When was the last time you spent an entire day writing a letter? Suzanne Marrs has edited a collection of letters by two writers for whom this must have been a regular occurrence.
In an unrelated essay on photography, A.O. Scott wrote that “. . .while the literary canon has made room for a handful of diaries, letters and newspaper articles, these exceptions tend to reinforce the exclusion of vernacular forms from the pantheon of art (NYT Magazine 6 May 2011). A collection of letters between Eudora Welty and William Keepers Maxwell, Jr. (with an occasional letter from Maxwell’s artist wife, Emily Gilman Noyes) has been curated by Suzanne Marrs. While the collection on the whole belongs firmly in the aforementioned vernacular, to fellow swimmers in that drought-stricken pond known as the literary world, the collection offers a unique dialog between two able practitioners. Editor Marrs reprises James Watson’s belief that such letters fit in the space between art and life, and this collection reaffirms that conclusion.
What is most remarkable about the dialog is not extraordinary prose, though there is some of that, and not the events in their separate lives, which spanned two long-lived and productive careers. Rather it’s the civility, the steadfast tone of mutual encouragement and affection. When William signs off with “Devotedly” (26 December 1960), it strikes the reader as precise and faithful to the nature of the correspondence read up to that point in the collection.
As a 2011 release, the book will work better as an eBook than the advance proof print received for review. The reason for this is the extensive research done by Marrs. For each chapter of the collection, there are 75 to 120 endnotes. Today’s hypertext-savvy reader is accustomed to hovering over footnotes, rather than bookmarking the relevant page of endnotes and flipping back and forth. The endnotes provided can be ordinary, but sometimes they provide essential context for literary projects, characters or contemporaneous history. Consider endnote 43 in Chapter 6:
Eudora and her brother Edward drew dialogue balloons above photographs on magazine pages and folded the pages so that the photographs could not be seen. Then they exchanged pages, wrote remarks in the balloons, and shared the results” (p. 467).
On other occasions, the endnotes recall the writers’ public appearances, such as:
Eudora first met newsman Jim Lehrer in 1984, and he quickly introduced her to his colleagues Robert MacNeil and Roger Mudd. Late in 1989, as a reporter for The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour on PBS, Mudd interviewed Eudora about the photographs she had taken during the Great Depression. An extensive collection of these images, titled Photographs, had just been published” (p. 476).
An eBook also permits search. As the arc of these two lives becomes clearer in succeeding chapters, a desire to revisit mentions of certain events, places, opinions and literary works arises. Old school thumbing through previous chapters is quaint but inefficient and error prone.
Devotees of the cult of the New Yorker magazine where Maxwell worked as an editor will find much to their liking, as literary figures major and minor make their way across its stage and the magazine’s host city. As a result, the letters occasion appearances by John Updike, Bernard Malamud, Rachel Carson, William Matthews, Katherine Ann Porter, Howard Moss, Seamus Heaney, Frank O’Connor, John Cheever — well, only John Leonard would list them all in a book review. The particulars surrounding the editorial process and the publishing world of that era (Maxwell: “I didn’t like the jacket copy that Knopf sent and so rewrote it”) will also be of interest to cultists.
The letters are instructive for what they do not mention, or at least mention little. Their careers coincided with the space program, the personal computer, the Hollywood blacklist and race riots. Here and there are snippets of those events (Welty wrote “Where is the Voice Coming From” after the Medgar Evers assassination), but the sense of small pond-ness is everpresent. For this they can be forgiven, though less so Marrs’ effusive characterization of their intellect.
The book contains a few black and white photos (though none from Welty’s NYC photographic exhibition), but otherwise it lacks the compelling imagery that marked some of these letters. The letters were sometimes written on illustrated notecards, with performance notes, funeral programs and clippings included, and featured the requisite strikeouts and editorial commentary. A glimpse of some of those artifacts would have livened up the book’s inexorably linear course. (Perhaps there were issues in gaining permission.)
In a way, the collection can be seen as unintentionally didactic for today’s reading and writing habits. As editor Marrs wrote,
. . . the lack of self-absorption, the embracing of experience in all its complexity, the capacity for love, the generosity of spirit, and the ability to face loss and death — these constitute the invisible signature of Welty and Maxwell, signatures that are as powerfully present in their letters as in their fiction (p. 14).
Theirs reflected the sort of disciplined friendship that may be put at risk by the mashed-up, cut-and-pasted interactions the Twitterverse fosters. A wistful, reflective quality in many of the letters that goes beyond literary observations like Maxwell’s “It is raining cats and dogs. How I admire the person who said that for the first time,” and Welty’s “Nothing looks more disheveled than a thoroughly rained-on redbird.” It is a quality goes beyond their small town roots and sturdy sense of themselves. They spent those days and nights writing letters for the friendship, and to keep alive articulate, specific urgings the letters both sent and received sustained. As Welty wrote in a Vietnam War era letter dated 12 June 1967:
Please forgive me backsliding into not writing.
The book is published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt ISBN-10: 0547376499.
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