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Eudora Welty: A Life of Stories : 78-Year-Old Novelist Finds Strength and Continuity in the Written Word

November 13, 1987|ELIZABETH MEHREN | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — On her semiannual trip to New York several years ago, Eudora Welty decided to take a couple of "New York friends" out to dinner. They settled in at a cozy East Side bistro and within minutes, another customer was approaching their table.

"Hey, aren't you from Mississippi?" the elegant, white-haired writer recalled being asked by one of the strangers. "I'm from Mississippi too."

Without a second thought, the woman joined the Welty party. When her dinner partner showed up, she also pulled up a chair.

"They began telling me all the news," Welty recalled. "I didn't know what my New York friends were thinking."

Taxis on a rainy New York night are scarcer than sunshine. By the time the group got up to leave, it was pouring outside. 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.

"My friend said: 'Now we believe your stories,' " Welty added. "And I said: 'Now you know. These are the people that make me write them.' "

Sitting on an overstuffed couch in the Algonquin's dimly lit lobby, Welty, a slender, inconspicuous figure in a simple gray dress, looked pleased with this explanation.

"I don't make them up," she said of the characters who have inhabited her fiction these last 50 or so years. "I don't have to."

Beauticians, bartenders, piano players and people with purple hats, Welty's people come from afternoons spent visiting with old friends, from walks through the streets of her native Jackson, Miss., from snippets of conversations overheard on a bus. It grates Welty that, at 78, her left ear has now given out. Sometimes, sitting on a bus or a train, she hears only a fragment of a particularly juicy sounding tale.

'I Miss the Payoff'

"I miss the payoff," Welty grumbled. "It makes me mad. I want to say: 'Would you repeat that?' "

Such is the plight of the habitual observer. Though "I never was any good until after I got out of college" (first at Mississippi State Women's College; later, the University of Wisconsin), and though she never took a single writing class, Welty knew as a child that she wanted to write. She loved words, loved the way they rolled together and spun off her pen.

"I love using the language," Welty said during a visit here to meet with her publisher and to preside at the Whiting Foundation's writing awards ceremony. "That's really the reason I still write."

Welty's writing--short stories, novels and a best-selling memoir--has all but consumed her life. She has traveled extensively, often using payments from lectures or writing projects to live two months here, three months there, always gathering people and material for her stories. Through no philosophical objection ("I'm not anti-man," she has said), she never married. She's had no surfeit of beaus over the years, but romantically, she once told an interviewer, "nothing ever seemed to me to work out like I wanted it to."

But Welty has been lucky professionally. In 1932, fresh from the two-year program at Columbia University's graduate school of business that bought her, most of all, some time in New York, she returned to Mississippi and a job writing for the federal Works Project Administration. In her spare time, she set about writing fiction. Entirely ignorant of the publishing process but determined to be published, she sold the first story she submitted.

The buyer was "a little tiny regional magazine, one you've never heard of." It took Welty six additional years of pounding away at her typewriter to be published by "something of national sphere," the Atlantic Monthly.

"But I didn't care," she said. "I just wanted to write. I didn't even appreciate how low my chances were."

What Welty did appreciate was the wealth of information she was reveling in as she crisscrossed Mississippi, poring over county archives and the state's rich lode of historical documents. By "1940-something, I don't know, 1941? '42? '43?," Welty had already published her first collection of stories, "A Curtain of Green." She had dreamed of spending a year writing in France, but when she was finally awarded a Guggenheim Foundation grant that would allow her to do it, "there was World War II." Instead, she plunged still deeper into the mysteries of Mississippi.

"You think of it as the Deep South," Welty said. "But we really were a frontier state. You could look right across the Mississippi River and see forever, nothing but wilderness."

She became fascinated with Natchez, a place "with a reputation for being antebellum, but it is much, much older." Their pockets laden with gold after trading in New Orleans, travelers would head back overland, through rugged country "beset with who knows what? Outlaws! Bears! Indians!"

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