Thursday, June 21, 2012

Suzanne Marrs--Eudora Welty: A Biography (2005)

In this beautiful and comprehensive authorized biography, Marrs draws upon extensive archival work as well as interviews with Welty herself to fully illustrate Welty’s life.  Published only four years after Welty’s death at the age of 91, Marrs writes about Welty’s life chronologically, assigning themes from the work of Welty and other writers to periods of her life ranging from five to twenty years. 
Perhaps most important to my own work is Marrs’ discussion of the unauthorized biography written by AnnWaldron, particularly “Waldron’s decidedly antifeminist focus on Eudora’s appearance, on remarks stressing her homeliness as it was offset by her winning personality” (565).  I will reproduce her comments at length here, as I think they’re important:
Waldron asserts that in 1984, when she was named on of “Ten Great Faces” by People magazine, Eudora had at last triumphed over the conventional belles of her youth.  My own sure sense is that Eudora measured triumph in far different terms, and that Waldron had access to few pictures of Eudora, many of which reveal both her physical and intellectual attractiveness over the years, her truly beautiful eyes alight with interest in the world.  Depending on her pose, of course, Eudora in photographs could seem either statuesque or awkwardly tall; somber, handsome, and dignified or smiling a bit too broadly; well-coifed or disheveled.  But she was not interested in striking poses, in spending hours in a beauty shop, in applying makeup, in amassing a vast wardrobe.  It is true that Eudora was occasionally self-denigrating when discussing her appearance.  To a visiting Reynolds, who was eager to set out for dinner and urged her to stop primping in front of a mirror, the sixty-something writer lamented, “You haven’t had to live behind this face all these years.”  A decade or so later, I suggested that Eudora resembled her mother, only to be contradicted: “No.  My mother was a beautiful woman.”  Then early in the 1990s, I was surprised to hear Eudora and Charlotte Capers agree that their mothers had always wanted them to be prettier, and I was taken aback when Eudora told us of a comment Katherine Anne Porter had made to her: “You will never know what is means to be a beautiful woman.”  Probably Eudora agreed, failing to see that beauty that Reynolds, John Robinson, Ken Millar, and a host of others saw in her, but she was not tormented by the issue.  Her comments about beauty were always matter-of-fact, and she had long been dismissive of the American obsession with cosmetic enhancements.  In the thirties, friends had photographed Eudora in a mock Helena Rubinstein/Elizabeth Arden pose.  A decade later Eudora’s story “Hello and Good-Bye” satirically depicted two rather shallow-minded beauty contestants participating in a photo shoot. (566)
I’m also interested in her responses to Flannery O’Connor, whom she met at the Southern Literary Festival at Converse College in Spartanburg, South Carolina, in 1962, and described as having “ a real sharp tongue, all rightie!” (291).  According to Marrs, “Only Flannery O’Connor’s lecture transcended Eudora’s rejection of religious writing.  ‘Her lecture was funny besides holy.  ‘People ask me why it is that Southerners write about freaks.  I tell them it’s because we can still recognize one.’  ‘They call Southern novels ‘grotesque’ except when they are grotesque & then they call them ‘realistic.’ (She said it better than that.)” (291).
Marrs also quotes from Elizabeth Bowen’s Bowen’s Court (1942), in which Bowen’s reflections on the significance of place echoes with Welty’s own ideas: “The dead do not need to visit Bowen’s Court rooms—as I said we had no ghosts in that house—because they already permeate them…The land outside Bowen’s Court windows left prints on my ancestors’ eyes that looked out: perhaps their eyes left, also, prints on the scene.  If so, those prints are part of the scene for me” (199 [from Bowen 451]).  Marrs sees a connection between Bowen’s statement and Welty’s own 1944 essay “Some Notes on River Country” (200).
Finally, I was personally moved by so much of the material which Marrs quotes.  Most moving to me is in the section titled “The Strong Present Tense: 1974-1980,” a time period during which Welty lost many of those closest to her.  In a letter to her beloved Ken Millar regarding the death of her friend Frank Lyell, she says, “I know I’m at an age when the loss of friends is not considered surprising,…I am not going to learn to accept it for being not surprising, I’m going to hate it & protest it straight ahead—I’m indignant for their sakes—up to my last breath.  I testify to their absence” (428).  This is the brilliance of Welty: to take such complex emotions as those of grieving and convey them in such a direct, palpable way.

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