Mississippi’s Literary and Cultural Legacy: Part I

 In preparation for the 2017 Mississippi Book Festival, we asked our authors to answer a few questions about our state’s literary and cultural legacy. This is the first of three blogs posts in which we share their responses. Keep reading to find out their book recommendations, organizational tips, and which books they think should be required by every citizen in the state. For a full list of panelists attending the Festival and the schedule of events, click here.

What are you reading right now?

Lorie Watkins, editor of A Literary History of Mississippi: “I read several books at once. Right now, I’m re-reading William Faulkner’s The Town—it’s my favorite Faulkner. I’m also reading the final book in Greg Iles’s trilogy and A Man Called Ove before I watch the movie.”

Carter Dalton Lyon, author of Sanctuaries of Segregation: The Story of the Jackson Church Visit Campaign: “Since I inhabit the world of nonfiction so much during the school year, I tend to stick to fiction in the summer. So, I've been reading a lot of Graham Greene and going through Jack Kerouac’s canon.”

James F. Barnett Jr., author of The Natchez Indians: A History to 1735Mississippi’s American Indians, and Beyond Control: The Mississippi River’s New Channel to the Gulf of Mexico: “I’m reading two books published in the 1850s: Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species and Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. The next book in my stack is Kafka by Robert Crumb and David Zane Mairowitz.”

Norma Watkins, author of The Last Resort: Taking the Mississippi Cure: “What am I reading? A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles: the story of a Russian aristocrat, sentenced after the revolution to house arrest in Moscow's Metropol Hotel. The message—and very much my own philosophy—is making the best of what life presents.”

W. Ralph Eubanks, author of The House at the End of the Road: The Story of Three Generations of an Interracial Family in the American South: “My mother died last month, which has led me to read Edwidge Danticat’s The Art of Death: Writing the Final Story. This book has made me think about the ways writers deal with death both in their work and from a personal perspective, since Danticat writes movingly about the life and death of her mother. I’m also reading Renata Adler’s Speedboat, which I started in my twenties but never finished. I’m loving reading its stream of consciousness first-person narrative, plus it has led me back to one of my favorite 1980s albums, Rattlesnakes by Lloyd Cole and the Commotions. There is a song on the album called ‘Speedboat’ that I now realize is based on a scene from Adler’s novel.”

Susan Cushman, editor of the forthcoming Southern Writers on Writing:A Piece of the World by Christina Baker Kline and The Pen and the Brush: How Passion for Art Shaped Nineteenth-Century French Novels by Anka Muhlstein (I usually read more than one book at a time). Next up in the queue: The Almost Sisters by Joshilyn Jackson and Thelonius Rising by Judith Richards. And you didn’t ask, but I just finished a wonderful book: Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate.”

Charline R. McCord, coeditor of A Year in MississippiComing Home to Mississippi, Christmas Memories from MississippiGrowing Up in Mississippi, and Christmas Stories from Mississippi: “I just finished Friends, Lovers, Chocolate by Alexander McCall Smith and Camino Island by John Grisham. Just started The Angel Answer Book by Robert J. Morgan.”

Leif Anderson, author of Dancing with my Father: “Having just finished Edna Ferber’s engrossing novel, So Big, I have turned to lighter fare: British mystery writer Patricia Wentworth’s The Ivory Dagger.”

James G. Thomas, Jr., associate editor of The Mississippi Encyclopedia and coeditor of Conversations with Barry Hannah, Faulkner and History, Faulkner and Print Culture, and Faulkner and the Black Literatures of the Americas: “Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones and Eric Bleam’s The Last Season, a nonfiction book about a backcountry park ranger who goes missing in the High Sierra in California. Two very different books.”

Carolyn J. Brown, author of A Daring Life: A Biography of Eudora Welty, Song of My Life: A Biography of Margaret Walker, and The Artist’s Sketch: A Biography of Painter Kate Freeman Clark: “I just finished the two ‘hot’ summer books: John Grisham’s Camino Island and J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy.”

Curtis Wilkie, author of Assassins, Eccentrics, Politicians, and Other Persons of Interest: Fifty Pieces from the Road: Hue by Mark Bowden and Miss Jane by Brad Watson”

Panny Mayfield, author of Live from the Mississippi Delta: “The tall bookshelf in my 1894-era house with 15-foot ceilings needs organization. It includes Gabriel Garcia Marquez to James Lee Burke and Tony Hillerman. Currently, I am reading Daniel Silva's latest book, House of Spies.”

William R. Ferris, author of Mule Trader: Ray Lum's Tales of Horses, Mules, and Men, editor of Afro-American Folk Art and Crafts, and coeditor of Folk Music and Modern Sound:Life Below Sea Level by Alice Owens Johnson”

Odie Lindsey, associate editor of The Mississippi Encyclopedia: Immigrant Model by Mihaela Moscaliuc and Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake. I’m also re-reading Brad Watson’s extraordinary Miss Jane.”

How do you organize your bookshelf?

Lorie Watkins: “I don’t have one. I lost my entire library in the January tornado that hit the campus of William Carey in Hattiesburg. It was organized alphabetically by author and title once, and I’m hopeful that it will be again.”

James F. Barnett Jr.: “My bookshelves are not organized. I have a lot of books and somehow manage to find what I’m looking for.”

Norma Watkins: “I began organizing my bookshelves with alphabetization by author, but books overwhelmed their shelves, and my present system can best be described as stacks.”

W. Ralph Eubanks: “I generally organize my bookshelf by genre, but as an itinerant professor these days—I’ll be teaching at Ole Miss this fall and spring—the books I have with me are either related to my classes or my writing, so there is no real organization to the books I keep with me while I am in Mississippi.”

Susan Cushman: “I have many bookshelves. The two largest ones, with four shelves, each, are organized by genre: spirituality, poetry, memoir, fiction, art, books on the craft of writing, self-help, etc. The others throughout our house are not organized. At. All. So many books, so little room!”

Charline R. McCord: “Bookshelf? Do closets also count? I organize alphabetically by author last name. Signed books have their very own closet space.”

Leif Anderson: “Minimally. . . . Art books are mostly together, as are books on writing and on dance. Books on France or novels taking place in France are together. The others are rather scattered about, but I can usually find what I want.”

James G. Thomas, Jr.: “I don’t. To me, it’s more fun to peruse my library that way. I never know what I’ll end up reading next.”

Carolyn J. Brown: “I wish my books were better organized. Hardbacks are in the living room, and paperbacks are in my bedroom. Nothing is alphabetized. I would love to alphabetize and put first editions and signed books all together, but my collection is large and the task overwhelms me!”

Curtis Wilkie: “My bookshelves are disorganized.”

William R. Ferris: “By author”

Odie Lindsey: “I place books beside each other until the shelf is full, then stack the rest on top.”
What book should be required reading for everyone in the state of Mississippi?

Lorie Watkins: “Well, my A Literary History of Mississippi, of course, haha! The Mississippi books that changed my life were Faulkner’s works and Richard Wright’s Black Boy. I also recently read and really connected to J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy—even though it’s not about the state, it resonated. Finally, I think every Mississippian should read Natasha Trethewey’s poetry. Native Guard changed my life.”

Carter Dalton Lyon: “I've been assigning Anne Moody's Coming of Age in Mississippi to my students in Memphis for years, and I certainly think it's worthy of being on any required reading list for Mississippians. It's eye-opening, it's heartbreaking, and it's timely.”

James F. Barnett Jr.:A Mission from God: A Memoir and Challenge for America by James Meredith and William Doyle”

W. Ralph Eubanks: “That’s a tough one. I’m not sure there is one book, but I do think that every Mississippian should read the work of Richard Wright. While some may think his brand of social realism is dated, after teaching Black Boy and Native Son I still find real power in his work, particularly today.”

Susan Cushman: “This is a difficult one. There are books of significant historical importance (and popularity) like To Kill a Mockingbird, of course. And, more contemporary but equally important ones like A Time to Kill. These are both important for their impact on our continuing struggle with racial equality. More currently, my first cousin (aren’t we all related here in Mississippi?) John Jones edited a wonderful book (published by University Press of Mississippi) about the fallout following the forced integration in the Jackson public schools in 1970, called Lines Were Drawn. This happened to the classes immediately following mine (Murrah High School class of 1969), and the results changed the landscape of public education in Jackson forever. Jones and others who worked with him on the book interviewed many students and a few teachers about what happened and their response to it. I think it’s an important read.”

Charline R. McCord: “Willie Morris’s very eloquent North Toward Home, and after that anything else by Morris. He is our finest nonfiction writer to date.”

Leif Anderson: “What came instantly to mind was Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Perhaps this is somewhat unrealistic. Everyone? So I think I will put my mother’s book here as well: Approaching the Magic Hour.”

James G. Thomas, Jr.: “Why, The Mississippi Encyclopedia, of course.”

Carolyn J. Brown: “Great question! I cannot pick just one, but if forced I would say Eudora Welty’s first collection of short stories, A Curtain of Green.”

Curtis Wilkie: Mississippi: The Closed Society, James Silver’s timeless account of how bad we were and political forces we still should fear.”

Panny Mayfield: “Every Mississippian should read the plays of Tennessee Williams. They are still being performed globally. Hundreds of Mississippi high school students are familiar with his works via the festival’s elite acting competition, where they perform monologues and entire scenes from his plays, and winners earn cash prizes for their school drama departments.”

William R. Ferris:Black Boy by Richard Wright”

Odie Lindsey:The Mississippi Encyclopedia, of course!”