Review: Meanwhile There Are Letters

“The personal correspondence of writers feeds on leftover energy.” This from the writer William Maxwell. “There is also the element of lavishness,” Maxwell writes, “of enjoying the fact that they are throwing away one of their better efforts, for the chances of any given letter’s surviving are fifty-fifty, at most.” Maxwell was no stranger to these literary correspondences. We have editions of his letters to Sylvia Townsend Warner, Frank O’Connor and Eudora Welty as evidence.


There’s a suggestion that Eudora Welty shared Maxwell’s view, early in her correspondence with the writer Ross MacDonald. Those letters are collected for the first time in a new volume, Meanwhile There Are Letters. “Thank you for the good letter you wrote me,” she tells MacDonald, “especially when you were – are – carrying around that novel in your head.” It’s a dicey proposition, disagreeing with as accomplished a writer and discerning a reader as Maxwell. In the case of Welty and MacDonald, though, it’s hard not to conclude that the exchange was more invigorating than depleting for the two of them.

Ross MacDonald was the pen name of Kenneth Millar. At the time he and Welty first became acquainted, he was America’s most highly regarded crime novelist, on the strength of work like The Underground Man and The Galton Case. Welty’s letters address him as Ken, and by the end, he’s more memorable as Ken Millar than Ross MacDonald. One of the more remarkable feats of Meanwhile There Are Letters is the fullness of its picture of Millar/MacDonald’s complexity and talents. He held a PhD in Literature and studied Samuel Taylor Coleridge for a number of years. He read widely and Welty held his judgments in high regard. There’s also Millar the birder, offering updates on the yearly species count in Santa Barbara at the end of each year. We see him as husband to the crime writer Margaret Millar as well, devoted and tolerant in that role, to all appearances, despite the ways in which they were apparently mismatched. It’s a welcome self-portrait of the man, a worthy supplement to editor Tom Nolan’s strong 1999 MacDonald biography. Of Welty there’s her loyalty to and pleasure in discussing her friends, those she and Millar counted in common and otherwise, talk of her work, and the steady stream of honors that work generated during those years. Welty gave us masterful autobiographical writings later in her life (One Writer’s Beginnings, in particular) in addition to editor Suzanne Marr’s admirable 2006 biography, but Millar fell prey to Alzheimer’s just as he’d begun to seriously contemplate an extended piece of work with autobiographical underpinnings. More’s the shame there. His description of the project sounds much like Dennis Potter’s approach to The Singing Detective. “I’m wondering,” Millar writes, “if it would be possible to do an autobiographical story embodying or at least using the themes of one’s fiction. It would be fun to try a story moving in and out of the mind, through fiction and dreams and back into solid reality; which is not solid, which is not reality.” This volume isn’t an exact replacement, but there’s much to be said for getting to know his warm, unguarded voice through these letters.

Editors Marrs and Nolan open with MacDonald at New York’s Algonquin Hotel in mid-may 1971, “engaged in a bit of real-life detection.” He tracks down Eudora Welty, “world-famous, award-winning, bestselling author from Jackson, Mississippi,” who mutual friends tipped him off to expect there. They had exchanged a handful of letters prior to that meeting, but those were prelude to a solid decade of devoted, earnest correspondence.

The genuine fondness between Welty and Millar is apparent from the first. The air of competition always subtly present between Millar and his wife, the crime writer Margaret Millar, never appears between him and Welty. Instead their letters run on encouragement and shared enthusiasms, like the work of Henry Green, and Reynolds Price’s work, potential, charm and friendship (at one point Millar calls him, rightly it seems to me, a prince). They send their own published and unpublished work back and forth freely, and their active exchange of work they admire by other writers, often in response to some cue or aside that indicates mutual interest in a subject, evokes shades of 84 Charing Cross Road.   

Welty and MacDonald published two major books each during the years of their correspondence, The Optimist’s Daughter and The Eye of the Story for Welty, and Sleeping Beauty and The Blue Hammer for MacDonald. Welty dedicated The Eye of the Story to Ken Millar. He dedicated Sleeping Beauty  to her. Each also published essays and reviews during those years, and made conference appearances and campus visits. That is to say, they were writers in full stride. MacDonald was simply nearer the finish line.

As early as 1975, there were hints of the trouble to come for Ken Millar. In a letter from September of that year, he seems to imagine he hasn’t previously asked whether Welty knows his friend Matthew J. Bruccoli, the distinguished Fitzgerald scholar. Two months later, he apologizes for a “scattershot letter” which “represents the condition of my mind.” The following year, he reports a “failure of the memory function,” and later that same month, he tells Welty, “I’m not really grieving, you know, nor have I any intention of not working.” He tries to rebound, taking the only advance of his career as if willing himself, unsuccessfully, to write one final book. The actual Alzheimer’s diagnosis doesn’t come until early 1980. His final letter to Welty dates from May of that year.

Eudora Welty continued to write letters to Ken Millar for another two years. He died in July of 1983. “Henry,” an unfinished, unpublished story of Welty’s about a man struggling with a failing memory, follows the letters. There are powerful glimpses among the fragments, and editor Suzanne Marrs does a skillful job of stitching together what’s available. It feels telling, though, that a writer of Welty’s powers was unable to transmute her experience with her dear friend’s hardships into a sustained narrative. “So painful was it to write,” Marrs tells us, “that it remained in a most fragmented state, almost an enactment of Alzheimer’s itself.”

Ken Millar and Eudora Welty cared deeply for one another. There’s some ambiguity as to precisely what that entailed, whether there was an impulse to something beyond friendship. Welty at times felt some mistrust from Millar’s wife Margaret, and Millar once told Reynolds Price he loved Welty not just as a friend but as a woman. But the particulars of their love – it was undeniably that – aren’t essential to appreciating their correspondence. “Meanwhile, there are letters,” Millar writes to Welty, just after their first meeting. At first blush, Millar’s phrase appears to offer consolation, but it turns out these letters provided sustenance for both writer and recipient.

– John McIntyre

It is as writers that our genius disappears

Ben Hecht racked up more than 100 screen credits as a writer in Hollywood, beginning in 1926. His resume included titles like Scarface (1932), His Girl Friday (1940) and Notorious (1946). Hecht is said to have received $1000 per day for his work on Scarface (to a tune of $9000 total). With reason, of course: he understood what worked for the visual medium at a time when so many other writers were still learning its language. He was script doctor on numerous other projects, thanks to his knack for spotting flaws and turning them to good. Hecht was also the author of ten novels, but it’s a passage from his memoir, A Child of the Century, which caught my eye:

Were I able to put down a fraction of the thinking I have done, I would, I am certain, emerge as one of the geniuses of my time.

For we are all geniuses – we who live. In fact, it would be almost impossible to live without being one.

It is as writers that our genius disappears, or at best shrinks to a few stuttering and remembered anecdotes.

There’s a largeheartedness here that reminds me of certain moments in Vonnegut. That’s a dim recollection admittedly; I haven’t read Vonnegut’s novels in a very long time. The truth of the last line in the passage, though, “It is as writers that our genius disappears,” feels true too frequently of late. Woe is me, etc. On the plus side, it might be time to look into Hecht the novelist. Here’s to silver linings.

— John McIntyre

My Grandmother’s Bookshelf

My grandfather was an armchair historian, 20th century America mostly – biographies of presidents, analysis of major events. The span of his life really. He was born in 1921 and lived several years beyond the turn of the 21st century. My grandmother wasn’t much of a reader, still isn’t. The daily paper, sure, and magazines, the sort concerned with homemaking. But tucked away low in a corner of the kitchen is a pair of shelves no more than waist high, lined with the handful of titles she prized. I say handful, but it must be thirty or forty. Their placement and arrangement are unassuming, but they’re well-loved volumes, cookbooks, their pages dog-eared, amendments to the recipes marked in pencil and occasionally ink. They aren’t collectible editions, nor are they concerned with rare or exotic cuisines. If anything they’re resolutely ordinary: titles by Amy Vanderbilt; Better Homes and Gardens; Southern Living. There are also a handful of curiosities, thin stacks of spiral bound pages, hardly more than pamphlets, filled with recipes by local people, the sort of thing churches and schools sell to raise money.

She cooked two or three meals a day for my grandfather for sixty years, some slapdash, some considered and inventive. What wonders she turned out, not just the large-scale showcases at holidays but her way with ordinary ingredients as well: purple-hulled peas from the garden, canned the season before and brought back to life on a cool evening, seasoned with a hambone or a dab of bacon grease, a thick wedge of cornbread on the side. Or wild blackberries, baked in a cobbler with just enough sugar to heighten their richness. Were there recipes for these dishes? She seemed never to consult one when cooking.

He was a difficult man, my grandfather, quick to anger and reluctant to admit he was wrong. He almost never cooked, apart from boiling a tin pot of coffee on the stovetop each morning, but he was usually ready with a critique when she served a meal. Simple moodiness may have been to blame, or the residue of some unresolved dispute. Or maybe he genuinely thought the flavor was off. He refused to admit his palate weakened with age, or that years of smoking might have dulled it. She must have found cooking for him a thankless job at times, given the imbalance between her effort and his appreciation, at least outwardly. Whatever she really felt, she laughed through the criticism and prepared the next meal, sometimes commenting that she’d followed his advice from a previous occasion. Of course he was charming when he wanted to be. I’m not doing him justice. I don’t doubt he praised her when they ate alone. He simply wasn’t an effusive man in company.

I often wondered how she stayed interested. What incentive did she have? Afternoons between lunch and dinner, she sat at the kitchen table with its plastic picnic cloth done up in checks and leafed through the books, slowly and gently, licking a fingertip now and then to turn a stubborn page. I didn’t realize what an act of love it was, of devotion, until after he was gone.

She’s begun to cook less after his death, and less carefully. There’s a knack to meals for one, and none of the reward she found in his company. Now it’s spaghetti sauce from a can, or boiled hot dogs. Bologna sandwiches with a side of coleslaw, bought pre-made in a tub from the grocery store. For years she made her own slaw, gave it an irresistible crunch and tang, a flavor my sister loved and could never quite duplicate.

I’ve moved away and see my grandmother less than before, less than I should. I can’t seem to find restaurants that cook the way she does, and she delights in asking how the food is “up there,” so I call and ask why her biscuits have that texture I can never seem to get right, or what to do to give blackberries the round flavor hers always have. Her advice is sometimes cryptic – add buttermilk to the biscuit dough until the texture is just right – and sometimes practical – let the berries sit in a little vinegar before to draw out their flavor before baking them. And she talks of my grandfather, what he liked, how he wanted her to prepare certain dishes. Her tone isn’t reverent – she knew his flaws better than anyone – but it’s undeniably fond after those many years. There’s the clear sense he’s missed.

Does she still turn to her bookshelf in idle moments? I’m sure she does, if not to hunt down an idea for dinner, then to find something of the man she cooked for, there in the margins.

– John McIntyre

All original content copyright John McIntyre, 2013.