According to an old joke, Mississippi has more people who can write than can read. Unfair though the joke may be, the state has unquestionably produced a disproportionate number of authors, including some of the nation’s best—William Faulkner, William Alexander Percy, Margaret Walker Alexander, Tennessee Williams, Eudora Welty, and Richard Wright, among others. With such a rich literary tradition, it should come as no surprise that Mississippians have put together some fine literary anthologies.
Though notable anthologies were produced in the nineteenth century, they are no longer readily available. The earliest easily obtained anthology, The Mississippi Poets (1922), was edited by Ernestine Clayton Deavours, a teacher in the city schools of Laurel, and published by E. H. Clarke and Brother of Memphis. It contains works by William Alexander Percy and Stark Young, who are still well known, but as is often the case with older literary anthologies, the names of authors who have dropped out of the canon are at least as interesting. Among those Deavours judged worthy of inclusion were Henry M. Arney, T. A. S. Adams, Julia K. Wetherhill Baker, Newton S. Berryhill, Isabel Folsom, Layfayette R. Hammerlin, S. A. Jonas, and Lulah Ragsdale.
Another early anthology, Mississippi Verse (1934), was edited by Alice James and published by the University of North Carolina Press. Unlike The Mississippi Poets, which was published with some notion of turning a profit, Mississippi Verse was a scholarly endeavor. James included one of Faulkner’s few poems as well as works by Young and Percy. Again, however, the volume featured works by other largely forgotten pre–World War II authors—Lemuella Almond, Elizabeth Austin, Rodney M. Baine, Horace Polk Cooper, Jamie Sexton Holme, and Kummer Wrinn, among others.
In 1975 Noel E. Polk and James R. Scafidel coedited An Anthology of Mississippi Writers, which was published by the University Press of Mississippi. Arranged chronologically, the anthology begins with southwestern humor and ends with William Mills; in between are works by Faulkner, Williams, Wright, Welty, Richard Bell, Barry Hannah, and others. Probably its most remarkable feature is its balance of canonized highbrow authors and great popular writers.
Of all available Mississippi literary anthologies, Dorothy Abbott’s four-volume Mississippi Writers: Reflections of Childhood and Youth (1985–91) is the most comprehensive, featuring works by canonized fiction writers and poets, nonfiction pieces pertaining to relatively obscure civil rights workers, Medgar Evers’s essays, and selections from Shelby Foote’s epic Civil War history. The set was published by the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University Press of Mississippi, which also released a one-volume edition for use in schools and accompanied by a teachers’ manual. Two additional anthologies of note are Marion Barnwell’s A Place Called Mississippi: Collected Narratives and Mississippi Writers Talking, a collection of interviews conducted and compiled by John Griffin Jones.
Edited by Thomas McNeely Jr. and Peter Buttross Jr. and published by Red Dawn Press, Beyond the Bars (2004) is a collection of poetry and prose written by inmates at the Wilkinson County Correctional Facility at Woodville. The raw emotionalism of the poems is hardly surprising, but many of the poems also exhibit a high degree of technical proficiency.
In 2016 University of Mississippi writer in residence Tom Franklin edited Mississippi Noir, a collection of stories set in rural and urban areas across the state.
Whereas older collections tended to neglect the work of African American authors, their writings are better represented in recent anthologies, in keeping with the trend toward inclusiveness that has appeared in American and especially southern letters. Also, where verse dominated early twentieth-century compilations, later anthologies generally feature a greater variety of poetry, prose, and drama.
- Dorothy Abbott, ed., Mississippi Writers: An Anthology (1991)
- Dorothy Abbott, ed., Mississippi Writers: Reflections of Childhood and Youth, 4 vols. (1985–91)
- Ernestine Clayton Deavours, The Mississippi Poets (1922)
- Alice James, ed., Mississippi Verse (1934)
- Thomas McNeely Jr. and Peter Buttross Jr., eds., Beyond the Bars: An Anthology of Poetry and Prose from a Mississippi Prison (2004)
- Noel E. Polk and James R. Scafidel, eds., An Anthology of Mississippi Writers (1979)