When a writer begins to grapple with how to mine the outside world for inspiration, the process can be challenging. In her memoir, One Writer’s Beginnings, Eudora Welty describes how travel helped her awaken to what it means to embrace a broader reality, writing about a train ride she took with her father when she was ten. It’s an anecdote that opens the chapter in the book titled “Finding a Voice.”
Eudora Welty Finds Her Voice
Her descriptions of the trip are alive with the nuance and character that landed her a number of awards, including a Pulitzer Prize: “After dinner in the sparkling dining car, my father and I walked back to the open-air observation platform at the end of the train and sat on the folding chairs placed at the railing. We watched the sparks we made fly behind us into the night. Fast as our speed was, it gave us time enough to see the rose-red cinders turn to ash, each one, and disappear from sight.” Each section of the book brings bits and pieces of her early years in Jackson, Mississippi, to life.
The essays were initially given as lectures to graduate students at Harvard University in 1983 so when I read the pieces I can imagine them delivered in her soft southern drawl: “Through travel I first became aware of the outside world; it was through travel that I found my own introspective way into becoming part of it.” I spend an inordinate amount of time reading biographies and autobiographies because I am fascinated by how others who are notable enough to be memorialized lived. I often base entire trips around these life-stories. During a recent trip to New York City, I chose Welty to be my companion, packing several books and two journalistic pieces by and about this famous southern author.
NYC felt like the perfect place to delve into her story because we both attended graduate school there—her Alma Mater Columbia and mine NYU—and we both lived there for a while, my stint quite a bit longer than hers. I also recently learned that she wrote for her high school newspaper, as I did. Like me, she didn’t like exposing her in-process writing to workshopping: she was attending Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference at Middlebury College when she discovered this for herself; I realized it early on during the Sewanee Writers’ Conference.
The chapter titled “Triplets, 1940” in the book Whose Woods These Are: A History of the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference 1926-1992 covers Welty’s first year there: “…the Bread Loaf session of 1940 was one in which the writers massing under the old maple trees could feel the vibrancy in the air. Among the six fellows that year were first-timers who were clearly destined for great futures: Eudora Welty, Carson McCullers, and John Ciardi.” She was 31 at the time, and was described as tall and blonde “with an easy smile and a dreamy, quickly averting gaze.” The image of her above depicting her at the conference in 1940 illustrates how apt this description is.
Eudora Welty in New York City
Among the books I took to New York City was Harold Bloom’s BioCritique of Welty. The journalistic pieces included “Eudora Welty, The Art of Fiction No. 47” published in The Paris Review and an anecdote about Welty’s life in New York City published in the Los Angeles Times in 1987. After finishing Bloom’s book, I decided to take The Paris Review piece to The Red Cat one sunny afternoon because it’s one of my favorite restaurants in Chelsea where I would be attending an event.
As I began to read it, something interesting happened: I noticed a small empty table set for four in the corner of the restaurant. In that moment, the scene seemed decidedly genteel, even though the table was tucked beneath an exotic lantern that would have slanted many a writer’s perception in an entirely different direction. The only reason I can give for this infusion of the southern spirit is Welty’s vocabulary.
Words and phrases like “kindredness,” “temperamental delight,” “tottering,” and “just plain indulgence” seemed to open a crack in time, just substantial enough to inspire the idea that she could have been sitting there, quietly reading The New York Times as she enjoyed a leisurely lunch. It isn’t far-fetched that she would be dining in a restaurant like the Red Cat if she were still alive; proof is an anecdote describing her as she was having dinner with a handful of her NYC friends published in the Los Angeles Times in 1987.
The reporter describes the moment a fellow Mississippian approached Welty’s table, tentatively at first and then boldly once she found the author to be friendly. “By the time the group got up to leave, it was pouring outside,” notes Elizabeth Mehren, who wrote the piece. “Welty’s new pals promptly sent a waiter to find a cab. Heading back downtown toward the Algonquin, where Welty always stays in New York, her big-city chums marveled at the turn of events that had transformed their Big Apple dinner into a Mississippi state reunion.”
It took just such an evening for Welty’s city friends to understand how fully her stories were born of the region in which she was raised. When they admitted this, the author replied, “Now you know. These are the people that make me write them.” Later, she told Mehren, who had followed her into the lobby of the Algonquin that evening in order to finish the interview, “I don’t make them up. I don’t have to.” But the novelist did make up the stories that swirl around her characters to make the south feel so alive in her work.
She told Linda Kuehl, who conducted The Paris Review interview, which also took place at the Algonquin, “You see, all my work grows out of the work itself. It seems to set its form from the idea, which is complete from the start, and a sense of the form is like a vase into which you pour something and fill it up. I have that completely in mind from the beginning, and I don’t realize how far I can wander and yet come back.” She also told Kuehl that no one could have enjoyed the lessons she learned as a writer more than she did: “There’s no end to what can be tried, is there?”
I share this love of the life-long education that writing brings, and some of my earliest lessons as someone who had turned serious about writing came from One Writer’s Beginnings, which I read in 1984 soon after it came out. Along with “Finding a Voice, the book holds sections titled “Listening” and “Learning to See.” One of the threads running through the narrative is the influence she felt from travel, which continued to develop as she aged: “It was not until I began to write, as I seriously did only when I reached my twenties, that I found the world out there revealing, because memory had become attached to seeing, love had added itself to discovery, and because I recognized in my own continuing longing to keep going, the need I carried inside myself to know—the apprehension, first, and then the passion, to connect myself to it.”
I was thinking about what it meant to connect ourselves to the world as writers, staring at the empty table in the corner of The Red Cat, when the waiter brought my check. I paid and slipped through the front door to walk along the sidewalks of Chelsea, her words holding greater import as the bustling traffic of Tenth Avenue whooshed by: “My imagination takes its strength and guides its direction from what I see and hear and learn and feel and remember of my living world. But I was to learn slowly that both these worlds, outer and inner, were different from what they seemed to me in the beginning.”
The Memory is a Living Thing
To end the chapter “Finding a Voice,” Welty notes that the greatest confluence of all is the clot of impressions that coalesces into human memory, which begins with the memories of one individual: “My own is the treasure most dearly regarded by me, in my life and in my work as a writer. Here time, also, is subject to confluence. The memory is a living thing—it too is in transit. But during its moment, all that is joins, and lives—the old and the young, the past and the present, the living and the dead.”
I’m literary adventuring in Paris, visiting the hotel where Welty stayed on the Left Bank and following her lead in exploring the world of one of France’s grandest royals, Anne Marie Louise d’Orléans, Duchess of Montpensier, or, as she’s more famously known, La Grande Mademoiselle. Welty was quite impressed with the princesses’ memoirs, and I must say the Bourbon is making my trip all the richer for the stories she tells about her time in history. I’ll be posting about the experience soon. For now, I’ll simply say that my trip is an example of how “all that is” joins and lives, and how the past and the present merge as the depths of history are plumbed.
Forty-six years after she spent a month and a half on the Left Bank, Welty would be awarded one of France’s most notable awards: the Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur (Legion of Honor) in 1996. This is but one sign that Ms. Welty certainly did find her voice, and a memorable one at that!
The Modern Salonnière and Southern Writers and the Outside World © Saxon Henry, all rights reserved. Saxon is an author, poet and strategist whose books include Anywhere But Here, Stranded on the Road to Promise and Four Florida Moderns.by