Submitted by Sid Salter
Last week’s Mississippi Book Festival provided an opportunity to reconnect with old and dear friends in celebrating extraordinary writers like the late Willie Morris and Barry Hannah with people who knew and loved them – including Willie’s immensely talented son David Rae Morris, now an accomplished writer, photographer, filmmaker and documentarian in his own right.
I moderated a panel presentation on Morris that featured David Rae’s new book “Love, Daddy: Letters from My Father” – a collection of personal letters written by Willie to his son along with David’s wonderful photos and narrative on his complex relationship with his family and David’s trepidations over fatherhood. Morris died in 1999.
David’s book is marvelous and preserves an important literary history. To those who knew and loved Willie, it’s also a tremendous journey through a storied Mississippi life.
Joining us on the festival panel was Lawrence “Larry” Wells of Oxford, the impresario of Yoknapatawpha Press and acclaimed Morris literary scholar Jack Bales of the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia.
Back in 1982, Wells was among the inner circle of Morris’s closest friends. His press published several of Willie’s collections of essays and reprinted several of his significant early works. Willie called him “Boss.”
Along with then-Mayor John Leslie, Ed Morgan, Charles Henry, Clyde Goolsby, David Sansing and Ed Perry, Wells and his wife Dean Faulkner Wells (the niece of Nobel Prize winner William Faulkner) were among the central figures in Willie’s life during his time as writer-in-residence at Ole Miss.
Wells’ book “In Faulkner’s Shadow” chronicles the evolution of Oxford while Morris and mercurial writer Barry Hannah were on the scene there. A strange rivalry developed (mostly from Hannah, Wells recalled) that developed unintended consequences between the two talents.
In those days, interlopers at Willie’s 16 Faculty Row bungalow on the campus on any given evening might encounter legendary writers such as Larry L. King, William Styron, Larry McMurtry, David Halberstam, Winston Groom, George Plimpton and then-young Mississippi journalists Orley Hood, Rick Cleveland, Billy Watkins, Raad Cawthon and me. Wells’ book captures vignettes of many of those moments.
Perhaps the single most valuable reference to the life and work of one of Mississippi’s favorite literary sons is Bales’ “Willie Morris: An Exhaustive Annotated Bibliography and a Biography.” Bales was a great resource for David Rae in researching and editing “Love, Daddy.”
The body of Willie’s literary works – 23 books and numerous newspaper and magazine articles spanning from The Daily Texan in 1955 during his college days at the University of Texas until his death – is meticulously chronicled in Bales’ book.
A note on the supposed Morris-Hannah rivalry during the Oxford days – Hannah, who died in 2010 at age 67, was one of the most intense and driven people I’ve known. I met him through Willie in the early 1980s and quite frankly didn’t like him then. He was a hard drinker, arrogant, and emotionally flammable. Barry dressed in black most of the time in that era, drove a motorcycle and was despite a soaring intellect ready to fight at the drop of a hat. We didn’t mix well in those days.
When I taught journalism at Ole Miss in the mid-1990s, we reconnected and laughed about some of our earlier misadventures. One could sense that teaching had become more important to him. My daughter Kate was at the time one of his creative writing students and she loved him.
In the end, Hannah courageously battled cancer. The excesses of his youth gave way to a certain resignation, but never to defeat or cowardice.
Mississippi never produced a more ardent defender or a harsher social critic than Willie Morris. His son David told festival attendees that his father’s honesty in his iconic work “North Toward Home” remains an important and relevant social criticism of problems that endure in Mississippi.
That gnawing conflict – Willie’s love of home, family and heritage tempered with his outrage at racism, hatred and injustice in his home state – would color the whole of his life and his work.
Submitted by Sid Salter