I have no alternative to words,
Morris occasionally replied when asked about his far-reaching career.
And driven by social conscience, he continued to speak out on matters
that concerned him after he resigned his editor's position and left
New York City, at various times writing with outrage, with humor,
with sadness, and with affection but always with passion
In the course of his literary career,
Morris attained national prominence as a journalist, nonfiction
writer, novelist, essayist, autobiographer, and news commentator.
Although one of the South's principal spokespersons, he did not
consider himself a southern writer. I am an American writer
who happens to have come from the South, he often emphasized.
I've tried to put the South into the larger American perspective.
And he began doing so at an early
age. William Weaks Morris, a sixth-generation Mississippian, was
born on November 29, 1934, in the state capital of Jackson.
When he was six months old his parents moved to Yazoo
City, a small town located, as he writes in North Toward
Home, on the edge of the delta, straddling that memorable
divide where the hills end and the flat land begins. His family
members were all storytellers, and he grew up in the tradition of
recounting tales and handing them down from one generation to the
After he graduated from high school
in 1952 as valedictorian of his class, he left the familiar Mississippi
Delta for the University of Texas
in Austin, where he became editor of the student newspaper, the
in his senior year. Immersing himself in journalism and books and
reading in a great undigested fury, he became editor
his senior year. He soon incurred the wrath of the university's
Board of Regents for his scathing attacks on segregation and censorship,
and especially on the governor and other legislators for their collusion
with the twin deities the oil and gas interests
that ran the state. A student editor in Texas could blaspheme
the Holy Spirit and the Apostle Paul, Morris wryly commented
a decade later, but irreverence stopped at the well-head.
Refusing either to resign or to alter his blistering editorials,
the outspoken Morris eventually, if perhaps begrudgingly, earned
the respect of University officials, politicians, faculty, and students.
A member of Phi
Beta Kappa when he graduated in 1956, Morris continued his education
as a Rhodes Scholar, studying history at Oxford
University. When he returned to the United States, he edited
the crusading Texas Observer,
a liberal weekly newspaper, from 1960 to 1962.
In 1963 Morris became associate
editor of Harper's
magazine and editor-in-chief in 1967, shortly before the publication
of North Toward Home. Throughout this autobiography
in mid-passage, the Southern expatriate reflects on how numerous
members of his generation Mississippians who reached maturity
in the early 1950s have felt alienated from Mississippi but
love their state and are still drawn to it. The feelings are
very complicated, Morris told a magazine interviewer a year
after the book's publication, but the older I am the more
[the South] means to me, the closer the ties. Throughout North
Toward Home he struggles to understand his regional identity
as he challenges the various social and cultural forces that characterized
the nation from the 1940s through the 1960s.
North Toward Home was not
only a bestseller, but it also received the prestigious Houghton
Mifflin Literary Fellowship Award for nonfiction as well as several
other honors. A selection of the Literary Guild, it was widely praised
by critics, including a reviewer for America who was prompted
to exclaim that Harper's is indeed in good hands.
During his editorship of the nation's
oldest magazine, Morris attracted contributions from such well-known
writers as William Styron, Robert Penn Warren, Ralph Ellison, Arthur
Miller, James Dickey, Walker Percy, and Norman Mailer. A lot
of distinguished magazines have folded over the years. Morris
remarked soon after he was appointed editor. They were venerable
institutions but they did not move with the times.... The idea is
to be relevant, and we fully intend to be that.
Morris's desire to create a relevant
magazine with a truly national focus, one that would reflect the
issues of the times and the diversity of the country, spurred him
to hire young but already well-established writers as contributing
editors. These included Larry
L. King, Marshall Frady, John Corry, and Pulitzer Prize-winner
David Halberstam. As King recalled years later, these were energizing,
animated years: You could hardly pick up the news mags or
the newspapers or turn on a talk show without everyone saying what
great things were happening at Harper's. Such success
notwithstanding, the magazine's editor eventually became embroiled
in editorial disputes with the publication's owner and resigned
in 1971 (a move that prompted the resignations of most of the magazine's
chief contributing editors).
Morris's departure followed on
the heels of a painful divorce, and he withdrew to Bridgehampton,
New York, a small town on the east end of Long Island. A few months
after leaving New York City, he published Yazoo: Integration
in a Deep-Southern Town (1971), a moving exploration of how
the forced integration of the public schools affected this Deep-Southern
town on the edge of the Mississippi Delta. Subsequent books include
the children's classic Good Old Boy (1971), a celebration
of Morris's youth complete with boyish misadventures and a daring
rescue in a haunted house; Book-of-the-Month
Club selection The Last of the Southern Girls (1973),
a novel of a southern debutante who comes to Washington, D.C.; and
James Jones: A Friendship
(1978), a warm reminiscence about his longtime comrade and fellow
In 1980 Morris returned to his
native state as writer-in-residence at the University
of Mississippi in Oxford
and wrote The Courting of Marcus Dupree (1983). In this alternate
selection of the Literary Guild, the author skillfully combines
sports reporting, historical analysis, and biography as he recounts
the madness surrounding the college recruitment of a talented southern
As writer-in-residence, Morris
eagerly encouraged aspiring young authors, especially when they
exhibited exceptional talent. One example was an Ole Miss freshman
named Donna Tartt,
whose work particularly caught Morris's eye. Her first novel, A
Secret History (1992), was begun while she was still in college
and ended up on Publishers Weekly's bestseller list for thirteen
weeks. In another instance, a University of Mississippi law student
who had sat in on some of Morris's classes began writing his first
novel and asked Morris for advice, which was generously given. Subsequently
Morris wrote a blurb for the book's dust jacket, praising John
Grisham's A Time to Kill (1989) as a powerful courtroom
drama and a compelling tale of a small southern town
searching for itself.
Morris told an interviewer in 1979
that if there is anything that makes southerners distinctive
from the main body of Americans, it is a certain burden of memory
and a burden of history.... I think sensitive southerners have this
in their bones, this profound awareness of the past. Morris's
rich heritage is particularly evident in his books of essays, revealing
him as a master stylist in this genre. Homecomings (1989),
with its original artwork, in particular illustrates his precision
and eloquence in crafting short works of fiction and nonfiction.
His narrative My Own Private Album: The Burden and Resonance
of My Memory introduces A Southern Album (1975). His
cover story in the March 1989 issue of National Geographic,
Mississippi, with photographs by William Eggleston, forms
the core of the coffee-table book that appeared a year later under
the same title. A Prayer for the Opening of the Little League
Season (1995) is Morris's poetic tribute to children's baseball,
with watercolor illustrations by prize-winning artist Barry Moser.
In 1990 Morris married long-time
friend JoAnne Prichard, an astute, imaginative editor at the University
Press of Mississippi who had worked with him on Homecomings,
his award-winning essay collection. After their marriage, they moved
to Jackson, Mississippi, where he began poring over Harper's
papers and writing old comrades for reminiscences in preparation
for a second autobiographical volume, New York Days (1993).
In this triumphant sequel to North Toward Home he reflects
not only on his exhilarating years at Harper's but also on
how that period mirrored the tumultuous 1960s. He followed this
Book-of-the-Month Club selection with another, the widely reviewed
bestseller My Dog Skip (1995), which is not only a poignant,
bittersweet tribute to the canine companion of his boyhood but also
a memoir of a bygone era as well.
In his next book Morris once again
effectively juxtaposes and intertwines history with autobiography.
Subtitled A Tale of Race, Murder, Mississippi, and Hollywood,
The Ghosts of Medgar Evers (1998) is in large part an odyssey
back to the racist past of Mississippi, particularly June 1963 when
thirty-seven-year-old civil rights activist Medgar Evers was shot
in the back and killed in front of his wife and children at their
home in Jackson. White supremacist and Ku Klux Klan member Byron
De La Beckwith was charged with the murder, but despite such overwhelming
evidence as eyewitnesses and his thumbprint on the murder rifle,
he was freed after the all white juries in two trials deadlocked.
Murder, however, has no statute
of limitations. When the Hinds County, Mississippi, white assistant
district attorney, Bobby DeLaughter, reopened the case in 1990,
Beckwith was prosecuted once more and convicted four years later.
Morris covered the third trial for the magazine New Choices for
Retirement Living (Justice, Justice at Last, June
1994) and was spellbound by its proceedings. Impressed by the historical
significance of the event and fascinated with the intricate story
of how DeLaughter, Evers's wife Myrlie, and others relentlessly
pushed for justice, Morris convinced a longtime friend, movie producer
Fred Zollo (Quiz Show, The Paper), that he should
make a motion picture based on the murder case. Zollo agreed and
secured Rob Reiner (Stand by Me, When Harry Met Sally,
A Few Good Men) to direct the film.
Morris served as a historical consultant
for this production, Ghosts of Mississippi. (Sharp-eyed moviegoers,
in fact, can catch a glimpse of the author's North Toward Home
as Peggy DeLaughter, the wife of Beckwith's prosecutor, reads it
in bed.) The motion picture went on to lose millions at the box
office; moreover, it was pilloried by reviewers who believed that
the film should have focused not on the district attorney and the
trial of Byron De La Beckwith, but instead on the saga of the courageous
civil rights activist whom Beckwith murdered.
In The Ghosts of Medgar Evers,
Morris travels back to the beloved Delta of his boyhood to chronicle
the remarkable story of this NAACP leader. Tempering nostalgia with
harsh reality, he retraces both his and Evers's lives as scions
of two vastly different Mississippis, while simultaneously detailing
the history of the movie and his own experiences as a consultant.
As Morris lyrically blends the past and present, he combines an
insider's view of Hollywood filmmaking with his characteristic eloquence
and soul-searching about the South and racial healing.
Morris clearly enjoyed his behind-the-scenes
role in a major motion picture, and he was pleased when Hollywood
beckoned again a couple of years later. After film director Jay
Russell turned the last page of the author's My Dog Skip,
he admitted that I first had to dry my eyes from crying and
the second thing I did was call Willie Morris to inquire whether
the rights were available. Russell had already worked with
Morris on the PBS documentary Highway 61 Revisited, the first
of a five-part PBS series on famous American highways titled Great
Drives. Soon he secured not only the necessary permission from
the author but also the assistance of screenwriter/filmmaker John
Lee Hancock, screenwriter Gail Gilchriest, and Academy Award-winning
producer Mark Johnson.
A relatively new production company,
Alcon Entertainment, began filming in 1998. Although Yazoo City
had changed so much over the years that much of the motion picture
was filmed in less-developed Canton, Mississippi, Morris was pleased
with the results and found shooting to be especially poignant. It
was déjà vu of the most stunning kind, he remarked
on several occasions, to see actors and actresses playing him, his
parents, and his childhood friends. Film veterans Kevin Bacon (Apollo
13, A Few Good Men, Footloose) and Diane Lane
(Lonesome Dove, Judge Dredd, The Outsiders)
starred as his mother and father, while Frankie Muniz who
a year later would be featured in the television program Malcolm
in the Middle played young Willie. More than a half dozen
Jack Russell terriers were used in the title role, one of which
was the well-known Eddie on the NBC sitcom Frasier.
Dog Skip was shown to selected audiences in 1999, Warner
Bros did not release it for general distribution until early 2000.
The reviews were nearly all favorable, and the filmmakers found
themselves in the enviable position of producing a motion picture
that made more money its second week than it did the first. Gene
Shalit on the Today Show singled out Frankie Muniz for turning
in as splendid a performance by a youngster as I have ever
seen. He added that the film was not just for children: Don't
be put off by this title. This is a grown-up movie for adults that
young people will also cherish.
Willie Morris himself also reveled
in the film, though he did not see its final version. At the end
of July 1999, he and his wife JoAnne flew to New York to view a
preliminary screening, which he called an absolute classic.
On August second, just several days after they returned home, he
suffered a heart attack and died a few hours later.
Lengthy obituaries across the country
praised Morris's works and literary accomplishments, as well as
his generosity of spirit and affection for the South. As broadcast
journalist and author Bill Moyers prophetically remarked in the
mid-1980s: In the end it will be the quality of his life that
is the real contribution Willie ... made to our times. Morris
became the first writer in Mississippi history and only the third
person in the twentieth century to lie in state in the Rotunda of
the Old Capitol in Jackson. (The other two were former Governor
James P. Coleman, who died in 1991, and former U.S. Senator John
C. Stennis, who died in 1995.) Morris is buried in Yazoo City's
Glenwood Cemetery, just thirteen paces from the grave of the Witch
of Yazoo, a legendary character immortalized in Good Old
Works both by and about Willie
Morris have appeared since his untimely death at age sixty-four.
The University Press of
Mississippi, which had published his Homecomings and
After All, It's Only a Game, brought out a new cloth edition
of North Toward Home on the 65th anniversary of his birth
(November 29, 1999). It also compiled Remembering Willie
(2000), a collection of twenty-seven eulogies and tributes that
includes remarks by U.S. President Bill Clinton and authors Rick
Bragg, David Halberstam, and William Styron. Jack Bales's Conversations
with Willie Morris (2000), again by the University Press of
Mississippi, features twenty-five incisive profiles and interviews,
some never before published. Morris's longtime friend and Harper's
colleague Larry L. King wrote the heartfelt The Book on Willie
Morris for the May 2001 issue of Texas
Monthly. Readers who knew the author well have praised the
candid yet affectionate profile as the most honest piece ever
written about Willie Morris. King, a successful writer of
novels, essays, children's books, and plays (including The Best
Little Whorehouse in Texas), is now working on the biography
In Search of Willie Morris.
A new edition of North Toward
Home is not the only posthumously published Morris title. Released
just three months after his passing, My Cat Spit McGee (1999)
is a warm and funny account of the author's conversion from a longtime
dog man to an unabashed cat lover who delighted in serving
as his feline companion's valet, butler, and menial.
After Morris finished this sequel
to My Dog Skip, he and his son, photojournalist David
Rae Morris, began discussing a joint project that would explore
Mississippi's complex history through both words and photographs.
In My Mississippi (2000), literally a historical portrait
of his beloved native state, Willie Morris examines the snarled
confluence of [Mississippi's] past and present as well as
its promise for the future. David Rae Morris's full-color photographic
narrative, Look Away, is his provocative challenge to
confront the past and not merely understand it. He said in an interview
shortly after the book's publication that I have tried to
strike a careful balance between the history and tragedy of Mississippi
and the beauty and magic of the land and the people. It can be a
great burden, but it is something my father spent his life and his
work dealing with. My responsibility is to carry on his legacy.
Willie Morris completed a draft
manuscript of My Mississippi in early July 1999. By then
he was already taking notes for his next book and talking about
getting back to one he had been tinkering with for over a decade.
Regrettably, neither would get much of his attention. He wrote to
a friend on July 3 that the new book would go into my relationship
with my father in detail when I was growing up: how baseball and
dogs were our strongest bond. The title will be One for My Daddy,
with a subtitle sounding like A Personal Memoir of Baseball
or some such. Then back to Taps!!
Written over much of his thirty-year
literary career, Taps captures the ideas and beliefs that
touched (no, consumed) him all his life: loyalty to family
and friends, the importance of the past, the allegiance to a place
and the power of land, the unquestioning love of a dog, the glory
and disappointment of sports, the meanness and tragedy of racial
injustices, and the fragility of human life. He began writing it
even before he published his classic North Toward Home in
1967 while editor of Harper's magazine. He worked on the
novel sporadically while living in New York, but in the 1980s, after
he returned to Mississippi, he completed a solid working draft.
He still, however, wanted to rewrite
portions of it. Over the years he read passages aloud to his wife
JoAnne, and the two would discuss possible changes while he polished
a sentence here or tightened a paragraph there. Among his final
words to her after his heart attack were get Taps together.
Fortunately, the book already was together, though in the
months after his death she went over the manuscript carefully, checking
facts and spellings and making the few changes that he had indicated
in the margins of the pages. But that was all. As she said in an
interview after the novel's publication, There wasn't much
he wanted to change. This book is absolutely Willie's book.
Taps (2001) was published
by Houghton Mifflin, which had also published his first work, North
Toward Home. For those who knew him, it is clear after reading
Taps that he drew a great deal from his boyhood memories.
Yazoo City, for example, is thinly veiled as the mythical town of
Fisk's Landing. Several of the work's characters bear more than
just coincidental resemblances to Morris's own family members. Even
the principal motif is taken from Morris's own boyhood. The
book I'm working on is called Taps, he told a newspaper
interviewer in 1978, and the thread of it is sort of autobiographical.
The Dixie Division of the National Guard was activated and sent
boys into Korea. They were decimated, and I remember a period of
months when the boxes started coming home. Another boy and I used
to play trumpet in the high school band and we would always play
'Taps' at the military funerals.
In this coming-of-age story, sixteen-year-old
Swayze Barksdale plays patriotic marching songs on his trumpet as
the town's young men leave Fisk's Landing for service in Korea.
When some are killed fighting overseas and return home in coffins,
Swayze and his best friend Arch Kidd play Taps at their
funerals. With each funeral, Swayze grows more mature as he, his
girlfriend Georgia, Arch, and their other friends learn worldly
lessons about love, sacrifice, patriotism, and grief.
* * *
After reviewing Willie Morris's
Homecomings in 1990, a Boston Globe writer concluded:
There's damn fine life left in this man's prose. Some
ten years later, readers of Jackson's Clarion-Ledger
agreed, selecting Morris as Mississippi's favorite nonfiction author
of the millennium. Belying the words of one of the favorite authors
of his youth, Thomas Wolfe, he clearly showed in the last decade
of his life that, both literally and metaphorically, you can
go home again. And whether Willie Morris was considering the significance
of home, family, sports, dogs, politics, the 1960s, or passionately
exploring the paradoxical and complicated past of his native state,
his prose always remained lively, fresh, and thought-provoking
Article and bibliography updated
Related Links & Info
You can find out more about Willie Morris's boyhood home at the Yazoo
County Convention and Visitors Bureau web site.
In 1967 Morris became the youngest ever editor-in-chief at Harper's,
the nation's oldest magazine.
Willie Morris at the grave of the Witch of Yazoo, a legendary character
immortalized in his 1971 book Good Old Boy. Larger
A 1988 film
adaptation of Morris's Good Old Boy: A Delta Boyhood was
re-released on video in 1994 as The
Homecomings, a collection of essays which features the art
of William Dunlap, was published by the University
Press of Mississippi in 1989.
Several of Morris's books, including Good Old Boy (1971), have
been re-issued by the Mississippi-based Yoknapatawpha
Morris's 1995 book A Prayer for the Opening of the Little League
Season, a tribute to children's baseball, features illustrations
by artist Barry