|Mississippi provides fertile ground for the written word.|
|By Patrick Martin
Any budding writer who believes in the powers of osmosis could do worse than to spend a few days traveling the back roads and small towns of Mississippi. When it comes to literary mojo, the Magnolia State is second to none.
Many of the haunts and homes of Mississippis mighty stable of writers are open for public inspection and inspiration. What follows is far from a complete list, but one that lovers of great literature can appreciate.
If there is a center to Mississippi literary universe, a good argument can be made that it is Greenville, a town of 46,000 that declares itself the heart and soul of the Delta.
William Alexander Percy, for whom the towns library is named, was the 20th-century patriarch of a family that left a wide footprint on the states political and literary landscapes.
Born in 1885, Percy was a lawyer, planter and poet whose best-known work is his autobiography, Lanterns on the Levee, a reflection on a half century of Southern social evolution.
Late in his life, Percy became the guardian to a cousin, Walker Percy, whose parents had died. Walker Percy flourished in the literary and intellectual world of his older cousin and became a noted author.
Walker Percy, who died in 1990, was a lifelong friend of another Greenville literary notable, Shelby Foote, who spent 20 years writing the trilogy, The Civil War: A Narrative. Finished in 1974, Foote was catapulted into the national spotlight in 1990 at age 74 when his work became the foundation for the Ken Burns series on PBS.
Walker Percy and Shelby Foote graduated from high school together, said Bill Seratt, executive director of the Greenville Convention and Visitors Bureau. They are both represented at the Greenville Writers Exhibit at the William Alexander Percy Library (341 Main St.). Many of the families have left archival materials to the library.
There are other Greenville literary hot spots. One is the McCormick Book Inn, 825 S. Main St., the oldest family-owned bookstore in the state.
Hugh McCormick specializes in the literature of this region, Seratt said. He has known most of these people and talked with them. Hes a wealth of knowledge and its fun to pick his brain.
A working example of written word excellence is the towns newspaper, the Delta Democrat-Times. Hodding Carter II, a legendary newspaperman who won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing in 1946, started the Delta Star in 1936 and bought Greenvilles other paper, the Democrat Times in 1938, merging the two. He died in Greenville in 1972.
In addition to its authors, Greenville has another claim to artistic fameit is the birthplace of Jim Henson, creator of the Muppets.
Seratt had a couple of theories why Greenville became such fertile ground for storytellers.
For years the Percy family really controlled the politics in Mississippi and the schools here were funded better than any in the state, he said. Another one Ive heard is since we do live in such a remote part of the country, we were left to our own devices and our own imagination. We had to create things for our amusement.
The grandmother of Mississippi literature lived in a simple but elegant Tudor-style home in the state capital of Jackson until her death two years ago at 92. Now the Eudora Welty home at 1119 Pinehurst St. is being transformed into a museum to celebrate the Pulitzer Prize-winning author.
Welty willed her books, letters, garden and home to the state, which is now readying it for public view. The garden is expected to open in April 2004 and the home a year later.
Weltys main metier was the short story, of which she wrote four volumes. She also wrote five novels, non-fiction works that included essays and book reviews and published five volumes of photographs, which appeared to be her lifes calling for her first four decades.
If Eudora Welty is the grandmother of Mississippi letters, the godfather is William Faulkner.
Born in 1897, the young Falkner (the u allegedly was added in 1918 during an abbreviated military career in Canada) was an indifferent student and something of a rounder. He went to the University of Mississippi briefly after the war, then set out to make his name as a writer. His first novel attempts met with middling success until The Sound and the Fury was published in 1929. He followed it in 1930 with As I Lay Dying.
That same year he purchased a run-down antebellum mansion to which he gave the grandiose name of Rowan Oak.
The mansion became his refuge and writing place. From there, and out of his rural Mississippi consciousness, came the novels that won Faulkner the Pulitizer and Nobel prizes.
Rowan Oak was sold to the University of Mississippi, Ole Miss, a decade after Faulkners death in 1962. After a yearlong restoration, it was opened to the public. It currently is closed for renovation and is slated to reopen in mid-summer 2004. The public may tour the homes grounds.
If ever a town evokes pictures of dusty back roads and drowsy afternoons on the porch, it would be Yazoo City. Maybe its the very name of the place. Maybe its the work of Willie Morris.
It was at 615 Grand Ave. where Willie grew up climbing the elm tree in the backyard or playing football with other boys in the front yard. And always at his side was his friend Skip, who would be immortalized in print and film as My Dog Skip.
Today, Skip is buried in the backyard and Morris in Glenwood Cemetery, just steps from the Yazoo Witch, who, according to legend, caused the 1904 fire that burned most of the town. The story is highlighted in Morris book, Good Old Boy. Yazoo City today, from Goose Egg Park to the fine collection of antebellum and Victorian homesall viewable on a short walking touramply demonstrates the small-town, Southern feel that Morris captured so well in his books.
Morris was more than a rustic writer. He was a member of Phi Beta Kappa, a Rhodes Scholar and the youngest-ever editor of Harpers magazine. He died of a heart attack in 1999 at the age of 64.
Columbus and Clarksdale
These two towns share the legacy of Tennessee Williams, as his birthplace and boyhood hometown, respectively.
His birthplace at 300 Main St. in Columbus is now a Mississippi Welcome Center for Columbus and Lowndes County. Marked by a plaque outside, the center is open from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday and from noon to 4:30 p.m. on Sunday. There is no admission charge.
In Clarksdale, walking tours can be made of the old neighborhoods that Williams haunted when he and his mother and sister lived with his grandparents. Clarksdale celebrates its connection each October with a Tennessee Williams Festival.
This is just a smattering of the literary luminaries of Mississippi. You may find your favorites here or discover a new voice. Either way, Mississippi is a great adventure for lovers of the word.
Patrick Martin is a contributor from St. Louis, Mo.
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