The sorry, shabby world that don’t quite please you, so you create one of your own.
Because we’ve got a lot of explaining to do.
The old question still applies: Why Mississippi? Why should or how could a state at the bottom of practically every imaginable quality-of-life list have produced and continue to produce so much world-class fiction? William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Richard Wright, Elizabeth Spencer, and Ellen Douglas would of course be enough to establish Mississippi’s credentials as a cornerstone of American fiction, but Mississippi in fact has many, many more writers, so that the question elaborates itself, ravels out into multiple strands that ultimately provide no real answers. Every possible line of argument (so far, at any rate) generates its own objections or tut-tuts. The question itself may be mostly an academic parlor game, though it is, to be sure, an interesting one.
The question assumes that a reasonable explanation for the phenomenon must exist. Over the years people have proposed answers ranging from the ridiculous—It’s the water, stupid!—to more thoughtful and provocative considerations of cultural, political, historical, and economic forces: fiction as a response to oppression and hard times, fiction as a reaction against current circumstance rather than as an intellectual attempt to master it, to see through the current circumstance into something larger. It might be nice to explain Mississippi’s outpouring of fiction as some sort of response to the shabby, chaotic, poverty-stricken, and backward world Mississippians inhabit, but that explanation simply won’t wash, if only because it would imply an equal outpouring of fiction from the other states of the Old South that for all practical purposes have had pretty much the same history as Mississippi.
Why? and How? invariably seem to originate in a patent condescension toward Mississippi: reciting the faults of Faulkner’s Intruder in the Dust in the New Yorker, Edmund Wilson suggested that it would have been a better novel and Faulkner would have been a better writer if he had spent more time in such places as New York discussing literature with such writers as Edmund Wilson. The review prompted Welty’s acid response, which the magazine published the following week, that she shuddered at the idea of novel writing as a kind of assembly line at which Faulkner worked only to show up for payday and have bossman Wilson dock him for having a bad address. Welty wanted slightly more purity of judgment than Wilson showed and even had the temerity to suggest that Faulkner’s intelligence rather than his address might be the source of all that was good in his fiction.
Faulkner’s early reviewers indeed worried about his address, perhaps understandably—how could he write such transcendent prose in a benighted state like Mississippi? Significantly, the question never seemed to bother intelligent readers and reviewers in Europe—or, truth to tell, in this country—though it continued to burble along in American criticism for years, its pernicious effects on understanding culminating in the all but unanimous assumption among reviewers and critics (even southerners, who, one might have hoped, should have known better) that southern writers’ strength was directly tied, Antaeus-like, to their contact with the southern soil. In 1954, when Faulkner published A Fable, and in 1955, when Welty published The Bride of the Innisfallen, the critical world was aghast, patronizing, tsk-tsking and clucking that these writers could have so deliberately committed literary suicide by presuming to try to operate outside of Mississippi, in Europe, of all places, so far from those sturdy roots of place, home, and tradition that were their perceived strengths—as though a writer abandons those strengths when crossing a border, as though Faulkner and Welty wrote their best fiction with their bare feet encased securely in Mississippi mud. The effects of that immediate reaction have been long-lasting: such silly and critically indefensible impositions on Faulkner and Welty have meant that only now, more than half a century later, are we just beginning to take proper account of these two splendid and important works of fiction, though criticism of Faulkner, Welty, and other Mississippi writers is now much less concerned with such parochialism. When the old chestnut of place emerges in the criticism, it does so energized by new theoretical and conceptual contexts.
Welty was right that the fiction itself simply demonstrates the high range of intelligence in Mississippi. To account for the wealth of Mississippi fiction, we should begin with the fiction itself, stripped of the overlay of location, and suggest, as Welty does, that the fact of “Mississippi fiction” is more important than the why of it. At least as far as fiction is concerned, Mississippi may quite simply be smarter than the rest of the country. Even if, as Richard Ford quips, we somehow have more explaining to do than other states have had, that would not in itself account for the quality of the fiction.
Ford’s witticism points toward at least a partial answer, though it does not explain why other states have not produced such an extensive range of writers. Ford suggests that Mississippi fiction at some level springs from inherited guilt over the state’s racial history—from some necessary or perhaps inevitable engagement with and/or resistance to that history, which so completely overwhelms our national and state self-images. Welty’s work has often been criticized for lacking that political dimension, a consciousness of the racial networks that created the pervading social tensions that seem to define Mississippi in the minds of so many, friend and foe alike. Faulkner has been bashed on numerous occasions because of his perceived lack of distance (that home address again) and resulting blundering naïveté in political and racial matters. But the insistence on overt political content is itself a shrill political attack, an un-Jamesian imposition of a donnée on writers of any address, an assumption that racial history is the single and unequivocal given in Mississippi. There would thus seem to have been a contradiction: the same criticism that insists on fidelity to place has often assumed that that fidelity worked against a Mississippian’s capacity to understand Mississippi. Thus, when we go to Europe or Boston, we are too far from place; when we stay at home, we are too close. How did we ever learn to write?
But Faulkner’s work, writ large, is not the race-dominated oeuvre that we generally take it to be, although there is some consensus that Light in August, Absalom, Absalom!, and Go Down, Moses would be on any list of his greatest works. Though black characters are as much a part of his fictional landscape as of the actual landscape of North Mississippi, they are by and large part of the given and are often centrally involved in a work’s fictional situation without the work’s being “about” race—except as their circumstances as poor and historically disadvantaged help to create the fictional situation from essential elements of the social and cultural landscape. In Requiem for a Nun, Nancy Mannigoe, who murders Temple Drake’s baby, would almost certainly not have done so had she not been so positioned by poverty and circumstance; race is crucial in Requiem but is not its source or the reservoir of its meaning, and the novel is not “about” race in the same sense as Absalom, Light in August, and Go Down, Moses. Faulkner nearly always deals with poverty and injustice and family dysfunction as they appear in white families; when black characters are central to his narratives, they are heroic, intelligent, complicated people who cope heroically even if sometimes tragically not so much with poverty as with a white world to which they are connected by the intimacies of blood and tradition. Minor black characters in his fiction are marginalized—faces on the street, snapshots as we pass them. Faulkner never dealt directly—either in his fiction or, I suspect, in his life—with the particularly anguished, tumultuous world of Mississippi that Richard Wright describes so powerfully in Black Boy. Black Boy faces things that Faulkner for some reason simply avoided. That is perhaps why Faulkner, still in his high-modernist, nonpolitical phase, liked Native Son much more than he liked Black Boy: he wrote to Wright that what Black Boy said certainly needed to be said but that it would be much better said in fiction—as if fictional artists could not write autobiography.
Ford’s fiction does not at first seem to engage the state’s racial history at all. However, that history is a major presence, and he treats it more as a current political fact than as a historical problem and as a wider and more profoundly American problem than the narrowly focused though of course powerfully dramatic problems of lynching and other forms of racial violence: his New Jersey has problems of immigration, and he sets Independence Day around 4 July and The Lay of the Land during the week of Thanksgiving, dates that allow a wide range of meditations on the meaning of America. Blacks in the work of Walker Percy and Barry Hannah seem as confused and befuddled as whites are. Ellen Douglas marks out her own racial territory in Can’t Quit You, Baby, depoliticizes it as much as possible to concentrate on the relations between a white woman and the black woman who cooks and cleans for her. No one slices more intimately than Douglas into the intricacies of race relations as they are lived day to day, exploring how friendship, love, and hate happen simultaneously even through years of misunderstanding and assumption, at some distance from Faulkner’s and Wright’s more public dramas. For Richard Wright, of course, race is the defining and all-consuming landscape of fiction and of his important polemical nonfiction writings about Africa’s emergence as a primary fact of world politics in the post–World War II world, though even he needed to escape the topic in a voluminous series of haiku.
We can best define “Mississippi fiction” as fiction written by Mississippians, without attaching any preconditions as to its subject matter. In fact, Mississippi’s fiction writers cast a very wide net indeed for subject and setting: Augustus Baldwin Longstreet’s and Joseph Beckham Cobb’s treatments of backwoods Mississippi and Alabama rednecks; Joseph Holt Ingraham’s fabulously best-selling historical and religious epics; Evans Harrington’s exploration of the penal system at Parchman; Thomas Hal Phillips’s depiction of the problems of young male friendships; Thomas Harris’s serial-killer epics; Elizabeth Spencer’s lights in various piazzas; James Street’s extremely popular dramas of antebellum Mississippi and of Columbus’s voyage to the New World; Stark Young’s antebellum Mississippi planters and aristocrats; Willie Morris’s exploration of the social and political scene in New York and Washington, D.C.; Larry Brown’s Vietnam returnees; John Grisham’s and Greg Iles’s best-selling thrillers; and Barry Hannah’s depiction of a postmodern Mississippi and Alabama, where all traditional assumptions about Mississippi and everything else simply dissolve in a chaos of the current, where black and white are fellow travelers no matter what our history, where we are all equally befuddled and confused and doing our best, whatever that is. Mississippi fiction is a sumptuous examination not just of Mississippi but of the rest of the world and of Mississippi’s inextricable relationship to it.
- Dorothy Abbott, Mississippi Writers: Reflections on Childhood and Youth, vol. 1, Fiction (1985)
- Patti Carr Black and Marion Barnwell, Touring Literary Mississippi (2003)
- Noel E. Polk and James R. Scafidel, An Anthology of Mississippi Writers (1979)