Does The South Still Exist?
By Linton Weeks
Willie Morris had heard I wanted to write for a living. His first words to me: "If there's ever anything I can do for you, let me know."
Hollow vow, usually. But not in Willie's case. He was true to his word.
One night in the mid-1980s several of us including my friend Alan Leveritt piled into a car and headed for Oxford, Miss., to hold him to his promise. We stopped at a small liquor store and bought a big old bottle of Valpolicella. Over dinner, we told Willie what we had in mind. We wanted to start a publication called Southern Magazine, a monthly exploration of the region's complexities.
On the brown paper bag he jotted down names of writers we should enlist, good friends of his, folks who would help us wrestle with the notion. The list was a Who's Who of contemporary Southern literature. Alan, who became publisher of Southern Magazine, still has that sack somewhere.
"Does the South still exist?" Willie, who knew a lot about magazines and a lot more about the South, opened up his mind and his heart that night.
"He was one of the kindest, sweetest, gentlest guys I've ever known,'' said Charles Henry, who works in the insurance business in Oxford and was a good friend of Willie's for years. "Mississippi has lost probably its best ambassador.''
"He had one of the biggest hearts," said Sid Graves, founder of the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale, Miss. Graves knew and admired Willie for years. Paraphrasing Tennessee Williams, he said that Willie's heart "was as big as a football."
"He had an extraordinarily keen mind for literature and ideas. I liked to hear him talk about football," recalled Sterling Plumpp, a Chicago poet and professor originally from the Mississippi Gulf Coast. "There was a kind of generosity in Willie Morris that I liked."
"I was always struck," said William Ferris, chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities and former head of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi, "by his devotion to friends. His relationships with writers like William Styron, James Dickey, Ralph Ellison and Robert Penn Warren were deep and significant friendships. Many of these writers came to Oxford to honor Willie."
Willie honored Oxford by moving there in 1980 to become writer in residence at the University of Mississippi. Born in Jackson in 1934, he grew up in Yazoo City (pop. 7,000), a place he immortalized in several of his books, including Yazoo and North Toward Home. He gloried in small-town life baseball games, dogs, playing taps for military funerals. He went to the University of Texas on a baseball scholarship and was editor of the campus newspaper, then attended the other Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. He married Celia Buchan from Houston. They had a son, David Rae, in England. Under Britain's health plan, Willie told his friends, his son's birth cost him 87 cents. The couple eventually divorced.
In Europe, Willie traveled with fellow Rhodes scholar Edwin Yoder. Yoder, who lives in Alexandria, Va., recalled their many escapades, including the time Willie, on a lark, dangled from the bridge at Avignon.
After England, Willie returned to Austin as editor of the Texas Observer. Playwright Larry L. King met Willie at the Observer and they became lifelong buds. In fact, almost everyone who met Willie became a friend for life. "I never knew Willie to do anybody harm or to want to," King said. "He was a helpful fellow to writers. That's unusual in this business."
In 1963, Willie went to work for Harper's magazine; he was named editor in 1967. He called New York City "the Cave." It was, he said, America's cultural capital. He opened the magazine up to new writers and longer pieces, said David Halberstam, a contributor to the magazine. Halberstam's profile of McGeorge Bundy in Harper's became the seed of The Best and the Brightest.
Willie had a mischievous mind. When Halberstam's book was near the top of the bestseller list, he received a phone call one day from a man who said he had written a diet guide that was also very high on the list. "Perhaps we could collaborate on a book that would have stunning success," the man said to Halberstam, who realized about this time that the caller was Willie. "We could call it 'The Best and the Fattest.' "
"Willie had the lowest index of malice of anybody I ever met," Halberstam said. "That probably worked against him as he got up higher in the world of publishing."
He added: "He was not a great infighter. I don't think he was great at protecting his flank. There was part of him that was like a little boy." He resigned from Harper's in 1971.
In 1976, Willie spent some time in Washington, D.C., as writer in residence at the Washington Star.
Though he continued to write for a few years in Bridgehampton, N.Y., and loiter with the literati James Jones, Truman Capote, Irwin Shaw he longed to see cotton fields instead of potato fields and strawberry patches. In 1980, he moved back to Mississippi for good. He chose Oxford, a college town with a palpable literary history. In Mississippi, he wrote, he found "the sanctuary of my innocence." He was far from the madding Manhattan crowd.
One of his best friends in Oxford was Dean Faulkner Wells, the niece of William Faulkner, another Oxford favorite son. The morning after Willie died, Dean and her husband, Larry Wells, were sitting at their kitchen table, grieving over the loss of their longtime friend and turning to Willie's writing and other literature for solace. "Larry and I were looking for the words Willie loved the most," Dean said, fighting back tears. They read the poetry of Wallace Stevens and A.E. Housman.
"He really took care of the people he loved," she said.
Oxford, circa 1980, was an exciting swirl of literary activity. Ferris established the Center for the Study of Southern Culture. Richard and Lisa Howorth opened their legendary bookstore, Square Books. Larry and Dean Wells owned Yoknapatawpha Press, which published Willie's books and reprinted some of Faulkner's.
"It was a great time," Larry Wells recalled. "Willie always said, 'I came home and it was not too late.' "
In Mississippi, Willie gave guidance to young writers in the classroom and out.
"He was very accessible to his students, night and day. He'd sit up all hours and talk philosophy and writing," Wells recalled.
And Willie wrote new books, including The Courting of Marcus Dupree, about an outstanding football player; My Dog Skip, which was made into a movie; Terrains of the Heart, a collection of essays; and a number of handsome art books including Homecomings, a collaboration with Mississippi painter Bill Dunlap (who now lives in McLean, Va.).
Dunlap remembered all that Willie meant to him and other expatriate Southerners. "He took a bridge out of Mississippi," Dunlap said, "then he took that bridge and came back."
To celebrate the publication of Homecomings, Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) threw a big bash on Capitol Hill for Willie and Dunlap in the late 1980s. The painter stood and said a few words of thanks. As for Willie, he climbed up on a table and announced to the world that he was by-God marrying the book's editor, JoAnne Prichard.
It was JoAnne who answered his cry when he collapsed Aug. 2 at his writing table at their home in Jackson. He died in the evening of heart failure.
So, does the South still exist? True to his word, again, in the first issue of Southern Magazine, which appeared in October 1986, Willie Morris addressed head-on the question he raised along with a glass of red wine on that long, heady night in Oxford. In the answering, he also spoke of the way he chose to live his own life.
"One has to seek the answer on one's own terms, of course, but to do that I suggest one should spurn the boardrooms and the country clubs and the countless college seminars on the subject and spend a little time at the ball games and the funerals and the bus stations and the courthouses and the bargain-rate beauty parlors and the little churches and the roadhouses and the joints near closing hour. . . .
"Perhaps in the end it is the old devil-may-care instinct of the South that remains in the most abundance and will sustain the South in its uncertain future," he wrote. "It is gambling with the heart. It is a glass menagerie. It is something that won't let go."
[Linton Weeks is a staff writer for the Style section of the Washington Post, where another version of this appreciation first appeared].
Copyright © The Southerner 1999. Illustration by Christopher Bookout.