Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Eudora Welty at the Supreme Court

I was reminded of this recently as I was reading Eudora Welty's One Writer's Beginnings, the beautifully written autobiography of her formative years that brims with the writer's voice and personality.

I believe it was in 1989 that I visited the Supreme Court, spending a day watching oral arguments. I hadn't been to Washington, D.C. since I was a child. This time I spent a week breathing in American history and institutions. I visited both chambers of Congress and a bunch of Smithsonian museums, but the most moving experiences were a visit to the National Archives, a tour of the Library of Congress, and my day in court.

I had been fascinated by the Supreme Court for some time, especially from the perspective of its fragile role as protector of democracy. My interest had been further piqued during the Bork hearings, and I started reading books about the history of the court as well as biographies of individual justices and Woodward and Armstrong's The Brethren.

When the court hears oral arguments, there are two ways that John Q. Public can observe the proceedings. There is an express line, where visitors are shuttled in to a special section for ten-minute tastes. Those who want to stay for an entire session wait in a different line, and can remain for a full morning or afternoon session. One ought to line up about an hour in advance to guarantee a place, so I got there at 8 AM. The line itself was fascinating. Some, like me, had a general interest in the court. But others had particular interests in some of the cases being argued (two in each half-day session), and they illuminated the issues for the rest of us. It made the experience of watching the arguments much richer.

This was a time when giants like Blackmun, Brennan and Marshall still sat on the bench. Antonin Scalia was already on the court, and if I remember correctly Scalia was by far the most vocal and inquisitive of the justices that day, with Sandra Day O'Connor a close second.

During the morning's second case, I started looking around the gallery and noticed a face several rows behind me that was gnawingly familiar, but I couldn't put my finger on who it was. The face belonged to a little old lady. I kept looking back until I had an epiphany. It came in the form of a mental image of a TV screen with Eudora Welty sitting next to Dick Cavett, a scene I remembered from my own formative years as a writer. Yes, it was definitely Eudora Welty.

I love Eudora Welty's writing. Her sentences are musical, quirky and funny, and her writer's voice is unmistakable. Also unmistakable was her speaking voice, with its warm Southern drawl. In fact, when I was teaching creative writing I often used recordings of her reading her stories "Powerhouse" and "Petrified Man" to demonstrate the voice-page connection.

As we were leaving the court for the mid-day break I made sure I positioned myself to catch Welty. She was accompanied by a very tall, middle-aged woman, a striking counterpoint to this small, somewhat hunched eighty-year-old lady. As they made their way from their seats to the aisle I asked, "Excuse me, are you Eudora Welty?"

"Yes, Ah ay-um," she replied.

I told her how much I enjoyed her work, and that I had played those wonderful recordings of her reading her stories for my students. She was very gracious. She asked my name and wanted to know what kind of work I did and where I lived. We chatted briefly, and then I asked her what had brought her to the Supreme Court that day. Did she have an interest in a particular case?

"No," she replied, "I'm just here to watch our democracy in action."

Eudora Welty, in the flesh, was exactly as one might have expected.


Blogger Richard said...

I remember your telling me this story soon after it happened. I've told it to a few classes when we covered a Welty story. I'm glad it's documented on the web now.

I think, if I remember what you told me correctly, that this happened on Feb. 21, 1989.

12:36 AM  
Blogger Steph said...

I love Eudora Welty also.
What a great story!

7:46 AM  
Blogger Peter Cherches said...

Richard, if you remember the date you remember much better than I do. I did some research and you are indeed correct, as that's the date Missouri v. Jenkins was argued.


How did you remember the date?

9:41 AM  
Blogger Richard said...

May it please the blog: I remembered the case from your description, then read it a couple of years later when I was in law school. So I just checked on the date of the oral argument.

5:06 PM  
Blogger Richard said...

I was wrong. Now that Pete has informed me via email that the other case was about a Detroit newspaper merger, I think the date was October 30, 1989. Anyone may hear the oral arguments here:

Missouri v. Jenkins

Michigan Citizens for an Independent Press v. Thornburgh

5:55 PM  
Blogger Peter Cherches said...

That sounds more like it. It wasn't February weather. I'm confused about the two dates for Jenkins.

9:42 PM  

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