By Glynn Wilson
Willie Morris holds a special place in the history of Southern writing and American writing. That goes for journalism, essays and literature. In this issue you will hear how he also played a crucial role as an editor in the careers of great writers like Norman Mailer, William Styron and Gay Talese.
Because The Southerner also lays claim to a special place in the history of publishing in the American South as the first online magazine to embrace the full gamut of Southern journalism and literature we felt a certain responsibility to produce this special issue in tribute to Willie Morris. It came as something of a shock to hear of his untimely death from heart failure at his home in Oxford, Miss. on August 2, since we had hoped to interview him, or perhaps even persuade him to write something for us. It was not to be.
His death was written about in all the great remaining newspapers on the American landscape, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Boston Globe, as well as many not-so-great newspapers across the South. Many of the best writers alive today had great things to say about Willie Morris, so we wanted as many of them as possible to tell their stories through us, verbally or in writing. Most were gracious enough to tell us what Willie Morris meant to them and to the literature of the American South. Only author David Halberstam, among those who knew Willie best, declined, pleading: "I'm just too behind on my own stuff."
In the pages that follow, you will read stories from Linton Weeks of the Washington Post, who was editor of Southern Magazine in the late 1980s; Winston Groom, of Forrest Gump fame; Fred Brown of the Knoxville News-Sentinel; and Curtis Wilkie, who just retired to Louisiana from the Boston Globe. His first e-mail message ever was the piece he sent to me on Willie Morris, which goes down as one of the joys of putting a project like this together. For as I was recently quoted in Knoxville's alternative weekly Metropulse, I think this technology is so liberating and so impressive that everybody ought to be getting involved with it.
You will also read stories from the likes of Larry L. King, one of the regulars at Willie's Harper's magazine in the late 1960s and early 1970s, as well as such Morris friends as Wayne Greenhaw, Jack Bales and Billy Field. One of the most special stories came from Will Norton, dean of the journalism school at the University of Nebraska. Norton, who headed the Ole Miss journalism department and helped get Morris a position as writer-in-residence there in 1980, tells how Morris was not only a great writer and editor, but also a great teacher who loved helping students.
The main themes that emerge about Willie Morris in these pages are that he was a great writer and editor, a great helper of other writers, and an infamous practical joker, who had his quirks. Another recurring theme is that in spite of the homogenization of American culture in the age of interstate and Internet highways and television, there is still a distinct American South. This emerges in contributions by Linton Weeks, Fred Brown and Jeanne McDonald; in the flavor of every piece; and in the words of Willie Morris himself.
We hope you will enjoy this compilation of stories about Willie Morris and the American South, and come back often to our magazine online. We are sure to have missed contacting some important people in the life and times of Willie Morris. For that we apologize. There's always the Reader Forum section for those who want to write us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For example, I tried to track down Marshall Frady in Sherman Oaks, Calif. as Halberstam suggested, to no avail. I wrote Norman Mailer a letter to Provincetown, Mass., no street address or PO box necessary as William Styron suggested, not expecting a response from the Dean of American writing who has a reputation for NOT granting interviews. At the last minute as we were working on the finishing touches of this issue, his assistant Judith McNally called and read me the following statement: "Willie Morris was the bravest magazine editor I ever worked with." That is the kind of label we at The Southerner strive for.
I would like to send a special thanks to JoAnne Prichard Morris, Willie's widow, for permission to run a piece from the defunct Southern Magazine.
I also asked Gay Talese and William Styron to tell me what Willie Morris meant to them, as a friend, a colleague and as an editor at important moments in their careers. The following links take you to what they said. Notice that there is a difference of opinion between the two on the contribution of Willie Morris.
Surely this will inspire comment for future issues of The Southerner. We're only an e-mail away.
Copyright © The Southerner 1999.