A poet, novelist, and teacher, James Tillotson Whitehead was born in Missouri and spent most of his life working in the creative writing program at the University of Arkansas. He spent his formative years in Mississippi and in a 1970 interview discussed the childhood suffering he endured growing up as a newcomer to the state, but he also proclaimed, “I’m glad I’m a Mississippian.” Writer Barry Hannah and other students from Mississippi who entered the graduate program at Arkansas formed a special bond with Whitehead because of their shared connection to the state.
Born on 13 March 1936 in St. Louis to Dick Bruun Whitehead and Ruth Ann Tillotson Whitehead, James T. Whitehead grew up in Jackson, Mississippi, where he was an all-state lineman at Central High School. He attended Vanderbilt University on a football scholarship before an injury ended his athletic career. Whitehead earned bachelor’s (1959) and master’s degrees (1960) from Vanderbilt and then returned to Jackson, where he taught at Millsaps College. In 1963 he enrolled in the University of Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop, completing a master of fine arts degree two years later.
Whitehead then accepted a teaching position at the University of Arkansas, where he and fiction writer William Harrison cofounded the master of fine arts program in creative writing. They were soon joined by Miller Williams, and the program rapidly developed a national reputation for excellence in both fiction and poetry. Among the many outstanding students they mentored are several other highly acclaimed Mississippi writers, including Barry Hannah, Ellen Gilchrist, Margaret McMullan, and Steve Yarbrough.
Whitehead’s first published book of poetry, Domains (1966), received critical praise and earned him a Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference Robert Frost Fellowship in 1967. His next publication was his only novel, Joiner (1971), which brought him popular acclaim; critical praise from Life magazine, the New York Times, and many other sources; and a 1972 Guggenheim Fellowship. In the novel, Sonny Joiner, a former football player who displays Whitehead’s passion for the intellectual as well as for sports, politics, philosophy, and antiracism, searches for self-knowledge and self-control in the fictional small town of Bryan, Mississippi, during the civil rights movement.
Whitehead subsequently returned to poetry with three more collections: Local Men (1979), Actual Size (1985), and Near at Hand (1993). Influenced early in his writing career by stream of consciousness and particularly by poet Dylan Thomas, Whitehead consciously sought to move away from such interior writing to a more objective approach and to a focus on narration.
Whitehead’s self-declared “aversion to racism” dominated most of his writing. He spoke of himself as a socialist and a “secret Christian” and was a strong supporter of Democratic candidates. He developed a relationship with Jimmy Carter, writing a poem for Carter’s return to Georgia after leaving the presidency and subsequently editing the former president’s collection of poetry.
Whitehead died of a ruptured aortic aneurysm on 15 August 2003. The English Department at the University of Arkansas honored him with the James T. Whitehead Sonnet or Sestina Prize for undergraduate students.
- Marda Burton, Notes on Mississippi Writers 6 (1973)
- John Carr and John Little, eds., Kite-Flying and Other Irrational Acts: Conversations with Twelve Southern Writers (1972)
- New York Times (19 August 2003)