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JACK WEATHERLY: Encyclopedia of Mississippi: it’s about all of us

JACK WEATHERLY

Before the Internet, I was notorious at my house for interrupting a family discussion at the dinner table to check something in the encyclopedia.

Our kids would groan: “Oh no, not the encyclopedia.”

It was an occupational hazard from working for years on news desks.

No longer. We’ve got the World Wide Web.

But not everything is on the web.

If you don’t believe it, pick up – and it may take both hands – The Mississippi Encyclopedia.

The 1,451-page, nine-pound tome contains more than 1,400 entries – many of which you won’t find anywhere else.

After all, there is so much there here.

Choose your poison.

For me, a fifth-generation Mississippi native on both sides of my family, there is the personal, for starters.

Mike Conner, the governor who established the state sales tax in the depths of the Great Depression because the state was broke and public schools had lost accreditation, is a distant cousin. At the end of his one term, the state had a surplus.

A timely bit of history that could stand as a guidepost for those in power today.

Conner’s paternal grandparents were from Attala County, one of the 82 counties in the book, and my birthplace.

Another touchstone: the Natchez Trace, part of which crossed my maternal grandparents’ land in south Attala. We knew it as the Sand Ditch —  whose steep sides were at least six feet tall, giving it a cavernous feel — having its start as wagon ruts.

Of course, the trace, whose name has been lent to the Natchez Trace Parkway, dates to “prehistory.”

Whose prehistory? Not the Choctaws’ and not the Chickasaws’, who were here hundreds of years before the Europeans.

Those tribes have not been left out of the encyclopedia. A number of chiefs are listed.

Hence the “inclusiveness” of the book, a word used three times in the preface, in case you miss the point as you thumb through the pages.

My hands touched every one of them, and many touched me to some degree.

That’s the difference between encyclopedic and inclusive, as we’ve come to know the diminishment of the latter.

The volume has been touted as a celebration of the state’s 200th birthday this year.

That’s marketing.

Craig Gill, director of the University Press of Mississippi, the publisher, said in a recent interview on Mississippi Public Broadcasting that the effort was started 14 years ago, with no date-certain goal. The Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi is co-publisher.

Ted Ownby and Charles Reagan Wilson were the senior editors. Associate editors were Ann J. Abadie, Odie Lindsey and James G. Thomas Jr., all of whom rode herd on more than 600 contributors.

With a herd that big, there’s bound to be a couple of strays.

For example, what architectural style comes to mind when you hear the word “Mississippi”? If not a shotgun house, it’s got to be Greek Revival.

And the high style is in the book, but less than a half page of it. Maybe that’s sufficient. But the entry on Art Deco is about the same length. Art Deco’s heyday coincided with the Great Depression, hardly a match for antebellum Mississippi, with all its glory and inhuman treatment of slaves.

In there is Charles Banks (1873-1923), one of the leaders in Mound Bayou, founded as an all-black city in the Delta – with professionals, a post office, restaurants, newspaper and all amenities – and a bank started by Banks, who came to know and associate with Booker T. Washington, the famed African-American scientist and educator.

The Blues entry was penned by Scott Barretta, the journalist, scholar and radio show host. There are individual entries for musicians, whether blues or country or that relative newcomer rock ‘n’ roll, or, yes, classical. (Suggestion for second edition of the book: refer reciprocally between related topics, e.g., Blues and Charley Patton, one of the founders of the genre.)

The Boll Weevil, which once upon a time threatened to end the Kingdom of Cotton, is in there as pest and character, inspiring the lyrics of Patton, among others.

Same for catfish – critter, character and industry.

Jerry “If I’m Lyin’ I’m Dyin’” Clower, the fertilizer salesman and comic raconteur, draws an entry, just as he drew listeners, first in the feed store and then at rodeos and eventually record albums.

I’m guessing that if William Faulkner had lived long enough, he would’ve been amused by Clower, even though the famed fictioneer spent much of his time on a much higher plane.

Mississippi is just that kind of a place. “Magic” is the word that my friend Paul Greenberg – Louisiana native and long-time resident of Arkansas, where he won a Pulitzer for editorial writing, and should’ve won another – wistfully applies to it.

As I’ve suggested, balance is a challenge for a book with 1,400 entries.

The Flood of 1927 gets less than two pages of text.

There is space for “family reunions,” which is way beyond even a generic entry. But there is none for “homecomings,” a staple of country churches.

First Monday Trade Days in Ripley? C’mon.

The burial place of Lt. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, CSA ret., in Memphis is reported correctly as beneath a “colossal equestrian statue of himself,” but it is not in Forrest Park. The green space was renamed Health Sciences Park several years ago, and odds are it won’t be the final resting spot for Forrest and his wife. The Tennessean’s connection to Mississippi? Brice’s Crossroads.

U.S. Grant! All right, as long as he’s seen as a force of nature, like Hurricane Katrina, who’s in there, too.

Grits. Um, too non-Mississippi-centric for my taste.

Chokwe Lumumba (Edwin Finley Taliaferro), father of the current mayor of Jackson. An interesting and timely read.

Bill Minor, the longtime, muckraking journalist.

Jerry Mitchell, a Clarion-Ledger veteran who proves that you can get rich writing for a newspaper. How? Just win the MacArthur Foundation “genius grant,” $500,000. Also, for winning other prizes for shedding light on civil rights-era unsolved murders.

“O Brother, Where Art Thou?” the Coen brothers’ masterpiece that, of course, is set in a fictional Mississippi. Why an entry? A fictional treatment of the Civil War, “Gone With the Wind” (film and book version), is featured on the splashy, online New Georgia Encyclopedia. Maybe that’s a precedent. And maybe a digital version of the Mississippi compendium should be something to consider for the future.

Can you name the official soil of Mississippi? Seriously. It’s Natchez silt loam.

And on and on.

Meantime, I now have a book that’s liable to give me reason to jump up from the table and say, “Let me look that up!”

» Contact Mississippi Business Journal staff writer Jack Weatherly at jack.weatherly@msbusiness.com or (601) 364-1016.

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