Eudora Welty’s “Delta Wedding”
So the story goes that Eudora Welty was so good at writing short stories that people naturally began to harass her about writing a novel. As Charles Poore pointed out in his 1946 New York Times review, “This is a venerable literary custom which, if transferred to painting, would harass good easel- artists with demands that they go in for wall-wide murals; if transferred to sports, would urge champion hundred-yard runners to concentrate on the mile or the marathon.” But Welty pulled it off because Delta Wedding is very successful as a novel, and really nothing at all like many of her short stories that I’ve read (one exception being “A Memory,” which has some of the deep interior monologue that you see in the novel.).
The occasion of the novel is the wedding of Dabney Fairchild to Troy Flavin, the overseer (a somewhat scandalous affair, one gathers, along with a few other marriages in the family that were considered “beneath them”). It opens with Laura McRaven, a cousin of the Fairchild clan, whose mother died earlier that year, coming in on the train for the wedding. I love the scenes that are told from Laura’s POV; she’s such a charming little wallflower. We read at the end of the opening paragraph: “Of these facts the one most persistent in Laura’s mind was the most intimate one: that her age was nine.”
The world that keeps coming to mind when I was reading Delta Wedding was ethereal. Some of her descriptions, especially of George, were rather abstract, and I found myself rereading many passages to understand what she was saying. For example:
George was the one person she knew in the world who did not have it in him to make of any act a facile thing or to make a travesty out of human beings–even, in spite of temptation at a time like this moment, of himself as one human being. (How the Fairchilds did talk on about their amazing shortcomings, with an irony that she could not follow at all, and never rested in perfecting caricatures, little soulless images of themselves and each other that could not be surprised or hurt or changed! That way Battle, when they were first married, had told her something like this.) Only George left the world she knew as pure–in spite of his fierce energies, even heresies–as he found it; still real, still bad, still fleeting and mysterious and hopelessly alluring to her.
My favorite parts by far were regarding the children. There was a small, busy army of them running throughout the pages, and they are all so distinct and true to life. They say and do the most outrageous things. All of the adults, too (and there are many of them), are clearly characterized. That, to me, is part of her genius in this novel. She keeps so many plates spinning at once. Poore says, “For the light comes obliquely in Miss Welty’s writing, but it comes from every direction, so that in the end everything has been illuminated and you know the Fairchild’s world inside and out.” Tom Conoboy suggests that it is the family unit as a whole that functions as the principle character of the novel, a premise I find interesting. The novel begins and ends with Laura, but it hardly seems to be her story. Or rather, it’s her story along with a lot of other stories all woven together. George is certainly a centerpiece, but he’s too much of a mirror upon which other family members project their own feelings. So I think Conoboy’s assertion is a good one. This is not a novel about an individual’s journey, and so the narrative arc is more like a seismogram. It is this quality which has likely put off some readers, but I think it’s what gives the novel it’s particular heft and resonance, because it’s very true to life. No one lives in a vacuum. We are all a part of a community, and Delta Wedding shows a particular community in beautiful, intense detail.