When I was in my early twenties and only beginning to taste the cold bit of a lifetime’s work in the arts of language, I was handed one of the most enduring gifts fate has offered me. I met the two supreme artists whom I’ve known well—Eudora Welty and W. H. Auden.
Eudora came to lecture at Duke, where I was a second-semester senior, in the winter of 1955. She was to stay only three days; but because she was scheduled to arrive at the old depot in downtown Durham very late in the night—and because I knew no taxis would be available at that hour—I turned up, unbidden, and conveyed her safely to her hotel. She never forgot the minutest detail of that meeting, and a lifetime’s friendship began on the spot.
In 1956 Wystan Auden returned, in mature triumph as Professor of Poetry, to Oxford—the alma mater at which he had performed so poorly as an undergraduate. We had never met but had mutual friends; and to my wonderment, shortly after his arrival I pulled a small envelope from my Merton College pigeonhole to find his all-but-illegible signature in the upper left-hand corner. He was inviting me for a drink! Again, a friendship grew—one that was never close yet was nonetheless profoundly instructive.
If called upon to name a single characteristic that marked these very different creatures, I’d have to say a wit that deeply loved the world but was steadily subversive. And if called upon to name one sentence that characterized their separate angles of comic vision, I’d offer these examples.
For that first drink with Auden in his rooms at Christ Church, I arrived at five PM, punctilious, as all his guests were required to be; but as I approached the door, I saw a sheet of green paper pierced in the middle and stuck over the doorknob. Had I come a moment late to find him gone in exasperation? With trepidation, I took the paper and deciphered the sentence—“Reynolds, back shortly. Come in and pour yourself a gin. I’ve gone to an unveiling of the dean’s bust.”
In the case of Eudora, I once drove us from my home in North Carolina to hers in Mississippi, a distance of some eight hundred miles. We’d planned to spend two nights on the road and had managed a first restful night in Asheville. But our planned second night in Birmingham proved problematic—all motels were filled. Forcing our exhausted selves on to the next opportunity, Tuscaloosa, we found a similar dire situation—no rooms. After many calls through the yellow pages, I at last rented us an entire mobile home—a large trailer parked in the woods beside a small motel with several choices of bedrooms for Eudora and me. Late in the night, then, and in vast relief to have found a harbor, I poured us stiff drinks of bourbon and offered a toast to our entirely plastic surroundings—plastic beds, plastic walls and floor, plastic furniture. Eudora was seated on the long plastic couch. As she raised her plastic glass to join me in the toast, she said in her usual dead-level quiet voice, “If this sofa could talk, we’d have to burn it.”
Was Shakespeare a funny friend? Was Homer or Sophocles or Virgil or Milton? Was Leonardo or Michelangelo? Newton or Heisenberg? Face-to-face wit may not be an indispensable component of scientific genius, but I at least have never known a first-class artist who was not either witty or a ravenous connoisseur of wit in others. And since I’m here to celebrate the memory of Eudora Welty, I could hold you well past dinnertime with recollections of the laughter she generated so effortlessly—far richer examples even than the dozens in her stories.
Given the regrettable fact, however, that in the last twenty years of her life, she became enshrined (indeed, slowly entrapped) in a caketop construct that attempted to preserve her as The Gentle First Lady of American Letters—a creature of impeccable benignity and sweetness— what most needs fixing now in the minds of the survivors who care for the excellence of her life and her work is the gravity of pain at the heart of her best moments. For all the brilliance of her famous comic stories and her two comic novels, no other American writer wrote more accurately and memorably of human loneliness—and loneliness is the prime American subject.
More than once I told her that my favorite among her works was the story “Death of a Traveling Salesman.” She’d always give a half yell and say “But that was the first story I ever published.” And so it was, in a little Ohio magazine called Manuscript. Published when she was twenty-seven years old, it told a tale with a mystery at its core, the tale of a seedy Depression-era salesman in the Mississippi hill country, a bachelor who thinks he’s found overnight refuge with a country mother and son only to discover that he’s wrong—they’re a married couple and a child is imminent in their lives. The realization panics the loveless salesman; and here I quote, “He was shocked with knowing what was really in this house. A marriage, a fruitful marriage. That simple thing. Anyone could have had that.” The finding kills him; he dies of a heart attack moments later.
It’s a finding that prophesied the heart of sadness which would accompany the remainder of Eudora’s long life. Behind that sadness, she nonetheless built a train of many pleasures, of continuous help to her friends and fierce loyalty to her family in their worst times. And of course she made her serenely astonishing work—though less work perhaps than she might have accomplished if her hunger for an intimate relation had been met with a reassuring partner (she completed no fiction during her final thirty years, years that sometimes seemed to circle in a restless wandering).
From her early twenties, though, through her early sixties, she gave us—to name only my sense of the peaks—two near-perfect novels (Delta Wedding and The Optimist’s Daughter), at least a dozen short stories that stand with the best of Tolstoy and Chekhov, a lovely yet piercing memoir, and a thick collection of photographs that truthfully demonstrates a Deep-Southern racial complexity which is otherwise all but lost to visual memory.
Her few surviving close friends prize the memory of her laughing presence, her tender attentions in narrow straits and her quiet but utterly staunch firmness at any crossroads where her sense of justice, love and loyalty was engaged.
Lastly, she looked on membership in this Academy as a continuing honor; she worked for its purposes and it misses her.