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'Eudora Welty': Pretty lively for a `Maiden Aunt'

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``Eudora Welty: A Biography'' by Suzanne Marrs; Harcourt ($28)


Consider the following images of the woman generally deemed to be the finest Southern short-story writer of the 20th century:

Eudora Welty nightclub-hopping until all hours in Paris and New York. Or paying visits to her "feather-boa-ed bootlegger" in her hometown, Jackson, Miss. Or enjoying nighttime skinny-dipping in a friend's swimming pool.

Eudora Welty, decades later, venturing off to see "A Hard Day's Night." Or writing to a friend to complain, "Oh, God! I had to meet Pres. Nixon!"

Eudora Welty, at age 70, visiting friends with whom she "danced and cavorted."

None of this quite tallies with the image the reading public had of Welty in her later years as "the Benign and Beamish Maiden Aunt of American Letters" (as her friend Reynolds Price tartly put it). For those who studied Welty's fiction closely - the jazzy "Powerhouse"; the hilarious "Why I Live at the P.O."; or such sensual, turbulent tales as "At the Landing" or "The Whole World Knows" - the "Maiden Aunt" image didn't make sense, either.

For that reason, Suzanne Marrs' "Eudora Welty: A Biography" is most welcome. It underscores the adventurous nature of Welty's life and notes the frustration she felt when her independent spirit was constrained by family duty. It draws plausible links between the dramas of her life and the vigor of her fiction.

It also makes clear that Welty's decision to stay in Jackson, Miss., even during its tensest racial conflicts, wasn't an act of complacency but one of endurance, during which she did what she could - while caring for her ailing mother - to help create a multiracial, liberal oasis in Jackson.

As for her being a "Maiden Aunt," it's clear that Welty (1909-2001) was the live-wire version - one who, as a friend noted, had a "striking ability to charm the opposite sex."

Certainly she was passionate in her feelings for fellow Jacksonian John Robinson, with whom she had an on-again, off-again involvement from 1937 to 1952 (he took years to come to terms with his homosexuality). Then there was Kenneth Millar (the real name of thriller-writer Ross Macdonald), with whom Welty had an intense long-distance affair punctuated with occasional visits in the flesh. Whether it was a sexual affair or not remains uncertain - but it was enough to trigger jealous reactions from Millar's wife.

Welty's attachment to Millar from their first meeting in 1971 until his death in 1983 isn't the only revelation that Marrs' book offers. She also gives details on what lay behind Welty's 30-year-long case of writer's block following her Pulitzer Prize for "The Optimist's Daughter" in 1972.

Marrs discloses there are manuscripts "never put into polished form," in which Welty tried to make fiction from her difficult years of caring for her dying mother, from her complicated romance with Millar (who died of Alzheimer's disease) and from the murder of a good friend in Jackson.

All dealt with grim subject matter. Yet the passages Marrs quotes from them seem sharp and animated. One reason they may have been left incomplete is that they took a step deeper into the despair evident in "The Optimist's Daughter," a book in which the smalltown Southern characters who inspired the buoyant satire and poignant drama of Welty's early fiction come in for a flatter, more impatient treatment.

Other factors obstructing Welty's writing efforts were declining health (especially arthritis in her hands) and a crazed itinerary of public appearances. Welty's endless travel proves an obstacle for Marrs, too, as she struggles to translate Welty's innumerable lecture gigs, award ceremonies and honorary-degree acceptances (39 of them!) into compelling narrative.

But the most urgent reason Welty may have had to put writing on the backburner was the keen sense of mortality that events imposed on her. Her father had died when she was 21; the rest of her immediate family - mother, two brothers - were gone by the time she was 56. The life-loving Welty cherished her friends and used lecture opportunities and fellowships to see as much of them as she could. Hence all the travel.

Marrs, a friend of Welty, had Welty's cooperation in writing this biography, including open access to her friends and most of her correspondence (letters between Welty and her mother are sealed until 2021). That makes the book a considerable improvement on Ann Waldron's unauthorized 1998 biography, in which Welty simply becomes opaque after 1970, for lack of access to documents and interviewees.

Still, this effort isn't entirely satisfying. All the facts seem to be here, but Marrs' prose can be lackluster, and she hasn't delivered the winnowed, elegant narrative that biographer Jeremy Treglown did in his lives of Henry Green and V.S. Pritchett (the two living writers Welty most admired, along with William Faulkner and Elizabeth Bowen).

Clearly there will be more to be said on Welty's life, once her correspondence with her mother is made public. In the meantime, Marrs' book gives us more than we've ever had, and tantalizes us with the news that there may be further Welty fiction to read, in however rough a form.


(c) 2005, The Seattle Times. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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