Biography captures Welty's true spirit

August 21, 2005|By Charles Ealy | Charles Ealy,Knight Ridder / Tribune



By Suzanne Marrs. Harcourt. 672 pages

After a reductive 1998 biography by Ann Waldron and an insulting New Yorker article by Claudia Roth Pierpont, it's heartening to report that a new biography of Eudora Welty captures the humorous and unconventional spirit of one of the South's greatest writers.

In Eudora Welty: A Biography, Suzanne Marrs manages to put the life and work of Welty in proper perspective, with the aid of numerous letters that are being made public for the first time. Those include many written to and by John Robinson, the son of wealthy Mississippi planters and the great love of Welty's life from 1937 until 1952. (Although Robinson and Welty maintained a lifelong friendship, Welty's hopes for a sexual relationship ended when he moved to Italy to join his gay lover.)

The letters also shed light on her late-life romance with Kenneth Millar, the California detective-novelist who wrote under the name Ross Macdonald. There is no evidence, at least in the letters, that Millar and Welty ever consummated their romance, but there are plenty of anecdotes about the resentment and suspicions of Millar's wife, Margaret, also a mystery writer.

These letters are crucial in combating misperceptions created by Waldron and Pierpont in 1998. In the unauthorized Eudora by Waldron, Welty's supposed ugliness is viewed as the central motivating factor in her life -- that the author wrote because she needed to find a means of acceptance.

Pierpont, meanwhile, followed with a New Yorker article that depicted Welty as "a perfect lady -- a nearly Petrified Woman," who was cowardly during the civil-rights movement and wrote overly sentimental novels about the Southern past, most notably Delta Wedding.

Both writers were seeking to find a new way to portray Welty, whose public image since 1984 has been inextricably associated with One Writer's Beginnings, which described how, as Marrs puts it, "her family, her community, her early reading, her youthful travels, her education, had shaped her career as a writer."

But this account avoided discussion of her adult life, her loves, her loneliness and her interest in liberal political causes. So Waldron and Pierpont were eager to fill in a perceived void.

As the new biography makes clear, Welty was neither consumed by concerns about her looks, as Waldron contended, nor petrified of upsetting Mississippi social decorum, as Pierpont argued. In countless instances, Welty expressed horror about her state's virulent racism and its refusal to accept school integration. In letters to local papers, she pleaded for reasonableness and justice. And in her fiction, she treated black characters with the utmost respect, writing such classic short stories as "The Demonstrators," and "Where Is This Voice Coming From?"

Nearly every story she wrote sought to pull back a curtain and gently reveal the innermost thoughts and vulnerabilities -- the humanity -- of everyone.

Welty was not only fearless as a writer but also brave in private, especially for a Southerner of her time. As one of her closest friends, Reynolds Price, put it, "the Benign and Beamish Maiden Aunt of American Letters" was actually vibrant and worldly.

No one who reads the new biography by Marrs will come away with silly notions about the real -- and beautiful -- Welty.

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