Delta Wedding opens with a train called the Yellow Dog moving slowly through the Mississippi countryside, traveling from the city of Jackson through rolling green hills into the flat, wide cotton fields of the region called the Delta. On the train is young Laura McRaven, whose mother has just died, going to visit her cousins the Fairchilds, who are busy preparing for their daughter Dabney's wedding. The Fairchilds are many and wealthy, and their roots go back to the plantation days of the antebellum south--so tightly connected to the Delta are they that the nearest town to their land is actually called Fairchilds.
But Welty also depicts them as generous and kind, though self-possessed, a small universe unto themselves. She packs the narrative with numerous uncles, aunts, daughters, sons, cousins, as well as black servants and preachers and various hangers-on, most of them Fairchilds, passing from one point of view to another among nearly thirty distinctly drawn characters. It is difficult, we see, for outsiders, like Laura McRaven, or George Fairchild's wife Robbie, or Troy, the overseer, who is to marry Dabney, to enter into the hermetic Fairchild world. Like many real tightly-knit families, they share common understandings and a common language that Welty depicts as both beautiful and vital, but also isolating. Their frenetic banter is intoxicating, and bewildering, and extremely real--Welty does as good a job with "world-building" with this patrician Southern family as any science fiction author.
Laura is particularly enamored of her Uncle George, who is sensitive and taciturn:
Perhaps the heart always was made of different stuff and had a different life from the rest of the body. She saw Uncle George lying on his arm on a picnic, smiling to hear what someone was telling, with a butterfly going across his gaze, a way to make her imagine all at once that in that moment he erected an entire, complicated house for the butterfly inside his sleepy body. It was very strange, but she had felt it. She had then known something he knew all along, it seemed then--that when you felt, touched, heard, looked at things in the world, and found their fragrances, they themselves made a sort of house within you, which filled with life to hold them, filled with knowledge all by itself, and all else, the other ways to know, seemed calculation and tyranny.
I love the subtlety of this moment. It is easy to forget that Laura is only imagining her uncle's perspective in this moment, and that he, as he remains throughout the novel, is essentially a mystery--we never have access to his perspective in the way we do for Laura, or Dabney, or several of the other uncles and aunts. But the truth she intuits from watching her uncle is profound, and so enraptured is she by what she imagines he is seeing that she fails to recognize that she is enacting this very "way of knowing," that she has "made a sort of house" in her own heart for George to inhabit.
Welty is rapidly becoming one of my favorite authors. Her prose is astonishing, and manages to capture the small mysteries and miracles of domestic life like no other author I have ever read. The depth and complexity of feeling in Delta Wedding is nearly overwhelming; it's no wonder that with a later novel like The Optimist's Daughter, she chose to narrow the focus to something still profound but, in a way, more manageable. Delta Wedding was Welty's first novel, and while it seems to lack some of the humor that she developed in The Optimist's Daughter and The Ponder Heart, the strength of its voice is the work of a mature author. I'm going to Mississippi for the first time in a couple weeks, and I'm excited to bring another of her books with me.