1946. 326 pages. Paperback. Harcourt Brace.
[Image shown is from a different edition.]
From: I purchased this book.
For the challenge: Flashback Reading Challenge
In a nutshell:
Delta Wedding portrays the lives of a Mississippi Delta planter family in 1923 as they prepare for the wedding between their second eldest daughter, Dabney, and their overseer.
The Fairchild family, with nine children, is already large, but is made larger and even more chaotic with the arrival of extended family and their range of personalities. The viewpoint shifts throughout the book between various female characters, but mostly rests with Ellen Fairchild, the mother of those nine children; Laura, a young cousin whose mother has recently died; and Shelley, the oldest, unmarried Fairchild daughter.
Delta Wedding is a story driven not by plot but by characters, dialogue and a deep sense of place. I can often be bored when authors trot out dry descriptions of a room’s features. In Welty’s hands, descriptions of rooms and houses drip with atmosphere and are suffused with the human personalities that inhabit them.
A spready fern stood in front of the grate in summertime, with a cricket in it now, that nobody could do anything about . . . At the other end of the room the Victrola stood like a big morning-glory and there, laid with somebody’s game, was the card table Great-Grandfather also made out of his walnut trees when he cut his way in to the Yazoo wilderness. p. 21
The characters in Delta Wedding are best appreciated as an ensemble. Sure, I have my favorites, such as impish nine-year-old India and Shelley, the oldest daughter who keeps a journal. Forthright Aunt Tempe reminds me so much of certain people I know. The family is almost a character of its own, analyzed by themselves and by outsiders as a single entity. The Fairchilds, whose cotton plantations sustain a small town named after them, are self-absorbed when they are all together at the family home of Shellmound. It’s as if the outside world doesn’t exist and it is just their family. Woe to those perceived as outsiders by the family.
The dialogue, especially between large groups of people talking over each other, is lively and often humorous, with India getting some of the best lines.
These are the aspects that I adore about Delta Wedding, and what made it quite accessible when I first read and loved it as a senior in high school.
However, Delta Wedding can also be a difficult book at times. There are many passages where characters go into deep contemplation about their family, namely their Uncle George. Uncle George is the hero of the family who also seems to buck expectations the most, particularly with his marriage to the ‘low-born’ Robbie Reid, who has just left him when the story starts. To be honest, especially in this re-read, I got tired of all the ruminations about Uncle George. These often impenetrable descriptions of his motivations and relationships were sometimes hard to follow or be invested in.
Still, the complexity of the narrative means that there are always new layers and aspects to consider in each re-read of the book.
For instance, this time around, I was particularly fascinated by the book’s depiction of the family’s black servants. The black characters are present in most of the scenes, an integral part of the ensemble in terms of conversation and events. However, as a writer named Tess Taylor aptly put in this essay, none of the white characters “see” black people. The characters contemplate the motivations of the other family members, but never, that I can recall, on the servants who are in such close and constant proximity. One character orders a young black girl out of a shelter into the hot sun, so that she herself can rest in the shelter. Shelley witnesses the overseer using violence on a black field hand to assert his authority, but thinks little of it later. Ellen is perturbed when a servant disagrees with her about roses.
Of course, these attitudes are consistent with the setting of the novel. Still, even the writing, not just the characters, seems to leave the interracial dynamics unexamined. It seems to beg for a passage or section that illuminates one or more of the servants’ perspective. As it was, I liked to read the comments made by the black servants to the family and speculate on my own about they really meant. For those who have read this book, I definitely would be interested in hearing your thoughts on this subject.
As mentioned earlier, I first read Delta Wedding in high school when I picked Eudora Welty for an AP English author project. As part of this project, I also read her books The Robber Bridegroom, The Optimist’s Daughter, Losing Battles and some of her short stories. Delta Wedding was by far my favorite. I’ve found that Delta Wedding is a very rewarding book to re-read, as there are so many layers to explore. I like how important revelations in the book are rarely telegraphed, but rather tucked in here and there for discovery and re-discovery. I’ll be returning to this book again.