In May 1940, when she received her first letter from Diarmuid Russell, Eudora Welty was thirty-one years old and the author of a dozen short stories that had appeared, usually without payment, in little magazines and campus quarterlies. Russell, then thirty-seven, was a former editor at Putnam’s, fired for protesting a contract that exploited a young author’s ignorance. His letter to Welty was one of the first he had written as a partner in Russell & Voikening, the literary agency he had founded that spring at the urging of Maxwell Perkins. “Dear Miss Welty,” he began, “I write to you to see if you might need the services of an agent. I suppose you know the parasitic way an agent works taking 10% of the author’s takings. He is rather a benevolent parasite because authors as a rule make more when they have an agent than they do without one.”

“Yes,” replied Welty, “be...


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