The Summer I Read Her Mind

The Summer I Read Her Mind

Eudora Welty famously quipped that “to imagine yourself inside another person … is what a storywriter does in every piece of work.” That notion held especially true for one student researcher in her quest to better understand this great Dame of Southern literature.

by Crystal Frost

Instead of slinging sweet tea and burgers for Charleston’s countless tourists last summer, I spent my days reading, researching and talking about literature. No, I wasn’t enrolled in any summer class; I was helping English professor Julia Eichelberger with her book of Eudora Welty’s letters on gardening.

Before I became a part of the project, Professor Eichelberger had done a great deal of work selecting letters that pertained to gardening, transcribing difficult handwriting and writing about the significance of the garden. With an August deadline for the manuscript, she still needed help with researching, transcribing and proofreading. And so, together, we applied for – and got – a  Summer Undergraduate Research with Faculty (SURF) grant to make it happen.

At first I worried about my complete lack of insight into the life and work of Eudora Welty. I had only read a single story, “Petrified Man,” and I wasn’t sure that I was a huge fan of Welty’s portrayals of dark Southern social drama. As for the author herself, I had a vague image of a white-haired Southern lady, a character to match the name Eudora. But Professor Eichelberger assured me that my fresh perspective would be good for the manuscript and sent me to the Addlestone Library with a full-page list of works to help Eudora and me get acquainted.

Over the next few weeks, I spent nearly 80 hours inhaling Welty’s short stories, novels and essays, as well as investigating her life through Susanne Marrs’ biography and her works’ reception by critics. Almost accidentally, I learned to laugh at Welty’s stories – especially in the early stories of The Golden Apples, where there often lies a humorous narrative or a ridiculous character. Her depictions of manic postal workers and suicidal spinsters, after all, cannot be taken altogether seriously. Professor Eichelberger and I met frequently to discuss the literature I was reading, and she had an endless supply of information and insight to offer. With this guidance and one-on-one interaction, my experience reading Welty became one of the most enjoyable literary studies I have undertaken.

As much as I was learning from my studies, I didn’t really learn about Welty until June, when Professor Eichelberger and I spent a full week reading the letters from the manuscript aloud. We were checking for errors in the transcriptions, looking at the photocopied letters along with the re-typed text – but, more often than finding errors, we found ourselves immersed in the language of Welty’s intimate thoughts.

The letters finally gave me a human voice to hear and understand. In letters to her agent, Diarmuid Russell, and to her love interest, John Robinson, Welty wrote of her creative work both in the garden and at the typewriter and contemplated life during World War II. Her creative process and daily life, captured in her correspondence, developed my perspective not only of Welty’s literary output, but also of the literature that I spend time reading every day as an English major. For me, the experience greatly reinforced the interdependence of life and literature.

As the summer went on and the manuscript was largely complete, my work became more research based. I spent my days in the library, shuttling back and forth to Professor Eichelberger’s office with tidbits of difficult-to-find details about people, places and events mentioned in Welty’s letters. Researching these footnotes for the manuscript helped me learn more than I ever expected: A single person mentioned in the letter could lead me to multiple online databases, a biographical dictionary and maybe even an article written by that person archived in the microfilm collection. I investigated a broad range of subjects, from minor battles in World War II to the romantic connections of major literary editors in the 1950s.

The information in the letters covered such far-reaching subjects that I never got tired of looking a little bit deeper for their background. Instead, I found myself intrigued by every new investigation. Sure, there were moments (or days) of frustration when everything I researched seemed to lead to nothing, but the connections I was able to make revived my sense of discovery. Besides, the research refined my skills in looking for information on databases and introduced me to resources such as PASCAL, an interlibrary loan program. Overall, my research was a hugely beneficial part of my learning experience, as it allowed me to learn on my own while enjoying the support of a faculty member.

At the end of the summer, Professor Eichelberger and I traveled to Welty’s hometown of Jackson, Miss., to tie up a few loose ends in the manuscript. We spent five days working in the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, sorting through boxes of Welty’s original letters in order to make sure that we had the transcriptions completely correct. It was so exciting to hold the pages scrawled with Eudora Welty’s spidery script, to read the letters I had seen as photocopies or transcriptions in their original hand. Also, Professor Eichelberger received access to photos and scrapbooks donated by Welty and her family. After spending all this time immersed in Welty’s life and work, I was thrilled, breathless, to be leafing through pages of photos documenting her childhood.

Going to Jackson was wonderful for a number of reasons. I gained experience with archival research and the protocol of copyright concerns in creating a manuscript of letters. I met Welty’s niece, Mary Alice Black, who let us look through her personal photo collection, as well as Welty’s biographer and friend, Susanne Marrs. Also, we had the chance to visit the house at 1119 Pinehurst Street, which was Welty’s home for most of her long life. I even got to spend a moment in the garden behind the house – the same garden where Welty thought about what it meant to create something beautiful before she tiptoed to the desk where she wrote those contemplations.

In the end, my summer research through the SURF grant program changed the way that I think about the work I do in studying literature. It helped me to explore the many ways in which readers can interact with literature, such as through historical, biographical or analytical approaches. It gave me the chance to do work that I admired and helped me think about the projects I hope to undertake if I continue in studying literature. By working with Professor Eichelberger, I had a chance to participate in a project bigger than those usually undertaken by undergraduates, and I learned more than I thought possible about a single author.

If there were a Eudora Welty trivia show, I would definitely win (unless Professor Eichelberger were my competition)!

– Crystal Frost is a senior English major.

Illustration by Joy Halstead