August 6, 1999
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The writer Willie Morris was buried yesterday in his hometown of Yazoo City, Mississippi. He wrote more than a dozen books, including North Toward Home, which the London Sunday Times praised as "the finest evocation of an American boyhood since Mark Twain." Morris left his beloved Mississippi Delta at age 17 in 1952 to study at the University of Texas; he became a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford in England; editor of the weekly Texas Observer; and, at age 32, the youngest editor ever of Harper's Magazine in New York. He returned to his native state in 1980 as writer-in-residence at the University of Mississippi in Oxford. In this 1995 reading from his book New York Days, he talks about going home.
WILLIE MORRIS: "Here I was, back again in the sweet and deep, dark womb of home. The eternal juxtaposition of my state's hate and love, the apposition of its severity and tenderness, would forever baffle and enrage me, but perhaps that is what I needed all along. I would never deny the poverty, the smugness, the infectious cruelty which have existed on this soil. Sometimes I cannot live with its awesome emotional burdens, its terrible racist hazards and human neglects; sometimes I can; but these forever drive me to words. Meanness is everywhere, but here the meanness and the desperation and the nobility have for me their own dramatic edge, for the fools are my fools, and the heroes are mine, too."
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Willie Morris died of heart failure last Monday. He was 64. With us now to talk about him are two of his friends and colleagues: Edwin Yoder, who wrote for Morris at the Texas Observer and at Harper's, and who is author of The Historical Present, among other books; and artist Bill Dunlap, a native of Mississippi who collaborated with Morris on Homecomings, a collection of Dunlap paintings and Morris essays. Thank you both for being with us. Ed Yoder, the sweet and deep, dark womb of home he talked about. That was kind of a key theme, wasn't it?
ED YODER: Well, it was. He always had these wonderful metaphors that -- he referred to New York City as the big cave. And home was the womb. And he the soul of a poet among other wonderful assets. And so it's not surprising that he talked that way. And there are little Wolfian echoes here. When I first knew Willie of course as a North Carolinian I had devoured Thomas Wolf's novels at a fairly early age. And Willie was the first person I met from outside the Chapel Hill circles who had read everything Wolf had ever written and furthermore in his fashion remembered everything -and he was -- we were both enthralled with that sort of vocabulary, that poetic evocative vocabulary, the womb of home.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And Bill, Dunlap, he lay in state at the old state capitol which is now a museum in Jackson, Mississippi, the only writer to ever do so -- he was so highly thought of.
WILLIAM DUNLAP: And it was only right and thanks to Governor Winters for seeing that that happened. I think the first person to lie in state there was General Barksdale, whose remains were disinterred from the battlefield at Gettysburg are the Reconstruction government was sent flying and they rebuilt the capitol that was burned during the war, and then this century Senator Stenis and Judge Coleman and now Willie Morris. He would have liked that progression.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: He was that highly thought of in Mississippi?
WILLIAM DUNLAP: Yes.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Explain.
WILLIAM DUNLAP: It's ineffable, as he would say. Willie was what Mississippi was all about in some ways. He's emblematic of the place. He's our best side; he's gracious and generous and loquacious and conflicted, of course, you know, and obsessed with the past but not so much that he can't see the future. Willie is Mississippi at its very best.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And many, many writers came, right? Tell us why. What did he mean to the writers that were at the funeral?
EDWIN YODER: Well, let me if I may just speak for my own personal experience. Of course there were marvelous people at Bill Styron, and David Halberstam and many others there. My experience was that Willie was like a guardian angel. He always had his eye on the interests of his friends who were writers. And he was always trying to put a writer together with a situation. I was just remembering a moment ago I did a piece on a Texas Congressman for Harper's Magazine. Willie and this particular Congressman, a very colorful and very brilliant man named Bob Eckhart, and I were having dinner at the Algonquin Hotel in New York. And all of a sudden Willie said Yoder, you ought to write a piece on that one, and you ought to use him as an aperture and to what it's like to be in the House of Representatives. Unfortunately that was 30 years ago so it's quite out of date now but I think that was his connection with writers. He was a wonderfully attentive and generous friend and patron of writers and certainly a brilliant editor.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: That's what I wanted to ask next. What was it like having him edit your work especially when he was at Harper's?
EDWIN YODER: Well, Elizabeth, he always had me of necessity rewrite the very few pieces -- I shouldn't sail on false colors here. I didn't really write that much. I wrote regular book reviews but I didn't write as many marvelous full pieces as David Halberstam, for example, did, by any means. But Willie had no hesitation in sending a manuscript back to a friend. He did it, in my case, and said, you know, this doesn't work. What are you trying to say? Send me a letter, sum up what you're trying to say. I would send him a letter and Willie would say, "Yoder, write it the way you write it in the letter and it would work." He was a great editor, marvelous editor.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What was he like as a person? A guardian angel - angel -- people talk about his incredible generosity of spirit.
WILLIAM DUNLAP: He was outrageously funny and he was incredibly generous. I mean, they're like a mantra that was repeated - he helped to make an awful lot of writers rich. He read everybody's manuscript, and put them together with agents, and most famously I guess is John Grisham, who was in law school at Old Miss in the 80's when Willie was writing there and he brought them down and Bill Styron and Grisham would hang around in the back and he got to know Willie. Willie put him in touch with some people from New York. And the rest is financial if not literacy history. But he did that for Don - he did it for Graham - he did it for everybody. Winston at the graveside said, I'm trying to figure out what I should say here. Thank you, Willie. Just thank you.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And he loved things like bus stations and he loved the local-cost beauty parlors and all those places.
WILLIAM DUNLAP: There was a trashy side to that boy, Willie.
EDWIN YODER: He especially loved cemeteries. I mean, he was a great student of cemeteries. Bill Styron told a wonderful story about how he was taken out to a country cemetery near Oxford, Mississippi and that this was a typical Willie trick. He loved tricks. He had, in part, the soul of a 10-year-old boy, a playful boy. He would go to the most elaborate lengths to play tricks on his friends. Anyway, Styron, to make it very short, he and Styron were walking toward the cemetery and Willie said what's that? He always calls Styron Stingo, because that is the nickname of the lead character in Styron's great novel Lie Down in Darkness. And he said, Stingo, look at that, what is that, and there an open book on one of the graves. Of course it was Lie Down in Darkness. It was opened to that magnificent passage from Sir Thomas Brown about lying down in darkness.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What do you think is most important about his writing? I mean he's a southerner. People always refer to him as a southern writer but he always said I'm a southerner and I'm an American. He said Mississippi is America.
WILLIAM DUNLAP: At large.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Yeah. Is that why, do you think that's the most significant thing about his writing, that he did that so well, put those two together?
WILLIAM DUNLAP: Writing was just one of his many talents. He was an artist. He lived his life as an artist. He took political stands that were not only unpopular they were downright dangerous.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: He printed the "Melie" story.
WILLIAM DUNLAP: That's right. As far as race in the South is concerned. That's what he hated about the place but no doubt he loved it. The first time I saw Willie was at the old Capitol Building in 1967 -- he was at Harper's, showed up in a Brooks Brothers suit and came down and -
EDWIN YODER: I was about to say Willie was always -- Willie cared nothing -- he was as free of vanity as anybody I've known.
WILLIAM DUNLAP: Well, he looked good to my poor eyes.
EDWIN YODER: His clothing was as shabby on many occasions as it could possibly be. I'm just interjecting here.
WILLIAM DUNLAP: You know, as a young man in Mississippi, I'm about a half a dozen years younger, and so what he did for my generation of artists was let us know that it was possible to go out and amount to something. But for a young man, you can't realize how isolated the place was in the '60s. There was no media glut as there is now. You have to remember how important magazines like Harper's and the Atlantic were. Anybody who thought or had an idea read those. And for Willie to left Mississippi and ended up at Harper's, hell, he could have gone to the moon and it would have been about the same sort of trip. So we all followed him He gave us permission to go out and amount to something and to come back home.
EDWIN YODER: Elizabeth, could I add just one thing to what Bill has said?
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Yes.
EDWIN YODER: Willie Morris had a sort of verbal genius that had ingrained in it this marvelous wit. Let me just give you an example. Willie read history, mainly English history, at Oxford, and there was an Anglo-Saxon king who glories in the name of "Unready." Ever thereafter whenever Willie was going to use what, you know, we say to the right of Genghis Kahn, Willie never said that. He would say so-and-so is to the right of Ethel Read, the Unready.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I was struck by something that you said in your introduction to his book, north toward home. You said that he had to really resist in New York. Here he is the toast of New York as the 32-year-old editor of Harper's, losing what was most true about him, and that is one reason I guess he eventually went back to Mississippi. But you said this was such a crucial thing for Americans, for writers, that people remain true to their regional, to their home place.
EDWIN YODER: Well, you know, this is part of my own personal prejudice, that all great writing, all universality starts with very concrete provinciality in a sense. And Willie was anchored in small-town Mississippi and he never allowed that to be eroded. I mean, that was like a core of his being, never to be eroded. It was from that sort of firm foundation and core that he saw the world and he made the world into a kind of narrative that really began at that core and in a sense went out like tree rings as he gained experience.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And that's what meant so much to an artist like you from Mississippi.
WILLIAM DUNLAP: When he came back after ten hard years -- and after a couple of failed romances and way too much whiskey -- the place opened up to him like a grandmother, a warm bath and Mississippi reciprocated and Willie reciprocated in the same kind. There were an awful lot of others who were I guess pop psychologists we call them -- enablers. We would give him drinks. The prose never stopped. When we worked on this book together, Homecomings, Joanne - soon to be Joanne Morris - Joanne Pritchard was the editor at the University of Mississippi. They sort of met and fell in love. It is a wonderful love story in 1989. There were dinners that I wasn't a part of. And Senator Thad Cochran, the senior citizen as Senator for Mississippi threw a big party for us and Willie got up and announced his engagement that very night.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Thank you both very much.