Eudora Welty, whose closely observed, very Southern fiction included the 1973 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Optimist’s Daughter and the much-read-in-schools short story “Why I Live at the P.O.,” barely ventured outside her own neighborhood in Jackson, Miss. Today, her home is a National Historic Landmark that’s open for tours. And if you ask anyone in and around Jackson, or indeed the entire state of Mississippi, their late great “Miz Eudora” is too.
A later novelist and short story writer, Richard Ford grew up in that same Jackson, for a time in that same neighborhood. Yet he has lived, written, taught and lectured almost everywhere since leaving for college at Michigan State – intentionally away from a Deep South that seems to breathe forth passionate stories and even more passionate storytellers.
Recently Ford delivered the third annual Eudora Welty Lecture at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington. For about an hour, the distances between his life and that of Welty, who died in 2001 at age 92, seemed to fade away. Ford found himself in excellent company, since the lecture series was sponsored by the Eudora Welty Foundation, with a faithful attendance from Mississippi filling the first four rows. His two predecessors were Salman Rushdie in 2016 and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in 2017.
“I can’t remember my father reading anything except maybe his expense reports, and maybe the sports section of the Commercial Appeal,” Ford told a packed theater at the Folger, remembering life with his traveling-salesman father and his mother who took him out for a steam-table lunch of fried pork chops, smothered greens and creamed corn at the “Jitney #14” grocery almost every day.
One day, he recalled, his mother pointed out a woman at the Jitney, whether for groceries or the same steam-table lunch. “That’s Eudora Welty,” she told young Richard, in a voice that signified both acceptance and respect. It was a voice the boy-becoming-a-man would never forget, a simple, unpretentious voice that told his innermost dreams “Yes.”
Ford was introduced to the Folger stage by Rea S. Hederman, whose family owned both the morning and afternoon daily newspapers in Jackson for many years. Hederman explained that he and Ford have been close friends since they were 4. On a professional note, after leaving the daily newspaper business (appropriately for any meditation of the Faulknerian South, he was fired by his family for bucking its notorious, seemingly eternal segregationist sentiments), Hederman has served for more than three decades as publisher of The New York Review of Books, the iconoclastic “arts and ideas” monthly based in Greenwich Village.
In a lecture about “origins and influences,” Ford spent most of his time talking about his parents and his early life in Jackson (he was, at some point, Eudora’s Welty paper boy), though mostly to explain how he became a largely non-Southern writer in his approach to memories, the past in general and the South’s much-touted “sense of place.” That’s why, he offered in the bemused tone that marked the entire lecture, he came to write his “moral inquiries” about virtually anywhere except Mississippi.
“Faulkner had in essence invented the place I lived,” he said, sharing an early literary epiphany. “It was Faulkner’s story. It was Eudora’s story. Not mine.”
Ford, who lived in New Orleans for years and now goes home to Maine, is best known for his series of novels spinning out from The Sportswriter with its failed-novelist sports reporter Frank Bascombe. The second installment, titled Independence Day, picked up a Pulitzer of its own in 1995, slightly over two decades after Welty was awarded hers. Later books in the Bascombe series include The Lay of the Land and, most cleverly, Let Me Be Frank with You.
Ford kept the Folger audience laughing with his tales of life with his parents, primarily with his mother since his father traveled selling for Faultless Starch Co. of Kansas City and died of a heart attack when the writer-to-be was still a teenager. His earliest years on North Congress Street near the state Capitol were filled with old, unmarried white women who “policed the sidewalk” from their porches, asking him incessantly who he was, who his mama and daddy were and where they all came from. It was, he said, the first time he ever had to devise a story, to wrestle with exactly what to put in or leave out. And with so many old unmarried women living in large old Victorian homes in the neighborhood, he got plenty of practice.
Such childhood experiences, he observed with a puckish grin, “rendered me not so much inevitably a writer as all but useless at anything else.”
Ford addressed many clichés about Southern literature, including the presumption (discussed with great seriousness in graduate writing programs all over the country) that Mississippi writers were born of the state’s rich and leisurely storytelling tradition. Sure, he said, Southern literature is filled with time to chat and/or gossip about an old maiden aunt’s long-ago love affair or a grandfather’ s prison time, alcoholism or hushed-up suicide. To hear such academics tell the tale, he said, all Southern writers come of age with a rich birthright of timeless material. Richard Ford – not so much.
The second most-common response to his questions about his parents’ earlier life in Arkansas or anything having to do with practically anything was, ”Oh, Richard, let’s not talk about that right now.” The single most common response, however, was “Honey, I just don’t know.” So much for a rich birthright of timeless material.
Surely the most compelling sections of Ford’s lecture concerned his own early struggles with words printed on a page. Today, his condition would quickly be called dyslexia, but Ford insisted it was merely “slippage” – the tendency of words to rearrange themselves within sentences or even to disappear entirely, changing the meaning of any sentence or indeed dooming it to have no meaning at all.
“This was not the kind of reading,” he joked, “that gets you into Harvard.” Perfect comic pause. “It is apparently the kind of reading that gets you into Michigan State.”
There was a happy result, however. Besides teaching him to read and eventually write through his condition (and overcome a childhood stutter as well), dyslexia forced Ford to read slowly and carefully, one word at a time, even sounding out the words in hopes they would stay where some writer had decided to put them. Even today, he reads every one of his books out loud to his wife Kristina before considering it finished.
And since she follows along with her own copy, Kristina is able to point out anytime he verbally replaces a phrase as written with a phrase from practically anywhere. Or nowhere. According to Ford, she invariably asks if he likes the original or the new phrase better.
“I don’t know,” he quoted himself as invariably responding. “What do you think?”