Monday, May 12, 2014

Delta Wedding & The Ponder Heart, by Eudora Welty

Staff Review by Chris Saliba

Two classic novels by the great Southern writer Eudora Welty.

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt publish this lovely hardback edition of two classic works by American short story writer and novelist Eudora Welty. Born in Jackson, Mississippi, she would live there for the rest of her life. During the Depression, she worked as a publicity agent for the Roosevelt administration’s New Deal program. It was her experiences working around the state of Mississipi in this capacity – conducting interviews, collecting stories and taking photographs, that inspired her first stories.

Delta Wedding

Delta Wedding was Eudora Welty’s first full length novel, published in 1946. Set in 1923, the novel is centred around wedding preparations for a member of the Fairchild family. Dabney Fairchild is set to marry the farm overseer, Troy Flavin. Many tongues are wagging in the sprawling Fairchild family, which includes a large cast of cousins, aunts, uncles, as it is thought she is marrying beneath her.

Other dramas are unfolding as the wedding preparations get under way when it is revealed that Uncle George has separated from his wife Robbie. As Welty explicitly states in the text, it is the women in the Fairchild family that run the whole show, and so it is the gossipy nature of the matriarch-like aunts who shape much of the narrative.

The young observer of all of this rambling family mayhem is Laura McRaven. Her mother has recently died, and so she is emotionally at loose ends, but the Fairchild family seem to think it is preordained that they will adopt her.

In style, Delta Wedding is very much like Eudora Welty’s short story fiction. There is no real centre in the novel, and focus is constantly shifting like a kaleidoscope. The prose flits from character to character, perspective to perspective. The reader doesn’t follow a plot, but rather gets to float down a river of Welty’s dreamy, beautifully atmospheric prose. You get carried away.

The writing in Delta Wedding is more about providing lots of texture, imagery and mystery. It’s a novel that you experience. It’s not quite stream of consciousness in its style, but definitely has a hallucinatory quality. Another thing Welty provides that other such writers in this genre seem to miss out on: humour. Her ear for dialogue is so peerless and sense of comedy so attuned that Delta Wedding is often hilarious.

It’s hard not to think that Delta Wedding is superior to a lot of other Southern novels, such as works by Carson McCullers and Flannery O’Connor. The only mystery is why such a work of clear genius remains absent from so many bookshelves.

The Ponder Heart

Originally published in The New Yorker in 1953, with illustrations by Joe Krush, The Ponder Heart is a 100 page novella. The story is narrated by Edna Earl, and largely follows the romantic adventures (and misadventures) of her eccentric Uncle Daniel. The novella also includes a cast of characters from the fictional Clay County, Mississippi. 

More overtly comic than Delta Wedding, The Ponder Heart is different from much of Welty’s other fiction by virtue of the first person voice of Edna Earl and her perspective on the world. She happily chugs along describing all kinds of calamitous events and doesn’t appear phased by much at all.

The Ponder Heart is very much a light, frothy fiction, but like all else Eudora Welty puts her hand to, its execution is perfect. This is a brilliantly entertaining read and a great introduction to the works of this great 20th century writer.

Delta Wedding & The Ponder Heart, by Eudora Welty. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. ISBN: 9780547555645  $29.95

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