By Fred Brown and Jeanne McDonald
Illustrated by Christopher Bookout
"My town is the place which shaped me into the creature I am now."
Willie Morris never really left the South. Forget for the moment that he became a big-league New York magazine editor, or that he mingled metaphors with galactic intellectuals of Oxford, England. Forget that he has befriended and promoted some of the nation's foremost thinkers and writers. Willie Morris, that good ol' boy from Mississippi who writes about his native state with tender prosody and vivid imagery, is the quintessential Southern writer. A dyed-in-the-delta Mississippi product, Morris confesses now that he felt like an exile during his New York years. And although he matured to middle age in the East, he eventually decided that a man had best be going back to where his strongest feelings lay.
Willie Morris grew up in the shadow of Faulkner, whose ghost still hovers over Dixie's literary landscape, the undisputed maven of Southern writing. He understands Faulkner's Mississippi, has lived among the prototypes of Faulkner's characters, has for the most of his life heard the languid language of Faulkner's literary voices. Though Morris' own writing is more direct and less symbolic, the same aura is there, the same elliptical eloquence that characterizes the best of Southern prose. He has come a long way from the upstart University of Texas freshman who, in an autobiographical essay assigned by his professor, wrote this sentence: "My dog Skip and I wandered the woods and swampland of our Mississippi home shooting rabbits and squirrels." In reply to which his professor penned the following comment: "Who was the better shot, you or the dog?"
Morris' New York Days (1993) elicited a stream of criticism (and praise), most of the criticism from people at Harper's who remembered the rapid rise and fall of the magazine differently than he did.
But Willie Morris has a phenomenal memory for details. Events from his childhood are etched on his mind as surely as the inscriptions on those tombstones in the Yazoo cemetery he roamed as a boy.
Willie Morris is both homefolks and kinfolks. When he writes about himself, he is writing about the South; and when he writes about the South, he is writing not only about himself, but also about the heart and soul of the region he reveres and understands so well.
Born Nov. 29, 1934, in Jackson, Miss., Morris is as much a part of his native land as the stories he has written. Remove the man, and the stories fall apart. Remove the stories, and the man disappears. Having grown up in the newly reconstructed South, Willie Morris has written better than most about just what that means and what responsibilities it brings. The South is not easy turf, intellectually or physically. Its landscape, littered with the ghosts of literary giants, demands a standard of excellence based on the past performance of old, dead masters. Perhaps this phenomenon is responsible for the term Southern writer, an expression that some authors still find derogatory. Morris believes that the South does not have a lock on good writers. It just happens to have had a "gracious plenty" who were awfully good at what they did. "I don't know what a Southern writer is," says Morris. "We are not better at our game than others, I wouldn't say that. We have drawn from different sources, I think, and still to this day do."
But the South, perhaps more so than any other region, is a microcosm of the nation, especially for Willie Morris. In their introduction to The Signet Classic Book of Southern Short Stories (1991), editors Dorothy Abbott and Susan Koppelman suggest that "human beings aren't emotionally 'large' enough to identify with geographical areas as vast as the United States. They need something small to attach themselves to, something that feels like 'home,' something more familiar, like neighborhood. And the biggest 'neighborhood' people can feel comfortable with is their region."
Morris has often used his own life as a stepping stone for writing about his Southern roots. In fact, in the Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook: 1980, critic Joan Bobbitt says that Morris' life and writing "are inseparable. Not only is most of Morris' writing about himself, but it is also about how his experience reflects a larger regional and national experience."
How can such an experience be explained? Small Southern towns, Morris believes, hold their people in a special way that is almost unexplainable. It is just a presence, a thing that is there. There is, in small Southern towns, a feeling that you won't find in other towns East, West or North and it may have everything to do with loyalties, tradition and hardship. Small towns are the corners of the South's collective soul. To understand the South, you must understand its monuments, its town squares, its courthouses, its women who never surrendered in the Civil War, its men who relish life with a kind of wandering, wanton exuberance that is manifested in the male camaraderie of deer hunting on winter weekends and football as religion.
"There was something in the very atmosphere of a small town in the Deep South," writes Morris in North Toward Home, "something spooked-up and romantic, which did extravagant things to the imagination of its bright and resourceful boys. It had something to do with long and heavy afternoons with nothing doing, with rich slow evenings when the crickets and the frogs scratched their legs and made delta music, with plain boredom, perhaps with an inherited tradition of contriving elaborate plots or one-shot practical jokes. I believe this hidden influence . . . had something to do with the Southern sense of fancy when one grew up in a place where more specific exercises in intellection like reading books were not accepted, one had to work his imagination out on something, and the less austere, the better. This quality would stay with one, in only slightly less exaggerated forms, even as a grown man.''
Morris' childhood seems to have been almost charmed. He grew up in a warm and nurturing environment in the kind of family where youngsters are allowed the time to be young and to investigate the manifold mysteries of life. His father Rae was a companionable man who threw softballs with Willie, took him to ball games, and initiated him into various masculine pursuits. Morris has an extraordinary memory for those childhood events. "My first memory," he recalls, "when I was younger than five, maybe two or three, was katydids, all over the place. I was born in Jackson, and we moved to Yazoo City when I was an infant. That was the Depression. My daddy got the money to build a house, right down the street from where Aunt Tish lived. It must have taken him some time to get the money to build the house. We lived with Aunt Tish because she had a couple of extra rooms. Little ol' house right there on Grand Avenue. She is still a legend in Yazoo City. She wasn't my aunt, but everyone called her Aunt Tish. Anyway, I remember a porch swing breaking, an awful crying, and an old lady picking me up.
"The night was still except for the katydids all around, going 'katy-did, katy-didn't, katy-did, katy-didn't,' and for some reason, this collection of rusty molecules and second-hand corpuscles chose that instant to take notice of the planet," he writes in North Toward Home.
Morris' life has been peopled by legends, some famous, some only homespun, but regardless of the credentials, color, or social standing of those he meets, he is a man who loves people. And he is proud of the people he grew up with. "I was interviewed by a reporter on the Washington Post not too long ago. He was doing a piece on Haley Barbour, the (new) chairman of the National Republican Party, who is from Yazoo City. Haley is a little younger than I, but he (the reporter) wanted some stories on Haley.
"I got to thinking. Within a two-block radius around Grand Avenue in Yazoo City, the following people grew up: Haley Barbour, now the National Chairman of the Republican Party; Mike Espy, up until lately U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, a black guy; myself; and have you ever heard of Zig Ziglar?
"Zig was older than I was. He was so poor, his family lived in a shack right next to the Illinois Central Railroad Tracks. That little ol' shack was so close to the railroad tracks, they said when that midnight freight train from Memphis and New Orleans came through town, they had to open the kitchen door to let it through."
Morris thrives on memories from his past some comic, some poignant. For the most part, though, his was a childhood filled with adventure, boyish shenanigans, stories and music. Just inside Morris' front door is the beautiful old baby grand that his mother, Marion, taught piano on. On late afternoons when the students were gone and the dark was falling, Morris would sit in his room and listen to his mother's playing. But Marion's attempt to bring her son to the keyboard failed. Morris laughs about it today: "My mother was probably the finest piano teacher in Mississippi. She was a graduate of Millsaps and the Chicago Conservatory and was the organist in the Methodist Church in Yazoo City for years. That is her Steinway baby grand in there, with a plaque on it I wrote when she died. I gave it to the Methodist Church and when JoAnne (his present wife) and I moved into this new house, I said, 'God, I'd sure love to get that Steinway back.' JoAnne got it back from the Methodist Church. So there are still Christians over there."
He laughs in a rat-a-tat fashion in his throat. No, he says, Willie still does not play. He stares at the big black piano as it gleams across the dining room in his home in Jackson and hesitates, almost as if he can hear that music, falling softly back across the years. Suddenly he smiles again. "Mama taught me, but she kicked me out when I was about 10. She said, 'Get out of here. Go play baseball.' I was rather relieved."
His mother was a perfectionist, he will tell you, and when a young student played a piece badly, she would see him through it patiently and then say, "Now, I'll play your piece all the way through like Mr. Mozart would want it played." The plaque on the side of the piano reads: "In memory of Marion Weaks Morris, 1904-1977. Organist of this church for 30 years. She taught hundreds of Yazoo's children on this piano."
In North Toward Home, he recalls, "On other days we would come and play until later afternoon, until the lightning bugs came out and the crickets started making their chirping noises. Or in broad daylight we would wander through the Negro graveyard nearby, a rundown, neglected area, fierce with weeds and insects, joined together by a rutted dirt road that ran interminably up another forlorn hill."
And then there was the noisy and crowded Dixie Theater with the latest silver screen exploits of Roy Rogers and Lash Larue. World War II was at its peak, and Morris followed events through newspapers and war movies, even keeping a dairy on crucial battles. Later, he was involved in a most human way in the nation's Korean War he played taps for the returned bodies of dead youths he had known in his childhood.
"One day in the summer, an official in the local American Legion telephoned me. He told me he had heard I could play the trumpet . . . . I got my old silver trumpet and shined it up, and practiced taps with the first valve down. The next day the Legion official and I waited at the open grave for the funeral procession to wind up the hill of the town cemetery, and after the guns had been fired I played that mournful tune, nervous as I could be and wobbling seriously on the high F. . . . The Legionnaires told me after that first funeral had broken up that it was far from being my last one . . . ." But lapses into good deeds and sentimentality were something awkward to explain to one's friends. The wild, mischievous side of Willie Morris was always battling with the intellectual side.
"Being a 'good ol boy' was the hardest priority of all. If you were intelligent and made straight A's, got along fine with the teachers and occasionally studied your books, it was necessary that all this be performed, among the boys you 'ran around' with, with a certain casualness that verged on a kind of cynicism. So you would banter about grades as if they were of no account, curse the teachers, and develop a pose of indifference to ambition in all its forms. And you would speak the grammar of dirt-farmers and Negroes, using aint's and reckless verb forms with such a natural instinct that the right ones would have sounded high-blown and phony, and pushing the country talk to such limits that making it as flamboyant as possible became an end in itself," he writes in North Toward Home.
But that intelligence was put to use in various crafty ways. The summer he was twelve, the local radio station started a baseball quiz program.
"A razor blade company offered free blades and the station chipped in a dollar, all of which went to the first listener to telephone with the right answer to the day's baseball question. If there was no winner, the next day's pot would go up a dollar. At the end of the month they had to close down the program because I was winning all the money. It got so easy, in fact, that I stopped phoning in the answers some afternoons so that the pot could build up and make my winnings more spectacular. I netted about $25 and a 10-year supply of double-edged, smooth-contact razor blades before they gave up. One day, when the jackpot was a mere two dollars, the announcer tried to confuse me. 'Babe Ruth,' he said, 'hit sixty home runs in 1927 to set the major-league record. What man had the next highest total?' I telephoned and said, 'George Herman Ruth. He hit fifty-nine in another season.' My adversary, who had developed an acute dislike of me, said that was not the correct answer. He said it should have been Babe Ruth. This incident angered me, and I won for the next four days, just for the hell of it," he writes in North Toward Home,
Peter Schrag says in The Reporter that Morris is able to speak so eloquently of his native Mississippi because he talks in the accent of the region and "knows whence he came, and why." Larry L. King reinforces Schrag's assessment: "I know of no living American writer who has given more thought to his roots and his place than Willie Morris."
For Morris, remembering the Old South is, in a sense, a charge. In Terrains of the Heart he calls the burden of memory "terrible." There is, he says, the "urge to dramatize yourself about yourself, which is the beginning of at least part of the urge to create." But those memories and those childhood experiences have formed the core of Morris' character. ". . . My town," he says, "is the place which shaped me into the creature I am now." Morris' first 17 years were secure but adventurous.
"I had moved easily among many kinds of people. I had seen something of cruelty and madness, and I had survived fundamentalist religion. My father had taught me the woods; from everyone I had had love. The town in which I had grown up had yet to be touched by the great television culture, or by the hardening emotions and the defensive hostilities unloosed by the Supreme Court in 1954. Something was left, if but an oblique recollection: a Southern driftlessness, a closeness to the earth, a sense of time standing still, a lingering isolation from America's relentless currents of change and homogeneity. Something else also remained, some innocent and exposed quality that made possible, in the heart of a young and vulnerable boy, an allegiance and a love for a small, inconsequential place. Only retrospect would tell me I was to take something of these things with me forever, through my maturing into my manhood. But then I could connect them, because I had yet to go beyond the most fundamental awareness of myself," he says in North Toward Home.
His departure for the University of Texas in Austin was a turning point in his life. For the first time he was on his own, away from the protection of his family and the familiarity of his childhood turf. But in those sometimes lonely and confusing years in Austin, Willie Morris came of age, finding both a vocation and his future wife. He came to writing, though, in a roundabout way. One evening, he was invited to the apartment of a young graduate student and his wife. Before that fateful visit, Willie Morris might have entertained the idea of being a sportswriter or a sports announcer.
"But when the wife of the student asked him about his future plans, his answer was a surprise even to himself. Morris, stimulated by the book-lined walls, and the intellectual conversation, replied, "I want to be a writer." He swears that is the first time he had really thought about it, and that very night he went to the library, vowing to himself to read every important book ever written. He suddenly realized, he says in North Toward Home, that books and literature were as "subversive as Socrates and expressions of man's soul."
Harper's, ironically bearing the namesake of Morris' mother's ancestors, became, under his guidance, a place where writers and journalists found an extraordinary home, a place where they could write freely about almost any subject. Morris understood that the fewer constraints he imposed upon a writer, the greater the finished product, and soon the prose in Harper's began to reflect the best intellectual thought of the nation.
After serving as the majordomo for some of America's finest literature for six years, Morris left the magazine in a kind of metaphorical transformation. His marriage of eleven years fell apart at about the same time he was fighting with the bean counters who had taken over the magazine, and with Morris sidelined, Harper's became just another voice in that jumbled roar of voices that erupted in the magazine publishing world in the decades between the 1960s and 1980s. The literary revolution had ended.
Morris, looking about, turned in 1980 toward home and Mississippi, the delta with all of its steaming mysteries and political skeletons, its rigid, gumbo-thick traditions. "If it is true that a writer's world is shaped by the experience of childhood and adolescence," he says in Terrains of the Heart, "then returning. . . gives him the primary pulses and shocks he cannot afford to lose."
Home offered solace, healing, a soothing and familiar grounding of place and time. Although Morris had already written copiously about his South, being home gave him the strength to rise again. "My neighbor, Truman Capote, always said most Southerners come home sooner or later, even if in a box. I was rather reluctant to wait that long. Also all my people are dead. I just felt it was time to be getting on back and I am glad I did."
"Getting on back," as he termed it, licking the wounds inflicted by his failed marriage of eleven years to Celia Ann Buchanan, "a beauty queen with a Phi Beta Kappa key," as well as the loss of his magazine, Morris realized that the return was both necessary and symbolic. The breakup of his marriage had stung Morris, deeply, especially since it came in the midst of one earth-shaking event after another: the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, the assassination of Bobby Kennedy, the election of Richard Milhous Nixon as president. To Morris it seemed as if the sky were falling.
As editor of Harper's, he had tried to effect "one of the most detailed and insightful looks at the national political processes ever." He hired Norman Mailer to cover the Chicago convention and put Jules Feiffer to work sketching the pols. David Halberstam was chosen to handle those tough short strokes so necessary to any successful magazine.
"It was the Democrats' siege in Chicago which marshaled the Mailer skill," Morris writes in his New York Days. "Everything that had been seething in the nation in that decade, the recklessness and commitment, the vengefulness and anarchy, converged in that battleground."
That battleground also cost him his marriage, which, he writes, had lasted "across many terrains, American and otherwise, in good times and bad, and the denouement was terrible, and more than one would ever have bargained for, and the trauma of the ultimate break lasted longer than its duration. The anger, bafflement, jealousy and sting threatened never to go away, and their scar tissue is probably on my heart forever. ". . . there remains the incontrovertible burden of lost and damaged love. Finally, I have learned how difficult love is, how hard to achieve and sustain, no matter who the person or how felicitous the circumstance. How could I have known then of the psychic hold she (Celia) would have on me for the rest of my life? It was like the psychic hold of the city itself in all its loves and hates and passions and dramas. Across the years, I would think of Celia, and remember her."
Back home he became a writer-in-residence at the venerable University of Mississippi, an institution that reflects both the best of traditions and the worst of prejudices, a place where old customs and beliefs have died hard on hard ground. "Mississippi," he says in Terrains, is a blend of the "relentless and the abiding." Despite the economic growth, the pollution of his boyhood lakes and streams, and the physical encroachment of malls and shopping centers, there still remain remnants of the world of his childhood: "Old men in khakis whittling in the shade of a crossroads grocery, a domino game on the back stoop of a service station . . . ."
But he was coming home to a far different Southland than the one he left as a brilliant student heading across the Atlantic to study in the land of Shakespeare. He was coming home to a Mississippi that had struggled through the death throes of Civil Rights, had been the scene of the hot summer killings of the freedom riders and the cowardly murders of black activists. Mississippi was no Alabama, Jackson was no Selma, but both states shared in the shame and blame of the long march forced upon black people in America.
When Byron De La Beckwith, the white supremacist who had shot Medgar Evers 31 years before, was retried in 1994 and ultimately convicted, Morris found some compelling words to express his feelings about his home and the South: "Beckwith's conviction by a Mississippi jury and his sentencing to life in prison could open up a new era in which unresolved racial murders of a generation ago might come to justice.
Attending the retrial of Beckwith in the Hinds County Courthouse where hung juries had set a killer free three decades earlier, Morris was moved by the irony, the plain sense of justice. "It was one of the most dramatic events I have ever seen as a writer, fraught for me with passion and consequence. I not so much witnessed it as felt it, for it evoked for me my own past as a seventh-generation Mississippian with old serpentine emotion, strange and painful memory, the dark shadows of my past, and my people's."
Beckwith's retrial has made Morris re-examine the turmoil of the South in the '60s, most of which had surfaced while he was in New York. He had returned to a changed state, a changed South, a changed nation, which had witnessed the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King. Mississippians also had to come to grips with the reality that its own people had killed student volunteers James Chaney, Mickey Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, who had come to Mississippi to help register blacks to vote. But ignorance and fear had displaced justice in the deep South during those years, when ignorant men had slipped off into dark places to try to slow time and preserve old inequities.
"Back in the 1960s when I would go back to New York, down here everything was so horrifically tense, troubled." Having had the advantage of viewing the wreckage from a distance, Morris brought home with him a keen eye and perception. Not only was he a Southerner with a soul, but he was also a native son with new-found vision for a land he loved. Observing the struggle from a more objective stance, he witnessed the shifting of power as black men and women began to work from within the system by getting themselves elected to public offices in great numbers in Mississippi. Having been reared in the "old" Mississippi, he had gone through school with the "same white boys and girls," and in his guarded and insulated life, even in the middle of Mississippi, he had felt isolated and separated from the national impetus.
At the University of Mississippi, a school that still touts the old Southern Colonel as its mascot and still flies the flag of Dixie at its football games, a place that had seen one-armed Governor Ross Barnett standing in the institution's door to prevent a black man from entering, Morris soon rediscovered and reinvented himself. He arm-wrestled those old ghosts and inspired his students with the zeal to go out and write what they saw and felt. "The literary tradition of Mississippi," he writes in Terrains, "derives from the complexity of a society that had retained much of its communal origins, and along with that a sense of continuity, of the enduring past and the flow of the generations an awareness . . . of human history."
When he wrote, he wrote of his return in just about every story he penned, as if he were searching for his own misplaced soul and the soul of his beloved land. It was as if Willie Morris were sifting through the debris not only of his life, but of Mississippi and the South. He analyzed the material from both sides, examined wrongs both black and white, wrote of the evil men do and the good that often stems from sad acts and destruction.
Morris' days are busy and fulfilling. He seems too concerned with ideas to worry about a pile of unopened mail that lies scattered in the front hall beneath the mail slot. Books are piled casually on tables and shelves , but his huge writing desk is almost bare all business, ready for work.
He dines regularly with Eudora Welty, who, Morris says, "embodies what I feel about the South." Journalists seek him out for his views, other writers ask for his support and his words on the backs of their book jackets, young writers come to him for advice. And there must also be time for his love for sports and his need to be a part of the black community because of the mystery it continues to hold over him. "Southerners of both races," he says in Terrains, "share a rootedness that even in moments of anger and pain we have been unable to repudiate or ignore." It is that sense of rootedness that still drives his work today.
"I was seized early by Thomas Wolfe," he says, "and today it is as if I am living my life right out of the pages of his novels." In the South the factors that create literature are sometimes different from the writing that evolves in other regions. Morris lists them like a litany: stories handed down, the language of music, love of a place (histories, family), perceptions of a common past, and memory.
Willie Morris has always respected his elders, has honored their experience and their roles in the history of his life. In fact, he says, the whole relationship between the old and young in the South was the largest single influence that shaped him.
"I was an American writer first, who happens to be a Southerner, who happens to have been born and raised in the South, the Deep South. A lot of my stuff reflects that, although I branch out a lot. I grew up in a small, deep Southern town before the advent of television. It was also before air conditioning. When you sit down on the front porch on hot summer nights and talk to the old people, you absorb their stories and their language.
"You were sitting out on the porch and they would tell you these stories, wonderfully vivid idiom. What they were really doing were giving us a way to see. The stories from the past especially from my grandmother, made me feel that the past and the present are so intimately woven together. I have always been taken with that Faulkner phrase: 'The past is never dead. It's not even past.' He put that in his frontis matter to Requiem for a Nun. His memories are recorded in North Toward Home:
"I remember the cold, quiet nights and the stifling hot summers, starched summer suits and the smell of talcum, sweet smelling black people in white dresses who could be adoring and gentle and then impatient and demanding. In growing up in a place like Yazoo City then, the town was right there before you. It was a town of about eight or nine thousand people, half black and half white. Everything was so accessible. It was like a story unfolding every day. You knew everyone and the gossip was florid. It was just all there for you. This was invaluable for a young person who would eventually become a writer. That really shaped me, I suppose.
"We were close to growing plants, to the earth, and to nature's wilder moods. In the Mississippi delta there was nothing gentle about nature it came at you violently, or in a rush, by turns disordered and oppressively somnolent. In the spring, when the muddy waters overflowed the Yazoo into the town, and the nigger shacks on stilts in the bottoms were sometimes covered over, we would see the open trucks with the Negro convicts crowded up in the back, their black-and-white stripes somber under the ominous gray sky. Or a tornado would twist down and do strange tricks to the things it hit, carrying someone fifty yards and leaving him barely hurt, or driving straws into car tires like needles, or sending our garage across the alley into a field of weeds. One afternoon a tornado hit while we were watching a movie in the Dixie Theater; we heard the hailstones on the roof, hitting in steady torrents."
Of course, there were more influences on his life than the lay of the land. His father, mother, grandparents and teachers wielded a powerful influence on his character and ambition. His grandmother Mamie and grandfather Percy figured hugely in their grandson's development, connecting him with his cultural past in a way few children experience today. During the summer months Morris would often visit his grandparents in their brick home in Jackson, 42 miles away from Yazoo.
His grandmother, the youngest in her family of 16 brothers and sisters, was born in 1878, two years after federal troops left Mississippi. She was a prodigious storyteller. "My grandmother was the repository of all the stories that were handed down. Looking back on it, that whole relationship between the older people and the younger people, the stories on the porch, must have done something. It struck a cord. It also introduced me to the possibilities of words, of the language itself, which was indispensable."
Grandfather Percy was as much a friend as a grandfather. Morris fondly recalls going with him to the potato chip factory where the old man worked, cutting potatoes into thin slices and placing them in "prodigious black ovens." The two ate chips all day and drank water all night at home.
"He would do anything I wanted, from climbing the fig trees to marching down the street beating a dime-store drum," he writes. As a boy, Morris was absolutely convinced that his grandfather would never die.
But there was also man's best friend. Dogs have always meant a great deal to Willie Morris, and throughout his life he has owned many favorites Tony, Sam, Jimbo, Sonny and Duke. In fact, he will tell you that in his boyhood he never went more than six months without the friendship of a dog. But it was after the death of one of his great-aunts that for solace Morris got another dog, a most unusual dog. Skip was a purebred English smooth-haired fox terrier. "We got him from a kennel up in Springfield, Missouri. I was an only child, but he was an only dog. He was not my first dog we had bird dogs when I was real little he was the third, and I got him in the fourth grade. He was really important to me. He was so smart, he could drive a car. He lived a good long time."
During his teaching days at Ole Miss in the early '80s, Morris' best friend was Pete, a black Labrador retriever. Even though Pete was a Yankee dog Morris had brought him back to Mississippi from Long Island he called him "the last, best hope of the South."
Pete and his owner enjoyed a special, almost filial, bond. Morris' shambling old faculty home on a tree-studded street on the campus was a gathering place for students, journalists, the affable and lovable Oxford mayor John Leslie, and assorted other wanderers of the night. One frequent visitor was Donna Tartt, a young Southern writer who Morris believes is one of the region's most brilliant lights.
Pete, the official greeter, inspected all the guests at the door. Upon approval, or after a quick crotch sniff, the venerable old retriever would let the visitor in to see Morris, who could usually be found at a long, black table strewn with note cards and the litter of his latest book or magazine piece.
Pete had the run of the house. He ate with Morris, drank with Morris, and when he wanted, sipped water from Morris' john. The two took walks together, strolling at Rowan Oak, Faulkner's farm on the edge of the campus, or in Oxford's old cemetery, where the Nobel Prize winner rests in generational peace with his forefathers and family.
Pete had showed up during Morris' New York days as editor of Harper's. Morris usually left his convertible parked in front of the magazine's headquarters, and one day as he left the office for lunch, he noted that Pete, long a familiar face at a gas station near his Long Island home, had somehow found his car and was riding shotgun.
"Actually, he started driving around with me. He lived in a service station about two blocks from where I lived in Bridgehampton. Then he started visiting me every day. He would stay longer and longer. One day he just wouldn't leave. I said, 'Pete, you better go on back, they're going to miss you.' At that point he had been with me for years. He even came down to Mississippi with me. He started enjoying eating things like collard greens."
Pete and Willie Morris were inseparable until the retriever died in 1984. The event so moved Morris that he has said he will never own another dog. Today five cats have the run of his house. "I wouldn't want to have another dog. Pete's death just about did me in. It was awful. That came out on NBC nightly news, on the Associated Press wire. They wouldn't let me bury him on the Ole Miss campus, though. I called the Mayor, John Leslie. I said, 'Mr. Mayor, Pete just died. He said, 'I know, I just heard it on Tom Brokaw.'
"I said, 'With your authority, can we bury him in the town cemetery?' He said, 'Damn right.' We had an Episcopal service. Pete is now buried in the cemetery up in Oxford, not too far from the Faulkners."
Morris looks off, as if searching the room for his old friend. "Someone recently stole his tombstone," he says finally, his voice wistful. "On the tombstone, it just said, "Pete, 1970-1984."
Like the death of his dog Pete, Morris says there is about the South something that you never quite get beyond. It is a feeling that holds you between finger and thumb. And there are hundreds of places in the South that can grab you. Morris loves his native region with such passion that it would be hard to choose one favorite place.
"Oh, I got quite a few. I love this town. I kind of agree with Walker Percy that for some writers it is important that you live in a certain proximity to principal landmarks of one's past. I was born here and spent all my summers here. I like Jackson a lot. I love cruising through the Delta.
"New Orleans is about a three-hour's drive from here. My son David Rae lives there. But I love places like Lexington, Virginia, with Washington and Lee; Charlottesville, and any place that has a Civil War battlefield. I love Vicksburg and Natchez."
Morris' father, Henry Rae, a bookkeeper, was also interested in the past. "We used to go out to the old, old family cemetery in Raymond, a family village about 10 miles from here when I was little. I just sort of gravitated to the one in Yazoo City because we spent so much time out there when we were kids having picnics, watching funerals from a distance. The Yazoo Cemetery was the most sensible place in town.
"Then in my high school years, playing taps for the dead brought back from Korea was an indelible memory for me. It was kind of a happy place. We were always playing tricks on each other out there, trying to get each other to walk at dark alone up to the witch's grave and tap on the witch's grave eight times and then come back. Things like that.
"The Yazoo Witch broke out of her chains and burned down the whole town in 1904. You can go there now, and there is the witch's grave and the heavy link chains, and that one link in the chain is missing where she broke out. She was chained up right in the middle of the cemetery. "She predicted she was going to burn it down. She even predicted the date. Twenty years later, lo and behold, it burned down.
"I would remember best of all the revivals, when a visiting preacher and his singers would arrive and hold services for a week or more in the First Methodist Church, twice a day, in the mornings and at night. There would be a restless excitement in the air; the singing would be better than usual, and since the hometown preacher probably had hit the bottom of his repertoire and would be repeating himself in his weekly sermons, the imported preacher would be sure to bring a new stock of stories, sly jokes about the Baptists, and new and different appeals for getting saved all over. When the were no revivals on, there was regular church, and Vacation Bible School in the summer, and Sunday School every Sunday morning.
"Our brand of fundamentalism was so much a part of us that its very sources, even its most outrageous gyrations and circumlocutions, went unquestioned. It was the faith of our fathers, the rock of ages, the thing that abided with you, the kindly light that led; it involved walks with Jesus in secluded gardens, sweet bliss and tender joys. By turns it could be humble and contrite, and then righteous and terrible, a martial summoning to make life miserable for those who had not heeded the call. In its small-town context it was a middle-class affair, and at least moderately contained," he says in North Toward Home.
But at age thirteen, Morris found himself disenchanted with religion. In fact, he was bored. His favorite grade teacher, Miss Abbott, had introduced him to the Bible, but in an unusual way: Whenever one of her students misquoted an assigned verse, he or she was rapped on the knuckles with a twelve-inch ruler.
Still, Morris found the sound of the words, the poetry and the literature, alluring: "Some pretty good stories in that King James Version," he says now. "I remember my fourth grade teacher taught us the Bible. That's all we learned, the Bible. We didn't spend much time on history or math, we were forced to memorize Bible verse. I didn't mind that at all; I just wish it had been done in proportion, and not all the time."
Yet that rhythm, those intonations were highly influential in Morris' style. As Eudora Welty says in One Writer's Beginnings, "How many of us, the South's writers-to-be of my generation, were blessed in one way or another, if not blessed alike, in not having gone deprived of the King James Version of the Bible. Its cadence entered into our ears and our memories for good. The evidence, or the ghost of it, lingers in all our books."
There was also another religion of sorts that pulled hard at Willie Morris sports. He loved baseball. Today, his den is spattered with photographs of sports heroes. Dominating the group is a large photo of Babe Ruth, given to him by former President George Bush.
Willie came to sports rather naturally. While he recalls listening to his mother's music, she remembered hearing him at his typewriter, because by the time he was 12 years old he was a sports writer working for the Yazoo Herald and the radio station, WAZF. "I started with the Herald covering baseball," Willie recalls. "The first game I covered, I quoted Keats' 'Ode on a Grecian Urn.'
"I ran into the editor of the paper three or four days later. He told me, 'Willie, I really want you to cover some of these ball games for us, now, but, uhh, next time would you, uhh, provide the score?' He said something to the effect that he didn't much like my quoting foreigners like Keats."
But Willie Morris always has an eye open for similes and connections. Some of them, he believes, link the South with other parts of the nation and its writers. "I have always found a close, beguiling parallel between sSouthern writers and Northern Jewish writers. I spent a lot of years in New York, and living up there, I knew a lot of really fine Jewish writers.
"I always detected a parallel there. In the case of both Southern writers and Jewish writers there is a profound sense of history and of the past and of time passing, a mutual sense of loss and a belief in words. They are flamboyant characters. I also always detected a similarity between Jewish mothers and Southern mothers.
"I once introduced my mother up on East Long Island to Phyllis Newman's mother. You know, the singer who is married to Adolph Green. She was from Jersey City. Phyllis's mother is from Jersey City, and my mother was from Yazoo City. They were so much alike, they practically could not get a word in edgewise.
"The Jews have this same sense of place. Very much so. I have always felt that. I live now in Mississippi and I have told this story: When I was a student at Oxford University, I had to pick up Robert Frost and take him over the Rhodes House to give a reading. This was back in 1957. We were in a cab. Robert Frost, he was old then. He was always a curmudgeon. Brilliant poet. Beautiful poet. He said, 'Where are you from, boy?' I said, 'I'm from Mississippi.' He said, 'Hell, that's the worst state in the Union.' I was rather taken aback by that. I made some comment like, 'Yes, sir, but Mississippi has produced a lot of fine writers.'
"He said, 'Can't anyone down there read them.'
"Later that night, I was at a sherry party. Allen Tate was on a visiting professorship in my college at Oxford. He was standing there with Lord David Sussel, the historian. I walked up to them and told them what Robert Frost had said just that morning about Mississippi writers.
"Allen Tate had a very broad forehead and rather prominent eyes. His eyes lit up and he turned to Lord Sussel and he said, 'David, I have been trying to tell you that's the reason the South has produced so many writers. I've been trying to tell you that for years.' "
Remembering the story, Morris smiles. "But I have discovered, having come back home to live, this one thing: It's an honorable profession to be a writer in Mississippi now. People come up to me in the grocery stores, restaurants and on the streets, lot of kids do. They just come up to you. I have often thought, suspected, that this may be a kind of guilt reaction among Mississippians the way they treated Faulkner in his prime when he was writing his greatest stuff.
The issue of color is one that Southern writers have dealt with for years, with varying degrees of success. It is a problem that Willie Morris has thought about for years, as far back as his childhood. "Just take Mississippi," he tells you. "It doesn't have any big cities. You have a continuing, very complicated relationship between whites and blacks here. It is a state with the highest percentage of blacks in the United States." Some of his introspection about the race issue is reflected in North Toward Home:
"For my whole conduct with Negroes as I was growing up in the 1940s was a relationship of great contrasts. On the one hand there was a kind of unconscious affection, touched with a sense of excitement and sometimes pity. On the other hand there were sudden emotional eruptions of disdain and utter cruelty. My own alternating affections and cruelties were inexplicable to me, but the main thing is that they were largely assumed and only rarely questioned. The broader reality was that the Negroes in the town were there; they were ours, to do with as we wished. I grew up with this consciousness of some tangible possession, it was rooted so deeply in me by the whole moral atmosphere of the place that my own ambivalence which would take mysterious shapes as I grew older was secondary and of little account."
"I go back to my hometown of Yazoo City and with the exception of the big shopping malls, the four-lane highways and new subdivisions without sidewalks, physically the place has changed remarkably little. You go around to Main Street. It is the way it was 50 years ago. On Main Street, if it's changed at all physically, the only thing that has changed on the structures are the names of the owners.
"But the race issue is much more subtle than it was. I would think that is true for the whole Southeast. One of our strengths in the relationship is that we have always said who and what we are. The old blatant racism that I grew up with no longer really exists here. It is a much more subtle phenomenon. Gosh, it's fascinating.
He agrees, though, that racism in the South of his middle age, changed as it is, is still an issue and still exists on far more compelling and perhaps even dangerous levels of the game. Perhaps race is even a little more sinister, a little more behind the scenes than it was when it was flagrant and very much out in the open.
Morris has written about race better than most. One of his 13 books was on the 1980s running sensation, Marcus Dupree, who went off to the University of Oklahoma as one of the most sought-after running backs in U.S. football history. Dupree never fulfilled the promise, sustaining a severe injury that curtailed what everyone had believed was going to be a phenomenally successful career.
Morris has thought more than most about the black and white issue in the South, and how it, too, has shaped not only his own sensibilities, but the region's as well. "You see, there is so little social contact, even in a town like Jackson, between races, so little. Most social integration that you see is at Democratic Party functions. I think there is less now than 15 years ago. It is socially less integrated. That is the impression I have. They (blacks and whites together) seem friendly, but there is very little social integration.
"I think athletics has been the great expression of integration in the South. Especially football, high school and college. It doesn't surprise me. We weren't going to school together in my youth. I was just fascinated by the black high school football teams when I was growing up. They used the discarded uniforms of our high school. They were called the Yazoo Black Panthers.
"I would go over on Friday afternoon. They would play in the black fairgrounds. Sometimes my dog and I would go over. I would carry the first-down markers, things like that. Great athletes. Yazoo City produced four NFL football players, all black.
"Living among the blacks had an impact on me. Oh, yes. The mystery of it when you are young. It was always there, always. It was very exciting and mysterious and I think that has affected every Southern writer.
"I have practically adopted the Alcorn (College) Braves football team. I just love it. Except for NFL Scouts and the national press and three or four cameramen, we are the only white people at the games.
"I love the whole ambiance of going down there. You are the only white people in a crowd of 20,000. God, those bands (whispers). They are just wonderful. And the surrounding countryside. Alcorn is about 30 miles north of Natchez and it's about seven or eight miles from the Mississippi River, surrounded by ghost towns and crumbling antebellum mansions and the whole Civil War background.
"The land is full of ghosts. That little campus, which was the first black public institution of higher learning in the United Sates, was founded during reconstruction. It is literally carved out of the earth.
"We had dinner the other night with Myrlie Evers, Medgar Evers' widow, who was here. Medgar was a running back for Alcorn in the late '40s. Oh, yes it still intrigues me.
"Race. That is the issue that runs through American life. We, as Southerners, should know more about it than anyone else, but I get saddened by it: We still haven't overcome it. We have a long way to go, even here in the South. We have come along better than other parts of the country, but we still have a long way to go."
Willie Morris, the Mississippi boy once exiled to New York, sighs. "But I don't think anyone is listening to us."
There are some lost parts of Willie Morris' life that are irreplaceable his first marriage, the years at Harper's, his dog Pete, his parents and good friends now dead and gone, grandmother Mamie's fried chicken and meringue pie, his grandfather Percy's model steamboats. But with his special talent for description and his rich store of memories, Willie Morris can reach back into the past and pull up his memories and breathe life into them again for a while anyway, long enough to inspire the next story, the next reverie, the next golden word.
[Excerpted with permission from Growing Up Southern: How the South Shapes Its Writers, by Fred Brown and Jeanne McDonald, published 1997 by Emerald House Group, Inc., Blue Ridge Publishing, Greenville, S.C.].
Copyright (c) The Southerner 1999. Illistrations by Christopher Bookout.