MURFREESBORO, Tenn. —A cherished collection that was loaned to the James E. Walker Library for an exhibit is now a permanent part of its heritage.
Dr. J. Lee Owen, a retired pediatrician, and his wife, Sophia, have presented their priceless assemblage of Eudora Welty literature to the library’s Special Collections office for students to study for generations to come.
The collection was on display at the library from April 4 to May 4, 2017, in an exhibit titled “Eudora Welty: Her Life and Legacy.”
Welty, a Jackson, Mississippi native, won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1973 for her novel “The Optimist’s Daughter,” but was better known for her short stories. Her other honors include the O. Henry Prize, the National Book Award and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. She died in 2001.
“This is a major addition to our special collections,” said Philip Phillips, assistant dean of the University Honors College and a professor of English. “It includes all first-edition books, a lot of autographed first editions and magazine items.”
After Susan Lyons, the Honors College’s event coordinator, befriended the Owenses, she told Phillips about Dr. Owen’s remarkable compilation of Welty literature.
Phillips and his research student, doctoral candidate Megan Donaldson, fashioned a book with photos of the items in the Owen collection and explanatory text after taking a tour of Welty’s home led by the author’s niece.
For Owen, who came to know Welty personally, the journey through Welty’s rich prose began when he read the short story “Why I Lived at the P.O.” as a student at Vanderbilt University.
“Her writing style encompasses those things that I remember as a child growing up in the Mississippi Delta and being associated with those things that people do not recognize now as a beautiful part of life in Mississippi,” Owen said.
Decades later, Owen received a Welty book as a birthday present. With his initial fascination with Welty reignited, Owen found an autographed copy of her first collection of short stories, “A Curtain of Green,” at a library sale. Owen paid $2 for it. A friend assessed its value at $3,500.
Over the course of his life, Owen collected books, magazines, photographs taken by Welty herself and other memorabilia. He wondered what to do with his collection, but he wanted to keep it intact.
He said MTSU’s personnel made such an impression on him that he decided to give the collection to the university in perpetuity, a transaction that became official Aug. 2.
The curators in the Walker Library’s special collections area will maintain the Welty collection by storing it in a climate-controlled rate-book vault.
“Everything that comes into this collection we try to treat with a sort of temporal respect so it will last,” said Alan Boehm, head of the library’s special collections unit.
While there might be some digitization later, Boehm said scholars will want to experience the actual items themselves.
“You pretty much want to see the literary text in the context in which it was originally presented to the reader,” Boehm said. “I’m a firm believer that that’s valuable.”
Owen said Welty’s great lasting gift was the ability to tell the truth about the South, both good and bad.
“She was able to elucidate all these things in a very succinct, conversational way without embellishment,” Owen said.
For more information, contact the James E. Walker Library’s Special Collections unit at 615-904-8501 or firstname.lastname@example.org.