At number 9 on the list of Best Reads of 2022 is W. Ralph Eubanks’s beautiful book A Place Like Mississippi: A Journey Through a Real and Imagined Landscape. Eubanks loves driving through Mississippi, and I do, too. It is a place that has played an outsized role in my understanding of what America means and what the South means.
Wandering around the Delta in search of another lens on Emmet Till, or searching the aisles of Square Books in Oxford, I’ve felt that strange double feeling of being both unsettled and at home. Part of that is the shared history of Virginia and Mississippi. Part of it is the treasure of Mississippi writers who have invested the place with their beautiful, heart-breaking, soulful stories.
Eubanks is one of those writers as well as a former editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review. He’s currently a visiting professor at the University of Mississippi. In this book, which is filled with as much photography as it is text, he journeys with us through the different regions of the state, accompanied by the constellation of his literary Mississippians.
In the Piney Woods, (from which Eubanks hails), Harrison Scott Key is present in a quote from his memoir Congratulations, Who Are You Again? “I was a member of the Church of Christ, a nineteenth-century evangelical sect consisting of good country people who believe Satan came in the form of a piano.” (49)
“I hope that at least one of [my children] will want to remain here in this place that I love more than I loathe, and I hope the work that I have done to make Mississippi a place worth living is enough.” (39)–Jesmyn Ward
Eudora Welty joins Eubanks in Jackson (posthumously) to share, “Like a good many writers…I am myself touched off by place…Place opens a door in the mind.” (99)
Kiese Laymon, author of the great memoir Heavy, is in Jackson as well. “It’s home. It’s why I read, why I write, why I try to love, and why it’s hard as hell to beat me. We have been and can be a model of transformation for the rest of the nation and world. But we gotta stop being so devoted to death and destruction.” (114)
Oxford, of course, has Faulkner (as well as Larry Brown, Chris Offutt, sometime Charlottesville resident John Grisham, etc.). In the Delta, Eubanks calls first on Lewis Nordan, who saw the same troubling beauty of the place:
“The Mississippi Delta is not always dark with rain. Some autumn mornings the sun rises over Moon Lake, or Eagle, or Choctaw, or Blue, or Roebuck, all the wide, deep waters of the state, and when it does, its dawn is as rosy with promise and hope as any other.” (218)–Lewis Nordan
Then he checks in with the late Willie Morris, whose North Towards Home captures a particular moment in white Southern history from the perspective of an ex-pat who eventually came back. The Delta, Morris said, “is still Old Testament to me in its ageless rhythms and despairs.” (230)
But I’m only giving you the quotes. To see these apart from the luscious photography of fields, forests, and general stores is to only have half the picture. A Place Like Mississippi could easily be a coffee table book if it were just a smidge bigger. But don’t leave it on the table. If you want a book that gets into a place and lets that place get into you, this is for you.
As LBJ once said, “There’s America, there’s the South, and then there’s Mississippi.” (234) See it here.
#10 – Shaking the Gates of Hell by John Archibald