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JACK WEATHERLY — Everywhere you turn, there’s a writer


Turns out that our trip from northeast Jackson to Yazoo City last Friday was a good warmup for the fifth annual Mississippi Book Festival the next day.

Yazoo City, of course, is the town that Willie Morris put on the map.

And while the estate sale that attracted us was rewarding in its own right, the Morris trail took over, at least for me if not my wife.

It was an impromptu thing, meaning things were missed – such as Willie’s boyhood home (not open to the public) – and others were discovered.

Not to be overlooked was his grave, marked by a jagged stone rising out of the ground of Glenwood Cemetery and close by the “resting place” of the Witch of Yazoo, whom Willie conjured in his book “Good Old Boy” about his adventures as a lad, and according to Willie, brought down her hellfire on the town, which actually did burn to the ground in 1904.

The Witch’s marker lies on the ground, riven from top to bottom.

Nearby (13 paces, it is said) is Willie’s postmodernist grave stone. Oddly, or maybe, to use that much abused word – eerily – his marker is likewise torn down the middle.

Willie’s widow, JoAnne Prichard Morris, explained that Willie’s stone was split by accident when the monument makers in Texas were shaping it, according to Karen Dunaway, librarian at Ricks Memorial Library in Yazoo City. Time was running short for the funeral. Polish it up and send it on, his widow said.

That’s the rational explanation, anyway.

Yazoo City is the birthplace of other notables, including Jerry Clower, the famous Southern comedian, former Gov. Haley Barbour (who wrote a worthy book on the state’s recovery from Hurricane Katrina; “it was like Hiroshima,” he wrote), food writer and humorist Martha Foose and inspirational speaker and writer of motivational books Zig Ziglar.

Not so widely famous, historian and world traveler Sam Olden, for whom the Sam Olden Historical Museum is named, at 100 still resides in the town that from its prospect high in the hills offers a spectacular view of the vast Delta below.

By the time we made it out of the estate sale, had some delicious fried Simmons catfish at Clancy’s, a converted double-wide on Highway 49, we stumbled across the Yazoo Historical Society Museum.

(The house where the estate sale was held is a rambling, one-story showcase for socializing in a Southern town, and a story in itself. It is testament to the land below the city where hardwoods were claimed and the Delta became a fabulous 4 million-acre farming plain. The utility room is walled in pecky cypress, no doubt pulled from the lowlands. The house, formerly the Curran residence, was built from wood provided by the McGraw-Curran Lumber Co.)

The town that closes early was trying to tell me that it was too late for certain things. The intense western sun had made the iron handrail leading up the museum steps hot enough to fry a slab of bacon, which should have been a fair enough warning that the doors would be locked.

At the Mississippi Book Festival the next morning we passed two stern-looking women using large black umbrellas as parasols in the hellish heat as they sat on the Capitol lawn in folding chairs and handed out religious tracts.

Later, we encountered two smiling golden retrievers on leashes. It occurred to me that the those women might benefit from such a loving testament.

Yazoo City is but one example of why our state is extraordinarily represented by the written word, not to mention music.

There is something about the soil and soul of the state.

Which is why a library dedicated to Union General U.S. Grant is such an oddity in the Magnolia State. It’s got to be a tough sell in Mississippi. But Dr. John F. Marszalek  of Mississippi State University was making a good effort to sell the Ulysses S. Grant Presidential Library which opened in 2017 at MSU.

Marszalek showed the essential knack of selling a book: show the cover, more than once, which in this case was of “Hold on With a Bulldog Grip,” a concise biography of the Union general. The fact that incoming MSU freshmen will get a copy of the book as part of their enrollment package will help sales. Marszalek also championed the Union general’s military prowess, not a hard sell. (Even though an attendee, a hard-core loyalist to facts,  reminded him during question and answer of the accepted consensus that Grant was no match for Confederate General Robert E. Lee in battlefield tactics.) And touted his skills as a diarist.

I had to leave the balcony of the Galloway Memorial Methodist Church in the next session I picked because of the poor sound system. I might as well have been trying to hear Warren Oates, the film character actor, and Whitey Ford, the hall of fame pitcher, as Joyce Carol Oates, noted essayist and novelist, and Richard Ford, the Mississippi-born writer.

It was the same last year from the balcony when historian Jon Meacham, whose book The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels” was still fresh in circulation and Karl Rove, chief adviser to former George W. Bush, discussed crises for presidents. I stuck it out because of the hoped-for fireworks — which didn’t happen — regarding the current White House occupant, Donald Trump.

Evidently U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the self-proclaimed “wise Latina,” uncharacteristically said nothing provocative, though she sold plenty of books – 130 copies of her autobiography, 130 children’s books and 50 others on different topics, according to a sales clerk for Jackson’s Lemuria Books, which has a tent at the festival every year.

The timing was right for her to hold forth on the recent arrest of 680 immigrant workers in Mississippi poultry processing plants by federal agents.

I had decided not to attend her discussion with Pass Christian-based memoirist Margaret McMullan, choosing instead to hear a panel take on “renegades in American history” in the same hour.

These renegades were safely not of the political stripe – Black Beard the pirate and Wild Bill Hickock, the gunslinger — which is refreshing when every politician of note seems branded as such these days.

You picks your topics and takes your chances.

The record crowd of 9,300 had plenty to choose from among 48 panels and 170 writers, not to mention the 75 hopefuls in the heat of Authors Alley waiting for their time in the cool rooms.

» Contact JACK WEATHERLY at jack.weatherly@msbusiness.com.


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About Jack Weatherly