Escaping Shadows: The South as a Backdrop for Art

Photo by Glynn Wilson
David Rae Morris in front of the Southside Gallery in Oxford, Mississippi and the image of his father, the writer Willie Morris.

The aim of every artist is to arrest motion, which is life, by artificial means, and hold it fixed so that a hundred years later, when a stranger looks at it, it moves again… Since man is mortal, the only immortality possible for him is to leave something behind him that is immortal… This is the artist’s way of scribbling “Kilroy was here” on the wall of the final and irrevocable oblivion through which he must someday pass.
– William Faulkner, from Lion in the Garden, 1968.


Under the Microscope
by Glynn Wilson

OXFORD, Miss., July 28 – Like overcoming our fears in life, escaping shadows is something we all must face – or die trying.

Driving across the landscape of northwest Alabama out of the shadow of Birmingham’s dark past and into the light of a place in Mississippi known for its literary giants, who cast shadows of their own for others to escape, it is the shadow of the South itself I long to escape. It may sound funny, but the only way I know how to do that these days is to drive a Chevy van with a canoe on top from one part of the South to another in search of stories and pictures.

Photo by Dave Stueber
Writer Glynn Wilson at the grave of William Faulkner in St. Peter’s Cemetary in Oxford, Mississippi.

It is hard to get away when some fortune teller long ago said, and she turned out to be right so far: “You will always be tied to this region, in spite of all your efforts to escape.”

Elvis Presley escaped by picking up a guitar and singing his way into history, although like a lot of us, he never really left.

The writer Willie Morris escaped by going off to school in Oxford, England and by going to New York, as all great American writers have done in the past. Morris regretted never having met Elvis, even though they were about the same age and both from Mississippi.

For David Rae Morris, an artist and photographer with indelible ties to this place even though you get the feeling he would like to escape it, his ultimate search for escape has been in some ways like the journey of the children of Elvis Presley, the attempted escape from a famous personage, his father.

Although in David Rae’s case, the shadow of Willie Morris the writer and teacher is not so towering as the shadow of the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, who is known by so many people across the globe that the shotgun house of his birth in nearby Tupelo, Mississippi, along with the museum and chapel built there, stays busy year around.

So David Rae’s journey seems to have been as technically if not emotionally as easy as a lazy float down the Mississippi River into New Orleans. At least that’s where he found a city to call home that almost compared to the one he was born in, London, and the one he was raised in and would always judge other cities by, New York.

But it may very well be that the town where he is most accepted and welcome is Oxford, Mississippi, also known as the “Little Easy,” where the descendants of the people who knew William Faulkner knew Willie Morris better than anywhere else, including those in his home town of Yazoo, Mississippi.

Many of the photographs on display at the Southside Gallery on Oxford’s town circle, also known by locals as the “center of the universe,” show Willie Morris here, in black and white. Walking with his dog Pete, pointing a drunken finger at his son holding the camera, posing by Faulkner’s grave or gazing into the Southern horizon, the images show an extraordinary and contradictory man mostly past his prime.

Yet he seems content in his Southerness, more at home at the University of Mississippi teaching writing than he claims to have been in New York in the 1960s as the youngest editor in the history of Harper’s magazine in its heyday.

So what was it like to be the son of Willie Morris before he died in September, 1999? Who was this man who cast such a shadow over his son that it took him almost eight years after his death to address the world on the question in black and white?

“Which Willie Morris,” David Rae asks, looking around at the photographs. It is, to be sure, a broad and general question that begs for an abstraction, not a concrete answer, about a man with a multi-faceted personality.

The photographs are part of the exhibit “Willie and Katrina,” on display at the Southside Gallery in Oxford, Mississippi from July 9 to August 4. The second half of the show, which is overshadowed by the enduring images of Willie Morris, show the devastation in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, America’s worst ever natural disaster.

While Willie was alive, David Rae says he never really saw his father as major subject of his work. One of the most enduring images in the show, the one used on the invitation, shows Willie walking with his dog Pete in the cemetery where Faulkner is buried. It was taken while the young photographer was trying to figure out how to shoot abstract, art photographs of cemeteries.

“I didn’t think much of it at the time,” David Rae says. “But now it knocks my socks off.”

It must have taken awhile after his father’s death for David Rae to be able to deal with the idea that he was in possession of a series of interesting images of an important literary figure. Going back and finding the photographs and putting the show together must have been somewhat cathartic.

“I’m happy now I have the pictures,” he says.

Later, at the opening party after the gallery reception, I tried again to find out more about the father-son relationship, setting it up with the story of what I remember of my own father who died at the age of 47 when I was only 15.

Was he a strict Southern father like mine or more lassie faire?

“He would tell me what he thought,” he said. “But he would always be supportive of me, no matter what I did. He was supportive, but I was always trying to get out from under that shadow.”

Always curious about politics, I had to ask about Willie’s. I know David Rae’s from all the time spent talking about it over Friday lunches at the Rendon Inn in Mid-City New Orleans during the four years I spent there. And it’s not much different from his dad’s.

According to his self-portrait in the memoir New York Days, Willie Morris called himself a “Jefferson Democrat.”

“He would absolutely hate George Bush,” David Rae said. “He loved Bill Clinton.”

And I suspect he would have railed against Alberto Gonzales and the way he has run the Bush Justice Department.

Since Willie was known as practical joker and to be something of a party animal, a fun-loving drinker, I asked David Rae why he does not imbibe. He quit drinking a few years ago, he said, “Because it was the best thing for me.”

Maybe that was part of getting out from under that shadow, a shadow that may have contributed to causing his father to lose out on a longer stint at the Big Time in New York, although you won’t read that in any of the official biographies.

He left Harper’s because of an age-old story in the media business: New owners more interested in higher profits, not necessarily in funding the creation of art, literature – or great new journalism.

It may say something that he ended up in Oxford and died at the same age as Faulkner.

Townsfolk and university people sometimes repeat the town’s unofficial motto, “We may not win every game, but we ain’t never lost a party.”

The university’s most enduring cheer in football season goes:

Hotty Toddy gosh almighty,
who in the Hell are we?
Hey! Flim flam bim bam
Ole Miss by damn!”

Although in an anomaly of history, and one of the few knocks on the place I could find, is the fact that cold beer is not sold in Oxford. It is said the former mayor owned the ice company and no one has bothered to try to change the ordinance.

Oxford, in Lafayette County, lies in the rolling hills of North Mississippi about 80 miles south of Memphis, Tennessee. The primary employer and central to the area’s character and economy is the University of Mississippi, affectionately known as “Ole Miss.” The town and the county served as the inspiration for Nobel Prize winner William Faulkner’s fictional Jefferson and Yoknapatawpha county.

The small town is widely known for its Southern charm, Old South feel, party atmosphere, and of course its beautiful women, which even Hugh Hefner of Playboy called “the finest in the world,” according to the Wikipedia entry on the town. I can attest to the truth of that statement after just a few hours hanging out in Oxford and looking around, even in the middle of summer when most of the college coeds are away at the beach or back home at the pool.

The place is also considered a major literary center, and it is often said that everyone in town is “a lawyer, a writer or both.” Famous author John Grisham still owns a house here.

Willie was not a lawyer, but he was a rebel, and one of the most important writers to come out of Mississippi and spend considerable time in Oxford.

Photo by Glynn Wilson
William Faulkner’s house at Rowan Oak, the writer’s estate just blocks from the courthouse circle in Oxford, Mississippi.

I think, like a lot of writers, Willie Morris tried to live by something Faulkner said in his speech to the Nobel Prize committee. He said a writer “must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid: and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed – love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice.”

According to a woman in town named Milly who knew him, “Willie lived the way he wanted to live.”

If any of his friends had tried to say something to change that, according to David Rae, “They would have been banned from the inner circle” of folks who got to hang around with Willie.

Maybe that’s important for all of us to remember, to live like we want to live.

Elvis surely did it and died too young of a drug overdose. In New York Days, Willie describes Elvis as the biggest Southern rebel of them all.

“Elvis Presley was a revolutionary from Tupelo,” he writes. “In Elvis the incipient young white rebels found an early expression more subversive by far than Kerouac, Ginsberg … and all the beatniks.”

Writing for Southern Magazine in 1986, not long after returning to his native state from New York, Morris wrote: “There is much of the South … I wish I could escape forever.” Chief among them, he said, lay “…every manifestation of institutionalized, right-wing, fundamentalist religion, richer and more pervasive than it ever was. To escape the South, however – all of what it was and is – I would have to escape from myself.”

Maybe David Rae Morris will never fully escape the shadow of his father, because to do so, he would have to escape from himself.

Maybe I will never escape the South, because that would mean going somewhere I have no frame of reference. As flawed as it is, as backwards and at times downright infuriating, the South is a place with a history that serves as a backdrop for art.

Photo by Glynn Wilson
The house Elvis was born in is now the centerpiece of a museum and shrine to the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll in Tupelo, Mississippi.