April 13, 2014

Happy birthday, Miss Welty

From today's The Writer's Almanac:

It's the birthday of writer Eudora Welty, born in Jackson, Mississippi (1909). She studied literature in college, and she wanted to pursue a career in writing or photography; but her father thought she needed a day job, so she moved to New York City to attend business school and study advertising. When she wasn't in class, she went to vaudeville shows, toured art galleries, and listened to jazz in Harlem nightclubs. She spent hours wandering the city, taking photographs of ordinary people in the early days of the Depression. She wrote: "Making pictures of people in all sorts of situations, I learned that every feeling waits upon its gesture, and I had to be prepared to recognize this moment when I saw it. These were things a story writer needed to know."
      After she got her degree, Welty moved back to Jackson. She worked for a while at Jackson's first radio station, writing the station's newsletter. She spent two years as the Jackson society columnist for a Mississippi paper. In 1935, she was hired as a photographer for the Works Progress Administration. That same year, she began hosting regular meetings with a group of other young writers, and they dubbed themselves the Night-Blooming Cereus Club, named for a mysterious cactus — once a year, the night-blooming cereus produced a single beautiful white flower that only lasted for one night. When their plants were about to bloom, residents of Jackson would post the news in the paper and invite everyone to an all-night party to watch it. Welty referenced the cactus repeatedly in stories, and in her letters she sometimes addressed friends as "you night-blooming cereus." The group created a motto for their club: "Don't take it cereus, life's too mysterious." Welty said: "Now that I think back on those days, I know they must have been very bad times indeed, but actually, I'm not sure we realized it, my friends and I." She felt that the Depression was less obvious in Mississippi than other places, since it was such a poor state to begin with. Welty and her friends played word games, went on picnics, drank bourbon, and listened to jazz on the phonograph. They loved to take the train down to New Orleans, but none of them had enough money to spend the night, so it was always a day trip. Welty took trips to New York to show her photos to publishers, but no one was interested, and neither were gallery owners — the only place she managed to get a show was at a camera shop.
      In 1936, Welty sent a story called "Death of a Traveling Salesman" to a literary magazine, and it was accepted. She said, "I had received the shock of having touched, for the first time, on my real subject: human relationships." It was the first story she had ever submitted, and she hoped that publication would always be that easy; but after that, she received a string of rejections. In 1937, she sent the story "Petrified Man" to Robert Penn Warren at his new Southern Review, and he rejected it. She was so upset that she burned her only copy of the story. Then Warren wrote to say that he had changed his mind, so she rewrote it from memory. Her stories began to be published widely in the South, and admired by fellow writers. But no one wanted to publish a book of her stories, convinced it would lose money, and asked if she would try a novel instead. Finally, out of the blue, a literary agent wrote her and asked if he could represent her. She didn't know what a literary agent was, but she agreed; he wrote back: "Wait! You don't know a thing about me. I may be a crook!" They hit it off, and he remained her agent until his death. He sent out her stories over and over, undeterred by rejections, and finally found a publisher for her first book, A Curtain of Green (1941).
      She wrote many stories and novels, including The Golden Apples (1949), The Ponder Heart (1954), The Optimist's Daughter (1972), and Moon Lake and Other Stories (1980), as well as her best-selling memoir One Writer's Beginnings (1984). She died in 2001, at the age of 92.
      She said, "I am a writer who came of a sheltered life. A sheltered life can be a daring life as well. For all serious daring starts from within."

Getting to know her -- and reading some of her letters -- a few years ago was a wonderful and unforgettable reading project. 


JoAnn said...

I love Welty's writing! Earlier this year I read Ann Patchett's essay collection, This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, and was thrilled to learn that she attended Welty's funeral just because she loved her writing, too.

Vintage Reading said...

I like Welty's writing, too. Fascinating to learn of her life, thanks for this post.