One writer's beginnings

The first biography of Eudora Welty, despite her wishes

EUDORA WELTY: A WRITER'S LIFE By Ann Waldron Doubleday 415 pp., $25.95

STORIES, ESSAY'S & MEMOIR By Eudora Welty Library of America 980 pp., $35

COMPLETE NOVELS By Eudora Welty Library of America 1,014 pp., $35

It says something of the esteem in which she is held that Eudora Welty should be the first living author showcased in the distinguished Library of America series. Her works appear in two volumes: "Complete Novels" and "Stories, Essays and Memoir," both edited by Richard Ford and Michael Kreyling.

The woman herself seems to be as widely admired as her writing. Having had the pleasure of talking with her for only a few moments at a large party, I can attest to her immense charm: This gaunt, stooped, ungainly lady radiates a fresh, spontaneous enthusiasm that practically glows in the dark.

Ann Waldron, who took it upon herself to write Welty's biography against Welty's wishes, begins by explaining her own motives. It is Waldron's view that as a "towering literary figure," Welty not only merits, but practically requires, a biography.

Welty herself, however, believes a writer is under no obligation to discuss her personal life. Not only did she refuse (graciously and politely, of course) to cooperate, but she also asked her many friends and colleagues to follow suit. And, indeed, as Waldron discovered, Welty inspires such affection and loyalty in those who have known her, it was hard for this biographer to do her research.

Despite these formidable hurdles, Waldron has managed to put together a reasonably colorful and readable account of Welty's life and work, based largely on letters and archival papers, published essays and articles, and interviews with some people who agreed to cooperate. Her biography succeeds in conveying a great deal of Welty's personal charm and ebullience.

A letter Welty wrote as a young woman offering her services to The New Yorker captures her playful spirit. In it, she describes herself as hailing "from Mississippi, the nation's most backward state." Although she imagines they would be "more interested in even a sleight-o'hand trick" than in yet another job applicant, "as usual you can't have the thing you want most." She offers to review books, movies, art. She even coined a word to characterize Matisse: "concubineapple." Sadly, the magazine did not take her on.

Indeed, Welty initially had a very hard time finding places that would publish her stories. Her pieces were sometimes deemed too long and too opaque for popular tastes. Even some of her most devoted admirers sometimes found themselves impatient with her highly elaborate prose style and oblique approach to storytelling. But eventually, her literary career took off.

Welty's range of subject matter and her sure command of language have made her fiction an impressive body of work. Her stories testify to her keen powers of observation and her flair for imaginative and mythic invention.

As Waldron tells us, Eudora traveled all over her native Mississippi working for the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s, and she took a lively, sympathetic interest in everything she saw. She also found inspiration in the rather gothic legends and tales of her region's history. But, although her fiction often deals with lurid subjects, Welty, quite understandably, felt her own life was quiet and private.

Waldron, to her credit, is not the kind of biographer who seeks to "explain" her subject's creative work in terms of Freudian theories. One interesting tack she does take is to offer a series of glimpses into the parallel story of Richard Wright, the black writer who was Welty's contemporary, also born in Jackson, but who might as well have been living on another planet, given the separate and unequal worlds that these two writers inhabited.

Do biographies of writers always enhance our understanding and appreciation of literature? Not always, perhaps. But, if writers are entitled to object to being made the unwilling subjects of biographies, would-be biographers are also entitled to write them if they wish.

Waldron's account of Welty's life and career does not do a disservice to its subject. It is not overly intrusive, tendentious, or misguided. Its most noticeable flaw is that it is somewhat disjunctive and scrappy, whether because Waldron lacked all the material she needed or because she was unable to do a better job of shaping what she had into a more fluent narrative.

Still, Waldron paints an appealing portrait of this shy, yet gifted storyteller. Perhaps when it comes to understanding the secret of Welty's creative gift, it is Welty herself who really has the last word in the conclusion to her engaging memoir, "One Writer's Beginnings": "As you have seen, I am a writer who came of a sheltered life. A sheltered life can be a daring life as well. For all serious daring starts from within."

Merle Rubin reviews books regularly for the Monitor.

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