Eudora Welty’s Clear Eye & Attuned Ear

Reading Eudora Welty’s Delta Wedding currently. Less than 100 pages in so far. Slow in its plot development but precise in its attention to detail, especially concerning clothes, fashion, stitching, the kinds of fabric, etc. that women wore in the post-Civil War South. This is noteworthy not because these observations are irrelevant. Just the opposite: Welty’s eye is exceptional. She observes how people use their fashion to project, to subdue, to make certain statements about themselves, about how they view themselves, and about how they long to be viewed by others. Welty’s eye for the detail and her ear for the rhythm of southern speech are remarkable. When you hear her read her own stories, it’ll transport you. No kidding. A magnificent eye, ear, and sense of voice and beauty of the spoken tongue. (I have spent much of my life in towns not unlike Jackson, so I may be biased in this regard.) 

     Laura, the nine-year-old girl/protagonist,  is the character from whose vantage point we view the unfolding story. Like its title suggests, the story is so far consumed with the upcoming wedding at the plantation home of the MS family in the Delta. Welty’s precise eye for naming trees, flowers, insects, types of southern cuisine, etc. is unbeatable. When she writes of the smell of magnolias or the swoosh of an oak door opening into a foyer with collards and buttered corn on the table, it’s as visceral as Dickens’ portrayals of Christmas time in Victorian England in A Christmas Carol. 

     Aunts and uncles and cousins, etc. converge upon the plantation to plan. They exude southern expressions, colloquialisms, mannerisms, etc. This is where Welty shines. She demonstrates an expert ear for spoken language. And her writing reflects the cadences and rhythms and soft vowels and slow pace of the MS Delta and the South generally. 

     Here’s what I like about the novel so far. It is accurate in its portrayal of southern belles and those who long to become southern belles. It is precise in its portrayals of southern speech patterns. It reflects, again with precision, the general tendency of southern families to adopt an, “It’s always been this way, so play your part, and keep the tradition going” mindset; the gatherings around the big table in the main home; the way women (young and old) appear consumed with marriage and their future livelihood provided by their husbands; the way the conversations are almost exclusively laden with rumor, tradition, innuendo, prejudice, etc. and a tendency to always view “outsiders” as less than and themselves as the noble and upright exemplars of virtue and civic honor. Welty is not a showy writer.

She’s an observer of human behavior and she lets her stories show what consumes her. She reveals characters who, though they often play the parts assigned to them, often internally kick against the goads, and it is in that kicking that we readers see what actually connects us.

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