Forty years ago, my pal John Wahl and I drove up Highway 61 from New Orleans to Memphis on a blues pilgrimage of sorts. John was my only literature loving friend at the time, and agreed to a detour to Jackson, where we thought we’d drive past Eudora Welty’s home. We stopped at the visitors center and asked where that might be. The two blue haired ladies staffing the center looked up from their crocheting. One sneered, “Clodhopper.” The other snickered, then stood and squinted at us, asking, “Do you boys know what a clodhopper is?” John and I shot each other amazed glances. Were these ladies, in charge of the capital city of Mississippi’s visitors center, calling the most important living writer of their state, a Pulitzer and National Book Award winner, a derogatory name? Yep, they were. We said we’d still like to drive by her house. The lady who was still sitting shook her head dismissively, “She will no more let you in her house….” She let the thought drop, pointedly.
Maybe that’s what gave me the idea, why I committed that rude, unconscionable intrusion. We drove up to the city park and easily found the stately two-story brick house where Ms. Welty had lived her whole life. I parked the car out front and said, “Dare me to knock on her door.” John laughed, sank down in his seat, and whispered, “Whoo boy – dare.”
So we did it, rang the doorbell, in our t-shirts and jeans, and oh my, yes, she opened the door, the great writer herself, in a house dress and slippers, her white hair pinned back, those bulging eyes that saw everything there was to see (so much like James Baldwin’s, come to think of it) sizing us up instantly. I blathered something about admiring her writing, young writers, etc., and to our surprise, she said, “Well come in then. We can chat.”
For the next hour, we sat on her living room sofa, while she in an arm chair asked thoughtful questions about our silly lives, seeming interested, nodding from time to time, her large spotted hands in her lap. I can’t remember a thing she said about herself. But every horizontal surface of her elegant home was stacked with books, and just past her head, at a window, there it was, her spare writing table, a sturdy, manual typewriter in the center, a sheet of paper rolled into the platen. We’d interrupted her work.
At last another young man came to the door, clearly a close friend, perhaps arriving on some signal from Ms. Welty or having noticed our car on the street. He chatted briefly, asked if we knew of her recently published memoir, One Writer’s Beginnings, that had won rave reviews everywhere. We had no idea. Soon he made it clear that it was time for us to head on our way. She walked us to the door, thanked us for our visit.
What asses we were, how gracious she was. Thrilled, abashed, unable to speak a word, we headed on to Oxford and our next pilgrimage site, Faulkner’s home. Of course, dead twenty years, we did not expect a reply to our knock at Rowan Oak.
Btw, the late Ms. Welty’s home is now a full-time pilgrimage site, a National Historic Landmark. Here’s a photograph of her writing desk, as I remember it, from the foundation website: