Contents
* Preface
* Introduction: Mississippians and Their Books
* List of Contributors
   
 

Home:  >Textual Resources   >Lloyd, James B., ed. - Lives of Mississippi Writers, 1817-1967
Copyright © 1980 by James B. Lloyd. Reprinted by permission. Click for printer friendly version.

INTRODUCTION:
MISSISSIPPIANS AND THEIR BOOKS

INTRODUCTIONS TO EARLIER COMPILATIONS OF STATE AUTHORS reveal an interesting parallel; in all, where one might expect to find the particular characteristics of the authors from various states set forth, one finds instead the admission that no similarity exists. Such also is the case here. True, Mississippi, because of William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Tennessee Williams, and Richard Wright, is a rather special case, and a reasonable essay might be devised which extracted the characteristics of a Mississippi author from these literary giants. But this volume is not composed of literary giants or even, for that matter, of literary figures of any kind. It is made up largely of ordinary men and women who published only one book and who have very little in common aside from the fact that they all meet the criteria outlined in the “Preface.” And even the authors for whom long sketches have been prepared and who thus presumably had careers successful enough to merit discussion, are so various as to defy the selection of any characteristics as specifically pertaining to Mississippians. The fact is that a transient, melting pot society gives the lie to all arguments for environmental determination in culture. Mississippi in the nineteenth century was for many only a pause in the gradual migration from the eastern to the western seaboard, and in the twentieth has been settled by individuals who have taken full advantage of the mobility of American society. Such development is not conducive to integrated cultural movements, and while a case might reasonably be made for considering an author Southern—not because of his use of Southern material but because of his belief before the Civil War in the institution of slavery and after it because of his idealization of antebellum Southern life and belief in the general inferiority of Blacks—to claim to distinguish a particular Mississippi temper within the Southern tradition borders on jingoism.

Nevertheless, certain generalizations can be made about the authors included in this volume. Mississippi has been blessed in the recent past with a number of major authors. William Faulkner will come first to mind for most, but at one time Mississippi could lay claim to the preeminent living American novelist—Faulkner—one of the preeminent American writers of short fiction—Eudora Welty—one of the preeminent American playwrights—Tennessee Williams—

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and America’s first black writer of international reputation—Richard Wright. These have in common what Faulkner in particular is noted for: the use of native Mississippi material to illustrate universal themes. Such Williams plays, for instance, as Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Orpheus Descending take place in a thinly disguised Cleveland, Welty’s Losing Battles is set in fictional Banner, Mississippi, and Wright’s Black Boy is frankly autobiographical. These authors have certainly affected Mississippi by giving the world its image of the state—a none too flattering image at times—but to gauge the state’s effect on them is more difficult. Like writers everywhere they have simply used what they knew, though one might argue that because the South was an agrarian culture in the process of industrializing and at the same time reexamining its racial ethics, they were supplied with some obvious, if not ready-made, themes. Then too, until William Alexander Percy’s mannered poetry and gentlemanly prose and Stark Young’s drama criticism, historical novels, and translations of such European classics as Chekhov’s The Seagull in the first decades of the twentieth century, Mississippi possessed no tradition of belles-lettres. All the fiction in the nineteenth century had been aimed at the popular taste, which demanded either sentimental novels or frontier humor. This influx of more sophisticated forms and traditions provided writers of fiction in Mississippi in the second quarter of the twentieth century with new artistic methods for describing the cultural changes around them. These two lines of development, cultural and artistic, can be seen in the work of all four major authors, but perhaps Faulkner is the best example. His tutelage under Phil Stone in such sophisticated artistic models as the symbolist and imagist poets and in contemporary European fiction provided new and exciting philosophical and formal examples. And his best work is concerned either with the modernization of an Arcadian agricultural society—The Sound and the Fury and The Hamlet—or with the moral reexamination of the race issue—Light in August, Absalom, Absalom!, and Go Down, Moses.

But most of the authors included here are decidedly not major ones. Many tend to be either clergymen or educators who published only one book, most likely one of a religious nature. Books on religion abound partly because of Mississippi’s location in the heart of the Bible Belt and partly because the churches sponsored religious publication, especially the Baptists, who published through the Broadman Press, and the Methodists, who published through the Publishing House of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, both of which were in Nashville, Tennessee. For this reason, some religious authors were astoundingly prolific. Benjaha Harvey Carrol—most of whose works appeared posthumously—and Beverly Carradine together published sixty-four books, and Isaac L. Peebles, Games S. Dobbins, and Richard H. Boyd were hardly less industrious. Several religious authors, however, achieved more than local reputation. William Mercer Green, the first Episcopal Bishop of Mississippi, for instance, was instrumental in the establishment of the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, and Charles Betts Galloway, Bishop of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, was renowned for his rhetorical style and his unpopularly liberal stand on racial issues throughout the ultra-conservative post-Reconstruction period.

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The bulk of the expository writing not religious in nature is scholarly. In the nineteenth century two eminent scientists, F. A. P. Barnard and Eugene Hilgard, each served a number of years at the University of Mississippi. Barnard was Professor of Mathematics, Civil Engineering and Astronomy, President of the Faculty, and Chancellor of the University from 1854 until 1861, and during this time developed the concept of a university which he later put in practice at Columbia. Eugene Hilgard became Assistant State Geologist in 1855 and served the University in various capacities until 1873, when he removed to California to become head of the Department of Agriculture at Berkeley, where he established his reputation as the father of soil science. In the twentieth century Mississippi scholars have tended to be humanists, either philologists or historians. In English they have generally made their reputations as editors, Kemp Malone and James A. Harrison as editors of Old and Middle English texts, and Arthur Palmer Hudson and John A. Lomax as editors of anthologies of folklore. The historians have—with the notable exception of Kemp Malone’s brother, Dumas—generally used local or regional material in their researches. Mississippi has, as a matter of fact, produced a number of eminent Southern historians. James Wilford Garner, who had a brilliant career as a political scientist at the University of Illinois, was one of the young scholars responsible for the reassessment of the South’s place in American history which occurred in the early 1900s. Dunbar Rowland and William D. McCain made the state’s Department of Archives and History one of the most outstanding in the country—it was the second one established—and such contemporary scholars as T. D. Clark, William Baskerville Hamilton, and David Donald have done much to set the present temper of Southern history.

The well-known Southern penchant for debate has led to the inclusion in this volume of a number of political writers. In the nineteenth century these were generally apologists for the lost cause like Albert Taylor Bledsoe and Jefferson Davis, but some, like James L. Alcorn, wrote from the opposite point of view, and some, like L. Q. C. Lamar, eventually came out for reconciliation. Bledsoe’s Is Jefferson Davis a Traitor remained the official apologia for the South until Davis issued his Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government in which he defended the formation of the Confederacy from a constitutional point of view. Alcorn, the leader of the Republican Party in Mississippi, was governor from 1869 to 1871 and it was during his administration that Mississippi’s first black college, Alcorn A & M was founded. And Lamar made his reputation as the leader of Democratic Southern reconciliation, serving as Mississippi’s first Democratic congressman since Radical Reconstruction and the first post-war Southern Democratic member of the cabinet and of the Supreme Court. In the twentieth century such politicians as John Sharp Williams, who was a member of Congress from 1893 until 1923; Theodore Bilbo, who was a United States senator from 1934 until 1947 and Governor of Mississippi from 1916 until 1920, and 1928 until 1932; and James Eastland, who served in the Senate from 1943 until 1979, have retained the conservative tone of the nineteenth century in their writings. They and most of their peers are, in general, important not for what they wrote but for what they did, the part they played in state and national affairs.

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Mississippians have produced a lesser though still significant number of books which might best be classed as journalistic exposition. The authors, reasonably, tend to be newspapermen who published as an offshoot of their newspaper business, many of whom abandoned journalism entirely in favor of authorship. Perhaps the most well known contemporary writer of this group is Willie Morris, whose editorship of Harper’s Magazine and autobiographical North Toward Home have brought him national prominence, but Mississippi has long been the home of eminent journalists. Hodding Carter won the Pulitzer Prize in 1946 for his uncompromisingly liberal stand on racial issues, and David Cohn made a place for himself as a popular critic of American culture with such books as God Shakes Creation and The Good Old Days. Mississippi can even claim one of the country’s first newspaper women, Eliza J. Nicholson, who owned the New Orleans Picayune, and one of the foremost spokesmen for black Americans, Lerone Bennett, editor of Ebony.

Like the expository writers above, the writers of fiction may be divided chronologically and by genre. In the nineteenth century writers of fiction in Mississippi followed the trends that are now apparent in American literature of the period, and in some cases helped to set them. Perhaps the most attuned to the temper of the times were the female writers who made their livings by grinding out the sentimental fiction which was the staple of popular taste. Sarah Anne Dorsey, Eliza Ann Dupuy, and Catherine Warfield all supported themselves in this manner, and many others tried to with less success. Of the men who plied the same trade perhaps Robert Crozier and W. C. Falkner—the great-grandfather of William Faulkner—are the best known. Both wrote to the popular taste, but with a bit more adventure and a bit less sentiment than the ladies. The most blatant purveyors of adventure, however, were, in Mississippi as elsewhere, dime novelists, notably Lamar Fontaine and the Ingrahams, Prentiss and his father Joseph Holt. In Fontaine’s case the adventurous elements were often autobiographical; a soldier of fortune as well as an author, the real events of his life are now so intertwined with myth that they defy discovery. He may have been born in 1829—probably not—may have run away to join an Indian tribe as a boy, and was, by his own account, the best sharpshooter in the Civil War. Prentiss Ingraham, also an adventurer, holds the somewhat dubious distinction of having written more than one thousand novels—154.07 words an hour throughout a thirty-four year career—an alarming number of them about Buffalo Bill Cody, for whom he once worked. Prentiss’ father, Joseph Holt, while not so prolific—he only published one-tenth of all the novels which appeared in the 1840’s—is historically more important. Already a popular dime novelist when he came to Aberdeen as the deacon of the Protestant Episcopal Church, he had abandoned this trade when he began study for the ministry, but he did not stop writing fiction. He turned his talents instead to his new profession, a marriage of methods and materials which resulted in the establishment of a new genre, the Biblical novel. Ingraham simply applied Sir Walter Scott’s formula for a historical novel to stories from the Bible, producing in this way such tremendously popular works as The Pillar of Fire based on the story of Moses, The Throne of David based on the story of David and Solomon, and Prince of the House of David based on the story of Jesus.

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But Ingraham is not the only nineteenth century writer of fiction of historical importance in this volume. Mississippi and Mississippians were in part responsible for the popularization of what has come to be called southwestern humor. Dependent on exaggeration, the tall tale, and oral tradition, it generally consisted of short vituperative newspaper sketches, and though it perhaps originated with the creation of Seba Smith’s Major Jack Downing in Maine, it was adopted as the standard outlook in print of the educated man from the East confronted with the rawness of the frontier. A. B. Longstreet, who came to Mississippi in 1849 as President of the Faculty of the University, is probably the best known of these humorists, though Joseph Beckham Cobb and Joseph Glover Baldwin also wrote amusing and sometimes incisive sketches. Longstreet’s pieces in the Augusta States Rights Sentinel in 1834 and 1835—some four years after Smith created Major Jack Downing—did much to popularize the form in the collected version, Georgia Scenes: Characters, Incidents, etc. in the First Half Century of the Republic, and it continued in popularity throughout the nineteenth century and culminated in 1885 with the publication of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn.

The twentieth century writers of fiction not already discussed may be divided according to the popular and the belles-lettres traditions outlined above. In the popular tradition the sentimental novelists of the nineteenth century have been replaced by such writers as Cid Ricketts Sumner, whose Tammy series proved amazingly popular in book form and in films, and James Street, whose sentimental Good-by, My Lady caused a minor sensation upon its appearance. John Faulkner has continued the tradition of southwest humor with such satires of the Mississippi hill country folk as Uncle Good’s Girls and Cabin Road. And Genevieve Holden—Genevieve Pou—whose Crime Club novels from Doubleday have proven quite successful, is perhaps the most popular of Mississippi’s mystery writers. Within the belles-lettres tradition the same cultural and artistic developments may be seen as were discussed earlier. Walker Percy’s The Last Gentleman, Elizabeth Spencer’s Fire in the Morning, Ellen Douglas’s A Family’s Affairs, and Borden Deal’s Dragons’ Wine all chronicle the modernization of a traditional agricultural society. Margaret Walker Alexander’s Jubilee, Ben Ames Williams’s A House Divided, and Spencer’s The Voice at the Back Door continue the moral reexamination of the race question. And such formal experiments as Wirt Williams’s use of multiple points of view in Ada Dallas and reliance on flashbacks in The Trojans, and Shelby Foote’s marriage of fiction and history in The Civil War: A Narrative illustrate the continued influence of sophisticated artistic strategies.

Poetry in Mississippi has not fared so well as prose; the poets represented here—aside from William Alexander Percy and Stark Young—tend to be not so much historically or intrinsically important as simply exotic or curious. Mississippi in the nineteenth century was the home of S. Newton Berryhill, the backwoods poet, and of Irwin Russell, who is remembered for his approximation of Negro dialect in his only well known poem, “Christmas Night at the Quarters,” as well as Walter Malone—the uncle of Kemp and Dumas—whose Desoto is thought to be the longest poem in the English language with the exception of Beowulf and the Faerie Queene. And in the twentieth century it has been the

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birthplace of such exotics as Maxwell Bodenheim, who made his reputation as a poet, pornographer, and Bohemian in Greenwich Village, and Charles Henri Ford, who has spent the major portion of his life among the avant-garde painters and poets of the Left Bank in Paris.

Such then is the montage which is Lives of Mississippi Authors, 1817-1967. About the authors it says little, since they stubbornly refuse to exhibit a unified spirit; but about the state’s heritage it speaks loudly and is intended, especially through the longer critical sketches, to provide both a more comprehensive and a more incisive view of Mississippi’s culture than has before been possible.

J. B. L.

From Lives of Mississippi Writers, ed. James B. Lloyd (Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1980): pp. xi-xvi. Copyright © 1980. Reprinted by permission.


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