Mississippi is a paradoxical place. In no way is that more evident than in our history of high illiteracy and world-class writers.
We’ve always had a disproportionate share of people who can’t read or write, and yet we’ve produced a vastly disproportionate number of America’s great authors. One of the reasons Mississippi has so many literary giants is that our state’s history of struggles with race, poverty, and illiteracy have made it a particularly fertile field for writers exploring the human condition.
William Faulkner knew enough about human nature to write great literature in any setting. But his view of the world was shaped by his “little postage stamp of native soil.” Faulkner in a highly literate urban or suburban setting wouldn’t have been the same Faulkner.
Willie Morris was a product of his environment, too. A writer of non-fiction, the Yazoo City native’s marvelously crafted, memory-driven stories about Mississippi are among the most vivid descriptions of the life and culture of his home state, but, like Faulkner, with universal themes.
Morris, who died in 1999 at age 64, wandered off to make a name for himself in New York as editor of Harper’s magazine in the ‘60s, and his first book, the memoir “North Toward Home,” was a testament to the desire of many young, educated Mississippians of the time to break away from their state and their simultaneous inability to let go of Mississippi’s hold on them. Morris eventually came back to Mississippi to live in the early 1980s as writer-in-residence at Ole Miss and remained in the state until his death.
In his final years he lived in Jackson, where he was a neighbor and good friend of a former politician he unabashedly admired, William Winter. Both were/are dog lovers. That takes us to Tupelo in 2013.
The third annual “Tupelo Reads” program, in which the community is encouraged to share the experience of reading the same book with a series of events planned around it, is celebrating Morris’ venerable book, “My Dog Skip,” a story out of his Yazoo City childhood during World War II. The culmination of “Tupelo Reads” will be a keynote address by former Gov. Winter at the Lee County Library on Sept. 25.
Former Mayor Jack Reed Jr., whose wife Lisa Reed chairs the “Tupelo Reads” committee, said when he extended the invitation to the now 90-year-old Winter, the former governor said he doesn’t travel much to do speeches these days but that talking about Morris and “My Dog Skip” was one of the few invitations that could get him on the road.
Winter is the rare political figure who is also an amateur scholar, who loves the study of history and literature, especially as it relates to Mississippi. When he was governor in the early 1980s, he convened at the Governor’s Mansion a dinner honoring three Mississippi literary legends – Morris, Eudora Welty and Walker Percy. It included an after-dinner conversation among the three, guided by Winter.
Morris, by far the most gregarious and talkative of the three, noted that Welty – a world-renowned author who still lived in the Jackson neighborhood where she grew up – did not have the alienated, brooding personality of many writers. “You make us all look bad, Miss Eudora,” Morris said. “You’re so well-adjusted.”
Morris may have had maladjustments and, like a lot of writers, was a bit too fond of alcohol. But no one wrote more evocatively and insightfully about Mississippi. “My Dog Skip” provides a taste of that.
His old friend, William Winter, will add some spice, no doubt. And the effort to encourage literacy – to help close the gap between the proportion of Mississippi writers and readers – will continue, in ways large and small.
LLOYD GRAY is executive editor of the Daily Journal. Contact him at (662) 678-1579 or firstname.lastname@example.org.