Thursday, May 12, 2016

THE EUDORA WELTY HOUSE AND GARDEN

Distributed by Eudora Welty
house and garden
For at least ten years, I’ve wanted to stop in Jackson, Mississippi en route to New Iberia, Louisiana from Sewanee, Tennessee just to tour the Eudora Welty House and Garden, and Monday we stopped at this National Historic Landmark on Pinehurst Street for a two-hour visit. We toured at a time when the Eudora Welty Foundation and the Welty House and Garden, a museum of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, honored Welty’s The Optimist’s Daughter, which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1973.

I am re-reading The Optimist’s Daughter after touring the house and find references to the furnishings and mementoes in the Welty home, as well as allusions to the flowers in the beautiful three-level garden. A handsome brochure distributed by the Welty Education and Visitors Center contains descriptive lines from The Optimist’sDaughter that enhance the tour; e.g., Mrs. Welty’s bedroom: “…There was the Dickens all in a set, a shelf and a half full, old crimson bindings scorched and frayed and hanging in strips" (p. 118 in the Random House hardback edition of The Optimist’s Daughter). And In the sitting room: “She saw at once that nothing had happened to the books… “She dusted all of them and set them back in the same order.” You can almost hear Welty reading the passages in her soft Mississippi drawl, calling forth memories of family heirlooms and excerpts from the Welty family’s most prized possessions – books. Books occupy bookcases, are stacked on sofas and tables in all the rooms, 5,000 of them according to a total count made by archivists. An ambience of peace permeates the home, and the docent didn’t have to inform us that hospitality was the Welty family’s leitmotif.

Distributed by Eudora Welty
house and garden
Stories about Welty that impressed me included anecdotes about her humility, something not often seen in authors (except perhaps the notable ones who’re  more interested in the creative process than they are in awards). After Welty’s death, the Pulitzer Prize was found in a closet in the sitting room! Although she won many awards: four O.Henry Memorial Prizes, the Howells Medal from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, The American Book Award for Paperback Fiction, the PEN/Malamud Award, the Freedom Medal of Honor from presidents Carter and Reagan, and numerous lifetime achievement awards and honorary degrees from Tulane, Harvard, Yale, Emory, Smith College, etc., Welty did not display any of her numerous awards in her home, excepting the Raven Award for “Mystery Reader of the Year” from the Mystery Writers of America. She loved mysteries, and one of her closest friends was mystery writer Ross MacDonald, with whom she often corresponded.

Within the Welty Education and Visitors Center, we also viewed the “Eudora Welty Other Places” photography exhibit, photographs shot by Welty in New York and New Orleans that were displayed and published in a catalog by the Mississippi State Historical Museum in 1995. Welty often wandered the streets of the French Quarter looking for photographic opportunities and subjects for numerous short stories about the Crescent City. I had seen some of the photographs she shot while working for the WPA that were displayed in the Hunter Museum exhibit at Chattanooga, Tennessee last year and loved the images of rural Mississippi that she captured.

I discovered Welty in the 50’s while working at Louisiana State University and read Delta WeddingThe Golden Apples, The Ponder Heart, and The Bride of the Innisfallen, but when I read The Optimist’s Daughter in 1972,  I knew why she had been awarded the Pulitzer Prize. As the brochure from the Welty House and Garden reveals: “In The Optimist’s Daughter, Welty’s main character, Laurel, acknowledges that ‘the guilt of outliving those you love is justly to be borne,’ and Laurel discovers consolation in memory and is able to find that the ‘heart could empty and fill again.’” It was Welty’s fourth novel and contained a plethora of biographical detail. In 1984, she expanded this detail in a memoir entitled One Writer’s Beginnings. When we left Jackson, I carried a copy of Welty, Stories, Essays, and Memoir published by the Library of America and I’m still reading apace.

Tours of the Welty House and Garden are offered Tuesday-Friday and second Saturday mornings. The Eudora Welty Foundation is dedicated to ensuring the legacy of Eudora Welty through educational programs, recognition of reading and writing excellence, and support for the Welty House and Garden Collection at MDAH.


If you’re traveling through Mississippi, this National Historic Landmark is worth veering off course to see, especially if you’re a fan of one of the South’s finest writers.  
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