EUDORA WELTY

A Biography

By Suzanne Marrs

Harcourt. 652 pp. $28 Eudora Welty is one of the most interesting and appealing figures in 20th-century American literature, and one of the most enigmatic. She fits in no convenient literary pigeonhole, and a mere four years after her death her literary legacy is not easily assessed. Between 1941 (A Curtain of Green) and 1984 (One Writer's Beginnings), she published many short stories of indisputable brilliance -- among them "Why I Live at the P.O.," "A Worn Path" and "The Wide Net" -- as well as five engaging if somewhat less successful novels, a collection of excellent essays and reviews and a volume of photographs of her native Mississippi. It is an admirable life's work, yet precisely where to put it in the galaxy of American letters is something of a mystery.

This is largely because, in her work as in her life, Welty was never quite what she seemed to be. She was born in Jackson, Miss. in 1909, lived there most of her life and set most of her writing there, but she did not possess the visceral Southern-ness of William Faulkner or Flannery O'Connor; her parents had come to Mississippi from Ohio and West Virginia, and they bequeathed her an outsider's perspective. Her writing was often funny and -- no other word will do -- charming, yet there was a toughness at its core that readers (and critics) often missed; her inquiries into human relations and the human heart were never touched by sentimentality. She was a leading figure in a group of writers who happened to be Southerners and women, but she was no more a "Southern woman writer" than O'Connor was, and she took offense (as O'Connor did) when anyone suggested that she was.

Like many other writers, she was intensely private yet receptive to publicity and flattery. Much of her personal life was and seems likely to remain a secret to all except those directly involved in it, virtually all of whom are now dead. This is especially true of her amatory and sexual existence, about which up to now there has been little more than rumor, including the whispers of lesbianism that a lifelong single woman inevitably inspires. A previous biography, Ann Waldron's unauthorized and surprisingly mean-spirited Eudora (1988), did nothing to silence the whispers and made a point of Welty's homely appearance, so it is useful to have Suzanne Marrs's calmer and vastly more detailed account of this side of Welty's life; though certainly it is worth asking what purposes other than those of the higher gossip are served by such inquiries into the life of a person whose only real claim on our attention is what she wrote.

Precisely why this fiercely private person was susceptible to flattery and allowed an entourage to accumulate around her is yet another of the mysteries Welty presents. She acquired honorary degrees the way Imelda Marcos acquired shoes -- the ever-diligent Marrs lists all 39 of them -- and this wasn't because she was a genteel Southern lady who couldn't say no; she had a healthy ego and was happy to have it reinforced by institutions and people whose reputations and motives suited her. Her retinue included many writers, mostly younger and less gifted than she; a number of these, including one man she seems genuinely to have loved, were homosexual, though what (if anything) this means is far from clear. Later on this retinue was supplemented by a gang of academics, among whom Marrs -- who teaches English at Millsaps College in Welty's hometown of Jackson -- appears to be the most assiduous, territorial and tenacious.

Certainly she has treated Welty to a biography in what now passes for the grand academic manner. With nearly 600 pages of text and the usual additional pages of appendices, notes and other apparatus, she has given herself enough room to cram in every little fact her diligent researches unearthed. Here is (I promise) a typical passage:

"Freed from company, Eudora spent Christmas and New Year's with family and friends, but by mid-January 1953 she had returned for another stay in New York. . . . She took Elizabeth [Bowen] to a party where Anne Lindbergh, Robert Penn Warren and Warren's wife, the novelist Eleanor Clark, were in attendance, and Bowen took Eudora to PEN cocktail parties and Knopf events. In February, settled in a sublet, Eudora began to feel as if New York were home. She attended many more Broadway shows than short trips permitted. She saw Danny Kaye four or five times, loved Misalliance and . . . Wonderful Town, but advised Frank Lyell to avoid The Crucible. And Eudora enjoyed the domestic routines of apartment life in Manhattan. As she told Frank, 'My apartment worked out fine -- wished you'd been up there so you could have come to eat with me -- twice I cooked dinner, for Dolly and Mary Lou once, and for the Russells and Charles & Mary Poore once -- it had two bedrooms, so Elizabeth was able to stay with me a few nights -- I saw her off at Idlewild the Tuesday before I left Friday -- she flew back."

Standing alone, that paragraph is not without its uses: It tells us that Welty loved New York, was outgoing and sociable, enjoyed the theater but not Arthur Miller's bloated "The Crucible," and took pleasure in cooking for friends. The problem, though, is that this is but one paragraph among hundreds upon hundreds, all of them imparting information of a similar character. Granted access to Welty's abundant correspondence and other documents, Marrs has succumbed to one of the biographer's most compelling occupational temptations: She has fallen in love with her research, with the result that she is unable to discriminate between what matters and what doesn't, what is revealing and what is extraneous. The result is a book that will appeal mainly to lovers of marginal literary gossip.

This is a pity not merely because the reader is left to slog through so much trivia but also because Marrs, who attached herself to Welty for the last two decades of the author's life, has some perceptive and interesting things to say about her. Unlike some in Welty's entourage, she is an admirer but not an idolater. "She was not the contentedly cloistered 'Miss Eudora' in whom so many believed or wanted to believe," Marrs writes, "but was someone far more passionate and compelling: a woman and a writer with a 'triumphant vulnerability . . . to this mortal world.' " That vulnerability manifested itself in the grief and dismay inflicted upon her by losses and disruptions during her 92 years: the death of her beloved father and, later, her equally beloved brother; the slow dissolution of the love between her and John Robinson, whom she had known since high school and who eventually acknowledged his homosexuality; her failure, with Robinson or anyone else, to marry; her disappointment, which deepened into anger, at the intransigence and violence with which her fellow white Mississippians met the challenge of the black civil-rights movement.

Though she was cheerful by temperament and inclination, Welty did not have an easy life -- on top of everything else, she suffered occasionally from writer's block and often worried about money -- and the pain it dealt her wasn't always easy to bear. But as Marrs correctly surmises, she knew how to cope with it: "Marriage was not to be hers, but the love of writing continued to be a source of strength, a way of transforming and overcoming disappointments, however severe." It wasn't that writing was a form of therapy for her (though it may have had incidental therapeutic effects) but that she was able to transform private experience and emotion into words, into stories that seemed unrelated to her life yet drew directly and indirectly upon it.

Throughout her life Welty insisted, as she put it in her essay "Must the Novelist Crusade?," that fiction "has, and must keep, a private address." She meant that with all her heart, but, a foolish consistency being the hobgoblin of little minds, she ignored her own counsel when the spirit, not to mention public events, moved her. Two of her most famous short stories, indeed the last two stories she published, "Where is the Voice Coming From?" (1963) and "The Demonstrators" (1966), are self-evidently political, drawing upon her outrage over racism in Mississippi. Not surprisingly, these stories, though not without power, are among her least successful; when she said that politics and fiction don't, or shouldn't, mix, she was right.

That Welty published no more short stories between 1966 and her death in 2001 is yet another of her mysteries, given that in those years she published two novels, Losing Battles and the remarkable The Optimist's Daughter, as well as her deservedly popular memoir One Writer's Beginnings. During these years she seems to have been more occupied with travel, a busy social life, raking in all those honorary degrees (five in 1980 alone!), and becoming something of a celebrity. Though this was the least productive period of her life, it is the one to which Marrs gives greatest attention, presumably because her research, as well as her own encounters with Welty between 1983 and 2001, yielded the most raw material. The result is 250 pages of travelogue, social calendar and occasional speculation about the causes of Welty's creative drought. Some of this is interesting, but mostly one lurches through this endless procession of trivia wishing that Marrs had exercised her blue pencil, or delete key, more often, and given proper perspective to the arc of Welty's life. *

Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is yardleyj@washpost.com.