Since September I’ve had very, very little time to read for pleasure. Mostly I just miss it. I miss getting to read what I want, when I want. I miss being entirely free to follow my own whims and inclinations. But there has been one palpable upside to having the majority of my daily and weekly reading chosen for me, and it’s that when I do choose to read for pleasure, the choice becomes particularly meaningful and whatever book I turn to, if I’ve any hope of reading it cover to cover, has to remain the same book for months at a time.
And reading What There Is To Say We Have Said: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and William Maxwell, a few pages at a time every day for months, has been such a gift. I cannot think of a more wonderful book to let linger in my life. What There Is To Say We Have Said is the best book I have ever read about friendship. It’s also one of the best books I’ve ever read about writing and about the writing life (both as life in the world and life in the mind). I’ve enjoyed returning to it late at night, or while hastily drinking morning coffee, or during the occasional half-hour stolen from the work of reading and writing other things.
This book collects more than 50 years worth of correspondence between Eudora Welty and William and Emily Maxwell, beautifully edited by Suzanne Marrs. Welty and Maxwell began writing one another early in their careers when Eudora was trying to sell stories to The New Yorker and Bill was a fiction editor at the magazine. The personal rapidly overtakes the professional, however, and the letters quickly become letters about a friendship in which the terrain of the writing life becomes a mental geography that can be shared, via letters, despite the distance that separates Eudora’s home in Jackson, Mississippi, from the Maxwell’s residences in and around New York City.
Now that I’ve finished the book, I’m going to miss it terribly. I’ve travelled from letters opening with “Dear Mr. Maxwell” and “Dear Miss Welty,” and closing with “Sincerely” and “Yours,” to ones beginning “Dearest Bill” and “Dearest Eudora”, ending “Much love, E.” and “My Love, B.” and along the way I’ve fallen completely in love with both Bill and Eudora and with the incredible kindness, generosity and fellow-feeling they cultivated and maintained for one another over more than half a century, so much of it spent far away from one another, so much of it built through letters.
I don’t think I’ll be able to express how much I’ll miss reading these letters every day with anywhere near the eloquence that Welty and Maxwell give to how much they miss each other. So I’ll let them speak, each for themselves a little, and only add that I cannot think of a book I’ve wanted to recommend, to nearly everyone I know, as highly as this one, but that I’ve simultaneously wanted to keep to myself, to reserve as the sort of gift that should only be given when great meaning and emotion are called for, but when it’s necessary to express great meaning and emotion in the simplest and most unpretentiously affectionate of terms. Which is what great gifts often do, I think.
From William Maxwell to Eudroa Welty, January 22, 1959; after the death of Bill’s father on January 14th, and Eudora’s brother, a few days earlier.
We have been making similar discoveries, I suspect. Though perhaps you already knew. When I emerged from the tent in the country, I found myself looking into the face of the little boy I played with when I was five years old. And so concerned for me it was. And the next person I saw was the little girl I knew best, who was like a sister to me. Both strangers for thirty-five years—and neither the least estranged. Such kindness, and such extraordinary surprises—about my father; even about my mother. So that i now find that a funeral is not the dreadful travesty I used to think, but one of the moments when everybody, quite simply, agrees to live on a plane of reality.
I wish we could be near you, and run in with food, and offer you surprising memories of your brother. I wish I could hold those little girls on my lap, and tell them it is terrible but that one somehow lives through even the most terrible things. I wish I could answer the telephone for you, and sit with your mother—I wish, in short, that Jackson was Lincoln, and that we had played together when we were little, and I know that because you are you, you will take the wish for the fact—
My love to your dear, kind, extraordinary
mother, my love, as always, to you
Excerpts from a letter from Eudora Welty to William Maxwell, January 14, 1972
There’s one more slice of your cake still for the future—still moist, still heavenly and rich as Croesus, and the way I have treasured it (hoarding it and eating it at the same time) and meted it out is the only way I still have one slice. Only my nearest and dearest have had the chance of a crumb…Most of it, in case you haven’t guessed the real truth, but you have, I’ve saved for myself—eaten peacefully by the window in the breakfast room where I can look out at the bird feeder and see the birds eating what to them may be fruitcake like mine, coming to them like manna out of the loving kindness of friends. But I know what makes my feast. You and Emmy are diviners, and so it came to you how this year I couldn’t beat and stir my cake, but then what made it even nicer was that you are so much better cooks! Not Better cooks than diviners—you aren’t. Better cooks than me. I was so happy with that cake. It had angelica in it again, didn’t it?
It was lovely to think of you in the country for Christmas. I knew you’d have real candles on the tree. Emmy’s cricket is on its hob on the living room mantle by the clock, still, and Brookie’s house aglow still stands on the mantle by the clock up here in my room. It smells like cake.
I’m so glad her rose bloomed. I remember how she held that slender little wand of it that evening. You may be right and love just as coaxing as daylight, to a rose.
I think that’s what your stories do, too—coax the flower. Their gentleness is a form of concentration, and their strength comes out of what was intuitive, always,—in the end they stand unprotected—that’s the bloom. (It’s hard to say it in so many words.) Don’t worry. Being so full of truth, they’re strong as iron…
…I had a dream one night in which you appeared—there were rows of of bins and boxes and drawers all lined up, which were a sort of file system of ashes. Each one had the day of the week written over it. You said, “There is nothing at all that cannot be recovered, we only need to know the day it happened on.”…
…My hand is better, and you can see I can type which doesn’t pain me though it may not look well, it may pain you, and it gets better all the time. I’m beginning to think about some new stories and think it will do its part—now if only the brain will.
My love to all of you. Take care. My thanks for so many things, so often thought about.
Happy New Year