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 my agent. Just as [your] letter was given to me, I finished a story, and holding one in each hand, it seemed inevitable.” What did not seem inevitable, and what indeed remains extraordinary, is the long association that was to follow. It was a shrewdly-run business venture, it was a candid critical dialogue, but it was also something more: a loyal, long-distance friendship that spanned thirty-three years —some thick, many thin—ending only with Russell’s death in 1973. That this alliance between artist and agent was the great treasure of both their working lives is evident from their correspondence, which Michael Kreyling, a professor of English at Vanderbilt University, has fashioned into an appealing book. The letters tell, always with a touch of humor, the story of both the difficult rise of a dedicated, unprolific, tough-to-market writer and the degeneration of the publishing profession into the contemporary “book biz.” “If Welty has survived against the odds of literary America,” writes Kreyling, “Russell deserves much of the credit.” It was he who first placed her in national magazines, who saw the novel in the story that became Delta Wedding, who squeezed every cent out of anthologists, adapters, and paperback re-printers in the fallow years between The Bride of the Innisfallen (1955) and Losing Battles (1970). “His terms were not uncertain,” remembers Welty; “you knew how well he liked something and how well he didn't. I just can’t tell you what it meant to me to have him there. His integrity, his understanding, his instincts—everything was something I trusted.”
In this age of publishing by conglomerate, in which the role of the editor is an ever diminishing thing, the writer’s closest ally has become his agent. Diarmuid Russell in his letters shows the best that an agent can be. One hopes that the model he provides in this book will draw to his profession a few young people whose taste for literature is matched by real business savvy. The survival of the serious writer in America—of today’s young Eudora Weltys—may well depend on them.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 9 Number 9, on page 80
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