Up From Mississippi

Up From Mississippi: Eudora Welty came to campus 50 years ago as the first guest of the Beck Lecture Series. She shared her love of writing, Ohio, northern apples, and Fats Waller.
issue 03 | fall 2014
Continuum - Up From Mississippi - Fall 2014

Traveling north from her home in Jackson, Miss., Eudora Welty would have watched the progress of early spring in reverse and had time to think of her Ohio destination, of childhood visits to her grandparents in Logan, 50 miles south of Granville, where her father was raised.

The following day, April 13, 1964, was her 55th birthday, and she would spend it getting to know some of Denison’s faculty and meeting with English majors at the home of Professor Nancy Lewis on Sheppard Place. Her long bus journey to Granville was part of what a working writer learned to do to connect with a young audience, to interact with the academic world, to sell books, and from time to time, to help pay for replacing the roof on an aging house.

The English department was in the happy position of hosting Welty as the inaugural guest of Denison’s very first endowed lectureship, the Harriet Ewens Beck Chair of English, or more familiarly, the Beck Lecture Series. Gordon Beck, a 1906 alumnus, had approached Professor Paul Bennett in 1960 with the idea of honoring his wife’s lifelong love of writing, and after several years of wrangling the details, Beck’s gift was secured in a perpetual trust, the interest from which would provide honoraria for several visiting writers every year.

By the fall semester of 1963, a “List of Established Writers for Our Consideration” was drawn up by an English department committee whose members must have felt like kids in a candy shop—the list included names like Eliot, Updike, Dos Passos, Sandburg, Mailer, Hellman, Sarton, Porter, and Salinger. There’s a draft of a letter from department chair Lenthiel Downs inviting John Steinbeck to be the first Beck guest, but it was short notice for a spring residency, and Steinbeck declined.

The telephone invitation that Welty received wasn’t the first time she had heard the voice of Len Downs. A few years earlier, he had contacted her in advance of a sabbatical trip to Mississippi, where he was researching the significance of the Oxford region in the writing of William Faulkner. Downs decided to look up Welty, who lived just a couple of hours south of Faulkner country, and she agreed to meet him. They discussed her work and Faulkner’s and the importance of place in fiction, and they established a warm rapport. This friendly connection may have helped secure her agreement to accept the residency so soon before the proposed week in mid-April.

Her itinerary from Monday through Friday exposed as many listeners as possible to the author. She spoke (“Remarks on Writing”) to the faculty’s Tuesday lunch in Slayter Union, and that evening she gave her keynote address, “Words into Fiction,” in Swasey Chapel, expressing the conviction that among other things, good writing comes through reading. “When reading impresses degrees of communication on us,” she said, “we as readers know what it is to write.”

The rest of the week included visits to the bookstore in Slayter, where she signed copies of her books (Selected Stories of Eudora Welty cost $1.95). She attended a Phi Society dinner and a meeting of the Franco-Calliopean Society; she gave readings at the Sigma Chi house and at Huffman Hall, and spoke to several composition classes. There were tea parties with gatherings of women and informal visits with faculty in their homes. But the backbone of her schedule consisted of meeting with individual students who had signed up for half-hour appointments each day in Doane Library’s “Browsing Room.”

The students who met with Eudora Welty that week 50 years ago still remember her warmth, support, humility, and the unique experience of speaking directly not only with a literary celebrity but also for the first time with a Southerner. “It was the first I’d heard the lilt of a true Southerner outside of the movies,” says Peggy Schmidt ’67, a first-year student in 1964 and now a professional writer in Chicago.

“I remember the softness of her voice. ... In her private meetings and in her readings, her voice was so quiet and genteel—it was hard to realize that this woman was capable of such strong and observant writing,” recalls Susan Peterson ’67, a creative writing major then, and now chair of the Communication Center in Washington, D.C.

Schmidt came away with particularly instructive observations. “I had imagined that a life in fiction-writing was a pursuit in which someone who majored in literature might earn a reasonable income. However, Ms. Welty wore what seemed to me an inexpensive cotton dress printed with flowers and a thin cardigan sweater. I began to suspect that my financial expectations were a bit overblown.”

Schmidt found the courage to blurt out a question that many young writers might want to have answered: “How can a person like me write fiction when she hasn’t been anywhere unusual or done anything worth writing about?” She remembers an encouraging response from Welty: “By your age you’ve experienced all the human emotions that exist. Take them and give them to your characters, no matter how unremarkable.” The encounter for Schmidt was significant: “I felt welcomed into the world of writing.”

The personal nature of the experience had its effect on Welty, too. She wrote to Paul Bennett a few weeks later, with gratitude for “one of the very nicest times I ever had at a college or university ... I did enjoy everything.” That summer, Bennett shipped a crate of his Granville apples to Welty, and he received extravagant praise from Eudora and her mother, a West Virginian who missed the pleasures of good northern apples.

Eudora Welty was to return to Denison four more times, two of them Beck residencies. In 1967, she settled on a 12-day period in April. “I’m so pleased at the thought of coming, and it’s elegant to hear I’ll be given a car to use there. ... I drive a gear-shift. Do you think there is one left in Granville? My own motor is a 1954 Ford!”

Two shorter visits followed: In May 1971, Welty was awarded an honorary doctorate of literature at Commencement, and she was back on the rostrum in October 1976, as an honored guest for the inauguration of President Bob Good.

Her final residency covered five days in the autumn of 1979, reading the Halloween-themed “Shower of Gold” on October 30 at the request of Len Downs, who was teaching a course on Welty that semester. She had never read that story to an audience before, and she confessed afterward that in reading it aloud she detected excesses in the language that she hadn’t noticed before. Welcoming tea parties of earlier years relaxed into cocktail parties, including one at Professor Dom Consolo’s house on Samson Place, where she enjoyed a little bourbon and listened to jazz recordings. Eudora was partial to Fats Waller, the inspiration for her short story, “Powerhouse,” and she hummed along to Fats while dancing a few steps with Consolo.

Kim Cromwell ’81 was taking Downs’ class on Welty that fall, and remembers the anticipation of Welty’s arrival to campus. The fragment that stays with Cromwell as most indelible is also the most fleeting, a brief moment during a casual dinner at the house of Tommy and Karolyn Burkett on Burg Street. Conversation was flying, plates were clattering, and Cromwell was 20 years old, sitting on the living room carpet at the feet of a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, looking up at her kind and familiar face. “I’m sorry I don’t remember more. I just had a moment of awareness that this was very special.”

Published November 2014