And oh, the momentum of your thoughts, and of your prose.
Dear Miss Welty:
I guess I’m writing you, a “Dead Author,” to express my thankfulness that in your case that phrase doesn’t fully apply. I mean, sure, yes, I acknowledge that you’re no longer a living, breathing, aboveground Mississippian—but a Dead Author, as opposed to a Dead Person, is one who’s no longer read and delighted at and grappled with and mulled over, and I’m here to say that that’s not the case, at least wherever I can help it, and to plump for it never to be the case.
I made a mistake along these lines once, back in 1998. You were still a Living Person, but the Library of America seemed to declare you, three years prematurely, a Dead Author. What were they doing, I wondered, giving you the full grand LoA treatment that should be reserved for the Canon of the Dead: glossy black cover, your name in an elegant script; miraculous tight binding that makes the books little bricks, little tombstones along a shelf; that paper not onionskin but kinda-sorta in the direction of onionskinny; and, most of all, the built-in ribbon of bookmark like the one in my grandmother’s Bible? I was indignant on your behalf. No doubt you were frail, given that you were coming up on ninety, and I had no idea about the likelihood of your ever writing again and thus no way of arguing against the logic of what they did. But it seemed at least a little, you know, icky—like they were chivvying you toward the door, a literary instance of “Here’s your hat what’s your hurry?” Did they not realize that you must embalm before you immortalize?
But the older I get, the more I think that, unseemly as it was, they might have had it right. The Library of America wasn’t as skittish or as sentimental as I was about the distinction between person and author. They were acting early on the idea that, as Nabokov expressed it in his early novella The Eye (if you were a live person instead of merely a live author, I’d suggest that you read or reread it, if you felt inclined, so that we might—if you’d consent—chat about it one afternoon next week), “After death human thought lives on by momentum.” They couldn’t save you from small-d death, but they could forestall the damn capital. They had their eye on what you might call an objective of the longer term.
And oh, the momentum of your thoughts, and of your prose. That momentum has swept me along for fifteen years without you now, and I expect it will carry me for as long as I can sidestep the reaper myself. I’ll do my best to pass it on, too.
I balk at bumper stickers like “Keep Austin Weird” (or Keep Asheville Weird, or keep weird whatever thing we like to believe in the originality of but see slipping away, changing, perhaps rubbed away by veneration like those old saints’ statues whose noses first get shiny and then get gone), but I had occasion—honestly, the way I saw it, what I had was excuse—to write an essay for The Oxford American a few years ago that might have been titled “Keep Miss Welty Weird.” There are so many people these days who seem to think of you as having been a kind of quaint, elegant, starchy, and above all elderly southern lady, rather than the bold and playful young woman whose fuck-you shadow haunts the foreground of some of those amazing WPA photographs, rather than the woman, fierce and funny and wondrous-strange, who wrote stories like “No Place for You, My Love.”
I read a passage today in Charles Portis’s Norwood in which he says of a cage for a fortune-telling chicken that “it had once served as a humane catch-‘em-alive mink trap, and in fact no mink had ever entered it, such was its humanity.” For some reason that put me in mind of you . . . and in my way of reckoning, it thus saved you both, a little. Don’t think, though, that I’m claiming such thinking is selfless, much less heroic; I think about you because it saves me, too.
[This is the latest post in the new Letters to Dead Authors series.]
Michael Griffith’s books are Trophy, Bibliophilia: A Novella and Stories and Spikes: A Novel; his fiction and nonfiction have appeared in New England Review, Salmagundi, Oxford American, Southwest Review, Five Points, Virginia Quarterly Review, Golf World, and The Washington Post, among other periodicals. Formerly Associate Editor of the Southern Review, he is now Associate Professor of English at the University of Cincinnati and Fiction Editor of the Cincinnati Review. He is also the Editor of Yellow Shoe Fiction, an original-fiction series from LSU Press.
Eudora Alice Welty (April 13, 1909 – July 23, 2001) was an American short story writer and novelist who wrote about the American South. Her novel The Optimist’s Daughter won the Pulitzer Prize in 1973. Welty was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, among numerous awards including the Order of the South. She was the first living author to have her works published by the Library of America. While Welty worked as a publicity agent for the Works Progress Administration, she took photographs of people from all economic and social classes in her spare time. From the early 1930s, her photographs show Mississippi’s rural poor and the effects of the Great Depression. (wikipedia)