((Arcade))

MEANWHILE THERE ARE LETTERS

The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and Ross Macdonald

Edited by Suzanne Marrs and Tom Nolan

Arcade. 538 pp. $35

Eudora Welty, arguably the best American short-story writer of her generation, and Ross Macdonald, the finest detective novelist of the 1950s and ’60s, first met May 17, 1971, near the elevator in the lobby of New York’s Algonquin Hotel. For the previous year, the two had been in correspondence, each vying to outdo the other in mutual admiration. Just that February, the front page of the New York Times Book Review had featured Welty’s praise of Macdonald’s latest book, “The Underground Man.” In this now famous review, she argued that the Santa Barbara, Calif., mystery writer — whose real name was Kenneth Millar — should be regarded as a serious American novelist.

That day at the Algonquin the two literary eminences — she in her early 60s, he in his mid-50s — began a conversation that lasted long into the night. They strolled together around Manhattan. They quickly discovered that they were, in many ways, soul mates. Did they, either then or later, become lovers, as some have speculated? By the evidence of “Meanwhile There Are Letters,” the answer would seem to be no. The two would meet face to face only a half-dozen times, usually at conferences. Nonetheless, the affinity they felt for each other was clearly deep and passionate, even if mainly epistolary. As early as 1973, Macdonald interrupted the novelist Reynolds Price, who was speaking of how wonderful Welty was, by protesting: “No, you don’t understand. . . . You love Eudora as a friend. I love her as a woman.”

Alas, within just a few years, Macdonald began to exhibit the initial signs of early onset Alzheimer’s disease. Yet as late as 1982, when he could no longer communicate with the world and only a year before he died, Welty was still writing to him, confessing ever more openly her feelings: “Dear Ken, I have all your letters to keep me company. Every day of my life I think of you with love. Yours always, Eudora.”

Suzanne Marrs and Tom Nolan, respectively the biographers of Welty and Macdonald, have edited this intense correspondence with obvious authority and provide useful brief commentary and endnotes. But they also stress, perhaps unduly, that these two quiet writers longed for a more intimate relationship. I’m not convinced of that. Welty had been Miss Welty for a long time, and Macdonald, a thoughtful moralist as his books show, seems never to have contemplated divorce from his wife, Margaret Millar, herself a distinguished suspense novelist. In these pages, however, the editors paint Millar as a shrewish, selfish harridan, even though Macdonald and Welty always speak of her with respect and affection. Of course, she once told the latter that she opened her husband’s mail when he was away.

For several years, Welty and Macdonald corresponded weekly, each letter seeking further points of communion. These might be writers they both admired, such as Chekhov — “I quite agree,” says Macdonald, “that nobody has ever written so well as C., not even you in the full white heat of your powers” — or favorite books by friends or even recent physical complaints: Welty develops arthritis in her hands, Macdonald recalls how he was once nearly crippled by gout. In later letters, he confesses that he has begun to forget things.

Although the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “The Optimist’s Daughter” flies all around the country, delivering lectures, receiving honorary degrees and stopping regularly in Washington to attend meetings of the literature council of the National Endowment for the Arts, Macdonald values a less hectic life. He talks about bird-watching, romping in the ocean with his German shepherds, his love for his grandson Jim, and the Hollywood film treatments of his detective Lew Archer. He dedicates his penultimate novel, “Sleeping Beauty,” to Welty; she dedicates her collected essays, “The Eye of the Story,” to him.

As the years go by, each finds it increasingly difficult to finish new work, though they talk constantly about writing and the writing life. Macdonald mentions that in younger days he was able to complete “The Ivory Grin” while also toiling on his dissertation about Coleridge at the University of Michigan. He proposes that “the intention of popular art” is “to express a society to itself in terms it can understand,” and argues that civilization can be characterized as “a thin solution of books.” He confesses that “I used to thrive on loneliness but now I depend on friends.”

In general, though, Welty comes across as both more sociable and practical: “I’ve written too long a letter and let the beans burn dry.” She explains that she never looks at her early stories, “except the few I read aloud to earn my living.” Though highly personal in her approach to books, she takes pains to convey their individual distinctiveness, as when she speaks of Patrick White’s “The Cockatoos”: “I am not quite certain I know the handle to pick those stories up by — But they are potent and heavy & throbbing stuff, like hunks of fallen meteors or something cast upon us from another orbit.” Welty also rereads Macdonald’s mysteries and points out favorite scenes or particular felicities in “The Far Side of the Dollar” and “The Zebra-Striped Hearse.” She later writes quite breathlessly about Wilkie Collins’s “The Woman in White”:

“It was the perfect antidote for some of my Pulitzer chores — the form & shape of it, the control, the delicious sensation of seeing the way he unfolds his plot — the suspense of it, which is perfect, is somehow kin to the solidity of it — & all the minutiae counting — Well, I care about such things and they make me happy — It was like the peace of an ocean voyage to go off on such an excursion.”

In another letter, Welty admits that she’s never read Tolstoy or Pushkin. At least once she even makes a grave literary misjudgment. When Macdonald is compiling his anthology, “Great Stories of Suspense,” she recommends “The Walker,” a harrowing early work by Patrick O’Brian: “It’s so sad,” she then laments, “that he’s never realized his powers, apparently — just writes run-of-the-mill historical or adventure books, or according to the reviews that’s what they are.” An endnote indicates that she is referring to reviews of “H.M.S. Surprise,” the third novel in the revered Jack Aubrey-Stephen Maturin series.

Enjoyable as it is, “Meanwhile There Are Letters” should be read in short snatches, perhaps a few pages at bedtime. Otherwise the letters may start to seem a bit repetitive or even gushy. One can tire of hearing how wonderful grandson Jim is or how Welty is again lunching in New York with critics Nona Balakian and Walter Clemons . Still, this book, along with a recent Library of America volume, may help renew interest in Ross Macdonald’s novels, which have been somewhat overshadowed lately by those of his more noirish contemporaries such as David Goodis and Jim Thompson. At the very least it’s certainly time to reread “The Galton Case” and “The Chill.”

Dirda’s new book, “Browsings: A Year of Reading, Collecting, and Living With Books” has just been published. His reviews appear Thursdays in Style, but he will be away for the next three weeks.