a conversation with Rhoades on new position at Welty House
Lauren Rhoades was recently named director of the Eudora Welty House and Garden in Belhaven. Rhoades, who previously served as a public assistance specialist for the house, has bachelor’s degrees in English literature, Spanish and political science from the University of Colorado at Butler and is currently working on her master of fine arts in creative writing at the Mississippi University for Women. She recently spoke to Sun Senior Staff Writer Anthony Warren about her new role and her plans for the house.
How has your transition into the director’s position been going?
“It’s been going as smoothly as possible. I had been working here before in another capacity, so I wasn’t new to the site. (The transition) has been about understanding the responsibilities of the director, learning about historic preservation and making sure the house is structurally sound, aesthetically pleasing and historically accurate. We want our site to in the best possible condition it can be, so we can accurately interpret Ms. Welty’s legacy. We have a lot of different partners that help us do that.”
What do you mean different partners?
“Whether that’s with the Mississippi Department of Archives and History (MDAH) or other groups. We have a team with collections that we work very closely with to maintain the artifacts and catalog them. Another vital part of the house is the team of volunteers. Most of our tours are given by trained docents. We would not be able to operate without them.”
How old is the Welty House? And how hard is it to maintain it?
“The house was built in 1925, so it’s almost 100 years old. Of course, a lot of work was done on the house before it opened – work on the foundation and other things to make sure it was accurate to the time period we’re representing. There’s always maintenance, the same kind I do on my current home, from making sure the gutters are clean, the lawn is mowed and the stepping stones are not crooked or wobbly. We are always conscious of historic accuracy and not changing anything that makes the house so special.”
You mention time period. What time period does the Welty House focus on?
“We have what’s called an ‘interpretation period,’ which is the mid -1980s. The house looked like it did in the mid-1980s, when Ms. Welty was lecturing and still active in the community. It looks like she had just gone out on an errand to the Jitney-Jungle. The garden’s historic period of interpretation is the 1940s, because that’s when Ms. Welty and her mother were most active in the garden. We have a lot of letters from that time period talking about plant propagation and the landscaping they did. We also have photos Ms. Welty took of the garden showing what it looked like at the time.”
Why does the house focus on Ms. Welty’s life from the 1980s?
“The 1980s is when she left her house as part of a living estate to MDAH. That’s significant for us. It was also the time after she won the Pulitzer Prize (1973) and the Presidential Medal of Freedom (1980). She was a well-established writer in the 1980s.”
How many visitors does the Welty House have in a year?
“We currently average about 5,500 visitors to the Eudora Welty House and Garden per year. About two-thirds of those are in-state visitors and one-third are from out of state. We do have a small percentage of foreign visitors per year, too.”
What are the most popular exhibits?
“We save the best room for last – her bedroom upstairs – where she wrote all her stories, essays and novels. Her typewriter is up there. That’s the highlight of the tour. Also, the room is where she had the plantation desk, which is featured in her novel, The Optimist’s Daughter. We also have the visitor center next door and have a permanent exhibit based on her memoir, One Writer’s Beginnings. It offers a great overview of her life and how she became a writer. We also have temporary exhibits. The current is called ‘For the Record,’ which is all about music and how Welty was influenced by music and how her writing influenced musicians.”
What songs or artists influenced Ms. Welty?
“We have a few of her records on display. My favorite one is by Fats Waller, a famous jazz pianist. He inspired one of her short stories called Powerhouse. Also, a Bessie Smith record is on display that’s really cool. Our special projects coordinator, Rachel Lott, developed a Spotify playlist that is included in the exhibit. Visitors can scan a code and it automatically pops up with Spotify playlist they can listen to.”
You kind of alluded to this when you mentioned the Spotify playlist. How do you keep exhibits fresh?
“It’s something we’re always thinking about. A big part of that is our public programming … We have film screenings and recently screened a documentary related to Ms. Welty’s life. Part of our mission is to inspire a love of literature and other creation. We’re not here as a shrine to Ms. Welty. She specifically said she didn’t want the house to be a shrine.”
What drew you to this job?
“I’ve always loved literature, and love to read and love to write. Having this resource in Jackson is so special – I’ve taken visitors here from out of town. As a reader, I really connect with her stories and her writing. One story that initially drew me here is Where is the Voice Coming From?,” just because it’s relevant to our state.”
Were you familiar with Eudora Welty before landing a position at the Welty House?
“Definitely, yes. Of course, there is so much to learn about her life and so much to read, too. I think one thing that has been really special is learning about Ms. Welty through her correspondence. I didn’t know prior to working here how many letters she wrote and how many friends she had. Her letters are such personal and vulnerable things to read, and you get such a sense of her as a human being.”
So many people today no longer write letters. This is one thing people might not have in the future when they want to learn about our current authors’ private lives.
“I do think that is one thing that is being lost. (Welty) typed all of her drafts on a typewriter. You can see the process in the transformation from the first draft to the 17th. Unless an author is printing out every draft, he or she can hit the delete button on the keyboard and no one will ever know. Something is lost (without) those paper records.”