Review

Eudora Welty: A Biography

by Suzanne Marrs



More than 60 years since the publication of her first book, A
CURTAIN OF GREEN, Eudora
Welty
's status as a major voice in American letters is
unquestioned. One of the chief joys of her art is evinced in the
ways her finely wrought short stories and elaborately patterned
novels capture colorful characters whose depth and dignity are
matched by a spirited, often unselfconscious zest for life and
living. It is furthermore acknowledged that the range of men and
women who people Welty's narratives offers consistent proof that
"regional literature" is as varied as it is universal, that even
the most geographically cloistered characters (think "Livvie" in
the story of that name) are capable of feeling and sensing the same
sort of complexities of the most sophisticated, urban-dwelling
aristocrats who people Henry James's fiction.

With respect to the author, however, most scholars tend to dismiss
Welty's emotional and active life as devoid of incident or color.
In a widely read "Introduction" to the author in THE NORTON
ANTHOLOGY OF AMERICAN LITERATURE, VOLUME 2, for example, the
editors insist that her "outwardly uneventful life and her writing
are most intimately connected to the topography and atmosphere of
the season and the soil of the native Mississippi that ha[d] been
her lifelong home." Such logic assumes Welty sacrificed the chance
of a fulfilling personal life in the service of her art.

Suzanne Marrs, the author of EUDORA WELTY: A Biography, insists
that this is a reductive view that fails to consider the author's
full engagement in matters of family, romantic love, travel, and
politics over the course of nine decades. In a patient,
well-documented, thoroughly considered overview of the writer's
life, Marrs debunks the notion that Welty's existence was
"uneventful"; and if, even after such a painstaking process,
Welty's personal narrative seems tame in comparison to the high
drama of her mentor, Katherine Anne Porter, or the intense personal
trials of her contemporary, Richard Wright, Marrs's EUDORA WELTY
amply documents the writer's full participation in almost every
aspect of a long and fulfilling life.

Organized into 11 chapters, EUDORA WELTY first traces the author's
sheltered upbringing by two well-educated parents who migrated from
the north shortly before her birth; it then delves into key moments
of the author's self discovery. (Marrs's careful, patient analysis
reveals that Welty's talents weren't simply literary; her lifelong
passion for photography began as early as the 1930s.) Just as
Welty's formative years as a young writer led to the publication of
her first and perhaps most celebrated book, she was confronted by
the atrocities of World War II --- an event that affected her on a
political and personal level. It is in the ensuing decade that we
witness a passionate, albeit frustrated, long-distance love affair
between Welty and longtime friend John Robinson. Exactly why this
relationship did not progress into a physical one leading to
marriage is, with a good deal of evidence, attributed to Robinson's
ambiguous sexuality, a fact that he was painfully slow to realize
and one that ultimately placed Welty, a longtime friend to many
homosexual men, in a strained position with regards to same-sex
couples.

Several other subjects are thoroughly considered from this period
as well, including extensive travel throughout the United Sates and
Europe and the author's prolific string of largely acclaimed
publications that, from the mid-1950s to the early 1970s, led to a
conspicuous 15 years of creative silence. During that time, Marrs
documents Welty's heavy involvement in Mississippi politics, her
stand on hot-button issues, such as racism, and her earnest attempt
to break writer's block through prolonged work on LOSING BATTLES,
her most ambitious and fully developed novel, that ironically grew
out of a short story.

By the early 1970s, Welty worked through her writer's block with
another string of impressive publications, including THE OPTIMIST'S
DAUGHTER, which earned her the Pulitzer Prize. But Marrs's EUDORA
WELTY is not an in-depth study of the writer's work. (For this
readers should consult the biographer's ONE WRITER'S IMAGINATION:
The Fiction of Eudora Welty.) Instead, Marrs here considers Welty's
fiction as representative of the writer's personal struggles. The
brutal rape scene that concludes the story "At the Landing," the
final fiction in Welty's short story collection THE WIDE NET, is
read as a "misuse of power and violation of individual sanctity
that Eudora associated with fascism and even at times with
politicians more generally." Such readings are insightful and
well-considered, but I often wondered if Marrs might go a bit
further: in the previous example, the rape victim, Jenny, is first
brutalized by a man who, though he "violates" her, still holds her
heart. Is this perhaps a projection of her feelings about her
frustrated passions for Robinson?

Marrs also considers a second romance in Eudora's life, this one
with writer Kenneth Millar, a relationship that bloomed from a
platonic, mutual admiration for one another's work. This romance,
which appears to have remained unconsummated, was mutually
nourishing for both parties until Millar's sad death to
Alzheimer's. In addition to these romances, Marrs discusses Welty's
close but difficult relationship with her mother, her fruitful
correspondences with fellow writers, and her evolution from
woman-as-letters to elder statesperson in the arts.

Far surpassing Ann Waldron's 1998 EUDORA, Suzanne Marrs's EUDORA
WELTY is altogether an engaging, well-researched and --- to my way
of thinking --- necessary read for any self-respecting Americanist
and Welty scholar.

Reviewed by Tony Leuzzi on January 21, 2011

Eudora Welty: A Biography
by Suzanne Marrs

  • Publication Date: August 1, 2005
  • Genres: Biography, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 672 pages
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • ISBN-10: 0151009147
  • ISBN-13: 9780151009145