A new memoir from the National Book Award-winning author of "Middle Passage." He writes about the art and craft of writing and what he calls "the truth-telling power of fiction."
Today when two friends have something to say, they usually pick up the phone or send an email. Most of us don’t have time for composing lenthy, wide-ranging letters or waiting for a response in the mail. A new book shows how much we might be missing. It’s a collection of letters between Pulitzer Prize-winning author Eudora Welty and her New Yorker editor and fellow writer William Maxwell. For more than 50 years, they corresponded about work and family, likes and dislikes, griefs, joys, moments of dispair and humor. In the introduction to The Norton Book of Friendship, Welty wrote, “All letters, old and new, are the still-existing parts of a life. To read them now is to be present when some discovery of truth – or perhaps untruth – some flash of light is just occurring… To come upon a personal truth of a human being however little known, and now gone forever, is in some way to admit him to our friendship.” Biographer Suzanne Marrs invites us into the friendship between Eudora Welty and William Maxwell through their fifty-year correspondence.
- Suzanne Marrs author of "Eudora Welty: A Biography" and "One Writer's Imagination"; a recipient of the Phoenix Award for distinguished Welty Scholarship and a professor of English at Millsaps College.
Read an Excerpt
From What There is to Say We Have Said. Copyright 2011 by Suzanne Marrs. Excerpted by kind permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
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MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Pulitzer Prize-winning author Eudora Welty once said, all letters old and new are the still-existing parts of a life. To read them now is to be present when some discovery of truth or perhaps untruth, some flash of light is just occurring.
MS. DIANE REHMIn a new book titled, "What There is to Say We Have Said," biographer Suzanne Marrs offers a window into the friendship between Eudora Welty and William Maxwell through their 50-year correspondence. Suzanne Marrs joins me in the studio and, of course, we'll welcome your calls, 800-433-8850. We'll be reading for you some of these letters which, Suzanne, are absolutely priceless.
MS. SUZANNE MARRSThey are marvelous. Eudora Welty and William Maxwell brought their skills as fiction writers to their letters. The letters are very artful.
REHMDo you suppose each one was trying to outdo the other in artfulness?
MARRSI hadn't thought about that. I don't think they revised their letters, but I think they certainly knew that the person who was going to receive this letter expected something special.
REHMExactly. Now, we should clarify that William Maxwell was Eudora Welty's editor at The New Yorker Magazine.
REHMNow that came much later. Read for us her letter applying for a job at The New Yorker, which I think is just priceless.
MARRSThis letter came before William Maxwell had joined the staff of The New Yorker...
MARRS...and before she had met him. It's a letter from 1933 and she wrote to the editors of The New Yorker. "Gentlemen, I suppose you'd be more interested in even a slight-of-hand trick than you'd be in an application for a position with your magazine. But, as usual, you can't have the thing you want most. I am 23 years old, six weeks on the loose in New York, however I was a New Yorker for a whole year in 1930, '31 while attending advertising classes at the Columbia School of Business.
MARRSActually I'm a Southerner from Mississippi, the nation's most backward state. Ramifications include Walter H. Page, who, unluckily for me, is no longer connected with Doubleday Page, which is no longer Doubleday Page even. I have a BA '29 from the University of Wisconsin where I majored in English without a care in the world. For the last 18 months, I was languishing in my own office in a radio station in Jackson, Miss. writing continuities, drama, mule-feed advertisements, Santa Claus talks and life insurance playlets. Now I've given that up.
MARRSAs to what I might do for you, I've seen an untoward amount of picture galleries in 15-cent movies lately and could review them with my old prosperous detachment, I think. In fact, I recently coined a general word for Matisse's pictures after seeing his latest at the Murray Hartman (sp?), Concubine Apple. That shows you how my mind works, quick and away from the point. I simply read voraciously and can drum up an opinion afterwards.
MARRSSince I bought an India print and a large number of phonograph records from a Mr. Nesbaum (sp?) who picks them up and a Cezanne "Bathers", one inch long that shows you I read E.E. Cummings, I hope. I'm anxious to have an apartment, not to mention a small portable phonograph. How I would like to work for you, a little paragraph each morning, a little paragraph each night.
MARRSIf you can't hire me from daylight to dark, although I would work like a slave, I can also draw like Mr. Thurber in case he goes off the deep end. I have studied flower-painting. There is no telling where I may apply if you turn me down. I realize this will not phase you, but consider my other alternative. The U of NC offers for $12 to let me dance in Vachel Lindsay's Congo. I congo on. I rest my case, repeating that I am a hard worker."
REHMOh, that is just priceless.
MARRSThis is a Eudora I never knew because I met her in 1983 and we were good friends. I knew her well, but I didn't know the person who wrote this letter. This is a very young Eudora Welty.
REHMDid she get the job?
MARRSShe did not get the job.
REHMShe did not?
MARRSA little bit too audacious perhaps, although it certainly shows that she has the flare of an S. J. Perelman, I'd say.
REHMOh, my gosh, it's just wonderful. And who in even that day and age would write such a letter of application for a position?
MARRSI can't imagine anybody doing that.
REHMYeah. Exactly, how did you begin to come upon these letters between Eudora and William Maxwell?
MARRSWell, I used many of them when I was writing a biography of Eudora Welty. But then my agent, who was also Eudora Welty's agent, a wonderful person named Tim Seldes, called me and said he thought there ought to be an edition of the Welty/Maxwell letters. He had read the ones I had quoted in the biography. And I thought he just meant that in the abstract and I said, I agree, Tim, that's a great idea.
MARRSAnd he thought that I had agreed to do the book.
REHMOh, how wonderful.
MARRSLater, he called me up and he said, Suzanne, please promise me that you'll obey me in whatever I ask and I said, all right. He had realized I didn't know I was supposed to do the book and he asked me to do it. And I obeyed and I found I knew that Eudora's letters to William Maxwell were at the University of Illinois. And his to her were at the Eudora Welty House in Jackson, Miss. And so I transcribed those, selected the ones to include and then at the very last minute, we had a very fortunate discovery. Kate Maxwell, William and Emily Maxwell's daughter, discovered 50 more letters from Eudora to her father...
REHMOh, how marvelous.
MARRS...which she sent to me. And they are marvelous letters.
REHMWell, I must say, in this day and age of email, it really gives all of us pause, I think, to realize what a rich trove you have here.
MARRSOh, I think it's just marvelous. I know my own emails are fairly utilitarian. I don't expect people to save them. But these are not that sort of communication.
REHMWhy did Eudora and William Maxwell begin their conversation via mail?
MARRSWell, they lived however many miles apart. Jackson, Miss. and New York City are more than 1,000 miles apart, 2,000 miles apart. And Bill wanted to acquire stories by Eudora for The New Yorker so he wrote her to ask for stories and that was the beginning of the correspondence.
REHMAnd what year would that have been?
MARRSThat was in 1942, late 1942.
REHMSo she had originally written this letter of application in what year?
REHM'33 so now 11 years later, he is asking her.
MARRSHe's asking her for work. And The New Yorker had turned down some stories by Eudora and her agent, Dermott Russell (sp?) was not too positively disposed toward The New Yorker. But Bill kept asking and in 1946, Dermott Russell sent him a story called, "The Whole World Knows" and he wanted the magazine to take it. And Harold Ross did not want the story and...
REHMAnd Harold Ross was then?
MARRSThe editor and co-founder of The New Yorker. So Bill wrote an impassioned letter asking them to take the story on an inter-office memo and this we found in the correspondence. I'd never seen it before. And Bill actually had said to Eudora, I think you should throw this away after reading it because letters, inter-office memorandums at The New Yorker, really are not meant to be seen.
MARRSSo I wrote to The New Yorker and Alec Wilkinson (sp?) , a friend of William Maxwell who also works there, interceded on my behalf and he said he thought it should be published. And we asked The New Yorker and they gave permission. The only real reason Bill didn't want it published is he thought The New Yorker might object. And so once they gave permission, we felt that would be fine.
REHMSo you have...
MARRSI do have it here. Let me see if I can turn to it quickly.
REHM...that letter right there. And just as you are looking for that, let me just say my guest is Suzanne Marrs. She is the author of the biography titled, "Eudora Welty" and "One Writer's Imagination: The Fiction of Eudora Welty." She is a recipient of the Phoenix Award for distinguished Welty Scholarship. She's a professor of English at Millsaps College and her new book is titled, "What There is to Say We Have Said: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and William Maxwell," Do you have that letter?
MARRSI have the letter. This is from William Maxwell to his fellow editors at The New Yorker. "We're in a position to pull off any experiment we feel like. The magazine has always reserved the right to surprise its readers and it's when we don't surprise them for long periods of time that the complaints get loud. After spending a whole evening with this piece and making all kinds of notes, I've arrived at the conclusion that it shouldn't be changed and that we ought to print it as it now stands.
MARRSIf you change it even to the extent of making the narrative more orderly, you take away seriously from the total effect, which is of a man teetering on the edge of a breakdown. Many things that aren't instantly clear become so in the next paragraph or by the end of the page and at the end of the story. It's all there, everything in its rightful place, even the unprepared switches, in and out of the man's consciousness seemed to me to have their reasons and to be right as she has done them.
MARRSThe piece violates every canon of this magazine and it's absolutely first-rate fiction with wonderful things all through it, which raise it for me above anything we've run in years. No matter where it's published, it will be admired and remembered and its excellence is so undeniable that no explanation or apology will be necessary any more than they were necessary for the Hiroshima article."
REHMSuzanne Marrs, the book is titled, "What There is to Say We Have Said."
REHMAnd if you've just joined us, Suzanne Marrs is with me. She's the editor, pardon me, of the correspondence between Eudora Welty and William Maxwell. Her new book containing so many of those letters is titled "What There is to Say We Have Said." And if you have something to say, join us by phone, 800-433--8850, by email to email@example.com. Send us a Tweet or join us on Facebook. These two people were truly kindred spirits, Suzanne. How did they discover that?
MARRSI think it started off with they recognized they had a common passion for the writing. They both were very serious writers, but they weren't self absorbed. They were also very serious readers and they loved the work of other writers. And they shared that with each other. So that love of reading and love of writing, I think, was the start. But then, they discovered that beyond their professional lives and their commitment to the writing of fiction and the reading of fiction, they really had many things in common.
MARRSI think they had similar childhoods. They had similar senses of humor. They loved the rewards of travel. Their idea of family life was very similar, although Bill was married, had two daughters and Eudora never married. But their sense of family, I think, was very similar.
REHMAfter William Maxwell read "One Writer's Beginnings," he wrote a letter to Eudora.
MARRSHe wrote a letter to Eudora. He read the manuscript and he wrote to her, "Dearest Eudora." He said dearest Eudora after a point in their friendship always. "Dearest Eudora, There were enough similarities in our two childhoods to make me feel reading the lectures that we grew up on a tandem bicycle. So much came back beginning with the buttonhook." That's the buttonhook she used to fasten her shoes that she talks about in "One Writer's Beginnings." "Adorable, that introduction. And why did they have so many clocks? In Emmie's father's house in Portland, there were two grandfather clocks, one in the downstairs front hall, the one almost directly above it on the second floor landing.
MARRSThe Reading Circle books, I didn't actually own, but posed for advertising copy, age nine or ten. Dorothy Nichols' father who was a superintendent of schools had something to do with it. I still have the picture of nine children reading in a half circle. I have long black stockings on." And then he goes on and elaborates on similarity after similarity in their lives.
REHMThat must have just cemented what was already beginning there.
MARRSI think that's right, and it's wonderful. And William Maxwell says this in a little letter he wrote in 1996 for publication. But it's wonderful to have someone who has a past that's very similar to your own and you know when you're referring to something that that person understands what you're referring to.
REHMDo you think that they warmed to each other immediately or did it take a while?
MARRSI think they liked each other, but they weren't in close proximity and they didn't start to correspond immediately. In the mid '40s, Eudora had a friend named John Robinson, a man she was in love with, who was hoping for a career as a writer. And she interceded on his behalf, sent a story to the New Yorker. And they took it and she corresponded with Bill Maxwell about that. She went to see him in his office. She met him and Emmie on the street corner and...
REHMEmmie being John's wife...
MARRSEmmie is Bill's wife.
REHM...Bill's wife, rather.
MARRSAnd so I think that was around 1946. And after that, I think the relationship must have become much warmer. And by 1949, he was call -- they were on a first-name basis and he was telling her about his household chores and what Emmie had him doing around the house and sending word from Emmie. So by 1949, I think they were feeling very close.
REHMTell us about Eudora's love of John Robinson.
MARRSJohn Robinson was a young man she had known from her school days. They were at Central High School together in Jackson. She -- they went with him and his brother and sister to Mexico in 1937 by car over...
MARRS...primitive roads. It was a daring thing to do.
MARRSAnd when he went to war during World War II, she was distraught, also worried about her brothers and other friend, but very much worried about John. And when he came back, I think she probably expected that they might get married. He went to California to go to the University of California, at first to work and then to go there. She went out to San Francisco, got an apartment, stayed there for several months so they were in close proximity. But things did not work out.
MARRSUltimately, John Robinson realized that he was gay. This was some time, probably late '40s, early '50s. And at some point, he must've told Eudora. I don't have a letter in which he told her. I haven't seen a letter. But he must've told her and that spelled the end of the relationship.
REHMIs there a letter from Eudora to William Maxwell talking about this?
MARRSNo. She talks about John, about helping him. John came through New York and visited the Maxwells one time. Bill got his name wrong. He said, I think you're a very nice and gentle friend. Don Robinson came through. So she doesn't talk about her love of John Robinson, but she did -- John Robinson did meet the Maxwells and Eudora did intercede on his behalf.
REHMEudora had to have been heartbroken.
MARRSI'm sure she was. And I think the relationship was continued -- with John Robinson continued, but it was...
MARRS...difficult. Later in life, there was a rapprochement and I think they were very -- whenever John Robinson came home -- he lived in Italy -- they saw each other. And when she went to Europe, she visited him in Italy. So...
REHMThere was another love in her life. Who was he?
MARRSThat was the novelist, fiction writer, mystery writer, Ross MacDonald whose real name was Kenneth Miller. And Eudora and Kenneth Miller admired each other's work and they met by accident in the lobby of the Algonquin Hotel. It wasn't quite by accident. Kenneth Miller had heard Eudora was staying at the Algonquin and he sat down in front of the elevator and waited for her to come in one afternoon. And they recognized immediately that they were kindred spirits, soul mates.
MARRSHe took her to a literary cocktail party. They became friends and they corresponded. I believe they truly loved each other, although this was not a love affair. But it was a very loving relationship and they probably only saw each other about a total -- were in each other's company a total of about six weeks...
MARRS...over the course of their lives, but they corresponded. They sent each other long letters. They talked about every possible thing. And as I said, they're not love letters, but they're very loving letters. Kenneth Miller was married. He and his wife had had many difficult times, tragedies in their lives. So it was a difficult relationship. And, as I said, I don't think it was an affair, but it was a very loving relationship.
MARRSSuzanne Marrs. Her new book is titled "What There is to Say We Have Said: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and William Maxwell." Where does that title come from?
MARRSThat is from a letter sent in 1993 from William Maxwell to Eudora Welty. And they were both in poor health by this time. They were not writing as frequently to each other, but William Maxwell wanted to say to her, this doesn't matter. What we have to say we have said. We love you. We know you love us. All is well.
REHMGosh. Was that one of the last letters?
MARRSOne of the last letters. In fact, I considered stopping the book at that point...
MARRS...but I couldn't bear to leave out the other letters that came at the end. So there -- I have, I think, two more, yeah, two more...
MARRS...letters after that, but this was almost the last letter.
REHMWhat was her last letter?
MARRSLet me look and see. She really had pretty much stopped writing. Her arthritis in her hands was so painful.
REHMBecause everything was written by hand.
MARRSHand. Well, they typed most of their letters, but it got to the point that she could not type. In fact, I even typed things for her...
MARRS...late in life. And then she didn't like to sign books because her handwriting was so cramped. So this really pretty much ended her correspondence, but Bill Maxwell kept writing afterwards. I'm embarrassed to say I can't find the last letter.
REHMYou'll put your hand on it during the break and...
MARRSI'll do that, good.
REHM...in the meantime, we'll open the phones and...
REHM...take some calls, 800-433-8850. First to Clearwater, Fla. Good morning, Joanne, you're on the air.
JOANNEGood morning, Diane. I love writing letters. I write letters every day expressing my opinion. And my belief is that sometimes it's more fun to express yourself in the written word because you can be more creative. And if the recipient enjoys what they have read, they can save it and read it all over again. It's just great communication.
MARRSI agree. I don't know if Eudora and Bill went back and reread their letters. I know Bill did because he read them all before he gave his to the University of Illinois. Eudora, in some ways, felt that, I think, late in life that she didn't want to reread them because so many friends had been lost. And so that for instance, after Kenneth Miller had died, I don't think she really wanted to reread those letters. It was painful for her.
REHMI see. Was there, do you think, a sense as they were writing these letters that someday they might be published?
MARRSI don't know. I don't think they were thinking of publishing them. But when they decided to leave their letters to archives and make them available for research, they knew they certainly -- at that point, that they would be public. And they did save them. They didn't want to throw them away.
REHMAll right. To Ginger in Essex, Montana. You're on the air.
GINGERHi. I wanted to tell you about my father and what he has done with all of our collection of letters from my great grandparents on down through when he was dating my mom in World War II. He put them altogether in different volumes along with photographs of family members and gave all of us kids each a set of them. And we have learned so much about our family history and why my parents were the way they were (laugh). And they had so much fun with the English language in those letters.
MARRSI think that's wonderful. I think these letters are like your family letters. They give you a window into the past. And when you read these letters by Eudora Welty and William Maxwell, you come away feeling that you are the friend of Eudora Welty and William Maxwell. Eudora was my friend, but I'd never met Bill or Emmie Maxwell. And now I feel that they are friends as well and the...
REHMFriends as well. It's also an inspiration to all of us to do a little more letter writing. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." To John at Cary, N.C. Good morning.
JOHNHey Diane, this is John. Hey, I was just wanting to make a comment and just that the university systems that collect this information is absolutely wonderful. And I was wondering if you could cover how these universities get their collections of these letters and everything. I have done some research on Robert Ruark (sp?) and was just completely astounded at going into the University of North Carolina and sitting down and looking at the collection of letters that were personal letters, correspondence between him and his publisher, Harold Matson (sp?) and have a huge new insight to what his personal life was like.
JOHNAnd, you know, it's such a wonderful resource for someone coming and doing what your guest is doing. And I was wondering if y'all could just elaborate on how that system, in a quick, you know, detail, is working and how the universities go about getting these collections...
JOHN...and then offering them to the public.
MARRSWell, one way they do it -- universities do it is they're very much interested in their graduates. So the University of Illinois, very proud of William Maxwell as its graduate, asked him for his correspondence and he was able to furnish that to them. Not only with Eudora Welty, but with many other writers. Eudora's correspondence is at the Mississippi Department of Archives and History. And her old friend Charlotte Capers was a director of that. And in 1957, asked her for her manuscripts, her correspondence, her photographs. And so they went to the Department of Archives and History in Mississippi, an institution that's dedicated to preserving works by Mississippi writers, works about Mississippi history.
REHMIsn't that marvelous to have that kind of resource? You learn so much about the person through those letters.
REHMYou do and I think it's wonderful to have letters by Eudora Welty and William Maxwell, which are I quote James Watson. They are a midway between art and life. He was talking about Faulkner, but I think it's true of Eudora Welty as well. But it's also wonderful to have your grandmother's letters, which may not be quite midway between art and life, but still are wonderful ways of knowing a grandmother you might not have known nearly so well otherwise.
REHMWas there anyone else with whom Eudora Welty corresponded on as regular a basis as she did with William Maxwell?
MARRSYes. And William Maxwell corresponded with many other people as well. But Eudora Welty corresponded with John Robinson. She corresponded with Frank Lyle, a childhood friend. She corresponded with Mary Lou Aswell (sp?) who was a fiction editor at Harper's Bizarre and had become a good friend. She corresponded with Kenneth Miller, not for as long a time as with William Maxwell. I think the Maxwell correspondence is probably the one that extends over the most time and also is very regular.
REHMShe must have, and perhaps he as well, almost daily written letters to various people.
MARRSIt had to be 'cause -- and these are not short letters, for the most part. They're long, they're relaxed, they're anecdotal. So they must've devoted a considerable amount of time each day for letter writing.
REHMSo even as she, for example, was not writing her own fiction, perhaps writing these letters gave her a kind of spiritual break?
MARRSWell, I'm not sure of that because when she found herself unable to write fiction, she also sort of drew back from writing letters.
MARRSAnd she complained that, you know, she was not a good correspondent during this time. But she still wrote to William Maxwell.
REHMThat's interesting. The book is titled "What There is to Say We Have Said: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and William Maxwell," edited by Suzanne Marrs.
REHMAnd as we talk about the letters written by Eudora Welty and William Maxwell to each other, here is an e-mail from Gary who says, "I've always said children rarely, if ever, have the opportunity to see their parents as real people. I was afforded this experience when my sister and I discovered letters written between our parents during World War II. It was very healing.
MARRSEudora -- William Maxwell's daughter, Kate, early on asked him if he would show her some of his letters. And I think she used the term, the discreet ones. And he said she could see even the indiscreet ones. (laugh) Because he thought the same thing, that that would allow her to see her father as a real person. And I do think that Eudora Welty's nieces and William Maxwell's daughters must really value this book because they talk about them in the book, and clearly they were so delighted to have these children in their lives.
REHMAnd here's another email from Pat, who says, "I graduated by Millsaps College in 1989. I remember seeing Eudora Welty on campus. She was always willing to talk with students, and she was always very cordial. She is a southern institution."
MARRSEudora used to come to Millsaps quite often and once I moved the Millsaps in 1988, she would always come to my classes until physically she wasn't able to do that. And she was very open with the student, answered their questions. She liked young people. She liked the little boy that brought the newspaper to her front door. (laugh)
REHMI love it. Here we are, Tulsa, Ok. Good morning, Douglas.
DOUGLASGood morning. About 30 some odd years ago, when I was a graduate at the University of North Dakota, Eudora Welty came up for a writer's conference, and made quite an impression on everyone. She read "The Petrified Man" to us, which is one of the funniest stories I've ever heard, and hearing it come from her lips was just incredible. During a panel discussion, a teacher who was there with several of her students mentioned that they had read "Powerhouse" and how good it was.
DOUGLASAnd Eudora said, well, the reason it was good was because you did such a good job of teaching it. And this was Eudora. She always turned the compliment back on the complimenter. She was just a sweet, gracious lady. One evening she was in a rocking chair wrapped in a shawl receiving people, and I got to sit at her feet and talk to her for five minutes and -- or so minutes. And it was one of the greatest experiences of my life. I'll never forget it. And I'm an English teacher and I love to teach Eudora Welty anytime I can.
MARRSIt is true that I would go to visit Eudora and she always turned attention away from her. Her stories were much more interesting than mine, but she would always be inquiring about your life. And I think it's true that both Eudora Welty and William Maxwell were really interested in other people. They were really interested in the world around them. As Eudora said about Elizabeth Bowen, they were both -- she said Elizabeth Bowen was a great intaker. But they were both great intakers, too.
REHMThat's a lovely way to put it. Thanks for calling, Douglas. To Manchester, NH., good morning, Ben.
BENGood morning, ladies. Diane, thank you very much for taking my call.
BENAnd thank you, Suzanne.
MARRSHappy to hear from you.
BENSuzanne, as a published author, I am -- I have this depressing view of authorship today in the sense that in the age of electronic communication, email and text message and Tweet, it seems to me like the art of authorship, I mean, intimate and constant communication back in the day, it's gone. Does it get you in that way, too, or am I just wondering too much?
MARRSI don't know. I mean, I consider myself a parasite on the body of literature. I write about great authors. I'm not one of them. But I know a number of authors because I knew Eudora Welty and I find that there is a kind of community among those writers, and that they are very open and helpful to other writers. I know that Eudora Welty was a mentor to Reynolds Price who recently died. Reynolds, in turn, a mentor to Ann Tyler.
MARRSThere is that sort of -- and they took that as their responsibility, that sort of ongoing passing of whatever assistance you can to younger people.
REHMBut that concern that Ben expresses about the rapidity of thought expressed in tweets or on Facebook or in email, and sometimes the e-mail, you push send before you've really thought it through.
MARRSThat's the curse of my life. Yes. I push send too quickly. And I think the speed of email is a problem, and Twitter. I don't tweet so I'm not sure I understand that, but that speed is a problem, yeah. And the letters, at least you're gonna wait until overnight before you put it in the mailbox.
REHMYou're gonna wait 'til overnight, and you may, in fact, as you are writing, if you're writing especially by hand, as I tend to do, you're going to think harder, a little bit maybe harder than what you do if you were at your keyboard.
MARRSYes. I think so, too. And then you may, the next morning, take it out of the envelope and write something in the margin, which Eudora...
REHMYeah. That's true.
MARRS…Welty and Bill Maxwell did a lot of.
REHMBoth did that. Thanks for calling Ben. To Birmingham, Alabama. Good morning, Valerie.
VALERIEGood morning, Diane and Ms. Suzanne. How are you ladies?
VALERIEGood. I love this topic. I have one book of some of Eudora Welty's letters that she's written. And I love to write letters, but I have no one who will correspond back to me. I've written to my Congressman. I've written to President Barack Obama, Oprah. I've written to my newspapers, and they have somehow replied back to me, but they've also put some of my comments in the paper. But I think it's a shame that letter writing is just a lost art.
REHMBut now, do you have friends to whom you write?
VALERIEWell, friends that live in North Carolina, Phoenix, Arizona...
VALERIE...but they reply by email or text. (laugh) And I don't like that.
VALERIEI want them to sit down and write back to me. I make it a habit of trying to write in my journal every night before I go to bed. I've started my daughters, who are now 27 and 25, they write in a journal. They -- that's what they wanted for Christmas this year from me, a journal. And I bought a beautiful pen. And so now that's what they do. They write in their journals.
REHMWell, I think that's the beginning.
MARRSIt is. And I'm glad you do that because I'm a great sinner. I'm not a good letter writer. My goddaughter this weekend just was chastising me, how could I be the editor of such a wonderful book of letters when I don't respond to her letters. (laugh)
MARRSAnd it is true. I tend to rely on email. So I'll make it my resolve as of today to be a better correspondent.
REHMExcellent, Suzanne. Thanks for calling, Valerie. Here's an email from Caroline in Carrboro, North Carolina. "Do contemporary authors write letters over years as the authors did? If so, are they handwritten or emails, and how will they be preserved in the age of digital communication?"
MARRSI'm not sure I can answer that.
MARRSWe need some contemporary writers here to talk about it. I think so many of us now do rely on email. I just had a wonderful email from a contemporary writer, Ralph Eubanks, who has written a great book about Mississippi called, "Never is a Long Time." And I was talking to him about -- via email, about Eudora Welty's story, where is the voice coming from? And he sent me a long wonderful letter talking about that story. Well, I could print that off -- I have printed it off and saved it. But I didn't want to hit delete. It's still on my...
MARRS...still in my computer.
REHMSuzanne, read for us that last letter from William Maxwell to Eudora in which the title of this book is included.
MARRSAll right, I will. And Eudora's last letter to William Maxwell was December 27, 1990. And in 1993, he wrote her this letter. This is December 19, 1993. Kate, that's his daughter's, 39th birthday. "Dearest Eudora, I have just finished putting the lights on the Christmas tree between the two front windows of the living room, where in generations past there would have been pier glass. Some animal laid a strategic branch out of the left side, and I hope to disguise it with decorations, but there has been a mysterious diminishment of those, too.
MARRSI think we'll have to cut some little girls out of the New York Times the way you once did for our children and see if they will conceal the missing green. Also among things missing are the berries on our holly tree in the country. I went out with Evelyn Jones to get some branches to put on the mantelpiece, and there were about six berries on the whole tree. Did a frost last spring nip the flowers of the male tree next to it, or a flock of birds eat every last one while we were in the city?
MARRSWe bought the Xmas tree in Yorktown, and a very able girl, with, I am afraid, very cold hands, tied it the capably that we couldn't get into the trunk or the backseat, and I had to hand things from the front seat to the back which was awkward. We left suddenly because while we were shopping the car radio predicted rain and sleet all night, and three inches of snow on top of it.
MARRSIt rained, but that was all. But we were glad to wake up in the city because of all the things that need to be done. Also, if you know what has become of the big red Xmas tree glass balls, I wish you would tell me. I should have made a trip to the attic where there is a supplementary box. " Shall I keep going? "Emmie said, next year, I'm going to say to Brookie, why don't you have Christmas this year, but didn't mean it.
MARRSBrookie and Chris, our since a year ago last October, son-in-law, are coming Christmas Eve, and Kate hasn't decided whether to come on Christmas with Stegmillers. I mean, she thinks she hasn't decided. Committing herself to something isn't one of the things she likes to do, but she will come with Brookie on Christmas Eve, I feel sure. Feeling sure is one of the things I like to do. My message to Santa Claus was please don't give me anything, I have more than I know what to do with.
MARRSBut he is so busy and may well not get the message. Lately, I have the feeling that I have my whole life to consider and enjoy, especially the periods that were especially nice and that when I was younger I might have regretted because they didn't go on longer. Now I think wasn't that nice? Wasn't I lucky? It could all be a very enjoyable book. Speaking of which, I went to the Morgan library because the New Yorker said the manuscript of the "Weir of Hermiston" was display. It wasn't.
MARRSI must not have got their soon enough. I know you have read it because you have read everything, but isn't it a glorious piece of writing? And have you read his "South Sea "Island nonfiction, and the "El Dorado Squatters," and "An Amateur Immigrant." Much of what he published" -- he got those titles wrong. "Much of what he published, the part that was not popular in his lifetime, would be liked now if people only knew it was there.
MARRSI wish I had known him. But then reading him you do, and I know you, which quite makes up for missing Robert Lewis Stevenson in the flesh. The hardly enough flesh to go around. Dearest Eudora, what there is to say we have said in one way or another. You know how much we love you, so it will have to be Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. "
REHMSuzanne Marrs reading from the correspondence of William Maxwell to Eudora Welty from her new book "What There is to Say We Have Said." And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." How soon after that did he die?
MARRSThat was 1993. He died in 2000, seven years later. He had two more letters after that one.
REHMI see. And she?
MARRSShe died in 2001.
MARRS...later, almost to the day. A year later.
REHMAlmost to the day. Did they -- you said, he sent her two more letters.
REHMShe did not send him...
REHMShe had just got...
MARRSSo this wasn't really the last letter, but in spirit.
REHMIt felt like that.
REHMHe was saying goodbye to her.
MARRSRight. He was. There was one more letter and then he wrote one as a kind of essay for a book, and he cast it as a letter.
REHMWhat do you think young writers will take away from this?
MARRSI think that this is a book about not sacrificing everything for career. You can be a wonderful writer, and you can maintain your humanity, your commitment to your family, your life beyond your writing. These are two people who are very passionate about writing. But as Richard Wilbur said in this wonderful quote, I really appreciate this about my book. The book lets us in on the happy fact that two splendid writers who did not sacrifice humanity to career were warmly admitted to each other's lives.
REHMDo you think too many young writers do exactly that?
MARRSI hope not. But I think that there is a tendency to place career perhaps above your life. Eudora, I think, gave up a lot of writing time to take care of her mother. We lost a lot fiction. I hate that. But I admire her for doing it, for caring for her mother.
REHMHow long did she do that?
MARRSWell, that was a good long time, from the mid-1950s until her mother died. Or, well, let's say 1950s until her mother died in 1966. She was really had a hard time completing any fiction during that time.
REHMAnd she stayed in that very house.
MARRSShe stayed in the house. Eventually, her mother had to be cared for in a nursing facility. But she visited her every day when she was in town. Sometimes she was away for work, but usually she was going to visit her mother, and it was about a 50 mile trip to visit her in the nursing home she felt was the best one.
REHMDid Eudora die in her own home?
MARRSShe didn't. She died in a hospital about six blocks away from her home.
REHMWow. Well, it's just a fabulous collection of letters. Thank you so much for what you've done.
MARRSThank you for having me here.
REHMI think it's going mean to an awful lot to a lot of people.
MARRSI hope it sends people back to reading William Maxwell's fiction and Eudora Welty's fiction...
MARRS...with increased understanding.
REHMSuzanne Marrs, she's the editor of the new book, "What There is to Say We Have Said: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and William Maxwell." Thanks for listening all. I'm Diane Rehm.
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