Among the top ten novels I listen to on disc over and over, Eudora Welty’s Delta Wedding gives me the most sustained pleasure. I admire Welty’s long short stories and much shorter novel, “The Optimist’s Daughter,” which won the Pulitzer Prize. But for repeated pleasure, for sweep and quirky charm, for scene painting and character portraits, for deep immersion in a lost way of life, this American novel compares with Tolstoy.
The Yazoo Delta is north of the Gulf of Mexico, north of Faulkner country, Jackson, Mississippi, and east of Ole Man River. The Scotch descendants who people Shell Mound plantation, with its attendant others, The Grove, and Marmion, are a clan in the truest sense of the word. Nearly every reference in their huge and lively world is contained within their Fairchild clan. At its head are three brothers, two of whom–Denis and George–fought in the “War” (World War One). It is 1923.
The wedding of the title involves Dabney Fairchild, second oldest daughter of this intensely blond, straight-haired, wildly happy and free-spirited clan. Into this world comes an outsider cousin, Laura McRaven, whose mother has just died in Jackson. Her mother was one of the Fairchild sisters–including Tempie, Primrose, Jim Allen–sisters to the luminous brothers Denis who died, George who returned, and Battle who never left because (I assume) he is the head of this huge clan of wife and children, Negroes and cotton fields, overseer and village grocers.
The emotional center of the novel is a female trio: Ellen, the Virginia mother of the clan, Dabney the bride, and “little Laura McRaven,” who is 9. We enter the delta on the “Yellow Dog” train, riding “up” from Jackson with Laura. Right away, precise details draw us in: Mr. Doolittle, the conductor, comes through the car and snatches the tickets he’s stuck in people’s hat brims. Right away we’re tossed into a clan so numerous we ride high in a wonderfully springy blanket of names and antics. Children poke straws down “dooddle bug holes.” Roxy, the main servant, throws her apron over her head and rushes in, crying “Bird in de house, bird in de house.” Ellen gathers up Bluette, her 3 year old, and croons her a dream to put her down for a nap. The dream is of “Momma’s little pin she lost.” Ellen, so mild, so busy, dreams mistakes in the account books, the exact place where she’s lost this little garnet pin, a present from her husband Battle during their courting days.
To fuel the story, there have to be outsiders and outlaws in the simplest sense: beyond the law of the clan. Some are “teeched” like Cousin Maureen who adds an “l” to every word and has wild outbursts of destruction. Some are outside the Fairchild bounty and extravagance–such as Robie Reeves, once a clerk at Fairchild town grocery, now miraculously married to golden-boy George. (Welty’s scene of Robie swimming in her bra and panties, cavorting in golden spray with George, is one of the most beautifully handled evocations of sexual play I’ve ever read.) Then there’s Laura herself–though by birth part of the clan, yet the place where she’ll return, i.e. the Jackson of her small family, with only herself and her father, has a seriousness which hovers outside the glow of Shell Mound. Laura, I have to believe, is a stand-in for Welty herself, because she has some of the more intense, self-aware moments in the book, and grows up in Jackson.
The most important outsider, for the plot of the novel, is Troy Flavin, the young overseer who’s from the mountains. He’s to marry Dabney, and for quite a while, we wonder what she sees in him, except that he’s a lone figure on a tall horse, riding the cotton fields. Then, just before the wedding rehearsal, Troy deals with violence among the Negro workers, and we appreciate his nerve and strength. He also loves his little mammy who sends the wedding couple some of her beautiful quilts. How can a little woman “no higher than a grasshopper,” he wonders, have sewn those thousands of stitches to make “Snow on the Mountain,” and “Hearts and Gizzards.” If I’m not smiling through a lot of this book, I’m laughing outright. The love and charm in the writing are infectious.
The only thing that subdues my admiration is Welty’s treatment of the Negroes. Set in 1923 and written in 1946, the novel treats race relations gently–there’s one scene of violence, and many affectionate portraits of the house servants. Clearly they hold the esteem of the white clan. A few are outsiders, just like some of the whites. Pinchy is “coming through.” I have no idea what this means except that Pinchy wanders in the heat, staring blindly ahead of her, unable to work, or talk. Then there’s the old nurse Partheenie (I’m guessing on the spelling of these names since I’ve only heard the book, not read it on the page.) Partheenie brought up first-born Shelly, and now in her regal purple, taller than most others of either race, she carries a dignity that speaks to an ancient clan somewhere else across wide water.
Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, written in 1928, portrays house servants with greater depth and self-awareness. The final section of this novel, devoted to the Negro matriarch Dilsey, is one of the finest portraits ever written of one who superficially has no power, yet through unstinting effort, faith and love keeps her white and black family together. Faulkner grasped a truth about the South which Welty does not entertain which is that the culture rides on the backs of both races and each is noble and fallible and often self-destructive. But Welty is writing pastoral comedy; Faulkner, tragedy. I’ve recently listened to The Sound and the Fury, and though I marvel at the invention and four sustained voices of its structure, yet I find myself sometimes bored by each section’s narrow focus, except for the last, which is Dilsey’s. There is no such narrow intensity about Delta Wedding. Its ability to charm, to stretch our thoughts to the stars, remains undiminished.