This spring marked the 110th anniversary of Eudora Welty’s birth in Jackson. I recently spent an afternoon at the Welty House, with Mary Alice Welty White, to see the family home through the eyes of the author’s niece, whose mind’s eye sees the structure not only as the residence of a literary master but also as a home, which witnessed the comings and goings typical of any North Jackson family. Mary Alice’s recollections provide a comprehensive context for understanding the Welty House.
Mary Alice’s father, Walter, was the last of the three Welty children to be born, in 1915, and the first to die, in 1959. Walter suffered from rheumatoid arthritis, for which he was given the recently introduced drug cortisone, at levels presumed to have led to his fatal heart attack and premature death. Mary Alice said that her Welty grandmother and aunt generously assisted in raising the two Welty girls, Mary Alice and her late older sister, Liz. An intriguing and informative fact is that Eudora often drove her nieces’ carpools.
The Walter Welty family lived in the Belhaven neighborhood, near the Welty House, initially on Devine Street and later on Linden Place. Mary Alice’s mother Mittie was a Creekmore, originally from Water Valley, but the family ultimately became established Jacksonians. Mary Alice said that both of her parents’ families resided on Pinehurst Street at the time they married and that their wedding reception was celebrated in the Creekmore home, in the 1600 block of Pinehurst Street.
Mary Alice and Liz frequently spent the night with their Welty grandmother (“Mamaw”) on the sleeping porch off her bedroom. They spent other times in the home for visits and family dinners. The house did not have central air conditioning until the Missssippi Department of Archives and History took possession after Eudora died in 2001 (pursuant to a 1986 agreement which allowed Eudora to reside there for the remainder of her life). The family spent lots of time on the screened porch during hot weather, playing charades and “20 Questions.” The girls often played canasta with their grandmother, who regularly played bridge and canasta with her friends.
Coincidentally, while I was there, a man who was on a tour of the Welty House remarked that he had rented a room, next door, with Mrs. Owen for three years, in the late 1950’s. He remembered Chestina Welty coming over and drinking coffee and tea, regularly, with Mrs. Owen, whose former home now serves as the Education and Visitors Center for the Welty House.
Chestina died in 1966. Her older son, Edward, died a few days thereafter, from a fall which he suffered shortly before his mother passed. Her husband, Christian, died in 1931, from leukemia. Christian Welty was president of the Lamar Life Insurance Company when he died. Christian was an Ohio native, and Chestina was a West Virginia native. Christian had to chose between two job offers before accepting a job as a cashier with Lamar Life, the other opportunity being in the Thousand Islands along the St. Lawrence River. One wonders whether Eudora would have developed a writer’s voice had she been raised in upstate New York.
Eudora Alice was named for her two grandmothers, Eudora Andrews and “Alice” Welty. Christian’s mother, known as “Allie,” died when Christian was seven years old. The family discovered, during Eudora’s lifetime, in an old Methodist Hymnal that belonged to “Allie” as a girl, that “Allie” was not a diminutive of Alice, as assumed. Her given name was Almira. What would have become of Eudora Almira, given children’s taunting and teasing of each other, is anyone’s guess.
Liz Welty was unable to pronounce Eudora as a toddler: The name came out as “You Dodo.” The nieces’ nickname for Eudora was “Dodo” until they were college age.
In an effort to nurture her nieces, Eudora sent them to summer camp and regularly took them to New Orleans and New York. Eudora underwrote Mary Alice’s travels in Europe, for two and a half months, after graduation from Ole Miss. On a shelf in the kitchen is a wine carafe, one of the gifts that Mary Alice brought Eudora from the trip, purchased in Florence. A medallion on it reads “Dodo.”
In the course of a decade, Eudora lost her mother and both brothers. Mary Alice allows that Eudora’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1972 novel, “The Optimist’s Daughter,” is somewhat autobiographical, serving as a catharsis after she outlived her childhood family. Close study permits one to connect the novel with the Welty family. Mary Alice says that the plantation desk, located in the bedroom where Eudora wrote, is described with exactitude in the novel.
The Welty House is a community treasure, as a largely intact 1925 home, showcasing how North Jackson families lived in the middle of the 20th century. It is among the most intact literary museums in America. Charlotte Capers, Eudora’s close friend, who was Director of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, is primarily responsible for Eudora’s leaving her books, home, and papers to the State of Mississippi.
The community is indebted to Charlotte, and it salutes Eudora Welty on the 110th anniversary of her birth: Eudora made a difference in our lives. Jackson is better for Eudora’s presence, from her birth on April 13, 1909 until her death on July 23, 2001.
Jay Wiener is a Northsider.