She is anything but a recluse, as becomes apparent when, asked about her writing habits, she says she can write anytime, anywhere, even on the front seat of her car, “except at night.” What’s wrong with writing at night? “Oh,” as if this were obvious, “I like to see my friends then.”
Though she is thought of as a deeply Southern writer, Miss Welty points out that her mother was Virginian but her father was a Northerner, of German-Swiss ancestry. (“A Republican,” she adds, in a mock hushed tone.) “It was a good family to grow up in. I learned there wasn’t just one side that was right.”
She graduated from college before she was 20 (Mississippi State College for Women, University of Wisconsin) and went on to New York to the Columbia School of Business to study advertising. Back in Mississippi during the early Depression years she worked for newspapers and radio stations and then as a publicity director, “on the road for the W.P.A.,” as she puts it.
In 1941, five years after her first story was published, her first collection, “A Curtain of Green,” came out, with an introduction by Katherine Anne Porter. “The strangest thing about my first stories getting published is that I never stopped to think how lucky I was. I just took it as a matter of course, sent them off, without any modesty or worry at all. It’s only now, when I look back on it, that I’m simply amazed. Because I was very, very lucky. I didn’t know enough to be scared.”
A lesser-known episode of her career is her stint as a staff member of The Times Book Review, which she joined at the invitation of the editor, Robert Van Gelder, who had admired her first book and interviewed her in 1942. She was good at her job, according to a colleague of those wartime days: “Although the only battlefields Eudora had probably ever seen,” he wrote recently, “were at Vicksburg and Shiloh, she turned out splendid reviews of World War II battlefield reports from North Africa, Europe and the South Pacific. When a churlish Times Sunday editor suggested that a lady reviewer from the Deep South might not be the most authoritative critic for the accounts of World War II’s far-flung campaigns, she switched to a pseudonym, Michael Ravenna.” Michael Ravenna’s sage judgments came to be quoted prominently in publishers’ ads and invitations from radio networks for Mr. Ravenna to appear on their programs had to be politely declined on grounds that he had been called away to the battlefronts.
Before the war’s end, she decided to go back home, to write fiction, and she has lived in Jackson since, though in the 1950s she made her first of several trips to Europe: “I was invited to lecture at Cambridge, and of course was scared to death. But if you’re invited for six weeks, with a year to prepare, I just thought you’re a perfect fool if you don’t accept.” One of her happiest meetings was with E.M. Forster, who invited her to lunch. “And the luckiest thing happened: Our waiter was drunk, he came lurching on like a Shakespearean clown, and that put us both at ease and made our meeting so easy.”
But then, how could a meeting with Eudora Welty be difficult? — Walter Clemons