I was just finishing Kevin Avery's excellent biography of critic Paul Nelson when, appropriately enough, Meanwhile, There Are Letters, covering the ten-year plus correspondence between Eudora Welty and Ross Macdonald (Kenneth Millar), arrived through my letter-box. Appropriate, because Nelson was, like Welty, a long-time advocate of Macdonald's work, having met the writer at his home in Santa Barbara where he arrived in 1976 to conduct one of those interminable interview sessions, this one lasting a week, for which Nelson was so famous.
Appropriate also, because Nelson, writing in the early 1960s, was the first person I'd come across who dared to cite the likes of Chandler, Hammett and, later, Macdonald, as constituting an important strand of American cultural life, tied inextricably to other strands, whether (the Harry Smith Anthology, Woody Guthrie, string band music, jazz, etc.), film (John Ford, Godard, Sturges) or art (Robert Rauschenberg, Pollock).
I don't know if I was actually introduced to Macdonald's work through Welty's review of The Underground Man that ran in the New York Times back in 1971, a review that also brought Macdonald to the "legitimate" reading public, and also an event that more or less kick-starts Marrs and Nolan's excellent collection. I think I probably had read Macdonald before that review appeared, but Welty's piece probably turned what had been a guilty pleasure into what would eventually become a literary pursuit. As mentioned, I'd already been reading Hammett, Chandler and Himes, though perhaps it was simply a case of not being sure I was meant to be quite so obsessed with those writers and their work. I don't know if Welty's article legitimised that pursuit, but it certainly widened the parameters by which I could appreciate such writing.
The letters that comprise this volume are further evidence to the manner in which those strands of the culture that Nelson had been referring to all those years ago, have played out. Thanks to Tom Nolan's previous ground-breaking biography of Macdonald, I knew of the Millar-Welty correspondence, but, until this volume, had never fully appreciated the depth or scope of it. What begins has a simple exchange of fan letters quickly blossoms into something entirely different. These letters, which of course often crossed paths and took several days to reach their cross-continent destination, addressed a range of literary subjects- both shared a love for Ford Maddox Ford, Elizabeth Bowen and Fitzgerald- and themes, not to mention personal matters, including tragedies like the death of the Millars' daughter, and politics, whether the war in Vietnam, Welty's obsession with Watergate or her White House meeting with Nixon (she hated having to shake his hand).
To intensify matters, Millar and Welty met face-to-face on only a few rare occasions. Not only were they separated by geography- Macdonald in Santa Barbara, Welty in Jackson, Mississippi- but by genre- Welty a recognised "literary" writer, Millar a crime writer by default who, to paraphrase, sought to work in the depths of darkness, to work his way up to the light- and personal circumstances- Millar was married, uneasily yet committed, to Margaret, a well-known crime writer in her own right, while Welty was single.
A platonic but passionate love-affair at long distance, the correspondence last over a decade, halted only when Millar contracted Altzheimers- the symptoms he first encountered while trying to recall events during Nelson's marathon interview- and even then Welty continued to write in the hope of jogging her friend's memory. In all, it was extraordinary correspondence relationship, as innocent as it was intimate. While it might surprise some that Millar had such wide literary tastes, serious Macdonald readers will be familiar with not only his knockabout youth and subsequent obsession with fathers, but that he possessed a Ph.D. with a dissertation on Coleridge, humane politics, environmental concerns and a range of interests, much of which surfaced in his fiction. At the same time, Ross Macdonald readers might be surprised that Welty, as well as being a renown writer of stories and novels, was an excellent photographer, who had worked for the WPA, with at least two volumes of photos to her credit.
"In the deepest sense we could never be out of touch," writes Welty towards the end of Millar's life. While Millar was suffering, his wife, Margaret, was having health problems of her own. Aware of the depth of her husband's relationship with Welty, Margaret could often be cruel and cutting in her comments, not only to her husband but to Welty, saying at one point, "When Ken is away, of course I open your letters to him, but only to see if there's anything in them he needs to be informed about." Welty adds, " I don't know why she told me that, but- I don't think she'd have ever found anything in any of them to give her pause." The final Welty letters are heartbreaking. Likewise, her story, Henry, which appears as an Afterword, and alludes to Millar's condition and her feelings towards him. Any serious reader of Ross Macdonald or Eudora Welty can't fail to appreciate this volume, for which we not only have Macdonald and Welty to thank, but Suzanne Marrs and Tom Nolan who painstakingly put together this illuminating collection.
London-based journalist and author of Pulp Culture: Hardboiled Fiction and the Cold War; Neon Noir: Contemporary American Crime Fiction; and Heartbreak and Vine: The Fate of Hardboiled Writers in Hollywood.