Eudora Welty was not only a jewel but an emblem of the South. Richard Wright, self-exiled from home at the age of 17, became a symbol of black anger and empowerment. Both writers hailed from the same small town of Jackson, Mississippi, and were born within nine months of each other—Wright in 1908 and Welty in 1909. Yet they never met.
Ellen Ann Fentress, a writer living in Jackson, ponders why. Though the writers’ childhoods—Wright’s one of deprivation and discrimination, and Welty’s one of privilege and parental pampering—were spent “a Jim Crow galaxy” apart, their careers ran roughly parallel as they worked in the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration, published early-career short stories in 1936, came out with well received books (Wright, Uncle Tom’s Children in 1938 and Native Son in 1940; Welty, A Curtain of Green in 1941 and The Robber Bridegroom the next year), received a Guggenheim each, and won multiple O. Henry awards.
And there were mutual acquaintances to introduce them—the writer Ralph Ellison and the 1940s “literary powerhouse couple” of Edward Aswell (Wright’s editor) and Mary Louise Aswell (Welty’s close friend). Welty visited both New York City and Paris while Wright was living in those cities, and when Wright’s memoir Black Boy came out in 1945, she refused The Journal of Mississippi History’s requestthat she review it. The two writers’ failure to connect, concludes Fentress, “had to have been deliberate.”
While conceding that it is a “slippery business” to speculate about a “relationship that didn’t happen,” she insists it’s worthwhile to consider why a seemingly inevitable meeting never occurred. In the memoir of Harper’s
editor Willie Morris, North Toward Home
(1967),Fentress discerns an inkling: Wright was a guilty reminder of the complicity that even a “decent white Southerner” had in a “diseased civilization.” As a young man, Morris had sought out Wright in Paris, but the night that th
e two shared at a bar was awkward, and Morris didn’t follow up on Wright’s suggestion that they correspond. “He felt that with Wright,” Fentress writes, “he was at the wrong end of history’s pointing finger.” Welty rarely addressed race directly in her work and was afraid of reprisals against her and her mother if she openly defied “local racist customs,” but, writes Fentress, she didn’t avoid Wright merely out of “petty pragmatism.” It wasn’t “as much about Wright as about what he set off in a thoughtful, pre–Civil Rights white person.”
Why should we care about this “tidbit” of midcentury history? Recently, the FBI reopened 108 cold murder cases from the civil rights era, and in a town south of Jackson, the school board held a “graduation” for 10 members of the class of 1962 who were expelled as seniors for their civil rights activities. The wrongs and shortcomings of the past still resonate. “When we circle back to Southern history in this more evolved time,” writes Fentress, “it is because we want to show that we pass our own muster. When we step in to fix past failures, we cast ourselves in the story, too, an outlying speck on the Civil Rights timeline.”