Local History

Published on February 2nd, 2015 | by Rafael Alvarez

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“The Prodigal Professor: William Weaks Morris (1934–1999)”

Like thousands of others around the world, I recently finished reading The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt of Greenwood and Grenada. It was a great and thrilling ride and as I turned the last page of Theo Decker’s epic adventure, I had a single thought: When will Tartt write a Mississippi novel?

WillieMorris_gravestoneIt would surely please the ghost of her former teacher, the wunderkind Willie Morris, renowned for the autobiographical North Toward Home, a 1967 best-seller. Tartt was a freshman at the University of Mississippi in 1981 when one of her stories struck the fancy of Morris, then a writer-in-residence at Ole Miss.

Legend has it that one evening, Morris happened upon Tartt in the bar at the Oxford Holiday Inn and, by way of introduction said: “My name is Willie Morris and I think you’re a genius.”

***

Vicksburg high school teacher Lisa Purser Reid surely thought Willie Morris a genius when she took “The American Novel from 1914” with him at Ole Miss in the spring of 1980.

Rafael221WillieMorrisQuote“I wasn’t completely aware of who he was when I took the class,” said Reid, who like Morris would leave the Great Magnolia State after college to work in journalism up north. “But the first book he assigned was one of his own, North Toward Home – that’s how he introduced himself to us. It was all we
needed.”

WillieMorrisBooksVertAfter Morris’s death at 64 from a heart attack, the many books he left behind were still not enough for readers. In 2006, Larry L. King published In Search of Willie Morris: The Mercurial Life of a Legendary Writer and Editor. There is a very good podcast of Diane Rehm interviewing King on NPR.

In 2007, the “Willie Morris Award for Southern Fiction” was established by Gulfport native Reba White Williams and her husband Dave H. Williams for a novel set in one of the original eleven Confederate states.

“He was tolerant of us and our lack of sophistication and we were pretty much in awe of him,” said Reid, whose Lebanese immigrant grandparents (the Nicola family) ran a Vicksburg grocery. “He was so openly affectionate toward the South and talked about what a great breeding ground it was for writers.”

Morris paraded a long line of good and great writers to the class, “All friends of his,” said Reid.

The notables included Winston Groom (Forrest Gump), John Knowles (A Separate Peace), and, to a very warm reception and much bourbon, William Styron, best known for Sophie’s Choice, which won the National Book Award in 1980.

After college, Lisa Reid took a reporting job in Newport News, Virginia, Styron’s hometown. There, she fell in love with another young reporter – Bruce Reid. The couple moved to Bruce’s hometown of Baltimore (south of Mason-Dixon and as north as Lisa would get before returning to Mississippi.

In 1999, Reid attended her old professor’s funeral in Yazoo City along with luminaries like David Halberstam.

“More than once he told us that all great works of fiction have to originate from and be about the human heart,” wrote Reid in the Vicksburg Post the week of Morris’ death. Thinking of his influence the other day, she said, “I re-read North Toward Home when I came back home.

And I’m chagrined that I never wrote [Morris] to tell him that I too had gone north and come home.”  The Local Voice Ligature

This article was originally printed in The Local Voice #221 (printed January 22, 2015.)
To download a PDF of this issue, click here.

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About the Author

Rafael Alvarez is a reporter, short story writer & screenwriter based in Baltimore. He has been visiting & writing about Mississippi since 1984. A former staff writer for HBO's "The Wire," his new book is a collection of short fiction called "Tales From the Holy Land."



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