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Monday, April 4, 2011

In Progress: 'What There is to Say We Have Said'

This spring break I'm spending time with Eudora Welty, whose writing I've loved for years, and William Maxwell, whose work I now plan to glom. The Southern chronicler of human foible and The New Yorker editor/novelist were friends for decades. Many of their letters, as well as some from Maxwell's wife Emily, are gathered in What There Is To Say We Have Said: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and William Maxwell (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).

The introduction by Welty friend and biographer Suzanne Marrs, who edited this collection, sets the loveliest tone about friendship and discoveries that friends want to share with each other over the years about their own writing, each other's writing, books, roses, the places they travel. Marrs also begins by quoting Welty's own introduction to the famed Norton Book of Friendship. It brings to mind long-lasting friendships formed online, where we put ideas, hopes, dreams and disappointments into words to each other every day:

All letters, old and now, are the still-existing parts of a life. To read them now is to be present when some discovery of truth -- or perhaps untruth, some flash of light -- is just occurring. ... To come upon a personal truth of a human being, however little known, and now gone forever, is in some way to admit him to our friendship.

Also enjoyable is Marrs's knowledge about the work of both writers, as when she notes both were not fans of being pigeonholded by genre. She quotes Welty regarding how she wrote about the characters in The Golden Apples "to take up these people whenever and wherever in their lives that might interest me". As Marrs astutely notes, Welty "preferred the irresolution of experience to the tying of bows". If only more writers trusted themselves to chronicle experience and its results rather than worry about tying a bow to close Act III. Life is arbitrary and fiction an even more arbitrary narrative imposed on the human condition. If a resolution is forced, then untie that bow.

Welty, Maxwell and Marrs do other people's fiction the honor of taking it on its own terms. Marrs, in her explanation at the end of the introduction of her editorial changes, demonstrates she thoroughly understands the art of making editorial choices that benefit the reader while shining an unharsh light of authenthcity on her subjects. As Maxwell noted about a review Welty wrote of J.D Salinger's Nine Stories for the New York Times Book Review in 1953: "Like the best reviews it was within rather than outside the stories themselves."

Although only still in the early going of the collected letters, it is apparent that the writers celebrated and the editor of their correspondence all are within the stories, within the letters and so within the captured moments of life.


  1. This sounds like a real treasure! Love Welty's quote from the introduction, too. Hope we'll hear more about the letters as you make your way through.

  2. Hi JoAnn! Yes, this collection is turning out to be a great treasure indeed, just like their friendship.

    Last night I read a detailed back-and-forth about the line edits of her wonderful novella, The Ponder Heart, which The New Yorker published in its entirety. It's a fascinating look at how careful considerations can go into every aspect of even a finished piece (which I cannot imagine taking place today).

    Miss Welty even "restored the dash for reasons of Edna Earle's speech or character. She's essentially a lady of dashes, I think, with lots of after-thoughts and sudden additions to what she's saying, and not a lady of the considered semicolon".

    Oh, goodness. To know why the speech of a character one had created would look just so is such a wonderful thing to know.

  3. What an amazing quote! After just one novel and a couple short stories, it doesn't surprise me that Welty 'knows' how Edna's speech should look. Her work is all about the characters. I may pull out her collected stories today.