Willie Morris was a Happy Man
By Jack Bales
Willie Morris was a happy man that Sunday night.
I had just finished editing Conversations with Willie Morris, a compilation of author interviews and profiles, and on the evening of August 1, 1999, he called to say how much he liked the book's introduction that I had recently sent him. I reminded him that we were going to go on a joint book-signing tour after the University Press of Mississippi published the volume.
"I haven't forgotten," he said. "And believe me, not only are we going to sign a lot of books, but we're going to have a great time together doing it."
After I hung up the phone I remembered how Willie and I first became acquainted. In the summer of 1995 a friend had given me a copy of his My Dog Skip. I read the poignant memoir of his youth in one sitting, fell in love with its style and grace, and quickly began seeking out the author's other books. In September of that year I wrote him a letter to say how much I liked his work and to ask a few questions. He wrote back a few weeks later, thus beginning a warm friendship throughout which we exchanged hundreds of letters, numerous phone calls and several visits.
In one of my letters I told him that I had written several works of literary biography, and I asked him if it would be all right if I started researching his life and books. He readily agreed, and told me where his letters and manuscripts were located and whom to contact. I spent parts of two summers poring over his 17,000 papers at the University of Mississippi's library. Of course, the tedium of long days of note-taking was brightened by weekends of spirited conversation with him and his wife, JoAnne, at their lovely home in Jackson.
Each time I visited, he and I would go on his "$64,000 tour" of Yazoo City, during which he would reminisce about his boyhood as he pointed out the landmarks of his youth. And invariably, as we drove along Broadway down the hill past Miss Sarah Cooper Lear's house, he would pump the brakes of the car and pretend that they had failed, re-creating the actual brake failure of his youth as detailed in My Dog Skip. I, of course, was always fooled by his prank, and as he laughed I would sheepishly remember that he often referred to himself as the "oldest living sixth-grader" (an appellation he richly deserved).
Although our visits, letters and conversations meant much to both of us, what I especially valued was the opportunity to help him with his own projects. As Willie's and my friendship grew, I discovered (as have countless others) that he had an unlimited capacity for kindness and generosity. In the course of my research he lent me items from his own library, referred me to others who could aid in my research, and constantly offered advice, cooperation and encouragement. As a reference librarian, I was more than a little familiar with the techniques of literary research, so when he occasionally asked if I could find something he needed for one of his books, I leaped at the chance to assist him. His delight in my finding what he needed was exceeded only by my own pleasure.
While drifting off to sleep that evening of August 1, I remembered that Willie was also happy with the progress of the motion picture adaptation of My Dog Skip. He and JoAnne had just returned from a trip to New York to view a preliminary screening. "It is by any measure an absolute classic," he exuberantly wrote me that night. "I can't wait for you to see it."
Willie faxed me the letter that evening, and I received it the next day. Hours later I received another phone call, this one from my editor at the University Press of Mississippi, who told me of Willie's untimely death. Ironically, Willie's and my friendship began and ended, way too soon,while discussing My Dog Skip. When I once again see his beloved Yazoo City in the film, I will remember our own summer meanderings down the streets of his youth, our frequent letters and conversations, and the essential sweetness of a good, good man and friend.
[Jack Bales is an Instruction and Humanities Librarian at Mary Washington College, Fredericksburg, Va.].
Copyright © The Southerner 1999.