A Dark Rose Blooms

Patient friendship finds fruition in a new book on Eudora Welty
FacultyBook

John Sykes Jr.

Sally Wolff 79G 83PHD has written a  sensitive work of literary criticism in A Dark Rose: Love in Eudora Welty’s Stories and Novels. But she has written something even richer besides. 

Welty is a beloved figure in American letters—often remembered as a silver-haired, sharp-eyed Southern storyteller—who was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, eight O. Henry prizes, and the Légion d’Honneur. Wolff points to Welty’s successful writing career despite the long shadow of Faulkner:

Faulkner was the prominent Mississippi author at the time she was writing, and he won the Nobel Prize during her career. It
was difficult at that time for a writer, especially a female Mississippian, to establish
a distinctive fictional voice, but she did so. That is no small feat.

Wolff—senior editor at the Emory Clinic and former assistant vice president in the Office of the President and associate dean
of Emory College—first read Welty when she was twenty-two and remembers, “What impressed me about her work is the subtlety and depth of perception in her fiction.” They met in 1982, the year Emory conferred an
honorary degree on Welty.

Courting Miss Welty

The timing was perfect: Wolff was completing a dissertation at Emory on Welty. Her adviser nudged the last star into alignment
by inviting Welty to his home. Wolff describes her nervous approach to Welty across a
living room:

After a decent interval I approached Miss Welty. . . . She spoke softly to me and invited me to sit beside her. . . . I said I had seen a televised interview in which she talked about unusual Southern names that she had heard. I asked her to say again a long name she had recited that night. She gave it to me in one  long rhyming burst: “Ta-li-tha-Ta-bi-tha-Ta-mil-ity-Jane-Ta-ka-ta-line-Ta-ca-ta-line-Ruby-Fisher-Valentine,” and then she added “the last name is Floyd.”

Welty offers another name, this one “Elder-Brother-Come-to-Tell-You-All-Your-Friends-Are-Dead-and-Gone.” Caught off guard, Wolff laughs but soon learns that this was a way of conveying news of deaths during the Civil War. In the blink of those sharp eyes, Welty had, says Wolff, “given me perfect samples of her two most famous fictional voices: light and comic . . . but also, by contrast, the haunting and the tragic.”

Finding Ms. Wolff

After earning a PhD, Wolff stays close to Welty through articles, book chapters, interviews, and lectures. However, she too is drawn to Faulkner, whose presence in her home state Welty once said “was like living near a big mountain.” Wolff reached the scholarly summit when, in 2010, she published an account of a sensational literary discovery: Ledgers of History: William Faulkner, an Almost Forgotten Friendship, and an Antebellum Plantation Diary

Why did Wolff return to Welty in this volume? As Michael Kreyling reveals in his review of Dark Rose for Project Muse, other critics have preceded Wolff where love in Welty is concerned. No matter. Quiet observation and the long view are Welty and Wolff’s old-fashioned, yet skillful, tools. Says Wolff, “The book was in the works for years. Time and reflection brought it to fruition. I waited to publish the full accounting of my friendship with her in this book, which is a tribute to Welty and her fiction.”

Liftoff 

So, let the secret be out: beyond what Dark Rose reveals of the stories and novels, an entrancing aura of the personal enriches this book. It is about generations of women whose lives are entwined, including Welty and Wolff’s mothers. This is a book about getting older. One sees that in “Preface: Reminiscences,” which seems to set the clock hands moving in both directions. 

Ultimately, what Wolff learned about Welty’s work fits neatly in chapters one through eleven. What Wolff learned from Welty spills out of the thirteen pages of the preface. 

Consider the first time Wolff and Welty go to a restaurant together. They pass a table of “eight ladies” with “identical coiffures, teased up high in perfectly round, blonde bubble shapes.” Welty points them out, but it is Wolff who describes them as “identical cosmonauts about to ascend into outer space.” How quickly student and teacher became indistinguishable. 

Raising canes

For Wolff, “In the dark rose image in the novel Losing Battles, I see the dualities of Welty’s personality and recognize her interweaving of these themes and images into highly autobiographical fiction.”

Yet it is the real roses that steal the show. Wolff visits Welty’s home in Jackson, Mississippi, where she discovers the flowers run riot in the garden. During Welty’s mother’s final years, pests had compromised the roses. In Welty’s dotage, her gardener no longer could wrangle the strong canes, which invaded a neighbor’s yard. During a sticky, mosquito-filled July day, Wolff sets things right, bending the canes back into Welty’s garden. Welty tells her: “You did exactly what my mother would have done—she would have just gone out there and done it!”

The episode concludes in this sparkling moment. “We stood in the dark, cool hallway of her house and talked. She was pensive and quiet. ‘My thanks to you go back many years.’ ”Susan Carini 04G 

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