Page 30


Willie would happily spend the whole year talking about his idol, but he allows that the students think that Styron, not Faulkner, is the greatest American novelist of the Twentieth Century. Styron whom Willie calls “Stingo” has been to Ole Miss twice to talk to Willie’s classes. He has told them about the autobiographical strains in Sophie’s Choice he did know a Sophie in a boardinghouse in Brooklyn. And how he’d drop little greeting cards among his prose, for his friends. \(A reference to Yazoo City, Mississippi, them about what he intended in the novel, how he approached his subject and he left them spellbound and inspired. And then, of course, there are the stories from Morris himself. He is not a teacher, he insisted, he is a storyteller. Willie told them about the time he and Robert Penn Warren were inducted as fellows into Silliman College at Yale, speaking to about fifty students who were interested in writing. One asked, “Why do such seemingly civilized men come from such a barbaric region as the South?” and Warren answered, “I’m sick and tired of hearing that question from Yankees. I suppose my answer has to do with inoculation against hookworm!” Willie Morris has had the range of experience to make the course meaningful to the students, with or without the visiting authors. A native of Yazoo City, Miss. , far to the south of Oxford, he gained his degree in English at the University of Texas in 1956. Following a four-year stint at the other Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar studying history, he edited the Texas Observer from 19601962, went to New York to work for Harper’s as associate editor, then served there as editor from 1967 to 1971. In addition to North Toward Home in 1967, he wrote Yazoo in 1971; one novel, The Last of the Southern Girls; and a children’s book, Good 01′ Boy. He put together James Jones’ notes and tapes to finish Whistle, on which Jones was working when he died, and wrote James Jones, a Friendship, in 1979. Recovering from the loss of a friend, he came South partially to recapture his own literary soul. Morris moved to Oxford from Bridgehampton, Long Island, where his neighbors and friends the late Irwin Shaw, Truman Capote, Kurt Vonnegut, Wilfred Sheed, Craig Claiborne, Knowles and Plimpton, Joseph Heller, and A. J. Liebling, and the late Jean Stafford were mostly the writers who now figure largely in his literature course. THE NOVEL Willie is writing, to be published by Doubleday, is set in a little Mississippi town during the Korean War. Its title is Taps. “I was in high school in Yazoo City when they really started sending the bodies back. Another boy and I always played taps at the military funerals,” he says. As writer-in-residence at the university, Willie Morris has found writing in his own small residence most productive. During these Ole Miss years, he wrote The Courting of Marcus Dupree football’s most promising and impetuous young star, which he calls “the story of a middle-aged white man .and a teenaged black football player who get together in a town where three civil rights workers were murdered in 1964.” The book is about social change in Mississippi and how sports has become a metaphor for that change. This spring, Morris, for writing Dupree, won the 35th Annual Christopher Award for “artistic excellence in books, films, or television specials that affirm the highest values of the human spirit.” Early this year, bookstores also began distributing Always Stand In Against the Curve and other stories from Morris’s past, written at Ole Miss and published by Yoknapatawpha Press, as was Terrains of the Heart, And Other Essays on Home, in 1981. Yoknapatawpha, located in Oxford and owned by Dean Faulkner Wells and her husband Larry, has also reprinted in paperback Morris’s Good Old Boy: A Delta Boyhood, and North Toward Home, which continue to be sold out as soon as they are distributed. The Wellses are reprinting North Toward Home, which moved a generation of expatriates \(and educated cover edition this fall. In the Warehouse, Willie holds forth after class, swapping stories with the students, memorizing sensations and quotes for his own future writing, but mainly giving of himself: “Being with them both exhilarates and saddens me,” he says. “I am thrilled by their exuberance and energy and intelligence the best students here are as good as the best students anywhere and they don’t have the blast attitudes you have in the East. But it saddens me to look at them, because they are so young. They don’t know the terrible shit ahead you know, the blows life has in store for them.” Willie has had his share of losses: Both his parents and some of his closest friends have died; his former wife, Celia, has remarried; his friendship with Barbara Howar, inspiration for The Last of the Southern Girls, is over; he lost his job as editor of Harper’s, which he held dear. He shares with his students the stories about James Jones, for example, whose death in 1977 still grieves Willie. What Willie gives the students is what he gave James Jones and other old friends who go out of their way to see him in Oxford, as well as the old Harper’s crowd Larry L. King, Marshall Frady, David Halberstam, et al., who come in to speak to his class in the journalism department a quality of caring. To his surprise, the native son who was so troubled about his state during the Sixties has found a new affinity for the Mississippi of the Eighties. “The state has changed in twenty years,” Willie says, “enough to make it bearable. Race is no longer obsessive the albatross around the necks of both whites and blacks. There’s been a liberation of sorts. These are historic times for the Deep South especially for Mississippi.” A 4 … ON SERVING FROM 11:30 EVERY DAY OPEN ‘TILL IN THE METRO .40″i t iwt , THE SANDWICHES UNTIL OF THE MIDNIGHT Pt .4AIL l ip . .T CHEESE CAKE CENTER, .,-..Vir RIVERWALK rime TO SEAFOOD, 1 4 11:30 4kartproo WEEK; SAN ANTONIO, TEXAS \(loud THE TEXAS OBSERVER 21