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 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.
MDAH received a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) in the fall of 2014 to catalog, photograph, and create digital object records for more than 11,000 artifacts, including books and other artifacts at the Eudora Welty House and Garden.Jarrett Zeman, MDAH Museum Division cataloger, brings us this post in an ongoing series about his work on this project.
My name is Jarrett Zeman, and I am the cataloger for the Museum Division of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History (MDAH). Thanks to a generous grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, I will be embarking on a three-year project to catalog the contents of the Eudora Welty House and Garden, one of the nation’s most intact literary house museums and a National Historic Landmark. For over 75 years, it was the home of Eudora Welty, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Optimist’s Daughter and one of the South’s most prolific short story writers.
What exactly is cataloging? Why are we taking on such an ambitious project? Cataloging involves several steps, categorizing artifacts, checking measurements, taking photographs, and writing detailed descriptions of an artifact’s appearance and function. These steps are not performed simply for the sake of recordkeeping; rather, they allow us to become history detectives. The detailed descriptions are a stepping stone to further research, as we investigate each artifact’s history and significance during Welty’s era. New discoveries help us better interpret artifacts and their owners.
We can learn much about a person by walking in their footsteps and by holding the same objects they’ve held. At the Welty House objects pull back the curtain on a life and tell volumes about Welty’s tastes, passions, and dreams, including her preference for Maker’s Mark whiskey, her love of European travel, and her undying passion for books.
Indeed, each room of her home is filled with books in every available cranny and nook: piled onto the couch cushions, spilling over tables, and arranged in uneven piles along the carpet. Welty’s guests had to move stacks of books off the couch cushions just to sit down. In total, the home contained 5,000 volumes at the time of her death.
A glance at her bookshelves illuminates Welty’s diverse literary tastes. She seemed to own books on every topic imaginable, from Victorian fairy tales to American poetry to a six-volume set on Thomas Jefferson. When I work in her sitting room, I like to imagine Welty reclining comfortably on the blue chaise-longue in the corner, set appropriately next to the bookshelf, where she entertained many visitors with the wry wit and astute observation for which she was known.
A short glass barrier sits between the public and me as I catalog objects in Welty’s guest bedroom. Visitors will frequently peer in, rather like a human observing a zoo animal.
“Are you a part of the tour?” a visitor will sometimes ask, tongue-in-cheek.
“Yes, but I’m not original to the house,” I’ll joke, referencing a phrase visitors often hear on historic house tours. This invites several questions: What exactly am I doing? What steps are involved? And why am I wearing thick cotton gloves in the middle of summer? (Our gloves protect objects from the harmful oils secreted by human hands).
Although my interactions with visitors are often casual, their opportunity to observe MDAH employees in action serves an important purpose, showing that the Eudora Welty House and Garden is a working museum, where new discoveries are made every day. It is not a shrine full of dusty glass cases in cobwebbed corners, or a home frozen in time with no new knowledge to impart.
As Eudora Welty wrote, “One place understood helps us understand all places better.” As we gain a greater appreciation of Welty through her artifacts, we not only learn about an intriguing literary legend; we also understand her era, the city of Jackson, and the spirit of the South, encapsulated in a humble home on Pinehurst Street.