Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Eudora Welty

Welty: http://mdah.state.ms.us/welty/welty_map.html
Just after vacation, I read both The Robber Bridegroom and Delta Wedding by Eudora Welty. Welty is one of those authors lodged permanently in the canon of literature, and in particular, Southern literature, read by every school child (is that still the case?) and in every survey of American lit. Her wonderful short stories are classics. I'm sure I read "The Worn Path," "Why I Live at the P.O.," and "The Petrified Man," and probably more that I've forgotten. But I never had read any of her longer fiction. Coming back to her after so many years, I was completely charmed by both novels, really, by every word. There is a great warmth and humor, and such grace in the flow of her language, pulling the reader along as powerfully as the Mississippi current .

The Robber Bridegroom is told in the fantastical style of a Southern fairy tale, with a decided Grimm Brothers' darkness. There's a horrible little goblin-like being who talks to his brother's severed head in a box (and the head talks back), a wicked stepmother, a beautiful maiden (but not maid for long), an anti-hero bandit/kidnapper, and all sorts of bizarre characters existing at various points on the continuum of villainy. For the most part, everyone gets their just deserts, but the getting there is funny and quirky and quintessentially southern in its mythic qualities.

Delta Wedding  is a title that puts in a nutshell exactly what the novel is about at its most basic level. The novel is set in 1923 and opens with nine-year-old Laura McRaven traveling by the Yellow Dog train alone from Jackson to the Delta, along the Yazoo River, to attend the wedding of her cousin Dabney Fairchild. The sprawling Fairchild clan, at their ancestral plantation of Shellmound, are preparing for the wedding -- an event not universally approved, but grudgingly accepted by the family. Dabney is marrying the Fairchild overseer, a step down in they eyes of many, who revere their storied ancestors with no less zeal than the ancient Romans did their household gods. The prolific Fairchild patriarch Battle and his Virginia-born wife Ellen preside over the place and their eight children (and yet another on the way), two Civil-War widowed aunts, a mentally disabled child of Battle's sister, a household of black servants (in addition to those who work on the plantation), and an array of other Fairchilds and wedding guests who show up in the course of the story.

This gathering of generations around a particular time and event is Welty's opportunity to explore the complexities of families, foremost, but also of privilege, nostalgia, and how families can build their own mythical backgrounds. Welty makes use of the modernistic device of shifting viewpoints and voices to create a densely layered portrait of a family almost claustrophobic in their closeness and their shared history, but at the same time, she manages to get at that conundrum that even people so tightly bound together and intertwined can still be mysteries to one another. This is something I've pondered myself about my own family. They are at one and the same time, both completely known and unknowable, and the mystery only deepens when they leave home and return with outsiders who know them in completely different ways.

Here is only a short sample of her beautiful, descriptive prose. The scene is of young Dabney taking a last, solitary morning ride at Shellmound on the morning of her wedding.
Flocks of birds flew up from the fields, the little filly went delightedly through the wet paths, breasting and breaking the dewy nets of spider webs. Opening morning-glories were turned like eyes on her pretty feet. The occasional fences smelled sweet, their darkened wood swollen with night dew like sap, and following her progress the bayou rushed within, ticked and cried. The sky was softly blue all over, the last rim of sunrise cloud melting into it like the foam on fresh milk.

...How sweet life was, and how well she could hold it, pluck it, eat it, lay her cheek to it -- oh, no one else knew. The juice of life and the hot, delighting taste and the fragrance and warmth to the cheek, the mouth. (p208-209, Library of America, Complete Novels)

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