maxwell died in 2000, aged ninety-one, and Welty a year later, aged ninety-two. Though they saw each other occasionally, in New York or at the Maxwells’s place outside the city in Yorktown Heights, their friendship was conducted primarily through the mail. Perhaps that still goes on today, but in the age of Facebook and Twitter—an age in which people “friend,” rather than “befriend,” each other—it is difficult to imagine.
That is scarcely the only respect in which this book seems—entirely agreeably, in my view—a period piece. Their lives began when the mail was still delivered twice a day and came to a close when the Internet had rendered paper mail mostly irrelevant. Though both of them tried hard to adjust to the ever-increasing and often traumatic pace of change, they were still rooted in the America of their youths: Welty’s in Jackson, the sleepy capital of Mississippi, and Maxwell’s in small-town Illinois. Both still clearly preferred trains to airplanes—there’s a lovely letter, written in 1963, in which Welty describes a train trip from Mississippi to Texas, during part of which “[t]here’s no very frequent sign of human habitation at all, and it’s the way the river must’ve looked in the days of the Indians, or of Audubon anyway”—and communications between them, whether letters or galley proofs, traveled leisurely through the mail rather than instantly through cyberspace. Like many people of their generation, they regarded long-distance telephone calls as an extravagance and resorted to them rarely and reluctantly. Here is a passage, in a letter from Maxwell, that today sounds positively antediluvian, not to mention anteGooglean:
Milton Greenstein wants me to ask you if you would check to be sure that there is no hotel in New Orleans named The Hibiscus. The telephone book would be sufficient, ‚Ä®I should think. Have you got a friend there who could look it up for you? I know that you wouldn’t knowingly call it after a real hotel.
My own favorite comes from 1953. Maxwell had sent Welty the manuscript of a short story of his that had been pasted into shape with glue. Here is her response:
I do see from this how elegant rubber cement is. I’m so used to writing with a pincushion that I don’t know if I can learn other ways or not, but I did go right down and buy a bottle of Carter’s. The smell stimulates the mind and brings up dreams of efficiency. Long ago when my stories were short (I wish they were back) I used to use ordinary paste and put the story together in one long strip, that could be seen as a whole and at a glance—helpful and realistic. When the stories got too long for the room I took them up on the bed or table & pinned and that’s when my worst stories were like patchwork quilts, you could almost read them in any direction. No man would be bemused like that, but Emmy will understand—and on the whole I like pins. The Ponder Heart was in straight pins, hat pins, corsage pins, and needles, and when I got through typing it out I had more pins than I started with. (So it’s economical.)
That passage can be read for its undeniable charm and for the glimpse it provides into the self-editing methods of a masterly writer, but it must not be read as still further proof of the widely held misapprehension that Welty was a quaint southern spinster, little-old-ladylike and sweet and dreamy and fragile. She may have held her stories together with pins and needles, but there was nothing faint about her. I spent several days with her in the early 1970s, interviewing her for a magazine article that never panned out, and maintained a friendly acquaintance with her for a number of years thereafter. Among the things that most struck me about her were toughness, opinionativeness, and determination. Her amatory life was and doubtless will remain a mystery, but she was no wallflower. Her friendships were often passionate—with Maxwell, with Elizabeth Bowen, with Reynolds Price, with others little known outside the city limits of Jackson—and her interest in the larger world was both intense and well-informed. She was even—dare I say it?—more than a little vain, basking in the awards that were showered upon her over the years and wasting far too much time on the uncountable campuses where she gave readings, received honorary degrees, and otherwise had occasion to be applauded by idolaters.
Maxwell was no idolater, but he admired her work deeply and found her utterly delightful as both companion and correspondent. Already, I fear, his own work has slipped into the dim mists of our literary consciousness, notwithstanding his enshrinement with two volumes in what passes for our Lit’ry Hall of Fame, the Library of America. He spent almost his entire adult life in New York City, and from time to time wrote about it (most notably in several short stories in Over by the River), but his great subject was the Illinois of his forebears and his own youth, the former brought brilliantly to life in Ancestors, his factual but richly imaginative account of those who came before him, the latter in his beautiful novella, So Long, See You Tomorrow. He found satisfying and modestly remunerative work at the New Yorker, and by all accounts was very good at it, but in this correspondence we see him constantly torn between his job, which enabled him to support his wife and the two daughters who eventually came along, and the urge to do his own work, which really was the center of his life.
He was given to moods and admitted to “[a] taste for the sadness of life,” but at heart he was a lover: of books, words, his family, his garden, the whole loony maelstrom of human existence. “Well it’s wonderful to be alive,” he wrote in 1954. “Wonderful to be a writer. Wonderful to grow roses. Wonderful to care. Isn’t it?” It’s easy to see why, in return, Welty and so many others loved him back. Not merely was he sensitive and sympathetic, he was a gentleman. In the nearly five hundred pages of this long correspondence, there is not a single cuss word, there is not a note of meanness. On one of the rare occasions when Welty heads in that direction, she slams on the brakes: “I enjoyed Mary McCarthy’s piece up to a point, but she makes me impatient when she gives out that aura that it’s all right to like this, and to have reasons provided you—or do I sound as catty as I must feel?”
Love rather than spite is the emotion that courses through these pages. “You’ve all four given me such joy & pleasure,” Welty told the Maxwells, “& hope unexpected, along with love. I can’t say thank you every day in life in words but you know I do. With of course my love.” Welty loved not merely the Maxwell family but the idea of family—see Delta Wedding and Losing Battles—and there can be no question that Bill and Emmy Maxwell and their two daughters became a surrogate family of her own. They welcomed her into it unconditionally. “Dearest Eudora,” Maxwell wrote near the end of their correspondence, “what there is to say we have said, in one way or another. You know how much we love you.” Years earlier she had written:
How are the girls? I hope Brookie is perfectly well these days, and nights. Kate must have a lot to say. Will you thank Emmy for me for her sweet letter, which I am going to answer soon? I think of all of you so much. Just now I was wondering why I’m such a terrible letter writer and decided it was probably because of a feeling, more of a wish, that a letter should be written to a friend only on the kind of day the friend would be happy in, bring news of interest appropriate only to the reader of the letter, and arrive only at a moment when he was ready for it. In which case when could I write to you that I’m real tired, think I’ve pruned the roses too soon (but can’t cut off those buds, either), have warts on my typing fingers probably inviting psychoanalysis, the very thing I was having something to say about. Oh what nonsense, but the truth is I write letters out of homesickness to see my friends and often it’s too strong to get down to brass tacks—which is probably just what my warts are.
Welty was right about “news of interest appropriate only to the reader of the letter,” a truth to which Suzanne Marrs at times appears to be oblivious. The Welty Foundation Scholar-in-Residence at Millsaps College in Jackson, Marrs has been the dutiful keeper of Welty’s flame, writing a perceptive if cluttered biography (Eudora Welty: A Biography, 2005) and otherwise devoting three decades to Welty and her oeuvre. As is so often the case in academia, in all this the line between devotion and careerism sometimes becomes blurred, and more than once in both the biography and this collection I found myself wishing for less devotion and/or dutifulness, and more discrimination. The protestations of love that flow through these pages may be heartfelt, but to the reader they eventually cease to be “news of interest”; more than a few of them should have been trimmed or eliminated entirely, in the process lowering the book’s gush quotient. Ditto for the interminable passages about roses, citations for which take up a full column in the book’s index. To be sure I speak from a bias—roses simply do not interest me—but the love that Welty and Maxwell felt for them could have been made plain without bashing us over the head with it at every turn.
So it is up to the reader to wade through or ignore these passages as inclinations dictate, but the rest of the book is fine. It is fascinating to watch as Welty brings Losing Battles and The Optimist’s Daughter to life, in each case over many years and in fits and starts that often left her feeling at sea, just as it is fascinating to observe the almost fastidious care with which Maxwell pieced together his stories and novels and the scrutiny to which he subjected every phrase he wrote. This, too, is among the old-fashioned aspects of this book. Writing seriously and well is never easy under the best of circumstances, but the world in which writers now exist makes it harder than ever. Silence and privacy, the working conditions that Welty and Maxwell insisted upon, are hard indeed to come by in our electronic culture with its twenty-four-hour news cycle and its obsession with celebrity. It is hard not to feel that we have lost far more than we realize now that these two writers are gone and, with them, the world in which they lived and worked.
So this collection becomes, in the end, a valedictory, not just to two fine writers but to an America, certainly an American literary culture, that has changed almost beyond recognition. I am no Miniver Cheevy, but I lament this. When What There Is to Say We Have Said was originally published a year ago in hard covers it was greeted with ecstatic cries of joy, but I find that mostly it leaves me sad. In the words of that old Dixie blowhard Thomas Wolfe: “O lost, and by the wind grieved …”