Wild and Lovely Things

On July 10, 2017, in Archives, Artifacts, by Timothy
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Jarrett Zeman, MDAH Museum Division cataloger, brings us this post in an ongoing series about his work on the IMLS project to catalog, photograph, and create digital object records for MDAH’s Museum Division artifacts.

Eudora Welty enjoyed lifelong friendships with some of the twentieth century’s best known writers. Throughout her home, Welty displayed mementos of her colleagues, from autographed letters to books, photographs, and drawings.  In the sitting room, visitors can view a reproduction of a handwritten letter from E.M. Forster, author of the novel A Passage to India.

Forster wrote the letter on April 28, 1947, during a New York speaking tour.  He initially wanted to meet Welty, but when he learned the distance to Jackson, he decided that a letter had to suffice:

I feel I should like to give myself the pleasure of writing you a line and telling you how much I enjoy your work.  The Wide Net, and the wild and lovely things it brings up, have often been with me and delighted me. …Still, there are meetings which are not precisely personal, and I have had the advantage of one of these through reading you.

The admiration was mutual, since Welty considered Forster “a very great novelist.”  When Welty visited England in 1954, she had “overwhelming feelings of joy” after receiving a lunch invitation from Forster.  Welty’s visit would make any Forster fan jealous: a meal of hors d’oeuvres and white wine in Forster’s room, followed by a walk around Cambridge.

That night, Welty attended a conference where literary scholar Arthur Mizener criticized A Passage to India as “…a novel of manners that’s gone wrong.  When you finish it, you’re left with nothing but a vacuum.”  Exasperated, Welty defended her friend’s novel.  She left the conference in a sullen mood, upset that she allowed Mizener to get under her skin.  On the way to her hotel, Welty literally kicked herself until her foot bled.

The Forster letter is more than just a piece of paper; it is a symbol of literary admiration that ran so deep, it caused Welty physical harm.

Drawings for a Rainy Day

On March 29, 2017, in Archives, Museums & Historic Sites, by Timothy
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Jarrett Zeman, MDAH Museum Division cataloger, brings us this post in an ongoing series about his work on the IMLS project to catalog, photograph, and create digital object records for MDAH’s Museum Division artifacts.

Eudora Welty displayed some of her most beloved possessions in her bedroom.  On a mantelpiece along the north wall, Welty hung three crayon drawings: two women walking along the seashore, two people walking by a waterfall, and a series of seaside cliffs.

 

The drawings were made by Irish artist, poet, and literary critic George Russell, known professionally as A. E.  When Welty studied writing at the University of Wisconsin, she fell in love with Russell’s work.  His son, Diarmuid, later became Welty’s agent and sent her the drawings as a gift.

When Welty received the drawings, she was overcome with gratitude.  On December 12, 1941, she sent Diarmuid a thank you letter:

I do really believe I love them enough for you to have parted with them.  It is wonderful to have these very ones & to see that they are instant & fragmentary & still partake wholly of the same beauty — & to see all filled with a radiance & mystery from the same source.

 

With her typical literary flourish, Welty also described the day she received the drawings in the same letter:

It was a day that anyone might have got a present: it was like a spell, silver to look at, rain in every breath of the atmosphere, on every leaf & blade of grass…today the drops are falling softly, the birds are singing clearly, & even in my room upstairs I can hear the thrashers walking around under their roof of the magnolia-fuscata branches, thinking the world is green.

With this special gift, Russell made Welty’s world a little greener, too.

A Sweet Mystery

On January 5, 2017, in Archives, Museums & Historic Sites, by Timothy
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Jarrett Zeman, MDAH Museum Division cataloger, brings us this post in an ongoing series about his work on the IMLS project to catalog, photograph, and create digital object records for MDAH’s Museum Division artifacts.

Artifact research is sometimes similar to detective work, especially when researching artifacts at the Eudora Welty House.When museum staff want to learn more about how Welty acquired an artifact, or why she chose to display it, a better answer can be found by carefully piecing together the artifact’s history.

 

Recently, MDAH staff investigated this sugar bowl, which sits inside a cabinet in her breakfast nook. The bowl features a pink transferware pattern of a Victorian couple looking through a telescope, with a castle in the background. At first glance, the bowl looks like a nineteenth century object, seemingly out of place among Welty’s modern plates and glasses.

The first step to understanding the bowl’s history required a highly technical maneuver, we turned it over. The bottoms of many housewares contain a maker’s mark indicating the manufacturer and location of production. The maker is Royal Staffordshire Pottery of London, England, founded in 1795. Upon further research, we discovered that the bowl is a 1940s reproduction of a nineteenth century piece.

 

Who is Jenny Lind referenced in the maker’s mark? Known as “The Swedish Nightingale,” Lind was an opera singer and one of P. T. Barnum’s early success stories. Lind toured the United States from 1850 to 1852, including a trip to Natchez where she performed her soaring soprano to sold out audiences. Lind proved so popular, audiences in many cities could only acquire tickets by auction.

She quickly became one of America’s earliest celebrities, sparking off what the press called “Lind Mania.” Her image adorned several consumer products, including candy wrappers, handkerchiefs, and snuffboxes, while her name graced decorative arts from mirrors and chairs to plates and sugar bowls.

Either Welty or her mother, Chestina, purchased an entire place setting in the Jenny Lind style. Welty may not have known the story of Lind or the bowl’s nineteenth century connection, but this artifact reflects her taste in European housewares and decorative arts, on display throughout her home.

A Raven for Eudora

On January 3, 2017, in Archives, Museums & Historic Sites, by Timothy
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Jarrett Zeman, MDAH Museum Division cataloger, brings us this post in an ongoing series about his work on the IMLS project to catalog, photograph, and create digital object records for MDAH’s Museum Division artifacts.

What do Eudora Welty, Alfred Hitchcock, and the Muppets all have in common?  They all received the Raven Award from the Mystery Writers of America (MWA). Resembling the titular bird from Edgar Allen Poe’s famous work, the prize honors “outstanding achievement in the mystery field outside the realm of [literature]” and recognizes everything from TV shows and Broadway musicals, to museums and mystery bookstores. In 1985, Welty won the Raven Award for Reader of the Year.

 

 

In 1985, Welty won the Raven Award for Reader of the Year. Welty’s desk in the boy’s bedroom displays a small sample of her mystery collection, by authors as diverse as Agatha Christie, Margaret Thurman, and Ross Macdonald. Welty spoke frequently of her passion for whodunits, and this caught the attention of the MWA.

 

Of the numerous honors Welty won in the course of her career, the Raven Award was one of the few she displayed inside her home. Indeed, Welty kept her most prestigious award, the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, inside a cardboard box in the closet. Other major honors such as the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the National Medal of Arts, and the American Book Award also remained unseen by Welty’s many house guests. Welty chose to symbolize her career not with fancy diplomas or shiny medallions, but with a six-inch porcelain bird.

Jarrett Zeman, MDAH Museum Division cataloger, brings us this post in an ongoing series about his work on the IMLS project to catalog, photograph, and create digital object records for MDAH’s Museum Division artifacts.
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When visitors enter the sitting room of the Eudora Welty House, an unusual sight greets them— a single white feather, encased in a wooden frame, sitting on a small wooden table.  Set against a blue vinyl background, the feather appears to float, a curious sight and natural conversation starter.  Why would anyone have a framed white feather?

A devoted fan acquired this wild swan feather for Welty in Coole, Ireland, a small village in County Westmeath, in recognition of William Butler Yeats.  Yeats, one of Welty’s favorite poets, wrote a piece entitled “The Wild Swans at Coole” in 1917, where he described the sight of swans taking wing:

I have looked upon those brilliant creatures,   

And now my heart is sore.

All’s changed since I, hearing at twilight,   

The first time on this shore,

The bell-beat of their wings above my head,   

Trod with a lighter tread.

Welty discovered Yeats’s poetry while studying literature at the University of Wisconsin.  In One Writer’s Beginnings, Welty describes taking refuge in the library from Wisconsin’s seemingly endless snow, when she stumbled upon Yeats and soon devoured his work:

It seemed to me if I could stir, if I could move to take the next step, I could go out into the poem the way I could go out into that snow.  That it would be falling on my shoulders.  That it would pelt me on its way down — that I could move in it, live in it — that I could die in it, maybe.  So after that I had to learn it…and I told myself that I would.  At Wisconsin, I learned the word for the nature of what I had come upon in reading Yeats…that word is passion.

The swan feather is one of many objects that showcase Welty’s favorite writers.  Instead of displaying her own accolades or accomplishments, she chose to celebrate the authors who inspired her.