In March, Mary Alice White, director of the Eudora Welty House, gave a crew from Turner television a tour of the garden that the late author tended from the 1920s until her death.
The preservation and celebration of Mississippi’s literary heritage has been flourishing in recent years, and the renovation of the Eudora Welty house and garden in Jackson is the latest example. (The garden opened to the public — 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Wednesday — last year and the house, still being renovated, opens in April 2006.)
April sees the annual Oxford Conference for the Book. In July, people from around the world will gather at the University of Mississippi (Ole Miss) for the Faulkner & Yoknapatawpha Conference. Each year, thousands of visitors tour Rowan Oak, Faulkner’s Oxford home.
Every fall, Clarksdale — where Tennessee Williams spent long childhood periods with his grandfather, who was rector of the Episcopal church — celebrates Williams with a festival. In Columbus, an annual Williams celebration includes a tour of the house in which he was born.
Each February, Natchez, birthplace of Richard Wright, hosts the five-day Literary and Cinema Celebration. And Mississippi University for Women salutes Welty with an annual festival.
Accurate figures for attendance at these festivals and conferences, as well as for the number of people who visit Mississippi solely because of the state’s literary heritage, are difficult to find. But William Griffith, Rowan Oak’s curator, says that Faulkner’s home attracts some 20,000 “unique” visitors annually, which means that they’ve come to Oxford for that specific purpose.
Obviously, Mississippi’s literary heritage attracts thousands of people to the state each year, for two, three or more days. Many of them would not be in the state if not for its authors.
Just as obvious is that the support of the business community is a key to making the festivals and conferences possible.
In Natchez, business support has come from the Isle of Capri casino, the Natchez Democrat and banks, antique shops, hospitals, bookstores and restaurants. Oxford business sponsors have included BancorpSouth, First National Bank of Oxford, M&F Bank, Square Books, Bottletree Bakery and The Oxford Eagle.
Reaping economic, other benefits
With the exception of the Faulkner & Yoknapatawpha Conference, which is some 32 years old, only in recent years have the state’s cities and universities started honoring their imminent authors — and reaping the economic and other benefits.
“The [Natchez] celebration is not only filled with world-class educational activities that explore the Deep South’s history and culture, but it’s also big business,” according to Carolyn Vance Smith, founder and co-chairperson of the event.
Smith said that the business community loves the conference because it generates revenue for hotels, motels, bed and breakfast inns, restaurants, shops, service stations and local attractions.
“The less obvious reason the business community loves the conference is that the event generates a feeling of pride in the community,” Smith said. “And the national and international recognition has directly caused numerous people to visit Natchez and relocate here.”
Many people in Mississippi who know about the imminence of Faulkner and Welty, Williams and Wright, John Grisham and Willie Morris (Yazoo City – “North Toward Home”) and Greg Isles (Natchez – “Mortal Fear”) are unaware of the history and scope of the state’s literary heritage.
Early in the 1900s, Max Bodenheim of Baxterville was considered by some critics to be America’s foremost poet, and James Street of Laurel (“Tap Roots”) was a nationally known journalist and author who had four of his books made into films — two of them twice.
Greenville, going back to William Alexander Percy’s “Lanterns on the Levee,” was home to such recognized authors as LeRoy Percy (“Love in the Ruins”), Shelby Foote (“Love In A Dry Season”), Hodding Carter II (“Where Main Street Meets the River”) and David Cohn (“Where I Was Born and Raised”).
Jimmy Buffet (“Tales From Margaritaville”) was born in Pascagoula and Ellen Douglas (“Apostles of Light”) in Natchez. Beth Henley (“Crimes of the Heart”) is from Jackson. Margaret Alexander Walker (“Jubilee”) taught at Jackson State from 1946 to 1979. The late Stephen Ambrose (“Band of Brothers”) lived in Bay St. Louis. Nevada Barr (“Track of the Cat”) lives in Clinton, Frederick Barhthelme (“Natural Selection”) in Hattiesburg, Mark Childress (“Crazy in Alabama”) graduated from Clinton High School and Thomas Harris (“Silence of the Lambs”) is a Mississippi native who lives in the Mississippi Delta.
As for Oxford…
Faulkner’s grandfather, William, started the family tradition with his novel “The Red Rose of Memphis” and Faulkner’s brother, John, author of “Dollar Cotton,” at one time sold far more copies of his novels than William did of his.
Stark Young was a distinguished poet, essayist, novelist and critic whose “So Red the Rose” was made into a film.
John Grisham came to prominence while an attorney in Oxford.
Barry Hannah, author of “Geronimo Rex,” has lived in Oxford for years and teaches at Ole Miss. The late Larry Brown (“Facing the Music”) was an Oxford fireman before his novels and short story collections began to sell.
Jere Hoar, professor emeritus of journalism, is author of “Body Parts” and “The Hit.” Ace Atkins (“Dirty South” and “Dark End of the Street”) is an Ole Miss graduate and a visiting journalism professor.
An often overlooked treasure for visitors to Oxford and Ole Miss is the university library’s special collections, which features impressive displays of the books (and related material) of William Faulkner and many other Mississippi authors.
“Over 1,000 people a year visit the special collections,” according to Jennifer Ford, head of special collections and an associate professor. “Some of them, particularly if they’re doing scholarly work, come to Oxford just to visit the library.”
The current featured exhibition is “Murder With Southern Hospitality: An Exhibition of Mississippi Mysteries.”
The library, open from 8 a.m. to 5, p.m. Monday through Friday (except holidays), is free.
Most events at the literary festivals and conferences are free and open to the public. A few, particularly those that include dinner, charge an admission fee.
Contact MBJ contributing writer at George McNeill at email@example.com.