“I think he got parvo. I think he picked it up out the dirt.”
…”Maybe he just sick, Skeet.”
“What if it’s in the dirt? What if the rest of them get infected?”
—Salvage the Bones, Jesmyn Ward
It took some chutzpah for Willie Morris, at the age of roughly 33, to believe that his brief life was worth looking back on for the purpose of writing a memoir. It was also a little fanciful for him to believe, as a relatively recent newcomer on the New York literary scene, that he had found home. But fortunately the young Southern editor of Harper’s Magazine set out to write North Toward Home, which was published in 1967 in the same week as William Styron’s controversial Southern novel, The Confessions of Nat Turner.
I picked up a 1982 edition of this book after chasing it down for several years. It is considered a seminal work of the memoir genre and, of course, it appealed to me as a window into life in the South.
That’s where Morris begins, in his hometown of Yazoo City, Mississippi, recently tapped by 24/7 Wall Street as the most miserable city in America. It probably wouldn’t have ranked much higher in the 1940s, but Morris draws it as a poor but fascinating place to live. Morris grew up as the descendent of one of Mississippi’s most colorful governors, Henry Foote, who opposed secession, not for anti-slavery sentiments, but for sheer ornery hatred of his fellow-Mississippian Jefferson Davis.
The Delta he describes is deep in the grips of Jim Crow segregation and Morris doesn’t sugarcoat its contradictions. There is the Mississippi of small town revivals at the Methodist Church; groups gathered at the firehouse on lazy afternoons to hear baseball games broadcast by the old Scotchman, Gordon McClendon; and pick-up football games with Morris’s remarkable dog, Skip, who could play running back.
There was also the Mississippi of casual violence and deep-seated racism that created another life for the African-American residents. Morris sees it in himself, relating a shameful moment when, on a whim, he attacked a 3-year-old black boy walking on the sidewalk with his sister, slapping him and knocking him to the ground. From the perspective of the Civil Rights era, he reflects on the incident:
My hurting the Negro child…was a gratuitous act of childhood cruelty—but I knew later that it was something else, infinitely more subtle and contorted. For my whole conduct with Negroes as I was growing up in the 1940s was a relationship of great contrasts. On the one hand there was a kind of unconscious affection touched with a sense of excitement and sometimes pity. On the the other hand there were sudden emotional eruptions—of disdain and utter cruelty. My own alternating affections and cruelties were inexplicable to me, but the main thing is that they were largely assumed and only rarely questioned. (78)
Later, when he returns to his hometown after leaving for college, he sits in on a meeting of the newly formed White Citizens Council with his father, a scene much like one described in Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman. Post-Brown v. Board of Education, he sees a more volatile and vicious reality taking hold in his hometown, though he realizes, even as an enlightened New York editor, that he still doesn’t grasp it all. When he meets black activists from Mississippi during the early 60s, their descriptions of his home state are foreign:
They described the places of my youth, the quiet hill towns I had known—one was “tough,” another “damned spooky,” another “getting a lot better”—as if they were objects on some sliding scale to perdition. The world of a sensitive young person growing up remains fixed in one’s emotions as it was years ago, it endures in the memory dreamlike and motionless, despite even what later knowledge discloses. (380)
The middle section of North Toward Home moves to Texas, where Morris went to the University of Texas, becoming editor of the school’s paper, The Daily Texan, a Rhodes Scholar, and eventually running the respected muckraking weekly, Texas Observer. It was a formative time for Morris, who had an experience much like mine in going to Texas for seminary in the 1980s. “In Mississippi, as one grew up, the myth was heavy, almost stacked against you,” Morris says, “in Texas the young felt they were sharing in something expansive and volatile.” (308)
Finally, Morris arrives in New York, which feels inevitable to him as a writer, it being the nation’s cultural capital. And yet, as a Southerner with a strong sense of place, he feels out of sorts. Along with the incivility and callousness he encounters, he knows that in his writing he can be drawn away from himself.
There were always secret dangers for these young people from the provinces in the city. It became dangerously easy to turn one’s back on his own past, on the isolated places that nurtured and shaped him into maturity, for the sake of some convenient or fashionable “sophistication.” There were temptations to be not merely careless, but dishonest, with the most distinctive things about one’s self. (318-9)
In the end, you sense that Morris is making his peace with the city. It’s there in the title which refers to a journey that has its destination in New York. But Morris left the North after this book and returned to Oxford, Mississippi where he became a beloved writing teacher. When he died in 1999 he was laid in state in the Old Capitol in Jackson.
There’s no shortage of writing from later in his life, but this book captures a moment in time when the South and what it meant was changing. It should be read alongside those other Mississippi memoirs that are emerging from other voices—Kiese Laymon’s Heavy and Jesmyn Ward’s Men We Reaped. And it should remind us that we are always of a place yet are never at, but always moving toward, home.