Eudora Welty is one of the American South’s most distinguished writers. Born in 1909 in Jackson, Mississippi, she depicted life with humor and insight, possessing a keen eye for detail, particularly when it involved human interactions. Her prose incorporates Mississippi history, memory, folklore, and simple beauty–yet she never romanticized her subjects or the South. Toni Morrison, author of Song of Solomon, Sula, and Beloved (among others), said of Welty that she wrote “about black people in a way that few white men have ever been able to write. It’s not patronizing, not romanticizing — it’s the way they should be written about.”
Delta Wedding, Welty’s first novel, was published in 1946. Set in 1923, on the surface it portrays a family preparing for a wedding; however, underneath the novel explores much more, revealing personalities, motivations, and desires. According to the Eudora Welty Foundation website, “the book was originally criticized as a nostalgic portrait of the plantation South, but critical opinion has since counteracted such views, seeing in the novel, to use Albert Devlin’s words, the “probing for a humane order.””
The following excerpt is from the first chapter of the book, after nine year old Laura McRaven has arrived from Jackson, Mississippi. She is staying with her extended family, the Fairchilds, at their plantation on the delta as they prepare for the marriage of Laura’s cousin, Dabney. Dabney is the eldest of Ellen and Battle Fairchild’s many children. Laura, whose recently-deceased mother, Annie Laurie, married and left the plantation, raising Laura away from her extended family, is an only child and is in awe of–and somewhat overcome by–the energy and glamour of her Fairchild cousins. This passage takes place in the evening when the family–including two great-aunts–is gathered around the table, eating dinner.
Laura from her earliest memory had heard how they “never seemed to change at all.” That was the way her mother, who had been away from them down in Jackson where they would be hard to believe, could brag on them without seeming to. And yet Laura could see that they changed every moment. The outside did not change but the inside did; an iridescent life was busy within under each alikeness…Laura found herself with a picture in her mind of a great bowerlike cage full of tropical birds her father had shown her in a zoo in a city–the sparkle of motion was like a rainbow, while it was the very thing that broke your heart, for the birds that flew were caged all the time and could not fly out. 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. Maybe their delight was part of their beauty, its flicker as it went by, and their kissing of not only you but everybody in a room was a kind of spectacle, an outward thing. But when they looked at you with their lighted eyes, picked you out in a room for a glance, waiting for your to say something in admiration or “conceit,” to ask the smallest favor, of any of them you chose, and so to commit yourself forever–you could never question them again, you trusted them, that nothing more inward occupied them, for you adored them, and only wanted to be here with them, to be let run toward them. They are all as sweet as Ranny, she thought–all sweet right down to Ranny–Ranny being four and the youngest she could see at her end of the table, now angelically asleep in his chair with a little wishbone in his fist.