Monday, June 27, 2011

Maxwell and Welty

I feel I could write post after post after post about What There Is to Say We Have Said: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and William Maxwell; instead, pressed by that demon Time, I'll simply say that if you like either writer, if you like dailyness and the pleasures of the commonplace, if you like Virginia Woolf or Thomas Hardy and would gladly talk about them and their lives endlessly, if you are more amused by the world than angered by it, if you are more saddened by the world than angered by it, if you could use a couple of examples of writers who made their art within the context of full and reasonably contented lives rather than having it deform them, well, buy the book, read it, and keep it near for the coming years. Its genius is born in the quotidian, in the way that, for most of us, if we're lucky, books and culture are part of a larger, fuller, sometimes much more trivial life, and the interplay between the daily and the lasting only heightens the pleasures of both. Such are the virtues, side by side and sentence by sentence, of these letters.

The overriding theme, however, is friendship. It's friendship within limits--you get the sense that, as in a lot of friendships that are no less real or lasting for this, certain topics are silently unremarked upon--but it's nonetheless a friendship of deep love and caring. There are many moments, on both sides, that demonstrate this, but the most memorable one comes during a rough patch in Welty's life. Maxwell's letter to her of January 24, 1967 is a marvel of care and circumspection, of careful management of topic and tone. He begins quietly enough, responding to queries about a recent illness and lamenting the drain that editing the work of other writers can be; he talks of reading Far from the Madding Crowd, calling Hardy "a magician." And then he turns serious--but he begins gently, almost imperceptibly, by, without preamble, launching into a story:
Your feeling about 1966, and fear for 1967, brought back the lowest period of my life, at the end of my sophomore year in college, when for about four or five months I really thought that the reason one thing after another turned out badly was that anything having to do with me necessarily would. So I decided on one last try, and if that didn't work, I would not try any more, ever. I had nobody to room with in my junior year and I had been introduced to somebody in a revolving door who seemed like a nice enough boy, so I got his address and wrote and asked if he'd like to room with me, and he wrote back he would, and in the fall, when we met in the dormitory, it was not the boy I had met in the revolving door--I must have got his name wrong--but a boy whom I had never laid eyes on, who had had polio, and had a withered leg, so he always dressed and undressed in his clothes closet, and he was a perfectly marvelous room-mate and from that time on everything worked out beautifully, for years and years.

What I am trying to say is there is no pattern in years, no constancy of good or bad luck. Who knows what the day after tomorrow will bring--the very thing we most wanted and haven't allowed our hearts to hope.

If what I heard in your voice persists, will you drop everything and come to New York and settle down in the back room and let us hang garlands of love around your neck, day after day, until you are feeling yourself again?
As an outsider, by the time you reach the end of the letter, and Maxwell's heart-wrenching plea to his friend--in whom he must have sensed real despair when last he talked with her--you realize that the whole letter was written with that final paragraph in mind, its studied casualness an example of nerves held tightly under control, in order that Maxwell's own fear not unduly frighten the friend he hoped to comfort. Would that we all have friends like that, could be friends like that.


  1. My, that's wonderful. We would all be incredibly lucky to have just one friend like that. This book has been on my radar since I saw it in Houghton's catalog a few months ago, and after reading this as well as excerpts in Oxford American, I'm really hungering to read it.

  2. Levi, this is a great post. True friendship, for reasons I've never been able to devine, is wildly under-represented in fiction--at least in the books that I've read. One of the finest writers of friendship that I know of, is Willa Cather, and her book, "Death Comes to the Archbishop" is a wonderful ode to friendship. Of course, William Maxwell also wrote well about friendship in his stories and novels. When it's done well in books, it's such a wonderful treat, for we are called in to join the realm.