Socialites and other Mississippians were likely struck by a feature story that appeared in the Jackson Daily News in 1930. “Flowers Talk in Languages of All Races,” written by a young Jacksonite named Eudora Welty, presents a veritable bouquet of floral etiquette and more than a whiff of sarcasm.
“A Carolina rose means ‘Love Is Dangerous,”’ the writer advises, “while a Christmas rose means ‘Tranquilize Thy Anxiety’ and a Damask rose means ‘Brilliant Complexion.’ A single rose says ‘Simplicity.’
“And a Maiden Blush rose means ‘If you love me, you will find it out.”’
Ms. Welty had always been known for her sense of humor.
A new book, “Early Escapades,” is a compilation of articles, poems, vignettes and cartoons from the author who later became famous for such fiction as “Powerhouse,” “Why I Live at the P.O.” and “Delta Wedding.” It was released by the University Press of Mississippi and edited by Patti Carr Black, who befriended Welty in the 1950s and remained close until the author’s death, in 2001.
“An evening with her was like being at vaudeville. She was great at one-liners and quick responses. She had such clarity and wit you were always taken aback,” says Black, who has worked on several books about Mississippi history and literature.
New look at the early WeltyFor “Early Escapades,” Black gathered material that had never been assembled in book form, including family documents, college and high school writings and newspaper clippings. She says the book is meant to display the roots of what readers came to know well later on: “her comic energy, her creative mind and her sense of the ironic and absurd.”
A writer’s juvenilia can look as embarrassing as a yearbook picture, but youthful spark and irreverence sustain “Early Escapades.” Even the cover photo makes it on sheer nerve: A young Welty camps it up for the camera, a tattered hairpiece pulled around her head, a fat mustache affixed to her mouth.
Born in Jackson, Miss., in 1909, Welty profited early on from her writing gifts; she was 12 when she received $25 for winning the “Jackie Mackie Jingles Contest,” sponsored by the Mackie Pine Oil Company of Covington, La. At 14, she published verse in St. Nicholas, a children’s magazine that has also featured early work by Rachel Carson, Ring Lardner and other famous writers.
She was a compulsive reader and learner and was compulsively funny about it. Required to read Virgil’s “The Aeneid” in high school, she helped found the “The Girgil Club,” formed “by the senior girls who ate lunch at the 6th period.”
In a crossword puzzle assembled in high school, she includes such clues as “Where Greek aeroplanes go” (Answer: “Up”) and “What the Spartan boys would have liked to sleep on” (Answer: “Featherbed”). In a send-up of the fairy tale about Rapunzel, the long-haired maiden is rescued by the good knight, but “Alack! his spur did cut her head!/Alack alas! it killed her dead.”
Welty spent two years at Mississippi State College, and in “The Great Pinnington Solves the Mystery,” written as a freshman, she shows off enough knowledge about storytelling to get fresh with the rules.
“Miss Blue said all stories should start off with a bang,” she writes, “so ... this is the beginning ...
Her illustrations are equally distinctive. A sketch of Hitler leaves his face blank except for the famous toothbrush mustache. William Faulkner, her fellow Mississipian, looks wild-haired and black-eyed, as if he had just been electrocuted. Mae West is drawn in a swirl of hair, cleavage and false eyelashes.
Life in Jackson, Miss.After graduating from college, Welty wrote features for the Jackson Daily News, giving the most ordinary matters a friendly pinch. She had tried unsuccessfully to get a job at The New Yorker, even though she seemed more than capable of keeping up with the big city wits.
In “Vacations Lure Jacksonians,” published in 1930, she lays out a unique history: The first vacation, she states, “was undoubtedly when Adam and Eve thought it would be nice to get away from the grind awhile.” In caveman times, vacations were short and simple because only men could take them and “no man is going to drag a woman 40 miles.”
Bringing her story to the present, Welty suggests a law requiring all vacations begin at the same time.
“Think of the spectacle!” she writes. “Four abreast, fender to fender, bumper to bumper, the automobiles will parade along the nation’s highways, just like one big family.”
Meanwhile, Welty edited the newsletter of WJDX, a local radio station owned by her father. In one essay, she urges listeners to send only positive letters since “not enough people complain to carry any weight against the number of people who praise.”
Another clipping reveals that even a flood fails to ruin her good humor. In a newsletter published in early 1932, she notes the “tide of water” that recently washed over the station. Such a mishap would appear impossible given that the doors and windows had been shut and that the station was on the 11th floor. But nobody had anticipated “seepage” from the flagpole.
“The damage was not great, only a box of fox trots being thoroughly soaked, fading the blues and dampening the hot numbers, and the control mechanism and musical instruments being snatched from the waters in time,” Welty writes.
“But don’t think that if you live on the eleventh floor you can’t have a flood. Anything can happen in a radio station.”