Lorrie Moore, who grew up being told she was “half southern,”* honors the great Eudora Welty — “a natural storyteller, a wit, and a clown. ‘If this sofa could talk,’ she said once to Reynolds Price, looking at the bedraggled plastic furnishings of the only rental room Price could find for them in Tuscaloosa, ‘we would have to burn it.'”
All of Welty’s endearing qualities are underscored by Suzanne Marrs’s recent biography of her, the only one ever authorized by Welty. An unauthorized [Ed note: and tedious] one appeared in 1998, Eudora: A Writer’s Life, by Ann Waldron (who without Welty’s approval began to feel shunned by Welty’s fiercely protective friends and a bit sorry for herself, perceiving that she was rather literally disapproved of, the perennially “uninvited guest”). Welty at the time of Waldron’s completed book was eighty-nine and unable to read for long spells. (Thank goodness, suggests Jacksonian Marrs, the anointed biographer.) Still, despite the biblical saying, a prophet is not often without honor in her own country: Welty was a goddess in Jackson. What a prophet is often without is privacy, peace, and any real depth of comprehension among her fellow citizens. And although this is not the task or accomplishment of literary biography, that Suzanne Marrs has waited until after Welty’s death to publish Eudora Welty is certainly a beginning to all three.
It is also a work of love as biographies often have to be just to get written. But of course, unlike a work of disinterested investigation, there can be problems: a work of love may suddenly turn, in exhaustion, upon its subject; it may never look hard in certain corners out of fear of risking itself; it can grow defensive or caressing. Still, literary biography has its practitioners and even more so its readers — some looking for instruction, some looking for secrets, some simply curious to discover how a life can be lived one way on the outside and yet another way on the inside without derailing and tumbling into madness; some wanting to see if that contradiction is, as Flaubert, another writer who lived with his mother, famously suggested, the very thing that keeps sanity in place. Or if the safe living that ensures the daring art is also what keeps the grown-up a child, or a community pet, or unhappy, or drunk.
The element that is most often looked for by both biographer and reader, however, is how the life is revealed in the work, and so the work is read backward — as a source for the life — and the misstep of biographical overreading begins to mar, so to speak, the discussion of the work. I’m afraid this is sometimes done so blithely in Suzanne Marrs’s book that, leaving no room for the beautiful deformities of invention, she actually refers to one character — Courtney in an early story of Welty’s — as “aka Eudora,” as if a fictional character were an alias, or someone the author is doing business as. Oh, well: it is a hazard of literary biography that few have avoided. Still, the phrase “aka Eudora,” it seems to me, sets a new rhetorical standard for refusal even to try.
* This, incidentally, is a convenient excuse in southern barbecue joints when you want to customize your iced tea order. As soon as you utter the words “half sweet, half unsweet,” the waitress will straighten her spine and purse her lips and narrow her eyes at you as though you’ve just asked her to strip down and perform a live sex act with a donkey. Before she can pull out the old “I’m sorry, we just don’t do that here,” tell her it’s your parents’ fault — you’re only half southern. She’ll feel duty-bound to bolster the non-Yankee side of you.
Image credit: Welty House.