Friday, April 29, 2011

Welty and Maxwell: "What There is to Say We Have Said"

I first started reading the New Yorker magazine in the 1970s, when its editor was the legendary William Shawn. He was the editor until 1987, when new owners asked him to step down. For those of us who were New Yorker fanatics, the departure of Shawn was the departure of the heart and soul of the magazine. I continued to read it into the 1990s, but it had clearly lost something. Or perhaps what it was, what it had meant for writing and literature, wasn’t likely to survive into the internet age.

From the 1940s to the mid-1970s, one of the editors working for Shawn was William Maxwell (1908-2000), a novelist and short story writer. He was a wonderful writer; his novels and stories still resonate. If you haven’t read him, you should – novels like They Came Like Swallows, So Long, See You Tomorrow, The Folded Leaf and Time Will Darken It.

One of the writers whose stories and short novels were published in the New Yorker was Eudora Welty (1909-2001). Author of The Ponder Heart, The Optimist’s Daughter, numerous short stories and her autobiographical One Writer’s Beginnings (among a lot of other works), Welty’s stories were championed for years by Maxwell for publication in the New Yorker, until Shawn and the other editors agreed.

They were good friends, Welty and Maxwell were. They were writers who admired each other’s work. They both loved growing roses. They loved literature and they loved family. They were born a year apart in different parts of the country, but they were kindred spirits. Both of them have two-volume collections of their works published by the Library of America. And for more than 50 years, they wrote each other letters.

Suzanne Marrs, professor of English at Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi, has assembled, annotated and extensively footnoted the Maxwell-Welty correspondence into What There is to Say We Have Said: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and William Maxwell. And it is a marvelous work of literature.

The correspondence is the letters between friends, exchanging news about family, friends, their reading, the vacation plans, what’s happening in their gardens.

It’s the letters between two people who stood at the center of the American literary establishment. Through their letters walk Frank O’Connor, Walker Percy, William Faulkner, Elizabeth Bowen, Cleanth Brooks, Tennessee Williams, Robert Penn Warren, Reynolds Price, Robert and Sally Fitzgerald and so many other “names” of the 1940s into the 1990s. Whether it’s Maxwell describing a dinner conversation with Isak Dineson, or Welty describing Reynolds Price, or the two of them discussing Welty’s novel Losing Battles, what the wrote about at length is a simple wonder. And the letters never descend into the gossipy, which they easily could have. Maxwell and Welty had no need to do that in their letters, because of who they were and the kind of people they were.

Ultimately, their correspondence, along with occasional letters of Maxwell’s wife Emily, who was an integral part of the friendship, stands as two friends, two likeminded friends, who loved literature and loved each other. Marrs has created an important and impressive addition to the understanding of two great writers.

The book will be published May 12.


Bob Spencer said...

Thanks for bringing my attention to this book, Glynn. Welty and Maxwell are both such fine artists, and it's really no surprise to me to learn that they were such kindred spirits. Their prose shares a very similar feel. Great and still under-appreciated writers, these two.

Maureen said...

I wonder what we'll be seeing in 25-50 years when scholars go through the papers of great writers. Before, as with this collection, we had letters, which often opened into great insights about the writers and the lives they lived. I suppose some writers may be keeping e-mail correspondence but letters? When even my mother, who was a voluminous letter writer, stopped sending letters (I still have them all), I knew something had changed, and something had been lost.

signed...bkm said...

This definitely sounds like a book I would be interested in reading ..thank you for the write up on it and these two writers...bkm

ML said...

Thanks for this post Glynn.

I am a huge fan of Eudora Welty's work.

Connecting the dots with writer William Shawn and Eudora Welty... sounds likes a book I need to pick up!