The mail I get at home is a dreary bore — bills, circulars, the occasional catalog full of stuff I don’t need and would never buy. It’s more fun, I’m learning, to read other people’s mail, which is why, as summer glides into fall, I’ve been dipping into the newly published letters of Eudora Welty and Ross Macdonald.
About Welty, you already know. From her home in Jackson, Mississippi, she wrote wistful and often funny fiction about life in the South, along with a magical memoir, “One Writer’s Beginnings.” Her sidesplitting short story “Why I Live at the P.O.,” which I read in college, gave me my first real sense that a great writer doesn’t have to live in New York but could make a mark in a place that looked a lot like my own.
I was less familiar with Macdonald, the pen name of Ken Millar, who wrote detective novels praised for their high style. In 1970, Macdonald, who lived in California, learned that Welty liked his work, then sent her a fan letter about her books. They quickly became friends.
Having no email or text messaging, they poured their personalities into envelopes and sent them along with a stamp. It all sounds so old-fashioned in this new century of instant and incessant connection, but there’s nothing musty or dusty about these letters. They hum with the singularity of the moment, which each correspondent, an expert writer, captured as deftly as a butterfly in a net.
Here’s how Welty reports on the close of a winter weekend in Jackson: “It’s a quiet Sunday evening, a gentle rain has stopped, a camellia named Bernice Bodey has opened a flower, and a white-throated sparrow is singing, just now and then.”
New York Times reviewer Louis Bayard liked these letters, though he complained that Welty and Macdonald “spoke rather too much about birds and rather too little about politics.”
There’s some talk in these letters about Watergate, but what I like best about them is that they aren’t focused on the political. They hail from a country, now apparently gone, in which Americans could go for an hour — or even a whole day — without having a single partisan thought.
When I interviewed Welty in 1994, she mentioned a strange episode from 1988 in which someone had repeatedly removed a campaign bumper sticker from her car because they didn’t like the candidate she was supporting. She wasn’t so much grieved by the petty vandalism as puzzled by it — that someone could be consumed enough by zealotry to scrape a name from her bumper, again and again.
Welty, who died in 2001, believed in a world that was larger — and ultimately more interesting — than the latest political feud.
I’ve been visiting that world through these letters, and it’s been glorious.
Danny Heitman is on Twitter, @Danny_Heitman.