Astonishment in the Head

For six months I have been working my way through my college professor Suzanne Marrs’s new book, What There Is to Say We Have Said: the Correspondence of Eudora Welty and William Maxwell.  At the end of Approaching Eye Level, Vivian Gornick has a chapter called “On Letter Writing,” which she concludes by saying, “Letter writing is not the noble enterprise. Remaining fully expressive is the noble enterprise.” About remaining fully expressive, I think Patti Smith would agree. Having spent six months with them, I think Welty and Maxwell would too.

What There Is to Say We Have Said is an edited collection of the correspondence between Eudora Welty and her New Yorker editor, fiction writer and friend, William Maxwell (along with Maxwell’s wife, Emily). I have been seriously caught up in these letters that span more than fifty years of friendship, notes between editor and writer, between friends, talking about their own writing, their gardens, things they’ve read in the newspaper, trips they’ve taken, upcoming visits together in New York. We follow the long arc of their two storied careers, stepping behind the curtain, so to speak, into the intimate space between close friends where children are born, siblings and parents die, stories are started and (usually) completed, novels written and celebrated, honors bestowed … and the space, too, where old age creeps in, where distance grows, where time passes.

Reading the letters I’ve been overcome by the idea that we — as a culture, as creative people, as souls — have lost something valuable in our [in]ability to communicate with one another. In fact (and people would argue with me here) I’m not even sure text messages or tweets or status updates are communicating. There is great convenience in texting; I send text messages every day. But I’m not sure what they are. If we saved every single one (as the Library of Congress is saving tweets), what would someone be able to learn from them, looking back fifty years from now? What will the vast archive of tweets reveal about us to future generations? Maybe it’s about different mediums for different needs, different times; maybe it’s about advancement, and moving on. There are many who would argue, and rightly so, the merits of Twitter. Perhaps I should be more focused on remaining fully expressive, as Gornick insists. But what gets lost in the hurry — that’s what I think about and wonder.

The entire time I’ve been reading the book I’ve thought about something else Vivian Gornick said in Approaching Eye Level. “I am hungry for the sentence structure in their heads,” she wrote. And I was. Part of me never wanted to finish the book, wanted it (selfishly) to go on and on forever. And in a way, through the letters and the stories, through all the beautiful language they’ve left behind, it will. As Maxwell says at one point, citing William Faulkner, Elizabeth Bowen, and John Galsworthy as examples, “good writers do not die, they simply pass into their works and go right on living. In short, they last.”

Here are some of the ways they will last for me. There is no way I could possibly capture them all, but these are some of my favorite lines, some of the passages, hilarious descriptions, and vivid images I enjoyed the most:

*Maxwell: “In this weather one needs astonishment in the head to keep the heat out.”

*Maxwell on roses: “glowing like the windows of Chartres.”

*And Welty, “The rose bushes were still dormant (I hope just that) and the air was like a Shakespearean song.”

*Welty, talking about her character Edna Earle from The Ponder Heart, “She’s essentially a lady of dashes, I think, with lots of afterthoughts and sudden additions to what she’s saying, and not a lady of the considered semicolon …” I love how, at the end of this particular letter, Welty writes, “Must dash down to mail this –” She, too, a lady of dashes.

*William Maxwell on Christmas: “Before the waters of Christmas close over me …”

*Emily Maxwell on Christmas, “And it was good to have something from your hands. I only like the parts of Christmas that people make.”

*Welty on Christmas: “I love Christmas this year! Things seem better here, & we get along fine — Friends are beginning to get home — In Jackson I belong to a bunch of old friends, half of us are old maids & old bachelors off teaching school or something, that have been spending Christmas together since early childhood, & all still get back for it — We have eggnog Christmas morning here — It’s always warm, usually raining by nightfall, & we’re still talking –”

*And Welty on another Christmas, finishing a sentence that began “You were” and then broke off. “You were and are, but Christmas came into the middle of that sentence. Did you all have a wonderful day?”

*Maxwell about an upcoming visit, “I am grateful, because if someone you long to see says I am coming, then for days you think about their coming, and them, and in effect have a visit from them that not even their not coming can take away.”

*Maxwell, who had grown up in Lincoln, Nebraska, “I wish, in short, that Jackson was Lincoln, and that we had played together when we were little, and I know that because you are you, you will take the wish for the fact –”

*Welty on an evening she’d spent with Bill and Emily, “You know how happy it made me to see you — All such times seem snatched up like jewels to run out of a burning house with, somehow, except that sounds funny because while evenings would be the first thing I’d snatch up, jewels would be probably the last.”

*Welty to Bill, “You appeared in a dream here Friday night with the words, `But the dress rehearsal is at 7:30 and it’s ten after now!’ We didn’t make it. I hope I didn’t miss out on something marvelous?”

*Maxwell, “How dreamlike to open a telegram containing an invitation to a dinner you have already eaten.”

*Welty, “I was in with flu but in full possession of my pleasure faculties –”

*Welty on the publication in the New Yorker of The Ponder Heart, “I don’t read it, but I pick it up and feel the weight of it …”

*Maxwell writing about his daughter, “Kate has been mildly valetudinarian (heavens, the thing slipped out), but fortunately she didn’t know it …”

*Welty talking about a cake, “it’s not original, just a sort of anthology, from ladies — but it’s a kind of child’s play cake after that subtle one, and its virtue comes of living where the nuts come from –”

*Welty on Maxwell’s daughter, “that little shuttle of happiness.”

*Welty on summer, “Not much goes on among human beings either — now and then a few of us go up to a little country hotel and sit on the upstairs porch and rock awhile quietly, having drinks in the shade and country stillness, or we sit in the dark in somebody’s Jackson porch to talk & play records.”

*Welty, “Knowing about a good story you haven’t read is like watching for a comet.”

*Bill to Eudora, “Oh do come and bring picnic weather.”

I was fundamentally predisposed to love this book, seeing as it begins with near constant references (on both sides) to the Maxwell’s cat named, yes, Floribunda.

There’s more, so much more I could say. Like with Julia Child’s My Life in France, I was so drawn in by the language of these two, by their turns of phrase, by the intelligence and kindness and curiosity and gentle encouragement each for the other. Something I managed to never pick up on when I read her in college was that Eudora Welty is hilarious, as she is in these pages, and that she drew fascinating people into her company.

I wrote to a friend a month or so ago, long before I finished the book, “I cannot tell you what a treat you are in for (though you already know it). I would say that I’m jealous of you, because you have the whole thing waiting for you like an unopened gift, but I’m not because I still have half the book left to read myself. I’m jealous of the universe that had these two human beings in it, even though I know I was part of that universe for a while — I did live around the corner from Welty the entire time I was in college, after all (we even had the same house number, what a kick! I remember when she died, ten years ago this summer. I had just started working in the literature department at the public library and we put up a grand display for her. I spent time reading her fiction this summer, too, and wished that I had gone to college in my mid- thirties rather than at eighteen. To think that Suzanne Marrs was my teacher, Welty was my neighbor, and what did I want to do? Get an A. Gap years between high school and college should be required by law.

“I know what happens, but I also already know that these two are going to break my heart.”

And they have. They did. But first they made it soar.

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11 Responses to Astonishment in the Head

  1. Jill Johnson says:

    I wait for posts like this one– reading it as I did with a cup of tea, a good cigar on the screened-in porch sheltered from the continuing cold rain.

    A few of my favorites from your sharing:
    William’s comment on Christmas –
    A lady of dashes–
    William’s comment, wishing Lincoln had been Jackson.

    Awaiting that comet,

  2. girl chris says:

    >>*Welty on Maxwell’s daughter, “that little shuttle of happiness.”

    Perfect. You know I love this blergh post.

  3. randasfans says:

    And you, my friend Jill, are most certainly a lady of the considered semicolon. The comet is yours just as soon as I see you again. And gc, the unopened present is yours for the opening. I can’t wait, for both of you.

  4. kim says:

    Oh oh oh. This one stole my heart! I haven’t read it yet. Maybe a Christmas gift. Oh to go back and do Millsaps and make better choices. Dr. Marrs directed my honors project. On Kate Chopin. Barf.

  5. Keri Cole says:

    For the 2012 BHI Writers Retreat, do bring picnic weather.

  6. randasfans says:

    Picnic weather indeed; that was my favorite.

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