Greenville, Mississippi: A Literary Profile
by John Sledge
Editor’s Note: Greenville, Miss. (population 42,000), is famous for its many writers, among them Hodding Carter, Walker Percy, David Cohn, Shelby Foote and Ellen Douglas. I recently visited this Delta town to explore its remarkable literary heritage, to see if and how it is celebrated and to learn whether any promising new writers are emerging there. The following is my report.
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The weather didn’t look good. A front was racing east from out of Louisiana and Arkansas, triggering storms and promising to catch us well before we got to Greenville. Ragged, dark clouds glowered on the horizon and gusts rocked the car, but still there was no rain when my wife and I pulled into Yazoo City about midafternoon. It was there that we got our first look at the Delta. Yazoo City is perched on the edge of this vast alluvial plain, 150 miles long by some 50 wide, formed by the Yazoo and Mississippi Rivers. It’s been called “the most Southern place on Earth,” “the birthplace of the Blues,” and “Old Testament in its intensities.” We drove through town and marveled at the steep bluffs crowned with pines and oaks falling dramatically away to the flat tableland below. As if on cue, the clouds opened up and rain pelted the car. From Yazoo City along Highway 49 to Louise, west on County Road 14 to Anguilla and then north on fabled Highway 61 all the way to Greenville, endless muddy fields, isolated stands of trees and beat-up tin outbuildings defined the landscape. We rolled into Greenville close to dark with severe weather threatening. First impressions would have to await morning.
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[Greenville has long been one of the largest and most prosperous towns in the State.
-Dunbar Rowland, “History of Mississippi,” 1925]
Poised on the Mississippi River roughly halfway between Memphis and Natchez, Greenville was once the pride of the Delta. Wealthy cotton planters and merchants strolled its wide streets, jostling elbows with a surprisingly variegated mix of immigrants – Chinese, Lebanese, Syrians and Italians – all of them a mere drop in a sea of black humanity. For it was black labor that made the Delta, overcoming swamps and vermin to till the cotton and corn. The money wrung from the sweat of their brows funded a glittering society of belles and beau housed in columned palaces. Greenville was the seat of their empire, an aristocratic bastion admired and respected in places like Memphis and New Orleans. Its culture and refinement were legendary (it was called the “Athens of the Delta”) and a move there, even from larger cities, was not considered a step down.
By the turn of the 20th century, Greenville had weathered its share of difficulties, including Union invasion, fires, floods and yellow fever epidemics. As the century progressed, more of the rich Delta came under cultivation, public health improved and the community flourished. Substantial brick banks, churches and stores crowded its downtown (Stein Mart was founded there), and its leafy residential streets were lined with comfortable one- and two-story houses, interspersed with mansions. There was a theater and an opera house, which hosted national companies and luminaries like Enrico Caruso and Al Jolson. For the white middle and upper classes, it was an idyllic small Southern town, blessed with more cultural opportunities than most. David Cohn, a prominent Jewish writer who was born there in 1894, remembered it as “a good place for a growing boy. The simplicities, and optimism of the nineteenth century still lingered.”
Along with an appetite for theater, concerts and art, Greenville’s residents also developed a craving for books. From 1900 to 1925 there was never a day when there was not at least one flourishing bookstore in town. Ben Wasson, a local literary agent, columnist and friend to the likes of William Faulkner and Walker Percy, proudly opined, “It is the rare home hereabouts wherein you will fail to find a massing of books on the shelves.” But Greenvillians weren’t just reading books, an astonishing number of them were writing them. Cohn half-jokingly observed that his home town “shelters so many practicing and aspiring writers that sober citizens wonder who will do the useful work of the community such as baking bread and repairing cars.” Indeed, during the 20th century, Greenville produced 100 published writers, more than any other Mississippi town, including Faulkner’s Oxford, and per capita perhaps more than any other town in America. The novelist and Civil War historian Shelby Foote once quipped that Greenvillians were so busy writing books that they didn’t have time to read them.
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William Alexander Percy (1885-1942) was the grandfather of them all. Born and reared in Greenville, he was schooled at Sewanee and Harvard, served heroically in World War I and returned to his native burg and a life of educated leisure. An inveterate traveler, poet and the author of a moving memoir, “Lanterns on the Levee” (1941), he profoundly influenced those around him. Well into his 40s, he adopted his deceased cousin’s three sons, one of them the future novelist Walker Percy, who later declared, “I never would have been a writer without Uncle Will’s influence.” Foote, a close friend of Walker’s, spent hours discussing literature in the Percys walled garden. When asked years later about Greenville’s extraordinary literary fecundity, Foote responded, “I think the reason for it is the existence of William Alexander Percy. And it wasn’t that there was a literary coterie. There was not. It was by example. If you had a man in town who had written and published books, writing and publishing did not seem to be an impossible thing.”
Besides inspiring Walker Percy and Shelby Foote, Will Percy encouraged David Cohn, who became a political speechwriter and authored 10 books, including “God Shakes Creation” (1935). It was Cohn who wrote, “The Mississippi Delta begins in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel in Memphis and ends in Catfish Row in Vicksburg.” Together, Will Percy and Cohn brought Hodding Carter to Greenville to start a rival newspaper, which eventually became the Delta Democrat Times. Carter won a Pulitzer Prize in 1946 for his editorials urging racial tolerance, especially towards the defeated Japanese. He subsequently wrote a memoir, “Where Main Street Meets the River” (1953) and, with Cohn, Wasson and local poet Kenneth Haxton, established the short-lived Levee Press, which published works by Faulkner, Eudora Welty and Foote.
Even after Will Percy died, Greenville just seemed to grow writers. Poets, playwrights and novelists were thick on the ground, and all drew on the town for ideas and their sense of themselves. Ellen Douglas (b. 1921), author of six novels, calls Greenville “the place that informs all my books.” The poet Jesse Schell (b. 1941) remembers, “When I grew up, writing wasn’t something precious or exotic; it was something Hattie next door did.”
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-David Cohn, “The Mississippi Delta and the World”]
Despite this distinguished cultural heritage, Greenville today is in decline. “Town’s not doin’ real well,” local realtor Benji Nelken told me my first day there, and I didn’t have to look hard to see the evidence. Boarded storefronts, empty sidewalks and a few homeless people greet the downtown visitor. Crime is worrisome (a couple was reportedly mugged during my visit), much of it fueled by drugs. Hundreds of jobs have been lost in recent years, compounding the economic body blow delivered in 1965 when a nearby military air base closed. This was an especially bitter pill for Greenville’s cultural elite, depriving them of the handsome foreign pilots who trained there and brought an extra dash of cosmopolitanism to the town.
In his posthumous memoir, “The Mississippi Delta and the World” (1995), Cohn walked the reader downtown along Washington Avenue, describing the various businesses and personalities to be found there. In those days, downtown Greenville was a colorful, vibrant place, full of rich personality. A similar tour today reveals a sleepy, sparsely peopled quasi-urban core with some prominent landmarks and a couple of tawdry casinos moored behind the levee on an oxbow lake, once a bend in the river.
I drove into the downtown along Main Street, a wide, pleasant, tree-lined thoroughfare. Just across some railroad tracks, the Washington County Courthouse sits on the right. It’s an impressive, tan-colored Romanesque Revival structure with a ghastly modern rear addition. A Confederate monument stands out front, unusually facing south, like its Oxford compatriot. A few blocks farther on I passed an impressive, porticoed Jewish synagogue and a Gothic-style Roman Catholic church before arriving at City Hall, where Greenville’s mayor had kindly arranged an interview for me with Shirley Cartlidge, a retired public school English teacher who has maintained a hand in local educational affairs.
Given Greenville’s storied literary past, I was really curious to learn whether or not area high-school students were at all inclined to write. Ms. Cartlidge recalled that as a teacher she gave creative writing “a great deal of time and priority,” adding, “I had many students who became interested in creative writing.” She described an award-winning literary magazine produced by the students and a popular elective course on Mississippi writers. In light of all this, I was hardly surprised when Ms. Cartlidge revealed that she herself is working on a novel about her childhood in the segregated South.
After our interview, I stepped across the street to visit the William Alexander Percy Memorial Library, a large, nondescript 1970s building. A handsome historic marker out front extols Greenville’s literary heritage. After passing through double glass doors, I entered an open floor plan with a mezzanine above. A photograph of Will Percy looks benignly over the collection, and upstairs there is an excellent Greenville Writers Exhibit, complete with photographs, letters, books and large-print quotes from the authors’ works. On this Friday morning, library staff outnumbered patrons, but Ms. Cartlidge had assured me that “Greenville is above average when it comes to readers.” The county library system consists of five branches and a bookmobile, so no one who wants to read need travel far.
From the library, it is only a few short blocks to the levee. At the foot of Main stands the vacant shell of the old Delta Democrat Times office, its past glory indicated by an historic marker. The building itself is a two-story brick structure with cast iron columns flanking its storefront and handsome arched hoodmolds over garish replacement aluminum sash. It was here that Hodding Carter pounded out his prize-winning editorials and hunkered with the literary luminaries of the Levee Press. But there is only emptiness now.
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[I know my customers and they know me. -Hugh McCormick, Greenville bookseller]
It is fitting that Mississippi’s oldest independent bookstore is located in Greenville. Founded 38 years ago, McCormick Book Inn is housed in an attractive board and batten building at 825 South Main St., well out from the downtown but nowhere near the mall and strip centers where most of Greenville now shops. The interior is wonderfully cozy, with hardwood floors, a fireplace and rocking chairs. The walls are adorned with black-and-white photographs of Southern writers and the shelves are filled with Mississippiana – coffee-table books about the river, juke joints and the work of a black studio photographer; titles by Faulkner, Welty, the Percys and a host of other Magnolia State authors; and the latest hot selections, a new biography of Shelby Foote and a memoir by Vogue’s black editor-at-large Andre Leon Talley, whose upcoming signing at the store had owner Hugh McCormick worried about how he was going to accommodate the expected crowds.
McCormick is a tall, balding, bearded man with a reputation as a loveable curmudgeon (among a printed list of reasons to shop at his store -- “verbal abuse: endlessly dished out by Hugh: Priceless”). Since his store is a solo operation, he frequently had to breakoff our interview for telephone calls or customers. When one man plucked a copy of Walker Percy’s “The Last Gentleman” from the shelf, I witnessed firsthand McCormick’s unusual sales style as he barked, “Why do you want that? It’s got words you can’t understand!” Some laughter and banter followed, and the man happily made the purchase.
Like most independent bookstore owners, McCormick is beleaguered by the new trends, including Internet shopping and chain behemoths, but he has survived with a loyal customer base, a superior title selection and a steady stream of foreign visitors and “professors” curious to “view the Delta” and, of course, buy books about it.
McCormick was doubtful that Greenville harbors any future famous writers, citing “a tremendous decline in relationship to the past.” He commented on the proliferation of chain stores and the corrosive effects of popular culture, and concluded, “The more homogenous we’ve become, the less creative we are.” He scoffed at the notion that Greenvillians read more than people elsewhere, but then amended his statement to mean that he didn’t know whether they did or not, but based on his experience they “are not great book buyers.”
As long as Hugh McCormick is around, the prospects for his store look good. He has no retirement plans (“It’s a dying-in-the-saddle kind of thing.”), but with no heir-apparent the future is clouded. For the present, he successfully combines book selling with attitude and acts as an inimitable intellectual ambassador for the rich Delta from which he springs.
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To my mild frustration, it was difficult to get an accurate sense of any emerging literary talent in Greenville. If I was to believe McCormick, this is because there is none. Yet writing is a solitary pursuit. Ms. Cartlidge remarked that if there is a nascent genius in town, he or she remains “in the closet.”
If young writers were hard to locate, older ones were not. Throughout our visit, my wife and I enjoyed the gracious hospitality of a remarkable artistic duo that represent a living link to the past legends. Bern and Franke Keating are an octogenarian husband and wife team who dwell on a lush five-acre spread south of the downtown. Bern is a Canadian and the author of 27 books and hundreds of magazine articles, mostly about travel. Franke is a native Arkansan and a talented photographer whose images have illustrated magazine articles and some of her husband’s books. They have lived in Greenville since 1946 and are noted for their warmth and bonhomie. Among their past houseguests have been William Faulkner, who spent a week there (Franke called him “a strange drinker” and said she forbade him any “booze before breakfast”), James Jones (“wild, wild, wild,” she recalled), Shelby Foote (whom Bern remembers saying, “Let my epitaph be, ‘He loved Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Shakespeare and Shelby Foote. Not necessarily in that order.’”), and the actor Karl Malden.
To move in the Keatings’ social circle is to glimpse a world of wealth, sophistication and culture that would be a credit to any place. Their many friends opened their hearts and homes to us and candidly shared their views on Greenville. Bob Schwartz, a retired Gotham attorney, assured me that as a New York Jew he felt completely comfortable in town, and as to the social scene laughingly reported, “I’ve worn my black tie more in Greenville than in 40 years up North!” We got a little taste of this when, as the Keatings’ special guests, we attended the Art for Heart silent auction at the E. E. Bass Cultural Center, an old school auditorium under restoration. A large, well-dressed crowd milled about the food tables and contemplated paintings and sculptures by Delta artists. The people were easy and free, proud to live in the Delta and generous with their time.
Despite Greenville’s gloomy economic picture and declining population, the local arts scene is encouraging. There is a good theater company with a paid director, a volunteer symphony and a children’s museum. Amy Baskin, head of the Greenville Arts Council, described “a gabillion programs,” including a partnership with the Washington County school system. “The heritage of Greenville is about the arts,” she said. “Why not embrace that in the schools?”
It’s little wonder then that people of the Keatings’ stature have found life so congenial in Greenville. As Bern wrote a few years back in his and Franke’s coffee-table book about Mississippi, “I am a writer and my entire factory is the size of a portable typewriter. I can live anywhere in the world I wish. Nevertheless, I wouldn’t live anywhere in the world but on this sun-blasted mud flat.”
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[Ours was a life-loving community. Yet a few of our appurtenances that pertained to the dead were more splendid than those used by the living.
Our last stop before leaving was the Greenville Cemetery, also on Main Street, several blocks south of McCormick’s. The cemetery is laid out in a large circle, with paved lanes shaded by towering cedar trees. Here, amid the beautifully carved stones marking the final resting places of lawyers, soldiers, doctors and society women, stands a bronze memorial to a vanished world.
LeRoy Percy, William Alexander’s indomitable planter-father, died in 1929. Despite the Depression, the younger Percy commissioned New York sculptor Malvina Hoffman to fashion a life-size knight to mark his father’s grave (it cost $25,000 in an era when most men made a fraction of that in a year). Flanked by holly, the weathered figure stands on a lichened stone, with the word “Patriot” inscribed at the base. The figure’s sword rests on its point and his head is slightly bowed. On the stone’s back are words Will chose from a poem by Matthew Arnold: “Charge once more then and be dumb/let the victors when they come/when the forts of folly fall/Find thy body by the wall.”
The elder Percy raged against the “forts of folly” as a politician and Delta powerbroker. His son chose the written word as his weapon. Sixty years beyond his own death, those “forts of folly” still stand. But in his writings, and those of the many talented people whom he encouraged and inspired, something of the human spirit manages to endure, if not triumph. In the final analysis, Greenville’s writers are its most lasting and memorable contribution to the world. Not a bad legacy for any community, I thought, as we pulled out past the cemetery’s black iron gates and left the town behind.