A visit to the Eudora Welty House and Garden.
It took some convincing.
Eudora Welty, whose humility was as well known as her wit, couldn’t imagine that strangers – long after her death – would want to visit her home and garden in Jackson.
But the visitor’s log – quite fittingly – tells its own story.
There, line after line, are signatures and addresses from across Mississippi, the United States, and the world.
Some are fans of one of the most acclaimed authors of the 20th century, who was born 114 years ago, on April 13, 1909, and died July 23, 2001.
But others are like Kellee Strong and Robert Godbey, of Fort Worth, Texas, on vacation recently.
They knew of Welty, but little more.
“I’ve never read her,” Strong said, almost sheepishly. But in the small gift shop in the Visitor Center, they purchased a collection of short stories.
Well acquainted or not, Jessica Russell, director of the Welty House and Garden, said the goal is to “meet guests where they are.”
Last year, about 8,000 people visited, Russell said, a number trending upward as international travel rebounds from the pandemic. Translated into more than 40 languages, Welty’s storytelling has long appealed to a global audience.
Such appeal, however, reaches beyond words.
Welty was an accomplished photographer, gardener, and artist. Her love of theatre and music – and a devotion to family and friends – are also evident throughout the tour.
The 1925 Tudor Revival at 1119 Pinehurst St., open to the public since 2006, was given to the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, and contents were donated by Welty’s two nieces. It was designated a National Historic Landmark in 2004.
The house is one of the most intact literary homes in the country, Russell said.
A rural influence
Of course the greatest confluence of all is that which makes up the human memory – the individual human memory. My own is the treasure most dearly regarded by me, in my life and in my work as a writer.
– Eudora Welty, “One Writer’s Beginnings”
Residing in the house parents Christian and Chestina had built, Welty for 76 years both created memories and drew upon them.
From her upstairs bedroom, she would write. Her first story, “Death of a Traveling Salesman,” was published in 1936. The novel “The Optimist’s Daughter” won the Pulitzer Prize in 1973, and the best-selling memoir “One Writer’s Beginnings” was released in 1984. A prolific writer, Welty published more than 40 short stories along with several novels. Her photography was also published.
From the garden painstakingly designed by her mother, she would plant and weed. The garden today is one of only two public botanical gardens in Mississippi, on the American Camellia Society Gulf Coast Camellia Trail and is an American Daffodil Society display garden.
From her expansive side porch, with a glass of bourbon in hand, she would enjoy the company of local friends and neighbors. And from the first floor, she would entertain high-profile friends, including journalists Roger Mudd and Jim Lehrer and writers Willie Morris and Richard Ford.
What she would not do, however, was display her many awards, Russell said. In addition to the Pulitzer, Welty won several O. Henry Awards, a National Book Critics Circle Award, and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. They are on exhibit in the Visitor Center – not her home.
Though Welty spent an incredible seven decades at the same address, it was not a planned decision. And while deeply intertwined in community, she traveled extensively, both in the U.S. and abroad.
Graduating at age 16, Welty attended what is now Mississippi University for Women and then the University of Wisconsin. From there, she enrolled as a graduate student at the Columbia University School of Business and embraced life in New York City.
Learning of her father’s leukemia, Welty returned home shortly before his death in 1931. And here she stayed, offering comfort to her mother and younger brothers Edward and Walter, and finding work.
One such job during the Great Depression was as a junior publicity agent with the Works Progress Administration.
“She traveled to every county in the state,” Russell said. Photography was a skill she honed from her father, and her photos, many from rural and remote places, were exhibited and later published.
There’s also a lot of “rural community” in her writing, Russell said, and reflected in her garden.
12 months of blooms
Welty kept a pair of clippers in her trunk and raised camellias “tenderly from stolen cuttings,” Russell said. And when she sold a story, she would often use the money to buy camellias.
Most in her garden “stand from some story sold,” Russell said. More than 30 varieties are part of the garden, along with tea and climbing roses, daylilies, daffodils, flowering shrubs, and trees.
Welty, Russell said, “really celebrated all parts of her state” and brought what beauty she could to the garden.
Intended as a labor of love, not a show garden, Welty’s mother designed it to produce a 12-month succession of bloom. “Chestina conducted her perennial border like a symphony… Besides orchestrating the timing of all these flowers, the designer of a successful perennial border must also choose for height, color, and texture, striving for contrast, harmony, and unity,” writes Susan Haltom, Welty Garden restoration consultant and co-author of “One Writer’s Garden: Eudora Welty’s Home Place.”
The garden’s restoration, started in the 1990s, offers a “living connection” to Welty, Russell said, and volunteers, called Cereus Weeders (after Welty’s Night-Bloooming Cereus Club), play a pivotal role in its upkeep.
On April 1, the club held its annual heirloom plant sale to benefit the garden.
To stand in her space
Steven Yates, associate director/marketing director at the University Press of Mississippi, is also an avid photographer and award-winning author.
As such, it was a profound experience “to stand in a space where Welty created and thought, to see the rooms arranged faithfully to a working writer’s habits,” said Yates, the Juniper Prize-winning author of “Some Kind of Love Stories,” the Knickerbocker-winning “Sandy and Wayne: A Novella,” and most recently the novel “The Legend of the Albino Farm.”
Some 5,000 books can be seen throughout the house – a visual, Russell said, that often strikes visitors.
Yates read from his second novel, “The Teeth of the Souls,” a sequel to “Morkan’s Quarry,” at the Eudora Welty House and Museum. The honor, he said, “completed a beautiful circle.”
His name, too, went into the visitor’s log.
“In college, ‘Photographs,’ Eudora Welty’s mighty book, appeared on ‘CBS Sunday Morning.’ A pal and I hurried out and purchased it for a dear, retiring professor of ours in the Ozarks, Robert Henigan at Missouri State.
“Later, Jackson poet and novelist James Whitehead taught me at Arkansas, and I then got a job at University of Arkansas Press, which first published Welty’s student, Ellen Gilchrist.”
Yates said the first time he stepped into her Welty’s study, facing out was a book of Barbara Howes’s poetry, which he had mailed to Welty when he was a publicist at Arkansas.
“A book I had sent her, a book that she had kept. As a writer, every corner of the Eudora Welty House sends a near sacred shiver through me.”
If you go
EUDORA WELTY HOUSE AND GARDEN
1119 Pinehurst St., Jackson
House tours: 9, 11 a.m., 1, 3 p.m., Tuesday–Friday 1, 3 p.m. Saturday
Reservations are recommended. Email email@example.com or phone 601-353-7762.
Visitor Center and Garden hours (free, self-guided, not house tours): 8:30 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, 12:30-4 p.m. Saturday