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Welcome to the Mississippi Writers Page Newsletter for August 15-21, 2003

In this issue:

  • This week in Mississippi Literary History
  • News about Mississippi Writers
  • New books by Mississippi writers
  • Author events: readings, book signings, and appearances
  • Announcements: News briefs, conferences, calls for papers, and reader announcements
  • On the horizon: events coming up in the weeks and months ahead


The following events all happened during this week in Mississippi history.

1873: Katherine McDowell, best known for works published under the name Sherwood Bonner, left her husband Edward to earn her own way after it became clear he could not support her or her daughter, Lilian. (Aug. 20)

1904: Economist Rudolph Coper was born in Berlin, Germany. (Aug. 20)

1915: Psychologist Ray F. Koonce was born in Grenada, Mississippi. (Aug. 15)

1923: Fiction writer Martha Lacy Hall was born in Magnolia, Mississippi. (Aug. 19)

1925: William Faulkner published “Home” and “Episode,” both in the New Orleans Times-Picayune. (Aug. 16)

1934: English professor Calvin S. Brown married Irene M. Hughes. (Aug. 18)

1935: Playwright and screenwriter Mart Crowley was born in Vicksburg, Mississippi. (Aug. 21)

1949: The Golden Apples by Eudora Welty was published by Harcourt, Brace. (Aug. 18)

1951: English professor Donald R. Dickson was born in Biloxi, Mississippi. (Aug. 19)

1951: Writer and photographer Birney Imes was born in Columbus, Mississippi. (Aug. 21)

1954: William Faulkner’s daughter Jill married Paul D. Summers, Jr., in Oxford, Mississippi. (Aug. 21)

1970: Writer Patrick Creevy married Susan O’Connor. (Aug. 15)

1974: Novelist Larry Brown married Mary Annie Coleman. (Aug. 17)


Gifted writer, instructor James Whitehead dies at 67

Aug. 16, 2003

By Jerry Mitchell
The Clarion-Ledger (Jackson, Mississippi)

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Jim Whitehead never forgot where he came from.

The graduate of the old Central High in Jackson helped found the nationally acclaimed Creative Writing program at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville and spent 35 years teaching writing there, but underneath it all, “he was a deep-dyed Mississippian,” said author Barry Hannah of Oxford.

The 67-year-old writer and poet died Friday, Aug. 15, at Washington Regional Medical Center in Fayetteville of a ruptured aortic aneurism, an unexpected event that stunned those who knew him.

“I’m just crushed,” said Hannah, the author of Airships, who plans to attend funeral services Wednesday. “I doubt I’d be anything without Jim Whitehead giving me confidence in the 1960s. He’s been a pal, an absolute sterling friend. He was a wonderful gentleman and a part of truth and beauty.”

Midway through the civil rights era, Hannah arrived in Fayetteville, sickened by the hate and cowardice of the Klan that had torn his state apart. “I was ashamed,” he said. “I didn’t want to come back.” In Whitehead, Hannah said, he found a loving mentor who “made me proud of my state all over again.”

After graduating from Central High, Whitehead attended Vanderbilt University on a football scholarship, eventually earning a master’s in English before going to the University of Iowa and receiving a master of fine arts from Iowa’s nationally renown creative writing program.

His literary awards included a Guggenheim Fellowship in fiction and a Robert Frost Fellowship in poetry. He wrote four books of poetry, Domains, Local Men, Actual Size and Near at Hand, and a novel, Joiner, which was on the New York Times’ Noteworthy Books of the Year list for 1971. He gave the Presidential Poem for President Jimmy Carter on his return to Plains, Ga., in 1981, and later edited his book of poems.

Whitehead’s daughter, Kathleen Paulson, said her father had been upset Friday because funding had been cut for the writers program he so treasured. She said he was on the way to buy flowers for his 44th wedding anniversary, when he started having abdominal pain.

Paulson rushed him to the hospital. Tests showed he had a leaking aneurism. Doctors rushed him to surgery, but it was too late. The aneurism ruptured.

“He gave so much to his students,” she said. “He was tough on them, but they loved him.”

His students and friends knew him as “Big Jim,” a broad, sturdy man who was nothing less than intense. Whitehead and his wife, Gen, together raised seven children, including triplets.

“He would intimidate you, if you didn’t know him any better,” said Ole Miss alum Sidney Thompson, who studied under Whitehead in the early 1990s and is featured in Stories From the Blue Moon Cafe 2. “Once you got to know him, he was a warm, good-hearted man.”

Thompson remembered Whitehead’s kindness from the first day, when Whitehead asked him, “Do you have a place to stay? If you don't, you can stay with me.”

The very first voice that Indianola native Steve Yarbrough heard after he arrived at the University of Arkansas campus in 1981 belonged to his teacher.

“As soon as I got a phone, it rang, and it was Whitehead,” recalled Yarbrough, the author of Oxygen Man, who now teaches writing himself. “If you were from Mississippi, that meant you were his. He called and said, ‘Are you coming over or not?’ He was one of the big reasons I decided to go there.”

Students recalled how Whitehead would in one animated conversation expound upon the poetry of W.B. Yates to his hopes for 2004 Democratic contenders. He was completing a screenplay on the life of the first-century Roman solder Tiberius Julius Abderus Panter.

Whitehead spent hours in the evening with his classes and hours with individual students, returning manuscripts full of editing, Yarbrough said. “The amount of ink tripled the weight of it.”

If a student had written poorly, Whitehead would pound his head against the wall, recalled Steve Yates, assistant marketing manager at University Press of Mississippi. But he balanced sternness with compassion, said Yates, a 1998 graduate of the master of fine arts program at Arkansas. “When he was happy with you, you felt so golden, and you felt so good at what you’d achieved.”

Visitation is 6-8 p.m. Tuesday at Moore’s Funeral Home, 206 W. Center St. in Fayetteville. Services are 2 p.m. Wednesday in Giffels Auditorium in Old Main on the University of Arkansas campus. Memorials may be made to the “Writers in the Schools” program or to the Creative Writing Program at the University of Arkansas.

Related Link
Obituary: James T. Whitehead. The Clarion-Ledger (17 Aug. 2003).

Georgia author, naturalist named Grisham Writer-in-Residence

July 31, 2003

By Deidra Jackson
University of Mississippi News Services

Author Janisse Ray, 'an important new voice in creative nonfiction,' begins teaching in the department of English this fall.

OXFORD, Miss. — Janisse Ray, author of the poignant American Book Award-winning memoir Ecology of a Cracker Childhood, is the 2003-04 John and Renee Grisham Writer-in-Residence at the University of Mississippi.

The Georgia native assumes the prestigious teaching post in the Department of English Aug. 15.

A naturalist, activist and regular commentator for National Public Radio, Ray is the newest recruit for the 11-year-old program which embraces emerging Southern writers. The annual appointment, including housing and a stipend, is funded by the best-selling author and his wife, who were Oxford residents for several years. Recipients are invited to teach writing workshops and participate in department activities.

Ecology of a Cracker Childhood (Milkweed Editions, 1999) is Ray’s story of growing up poor and white, amid a junkyard in Baxley, Ga., near the Florida border. Raised by fundamentalist parents, including a father whose junkyard was located in the middle of a longleaf pine forest, Ray comes to embrace and help save the beleaguered Southern forests in the book’s moving commentary. It is required reading for English students at UM and at some other universities and colleges around the country.

In her latest book, Wild Card Quilt: Taking a Chance on Home (Milkweed Editions, 2003), Ray passionately describes returning to her childhood home, with her 9-year-old son, after spending years in Montana. “Could I resolve the troubles of childhood, since I would no longer be a child in a childhood place?” she asks in the book’s opening pages.

“I am thrilled that Janisse will be at the University of Mississippi this year,” said Ann Fisher-Wirth, a professor of English who teaches creative writing. “She is a wonderful writer, a compelling teacher and speaker, a passionate environmentalist and an all-around amazing woman, whom I am honored to have as a friend.”

Fisher-Wirth, who also writes about the environment, met Ray four years ago at Ossabaw Island, off the Georgia coast, at a writer’s weekend retreat which Ray said she organized “to meet other people who wrote environmental poetry, fiction, or nonfiction in the South—to build an artistic and activist community.”

“Many firm friendships, many environmental projects and a lot of good writing have resulted from the group that formed, which included writers such as Lola Haskins, James Kilgo, Frank Burroughs, John Lane, Bill Belleville and Susan Cerulean,” Fisher-Wirth said.

A phenomenal success, Ecology of a Cracker Childhood also won the Southeastern Booksellers Award for Nonfiction, Southern Environmental Law Center Award for Outstanding Writing on the Southern Environment and Southern Book Critics Circle Award. It also was honored by the Georgia Center for the Book as “The Book Every Georgian Should Read.”

Joseph Urgo, UM English chair, said his faculty were tremendously impressed with the book.

“In a short time, Janisse Ray has established herself as an important new voice in what’s called creative nonfiction—essays, nature writing, sustained observation and reflection,” he said. “We wanted to invite someone working in this genre, and when we sat down to talk about it, Ms. Ray’s name kept coming up.”

Ray has published essays and poems in magazines and newspapers such as Audubon, Coastal Living, National Geographic Traveler, Sierra Tallahassee Democrat, The Sun, Georgia Wildlife, Orion, Wild Earth, Missoula Independent, Florida Wildlife, Hope and Florida Naturalist. She also has provided commentaries for Peach State Public Radio and NPR’s “Living on Earth.”

As an activist, Ray hopes to slow the rate of logging in Southern forests. She is a founding board member of Altamaha Riverkeeper, a group dedicated to repairing the Georgia’s mighty Altamaha River. She helped form the Georgia Nature-based Tourism Association and worked to save the 3,400-acre Moody Forest in her Appling County home.

For more information about the John and Renee Grisham Writer-in-Residence program, call 662-915-7439.

Arts Commission grant to support Thacker Mountain Radio

July 31, 2003

By Deidra Jackson
University of Mississippi News Services

Charles Reagan Wilson (inset), director of UM’s Center for the Study of Southern Culture, expects a Miss. Arts Commission grant to help Thacker Mountain Radio continue promoting literature and music.

OXFORD, Miss. — A new grant to the University of Mississippi’s Center for the Study of Southern Culture will support Thacker Mountain Radio, a popular hour-long variety show that celebrates literature and music.

Center director Charles Reagan Wilson said the $5,400 Mississippi Arts Commission grant will enable the show to continue its unique efforts at promoting the two art forms in Mississippi.

Oxford's only live radio show, Thacker Mountain features literary readings and musical performances broadcast from Off Square Books near the Oxford Square downtown. The 8-year-old show, which has grown in popularity with features of celebrated local and national talent, also is broadcast by Mississippi Public Radio.

Sponsored by the Center for the Study of Southern Culture and Square Books of Oxford, with assistance from local businesses and other grants, Thacker Mountain Radio shows are free and open to the public. The program airs Thursdays from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. on WOXD-Bullseye 95.5 FM and on the Web at Its fall premiere is Sept. 11.

Featured this season are readings by authors Kevin Baker, Elmore Leonard and T.R. Pearson, as well as performances by musicians Drive-By Truckers, Sid Selvidge and the show’s house band Taylor Grocery. Emcee is Jim Dees, former editor and writer for Oxford Town magazine.

Established in 1968 by the Mississippi Legislature, the Mississippi Arts Commission is the official grants-making and service agency for the arts in the state.

To see a schedule of upcoming or previous shows or for more information about Thacker Mountain Radio, go to

Do you have a news item about a Mississippi writer? Please send your information to

NEW BOOKS by Mississippi Writers

Robert G. Clark’s Journey to the House: A Black Politician’s Story

By Will D. Campbell

University Press of Mississippi (Hardcover, $22.00, ISBN: 1578065267)

Publication date: March 2003

Description from the publisher:

The story of a black man's unprecedented rise to power and political prominence in the formerly segregationist state of Mississippi

This biographical profile written by one of the South’s most notable authors traces the life of Robert George Clark (b. 1928) from his Jim Crow boyhood in Ebenezer, Mississippi, through his notable career as the first black Mississippian since Reconstruction to be elected to the state house of representatives.

In this compelling book Will D. Campbell fuses Clark’s family history with his political career and tells of Clark’s struggle with segregationists, his powerful influence in the passing of the state's 1982 Education Reform Bill, and the continued influence of his work on Mississippi politics and culture.

Based on interviews, research, and primary sources, Campbell’s book is an evocative, fascinating, and elegantly written portrait of a man who shaped and is shaping the culture of contemporary Mississippi.

In details of Clark’s days as a student at Jackson State University, Campbell’s narrative depicts Clark both as a strong individual and as a symbol of African American civil rights activism. As he follows Clark’s progress as a politician, educator, and civil rights advocate, he showcases a history of race relations and racial politics in Mississippi during the state's most turbulent era. In this steamy cauldron, however, Campbell never loses sight of Clark’s singular life and notable accomplishments. Clark continues today as a sitting member of the Mississippi House of Representatives.

Robert G. Clark’s Journey to the House unites one of Mississippi’s foremost citizens of the twentieth century and one of the state’s most notable literary voices. During the civil rights struggle the lives of Clark and Campbell were in interplay. This striking book, a valuable addition to the ever-growing documentary literature of the civil rights movement, shows that their lives and philosophies continue to converge.

Will D. Campbell, among the most diligent white Southerners campaigning for social justice in the civil rights era, is the author of such prize-winning books as Brother to a Dragonfly, Providence, and The Glad River. He has been profiled in Rolling Stone, Life, Esquire, and The Progressive.

Sonny Montgomery: The Veteran’s Champion

By G. V. “Sonny” Montgomery with Michael B. Ballard and Craig S. Piper

University Press of Mississippi (Hardcover, $25.00, ISBN: 1578065542)

Publication date: May 2003

Description from the publisher:

The autobiography of the Mississippi Congressman who spearheaded the drive for the revamped G.I. Bill.

Elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1966, Democrat G. V. “Sonny” Montgomery represented Mississippi’s Third District in Congress for fifteen terms, serving under seven presidents. Sonny Montgomery: The Veteran’s Champion, his autobiography, renders a very personal history of nearly forty years in public life.

Advocacy for veterans, the lodestar of his career, came from personal experience and conviction. In 1945, he helped capture a German machine gun nest and earned the Bronze Star Medal for Valor. With self-effacing humility he recalls World War II and his return to duty in Korea.

Among many accomplishments, he ranks one as his most outstanding. He rallied the votes to pass the bill named for him, The Montgomery G.I. Bill (HR 1657), which overhauled the original 1947 legislation by extending benefits to thousands of soldiers in the nation’s all-volunteer service.

Chairing the select committee on POWs and MIAs, he and investigators determined whether Vietnam, Cambodia, and other theaters of war were holding American servicemen captive.

Montgomery comments on the Presidents he worked with and knew personally—the erratic Richard Nixon, the affable Gerald Ford, the stern Jimmy Carter, and the congenial George H. W. Bush.

During Ronald Reagan’s presidency, Montgomery became a charter member of the “Boll Weevils,” a coterie of southern and other Democrats. He discloses how the group was formed and how and why its members broke party lines to support a Republican President’s legislative agenda.

Now a senior statesman known affectionately on Capitol Hill as “Mr. Veteran,” Montgomery reflects on both his political and personal life, his friendships with Senator John C. Stennis and other powerful figures, and his varied political accomplishments. Sonny Montgomery: The Veteran’s Champion is a fulfilling story of a Mississippi hero invigorated by life in public service.

G. V. “Sonny” Montgomery lives in Meridian, Mississippi, and Washington, D.C., where he is still an active veterans’ advocate.

Michael B. Ballard, coordinator of the Congressional and Political Research Center at Mississippi State University, has published Pemberton: The General Who Lost Vicksburg and Civil War Mississippi: A Guide (both from University Press of Mississippi).

Craig S. Piper is an archivist at the Congressional and Political Research Center at Mississippi State University.

Mississippi: A Documentary History

Edited by Bradley G. Bond

University Press of Mississippi (Hardcover, $45.00, ISBN: 1578065410)

Publication date: June 2003

Description from the publisher:

The unfolding story of the Magnolia State as told in this striking collection of its historical documents.

In America’s collective imagination, Mississippi, a state that aptly may be described as the most southern place in America, is often deemed a sinister, forbidding landscape. While popular conceptions of other states are evoked by rosy likenesses chosen by promoters of tourism, the mere word Mississippi too often conjures thoughts of brutality, repression, and backwardness. To many outsiders, Mississippi’s controversial history continues to resonate in the present.

By allowing divergent historical voices to describe their understanding of events as they were unfolding, this new book of narrative history supports, emends, and even complicates such a vision of Mississippi’s past and present. The only book ever to present Mississippi’s story in a chronological documentary fashion, it includes a wide variety of public records, newspaper articles, academic papers, correspondence, ordinances, constitutional amendments, journal entries, and other documents.

Collected and placed together, they compose a narrative that reveals the state in all its great diversity of peoples and terrains—free and slave; rich, poor, and middling; coastal, hill country, Delta; black, white, and Native American.

Several chapters, particularly those on antebellum Mississippi and Reconstruction, represent recent scholarly views and correct lingering misconceptions of those years. The editor and compiler has written an introduction to each section and has placed the documents in an appropriate historical context that makes them accessible to students, scholars, archivists, librarians, and lay readers alike.

Although many of these documents are well known, many also have never been seen since their inception. In juxtaposition they offer a striking portrait. The parts and the whole alike show that Mississippi remains ever controversial, ever puzzling, ever fascinating.

Bradley G. Bond is an associate professor of history at the University of Southern Mississippi. He is the author of Political Culture in the 19th-Century South.


AUTHOR EVENTS: Book Signings, Readings, and Appearances

September 4: Square Books, Oxford, Mississippi, 5 p.m.

Dr. Ann Fisher-Wirth, University of Mississippi professor of English, will read from her collection of poems entitled Blue Window. For more information, visit

September 16: Square Books, Oxford, Mississippi

Larry Brown signs and reads from his unusual, new novel, The Rabbit Factory. For more information, visit

If you know of upcoming literary events by or about Mississippi writers, please let us know by writing us at 


Call for Papers: Oprah Anthology

July 31, 2003

We are soliciting papers for an academic anthology on the phenomenon of Oprah. It is undeniable that Oprah Winfrey has transcended the iconic cult of celebrity to become a Western cultural force of the late-twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. As her show nears its much anticipated end — though its endless reproduction in syndication seems inevitable — it seems appropriate to produce an anthology that evaluates the multifaceted influences and implications of Oprah.

Suggested topics include, but are not limited to:

  • Oprah as a cultural phenomena
  • Oprah as icon
  • Marketing Oprah
  • Oprah and Black feminisms
  • Oprah and spirituality
  • O magazine
  • Oprah and autobiographical confession
  • Oprah and middle-classes identity
  • Oprah and economic empowerment
  • Oprah and female empowerment
  • Racial uplift and Oprah
  • One of my best friends: Oprah and white viewers

If interested, please send an abstract (no more than 1 1/2 typed pages) to either by November 30, 2003:

Elwood Watson, Ph.D.
Associate Professor/ Assistant Chair
Department of History
East Tennessee State University
P.O. Box 70672
Johnson City, Tennessee 37614-1709
(423) 439-8575

Jennifer Harris
Assistant Professor
Department of English
University of Windsor
401 Sunset
Windsor, Ontario N9B 3P4

Send your Mississippi writer-related announcements to


The following events are planned for the coming weeks and months. You may wish to begin planning now to attend or participate.

October 16, 2003

Elmore Leonard, author of more than 30 novels (including Bandits, Get Shorty, and Tishomingo Blues), numerous film and television productions, essays and commentaries, will read and talk about his career. For more information on Leonard, visit Elmore Leonard’s new book, When the Women Come Out to Dance, is to be published in November 2003. Johnson Commons Ballroom, The University of Mississippi, 7 p.m. Sponsored by the John and Renee Grisham Visiting Writers Series and the Department of English at the University of Mississippi.

February 12, 2004

Reading and lecture by Richard Ford. Johnson Commons Ballroom, The University of Mississippi, 7 p.m. Sponsored by the John and Renee Grisham Visiting Writers Series and the Department of English at the University of Mississippi.

If you know of additional news items for this newsletter or if you have suggestions, please write us at

For more information about events in the Oxford and University of Mississippi community, see the Ole Miss Community Calendar:

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