Museums & Historic Sites

A Literary Desk

On April 5, 2016, in Artifacts, Museums & Historic Sites, by Timothy
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Jarrett Zeman, MDAH Museum Division cataloger, brings us this post in an ongoing series about his work on the IMLS project to catalog, photograph, and create digital object records for MDAH’s Museum Division artifacts. 

At first glance, Eudora Welty’s bedroom looks just as you’d expect—a large mahogany bed against one wall, a dresser and bookshelves against another, and an electric typewriter atop a small side table.  However, in the east corner, another piece of furniture looks displaced in time: a large desk with the year “1804” hand carved inside a yellow oval.

Plantation Desk

The piece is a reproduction of a nineteenth-century plantation desk that once stood in this room. Welty purchased the original desk at a New Orleans antique market, and used it to store documents.  Plantation desks earned their name thanks to popularity among Southern plantation owners, though they also saw frequent use among attorneys, postmasters, and railroad clerks.

Plantation desks were designed in two sections: a lower piece, resembling a table with two pull-out drawers; and an upper piece, resembling a cabinet, with hinged double doors and a series of cubby holes.

Welty included the desk in a scene from The Optimist’s Daughter, an example of real life finding its way into her fiction.  Laurel Hand, the title character, enters her deceased father’s study and discovers an unusual desk:

It had been made of the cherry trees on the McKelva place a long time ago; on the lid, the numerals 1817 had been set into a not quite perfect oval of different wood, something smooth and yellow as a scrap of satin…

On its pediment stood a lead-mold eagle spreading its wings and clasping the globe; it was about the same breadth as her mother’s spread-out hand.  Laurel touched the doors where they met, and they swung open together.  Within, the cabinet looked like a little wall out of a country post office, which nobody had in years disturbed by calling for their mail.

Welty won the Pulitzer Prize for The Optimist’s Daughter in 1973.

 

Jarrett Zeman, MDAH Museum Division cataloger, brings us this post in an ongoing series about his work on the IMLS project to catalog, photograph, and create digital object records for MDAH’s Museum Division artifacts.

When museum workers catalogue objects, assessing damage is of vital importance: how has an object been scratched, dented, stained, and cracked over decades of use, and what can we do to ensure it will be preserved for future generations?  Damage often reveals important events in an object’s life, as in the case of the Complete Works of Charles Dickens, on view in the Boys’ Bedroom of the Eudora Welty House.

Dickens Books (1)

These soot- and mud-stained volumes, with burnt covers and cracked spines, first belonged to Welty’s mother, Chestina.  Chestina’s parents once begged her to get a haircut, as they feared that “long thick hair…would sap a child’s strength.”  Chestina refused until her father offered to purchase the Dickens set.  As Welty later wrote in One Writer’s Beginnings, Chestina “sank like a hedonist into novels…she read Dickens with a spirit like she would have eloped with him.”  Chestina grew so fond of the books that she read them underneath her bed by candlelight.

After her marriage to Christian Welty, the couple’s rental house on North Street in Jackson caught fire.  As Welty recounted, Chestina would not allow her prized possession to burn: “Mama broke loose from all hands and ran back, on crutches too, into the burning house to rescue her set of Dickens which she flung, all twenty-four volumes, from the window before she jumped out after them, all for Daddy to catch.”

Dickens Close-Up (1)

Thanks to Chestina’s determination and daring, Eudora Welty grew up inspired by works like Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickelby, a literary legacy passed from mother to daughter.  Welty wondered if she would ever have the courage to enter a burning house, and save her favorite childhood series, called Our Wonder World.  Uncertain of her own daring, Welty admitted that “the only comfort was to think that I could ask my mother to do it for me.”

What favorite books would you save from a fire?

Jarrett Zeman, MDAH Museum Division cataloger, brings us this post in an ongoing series about his work on the IMLS project to catalog, photograph, and create digital object records for MDAH’s Museum Division artifacts.

When Welty was ready to turn ideas to prose, she sat herself before the typewriter.  Welty preferred using a manual typewriter, like the ones she played with as a child in her father’s office.  However, as she aged, arthritis forced her to go electric.  Welty used this Smith-Corona Coronomatic 8000 to write The Optimist’s Daughter, though often begrudgingly. Its constant humming made her feel it was “waiting on you to do something.”  Welty never used a computer to compose her stories.

Welty used this electric typewriter to compose The Optimist’s Daughter, a Pulitzer Prize winner.

Welty used this electric typewriter to compose The Optimist’s Daughter, a Pulitzer Prize winner.

To edit a day’s work, Welty retreated downstairs and marked pages in blue pen, as seen here. She often used this gray metal copyholder, a common companion to typewriters, when she needed to retype her edited pages.  By lifting the top latch, Welty placed a page into the holder and replaced the latch, which held the paper in place and freed up her hands.

Welty used this metal copyholder to more easily edit drafts.

Welty used this metal copyholder to more easily edit drafts.

When it came time to edit whole chapters, Welty had a unique technique: she physically cut the pages of her manuscripts apart by paragraphs or sentences, rearranged them in a desired order, and pinned the pieces back together.  By using pins instead of staples, she could move the pieces around as much as she liked.  In the dining room, visitors can touch reproductions of these unusual pages.

Example of Welty’s unique editing technique, the “cut-and-pin.”

Example of Welty’s unique editing technique, the “cut-and-pin.”

These artifacts provide a glimpse into Welty’s writing process.  The craft of writing is a much larger and nuanced process, but without these tools of the trade, Leota would never sit in her beauty parlor; Daniel Ponder would never give away his fortune; Tom Harris would never buy dinner for hobos; nor would we know the other rich characters created by Eudora Welty.

Jarrett Zeman, MDAH Museum Division cataloger, brings us this post in an ongoing series about his work on the IMLS project to catalog, photograph, and create digital object records for MDAH’s Museum Division artifacts.

Every painter has their palette; every sculptor has their clay.  Eudora Welty had a typewriter, and a number of other tools to help her stories take shape.  How did Welty remember her ideas, create a space to develop them, and edit them down to the most effective expressions of her soul?  To find the answer, we must enter her bedroom at the Welty House.

Just off the second floor landing, the bedroom features a small wooden desk, set in a corner by white cotton curtains.  Welty wrote nearly all of her major works in this room, including the Pulitzer Prize winner The Optimist’s Daughter in the 1970s.  Working as history detectives, we can use the objects on this desk to piece together her writing process.

Welty understood that ideas strike us at inconvenient times: in the supermarket, on the freeway, or in countless other places where fleshing out an idea proves impossible.  She often scribbled down character, plot or setting notes on whatever she had handy—receipts, checkbooks, or small notebooks that fit in a purse.  Welty used the back of this checkbook to remember plot ideas, while she used this black datebook to record a series of names, some real (“Sondra and Wondra—twins”) and some fictional (“Booster” “Celida”, “Willette”).

Welty used checkbooks like this one to jot down story ideas when they came to her in public (reproduction).

Welty used checkbooks like this one to jot down story ideas when they came to her in public (reproduction).

With these ideas in mind, Welty needed the proper writing space to develop them.  Her desk sits before three large windows, where she could view the buildings of Belhaven University, framed between a pair of towering oak trees.  While Welty did not face the windows, she liked to sit sideways where she could see outside, “because I like to be aware of life going on…I couldn’t write with a blank wall in front of me.”  Pinehurst Street provided its fair share of sights, from cars to joggers to neighbors walking their dogs.  The quiet of suburban Belhaven allowed Welty to escape the hustle-and-bustle of city life, and focus on her craft.  In our next entry, we’ll explore how Welty turned words into prose.

View of Welty’s office.  The Belhaven neighborhood is visible behind the desk.

View of Welty’s office. The Belhaven neighborhood is visible behind the desk.

Jarrett Zeman, MDAH Museum Division cataloger, brings us this post in an ongoing series about his work on the IMLS project to catalog, photograph, and create digital object records for MDAH’s Museum Division artifacts.
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When visitors enter the sitting room of the Eudora Welty House, an unusual sight greets them— a single white feather, encased in a wooden frame, sitting on a small wooden table.  Set against a blue vinyl background, the feather appears to float, a curious sight and natural conversation starter.  Why would anyone have a framed white feather?

A devoted fan acquired this wild swan feather for Welty in Coole, Ireland, a small village in County Westmeath, in recognition of William Butler Yeats.  Yeats, one of Welty’s favorite poets, wrote a piece entitled “The Wild Swans at Coole” in 1917, where he described the sight of swans taking wing:

I have looked upon those brilliant creatures,   

And now my heart is sore.

All’s changed since I, hearing at twilight,   

The first time on this shore,

The bell-beat of their wings above my head,   

Trod with a lighter tread.

Welty discovered Yeats’s poetry while studying literature at the University of Wisconsin.  In One Writer’s Beginnings, Welty describes taking refuge in the library from Wisconsin’s seemingly endless snow, when she stumbled upon Yeats and soon devoured his work:

It seemed to me if I could stir, if I could move to take the next step, I could go out into the poem the way I could go out into that snow.  That it would be falling on my shoulders.  That it would pelt me on its way down — that I could move in it, live in it — that I could die in it, maybe.  So after that I had to learn it…and I told myself that I would.  At Wisconsin, I learned the word for the nature of what I had come upon in reading Yeats…that word is passion.

The swan feather is one of many objects that showcase Welty’s favorite writers.  Instead of displaying her own accolades or accomplishments, she chose to celebrate the authors who inspired her.