The Richardson Review

What There Is to Say We Have Said: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and William Maxwell

Story Tom & Emma Richardson

Book_WeltyMaxwellReading the correspondence between Eudora Welty and William Maxwell — letters, cards and notes that span over 50 years — is to witness lives knit together through a discovery of “tandem” connections of age (the writers were born a year apart), of reading, of literary perspective and practice, of gardening (the letters contain references to the names of almost 60 roses), of love for friends and family (most of Welty’s letters to Maxwell are also to his wife, Emily, and many make reference to Kate and Brookie, the Maxwells’ two daughters, as well as to Welty’s own nieces), of rootedness to place and the joys of travel and of ever-deepening encouragement and mutual affection. There is a gap in the letters from August 1946 to August 1949, but Welty had visited “Bill and Emmy” in the intervening years. When the published correspondence resumes, the letters are no longer signed “sincerely” or “cordially” but “love.”

The friendship between Welty and Maxwell, a fiction editor at The New Yorker, easily might not have happened. The two met in 1942 at a party hosted by Mary Louise Aswell, fiction editor of Harper’s Bazaar. Suzanne Marrs, this volume’s editor, recounts that for Maxwell, “Miss Welty immediately proved as compelling a storyteller in person as she was in the fiction he wanted to acquire for The New Yorker.” By this time Welty had published a collection of short stories and a novella, but The New Yorker had in the previous two years rejected “three Welty stories and an essay,” and would reject three more stories before publishing anything. (Harold Ross, the legendary founder and editor of The New Yorker, believed one of Welty’s stories was too “arty.”)  Maxwell continued to champion Welty’s writing, and “bonds of friendship” between the two were “nourished … maintained and strengthened” by correspondence. By 1951 Maxwell had convinced the magazine to accept “The Bride of the Innisfallen,” the first of seven stories, including “The Ponder Heart” (1953) and “The Optimist’s Daughter” (1969), that would appear in the magazine.

Emma: What a joy for me to read What There Is to Say We Have Said! I’ve been a fan of Welty’s prose since I read “A Worn Path” as a college freshman and would delight to read anything Welty ever wrote — even her shopping lists or recipe notes. So to read all these letters to William and Emily Maxwell, with her descriptions of roses and views from train windows, and her presentations of people, both actual and fictional (she collects “good names” from “the paper,” recounting a wreck in which “Mr. Dill Pickle … collided with Hercules Small”), is to hear Welty’s distinct voice again. Furthermore, her incisive responses to Maxwell’s own fiction become a lesson in “learning how to see.”

What I was unprepared for was the fact I found myself falling in love with William Maxwell, a writer I knew very little about before reading these letters. What an astute and helpful editor of Welty’s fiction — and what a humane and gentle man. When he writes Welty that hearing her audio recording of “A Worn Path” made him cry, he said he didn’t know exactly what or who he was crying about: “The narrow margin, I guess. The story makes me feel instead of just think how narrow the margin of safety is, for every one [emphasis added].” The letters confirm for me that all good imaginative writing — fictional or epistolary — shows that “the narrow margin” we find ourselves in is made bearable by human connections.

Tom: “Joy” is the right word to describe the experience of reading this volume. Welty wrote letters with the keen perception, wit and careful prose of her fiction, and Maxwell, an accomplished writer himself, complements her letters as he complemented her life. The letters are rich for what they reveal about the lives and ideas of two interesting and admirable people, but they also provide insights into the editing and publishing process. The exchange of letters about “The Ponder Heart” is a wonderful example of the art of publication, with the editor suggesting detailed changes and the author responding about what she is willing to change and what she is not — and why. For instance, Welty insists on retaining dashes for Edna Earle Ponder’s speech: “She’s essentially a lady of dashes, I think, with lots of afterthoughts and sudden additions to what she’s saying, and not a lady of the considered semicolon, and where it was a question of the little mark or the character, I chose E.E.”

The collection is edited by Suzanne Marrs, Welty’s biographer, who very adeptly and unobtrusively assists the reader through the letters with a volume introduction, occasional contextual links between letters and explanatory notes. The end product is both a pleasure and an education, as well as a reminder to us in this fragmented age of tweeting and texting that — in Welty’s words — “Life would split asunder without letters.” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011, 499 pp, $35)