Fittingly, upon last week’s 100th birthday anniversary of Mississippi’s revered author Eudora Welty, Jackson’s New Stage Theatre performed a revival of Welty’s wonderful comedy, “The Ponder Heart.”
Many locals have their own special memories of Miss Welty (she was a rare person for which “Miss” seems eminently appropriate) as the unpretentious matron seen shopping at the Jitney 14 (the old Jitney Jungle grocery) in Jackson’s Belhaven district; or seen in the front bedroom window of her 1920s home across the street from Belhaven College pounding out beautiful prose on a manual typewriter.
For me there are several Welty memories, starting back in 1956 when my wife and I in a small group of Jacksonians journeyed to New York to see a stage version of “The Ponder Heart” open on Broadway. Perhaps I should add: for its short run on the Broadway stage. Because, as I recall, the play closed after six months.
It was obvious to me the night we were there that New York theater-goers weren’t grasping the rich humor in the absurdities of small town Southern speech reproduced with poetic intimacy by Welty through Uncle Daniel Ponder, her outrageous comedic protagonist; or they didn’t laugh when Daniel’s 17-year-old “trial bride,” Bonnie Dee Peacock, naturally parked her new washing machine on the front porch of the old Ponder house though on orders of old Grandpa Ponder it had never been hooked up to electricity.
Never you mind, “The Ponder Heart” has over the years since bombing on Broadway delighted hundreds of stage audiences in towns across America, four of those occasions in Jackson, including adapted versions such as the one seen last week at New Stage.
Writers and literary people from as far away as France and Germany came here last week to commemorate Welty’s centennial birthday. Welty, who died in 2001, had already gained a worldwide following with her soft, humble story-telling well before American critics finally recognized the genius of her prose in the 1970s.
Of course, the landmark national recognition of her work came in 1973 when she won the Pulitzer Prize for her delightful novel, “The Optimist’s Daughter.”
Former Capitol Press Corps colleague Hank Klibanoff, who was in town last week for a series of journalism events at Ole Miss’ Overby Center, swears that I was the first one to inform Miss Welty that she had won the Pulitzer. All I remember is that Newsweek Magazine, for which I was a stringer, called TO TELL me that she had won the prize and gave me an assignment to rush out to her house for an interview. A photo of her and me in her rose garden taken that day is one of my prized possessions, and appears in “Eyes on Mississippi,” the half-century collection of my articles published in 2001.
Eudora – where else could you find a more melodious name for a magical story-teller than down here in the Deep South? – will always occupy a special niche among such famed Mississippi-born writers as William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams and Willie Morris. She, like them, anchored her writing in a sense of place, namely this unfathomable place called Mississippi.
Writer Robert Penn Warren once noted that it was easy to praise Eudora’s writing but not easy to analyze the elements in her work that made it easy. Her mastery was in the intimacy for dialogue, of speech, which she projected through her large cast of characters, the mention of whose names brings a smile to your face.
But deep in the richly humorous language on the pages of Eudora’s works there is always a subtlety that reveals Welty’s underlying genius to understand human life. In the 1930s during the Great Depression when Welty had a job on a WPA writer’s project, as she plainly captured in her black and white photographs, Eudora obviously enriched her intimacy with the common folk – both white and black – which sustained the narrative power of her writing.
Yet it took Welty’s finely tuned ear and gift of close observation of the speech, the gestures, or even non-gestures of real people who became her characters and gave her work such lasting power in American literature.
To say that Eudora Welty remained the same modest person throughout her lifetime – no matter her fame – was especially made clear to me on a rainy, January day of 1980 when the weather forced William Winter’s gubernatorial inauguration indoors at the Old state Capitol Museum. After the ceremony, I found Eudora standing alone, waiting for a ride that never came. “Come on, Miss Welty, I’ll take you home in my car,” I said. And off we went in my dinky car to 1119 Pinehurst, her grateful smile my reward.
Bill Minor is a syndicated columnist who has covered Mississippi politics since 1947. His address is Box 1243, Jackson, MS 39215. Send e-mails to Minor through firstname.lastname@example.org.