Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Willie Morris on Steve McNair and the South

Mississippi is known for it's writers. When you look at a list of Mississippians who wrote books it's a veritable Who's Who of Southern Literature. The most famous Mississippi writers include William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Tennessee Williams, Larry Brown, Stephen Ambrose, Shelby Foote, John Grisham, and Willie Morris.

Willie Morris was born and raised in Yazoo City, Mississippi. After graduating from high school, he attended the University of Texas at Austin where he served as editor for the school newspaper. Willie was not popular with UT's administration because of his scathing articles against segregation, censorship, and the partnership of politicians with the local oil and gas interests. Willie was so disliked by the administration that UT did not acknowledge his winning of a Rhodes Scholarship with even as much as a letter of congratulations. After returning from his studies in Oxford, Willie worked for a small newspaper in Texas and served as editor of Harper's Magazine in New York City before returning to Mississippi. Willie was the writer-in-residence at Ole Miss for many years. One of his most famous pupils there was a law student that would sit in on his lectures. That law student, named John Grisham later released a "A Time To Kill" with Willie writing the forward. Willie Morris died of a heart attack in 1999, just a few months before the movie of his most famous work, "My Dog Skip" was released.

Willie was a giant football fan and loved keeping up with the in-state talent (note: I'm currently reading his work The Courting of Marcus Dupree which is about a talented MS running back) In 1994, a young man named Steve "Air II" McNair was setting records at Alcorn State. Willie went to visit and ended up writing this article for the New York Times. It's classic Willie Morris. It touches on some of the ideas and themes that consumed his writing: importance of the past, allegiance to a place, the power of land, the glory and disappointment of sports, the meanness and tragedy of racial injustice (I stole this from the Mississippi Writers Page). It's well worth a read.

While your at it, I strongly recommend reading "Is There A South Anymore" from a 1986 issue of Southerner Magazine. I love the part towards the end where he talks about what makes the South different: A heightened sense of community, manners, ritual, morality, white/black relations, and the continuity of our culture.

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