For many years I have been lured into other worlds, real and imagined, by the intoxicating power of writers with special talent. Their genius presents stories with vivid landscapes, grinding complexities and gauzy premonitions that put the truth to situations and moments in ways I could not otherwise imagine.
Among my favorites are the writers of the American South, especially that deep bottomland of hills and piney woods and flat Delta that shifts and trembles to this day under the burden of its own history. William Faulkner, born in New Albany, Miss., and Eudora Welty, of Jackson, are arguably America’s first couple in letters; they captured in their reporting and fiction the choleric placement of black and white Americans, the simmering themes of irony and tragedy that, when unbound, seemed to have no color at all – a special irony so deep and abiding that black, after all, is the absence of color. Their work would earn mounds of awards worldwide, including those of Nobel and Pulitzer.
And the late Willie Morris, born and reared in Yazoo City, Miss., is among America’s foremost writers of non-fiction, stories and essays that capture the contrasts and contradictions of a state that he loved terribly. “The Ghosts of Medgar Evers,” about the assassination of the civil rights leader, is among Morris’s most compelling books and was adapted into a movie. “North Toward Home,” the first of two major autobiographical works, is a deeply moving personal chronicle about his life as an American, a southerner, and for a time, a Yankee emigrant. Anyone who’s ever loved a dog will cherish “My Dog Skip,” another book that became a movie.
I had long wanted to see their deep south, take in a sweep of Mississippi Delta, swoop into the hills and Southern Pine forests and cypress swamps, scope the lay of the land, the farm towns and cities, the stretches of ramshackle hamlets along the state’s back roads – to be in those places of shifting interludes, as Morris called them, to see his Yazoo City, its Main drag of old, beaten, two-story pastels; and I had longed to shuffle over the weathered floor boards and among the retail shelves of Faulkner House Books in New Orleans, a tiny apartment when the author early on was writing sketches for the Times-Picayune newspaper. And I had to poke around that wonderful Tudor home on Pinehurst Street in Jackson, the one Welty’s father had built and where Eudora had lived as a youngster and then stayed and worked all her adult life.
I thought that in driving the roads and seeing these places, standing in a room or at a desk where these artists were moved to tell us all those wonderful stories, I might gain a sense of what kept them where they were, why they chose to stay or return to a place of stunning paradox – a state that has produced some of the world’s ugliest politics and most brutal racism, and at the same time gave us world-renowned musicians, painters, performing artists (ballet, theater, movies), historians, scholars, journalists, and fiction writers. These and other artists chose to absorb and learn from the turbulent aesthetic currents; something held them there, kept them in Mississippi and, in an odd way, at its mercy.
Faulkner believed the answer lay in the land; it was the land itself which owned them, as Mink Snopes, one of Faulkner’s characters, says, “and not just from a planting to its harvest but in perpetuity.” Morris also believed, after having lived awhile in New York, in a pulsating call of home and returned to his Mississippi, a place that held the “terrains of the heart.”
I’ve seen a kind of kinship in Lindsborg and Yazoo, the Smoky Valley and the Delta. In 16 years here we have come to know, or know about, people who were raised in Lindsborg or elsewhere in the Valley and then left, pursuing success in far lands and after a long absence, fulfilled or otherwise, returned to live here for good. Others have told how they happened by for a quick look and a meal on the way to somewhere else – and years later they’re still here. Newcomers are surprised that they have taken root so quickly. After only a few tender years, they feel the staunch old American pull of home.
I had to find out, head there by car. En route, other discoveries: the exponential horrors of Dallas freeways, all under construction; a soothing ambience in New Orleans after Mardi Gras; an enduring mystery in so many “found” pennies… why?; the succulence of a pressed shrimp po’boy; among truck stops, Pilot brews the best coffee (where are the lids?); a thrilling, chance meeting with Jimmy “Duck” Holmes, godfather of Delta-Bentonia Blues; the silence of a bald cypress swamp; why Ole Miss claims to have one of the nation’s most beautiful campuses, and Oxford the perfect town square; and why those writers stayed where they did.