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OPINION | REX NELSON: Chasing Willie Morris

by Rex Nelson | March 7, 2021 at 8:44 a.m.

It's amazing what you can find when stuck at home due to a pandemic and winter storms. I was organizing my books (my wife claims I have too many, but of course, you can never have too many books) when I pulled down a copy of Larry L. King's 2006 "In Search of Willie Morris: The Mercurial Life of a Legendary Writer and Editor."

This isn't the talk-show host Larry King, who recently died. This is the Texas native who was a journalist, novelist, playwright and regular contributor to such publications as Texas Monthly, The Texas Observer, Parade and Harper's. This King was a finalist for the Triple Crown of American letters--a National Book Award, a Broadway Tony and a television Emmy.

Stuck inside the book, which I had purchased soon after it came out at what I consider the South's best bookstore--Square Books in Oxford, Miss.--were two postcards. I had forgotten about them. They were from Morris, sent in response to letters and writing samples I had mailed to him.

The first was dated April 20, 1984, and was a simple white postcard with a return address of Willie Morris, Box 682, University, Miss., 38677.

"I'm grateful for your kind note and apologize for this long delay in replying," Morris wrote. "I enjoyed the pieces you sent me. I've got to go to New York for a while but will be back here this summer. Drop me a note then and if you come to Oxford we'll have dinner."

The second postcard featured baseball player Mike "King" Kelly and was from the National Baseball Hall of Fame & Museum. Kelly was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1945. Morris loved baseball and made it part of the mix during his celebrated tenure as editor of Harper's, one of the nation's oldest magazines, from 1967-71.

As Harper's editor, Morris helped launch the careers of writers such as Norman Mailer and William Styron. He moved staid old Harper's to the top of the list of what were known as "hot books" in the magazine industry.

The length and tone of those articles, along with Morris' liberal politics, became too much for the Cowles family, which owned the magazine. Morris resigned under pressure in 1971. The loss of the job drove him into an extended period of depression, heavy drinking and self-imposed exile on Long Island.

That second postcard from Morris was dated Jan. 24, 1985, and read: "Many thanks for your nice note. I enjoyed meeting you in Little Rock. I'm up to my neck in work now. Maybe you can drop over to Oxford in March. Best wishes and good luck."

At the time I received the cards, I was news and sports director of two radio stations in my hometown of Arkadelphia, was teaching communications classes at Ouachita Baptist University as an adjunct even though I was only a few years older than the students, and was trying my hand at freelance writing for anyone who would pay and some who didn't.

Like other Southerners of my era, I had become a fan of Morris after reading his 1967 book "North Toward Home," about growing up in Mississippi, his early adult years in Texas and his move to New York City. The Sunday Times of London called it "the finest evocation of an American boyhood since Mark Twain."

The book chronicled the desegregation years in the South, the power of Lyndon Johnson in Texas and the literary scene in New York. I first read it in high school.

Captivated by the Oxford literary vibe, I came close to attending college at the University of Mississippi. Job offers from Arkadelphia's daily newspaper and radio stations convinced me to stay home and attend Ouachita, but I remained obsessed with Mississippi writers from William Faulkner to Willie Morris. I began chasing Morris with what can only be described as fan letters.

I vividly remember sitting at a picnic table outside my parents' house in the spring of 1980, grilling steaks and flipping through the new issue of Inside Sports magazine. I discovered an article by Morris about his decision to return home to Mississippi after all those years on the East Coast.

"I finally came home," he wrote. "It was not too late. Much of being back has to do with the land, its sensual textures--one's memory re-awakened by the rising mists on January afternoons, the oscillation of bitter winter days and the swift false springs, the jonquils piercing through the ice, the slow-flowing rivers and the hush of the pine hills.

"In a moment of despair once in New York City, involving lost love and the Manhattan angst, in the Sunday morning of an autumn mist with the church bells chiming, an honored friend said: 'But you have Mississippi. It never left you ...'

"I enjoy moving amidst the people and places Faulkner wrote about. It gives me a curious serenity, these things he owns. At 25, being a writer and a Mississippi boy, I believe his aura might have intimidated me. When asked what a Southern writer could do after the example of Bill Faulkner, Flannery O'Conner said: 'You get off the tracks when the Dixie Special comes through.' At 45, I no longer want to leap off the tracks, for I have learned that I own a piece of the railroad, too."

King revealed in his book that Morris loved taking visiting writers on post-midnight tours of the Oxford cemetery, "always ending at William Faulkner's grave. There, by the flickering flare of a cigarette lighter, they read Faulkner's tombstone and--invariably--they would water the old master's resting place with token splashes of whatever was in their cups or glasses or bottles: bourbon, Scotch, wine, beer, you name it. Willie's homecoming seemed to spark a new spirit of fun."

Morris wrote in the Inside Sports essay: "I like the way they sell chicken and pit barbecue and fried catfish in the little stores next to the service stations. I like the way the co-eds make themselves up for their classes. . . . I like the unflagging courtesy of the young, the way they say 'Sir' and 'Ma'am.' I like the way the white and black people banter with each other, the old graying black men whiling away their time sitting on the brick wall in front of the jailhouse, some of them wearing Rebel baseball caps. I like the intertwining of old family names. I like the way people remember their dead. . . .

"I find strange mementos, unusual objects of obeisance or piety, or perhaps duty, left by enigmatic visitors on Mr. Bill's grave. Many twigs of holly were deposited there after Christmas. Once we found a full pint of bourbon. An old, soggy edition of Yeats' poems was there one day."

In a January 1980 handwritten letter to fellow Southern writer Robert Penn Warren, Morris wrote: "Dear Red: This has been a homecoming for me. I find myself happier than I've been in years--that curious serenity in one's middle years which derives from coming back to the sensual textures of one's childhood--the landscape, the wood smoke on wintry Mississippi days which Bill Faulkner wrote about, the way people talk, all of it. I think I may stay this time."

I regret that I never drove to Oxford and knocked on Morris' door after receiving those postcards. Life got in the way. I returned to the Arkansas Democrat as assistant sports editor soon after receiving the second postcard. I was on the East Coast by 1986 as the newspaper's Washington correspondent. On lonely winter days (anyone who tells you Washington is a Southern city has never lived there), "North Toward Home" was a book I read over and over.

I returned to Arkansas in 1989, but left the newspaper business in 1996 and didn't come back for 21 years. Willie Morris died in August 1999. In traveling around my native state while profiling its people and places, I try to show the respect for Arkansas that Morris showed for Mississippi.

I spent years chasing Willie Morris. More than two decades after his death, perhaps I've finally caught him.

Rex Nelson is a senior editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.


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