Southern Discomfort

Don Graham remembers Willie Morris.

After Willie Morris died, on August 2, a former student of mine e-mailed me and said he was going to reread, “in old Willie’s honor,” North Toward Home. The precocious autobiography, published in 1967 when Morris was just 33, bore strong Texas connections. The author, who grew up in Mississippi, attended the University of Texas at Austin from 1952 to 1956, during which time he proved himself to be a brilliant editor of the school’s newspaper and, not coincidentally, incurred the wrath of reactionary regents. The middle section of North Toward Home, some 161 pages, is called simply “Texas,” and it is one of the best accounts we have of what the state and its leading university were like during the supposedly torpid Eisenhower years.

The book is an American version of a European theme: the young man from the provinces, or in Morris’ case, the young Southerner from a small town. His background could hardly have been more parochial: pre–Earl Warren Mississippi, practically a Third World country of cotton, segregation, and keep-’em-on-the-plantation politics. UT, with its tower from which one could see, Morris wrote, “where the South ended and the West began,” stood as a beacon of enlightenment. There was probably never a more ardent student than Morris, who plunged into all phases of university life, read books voraciously, and railed against the establishment. After a four-year hitch at Oxford as a Rhodes scholar, Morris returned to Austin to edit the Texas Observer. His idealism and fondness for drinking during that time are registered nicely in the character of Willie England, drawn by his friend Billy Lee Brammer in the celebrated novel The Gay Place.

The heady days of the early sixties disappeared in the maelstrom of the Kennedy assassination, the tower shootings, and other manifestations of a society threatening to fly apart in violence and despair. Disenchanted with the South, in 1963 Morris moved to the “home” of the book’s title, New York, where he began working at Harper’s Magazine; four years later he became its editor. His New York Days, published in 1993, recounts those halcyon years when the young provincial lunched nearly every day with somebody famous. But the North eventually turned sour as well, the marriage to his college sweetheart failed, and by then, thanks to changes in the social order brought on by the civil rights movement, he could return to Mississippi, where he continued to write and remember.

During Morris’ time back East, he became friends with novelist James Jones, and upon Jones’s death, completed the author’s last novel, Whistle. It was a generous act, and perhaps, if we are lucky, and if Morris was working on a manuscript—which, no doubt, he was—the same service will be performed for him. In any event North Toward Home is a fitting enough memorial to a lifetime spent in pursuit of Big Ideas: Race, Education, Politics, and Literature.

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