A CLIMBING ROSE: EUDORA WELTY'S GARDEN LIFE

A CLIMBING ROSE: EUDORA WELTY'S GARDEN LIFE
Welty at work

Welty at work

Eudora Welty had an eye for detail. The late Mississippi writer is well known for her graceful depictions of Southern life, and she racked up a slew of awards for her stories and novels--including multiple O. Henry Awards, a National Book Award for The Collected Works of Eudora Welty, and a Pulitzer Prize for her 1972 novel The Optimist’s Daughter. But Welty’s eye for detail goes beyond her writing. She’s also known for her her WPA-era photographs, mostly of the rural South, which have been collected in two books and exhibited in museums and galleries from New York to New Orleans. And perhaps Welty’s keenest observations came in her flower garden.

Welty’s work as a gardener, not to mention the cultural significance of flower gardening in the South, has been largely glossed over, but in recent years two books--Tell About Night Flowers: Eudora Welty's Gardening Letters, 1940-1949, edited by Julia Eichelberger and One Writer's Garden: Eudora Welty's Home Place by Susan Haltom and Jane Roy Brown--explore Welty’s connection to the Mississippi soil.

“A lot of people who knew about Welty understood that she enjoyed gardening, but they didn’t pay as much attention as they have lately, since the garden became something you can visit,” says Eichelberger, a Professor of English at College of Charleston in South Carolina. “They’ve done so much to restore the garden so that it resembles the garden that she and her mother cultivated in the 1940s, so people can come and walk around in it.”

The garden Eichelberg refers to is at The Eudora Welty House, 1119 Pinehurst Street in the Belhaven neighborhood of Jackson, Mississippi. The house was Welty’s childhood home, and it’s where she lived most of her adult life until her death in 2001. By 2006, the house and garden were renovated as a museum devoted to the author’s life and work. The garden at Pinehurst Street was designed and planted by Eudora’s mother, Chestina Welty, and Eudora devoted untold time and energy to maintaining her mother’s garden, especially in the 1940s as she was beginning to earn acclaim as a writer.

Tell About Night Flowers collects letters Welty wrote during these years to her literary agent Diarmuid Russell and to her longtime love interest John Robinson. The three friends shared a passion for gardening and much of their correspondence changed with the seasons, including accounts of what was growing when, reports from long hours spent outdoors, and detailed descriptions of their favorite blooms, which for Welty included camellias, daffodils, and climbing roses.

The letters to Russell often include a few lines of business, as Welty inquired about Russell’s efforts to find publishers for her fiction or she described a new story in the works. But Welty’s main focus was writing about her flowers, and Eichelberg draws a direct parallel between the two subjects.

Eudora and Chestina Welty

Eudora and Chestina Welty

“As a gardener, she believed that you should let the plants become whatever they were going to be, and you had to watch them and observe them and then respond to whatever they were going to be,” says Eichelberg. “And that’s sort of how her fiction evolved. She would start working on a story and it might take a different direction that surprised her, and sometimes she would actually be talking about that in some of these letters.”

For Eichelberg, a Welty scholar, there’s joy in seeing the stories and characters in their infancy, works that she can now recognize in their completed form, like “A Worn Path” or “June Recital.” The garden is where Welty made a number of creative decisions, and the letters reveal details like the beginnings of her story cycle The Golden Apples, which started as a collection of separate stories until she realized, according to Eichelberger, that “these characters all know each other.”

Welty’s letters to Robinson are more personal and poignant, especially during 1944 and 1945 when Robinson was serving in Europe during World War II. She expressed her love and fear for his well-being, though she still regularly communicated her feelings through flowers. In a letter dated October 18, 1944, Welty writes to Robinson:

 
I am just now lying in the pine needles in the side yard—it is sunny & sweet smelling—Fall butterflies...I wish you were here, on this day—so hard—smelling the sweet air right here in deep breaths—& your eyes on the camellias doing so well…
 

Robinson returned home safely, but his relationship with Welty dissolved by the early 1950s. Welty was focusing more on her fiction, having had success with her first novel, Delta Wedding, in 1946. She was also spending more time taking care of her aging mother, whose health was in decline. Over the years, the garden that nurtured Welty creatively and emotionally throughout her early career eventually fell victim to neglect and disrepair.

Susan Haltom, co-author of One Writer's Garden: Eudora Welty's Home Place, was working with the Mississippi Department of Archives and History in 1994 when she first met Welty, who had already made arrangements to donate her home to the state.

“At this point, she was in her mid-80s, and she could no longer get outside and work in the garden,” says Haltom. “She looked at me and said ‘I can’t bear to look out the window and see what’s become of my mother’s garden.’”

Transient

Haltom, an artist by training, had discovered flower gardening through her mother-in-law and developed an interest in historical garden preservation. After that first meeting with Welty, she dedicated herself to overseeing the restoration of Welty’s garden to its glory of the 1940s. The first four months were spent pulling up the honeysuckle and poison ivy that had taken over the garden. Over the next 10 years, Haltom spent as much time digging through Chestina’s garden journals and Eudora’s letters as she did digging in the garden. It was important to her to recreate the garden the way Chestina originally designed it, but it was equally important to restore the specific varieties of the original plants.

“The same way people save recipes, or music, or stories, there’s a story in the Welty garden,” says Haltom. “And if we didn’t have the actual plants saved, if people just let them all die out, then we couldn’t tell that story the right way.”

Haltom views flower gardening as a tradition that doesn’t always get the same respect as more tangible and enduring forms of art, and she insists that gardens represent an important social movement of the early 20th century. Haltom explains that for many American women, elaborate flower gardens only became possible through modern innovations like indoor plumbing and electricity, or washing machine and automobiles, things that freed women from the daily grind of household labor and led to increased socialization.

The 1920s saw a rise in “Woman's Clubs,” organizations that gave women civic and social outlets and gained popularity around the same time the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified, guaranteeing women the right to vote. The clubs promoted “self-improvement” among American women, and since outdoor activity was thought to be a vital part of one’s physical and mental health, many woman’s clubs spawned garden clubs as well.

In 1931, Chestina Welty co-founded the Jackson Council of Garden Clubs, which consisted of six different clubs, one for each of the city’s voting districts. The clubs were civically active, taking on projects like planting crepe myrtles along city streets and landscaping hospitals. During World War II, according to One Writer’s Garden, club members sent flowers to the military hospital, the air base, and the POW camp.  

“They did a lot of things that now our our city governments do,” says Haltom. “That gave women a place in the public where they could contribute and feel good about it.”

Haltom sees her work in the Welty garden as not just a monument  to one writer, but also as a monument to an entire generation of women. She’s quick to point out that the garden was Chestina’s garden, not Eudora’s, but also says there’s no doubt that her mother’s garden was integral to Eudora finding a voice of her own. Haltom believes the house and garden stand today just as Eudora would have remembered it in early days as a young writer.

“When you’re in the house, it looks like she just stepped out and she might be in the garden,” say Haltom. “And when you’re in the garden, you might think she’s run back in to get a drink.”

 Brad Rhines grew up in a Jackson, Mississippi shaped by Welty's legacy.  Read his recollections about that here and follow him on Twitter.

Photos via the Eudora Welty House website and Mississippi Department of Archives and History.