Daring From Within
Why Eudora Welty Stayed Put
“A sheltered life can be a daring life as well,” Eudora Welty wrote at the close of her memoir, One Writer’s Beginnings. “For all serious daring starts within.” We have too long thought of daring in terms of Ernest Hemingway taking his guns up to Kilimanjaro, or Dorothy Parker setting the pace at the Algonquin Hotel. It is a pleasure now to be able to consider daring as an art—an intellectual pursuit—that came to pass in a house in Mississippi.
Eudora Welty, who died in 2001 at age 92, was born in the state capital of Jackson, and she stayed there. That’s not to say she never left. She went away to college, first to Columbus, Mississippi, and then to Wisconsin. She lived for a time in New York City. She visited Europe. She famously traveled the South taking pictures and writing for the WPA during the Depression. But after her father died of leukemia in 1931, she went home to be with her mother, and it was there, in the house at 1119 Pinehurst St., that she did her work and lived her life.
When you’ve had the opportunity both to read her books and to walk through her home, it becomes clear how the two are connected. She was a writer who believed there was plenty that was interesting about small-town life, and she filled her Mississippi characters with passionate convictions and dazzling intensity. The woman who lived at the P.O. and the group that came to gossip in the beauty parlor, the visiting jazz impresario and the lowly traveling salesman—all are recorded with Homeric nobility. And although Welty may have been working from home, she was no Emily Dickinson. Her life was full of friends dropping by for conversation, the exchange of books, and the occasional glass of bourbon. One imagines the laughter was so loud, the most glamorous of the New York literati had to wonder whether the lush life wasn’t actually somewhere farther south.
Walk down the road to Rowan Oak, William Faulkner’s home in Oxford, and you’ll feel like you’ve wandered onto a perfectly plausible set for the remake of Gone With the Wind. But walk up Pinehurst Street in Jackson and you’ll feel you’ve entered a respectable southern suburb: no sweep, no grandeur, just comfortable homes and old-growth trees standing together in a line.
In fact, Welty’s Tudor revival house would be nothing more than pleasant had it not been lived in by one of the greatest writers of the 20th century. Welty willed the house to the state of Mississippi in 1986, and in April 2006 it opened to the public under the thoughtful guidance of her nieces, Mary Alice White and Liz Thompson.
Welty moved from Congress Street to Pinehurst Street with her parents and her two younger brothers the year she turned 16. The house was designed by the same firm responsible for the new Lamar Life Building, where her father worked as an insurance executive. Being both the oldest and only girl, Eudora was awarded the best bedroom, which was large and sat at the front of the second story overlooking the street. It was in this room that she slept and, after she came home to be with her mother, wrote.
She kept her desk at a right angle to the window, facing in one direction for the years she used a manual typewriter, then facing the opposite direction when she finally switched to an electric, because of the location of the outlet. As the years went by and her fame grew, she was most likely to be interrupted by an admirer rapping on the door with a book to be signed. After all, everyone knew where to find her.
It is one thing to say that George Washington once slept in a particular inn, or by this stream Hemingway finished a book; it is quite another to walk into a room where Eudora Welty wrote more or less her entire body of work. There is a complete set of Dickens novels that had been given to her mother as a child. (Her mother had refused to have her hair cut when she was young and gave in only for the set.) When there was a fire in an earlier house, her mother rushed inside through the flames and threw the Dickens out the window. The books never did get over smelling slightly singed.
The chest of drawers in Welty’s bedroom did not contain clothes. They were full of letters organized by the author, and drafts of her stories and novels. The closet was full of letters and manuscripts as well, as was her plantation desk, which bears a striking resemblance to the one in her novel The Optimist’s Daughter, for which she won the Pulitzer Prize in 1973.
“On the lid,” Welty writes, “the numerals 1817 had been set into a not quite perfect oval of different wood, something smooth and yellow as a scrap of satin. It had been built as a plantation desk but was graceful and small enough for a lady’s use.” There is the eagle clasping the globe and the two wide doors that swing open to reveal 20-odd pigeonholes, a perfect collision of life and art.
The house that once belonged to someone famous becomes its own sort of Hollywood biopic. It strives to be representative, yet it can’t help but be a little shinier than it was in real life, with better-pruned hedges and doors that aren’t so creaky anymore. The idea behind turning a regular home into a historic home is to pick a moment in time when things were running well and freeze it. In this case, the house is set in the 1980s. That means that the bedroom that was moved down to the first floor when Welty could no longer climb the stairs has been returned to its proper place on the second floor. Her nieces had offered to install an electric lift that would whisk her up the staircase in the last years of her life, but she declined. She said she didn’t want to hurt the house.
It would take a great deal of work to renovate any single-owner house that had been built in 1925, but to make it sturdy enough to be a tourist attraction was no small task. The foundation, built on the unstable yellow clay that held up the rest of the neighborhood, needed a considerable shoring up, a project that devoured much of the money available for preservation. There were pipes to attend to and electrical wiring to replace. There was a need for smoke detectors, sensitive sprinklers that wouldn’t drown every book in the house if they were accidentally tripped, and central air-conditioning, a modern convenience that “Miss” Welty herself did not believe in. (She did finally consent to a window unit in the downstairs den, which her nieces would refer to thereafter as “the cool room”; during renovation, the decision was made to leave that early source of relief in place. After all, how many years will it be before window units become a kind of historical relic themselves?)What makes the house so remarkable is that it perfectly holds on to its sense of life. At every turn you expect to see the owner, elderly but able, reading a book. This is the sort of place where risking life and limb for a set of Dickens could only be seen as a reasonable act. Bookshelves crawl along every wall in every room, filled with Faulkner, E.M. Forster, Virginia Woolf, Ford Madox Ford, V.S. Pritchet. Beside her chair is her beloved Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. Welty filled the shelves as fast as she could have them built and then stacked the leftovers on chairs and sofas and tabletops. The dining room table is half-covered in novels and half-covered in pieces of a manuscript that she had cut apart and pinned and glued back together in a new and more compelling order.
Even the kitchen is steeped in literary history. It was here that she burned her only copy of “The Petrified Man,” which Robert Penn Warren had rejected for the Southern Review. When he later wrote back to say he’d changed his mind and would like to see it again, she typed it up as best she could from memory. The story won an O. Henry Prize, an honor Welty was to receive seven more times. She bought an Ansley phonograph with some of her prize money, and of course the phonograph is in the house as well.
Welty was the first living writer to have her complete works published by the Library of America, an honor that has been bestowed in recent years only on Saul Bellow and Philip Roth. But would she have reached the same level of success without Mississippi without the house on Pinehurst Street? Would Welty, born to ranchers in California or socialites in New York, still have made herself a writer? I say of course. The story lines might have been different, but the quality and the soul of her fiction would have remained the same.
Still, all readers, not just the Southern ones, should be grateful that she stayed in one place. She didn’t need to go to Paris to finish a book when it was every bit as hard and every bit as easy to finish it in her own bedroom. The life Welty made for herself in Jackson tells us what is available to those who dig deep instead of wide, and the quiet house she left behind now stands as proof that imagination, plenty of friends, and a good library are the most important elements of fiction and, perhaps, of a well-lived life.
This story originally appeared in the September/October 2006 issue of Preservation.Dates have been edited for clarity.