Eudora Weltys house in Jackson, Miss., to become museum
Oct. 13, 2003
By Gary Pettus, The Clarion-Ledger
Editors note: This article originally appeared in the Oct. 3, 2003, issue of The Clarion-Ledger.
JACKSON, Miss. — Stepping through Eudora Weltys front door is like walking into your grandmothers house, assuming your grandmother wrote like an angel and won the Pulitzer Prize.
Or came across an owl in her refrigerator.
Although Welty died two years ago at 92, a gentlewomans aura still occupies the rooms of 1119 Pinehurst St. in the smell of old books and fine wood, in the sound of creaking stairs, in the soft glow of the pale blue walls in the bedroom where she wrote.
Like a good and wise grandmother, Welty willed her letters, her garden, her books and her 78-year-old home in Jacksons Belhaven neighborhood to her rightful heirs: everyone.
The executor, more or less, is the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, which is working to restore and preserve her legacy.
Although her garden will open April 3, it will be summer 2005, or so its hoped, when Weltys home, along with correspondence from fans, friends, fellow authors and celebrities is unveiled to scholars and the public.
“We want it to look as if Eudora just walked out the door,” says Mary Alice White, Weltys niece and director of the Welty House.
The endeavor to turn the chocolate-brown, Tudor-style home into a literary museum received a boost last week with the awarding of a $251,000 federal Save Americas Treasures grant. Archives and History will match it with a portion of $700,000 in bond money from the state Legislature.
Prospective visitors to the home will be glad to hear that this money will pay for, among other things, central air, which Welty herself pooh-poohed.
“She didnt think she needed it,” White says. “She wasnt that hot.”
The house Weltys father built will be furbished also with new wiring, plumbing, a stabilized foundation and more. A visitors center set to be built on adjacent property will display, among other items, Weltys awards and honors — a show of pride she shunned in her home.
“We found her Pulitzer Prize inside a corrugated storage box she kept in a closet,” White says.
Welty preferred to show off such items as a dancing-bear vase she brought back from Italy and had transformed into a lamp.
“She had no need to make an impression,” says Suzanne Marrs, a Welty scholar and the authors longtime friend.
“The house is a warm and open and engaging place, just as she was a warm and open and engaging person.
“When visitors are able to go into the house, theyre going to see the books she read, the art she hung on the walls, the vase she brought back from Italy.
“Theyll see photographs of her friends. It will be like having a conversation with Eudora Welty.”
Welty, who also was an accomplished photographer, left books, letters, manuscripts and photos to the state. White and her sister, Elizabeth Thompson, donated the homes remaining contents.
Much of the valued records of her life have already been collected and cataloged.
Before inventory began, White calculated that there were some 5,000 books shelved in the Welty home, “not counting the ones scattered around the house.”
The writers rooms were like short stories, and her books were the themes. In the living room, for instance, are books of fiction, travel and art.
The kitchen, of course, has cookbooks but also holds another literary claim: This is where, in a fit of disappointment, Welty used the wood-burning stove to set fire to the only existing manuscript of her Petrified Man, after two publishers rejected it and just three weeks before one asked her to submit it again.
“She had to recreate it from memory,” White says.
During the Depression, when Weltys mother ran the house, the books shared rooms with boarders, including an eccentric naturalist with a penchant for fauna of a sinister bent.
“It wasnt unusual to find an owl in the refrigerator,” White says.
Besides owls and books, the rooms held letters. No one knows how many yet.
Lil McKinnon-Hicks does know this: “The box from which I take these letters is a magic replenishing box.”
McKinnon-Hicks is one of 16 Junior League of Jackson volunteers who, along with 12 Millsaps College students, are cataloging or inventorying correspondence or books.
“Many of these letters to Miss Welty were beautifully written,” she says. And not just those by the likes of Robert Penn Warren, Katherine Anne Porter, Roger Mudd and James Thurber. There are many valiant, if self-conscious efforts, from lesser-known fans and friends.
“Reading them, I wonder, is this the style this person writes in?” says McKinnon-Hicks. “Or have they read Miss Weltys works and, in this case, developed a nice, slow pace and Southern cadence, weaving in all these charming anecdotes?
“You want to curl up with a cup of coffee and read them.”
The letters, it seems, tell as much about the recipient as the sender. Maybe more.
“Theres one addressed to Eudora Welty, The Brown House, Jackson, Miss.,” McKinnon-Hicks says. “What more do you need to say?”
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