Perhaps it was the language that drew me in, or the sense of being, like its heroine Laura, expatriate from a southern family. But I read Eudora Welty’s Delta Wedding on the porch of a southern town where I was working as a newspaper journalist a half decade ago and never forgot it. At the time I was at a loss to explain its enchantments: In the book, nothing happened, and then nothing happened some more. At long last something was lost, something else found. A few subtle acts of memory and mis-memory took place. In the last five pages, I felt saddened and as if something at once very small and wide had been resettled.
Scanning the Internet recently, I find I wasn’t alone in loving Welty’s first novel. In the years following her death (probably for years before), Delta Wedding has become an underground classic, with groups of impassioned readers suggesting it for reading clubs and praising it in online reviews. The book, set in 1923 and published in 1946, was begun when Welty?s editor suggested she try her short stories as a novel. What emerges doesn?t read like a novel, in the classic sense, but as a series of episodes and streams of consciousness blown into a passionate diorama, as if Virginia Woolf and Faulkner had written an American pastoral together. It’s text is in thrall to its moment, set in a “land that shimmered like the wing of a lighted dragonfly. It seemed strummed as though it were an instrument and someone had touched it?” I read half a chapter out loud to my fiance just to hear the sinews of Welty’s sentences stretch out. Before I read, he asked what had taken place thus far. I said, “The girl’s on a train and she’s eating a banana.” I read another long passage. By the time I was done, he laughed: “You ought to say, now she’s arrived at home and she sees a dog. Chapter 6.”
So let the plot-hungry be duly forewarned: Delta Wedding is famously not a novel of events. It is a study of belonging and not belonging to a place and in a family. It is a novel of luminous particulars, of intimacies with objects and people, and the place and time in which they move. It begins with Laura, nine years old and newly motherless, as she comes from Jackson to attend her 17-year-old cousin Dabney Fairchild’s wedding to Troy, the Fairchild family overseer. She watches from the train: “At one place a white foxy farm dog ran beside the Yellow Dog for a distance just under Laura’s window, barking sharply, and then they left him behind, or he turned back. And then, as if a hand reached along the green ridge and all of a sudden pulled down with a sweep, like scoop in the bin, the hill and every tree in the world and left cotton fields, the Delta began”
Laura arrives and is piled into a Studebaker with numerous, clangorous cousins, driven past the lot where her mother is buried, and brought into the heart of the Fairchilds’ plantation life. That life holds several generations of George and Denis Fairchildses and a family memory that stretches back into the dim time before the Civil War. Laura feels “what an arriver in a land feels — that slow hard pounding in the breast.” Many people feel like outsiders in the Fairchilds? world, even some of the Fairchildses themselves, but Laura is the first to announce this feeling. She spends the days that follow decoding her relatives’ actions, getting their jokes beats too late and wanting desperately to be part of them. The novel, meanwhile, wants to explore how they are all a part of each other: We’re in Laura’s head for about eight pages or so, until Aunt Ellen’s point of view takes up, then Dabney’s, then Aunt Primrose’s, until the members of the family Laura has come to visit are reflecting on and reflecting one another — like facets of a gem.
It takes some time to notice that the reflections are all in the minds of women preparing the house for the festivities. Meanwhile, men don’t speak much and have to be circumnavigated, fantasized about, expected for: Delta Wedding is, as much as any Jane Austen novel, a book about the life of women making domestic routines, and, as much as any Virginia Woolf novel, a study of reasons they make them. And like works by those authors, it is also a book where a great deal of what happens is in thinking about things that almost did. It is a novel of anticipations and reactions rather than events. One of its main conflicts is two people thinking differently in retrospect about a train accident that didn’t take place. Elsewhere, what danger there is lurks slightly outside the domestic. Welty allows moments of unease to ripple the family’s aristocracy: “The Fairchilds movements were quick and on the instant, and that made you wonder, are they free? Laura was certain that they were compelled — their favorite word. Flying against the bad things happening, they kissed you in rushes of tenderness.”
What forces do compel them, and what danger does lurk outside the digressive conversations that take place in the home’s many rocking chairs? Down at the bayou, there’s an enticing whirlpool that seems to store the dead. In the abandoned house that Dabney will inherit, the walls thrum with bees. In the cotton fields, field hands cut each other and need to be disciplined. Each morning cotton has drifted in the windows, covering the house with a strange layer of cobweb. Oddly, this outside — barely depicted, yet always present — generates the book’s subtle tension. In a novel whose strength is its observation, it’s hard not to notice: None of the characters “see” black people at all. Welty’s women can describe an old blue water cooler “like the eyes of a loved person,” or a Victrola “like a big morning-glory.” They heap adjectives of recognition to family portraits hung on the wall. The coconut cake seems replicable, as if after reading the book one might know now how many eggs to crack. But the faces of the Negroes around the family blend into an invisible mass. When they do become clear they seem wholly other. One is slightly mystic, one decidedly old, scary, witchlike, and mysterious. These are the real others in the book, people who are at once always nearby, and also always outside, wholly beyond beyondness.
Welty allows this outsideness to puncture the story’s delicate reality only once: There is one moment when Shelley, a Fairchild sister, is sent to get Troy, the overseer-groom, for his rehearsal. While she waits to escort him, he settles a dispute by shooting a black man’s finger off. The action picks up again, and this act of violence — on which their world rests — seems buried, of no more importance than passing on the family lamp. But Shelley has a sense of repulsion at being in the path of the blood, of having had to be the one that should have seen it. She has a sense of foreboding at having watched her future brother-in-law, an outsider, perform the role of Delta overseer. The idea of a world made in reflections grows monstrous: “Shelly could only think in her anger of the convincing performance Troy had given as an overseer born and bred. Suppose a real Deltan, a planter, were no more real than that. Suppose a real Deltan only imitated another Deltan. Suppose the behavior of all men were actually no more than this — imitation of other men?. It had previously occurred to her that Troy was trying to imitate her father.”
It’s this paradox, between things seeming real, established over centuries, and also perishable and dangerously contingent that makes the book haunting. While Laura wants to belong, Shelley feels most trapped in her world’s elaborate codes. She is the most uneasy of all the characters, or perhaps the character who, in retrospect, best bears the era’s uneasiness. When Delta Wedding was published in 1946, it captured a world that was timeless, and already vanishing. As a study of the way families can work, and about the contradictions involved in belonging, it is full of masterful subtlety. Its belongings — the enclosures it relies on to make a world — are fascinating, alternately joyful and troubling. Meanwhile its prose flows along, eddying and gathering speed, as if it were the Yazoo River itself, holding wavering reflections of abandoned houses on its surface.