Just up the road from Louisiana in Jackson, Mississippi, Eudora Welty lived and worked as one of the world’s greatest writers.
Welty, who died in 2001 at age 92, was also an avid gardener, as I was reminded this month when a copy of her short story, “A Curtain of Green,” landed in my inbox. The Library of America, a nonprofit publisher of American classics, had emailed the story far and wide to spark fresh interest in Welty’s work. You can read the story online at storyoftheweek.loa.org/2016/04/a-curtain-of-green.html.
“A Curtain of Green” is the title story of Welty’s 1941 short story collection, the book that established her fame. There’s a Louisiana angle to the project that’s perhaps worth noting. In July of 1939, the young Welty had gone to Baton Rouge to meet Katherine Anne Porter, the famous novelist who was then with her fourth husband, Albert Erskine, a founding father of LSU’s influential literary journal, The Southern Review.
Welty and Porter quickly became friends, and Porter wrote the introduction to “A Curtain of Green,” announcing Welty as a major new talent. She was on her way.
For much of her life, Welty tended lots of flowers at her Jackson home, and her experience shapes “A Curtain of Green.” By the time I interviewed Welty at her house in 1994, she was old and ailing, much too frail to garden anymore. But she still liked to talk about plants — no doubt well aware, like most people who have taken up a trowel or a hoe, that the best gardening is usually done in one’s head, anyway.
The backyard garden where she once worked has been restored, open to those who now visit her house as a museum. But Welty’s biggest gardening legacy is in her stories, where flowers and plants are so vivid that they seem like characters themselves. She was also a gifted writer about weather, especially our scorching Southern summers. Here, Welty describes a hot afternoon that refuses to die easily: “One day, almost as late as five o’clock, the sun was still shining. It seemed almost to spin in a tiny groove in the polished sky, and down below, in the trees along the street and in the rows of flower gardens in the town, every leaf reflected the sun from a hardness like a mirror surface.”
This isn’t a nice little narrative about zinnias and roses but something more complicated. It’s the story of a woman who’s lost her husband in a freak accident and who now believes that if she can exhaustively weed and prune her garden, she can somehow control her life.
As “A Curtain of Green” unfolds, the widow discovers that gardens are as unpredictable as the humans who pretend to be in charge of them. That truth brings a chance for wisdom.
Welty knew, as all gardeners learn, that while we are growing gardens, they are, in turn, growing us.
Follow Danny Heitman on Twitter, @Danny_Heitman.