Why has Mississippi inspired so many great writers?
Editor’s note: “To understand the world, you must first understand a place like Mississippi.” These words, often attributed to William Faulkner, “have become the mantra of every writer who works within the borders of this state. If you can find where the past and the present intersect within Mississippi, you can indeed understand the world,” writes W. Ralph Eubanks in A Place Like Mississippi: A Journey Through a Real and Imagined Literary Landscape (Timber Press, 2021). Such a journey, Eubanks writes, requires an understanding of the physical landscapes of Mississippi as well as its literary topography: “A journey through the terrain that inspires Mississippi writers is one taken through both real and imagined places, where sometimes what is imagined seems real and what is real seems imaginary.”
Though a small state in terms of geographic size and population, Mississippi occupies an outsized place in the world of American letters. Why? How has “a little state that rests alongside the banks of a great and mighty river” made so many significant contributions to American literature? “The answer,” Eubanks writes, “lies in a landscape that pairs ordinariness with beauty, magic with madness, and mystery with magnificence.”
Born in Mount Olive, Miss., Eubanks is a visiting professor of English and Southern Studies at the University of Mississippi. He is the author of The House at the End of the Road: The Story of Three Generations of an Interracial Family in the American South and Ever Is a Long Time: A Journey into Mississippi’s Dark Past. The former editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review, he is a recipient of a 2007 Guggenheim Fellowship. He served as director of publishing at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., from 1995 to 2013.
The following excerpt is drawn from A Place Like Mississippi.
To a first-time visitor, Mississippi’s rural landscape brings to mind solitude and loneliness, a place from which one escapes rather than returns.
To a first-time visitor, Mississippi’s rural landscape brings to mind solitude and loneliness, a place from which one escapes rather than returns. Yet once the bright and pure quiet of a Mississippi country setting consumes your senses, you begin to feel as if you are in a place comfortably frozen in time. Off the beaten path of four-lane highways, on two-lane blacktops that wind through the rolling hills of the Piney Woods or run the vast stretches of flat Delta land, the hush of the setting is punctuated by tin-roofed barns and houses both large and small. Even close to a small town or suburban development, the land feels remote and holds the power to transfix your gaze. If you slow down and look closely—or even stop to walk around and seek out local inhabitants—you’ll understand why some of the loneliest spaces and most decrepit buildings in the state inspire writers to move them from the landscape to the page. This migration of Mississippi from the real to the imagined is a source of pride for its residents. Whether it is a tree-lined street in the Belhaven neighborhood of Jackson or a narrow stretch of the Chunky River that weaves through the hills outside of Meridian, many writers have taken a piece of the state’s landscape and populated it with a world that mirrors and magnifies the space that inspired it.
Eudora Welty recognized Mississippi as a place that held mystery. In The Golden Apples, she sought to expand upon the land’s seemingly unknowable qualities through the fictional setting of Morgana. The result is a town in the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta as complex as the landscape itself. Welty combines the red clay with the hayfield and the cotton field, and throws in the Old Natchez Trace for good measure. Morgana could be any small town in the state.
But it was not the Delta that inspired her story “June Recital,” which is set in Morgana. Instead, it was the very street she lived on in Jackson, Pinehurst Street, across from the Belhaven University Music Department where she would hear the constant practicing of piano. In the afterword to her Morgana stories Welty writes, “I began to hear, in what kept coming across the street...the recurring dreams of youth, inescapable, never to be renounced, naming themselves over and over again.” Those “recurring dreams of youth” were poured into her character Virgie Rainey and transported to her imaginary Morgana.
Welty is not alone in creating a confluence of place and memory on the page. Often there is a melding of settings by Mississippi writers rather than the pure re-creation of a solitary location. When Brad Watson set parts of his novel The Heaven of Mercury along the banks of the Chunky River, a popular spot for canoeists and fishermen, he mixed together family stories and childhood memories as well as accounts of the riverbank as it exists today. “I have it in my mind that in my parents’ and grandparents’ days, excursions to the Chunky River were even more common than they were in my time. There were a lot fewer ways for young people to entertain themselves in those times,” Watson recalls. But it was also a memory from his childhood that led him to use the river as a setting. “Young people have gone there for a long time to have fun in the summer, so a picnic there makes sense. During my family’s leanest times my brothers and I asked my father one spring if we would get to have a vacation at the beach that year. My father laughed and said, ‘We can’t even afford a vacation to Chunky this year.’”
When a place is experienced through the lens of the real and the imagined, whether through our own eyes or those of a writer, it takes on a heightened sense of reality. When Nina Simone sings “Everybody knows about Mississippi, goddam,” images of the violent, turbulent civil rights era come to mind and those scenes from the past become vividly real. Natasha Trethewey evokes a different image in “Theories of Time and Space” when she implores you, her reader, to head south on U.S. Route 49 until it dead-ends in the coastal town of Gulfport, asks you to walk on its artificial beach, and then reminds you to “Bring only what you must carry—tome of memory, its random blank pages.” These two impressions of Mississippi—one forged in anger and the other in a mixture of love, memory, loss and recovery—have much in common. What each writer reveals are the complex emotions that a place so beautiful yet so confounding can bring about.
Whether the pages of your notebook are blank or filled with memory, Mississippi’s landscape is one that feeds the work of its writers.
‘Place Became Central to the Story’
Whether the pages of your notebook are blank or filled with memory, Mississippi’s landscape is one that feeds the work of its writers. When I returned to Mississippi in 1999 to begin research for what I thought would be a narrative history of the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission—a civil rights–era, pro-segregation spy agency run and funded by the state for nearly twenty years—I found myself drawn in by the land itself because it was this landscape that made me a writer. That narrative history became a memoir and place became central to the story I decided to tell. What I realized upon returning was how much of my imagination was threaded together in Mississippi, so much so that it affected the way I looked at the entire world. Growing up on a farm, I also knew the rhythm of the land, with pictures imprinted on my mind of what it looked like in each of the four seasons. That is why my hometown and my farm are characters as much as the people I interviewed and wrote about in Ever Is a Long Time.
This transformation of Mississippi’s landscape into the canon of American letters is one that makes many ask, “Why does this land”—a very poor rural state with a high rate of illiteracy—“inspire and produce so many writers?” While many have sought to find the answer to this great anomaly, some, like Mississippi-born literary critic Noel Polk, facetiously ascribe it to the air Mississippians breathe and the water they drink. In his book Tell About the South, Fred Hobson notes that, “The Southerner, more than any other Americans, has felt he had something to explain, to justify, to defend, or to affirm.” John Grisham believes Mississippi’s outsized literary output has its origins in suffering, but a particular type of suffering. “Suffering that has been self-inflicted by slavery, war, poverty, injustice, intolerance. Great conflict produces great art, and Mississippi has its share of both.” Poet Natasha Trethewey also notes that the pain in Mississippi, like the pain in other parts of the world, leads to art. She writes, “In his memorial to William Butler Yeats, W. H. Auden wrote ‘Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry.’ Likewise, my native land, my South, my Mississippi...hurt me into poetry, inflicting my first wound.”
Like Ireland, Mississippi’s history is filled with suffering that must be explained; it is a place that comes alive in its stories and inspires those stories, which flow through every bend of its winding rivers and across every piece of land within its borders. It is the beauty of the land mixed with the state’s complex history that inspires and perplexes its writers. That is the burden one feels when writing about Mississippi, because it is a place that everyone knows about—or at least claims to—yet few are willing to understand.
Like Ireland, Mississippi’s history is filled with suffering that must be explained; it is a place that comes alive in its stories.
The Concern of Poets and Prophets
For better or for worse, Mississippi has become a metaphor for the entire South and for that matter even the entire nation. As Malcolm X said, “As far as I am concerned, Mississippi is anywhere south of the Canadian border.” A story about race set in Mississippi is as much about the sins of the nation as it is about the sins of the Magnolia State. The American South, and Mississippi in particular, have “existed never so much as a literal place than as a figurative one,” writes noted historian and Mississippi native Joseph Crespino.
“The Southern writer is forced from all sides to make his gaze extend beyond the surface, beyond mere problems, until it touches that realm which is the concern of prophets and poets,” Flannery O’Connor wrote in her essay “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction.” She very well could have been writing about Mississippi writers, since they all feel the need to describe the place with the greatest of intimacy yet in a way that makes what is unique about Mississippi resonate with an air of universality. It is Mississippians’ obsession with place, people, politics, and history that leads its writers to use the state to contemplate larger existential arguments with the greater world. The extremes in Mississippi’s politics, history, and people leads to what Brad Watson calls “a high octane” treatment of place, which in turn leads to more critical poking and pondering. Perhaps that is why one of the most quoted lines from William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! comes from his character Quentin Compson, who, when asked to explain the South says, “You can’t understand it. You would have to be born there.” When pressed about why he hates the South: “‘I dont hate it,’ Quentin said, quickly, at once, immediately; ‘I dont hate it,’ he said. I dont hate it he thought, panting in the cold air, the iron New England dark: I dont. I dont! I dont hate it! I dont hate it!”
It is hard to imagine a character in the western novels of Wallace Stegner, in Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, or Edith Wharton’s New York pondering how much they love or hate the place they are from as Quentin Compson does. The West, Northeast, and Midwest each have their own unique history, yet its residents are not asked to explain their affection and devotion to a place—as well as the history of that place—the way those of the Magnolia State are asked to explain a place with a legacy of lost battles, whether those happened during the Civil War, the civil rights movement, or today. That is why Mississippi has become the South writ large—and even the nation writ large—because it is a place that inspires its residents to contemplate how much they love it as well as how much they hate it more than any other state in the Union.
For better or for worse, Mississippi has become a metaphor for the entire South and for that matter even the entire nation.
Exploring the Silences
Within the work of every Mississippi writer exists a tension between the history of the characters and actual historic events, between the history of place and the region’s idea of itself. Historical events are seen as metaphor, while a character’s history is viewed as the real thing. Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! is a novel about history, and it is the South’s history of slavery and miscegenation—and the shame sometimes associated with that history—that propels the narrative. The main character, Thomas Sutpen, is framed in the narrative as a man with “no past,” but he is actually a man with a hidden past, which Faulkner slowly unspools, revealing how the past is a living force, one that frames and shapes our sense of the present.
Thomas Sutpen in some ways is a metaphor for Mississippi, which is a place that sometimes avoids its past rather than confronting it. Perhaps that is why every Mississippi writer feels in some way that the past can never be escaped. It is largely this inability to shut the door on the past that fuels the work of Mississippi’s writers, who feel the need to explain these shards of history. It certainly has provided the backdrop for my work as a writer and essayist who focuses on the American South. I sense a profound need to serve as a clarifying force in understanding Mississippi and the South. To find a good Mississippi story, I always say, “explore the silences,” for it is within the parts of our history we have chosen to shroud in silence in which our best stories reside. My writing life involves the pursuit of those silences.
But the idea of Mississippi’s landscape and history serving as the inspiration for its writers is not merely an outgrowth of the aftermath of the Civil War or a twentieth-century literary movement, or a movement that has its origins in the work of William Faulkner. Mississippi’s indigenous people are the earliest creators of literature in the state, with an oral tradition that also focused on explaining the past, a past that in some ways has been lost. Yet their literary voices remain in the names of places that dot the landscape: Biloxi, Tunica, Pascagoula, Yazoo, Tishomingo, Yalobusha, Tallahatchie, Itta Bena, Yockanookany and, from my native Piney Woods, Okatoma. It is in the names of these places that this state’s native people contributed to Mississippi literature’s distinctive voice, described by writer Willie Morris as “the mysterious, lost euphonious litany.”
If you can find where the past and the present intersect within Mississippi, you can indeed understand the world.
Rebuilding From the Ruins
A journey through the terrain that inspires Mississippi writers is one taken through both real and imagined places, where sometimes what is imagined seems real and what is real seems imaginary. The centrality of place to Mississippi writers is what makes the real and imagined so closely intertwined, whether it is Faulkner’s Jefferson and the university town of Oxford, Elizabeth Spencer’s town of Lacey from The Voice at the Back Door and Carrollton, or Steve Yarbrough’s imagined Delta town of Loring and his hometown of Indianola. While those beautiful and mysterious Native American names dapple the landscape, keeping a lost piece of the state’s past alive, Mississippi as a place is changing and evolving, even in places like the Delta, where much seems to be frozen in time and the past only seems to melt along the edges. Still, change can be difficult to embrace.
Change, particularly cultural change, may be difficult to accept in Mississippi because it is a place held rapt by its own mythology as well as cultural rituals that sustain those myths. Yet the patchwork of eighty-two counties that make up Mississippi are indeed changing, and those changes reverberate from the piers along the Mississippi Sound in the Gulf of Mexico right up to the Tennessee state line at Memphis. Sometimes that change feels like a ruin that cannot be rebuilt, its original structure now compromised by constant battering. It is the rebuilding from the ruins that drives the work of the state’s writers and allows their work to be so central not only to the culture of Mississippi but also to American literature. As Jackson-based writer Katy Simpson Smith has noted, to be a Mississippi writer today is not to write about a state “dripping with Spanish moss and punctuated by mockingbird song,” but instead to explore “surprising intersections, where violence within the self had become as important as violence across racial lines, where poverty was nuanced rather than made perverse, where families were built from intentional love rather than tied to tortured bloodlines.”
“To understand the world, you must first understand a place like Mississippi” are words that are said to have come from William Faulkner, but were more likely to have been attributed to Faulkner by his fellow Mississippian Willie Morris. The story I’ve heard is that either Willie thought Faulkner had said it, or maybe he wanted Faulkner to have said it. Whatever the origin of these words, they are true and that is why they have become the mantra of every writer who works within the borders of this state. If you can find where the past and the present intersect within Mississippi, you can indeed understand the world.
The idea that Mississippi is a place larger than life serves as inspiration to writers who were born there but work elsewhere. These writers have never been able to shake their conscience free of the place because in Mississippi nothing is ever escaped. This sense also inspires those Mississippi writers who now claim this state as home and seek to understand its wounds and imperfections as they create poems and stories that spring from this soil. Both the words of these writers and images of the places that inspired them reveal how a little state that rests alongside the banks of a great and mighty river has made so many significant contributions to American letters, carrying an outsized role in the national imagination. The answer lies in a landscape that pairs ordinariness with beauty, magic with madness, and mystery with magnificence.