Postmodern Conservative

Mississippi Literacy and the Walker Percy Festival

So I’m sitting in a motel in Tuscaloosa, Ala., with my wife, Rita, on the way home from St. Francisville, La., and the Walker Percy festival.

One thing I’ve done is dramatically increase my Mississippi literacy. We spent one night in Meridian, which turns out to be an architectural marvel. Why? Sherman helpfully burned the town to the ground in the so-called Battle of Meridian, which really wasn’t a battle because there were no Confederate troops present. Sherman thought Meridian had been wiped off the map forever, but the locals got the railroad going in just 29 days. Meridian was the largest city in Mississippi from 1890 to 1930, as a railroad and industrial center. So plenty of citizens had lots of money and lots of class, and they hired the nation’s leading architects (during the golden age of distinctively American architecture) to build their homes. After decades of decline, Meridian seems to be on a slight upswing now, and there’s the will and some real money available to return the downtown to some of its former glory.

Today, Meridian is also distinguished by huge, almost palatial, versions of chain motels on the interstate — in some ways worthy successors of the beautiful hotels that used to grace downtown (including just about the only hotel available to black travelers in the South) near the train station. We stayed at a Drury with nine floors, which was plenty nice. The Drury should be the choice of anyone traveling with kids. It has a complimentary happy hour with a buffet full of food kids love — such as hot dogs and mac-n-cheese — and, for all practical purposes, unlimited mixed drinks for parents.

We also stopped in Jackson to visit the home of Eudora Welty. It turns out to be intact and organized as a thoroughly instructive introduction to the life of the great writer. Miss Welty grew up and spent almost all of her life here. She was exceedingly well raised (as were her siblings) by middle-class, highly functional parents. She wasn’t obviously plagued by the high-octane existential issues (related to being personally wounded) on display in the work of Percy, O’Connor, and Faulkner. She excelled in her uncannily attentive descriptions of the ways of living — beginning, of course, with the manner of speaking — that surrounded her in her place. But she was also a highly sophisticated writer completely connected with the best writers and currents of thought of her (and other) times. I don’t know enough to be able to say whether she’s the best Southern writer, but she might be. She said she was always about the particular, never the general. Although all Southern writers seem to say something like that, she’s the one who might have stayed most perfectly in character in accessing the general through the particular and in showing, not telling, the truth about who each of us is. Miss Welty also said something like small-town Southerners love to dramatize the details of daily life. Let’s say that Southerners are particularly adept at doing that.

At St. Francisville (which I will talk about soon), someone said that Mississippi is the best and worst of states. Someone could add, of course, that the South is the best and worst part of our country.

Someone could say that the best of Mississippi is displayed in the writing of Welty, Faulkner, and William Alexander Percy (of Greenville and responsible for the outstanding public schools that educated Walker Percy and Shelby Foote) — as part of a long list of writers, white and black. But you also find it in the music memorialized all along the blues trail that meanders across Mississippi. In general, small Mississippi towns arouse nostalgia for ways of life no longer present. Things are much better, of course, when it comes to black participation in political life and the administration of justice. But it’s hard to say that things are good for blacks who have no access to decent jobs and, in some places, the public schools all to themselves.

Is Mississippi still better in some ways? You have to look to the persisting manners and morals and general interpersonal gentleness and savvy. And you might add the abiding presence of the living God of the Bible. Mississippi is somewhere between Christ-centered and Christ-haunted, and there’s not much evidence that it’s on the way to becoming more post-Christian. You also have to say something about the upsides of the honor, violence, and patriotism of democratized Southern Stoicism.

Still, all in all, things continue to get worse in rural Mississippi, even as the cities of the South (such as Jackson) have become the most livable parts of our country. Things continue to get worse in rural America, as most of the “mental labor” has traveled elsewhere.

There’s a lot more to say about Mississippi. I will conclude with a word about the festival in St. Francisville. It was, in part, a homecoming for me, as about half of the hundreds of people there this year were repeat attenders. Whole families — from little kids through grandparents — show up. There aren’t many professors, but lots of doctors and lawyers and various other professionals. They’re just about all there because they read Percy, O’Connor, Welty, and all kinds of contemporary writers (such as David Foster Wallace). Going to hang out with other readers is their idea of a fine time. More soon.

Peter Augustine LawlerPeter Augustine Lawler is Dana Professor of Government at Berry College. He is executive editor of the acclaimed scholarly quarterly Perspectives on Political Science and served on President George ...

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