“I Congo On.”

Just because I haven’t read an author’s body of work doesn’t mean I don’t have, at a minimum, firm impressions based on nothing more concrete than random reviews or whatever literary scuttlebutt I may have come across. Fair or not, I have to start somewhere.

One of the authors that I have always, somewhat in the abstract, had warm feelings for is Eudora Welty. Out of everything she wrote, I’ve read just one short story: “A Worn Path.” So it wasn’t my vast exposure to her writing that did the trick. There was just so much more to her…

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Miss Eudora was a photographer extraordinaire; during the ’20s and ’30s, her particular focus was the black people of her native Mississippi. She had tremendous feeling for her subjects capturing them as genuine human beings in real life moments with special attention given to mothers and children.

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A Woman of The 30s

Perhaps the inspiration for Phoenix Jackson in “The Worn Path?”

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“Window Shopping”

 

 

 

And Miss Eudora gardened. Passionately and exuberantly. She wrote about her love of gardening with such heart and soul that it’s impossible not to feel a strong connection to her, gardener or no.

“Gardening is akin to writing stories. No experience could have taught me more about grief or flowers, about achieving survival by going, your fingers in the ground, the limit of physical exhaustion.”

1930s-EW-in-garden-by-bench-3-900-300x200

She wasn’t pretty. Some even called her “ugly.” Oh, the kiss of death for a Southern belle in her time. What must it have been like to realize that to some extent her life was going to be formed by a genetic misfortune? Listen to some of these quotes from “A Writer’s Life” by Ann Waldron:

“The thing you have to understand about Eudora is that she was not a belle,” said a man a few years younger than Eudora who grew up in Jackson. “She was not pretty, and that is very important.”

   “It wasn’t that Eudora was plain,” said a woman who had grown up in Jackson and now lives in Boston. “She was ugly to the point of being grotesque. In the South, that was tantamount to being an old maid. You could either teach school, be a librarian, or teach music, or, if you were far out, teach dancing. That’s the way life was then.” She added, not especially warmly, “At least Eudora found her feet.”

Eudora was elected “Best All Round Girl” by the members of her senior class in high school–a title not given to an unpopular girl. In fact, all her life most people who met her would say something like this: “The first time I saw her, I thought she was the ugliest person I’d ever seen. Five minutes after I started talking to her, I thought she was the most wonderful person I’d ever known.” Her looks mattered to people who were not close to her. People who knew her, even in high school, liked her and forgot her looks.

How often has it happened to you that as you get to know somebody their looks suddenly morph into a reflection of their personalities? Or become completely irrelevant because they are such a joy to know?

Yes, Eudora has a firm place on the long list of authors I need to explore more deeply. But it wasn’t until reading this letter that I suddenly felt real affection for her. Oh, Eudora, on top of everything else, you were funny. Charmingly, wickedly, pun-drippingly funny. You made me laugh and want to be your best friend.

Here is the job application letter Miss Eudora Welty sent to The New Yorker:

March 15, 1933

Gentlemen,

I suppose you’d be more interested in even a sleight-o’-hand trick than you’d be in an application for a position with your magazine, but as usual you can’t have the thing you want most.

I am 23 years old, six weeks on the loose in N.Y. However, I was a New Yorker for a whole year in 1930-31 while attending advertising classes in Columbia’s School of Business. Actually I am a southerner, from Mississippi, the nation’s most backward state. Ramifications include Walter H. Page, who, unluckily for me, is no longer connected with Doubleday-Page, which is no longer Doubleday-Page, even. I have a B.A. (’29) from the University of Wisconsin, where I majored in English without a care in the world. For the last eighteen months I was languishing in my own office in a radio station in Jackson, Miss., writing continuities, dramas, mule feed advertisements, santa claus talks, and life insurance playlets; now I have given that up.

As to what I might do for you — I have seen an untoward amount of picture galleries and 15¢ movies lately, and could review them with my old prosperous detachment, I think; in fact, I recently coined a general word for Matisse’s pictures after seeing his latest at the Marie Harriman: concubineapple. That shows you how my mind works — quick, and away from the point. I read simply voraciously, and can drum up an opinion afterwards.

Since I have bought an India print, and a large number of phonograph records from a Mr. Nussbaum who picks them up, and a Cezanne Bathers one inch long (that shows you I read e. e. cummings I hope), I am anxious to have an apartment, not to mention a small portable phonograph. How I would like to work for you! A little paragraph each morning — a little paragraph each night, if you can’t hire me from daylight to dark, although I would work like a slave. I can also draw like Mr. Thurber, in case he goes off the deep end. I have studied flower painting.

There is no telling where I may apply, if you turn me down; I realize this will not phase you, but consider my other alternative: the U of N.C. offers for $12.00 to let me dance in Vachel Lindsay’s Congo. I congo on. I rest my case, repeating that I am a hard worker.

Truly yours, 

Eudora Welty

Unfathomably, she was not hired on the spot. I’ve looked through Matisse’s images on-line to find the painting that might have inspired her brilliant “concubineapple.” Guess what? Matisse painted a lot of pineapples. And concubines. But I can’t find where the two might have met. If anybody knows just which painting it was, I’d love to know:

matisse_pineapple

 

And thanks for reading,

Barbara

Lettersource: http://www.lettersofnote.com/2012/10/how-i-would-like-to-work-for-you.html

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About Silver in the Barn

Life in a 1915 farmhouse in Central Virginia. Blogging about whatever happens to catch my fancy - sometimes nonsense, occasionally not.
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30 Responses to “I Congo On.”

  1. Sue Mayo says:

    I must say I knew nothing about this woman, however, can’t wait to read more of her work. She is my kind of gal.

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  2. Jane says:

    Barbara, sublime post! I always put Eudora on my list of summer reading but, like you, I have not delved in to her work. Boy, she sure was a character and way ahead of her time, even by todays’ I dare say! Next Saturday is our annual used book sale at Case Western Reserve University and I shall look for some EW books . Have a lovely day doing what you do!i

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    • Good morning, Jane, and I so appreciate your comments. Do let me know what you choose. I hear “The Optimist’s Daughter” is what we should be reading! Ahhhh, annual used book sale……

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  3. carolwallace says:

    Well, this is just lovely. I certainly didn’t know about the photography. Will have to investigate further. Beautifully done, as usual.

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  4. Pat S. says:

    Another enlightenment from our esteemed enlightener. Thank you so much!

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  5. dorannrule says:

    Your amazing review of Eurdora makes me want to find her now. Thank you!

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    • You are welcome, Dor! What an amazing woman she was; there are a few interviews of her on YouTube – interestingly, one by Gore Vidal and the other by William F. Buckley – two eternal foes! The best part was hearing her Mississippi drawl.

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  6. dorannrule says:

    Ooops – Eudora… I hate typos. 🙂

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  7. Dianna says:

    Not familiar with her at all, but she sounds charming. And, yes, a dear friend immediately came to mind when you asked if we knew someone whose looks do not matter at all once they’ve become a friend!

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    • Not to get all mooshy BUT….I do think that’s one of the wonderful things about growing to love somebody….their looks become so incidental. And I think they were much too harsh on Eudora. Her eyes were dreamy.

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  8. dorothy says:

    It’s always fulfilling to know that people who aren’t beautiful or even attractive can achieve great things if they so desire. Don’t we wish that today’s teens could focus more on making lemonade out of lemons and less on beauty. Eudora is a perfect example of mind over matter.

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    • Isn’t it wonderful to read that people, within five minutes, thought she was just the bees knees? And I can only imagine how tough it was for her at a time when girls advanced by their looks chiefly. But then again, look at Eleanor Roosevelt. Some of these less than beautiful girls grew into fantastic women!!

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  9. Wickedly funny, Barbara. I like her, too. Thank you for suggesting a new author. Best, WG

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    • You’re welcome. Photographer, gardener, writer? She would have been an excellent blogger in our day. Thanks for reading, WG.

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      • That she would! She feels very contemporary in her views and outlook. What a difficult time of it she must have had along the way- but at least she found friends and allies. She reminds me a bit of Eleanor Roosevelt in her appearance- perhaps in personality as well… WG

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      • I JUST remarked to Dorothy about Eleanor Roosevelt in another comment. Yes, she reminds me of her too. In appearance and in what she had to overcome.Eleanor Roosevelt’s mother was beautiful and rejected her but Eudora’s mother, Chestina, adored her, thank God.

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      • Eleanor certainly overcame a lot of rejection, throughout her life. A remarkable spirit. Rather than turning in and feeding on her sadness, she turned outwards, offering a hand of love and acceptance- helping so many in need of an opportunity in the process. She is one of my heroes- WG

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  10. I love this. I have read some of Eudora Welty’s works, but I never knew she was a photographer. Wonderful eye. She captured a time and place that many might not have seen. Thanks for sharing these, Barbara.

    About judging folks on looks: It’s too bad some folks couldn’t get beyond their superficial views to see the warm, funny, intelligent woman before them. Based on the small photo of Eudora at top, I think she looks lovely. I’ve known some that I would compare to fancy chocolates wrapped in colorful foil. They look amazing, but when you bite into them, they are rotten.

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    • Thanks, Judy, I’m glad you enjoyed the post. You know, it was her letter to The New Yorker which initially inspired me to write about her but what seems to have resonated with readers much more is her looks and what she had to overcome because of them. And the unfairness of it all. Another poignant reminder to us all to look beyond the surface. Thanks for reading and commenting, Judy.

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  11. Thom Hickey says:

    Thanks. A really fascinating post. Loved the photos showing her keen eye and good heart. She has long been a favourite writer of mine. Regards from Thom at the immortal jukebox.

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  12. M-R says:

    I thought your post would turn out to be something like Australia’s Affabeck Lauder and “Let Stalk Strine” !!! – far from which, it is a fascinating look at a woman whose humour I ADORE. I wish I’d had the guts to write an application like it. I believe I might have written something like it, but never been sufficiently courageous as to put it in the post …

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    • First of all, I loved learning about “Let Stalk Strine!” Naturally, being the curious sort, I had to Google this reference and found it completely my cup of nonsensical tea! This is what I particularly like about being part of the blogosphere – the meeting of so many interesting people from all over the globe. Anyway enough of that, yes, yes, yes to the charm of Miss Eudora Welty. Once I read that application letter there was no way I wasn’t going to tailor a post around it. And I am so happy you enjoyed it, M-R.

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  13. Wow!!! I found an old Southern Living cookbook at an estate sale writtern by Eudora’s next door neighbor (can you imagine?) I will send you Eudora’s favorite recipe from it. I also love that Richard Ford grew up down the street from her and occaisionally you can hear Eudora’s voice in some of his writings about place.

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