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.
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.
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.
Letters between writers often have a lot of shop talk of interest to other writers and literary cultists, but this collection yields broader pleasures, too. In addition to being stellar writers, Welty and Maxwell were also accomplished critics, and one of the joys of the book is eavesdropping on their assessments of authors as varied as John Updike and Virginia Woolf, Anton Chekhov and Charles Dickens, William Faulkner and E. M. Forster. Welty and Maxwell also shared an intense love of gardening – so much so that Marrs was forced, in the book’s index, to include an extensive listing of various varieties of roses.
Typical of the letters’ alternating interest in literature and horticulture is a Nov. 16, 1966 note from Welty in which she reports a season full of planting bulbs – “and soft fine days outdoors to do it, just perfect” – and reading Jane Austen’s “Persuasion.” Austen, says Welty, is “the only power to get me whole through some days I sometimes feel....”
Maxwell chronicles roses as if reporting on members of his family, telling Welty in a 1957 letter that “Paul’s Lemon Pillar and Spanish Beauty moved to the basement, for the winter, with Lady Hillingdon and Souv. de Malmaison – all showed a tendency to die back to the ground every winter, so I am letting them come in with us.”
As these letters show, Welty and Maxwell regarded domestic life not as a tedious distraction from the writing desk, but as a crucial source of insight. Welty, who remained single throughout her life, confesses in 1968 to dreaming both of her new refrigerator and her novel in progress, the new fridge working itself into her fiction. Maxwell, a happy husband and father, complains in 1970 of noisy appliances and daughters practicing music lessons, but his love for his wife and children seems obvious.
The title of the collection comes from Maxwell’s conclusion, as he and Welty faced their mortality, that “what there is to say we have said, in one way or the other. You know how much we love you.”
That love, a source of sustenance and strength between two great writers, is also a bright tonic for the readers of this volume, which affirms Welty’s belief that to read someone’s letters “is in some way to admit him to our friendship.”