Sunday, November 28, 2021

Oxford, Mississippi, a literary town where--from Stark Young & William Faulkner to Barry Hannah & Willie Morris to Tom Franklin, Ace Atkins, Mary Miller & William Boyle--the creative well never runs dry

(William Faulkner, photo by Carl Van Vechten in 1954)

 As I did once recently on the subject of labor, I was asked by the Reverend Gail Tapscott to join a panel discussion on Oxford, Mississippi, and its literary tradition today (November 28, 2021) for the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Oxford. I joined my friend Kaye Bryant, who told of meeting William Faulkner as a young girl and hearing his ghost tales. Below are some of my prepared remarks for today's service: 

Many people think it all began with Faulkner, this identification of Oxford, Mississippi, as a literary town. That’s not true. I’d say it began with drama critic, playwright, and novelist Stark Young, whose home still stands on Oxford’s University Boulevard, next door to William Faulkner’s novelist brother John’s home.


By the time William Faulkner started writing fiction seriously in 1925, Stark Young was already a well-known theater critic and the author of The Flower in Drama: A Book of Papers on the Theater (1923). He would also gain renown as a novelist. Ellen Glasgow said of his 1934 novel So Red The Rose: “There has never been a novel of the South … that can compare with it.”  Born in Como, Mississippi, Young graduated from the University of Mississippi in 1901 and taught there from 1905 to 1907. He became drama critic at the New York Times and the New Republic magazine. Young was one of the Nashville-based Southern Agrarians, which also included Robert Penn Warren and other poets and writers who yearned for a non-industrial South that held true to its better values of the past.

(To the right, Stark Young)


Faulkner’s brother John deserves mention here. Always in the shadow of his more famous brother, he wrote novels such as Men Working (1941) and Dollar Cotton (1942).


Of courses, there’s Faulkner himself, the Nobel Prize winner, the creator of the Yoknapatawpha series. My late friend Jere Hoar, a widely published short story writer and author of the classic hardboiled novel The Hit (2002), was one of the last living links to Faulkner before he recently died. He attended the wedding of Faulkner’s daughter at the writer’s fabled home, Rowan Oak, and was close enough to the family to have been asked to drive to Chicago to pick up Faulkner at the airport and drive him back to Oxford. Unsure of his navigational skills, Jere declined, a decision he regretted the rest of his life.


Another important Faulkner link in Oxford today is writer and publisher Larry Wells, whose late wife Dean Faulkner Wells was the great writer’s niece and grew up in Rowan Oak after her father, Faulkner’s brother, died in an airplane crash. I loved listening to her many tales of “Pappy” as she was growing up.


New York Times bestselling writer Ace Atkins (no relation but a kindred spirit!) and I would gather at Jere’s farmhouse off what is now called “Faulkner Highway) every month or so and talk about books, writing, and film over glasses of bourbon and platefuls of fried chicken. I miss those days. Jere would regale us with tales of his writer friends like Jim Harrison and another Oxford writer, Barry Hannah. Barry loved guns and often came over to target shoot on Jere’s many acres. Barry’s own short stories were always razor edged, even poison tipped, a shot to the heart. Like this line from his story “Ride, Fly, Penetrate, Loiter”: “You may see me with the eye-patch. In almost any city of the South, the Far West, or the Northwest. I am on the black and chrome Triumph, riding right into your face.”


(Barry Hannah, from the back cover of his 1985 collection of stories, Captain Maximus)


Another is, and I’ll paraphrase: “See that beautiful blonde sitting over there. Somewhere there’s a guy who’s glad as hell she’s no longer in his life.” 


Jere’s home was a step into Faulkner land. The walls were covered with paintings of prized bulls, horses, and dogs. He loved to hunt and kept horses till his dying day.


I first met Barry Hannah as a political reporter in the early 1980s. I came to Oxford to cover a political fundraiser at the old Downtown Grill (now called Boure's), and there was Barry deep in his cups on one side of the room, and fellow Oxonian Willie Morris on the other. Both holding court, neither particularly interested in talking to one another. A rivalry of sorts existed between the two very different writers. Morris was journalist-in-residence at the University of Mississippi for many years. His books North Toward Home and Terrains of the Heart are personal favorites.


In Terrains of the Heart, he waxes nostalgic about the bar at the old Holiday Inn near the Oxford town square, arguably, he said, the best Holiday Inn bar in the country. I once wrote a column on the locally famous bartender there, Clyde Goolsby.


(To the right, Willie Morris on the University of Mississippi campus)


I met Willie several times and once interviewed him on the phone. I’ll never forget his visit to Oxford to help commemorate the Faulkner statue by the City Hall. The historian Shelby Foote was there, too, and I remember remarking what two classic Southern faces on that small stage.


One of my prized possessions is a signed copy of Larry Brown’s collection of short stories, Facing the Music (1988) (another is a signed copy of Eudora Welty’s collected works. I met her once when I was working as a reporter in Jackson). A local firefighter before he became a nationally known writer, Brown wrote tough, gritty stories about the people in the rural environs around Oxford. I never actually met him, but I saw him sometimes at a favorite watering hole, the City Grocery bar, and walking—or should I say staggering—along the Square at night.


Soon after I first moved my little family to Oxford in 1990, I took my late wife Marilyn and two small children, 7-year-old Rachel and 6-year-old Michael, to a reading by Larry Brown at one of the courthouses on the Square. Brown’s writing could be full of expletives and raw scenes, and so was his reading. I began to squirm as I realized my two were the only children in the room, and they were getting an earful, or so I thought. Near the very end of Brown’s reading, he said something like “hell” or “damn”, and Rachel turned to me and said, “Daddy, he just said a bad word!” Apparently she hadn’t been paying much attention during the reading!


Oxford today is still chock-full of top-notch writers. My gosh, too many to even name. There’s Mary Miller, a Grisham Writer-in-Residence whose short play “A Young Ghost” I was pleased to direct for an Oxford Theatre production last year. Noted short story writer and screenwriter Chris Offutt writes and teaches here. William Boyle’s 2013 novel Gravesend is one of the best I’ve read in the past decade or more. He works at a local vinyl store when he’s not in New York City or somewhere in France being touted as one of the best young writers on the scene.


My buddy Ace Atkins has written dozens of novels and generally enjoys a commanding presence on the New York Times bestselling lists. Another top writer is novelist Tom Franklin, and his wife, Beth Ann Fennelly, is a major poet who served as Mississippi’s poet laureate.  Legendary journalist Curtis Wilkie lives here. Ralph Eubanks writes and teaches here. Lisa Howorth’s novels have gotten much attention. Jack Pendarvis lives and writes here. Many others have come through, lived for a while, and moved on, including Richard Ford, Megan Abbott, Maurice Carlos Ruffin, and, of course, John Grisham, whose commanding home on a hill just outside of town provides shelter to the Grisham Writers-in-Residence.


This is a literary town. It’s in its life’s blood. The well is deep, and I don’t think it will ever run dry.



Monday, November 15, 2021

Is the U.S. South a different nation? A Journey into Deep, Dark Dixie


(Highway 49 in the Mississippi Delta)


The journey was something out of an Eric Ambler or Graham Greene novel. It was roughly 20 years ago, and I was on a train from Krakow, Poland, to Bratislava, Slovakia. My mission was to meet with journalist Pavol Mudry to hear his tales of dealing with Slovakian strongman Vladimir Meciar, who had done his best to destroy Mudry’s Slovak News Agency (SITA).


I had left sunny Krakow, where black-robed priests walk the ancient streets of the Stare Miasto, the city’s Old Town, and where steel workers at the giant Nowa Huta factory joined with shipyard workers in Gdansk to create Solidarity and bring down the brutal communist regime and breathe political freedom back into Poland.


I traveled through the night to a darker place than Poland, one where the threatening shadows of post-communist demagogues like Meciar still loomed over the land. I didn’t speak Polish but I did know a little Russian. When I tried to speak it, people just stared at me coldly. My good Polish friend Ala Kopycka from Lodz later told me, “Joe, don’t speak Russian in Poland.”


Late in the night, the train stopped at some remote station, and a peasant woman carrying a huge sack of potatoes came into my train car and sat across from me. She had a broad, pleasant face and began talking to me in Polish as if I were a native. I simply smiled, nodded, and acted as if I knew what she was talking about.


Pavol met me at the station in Bratislava and became my tour guide through the city, where what were likely Meciar goons had broken into SITA headquarters and stolen its computers and other equipment. The police never investigated.


I thought about my Slavic adventure recently after reading a couple recent articles about my native South, itself an exotic outpost in the USA where political demagoguery and authoritarian impulses have made it at times practically a nation on its own, yet one with a profound impact on the rest of the country.


I’ll never forget reading years ago Sally Belfrage’s 1965 book Freedom Summer, her account of traveling to Mississippi along with other idealistic young people who’d trained in Ohio and come south to register black voters and fight racial segregation in 1964.


“(We) were behaving as warily as a band of illegally documented refugees on the Orient Express approaching a forbidden Balkan border. The night seemed peaceful enough, but the change from light to dark was becoming substantive, and everything ahead was dark. SOUTH! … Flat, endless Delta land of cotton, straight two-laned road, monotony, with only an occasional shack to interrupt a landscape that was a visual forever. … At a crossroads, pointers to towns named Savage, Coldwater, Alligator. The heat was still and dazzling … a weird silence, which seemed to spread outward without an end.


"The country was foreign, resembling Spain or Syria or anywhere where heat and poverty combine to overwhelm attempts at the streamlined."


Mississippi and the rest of the South might seem much less threatening today, but a difference remains, certainly in the eyes of Maine-based writer Wayne O’Leary.


The sharp divides that have split the nation go far beyond urban-rural differences, O’Leary wrote recently in the Texas-based Progressive Populist. “The split is between the South, the states of the old Confederacy (along with some border states), and the rest of the country. It’s a division that’s been there since the Civil War ended in 1865, but lately it’s become an ever-widening chasm impossible to bridge except with the utmost difficulty. Differing values and beliefs that have coexisted uneasily well over a century have become seemingly irreconcilable under the psychic pressure of the Trump years and can’t be smoothed over.”


 A once Solid South for the Democratic Party is now solidly Republican. Fundamental Christians, anti-vaccers, union busters, and Trumpsters rule the land. “Donald Trump … appeals to something deep in the Southern psyche,” O’Leary writes, and the South “threatens to drag down the rest of the country in the process of acting out its bizarre conception of `freedom.’” Freedom, for these Southerners, means no COVID-19 vaccine mandate and free-range to Republican legislators who want to suppress voting by minorities and others who might threaten their rule.


Legislators in some non-Southern states like Wisconsin and Ohio are pushing bills that would re-open the doors to child labor to offset the current pandemic-spawned labor shortage, an idea bound to resonate in the South where children once slaved at textile mills across the region.


Still, Mississippi AFL-CIO President Robert Shaffer “dreams of another Operation Dixie to produce a new generation of believers” in labor unions and progressive legislation, according to a recent article on Southern labor by Hamilton Nolan in In  These Times.  Operation Dixie was a massive labor organizing campaign in the South in the late 1940s and early 1950s that largely failed.


 Only problem is, Shaffer said, “I don’t got the power to do that shit.” Major union losses at Amazon’s Bessemer, Alabama, site and at the Nissan plant in Canton, Mississippi, brought home that fact.


Yet Southern workers clearly want a better South than the one they have now. The best way to achieve that end is through an organized workforce. Miners have gone on strike in Brookwood, Alabama. Other workers have struck in Memphis and Paris, Tennessee, Louisville and Dry Ridge, Kentucky. Nolan writes that “not a single person I met in Mississippi thought workers there could not be organized. Again and again, those on the front lines said with absolute certainty that labor organizing in their state—where workers are intimately familiar with racism, poverty and political hostility—is an opportunity just waiting to happen.”


Hope springs eternal. Even in the Deep, Dark South.