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What There Is to Say We Have Said: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and William Maxwell

Two great writers share thoughts on their books, their gardens, their dreams, and their deep caring for one another.

By / May 17, 2011

What There Is to Say We Have Said: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and William Maxwell Edited by Suzanne Marrs Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 499 pp.

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In the annals of American literature, Eudora Welty and William Maxwell each earned blue ribbons for physical longevity. Welty, the famous Southern novelist, short story writer, and memoirist, died in 2001 at 92; Maxwell, a fiction editor for The New Yorker who was also an acclaimed writer of fiction, died in 2000 at 91.

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Because of their long lives and careers, Welty and Maxwell endure in popular culture as the silver-haired sages of national letters, standard-bearers of a literary period that extended from the Great Depression to recent memory.

One of the nice things about What There Is to Say We Have Said, a new collection of letters between Welty and Maxwell, is its gentle reminder that these two writers were young once, too.

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The most unusual letter in the collection is a 1933 missive from Welty to the editors who presided over The New Yorker before Maxwell’s arrival there. Welty, then 23, had written the magazine asking for a job, and her letter – an awkward affair in which she self-consciously tries to mimic James Thurber – has none of the quiet grace and acute perception that would later become Welty’s signature. As a novice writer who wants to shake off the dust of a sleepy province and make it big in Gotham, Welty mocks her native Mississippi as “the nation’s most backward state.”

Aside from stints in Wisconsin, where she attended college, and New York City, where she studied and did an internship with The New York Times Book Review, Welty spent the rest of her life in her hometown of Jackson, eventually embracing her Southern roots as a wellspring of her fiction. Maxwell, who drew upon his Midwestern childhood for his fiction, found a kindred spirit in Welty, and he became an early and consistent champion of her work from his post at The New Yorker.

Welty’s application letter to The New Yorker, a forgivable piece of juvenilia, is about as embarrassing as this collection gets. Suzanne Marrs, a friend of Welty’s and a sympathetic Welty biographer, tells readers that she has excluded “a very few lines” from eight of Maxwell’s letters and deleted names of people mentioned in eight other Maxwell letters “at the reasonable request of the Maxwell estate,” but that represents only a tiny fraction of the published letters in this volume, which mostly appear in their entirety.

About the only other mild shocker in the letters is the usually even-tempered Welty’s depressed state, rather late in her career, at being unable to write fiction, although as literary dark periods go, her funk seems fairly tame.

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