by Clarence Brown
American Reporter Correspondent
July 25, 2001
JACKSON, Miss. -- On the telephone she'd said, "Tell the driver it's the Belhaven neighborhood - he'll know where that is." Her house is across the street from Belhaven College, in northeast Jackson. She comes out onto the front step when the cab pulls into the yard of 1119 Pinehurst Street and smiles at the automobile. There is some delay while the young cabby fumbles for change and the mechanism that will unlock my door.
"Do you know who that is?" I ask, to fill the time. He says no, that he thinks he might have seen her, but the name does not ring a bell. He probably does not hang out at the Eudora Welty Library, as Jackson's public library is called.
At 83, she looks all of her years, and more - closer to the 93 that the New York Times will erroneously report as her age in a few weeks from now in some story about her getting an award. Her face is haggard even when lit by a welcoming smile. She calls my attention to the bright new brass numerals "1119" that have been affixed to the old exterior. "They made me put up something people could see."
She leads me into the house. "I'd have come to get you, but I don't drive anymore," she says. "I don't do anything anymore." I have a sharp recollection of my mother, two years her senior, who might have said exactly these words in the identical tone of lamentation.
Nondescript interior. Entrance hallway. Stair. Living room with fireplace. An antique television on a rickety stand, with rabbit ears for antenna, in the middle of the large parlor. T he sofa, covered in white fabric, is completely inundated with books. There is a low coffee table in front of her chair, which is one of those that raise up to help frail old people onto their feet. Letters in and partly out of envelopes. Many of the books are new. At my elbow is Anatoly Nayman's Remembering Akhmatova, with an introduction by Joseph Brodsky.
Seduced by this, and forgetting whose reminiscences have any value at the moment, I tell her something of my experiences with Akhmatova and Brodsky. Miss Eudora has the exquisite courtesy to appear interested.
We talk of Guy Davenport, my friend from childhood and college, one of the links between us. "I dote on his work," she says. She was in Lexington, invited by Guy to visit him and speak to his class (not to the University).
She is greatly impressed and delighted with this eccentric daring as a way to get round the usual ennui of an official academic visit. ("Must have endeared himself to his colleagues," sniffs one of mine, when I tell this story back in Princeton.) She was in his studio and saw his "drawings" (she did not mention paintings). "He must be the most talented man there is," she said.
Near the Akhmatova is a new book in French about Eudora Welty's work. There is an inscription to her in English. She says that she cannot read French.
I ask whether people still write to ask about the grandson of Phoenix Jackson, whether he was dead or alive, in the story "A Worn Path." I recalled her having written somewhere that this tops all other questions in frequency. She nods yes and wearily rolls her eyes. School teachers dismay her, she says, putting their classes up to all sorts of stunts, such as writing better endings for the story.
She tells me of one that amused her: Old Phoenix gets home with the toy windmill, gives it to her grandson, he puffs at it once, and falls over dead! "Can't you just see it?" she says, wincing.
She gets many letters from young students. By no means all of them are adulatory or even friendly. Some are hostile and somehow, to her astonishment, resentful: she mimics the tone of one: "What's the point of writing that dull old story about a stupid old black woman?" She said:"The teachers actually send me these letters. I can't imagine what they are thinking of."
She is wearing a black knit of some kind, an ordinary sweatshirt, I think, that has a band of writing in white across the bosom. I do not risk staring hard enough to make out what the words say. Authors' names, I think. She has a worn white sweater over her shoulders, th\e drape of it istorted by the hump it covers on her back.
She was recently in the hospital - for what, I don't know and do not ask. Except for us, the big old house sounds quite empty on this quiet afternoon. Azaleas bloom outside in the corners of a well-kept lawn. But there seems to be no one around to look after her. When I enquire in a gingerly way about her situation, she assures me that a black nurse looks in on her. She used to have a woman who helped with the correspondence, not exactly a secretary, a friend. "Wrote it, actually. I could never dictate anything." But now she is sick, too.
It turns out that she has little use for Hemingway. The subject comes up when she asks what I am talking to the alumni groups about. I speak of the ending of "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber" and ask her opinion of my idea that Margot actually tried to save Francis, seeing a better future with him, now that he has been reborn as a man, at least as a Hemingway man. She'd never thought of it that way, and seems to find it unsatisfactory as an ending, though plausible. "But isn't that like him, though?" she said. "To leave it that way for us? He left a lot of things vague. He knew it would make trouble for people."
I see the name "Powerhouse" in the French book. Her face lights up as we discuss this favorite story, and her taped reading of it. I mention that when I was in the Army there was a mythical figure in GI barracks talk whose name was "Jody" - a figure in many ways like her Uranus Knockwood. Jody was back home, wearing your clothes, going out with your girl. This delights her. She'd never heard of Jody. She adores Fats Waller, on whom Powerhouse was modeled. She has a treasure of his music on old 78s in the attic - "If the heat hasn't melted 'em all."
I speak of the difficulty of getting today's students to believe that much of Southern writing is about the South of this century. They think that Faulkner's story of Nancy, "That Evening Sun," took place in the 1850s, and this in spite of Quentin's opening paragraph about street lighting, and so on. She agrees. She says that young people also think that her work depicts a much earlier period.
Someone sent her a dramatization of "Why I Live at the PO." She said, "I told them it can't be dramatized. They had all these parts for actors to play people that were only in her mind."
She is reminded of Bessie Smith, whom she saw once in Jackson. Somehow, she and her date managed to get in with another white couple to a concert by Bessie Smith attended only by blacks. It was at a theater called the Alamo. She and her friends sat in the balcony. She demonstrated how she almost physically restrained her date, who wanted to call out a request for a song.
"It would have spoiled everything if they knew some white people were there." Her eyes rolled with pleasure as she described Bessie Smith's entrance upon the stage "in an apricot gown." Her arms make something like the gesture of a ballet dancer to convey the grace of that entrance.
I have brought along a copy of my translation of Mandelstam's prose, "The Noise of Time," which I inscribe to her. I find that my briefcase also contains a few Xeroxes of Ink Soup, my newspaper column. I show her the one about Ben, remarking that she'd been a newspaperwoman once, writing the society column for the Memphis Commercial Appeal. She asks if she might keep it. I show her the one about the spotted owl, and she immediately notices my signature on the drawing.
As we talk, she keeps stealing glances at the columns, but finally says, "I just hate it when somebody reads something of mine in front of me."
I ask whether I might take her picture. She shrugs a polite yes, which is hardly a surprise, coming from someone who has after all published a book of her own photographs. The little Olympus that Jeff and Kitty gave me interests her. As I was taking pictures, I asked her about William Eggleston, for whose book The Democratic Forest she wrote an introduction. She admires him greatly. "He does drink an awful lot," she says.
I use the delayed-release switch to make a picture of myself in the presence of greatness. For this I have to stack some books on a small table and set the camera atop them, then move a chair next to hers. The thing fires prematurely a couple of times. She takes a photographer's interest in all these proceedings and is graciously forgiving.
She adores Jim Lehrer and Robert MacNeil. She has already read MacNeil's novel and thinks it wonderful. She tells me she is even closer to Roger Mudd, who lives in McLean, Va., and with whose family she always stays when she is in that vicinity. She tells me that Roger Mudd was finally successful in getting rehabilitation for his ancestor, the Dr. Mudd who treated the injured John Wilkes Booth after the Lincoln assassination and, as a result, lost his citizenship. She says, "That must be where we get the saying 'his name is mud,' don't you think?"
Promptly at six she goes to the ancient television set and turns on the MacNeil-Lehrer Newshour. She never misses it. The image is disgracefully bad.
She offers me a drink, or would have done so, had I not mentioned in some connection that I did not drink. Then I felt that I should have a drink, if only to make it possible for her to have one. I wondered how exactly she was going to get any dinner.
It must happen that very famous people are left utterly alone for no other reason than people's reluctance to intrude upon them. There is no sound of any other presence in the house. She seemed genuinely glad of my company and reminded me more than once of my mother's eagerness to have someone to talk to. (Back home in Princeton, Jim Seawright assures me that a large network of friends keep tabs on Miss Eudora.)
The general topic of drink brings up that of bootleg liquor and moonshine. When she was young, she and her crowd would have to go across the Pearl River over into Rankin County to buy drink. It was never actually moonshine, she was careful to emphasize, but the real stuff - "Old Crow and things like that" - just completely illegal in Jackson. To evade the law, the bootlegger kept moving his place of business.
Once, going after a supply, she encountered a little black boy sitting on the bridge reading Time magazine. When he saw her coming, he silently raised his arm, never taking his eyes from the page, to point her in the new direction. He'd been left there to divert traffic. She relished the detail of his reading that particular magazine. The same arm that had enacted Bessie Smith's entrance showed me the boy's languid gesture.
I find it oddly reassuring that she lives just as much surrounded by junk as I do, things that a self-respecting second-hand dealer would keep out of sight, or give away. There is a dim oil over the mantel. The mantel itself would look better if it were more cluttered with stuff. As it is, the one or two things there have no way to hide their painful drabness.
Large porcelain statuettes of a fairy-tale king and queen. The sofa looks as though it might be comfortable, but the sofa is unavailable, being under an avalanche of books. Her chair is a prosthesis, and is now frozen in some midway position, but she seems unable to relax into it. She spends the whole time bent slightly forward, her arms folded in her lap.
We speak of other friends that we have in common, and especially ofthe artists who hail from Jackson, Mississippi. My colleague James Seawight, the noted sculptor and head of the Visual Arts program at Princeton, comes from a Jackson family that has long been close to her. She calls Jim, not surprisingly, "Jimmy."
I don't recall mentioning the Princeton composer Milton Babbitt, from Jackson, but she is fond of the writer Richard Ford and his wife Krystina, who have now, she informs me, actually moved back to Mississippi (Oxford) after having lived restlessly all over the United States, including Princeton. Richard's incessant displacement contrasts with her stubborn life-long fixity in the place where she was born.
Her eyes dip back into the columns and she remarks again on my drawing of the owl. Talk of cartooning brings up the comic strip "Peanuts" and its creator Charles Shultz, whom she has met at various times. He donated money to a local black college. She was with him at some other meeting of writers and artists and recalls that students aske d what the inside of Snoopy's doghouse looked like.
Shultz said, "It is vast, with great chandeliers and staircases. But only I know that. You will never see it except in two dimensions." About this answer she said, "That's so good. That's just like a writer. A writer has to know all about the inside of a thing even if he is just going to show a little bit of it."
I tell her that Punch is for sale and will cease to exist if no buyer can be found. "No! Don't tell me that. A world without Punch!"
This reminds her of P. G. Wodehouse. She has bought a complete set of his works and keeps it by her bed. "I've read most of them one by one, but now I have the set." When she wakes in the wee hours and can't get back to sleep, she reads Wodehouse. I say that I read Wallace Stevens in the same way, especially the "Adagia." She approves of this. "They're likeinjections," she says.
The biography of the novelist Henry Green by his son Sebastian Yorke lay near her chair. She'd met Green, she said, during her brief period of living in England, and loved him, both as man and writer. Green once told her, just after they'd met, that his best book was his autobiography Pack My Bag.
"It's the best thing I ever wrote, but you'll not find it anywhere," he said. But she said she did find it and liked it tremendously. I said I'd found it unreadable, full of sentences that made no sense at all, and that I must now, on her assurance that it was good, have another try.
Byron De La Beckwith had been rearrested some months ago to be tried again for the murder, in Jackson in 1963, of the Mississippi civil rights leader Medgar Evers. I bring up this name with some misgiving. One of the most powerful things she ever wrote is "Where is the Voice Coming From?"
She produced it in one rush of inspiration and outrage immediately after hearing of the murder on the radio. She'd entered with uncanny prescience into the soul of a bigot and murderer and produced an overwhelming monologue of envious, spitting hatred. So accurate had been some of her imaginings that the New Yorker had anxiously besought her to alter certain details, which turned out to jibe all too closely with the facts that came out when Byron De La Beckwith was arrested for the first time, before the story could be printed. A look of dismay comes over her face at this name. She does not think he will ever be convicted. She savors the bizarre name of the suspect and says, "Someone told me I'd thought the killer was a Snopes when all the time it was a Compson."
I asked her what she made of David Duke, and a look of deeper dismay came over her face. "All the De La Beckwiths were for him," she said.
Leaving, I said I'd send her copies of the pictures if they came out. "But please don't bother writing," I said, thinking of how difficult she'd said it was for her to correspond.
"Oh, I'll write," she said.
Eudora Welty, one of America's greatest short story writers and winner of the Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award, O. Henry Award, the Medal of Freedom and many other literary prizes, died Monday in Jackson, Miss., at the age of 92.
Clarence Brown spent an afternoon with the late Eudora Welty at her Jackson, Miss., home in March, 1992. He is the former cartoonist for the Village Voice, cartoon editor of the Saturday Review and Emeritus Professor of Comparative Literature at Princeton University.