In The Optimist’s Daughter, Eudora Welty introduces the idea of confluence—of two rivers merging, inexorably, magically, disturbingly. Fate gently takes the reins from Chance. We can rest, we can be held. And the life we thought was singular turns out, reassuringly, to be a strand in a larger pattern.
I became a young woman in the house where Welty spent six months as a young woman. We touched the same walls with our same searching fingers. We grew up shopping at the same grocery store—the Jitney 14—where also, I should mention, a thousand other people shopped; there is nothing sacred about a Jitney. We learned gardens from our mothers, who were always more skilled in dirt than we were; we trailed behind them, gathering blooms, starting our own plots of earth. We left home for college at the age of sixteen, we tried on the North for size. It didn’t fit. I imagine she looked back at the South with that same disturbed wonder that I did—missing it, accusing it, forgiving it. We started publishing in our midtwenties, and we began to migrate: around the world, between jobs, across stories.
You can want to become someone without fully understanding them. Welty was never my favorite author; she was too roundabout. In high school, I got lost in her sentences. Her Southernness felt too artful. Besides, she was notoriously single, one of the many maiden aunts of literature. She found herself in the tradition of women writers who pursued craft at the expense of family—or whose craft was repellent to suitors—or who believed art meant freedom, and freedom meant solitude. To a young girl who still believed in a soulmate-based romanticism, Welty’s aloneness felt damning.
Welty was distant, marble, Katharine Hepburn on a pedestal in The Philadelphia Story, her craft too elegant, her life too celibate. But I grew older. Partners disappointed me; that elegance became a prize. And last year I turned over the soil of Welty’s fiction—carefully tended—and came upon the rich and drifting worminess of her gardening letters.
Tell about Night Flowers, Julia Eichelberger’s selection of Welty’s letters of the forties to two friends—her agent, Diarmuid Russell, and, for lack of a better word, her crush John Robinson—crumbles the marble statue. She is unrepentantly silly; she makes jokes, drinks beer in the morning, gets filthy. She gets into tiffs with neighbors, she has big dreams, she is tired. I had been mapping myself against the facts of her life but never against her character; she was too grand, I was too young. But now, in these letters, we were the same age—early thirties, alone, not wanting to be alone, loving being alone. In December 1941, in the wake of Pearl Harbor, she wrote: “Sometimes I am in despair about people and it feels good to hate them as a kind and to give all your love to a few and to flowers and animals.” How right this sentiment sometimes feels!
My soul fell into hers most readily, like a nesting doll, when she crouched in the dirt and described the heat, the mosquitoes, the loss of dignity, the thrill of a blossom unexpectedly found. “The first flower on the Leila [camellia] opened today,” she wrote John in February 1945. “It is at the back of the bush in the hardest place to see—it means you have to sort of go into the bed on your elbow, full length, and look up.” Gardening for her entailed a purity of purpose; writing, meanwhile, she considered “a secondary thing in my life which gives me intense pleasure (I mean secondary in that it is work—definition)—it is not quite like gardening.” I, too, found my equilibrium in the beds, the only place where words could be entirely banished, and the restless brain could be reduced to a series of mechanical motions: weed, prune, dig, plant, mulch, mow, trim. Some writers took to big-game hunting, others to drink; Welty and I grew flowers.
As I was first reading Tell about Night Flowers last November, I wrote my mother a breathless email:
In five pages, Welty mentions wildflowers growing in Rome; the train from Jackson to New Orleans; writing a novella (“I wish I had a sign to tell me which I had better do that day, write or work the garden”); her inability to prevent her mother from sneakily doing Eudora’s own chores; her mother’s obsession with political news; wanting to write every day (“I jump into it with almost a shout of pleasure—no I don’t quite yell—it just fascinates me and works me”); and a rose that just opened in her garden: MRS. FINCH.
WE ARE THE SAME.
Yes, my own brain was circling around Rome, the Amtrak from Jackson to New Orleans, the tension between wanting to write my novella and wanting to be wrists-deep in the garden, my mother’s kindness, her thirst for news, and the fact that Mrs. R. M. Finch, an antique polyantha rose, was just then blooming in my own bed.
Welty mailed her love of her garden—as carefully packed as a glass vase, as raw as her heart—to John Robinson. She felt easy with this old friend of hers, a writer, a fellow gardener—perhaps because he was a gay man, a fact that she either didn’t know or took pains to not believe. He was stationed in Italy during World War II, where she wrote to him in a voice that’s confused, pleading, flirtatious, a jumble of complicated wants and restraints. (As I read her letters, I too was trying awkwardly to seduce a man via correspondence.) She wrote in November 1944:
It’s been the 18 months—do they just need you too badly. I wish you could get a rest, in Paris or Jackson (I’d enjoy it more here). I don’t know why I thought you were on the way, it was just my interpretation. I wouldn’t take my coat to the cleaners for fear it wouldn’t be back in time. It would be so fine to see you. I thought I might wander to New York and see you light. Write it plain, when you do come—just say Now … I hope you keep warm. I wish you could have this nice day, or rather this moment of it with the sun out and a mockingbird is singing. Mother sends love. Yours, E.
This was what I wanted to say to the man I was yearning for: “Write it plain, when you do come—just say Now.” Sentences even more intimate seemed pulled from my brain—that “all day I was thinking of you”; that “I wish I could see you. The day is so tender here”; that her love was “a daily kind of hope, not ever idle.” She asked him to send a picture of himself, promising to “keep it positively secret, in a drawer, like goldfish that have never seen the light of day.” Ah, that feeling of a world built only for two. “I miss you when I taste something,” she wrote, “like frozen peaches.”
She was in her early thirties, trying to make sense of a love that was unreturnable. I think she was also trying to understand where romantic love fit in the pantheon of emotions. How did it mimic or undercut or amplify her art? I read her words like I was reading my own sadness: “It is so good to hear from you and it changes everything sometimes when things have happened in the world that make a fresh mystery of how you are.” Seeing the heart of another person up close can feel as electric as creating love on the page—no, more so. How could you not want to engage with the reality of what you spent all day inventing? How could you not stumble as you approached its light, its heat?
Love is not a natural companion to art; it may be a competitor. I don’t know how Welty juggled it—what was available to her, what she sought, what she suppressed. If John Robinson had been attracted to women, had returned from the war and dropped to a knee and held out a velvet box, would she have attached her life to his? Would she have had children, written less, become even more of a cheerleader for his career? She sent her New Yorker editor one of John’s stories, which she’d typed and lightly edited; she seemed more comfortable—of course, I think—championing him. But perhaps when I’m in my sixties, I’ll read her letters to the writer Ross Macdonald and learn anew what love is.
Welty was a giver. She was a Southern woman, trained in generosity and sacrifice. I know these things. You can be fiercely independent and still bend to duty. This summer I spent time at an artists’ colony—I went to MacDowell, she to Yaddo—and I was struck by how unusual such indulgence felt. We were both highly privileged women, with means enough to write (mostly) the way we wanted to write, but we also felt keenly the necessity of saying yes to others. In those colonies, there was no yes: there was only the self. We were fed, housed, given tools and time and space, and left alone. I found it radical—she found it “tense.” She was, reportedly, uncomfortable, homesick, and couldn’t work on new stories. Did she ever learn to breathe into that space, to accept it, if never quite to demand it? She worked there on page proofs for her first story collection; I worked on page proofs for my third novel. I picture both of us with our red pencils in the Northern woods, wondering whether home was Mississippi, or home was Art.
If I take her as my model, am I asking for her life: unmarried, childless, alone, creative, someone who gives but also keeps, is kept from some of life’s richness, but also uses her freedom to create more? Or am I telling myself, when I am afraid to be alone, Welty was alone. Which is to say not alone; who among us doesn’t want to have a clubhouse in our backyard where we bring our friends and silly hats and tell ghost stories and dance? A role model is a tool: we use them to push ourselves, to clarify what we want, to console ourselves for falling inevitably short.
Looking for a mirror of ourselves in the world is a primal act of identification. We need assurances that our experiences exist on a spectrum of reality—that we are unique, our character so singular that it must be expressed, but also that we are normal. In this way we are perpetually adolescent. Let me blend in, let no one notice me, but also let me be the only one of my kind. Finding a twin among prodigies is a psychologically easy way to balance both desires at once: I am strange, but in just this extraordinary way. In fact, Welty and I are not alike in voice or talent or accomplishment. We are alike in being women from Jackson, both white, both middle class. Who want both to create and to love, though love is fraught.
But what about the fact that Tell about Night Flowers ends as she embarks, solo, for Lisbon? And that I read those letters when I had just returned, solo, from Lisbon? Some confluences are coincidental and should be discounted.
In Rachel Cusk’s novel Transit, a character finds herself strongly identifying with a famous painter, Marsden Hartley. She eventually comes to a “cataclysm of realisation”: “Rather than mirroring the literal facts of her own life, Marsden Hartley was doing something much bigger and more significant: he was dramatising them.” The mirroring between me and Welty isn’t extraordinary; other people shopped at the Jitney, other people planted roses. It’s the way her life has dramatized mine that’s driven me to write this. Her path is teaching me what my own has meant, or will mean; her story colorizes my own. I read her now—riskily, perhaps—as an oracle.
Last year I took a job at Millsaps College—a few blocks from my house, from her house—where she taught briefly in the sixties. The position was the inaugural Eudora Welty Chair for Southern Literature. The English Department gave me a big sun-filled office in the old English house, where I hung a photograph of Welty looking through a window. I sat in that empty office in the heart of our shared town and looked back at her looking at me. I taught her stories to my students—“Why I Live at the P.O.,” “No Place for You, My Love,” “Where Is the Voice Coming From?”—and tried to keep a neutral expression when they deconstructed her, pointed out her flaws. She is still living, I told myself, imagining her delight—the delight that I would feel if fifty years from now my words were still alive enough to be picked apart.
“The Welty Chair,” people say with raised eyebrows when I tell them of my position, Welty being synonymous with grand, weighty, out-of-reach. But outside my office is a weedy bed, nut grass and Virginia creeper gobbling up the azaleas, and when I sit at my desk grading papers, I feel what I think Welty would feel: not grand at all, but an aching desire to leap up, bolt through the screen door, and start ravaging the clover. “The weeds grow here with a rush practically audible,” she once wrote in despair. I like to think this makes me suited for the job in her name, but really anyone with a loving heart would be suited for it, and don’t most all of us have loving hearts? Not as wide and deep and knowing as hers, perhaps, but loving all the same? Doesn’t each of us want to give, want to be kept, want to make, want to grow?
Perhaps Welty’s magic is not her uniqueness but that anyone could read her and find themselves there. She allows for the illusion of twinness. Maybe this is what art does: it makes you feel that you are suddenly seen. That you have twinned with something in the world. Trying to force a commonality with the artist herself may, in fact, be missing the point of art.
Yesterday I turned thirty-four. The river of my life will take many more bends, some toward the path of Welty’s river, some away. I might have children; I might only have nephews and nieces. But she and I will always be Jackson girls, will thrill at the sight of a spring flower, will cleave to our families, and will find the broader world a bright palette for our fictions. We start—like most writers, or most Southerners, or most people—with wide arms. The mouth of the river. We gather silt, we open outward, we expand to salt. The confluences become too many to count.
Katy Simpson Smith is the author, most recently, of The Everlasting, out this week from HarperCollins