In the introduction to Humor of the Old Deep South (1936), Arthur Palmer Hudson comments on a fundamental issue that confronts any anthologist or encyclopedist: “History and literature, philosophy and folklore: we separate them for purposes of study and try to pretend that they are different. We dedicate foundations and dissect them, endow chairs to support them in grand isolation, pay professors to subdivide and scrutinize them. Then, as good laymen, we sweep away the messy fragments and forget them, or feed them to school boys.” To be useful, an encyclopedia needs to be divided into topics and categories. Anyone who attempts to treat very many of the topics “in grand isolation” is soon frustrated: always things overlap; always there are “messy fragments.” When subdividing the general category literature into its constituents, it is relatively easy to identify prose fiction, poetry, and drama, but what about the rest? What about memoirs, biographies, general histories, or collections of essays? What happens to a novelist who writes a prizewinning history? Thus this encyclopedia has a rather amorphous category, nonfiction, for what remains after fiction, poetry, and drama are peeled away from the huge and fascinating body of English prose produced by writers who enjoy some connection to Mississippi. It is the glory of Mississippi’s attachment to the written word that there is so much left over, so many juicy if also messy “fragments,” when the purely imaginative is removed.
Nothing figures quite so pervasively in Mississippi’s nonfictional prose as the issues of race and civil rights. During the civil rights movement of the 1960s Mississippi became the locus of some of the most significant events of the twentieth century. Because of the centrality of these issues to the state’s history, Mississippians have written voluminously about race, and because the issues directly or indirectly affect almost every feature of life in the state, texts not ostensibly about race often take on the burdens of unintentional complexity as readers—with good reason—examine them for nuances of racial imagery and symbolism.
It is not surprising that during the first half of the nineteenth century Mississippians, having invested much of their wealth in the ownership of human beings, would feel the need to join their fellow southerners in the defense of the peculiar institution. Regarding Africans and their American descendants as inferior to those of European descent, authors Henry Hughes and Matthew Estes argued that slavery provided civilizing amelioration for a people who otherwise would lack that advantage. Hughes and Estes joined their voices to those of many editors and preachers who sought to justify the antebellum slave economy on the grounds that it was good for the enslaved and that it imposed the dignity of noblesse oblige on the owners.
After the Civil War and well into the mid-twentieth century Mississippians made significant contributions to the narrative of the Lost Cause, relying on representations of the pastoral beauty of the antebellum arrangements Hughes and Estes endeavored to defend. These narratives bolstered the reassertion of white dominance after Reconstruction and defended the sharecropping system as it emerged. Memoirs, many of them written under guidelines supplied by the United Daughters of the Confederacy and southern veterans’ organizations, added to the underlying ideology of white supremacy and the consensus that condoned the activities of the Ku Klux Klan and supported racial segregation. Until the 1970s schoolchildren read history texts endorsing white supremist viewpoints. Horace Fulkerson’s The Negro: As He Was, as He Is, as He Will Be (1887), Alfred Holt Stone’s Studies in the American Race Problem (1908), and Laura Rose’s The Ku Klux Klan; or, Invisible Empire (1914) made the prevailing ideology seem reasonable, even beneficial, for black Mississippians, depicting them as happy in their rural place.
The black community had few means and little opportunity to make its case against the dominant racial narrative. Following the lead of Booker T. Washington, Laurence Clifton Jones (Piney Woods and Its Story ) and William Henry Holtzclaw (The Black Man’s Burden ) opened private schools to teach the useful trades to black students, raising funds from northern philanthropists. Several decades passed, however, before the ideas of Washington’s principal opponent, W. E. B. Du Bois, gained a following in Mississippi.
Some of Mississippi’s more moderate whites were inclined to agree with Jones and Holtzclaw. Leroy Percy gave a 1907 speech to the Mississippi Bar Association supporting education for African Americans, and his son, William Alexander Percy, as his cousin, novelist Walker Percy, notes, “was regarded in the Mississippi of his day as a flaming liberal” in matters of race. Nevertheless, Will Percy, who once entertained African American poet Langston Hughes in Greenville, believed that “the Negro” should “before demanding to be a white man socially and politically, learn to be a white man morally and intellectually.” Will Percy used his 1941 autobiography to passionately advocate noblesse oblige, which dictated an obligation for white men of high breeding to care for their “tragic, pitiful, and lovable” culturally younger black brothers, who were “not adult, not disciplined.” Because southern whites of privileged economic and social standing believed that they knew “the Negro” better than did working-class southerners or northerners, they also believed that they occupied a better position to act in the black community’s interests. Will Percy’s good friend and sometime houseguest, David Cohn, published three editions of his Mississippi memoirs in which he professed views similar to and appreciative of his host’s. Most of these more moderate whites, among them the Percys and Cohn, vigorously opposed the Ku Klux Klan. A number of journalists throughout the state, most notably Clayton Rand, also supported the moderate viewpoint.
Will Percy’s Lanterns on the Levee appeared in 1941, six years after Hodding Carter Jr. had moved, largely at Percy’s urging, from Hammond, Louisiana, to Greenville to edit first the Delta Star newspaper and then the Delta Democrat-Times. Carter’s views surpassed his benefactor’s in moderation, and he was soon regarded as a truly liberal voice in racial matters. In 1946 Carter received the Pulitzer Prize for his courageous criticism of Sen. Theodore Bilbo, among others.
The previous year, Richard Wright had published the first part of his autobiography, Black Boy, which earned public condemnation from Bilbo. Wright’s bare, surrealistic prose narrative depicts his boyhood in the Deep South amid privations and injustices that denied him not only economic and educational opportunities but sometimes life’s basic necessities—food, clothing, and shelter.
The civil rights movement brought a number of books by black Mississippians. Lerone Bennett, editor of Ebony Magazine, and William Raspberry, a columnist for the Washington Post, were among the first to contribute their considerable talents to the movement. John Alfred Williams published This Is My Country Too (1965) two years before the novel for which he is best known, The Man Who Cried I Am. Anne Moody’s Coming of Age in Mississippi (1968) chronicled growing up in and near Centreville, her college days as a waitress in New Orleans and as a student at Tougaloo College in Jackson, and her work in the civil rights movement in Canton and Jackson. It has become a classic text of the movement.
Chalmers Archer Jr.’s Growing Up Black in Rural Mississippi: Memories of a Family, Heritage of a Place (1992) depicts his life growing up near Tchula. Endesha Ida Mae Holland’s play, The Second Doctor Lady, served as the basis for her 1991 drama, From the Mississippi Delta, which she rewrote and published as a memoir six years later. Clifton Taulbert’s three memoirs, Once upon a Time When We Were Colored (1989), The Last Train North (1992), and Watching Our Crops Come In (1997), focus on his experiences growing up in Glen Allan. Archer, Holland, and Taulbert write about life in the Delta and the often harsh conditions there for young black children in the 1940s and 1950s—the same time and place that Percy observed from a very different perspective. For Taulbert more than for the others and certainly more than for Moody or Wright, African American folkways offered a sustaining foundation that in its better manifestations made for pleasant memories.
The number of distinguished Mississippi historians and literary critics who, while often concerned with race, turn to other topics is far too large for each of them to have a separate entry in this encyclopedia. For example, John Knox Bettersworth’s high school history text, Mississippi: A History (1959), remained the standard until James Loewen and Charles Sallis published Mississippi: Conflict and Change (1974); Thomas Daniel Young was an authority on the literature of the American South; and Suzanne Marrs has written the standard biography of Eudora Welty. Among those who are included in this volume are Shelby Foote, whose three-volume history of the Civil War helped make him a television personality late in his life; David Herbert Donald, whose biographies of Charles Sumner and Thomas Wolfe won Pulitzer Prizes; Dumas Malone, whose biography of Thomas Jefferson also won a Pulitzer; and Charles Sydnor, who served as head of the history department at the University of Mississippi.
In addition to the distinguished reputations earned by some of Mississippi’s literary and academic historians, the state’s local history and folklore have engendered a noteworthy library of books. A wide variety of purposes drives or sometimes inspires writers to shape the memories and history of a place into prose. One of the better of those reasons is the sheer joy of producing descriptive language for its own sake and the humor a particular angle of vision can generate. Among the reasons for Jill Connor Browne’s success is the obvious pleasure she takes in the Sweet Potato Queen, and the same can be said for Jerry Clower’s anecdotes.
Preserving the memory of a vanishing way of life has long provided motivation for local and folk historians. Humor easily mixes with nostalgia. Augustus Baldwin Longstreet, who became president of the University of Mississippi in 1849, claimed that he was doing nothing more than preserving a memory of images and incidents in the sketches he collected in Georgia Scenes (1835). A great deal of the material that Hudson included in Humor of the Old Deep South presents itself as local history. Hudson’s collection includes selections by J. F. H. Claiborne, W. H. Sparks, Reuben Davis, and John Sharp Williams, who wrote about the settlement and development of the state and in the process assessed the prevailing estimates of the general character of the populace. Several of these writers attempted to defend Mississippians’ character from the depictions of them in the more raucous backwoods, frontier humor of the half-horse, half-alligator variety. Horace Fulkerson’s Random Recollections of Early Days in Mississippi (1885) preserves some engaging episodes he believed to be representative of the early settlement of the region. Much more recently Grady Thigpen’s accounts of life in and around Picayune preserve local history that escapes more formal accounts. Thigpen found the visitors to his hardware store to be a vast source for a communal life worth saving from oblivion.
Journalists, too, have made enormously worthwhile contributions by preserving their impressions of communal, political, and social events. Some of the more distinguished such authors—William Raspberry and Bill Minor, for example—have organized into books some of their widely read columns on topics of local, state, national, and international news.
Construction of the past in language enables memoirists to objectify the personal and explore its meaning, confronting memory to understand it and articulate its values. The intellectual honesty of Noel Polk’s examination of his Baptist upbringing in Outside the Southern Myth (1997) is enriched by his engagement with William Faulkner’s prose and the history of ideas as well as by Polk’s considerable talent as a writer. But for Polk and for most recent writers, language is at best an inexact medium. When Alfred Holt Stone wrote in 1908 that he intended to explore the minds of black Mississippians “to learn what and how the Negro thinks and feels,” Stone likely believed that such a task was possible, and he obviously believed that language offered a reliable means for conveying what he thought he learned. Recently, however, such confidence has largely disappeared. Writers of nonfiction increasingly employ practices more often associated with imaginative writing. Describing the jazz musicians he first encountered as a high school student, Polk provides a good example: “They sang to parts of me that were eons old and I memorized them instantly: they were poems that I have never forgotten.”
Hudson observes that the writers represented in his anthology “did not bring to their work an active artistic imagination” and that the appeal of their work derives from “the inherent interest of the life which they record.” Hudson believed that the reason his writers “originated something new in writing was that they had the wit to realize that something old in talking might look new in writing.” Subsequent students of a few of these gifted amateurs have found considerable literary skill. Mississippi nonfiction in the twentieth century—the best of it—has capitalized on the earlier experiments. Some more recent writers have created prose of a very high artistic caliber indeed, and their work is likely to assume a place among the fundamental and formative texts of our culture. North toward Home (1967) and New York Days (1993), the two installments of Willie Morris’s memoir, employ imaginative, highly nuanced language to get at that part of the self that is “eons old.” Morris writes about his need to “take the language to its limits.” One of the more interesting constructs in Morris’s memoir is the Dixie Theater in Yazoo City, where as a boy Morris saw movies that “sent [him] into the bright roil of the afternoon with the pulsing mystery and promise of the world.”
Shelby Foote’s three-volume history of the Civil War also seems destined to become a permanent part of the national narrative. Convinced that history and fiction are very nearly identical in light of the language in which both must be told, Foote worked on his history for twenty years, shaping not simply sentences and paragraphs but the entire work into a unity that is a metaphor for his sense of a universal order limited only by the shape of time.
When fiction, and drama, and poetry are subtracted from the body of Mississippi prose, what is left may not, after all, be very different from what has been taken away. Perhaps that is one reason the “messy fragments” have a strong appeal.
- William L. Andrews, ed., African-American Autobiography: A Collection of Critical Essays (1992)
- Jack Bales, Willie Morris: An Exhaustive Annotated Bibliography and Biography (2010)
- J. Bill Berry, ed., Home Ground: Southern Autobiography (1991)
- J. Bill Berry, ed., Located Lives: Place and Idea in Southern Autobiography (1990)
- Will Brantley, Feminine Sense in Southern Memoir: Smith, Glasgow, Welty, Hellman, Porter, and Hurston (1995)
- Fred Brown and Jeannie McDonald, Growing Up Southern: How the South Shapes Its Writers (2005)
- James G. Hollandsworth Jr., Portrait of a Scientific Racist: Alfred Holt Stone of Mississippi (2008)
- James B. Lloyd, ed., Lives of Mississippi Authors, 1817–1967 (1981)
- Ed Piacentino, ed., The Enduring Legacy of Old Southwest Humor (2006)
- Robert Stepto, From behind the Veil: A Study of Afro-American Narrative (1991)
- Julius E. Thompson, The Black Press in Mississippi, 1865–1985 (1994)
- Benjamin E. Wise, William Alexander Percy: The Curious Life of a Mississippi Planter and Sexual Freethinker (2012)