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3:07 pm
Mon March 10, 2014

Visiting Eudora Welty's Mississippi Home

Funeral services were held this weekend for Chokwe Lumumba, the mayor of Jackson, Mississippi.

Here & Now’s Robin Young visited Jackson a few months ago, and during her trip went to the home of Southern writer Eudora Welty.

Welty’s niece, Mary Alice Welty, took Young on a tour of the house, which Welty lived in from 1925 until her death in 2001.

The home includes Welty’s substantial library, which Mary Alice Welty says is a major draw for visitors.

“They want to read all the titles,” she said. “They want to see what Eudora enjoyed reading.”

The house also preserves Eudora Welty’s writing desk as it was when she was alive.

“She would write on anything available — back of a checkbook, scrap of a paper,” Mary Alice Welty said. “You feel her presence here, really.”

Welty’s writings include the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “The Optimist’s Daughter” and the short story “Where is the Voice Coming From?” about the murder of civil rights pioneer Medgar Evers.

“She wrote it in one night, right after it happened,” Mary Alice Welty said of the short story. “And it was written out of anger. And she got into the mind of the assassin.”

Eudora Welty later wrote, “I felt I needed to get into the mind and inside the skin of a character who could not be more alien or repugnant to me.”

Welty’s stories were often about the Southern experience, including African-Americans’ experience in the South.

“Toni Morrison remarked that she captured their voice,” Mary Alice Welty said. “In fact, I just heard a paper written by a young black graduate student and she goes through and cites  several stories where — unlike a lot of writers — Eudora would sometimes make the black character the central figure.”

Guest

  • Mary Alice Welty, niece of Eudora Welty.
Copyright 2014 WBUR-FM. To see more, visit http://www.wbur.org.

Transcript

JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:

It's HERE AND NOW.

Over the weekend, Jackson, Mississippi, buried Mayor Chokwe Lumumba, a black militant who stunned many white residents when he won the election to the office just eight months ago, then won over voters with his attention to crime and potholes. He was mourned by many at the funeral, including former governor William Winter, who's white.

WILLIAM WINTER: This time last year, I had great concerns about him becoming the mayor of Jackson. Based on the stereotype that this old white man had fallen on him, I was afraid that he would divide our city. I could not have been more wrong.

HOBSON: Mayor Lumumba died at the age of 66 of a heart attack.

ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:

Well, the late author Eudora Welty also united black and white Jackson, writing in the voice of both, capturing everyday conversation in stories like "Why I Live at the P.O.," the post office, in which a woman tells of her sister Stella-Rondo, who comes home to Jackson with a two-year-old named Shirley-T.

EUDORA WELTY: (Reading) Mama said she like to made her drop dead for a second. Here you had this marvelous blonde child and never so much as wrote your mother a word about it, says Mama. I'm thoroughly ashamed of you. But of course, she wasn't. Stella-Rondo just calmly takes off this hat. I wish you could see it. She says, why, Mama, Shirley-T.'s adopted, I can prove it. How? says Mama, but all I says was, hmm. There I was over the hot stove, trying to stretch two chickens over five people and a completely unexpected child into the bargain, without one moment's notice. What do you mean hmm? says Stella-Rondo, and Mama says, I heard that, Sister.

YOUNG: Eudora Welty. And we recently visited her Jackson, Mississippi.

(LAUGHTER)

YOUNG: During our trip, we visited the historic Eudora Welty house. Shall we?

MARY ALICE WELTY: We are ready. OK. Very good.

YOUNG: All right. Yeah. We'll be back.

Our guide, Mary Alice Welty, niece of the famed Southern writer Eudora Welty, who died in 2001 and lived in her childhood Tudor home for over 76 years.

It's very modest.

WELTY: It is. She liked to hear the noises - the birds sing, students playing the piano over at Belhaven College.

YOUNG: Yeah. Let's go in.

WELTY: OK.

YOUNG: Eudora kept the house pretty much the way it was after her father died suddenly in 1931. To enter is to plummet back in time.

Oh. People have said this to me and I laughed, but I feel the need to do it now. People say that when they come in here, people from Jackson, say they want - they feel the need to genuflect.

(LAUGHTER)

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY)

WELTY: I'm not lazy and I love to work. I really love it. I would not do it otherwise because it's so hard.

YOUNG: Eudora Welty in a 1983 PBS documentary.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY)

WELTY: I really love to write. It's almost like the pleasure of reading. Well, it is the same.

YOUNG: Eudora Welty would write dozens of short stories and novels, winning the Pulitzer for 1973's "The Optimist Daughter." She'd also read hundreds more books and they are still here.

WELTY: Books everywhere. We had to move books to find a place to sit.

YOUNG: I'm looking. There's Coleridge. There's Cheever.

WELTY: Virginia.

YOUNG: Oh, Virginia Woolf. Yeah. What happens? Do people come in here and do they want to touch the books that...

WELTY: They do. They absolutely do, and they want to read all the titles. They want to see what Eudora enjoyed reading.

YOUNG: On cue, we bumped into a small tour group, including a man from Los Angeles and his friend, a young woman from Jackson.

Your thoughts about Eudora Welty?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Oh, my goodness. She was an amazing writer and a really exceptional photographer.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: And I've been wanting to come here for a long, long time.

YOUNG: Why?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Just because. It's - you go to shrines. I mean, we all have a place of pilgrimage. So you have to come here. I recognize the ceramic heater. My parents had the ceramic heater just like that when I was growing up in L.A. I haven't seen one in 50 years, 40 years.

YOUNG: You've been talking about the fact that she so preserved, this place, and I wondered if it's - I mean, not exactly a new thought but to hold on to that childhood that was so wonderful, the father who passed away early, and maybe the talisman, you know, the things that became talisman for her.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Unintelligible). You know, we all have that touchstone to get us back to where we were.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: She's just so Jackson. This is all Jackson. This is it. They were saying a minute ago upstairs it feels like walking back in time.

YOUNG: What does that mean, so Jackson?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: You know, I'm not sure I can definite that.

(LAUGHTER)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: It just feels like I'm connected to this place.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY)

WELTY: I used to listen to people talk when I was just a little girl. And my mother says that I used to come and sit down with a bunch of ladies and say, now, start talking. And I would just hear all these - not my mother I may say - but these wonderful exaggerated tales of hurt feelings and - it was just (unintelligible) - you've got to amuse yourself someway.

WELTY: She would write anywhere. And I think because she knew the people, she could write uninterrupted. People in Jackson respected her. And they gave her, you know, space, time, privacy.

YOUNG: And here is some writing laid out.

WELTY: Yes. This is how she would cut and paste. She would type a story, and then she would read it and then cut strips almost like she was sewing. She would cut and then take pins and pin it into the location and make the necessary changes and retype. And she saved every draft she ever wrote.

YOUNG: For instance, here's a sentence: We enjoyed seeing the cars and wagons lined up behind the bars of a crossing. She crossed it out and then scribbled it, Instead of we enjoyed seeing the cars and wagons, it was gratifying to see how many cars and wagons lined up behind the bars. But she'd also taken that snippet of writing and literally pinned it with a sewing pin to the paper.

WELTY: She did.

YOUNG: All right. You go ahead. I'll follow you.

Upstairs, Eudora Welty's sleeping quarters. More books, including an old bound set up on a shelf.

WELTY: It's a set of Dickens. My grandmother, as a young child, had long hair. And at the time, they thought long hair would sap your strength. And they tried to get my grandmother to cut her hair. She refused. But for a set of Dickens, she would cut her hair. So later, she married my grandfather. The house caught on fire. My grandmother rushed back into the house, threw the Dickens out the window and jumped out after him.

YOUNG: And she pays homage to the importance of Dickens in the family. In "The Optimist Daughter," when the father is dying, the daughter reads Dickens to him.

WELTY: That is true.

WELTY: She was not sure he was listening to the words. Is that all, his patient voice asked when she paused. Laurel felt reluctant to leave her father now in the afternoons. She stayed and read. Nicholas Nickleby had seemed as endless to her as time must seem to him.

YOUNG: Eudora Welty reading from "The Optimist Daughter," inspired by her own family's stories of a rescued set of Dickens. Eudora Welty is as linked to Jackson, Mississippi as Faulkner is to Oxford, including her definitive writing on Medgar Evers' killer. Our tour with Mary Alice Welty continues after the break. HERE AND NOW.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

YOUNG: It's HERE AND NOW.

And if you just joined us, we've been visiting the Jackson, Mississippi home of one of the great American writers, the late Eudora Welty.

WELTY: I was getting along fine with Mama, Papa-Daddy and Uncle Rondo until my sister Stella-Rondo just separated from her husband and came back home again.

YOUNG: Eudora Welty reading from her short story "Why I Live at the P.O.," a story inspired by women she photographed during the Depression when she took pictures for the WPA, ironing her things at the back of a post office. It's one of many stories and five novels that documented and preserved the Deep South from the mid-1930s until Eudora's death in 2001. The home where she grew up and wrote many of them has also been preserved. It's now an historic landmark. We took a tour with Eudora's niece, Mary Alice Welty White.

WELTY: This is much like her writing desk was.

YOUNG: Can I go beyond the velvet rope?

WELTY: We...

YOUNG: Oh, my gosh. Behind the scenes.

(LAUGHTER)

YOUNG: Up close on her writing desks, little snippets of her handwriting.

WELTY: She would write on anything available - back of a checkbook, scrap of paper.

YOUNG: Let's see if we can read any of it. Rhythms I grew up to: the beat of the fork as I stood by my mother. That's a cooking reference.

WELTY: It is cooking, right.

YOUNG: The silent wayward flashing...

WELTY: Flashing - that's it - of the lightning bugs.

YOUNG: ...of the lightning bugs: not my rhythms, theirs.

MARY ALICE WELTY: Theirs. Oh.

YOUNG: Oh.

If we sound like we're swooning, we are.

(LAUGHTER)

YOUNG: Wonderful. I feel like I'm spying or eavesdropping on Eudora Welty.

WELTY: Right. Well, you feel her presence here, really.

YOUNG: Next door to the house on Pinehurst Street: a museum. Here, more historical papers, including the original copy of the short story Eudora wrote about the murder of civil rights activist Medgar Evers, shot dead in his driveway right here in Jackson. It was her imagined first-person account of the murderer's thinking, but it turned out to be spot on. Published in the New Yorker, it's called "Where Is the Voice Coming From?"

WELTY: She wrote it in one night and right after it happened, and it's written out of anger. And she got into the mind of the assassin. And the story had to be edited lighter over the phone because she came so close to the truth of the real events.

YOUNG: And what the real killer was actually thinking.

WELTY: Absolutely. When they went back and edited, they changed things like Delta Drive, which was a road in Jackson, to West Road.

YOUNG: And she also writes about the Jackson surplus and salvage.

WELTY: That's true. And she changes to - Jackson to Thermopylae.

YOUNG: Yeah. We can see the changes on this original draft. She captures this voice of hate, racism. Somebody just had it with this upstart, inward activist and was going to go kill him. She wrote later: I felt I needed to get into the mind and inside the skin of a character who could hardly have been more alien or repugnant to me.

WELTY: And that is absolutely the truth.

YOUNG: Yeah. How did people here respond to that?

WELTY: There are actually two kind of side stories on that. She - her editor was very concerned about it, perhaps people would burn crosses in her yard after seeing the story in the New Yorker. And she said well, people who burn crosses in yards do not read the New Yorker. But then on the other hand, at the time in Mississippi, there was a sovereignty commission that was writing down license tag numbers. And she would go to events and they - her friends, they would rotate cars because they were afraid that their license tag would be recorded.

YOUNG: Yeah. So she captures the voice of hate.

WELTY: She does.

YOUNG: But in some of her writing, she becomes the voice of the Mississippi black. How did the black community respond to that, a white writer in the South?

WELTY: Toni Morrison remarked that she captured their voice, as did Jesse Jackson.

YOUNG: Yeah. I'm thinking of "The Worn Path."

WELTY: "The Worn Path," yes. That is - in fact, I just heard a paper written by a young black graduate student, and she goes through and cites several stories, where - that unlike a lot of writers that Eudora sometimes would make the black character the central figure.

YOUNG: Yeah. And in this case, it's an elderly black woman kind of talking out loud as she makes her way to a frightening woods, a huge journey for her, to go get medication for a grandson.

WELTY: Phoenix Jackson, the character.

WELTY: On she went. The woods were deep and still. The sun made the pine needles almost too bright to look at, up where the wind rocked. The cones dropped as light as feathers. Down in the hollow was the mourning dove. It was not too late for him. The path ran up a hill. Seem like there's chains about my feet, time I get this far, she said, in the voice of argument old people keep to use with themselves. Something always take a hold of me on this hill, pleads I should stay.

YOUNG: Eudora Welty captured the voice of the South in a landscape. Her garden is still here, as are her potted plants on the porch.

WELTY: And this right here - oh. It is getting ready to bloom. It is as night-blooming cereus.

YOUNG: I understand that when these bloomed that she would hold overnight parties.

WELTY: Well, it was common in the time in Jackson, that people would have night-blooming cereuses. And when they were getting ready to bloom, they'd post a little notice in the paper to come and watch their night-blooming cereus. So Eudora and several of her friends formed a club, The Night-Blooming Cereus Club.

(LAUGHTER)

WELTY: And they bloom one time during the night. It has to be dark.

YOUNG: And it - that's it.

WELTY: And that's it. And the next morning, they look, as Eudora wrote in one of her stories, like a wrung chicken's' neck. And that's exactly what it looks like.

YOUNG: OK. Tell me - as we walk onto this beautiful garden that Eudora Welty's mother first laid out and then Eudora, tell me how it appeared in her stories.

WELTY: We can actually go over here. We have put quotes throughout the garden. This one if from "The Optimist Daughter," the favorite camellia of her father's, the old-fashioned Chandleri Elegans that he had planted on her mother's grave. Now big as a pony, saddled with unplucked bloom, living and dead, standing on a bedding carpet of its own flowers. And if you've ever seen camellias in the spring, their petals do drop off on the ground like a carpet.

YOUNG: Beautiful.

WELTY: And then this is a wonderful letter she wrote to her agent, Diarmuid Russell, about the garden. Every evening when the sun is going down and it's cool enough to water the garden and it is all quiet except for the locusts in great waves of sound, and I stand still in one place for a long time, putting water on the plants, I feel something new. As if my will went it of me, as if I had a stubbornness and it was melting.

YOUNG: Did you know you were going to a special place, in a place where special works were being made?

WELTY: I really didn't. She was our aunt. Well, I guess I first realized when I was in junior high school and I opened my textbook, and there was a story about Eudora Welty. So I thought, oh.

(LAUGHTER)

WELTY: As I grew older, of course, I obviously was very aware of it. We would walk into a restaurant, and you could just see the heads turning.

YOUNG: Tell me about that because when I say I'm coming here, everybody, no matter what age, there's no cynicism about this here. There's no, oh, you know, someone again wants to go see Eudora Welty's place. There's no cynicism about it. There's seems to be great pride still.

WELTY: There is. And while you're here if anyone knew that you had come here, you would more than likely hear their Eudora story. Oh, and I really want to tell you about the time I met her, Jitney 14, or in the, you know, produce section. They either called her Ms. Eudora or Ms. Welty.

WELTY: Thorns, you doing you're appointed work. Never want to let folks pass - no, sir. Old eyes thought you was a pretty little green bush. Finally, trembling all over, she stood free, and after a moment dared to stoop for her cane. Sun so high, she cried, leaning back and looking, while the thick tears went over her eyes. The time getting all gone here.

YOUNG: Again, a black grandmother fights thorns and her own fears in Eudora Welty's classic short story "The Worn Path." Thank you to Mary Alice Welty White, the staff of the Eudora Welty House and Mississippi Public Broadcasting for our trip.

From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Robin Young.

HOBSON: I'm Jeremy Hobson. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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