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Willie Morris

by John Sledge

Just a good ole boy. That was how he thought of himself. Yet when Willie Morris died at age 64 early this past August, the South lost more than an ordinary Bubba, it lost one of its most distinguished and compelling voices. As news of this immensely talented writer’s death reverberated across the land, many people wondered how he would ever be replaced.

Willie Morris was born a sixth generation Mississippian in Jackson in 1934. When he was still a toddler, his family moved to Yazoo City, where he grew up. Morris later described Yazoo City as perched "on the edge of the Delta, straddling that memorable divide where the hills end and flat land begins." His childhood was filled with small town adventures-rambles through the woods and swamps with bosom buddies and beloved dogs, silly pranks and schoolyard rivalries.

He went to the University of Texas and edited the school newspaper, and won a Rhodes scholarship. From 1960 to 1962 he edited the liberal newspaper, Texas Observer, then moved to New York City in 1963 as an associate editor at Harper’s Magazine. In 1967, at age 33, Morris became editor-in-chief, the youngest in the magazine’s long history.

Morris energized Harper’s and moved it to the center of American life. David Halberstam, one of Harper’s contributors, recalled that Morris "brought that magazine kicking and screaming into the present. With his love and very considerable charm he’d taken an archaic magazine and made it into an exciting magazine that was on the cutting edge." During the height of the tumultuous sixties, Morris brought some of the nation’s best writers to the fore-Norman Mailer, William Styron, Bill Moyers and Alfred Kazin, among others, all of whom addressed the divisive issues of the day.

In his book New York Days (1993), Morris remembered the electricity of those years. "I came to the city and it changed my life," he wrote. "I was a young man at a great personal threshold in a place and a moment throbbing with possibility, observing America from here in its extravagant peaks and turmoils, giving myself to the town and it to me: a most American covenant." Early in his career at Harper’s, Morris completed an award-winning autobiography, North Toward Home (1967), which deeply influenced many Southerners of his generation. The London Times dubbed it "the finest evocation of an American boyhood since Mark Twain."

Morris’ remarkable revitalization of Harper’s turned out not to be appreciated by its conservative owners, however. In New York Days Morris related how he misread John Cowles, Sr., the patriarch of the clan that owned the magazine: "Had the Jeffersonian miscreant a troy ounce then of the Machiavelli, or even of the nimble and dodgeful courtier, he should have discerned in the instant and written in pen-quill on his heart that this gruff, down-to-earth, likeable man had in him strains of the pitiless." In 1971 Morris was fired, and virtually the entire editorial staff resigned in protest.

Morris spent the seventies on Long Island, and returned to his native Mississippi in 1980. He served as writer-in-residence at Ole Miss throughout the decade and continued to write books about sports and dogs and the South. He also penned a series of graceful essays for national magazines. Though happy to be back home, Morris never ceased to mourn the loss of his position at Harper’s. In 1990 he married his second wife, JoAnne Prichard, then editor-in-chief at the University of Mississippi Press, who, by all accounts, helped him turn a corner. At the time of his death, he was working on yet another book about Mississippi, to be illustrated with photographs taken by his son from his first marriage, David. Alas, Morris’ last project will never be.

Willie Morris has been laid to rest in Yazoo City’s old cemetery, a place where he often went for literary inspiration. Even as we are saddened by Morris’ passing, however, we may continue to draw inspiration from his many fine works, all deft, subtle, heartfelt and keen.