Everybody thought they knew him. Few truly did. Willie Weaks Morris was a man of many parts. Some did not mesh with the others. The private Willie Morris—the brooder, the loner, the man who could lose himself in sleep because wakefulness was too painful, the man who called his telephone an instrument of torture and hid it in the refrigerator to muffle its rings, the man who at bottom was as stubborn as any mule William Faulkner ever owned, the man who became known, in plain ugly language, as the town drunk—well, that contentious and complex fellow is a Willie Morris his adoring public never met. You haven’t read about that fellow either.
No way to rhyme that private, haunted, sometimes terribly difficult soul with the public Willie Morris of legend: the glad-hander and shoulder hugger, the good ol’ boy from Mississippi, the incomparable raconteur of the Texas saloon or the New York salon, the literary star whose reputation soared at the daily paper of the University of Texas and later at the Texas Observer. In Austin he learned the skills that made him not only near-perfect in matching writer to subject but also so adroit an editor that writers felt chagrin that they hadn’t written it that way.
Willie’s emotions were as primitive and as changeable as the weather. He was the worst I ever saw at hiding his true feelings; he had little talent for the duplicities or wicked dirkings of office politics—a trait that ultimately cost him the job he once loved above all. We drank together, laughed together, cried together, worked as editor to writer and friend to friend. We had a foolish drunken fistfight in 1972 over which of us owned the affections of a certain fickle woman; it turned out that neither of us did. I thank such gods as be that we were fast friends when Willie Morris died suddenly on August 2, 1999, or otherwise I could not have borne it. I will miss the man so long as I have breath.
But sometimes I wanted to grab him, shake him, and hold him to account: Willie had such intelligence and talent that I always expected more. He wasn’t supposed to have bad moods or subpar days. I didn’t pause to reflect that perhaps too many of us put too many demands on Willie and made him overly aware of our great expectations—not the least being his ever-hectoring old Mississippi mama—and maybe that is why he sometimes had to flee from us, and from events, and from life.
He was not, however, running away from anything when he died. Less than a month before, Willie and his wife, JoAnne, had seen a private screening of the movie My Dog Skip, based on Willie’s book of the same title. And there was unfinished business: a novel called Taps that Willie had talked of for thirty years. He often said his writing career might be judged by it. The novel became an obsession. He referred to it as “my baby.”
Taps is set during the Korean War era in a small Mississippi town. The young protagonist—one Swayze Barksdale—played taps on the bugle at funerals for local boys returned from the war in body bags, as Willie had in true life. The writing is lyrical, the events true to history, the characters live smoldering lives; violence breaks out near the end. As often happens, justice is ambiguous rather than clear-cut.
On the final morning of his life—after being stricken and sensing perhaps he might not survive—Willie told JoAnne with some urgency to “get Taps in shape.” She did. It was published posthumously on April 16. I think it ranks among Willie’s top three works. David Halberstam calls it “Willie’s most honest book about himself, his life, his time, and place.” But don’t just take the word of two of Willie’s old friends: Publisher’s Weekly wrote that Taps is “worthy of comparison to Morris’s classic North Toward Home … a deeply affecting swan song by one of America’s most beloved writers. Echoing Faulkner and Caldwell, and Dan Wakefield’s Going All the Way, it plays a fitting Taps for a literary genius cut down in his prime.”
RIP, Willie: Your literary reputation seems secure.
Willie Morris first came to public attention as the crusading editor of the Daily Texan at the University of Texas. During the fifties, children, there was only one UT campus, and it was in Austin. Willie’s father is largely responsible for getting him there. During the summer of 1952, Rae Morris, a service-station operator, took a Southern Trailways bus to inspect the campus; it may have been the only one he ever visited. He returned to Yazoo City, Mississippi, to tell his only child, “I think you ought to go to school out there. Can’t nuthin’ in this state match it.” Willie entered the university that fall.
He immediately started making a place for himself: joining the Daily Texan staff, playing intramural baseball, offering his hand and a grin to everyone. His friendly quips, funny stories, and merry eyes made it appear he was interested in you and you only—and, in the moment, that probably was true. At an intramural football game he met Celia Buchan. Almost immediately he asked her out for coffee. “He seemed so much less parochial than the rest of us,” she wrote in her memoir, Finding Celia’s Place. “He was biding his time in the boondocks, but nobody I knew doubted that he would end up in the very midst of the action.”
Willie applied the same qualities at UT that he had used to become a big duck in Yazoo City’s small pond. Back home he had written for the school paper, been a star on the basketball and baseball teams, been voted most likely to succeed, and worked at a local radio station. Not many white adults in town failed to receive his respectful greeting. He paid particular court to his teachers, and of course, they loved him.