SURF student helps professor complete book of Welty letters

This summer Crystal Frost and Julia Eichelberger worked together on a book manuscript Dr. Eichelberger will be publishing next year. Below, the two researchers describe their project.

JE: I’ve been working for a couple of years on letters Eudora Welty wrote to two friends who shared her interest in gardening.  Most of these letters are unpublished and can only be seen in the Eudora Welty Collection, in the Mississippi Department of Archives and History. Welty was an extremely prolific letter-writer; my book is focused only the letters she wrote during the 1940s to these two friends  (Diarmuid Russell, her literary agent, and John Robinson, with whom she was romantically involved in the 40s). Her frequent discussions of gardening and Nature (including some flowers she dreamed about), are interesting in themselves, and they also reveal Welty’s hopes for the fiction she was writing. Many letters are funny and charming; some are also poetic and moving discussions of her thoughts on war and other calamities of that decade.

Welty in her garden

CF:  During the first part of the summer, I spent a great deal of time reading Eudora Welty’s work and criticism on her, to develop a sense of how Welty’s work during the 1940s was affected by cultural movements in the South and throughout the country during the onset of World War II. Having only read “Petrified Man” prior to undertaking this project, I gained a much greater knowledge of Welty’s writing and themes. I even eventually realized that amidst the tragic characters of A Curtain of Green there lay a great deal of morbid humor, and I enjoyed the stories much more as I began to allow myself to laugh along.

As I read Welty’s work, I discovered that the theme of gardening and an appreciation for natural beauty, which Dr. Eichelberger found so compelling, was truly ubiquitous in the stories. In our discussions, Dr. Eichelberger and I explored this aspect of the stories along with other topics and questions which I thought of as I continued my independent exploration of Welty’s life and writing.

JE: In addition to selecting the best letters, we needed to make sure they were transcribed correctly. This required one person to read the photocopy of the original letter out loud, including punctuation marks. (“How is your camellia question mark I was worried that the freeze might have harmed it period” or “I will close with a dream dash it was about an iris dash”)The other person would look at the printout of the transcription of the letter and make corrections.  Sometimes there were no errors for a long stretch, then we’d find words that had been left out or mistakenly included, or entire lines that had been skipped. Although this sounds tediously painstaking, I actually enjoyed it.

A photocopied letter and the transcription with footnotes

CF: Editing the letters’ transcriptions was a new level of immersion in Welty’s writing. As we went through every single mark on the pages of her letters to Robinson and Russell day after day for a solid week, I began to dream in the language of her descriptions of gardens and events. Hearing the letters aloud, as well, contributed to the depth of my understanding of the process and development of Welty’s work during the 1940s.

Furthermore, I also read the other half of the extant correspondence during the period of our study. Diarmuid Russell’s letters to Welty filled in a great deal of blank spaces in my knowledge of her contemporary works in progress, her process of writing, her endeavors in the garden, and the wonderful humor which pervaded Russell and Welty’s friendship. Researching this kind of intimate information served as a transition into my work developing footnotes for the letters. Reading the correspondence with an eye for detail, I spent countless hours in the library, trying to close in the spaces for future readers of the manuscript by finding facts about the various people, places, and events which Welty refers to in her wide-ranging letters.


View of the garden in the 1940s taken from the roof

JE: I was also working on the book’s introduction and conclusion, in which I needed to discuss what makes the letters interesting and how they add to our understanding of Welty as an artist. These sections needed to be interesting to Welty experts but also accessible to general readers. Since I know so much about the letters, it was very challenging to try to sum everything up in a few pages and try to appeal to multiple audiences. Crystal helped me by being a first reader and offering suggestions as I revised these sections.

CF: Travelling to Jackson and getting to work in the Mississippi Department of Archives and History was an exciting chance to use the research skills I had been developing all summer as well to handle archival materials. By this point in the summer, I was giddy about simply holding the pages with Welty’s original handwriting on them, and Dr. Eichelberger and I shared every quirky newspaper clipping, sketch, and dried flower that we found in the letters with great enthusiasm.

Crystal in the archive (we had to get permission even to take this picture)

Touring Welty’s hometown helped to contextualize her work even more for me, and I realized that when she mentioned hot weather in her garden descriptions, she meant weather hotter than Charleston! Travelling to complete the work we had done all summer was a great capstone for my involvement with the project; after spending a few days in Jackson, I felt that I had been truly immersed in Welty’s literary life.