Despite the state's legacy of repression, some of the country's best writers are Mississippi natives. It's the birthplace of contemporary luminaries like Kiese Laymon and Jesmyn Ward. Tennessee Williams scholar Kenneth Holditch looks back at two 20th-century literary lions who wrote about that “postage stamp of native soil.”
- by Kenneth Holditch
Mississippi is “that schizophrenic piece of heaven,” as my friend Berry Morgan, the brilliant short story writer from Port Gibson, once described the state from which she and I both sprang – along with only God knows how many brilliant writers.
Consider only two of the multitude: William Faulkner, the greatest novelist of the twentieth century; and Tennessee Williams, probably the greatest American playwright. If there had never been any other literary stars from the state — and there are hundreds, as we know — Mississippi could rest on its laurels with those two alone.
Faulkner, the older of the two, drew most of his material from the hill country in the northeastern part of Mississippi, while Williams was the chronicler of the Delta and its unique inhabitants. But neither is to be understood as a mere regionalist or purveyor of “local color,” but rather as a universalist, for as Faulkner once observed, “To understand the world, one must first understand a place like Mississippi.” While valiantly undertaking the whole of humanity as their material, these two literary giants never “got above their raising,” never forgot the land that had given them birth.
Early on in his career, Faulkner learned under the tutelage of Sherwood Anderson to remain devoted to and to write about what he knew best, “my little postage stamp of native soil,” which served him remarkably well. And Tennessee, in his work, was continually drawn back to that same “postage stamp,” albeit to a different corner of it: the Delta, “that extraordinary country,” as he described it. Yet remarkably the works of both men have spoken to millions of readers and audiences worldwide, far beyond the boundaries of their fictional kingdoms, for almost a century now.
Far be it from me to presume that my theories as to why during the past century and a half the South has produced such a rich abundance of great literature or why Mississippi has created a larger share of it than any other state are valid. But I would at least like to point out that in the novels and short stories of Faulkner and in the dramas and other creations of Tennessee Williams there is a remarkable empathy for human beings, especially for the downtrodden and the outsiders, those whom Tennessee labeled “the fugitive kind.” No other authors of our time understood or portrayed those destined to dwell outside the artificial boundaries of “civilized society.”
Another element that distinguishes the work is their astounding language, good American English, but with a Southern twist to it. Faulkner’s compound-complex sentences, rolling and waving in breathtaking undulations upon themselves, present sometimes a difficult but gratifying task for the reader. Tennessee, on the other hand, revolutionized American drama, replacing the hard-bitten social protest lingo of such dramatists as Elmer Rice and Clifford Odets with a lyrical prose that miraculously remained realistic even as it soared “on the viewless wings of poesy.”
Their styles, though different from each other, yet bear unmistakable traces of their Southernness, the “Mississippi magic tongue,” as one of my Yankee friends terms it. Both also were clearly shaped by the Southern Protestant upbringing of the writers: think the King James Version of the Bible and Southern hymnody and storytelling.
And yet, even with those shared traits, they remain quite different. It is difficult to imagine a conversation between them, although there would have been much for them to talk about. There is an old adage that if you put two Mississippians who don’t know each other in a group of a hundred people and give them thirty minutes, they will find each other; give them an hour and they’ll discover they are cousins.
As far as we know, the novelist and the playwright only met twice, and that more or less in passing, and the only evidence of either meeting that survives was Tennessee’s rather melodramatic observation that Faulkner had “the saddest eyes of anyone I had ever seen and I suddenly burst into tears.”
What, you might ask, did they think of each other’s work, and the answer, alas, is brief. Faulkner is reported to have enjoyed the premiere Broadway production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, about which his only recorded observation was that the critics had misunderstood the play, which was, he argued, “really about the old couple,” that is, Big Momma and Big Daddy. Early on in his career, Tennessee wrote a review of Faulkner’s “The Wild Palms,” and demonstrated a remarkable understanding of one of his most difficult novels.
It was my honor, a gift from Fate, if you will, to meet both these luminaries of American literature. When I was seventeen, I heard William Faulkner deliver the address at his daughter’s graduation from Oxford High School, and a few years later I was in the audience when he spoke before the Southern Historical Society, the first integrated audience at the Peabody Hotel in Memphis. On both occasions, I boldly went up to that great man, spoke to him and shook his hand. Some might say, “Fools rush in.”
In 1978, Tennessee delivered his only public address in New Orleans and I was asked to give the introduction preceding his speech. The day before, I met him for the first time at a restaurant near his home and discussed the format of the next night’s program. Afterwards we talked. This was my first opportunity to talk to an author whose work had changed my life.
And what did we talk about?
Mississippi, of course.
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Kenneth Holditch’s work revolves around Tennessee Williams scholarship, including being editor of the Tennessee Williams Journal and co-editor, along with Mel Gussow, of the Library of America edition of Williams’ writings. He is also a professor emeritus at the University of New Orleans. Holditch has collaborated with Richard Freeman Leavitt on Tennessee Williams and the South and The World of Tennessee Williams. He created the Tennessee Williams literary walking tours and knew the playwright.
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