YAZOO CITY, Miss. – We drove northwest out of Jackson on highway 49, a limited-access four-lane that slithers into the tall pines and lush hills along the eastern ridge of the great Mississippi Delta. We’re headed for Yazoo City, (pop. 11,900), boyhood home of the late Willie Morris, one of America’s great southern writers; his stories, essays and books are a pilgrimage of clarity and passion, marking the heritage of his homeland, its brooding paradoxes and noble causes. It was important to see where he had grown up.
Half an hour into the trip, the prolific, green roll of the land intensifies into more abrupt hills and deep descents, the road and its grassy slope swooping through the trees and dense underbrush. Then we notice the old road off to our left (west), the two-lane 49, the one Morris had driven so many times all those years ago, one with sharper hills and steeper descents, an old, cracked roadway with green creeping vine right up to the pavement – a scene reminiscent of Kansas, the Lincoln County of my youth, old highway 18 running sharp and steep alongside the new one. But as with old 18 in Kansas, the bridges on old 49 in Mississippi had been yanked out, leaving jagged gaps deep in the roadway, like holes in the gum after teeth had been pulled.
As the highway sweeps sharply north and then west, the view unfolds just as Morris described it in North Toward Home: “…the hills suddenly come to an end and there is one long, final descent. Out in the distance, as far as the eye can see, the land is flat, dark and unbroken, sweeping away in a faint misty haze to the limits of the horizon. This is the great delta.”
Yazoo City sits along the southeastern edge of the Mississippi Delta, a great oblong stretch of alluvial flood plain 200 miles long and 70 miles across at its widest point. The Delta covers much of northwest Mississippi, 7,000 square miles between two historic rivers, the Mississippi and the Yazoo. It’s flat as a board, all of it, as flat as Haskell County in Kansas.
The highway becomes Broadway in Yazoo City, swooping down in a perilous descent to a place built on half hills and half delta, where the hills end, the flat land begins, and the Yazoo flows, muddy and silent, just west of town under a long featureless concrete bridge.
Willie Morris was the son of a farmer and laborer who delivered gasoline for Cities Service, among other things. His mother, the intellectual, taught piano in their home, made sure that Willie got to school and stayed there. His boyhood was too adventurous to recount it all here, but Willie was an affable boy with a dog named Skip and a thirst for learning – was a star athlete (emphasis baseball), valedictorian of his high school class (‘53), attended the University of Texas and was editor of the student newspaper, challenging the Texas Board of Regents on the paper’s First Amendment rights. He was a Rhodes Scholar, returning to Texas in 1960 to become editor of the free-wheeling Texas Observer, a liberal bi-weekly. In 1963, Morris took a Greyhound bus across the country, joined the staff of Harper’s magazine in New York and four years later was editor at age 32, the youngest-ever editor of a major literary magazine. Almost overnight, Morris turned Harper’s into a high-spirited political and cultural magazine, publishing seminal works of journalism by the finest writers in the country. He helped to launch the careers of such notable writers as Norman Mailer, William Styron, David Halbertsam, Larry King, Seymour Hersh, Maya Angelou, and more. Ultimately he would fall out in 1971 with the magazine’s owners, the Cowles family, a crew of Pecksniffs and Heeps straight from Dickens. Willie resigned. Most of his writers followed.
Morris, divorced, went to Long Island for rest and recovery, and began the first of his 20 books and hundreds of essays and other articles published after he left the magazine. In 1980 he returned to the South, to teach at the University of Mississippi at Oxford, and discovered a new and revitalized state, a place for his reconciliation and renewal.
The celebrated North Toward Home, his autobiographical look at growing up in the South, unfurled his awakening to the cross-currents of racism corroding the fabric of his community. His own history of family, its love and nobility, was entwined in another history, of his town’s anguish and cruelty and inhumanity and also its evolving courage and nobility. The enigma would color him and his work throughout his brief life. He was driven to warn us of the “terrible toll that bitterness and retreat can take … for this will give the nation some feel of itself, and help it to endure.”