Wild and Lovely Things

On July 10, 2017, in Archives, Artifacts, by Timothy

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.

Ms. Welty Goes to Washington

On September 9, 2016, in Artifacts, Museums & Historic Sites, by Timothy

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 had the pleasure of socializing with many of the 20th century’s most prominent writers and public figures.  In 1980, she added U.S. President Jimmy Carter to that prestigious list.  Carter awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the United States.  The ceremony featured cultural icons such as Ansel Adams, John Wayne, Tennessee Williams, and Welty’s editor, Robert Penn Warren.


Welty’s Medal of Freedom, seen here, comes in the form of a two-inch white star set against a red pentagon, with a central blue disc featuring 13 gold stars. The medal is supported by a field of five gold eagles.

In his speech honoring Welty, President Carter lauded her contributions to writing and art:

“Eudora Welty’s fiction, with its strong sense of place and triumphant comic spirit, illuminates the human condition. Her photographs of the South during the Depression reveal a rare artistic sensibility. Her critical essays explore mind and heart…with unsurpassed beauty.” 

                Welty never displayed this medal inside her home, a testament to her lifelong humility.

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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.

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.

MDAH received a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) in the fall of 2014 to catalog, photograph, and create digital object records for more than 11,000 artifacts, including books and other artifacts at the Eudora Welty House and Garden. Jarrett Zeman, MDAH Museum Division cataloger, brings us this post in an ongoing series about his work on this project.

Jarrett Zeman catalogs at the Eudora Welty House and Garden.

Jarrett Zeman catalogs at the Eudora Welty House and Garden.

My name is Jarrett Zeman, and I am the cataloger for the Museum Division of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History (MDAH). Thanks to a generous grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, I will be embarking on a three-year project to catalog the contents of the Eudora Welty House and Garden, one of the nation’s most intact literary house museums and a National Historic Landmark.  For over 75 years, it was the home of Eudora Welty, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Optimist’s Daughter and one of the South’s most prolific short story writers.

What exactly is cataloging?  Why are we taking on such an ambitious project?  Cataloging involves several steps,  categorizing artifacts, checking measurements, taking photographs, and writing detailed descriptions of an artifact’s appearance and function.  These steps are not performed simply for the sake of recordkeeping; rather, they allow us to become history detectives.  The detailed descriptions are a stepping stone to further research, as we investigate each artifact’s history and significance during Welty’s era.  New discoveries help us better interpret artifacts and their owners.

We can learn much about a person by walking in their footsteps and by holding the same objects they’ve held.  At the Welty House objects  pull back the curtain on a life and tell volumes about Welty’s tastes, passions, and dreams, including her preference for Maker’s Mark whiskey, her love of European travel, and her undying passion for books.

Indeed, each room of her home is filled with books in every available cranny and nook: piled onto the couch cushions, spilling over tables, and arranged in uneven piles along the carpet.  Welty’s guests had to move stacks of books off the couch cushions just to sit down.  In total, the home contained 5,000 volumes at the time of her death.

A glance at her bookshelves illuminates Welty’s diverse literary tastes. She seemed to own books on every topic imaginable, from Victorian fairy tales to American poetry to a six-volume set on Thomas Jefferson.  When I work in her sitting room, I like to imagine Welty reclining comfortably on the blue chaise-longue in the corner, set appropriately next to the bookshelf, where she entertained many visitors with the wry wit and astute observation for which she was known.

A short glass barrier sits between the public and me as I catalog objects in Welty’s guest bedroom.  Visitors will frequently peer in, rather like a human observing a zoo animal.

“Are you a part of the tour?” a visitor will sometimes ask, tongue-in-cheek.

“Yes, but I’m not original to the house,” I’ll joke, referencing a phrase visitors often hear on historic house tours.  This invites several questions:  What exactly am I doing?  What steps are involved?  And why am I wearing thick cotton gloves in the middle of summer? (Our gloves protect objects from the harmful oils secreted by human hands).

Although my interactions with visitors are often casual, their opportunity to observe MDAH employees in action serves an important purpose, showing that the Eudora Welty House and Garden is a working museum, where new discoveries are made every day.  It is not a shrine full of dusty glass cases in cobwebbed corners, or a home frozen in time with no new knowledge to impart.

As Eudora Welty wrote, “One place understood helps us understand all places better.”  As we gain a greater appreciation of Welty through her artifacts, we not only learn about an intriguing literary legend; we also understand her era, the city of Jackson, and the spirit of the South, encapsulated in a humble home on Pinehurst Street.

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150 Years Ago: Battle of Nashville

On December 16, 2014, in Artifacts, by Amanda

The Mississippi Civil War Sesquicentennial continues and in the coming months we will be highlighting Museum Division collections related to 1864 and the Civil War. Special thanks to Nan Prince, assistant director of collections, for writing this series.

Flag of the Forty-Fourth Mississippi Infantry. Accession number: 1968.51.1 (MDAH Museum Division collection)

Flag of the Forty-Fourth Mississippi Infantry. Accession number: 1968.51.1 (MDAH Museum Division collection)

The Battle of Nashville was fought on December 15–16, 1864, between Lt. Gen. John Bell Hood’s Army of Tennessee and the federal force under Major General George H. Thomas. Hood began the Franklin-Nashville campaign in the fall of 1864, in an attempt to disrupt General Sherman’s supply line and draw him out of Georgia. A series of engagements led up to the Battle of Nashville, including the Battle of Franklin on November 30, which resulted in a devastating loss of over six thousand Confederate casualties. Thomas’s army soundly defeated Hood’s battered troops during the Battle of Nashville, forcing the Confederates to retreat to Tupelo, where Hood resigned his post.

This 2nd National Pattern flag of the Second Mississippi Infantry was captured at the Battle of Brentwood Hills near Nashville on December 16, 1864. Writing to Major J. Hough of the Army of the Tennessee, Lt. Col. J. H. Stibbs of the Twelfth Iowa Infantry described the capture of the flag: “The large one belonged to a Mississippi regiment, I think the Forty-fourth, and was captured by Corpl. Luther Kaltenbach, F Company, Twelfth Iowa Infantry. The color-bearer had been shot down, and as my regiment advanced Corporal Kaltenbach ran forward and picked up the flag.” The flag was returned to the state of Mississippi by the War Department in 1905.


Official Records of the War of the Rebellion, Series I, Vol. 45, Pt. 1, p. 464

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