Mississippi’s artistic heritage is incredibly rich and deep. No state has had a more lasting impact on the nation’s music and literature than ours.
Mississippians were central to the birth and development of the blues, rock ‘n’ roll and country music. Several of our writers – William Faulkner, Richard Wright and Eudora Welty – were among the literary giants of the 20th century, not only in America but around the world. Tennessee Williams, a Columbus native, was one of the pre-eminent playwrights of the time. John Grisham continues to produce mega-selling legal thrillers after 20 years in the business.
Honoring this unique artistic legacy is important to Mississippi on several levels. First, it tells us a lot about who we are and the creative imagination of our people and culture, forged out of a complex and sometimes tortuous history. Second, it’s a source of pride and encouragement to aspiring artists in our midst. Third, it’s a way to present Mississippi to the world that defies some of the usual stereotypes and that, not incidentally, makes people more interested in visiting here.
Last week in Jackson, Mississippians and others from as far away as France and Austria gathered to celebrate the centennial of Eudora Welty’s birth in the state’s capital city. Welty was a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and short-story writer who died in 2001. As an Associated Press story in Sunday’s Journal noted, international acclaim never disconnected Welty from her quiet life as a friend and neighbor in the tree-shaded Jackson neighborhood where she lived most of her 92 years.
Her work is extraordinary in its literary quality and insight into human nature. She was a southern writer whose themes were universal – witness the international scholars who participated in the centennial events. Usually overshadowed by Faulkner on Mississippi’s literary stage, Welty nevertheless is recognized as a similar – and undeniably more accessible – literary genius.
Jackson and the rest of the state should continue to elevate the Welty profile, as Oxford and the University of Mississippi have done so well with Faulkner.
Mississippi’s lesser but still notable literary lights – names like Margaret Walker Alexander, Willie Morris, Shelby Foote, Richard Ford, Ellen Douglas, Larry Brown – add to the extraordinary parade of story-telling talent from this state.
With all of its past economic, social and political problems, Mississippi still has managed to nurture a creative spirit that is rare in its scope and achievement. The Eudora Welty centennial highlights that humane legacy and one of the state’s most influential and lasting voices. Her work will endure, without doubt, for another hundred years and beyond.