Willie Morris Remembered
By Fred Brown
This was in 1982. I was writing Mid-South features for the Memphis Press-Scimitar and loving every minute of it. I roamed the country, came to know and understand it in a special way. I relished my trips through the Delta. It was at once mysterious and beguiling. Faulkner said, "And now they enter the Delta," which defined my fascination for the hot, humid ground.
It was along about this time, as I was running about fetching features, I bumped into Willie Morris. I had already read most of his stories. They held me like a deer caught in the beams of headlights at night. I could barely breathe when I read his words. They were so great, and so to the point of my existence. They spoke of the South, my home place.
I determined if I could ever meet Willie, I would jump at it. Then my editor, the late Milton Britten, sent me to Oxford to interview him for a feature. I was so eager, I left that moment and wound up on Willie's doorstep at last light.
He was already in full voice, commiserating with a house full of people. He said just, "come on in, get a beer." I ambled on into the kitchen, opened the refrigerator door for the beer. And just to see if it were true, I also pulled open the stove. And, yep, he hid the phone in the stove, just as everyone said he did.
After a couple of days with Willie, touring Oxford and some of its watering holes, I returned to my newspaper and wrote the following story about the man who over the years became a good friend, who was always willing to help me with a quote, or to find someone for me to quote. Willie was my friend, and I am very sad today that he is gone.
This story is in tribute to the man, who more than anyone in my mind epitomizes the modern South that continues to cling to its taproot.
OXFORD, Miss. They come up to him during all hours when he's out loose on the town and hang on him. "Willie," they yelp, and he looks majestically toward the caller and smiles. "Hello, dear," he says. And they kiss and hug. Willie Morris is home, among his people.
When toasting a friend's wife on the couple's 27th wedding anniversary, Morris, the writer, is as eloquent in speech as he is in print.
He speaks directly to his friend's wife. To Morris, she represents the draping and enchanting beauty of the Deep South, the traditions of Southern charm, mystery and a kind of characteristic steel imbued in the Southern female.
Morris, who has a slouchy, good-ol'-boy, heel-skidding walk, roams at will in Oxford, uncovering friends.
State Rep. Ed Perry, Oxford city attorney and chairman of the Mississippi House Appropriations Committee, or John Leslie, mayor of Oxford, are his usual companions on forays into Oxford's watering spots, such as The Warehouse, which was once an honest-to-goodness cotton warehouse, The Gin and something called The Hoka, where you bring your own to burnish off the evening after draining the other two.
Morris, born in Yazoo City, returned to Mississippi in 1980 after leaving the editor's chair of Harper's magazine, a position in which he worked with and edited some of the finest writers in the nation Marshal Frady, Larry King, Norman Mailer, John Knowles, William Styron.
He came to teach at the University of Mississippi for one semester that year and now, after something of a rift with the English department, Morris is a writer-in-residence in the journalism department. He teaches a writing workshop, a three-hour credit course and is publisher of The Ole Miss Magazine, a product of the workshop.
His students are enraptured with the writer and the shadow he is casting in the larger shade of William Faulkner.
"People have to realize that he is a great journalist and editor and is becoming a great writer," says Rocky Miskelly, one of his students. "He has written about the things he loved and that's the key to Willie. He leaves you with a message without insulting your intelligence.
"He's edited the world's oldest magazine and yet he can come down to your level, whether he is talking to a black sharecropper on 39 acres or a chairman of the House Appropriations Committee," Miskelly said.
Ollie Carruthers slid into The Hoka as Morris toasted his friends. Carruthers isn't a student, but the black Vietnam veteran says he loves Willie like a father.
"Before you know a person you have to understand them. I understand Willie. We go off on conversations together. He has been himself with me, and he explains things to me. He is a straight-up friend and there isn't anything I wouldn't do for him."
There is a romance going on here between Morris and his people. He is fetching and they delight in his dominance. It is clear that Morris loves what he is about, a man writing fondly and intellectually of himself and the people.
Morris, who can be found usually in khaki pants, Oxford loafers and an Ole Miss knit T-shirt, sleeps most of the day. He hides his phone in the stove.
He begins writing hard in the afternoons. Or, he might walk his best friend, Pete, a large Labrador retriever, a stately old gentleman who is slightly above the din that normally surrounds Morris. Pete dismisses most of Morris' friends with a sniff, a blink and a snore.
When the two take to the countryside, it is usually near Rowan Oak, Faulkner's home, or in cemeteries where Morris searches for the soul of his South.
At 47, Morris is writing a book on a remarkable athlete, Marcus Dupree of Philadelphia, Miss., in Neshoba County.
This past year, Dupree was the most sought-after high school football player in the country. After the recruiting wars, Dupree decided to attend Oklahoma University. Morris spent the football season in the stands watching Dupree, cataloging his feats, and now he is writing a book on that, and more, for Doubleday.
The book is in bits and pieces in a sea of file folders lapping across the dining room table and coffee table in his modest house on faculty row.
For Morris, the book is something other than just another jock book. It transcends football and reaches the symbolic "elements of the South trying to change."
"I'm obsessed with mortality. I find mortality in the elemental things, such as the South. Mortality pervades everything I see or do. Every time I saw this big black kid with glasses who weighs 225 pounds, I thought of A.E. Housman's poem from A Shropshire Lad called, "To An Athlete Dying Young." Anyway it's all a metaphor, all of it. It's a metaphor for time passing, for living momentarily on the Lord's earth.
"The circumstances of the most highly sought football player is the original thread that holds the book together," Morris said.
"But it is about Mississippi, the South and my coming home. I spent about half of my time in Neshoba County. I really got to know the people, both races. I feel real proud of the strides they have made since the terrible days of the '60s."
Morris was referring to the killing of three Civil Rights workers in 1964 in Neshoba County. "What I'm trying to do in this book is explore the complexities of Mississippi over a period of time and coming out of a terrible problem."
In lighter moments at his home, with Mayor Leslie and Rep. Perry, Morris beams when he has the floor, which is much of the time.
"Oxford is the last of the best of the Deep South. I can't conceive of a town having a better mayor or representative. The relationship between the university and the town is most amiable. And the town just looks good. You don't see any black slums," Morris said.
Morris said he intends to remain in Mississippi now. He prefers magnolia to megalomania. "I'm home. A writer goes away from home at his own risk. My people founded this state and now lie in this humming earth in Yazoo City and Raymond.
"This gives me a strange but a strong feeling. I'm going to stay where my people are and not around some cocktail party," he said, glancing over at Mayor Leslie.
Pete is snoozing on the floor at Morris' feet. Morris smiles and swishes his glass a bit. "Pete is the honorary mayor of Bridgehampton, N.Y. I think he will be the first black mayor of Oxford," he says with a laugh that is thin, but there in depth.
Willie Morris is home, and it is time for another night out in Oxford, feeling the vibrations, drinking in the souls that touch him as only they can be touched on a Friday night in Oxford. Loose, on the move. Home.
I wrote that story 17 years ago about my friend Willie Morris. The other day I had to write his obituary for The Knoxville News-Sentinel.
It was one of the hardest stories I've ever had to write. It wasn't that the story was long. It wasn't. Newspaper obits aren't ever long. They tend to give you short, brief facts of someone's stay here on earth, and that's it.
I wanted to write a great deal about Willie Morris: The nights out with him, cruising the Delta; talking about writing and writers; discussing race and politics in that rich way of his, tapping into his phenomenal memory and storehouse of experience.
Like many, many more who knew Willie Morris and benefited from his wise counsel, I will miss this man of the sod, this man of the South, who wrote from the terrains of his heart. Ahh, Willie, you will be greatly missed.
Copyright © The Southerner 1999.