Excerpt From ‘A Place Like Mississippi: A Journey Through A Real And Imagined Literary Landscape’
The landscapes of the Magnolia State pair ordinariness with beauty, magic with madness, and mystery with magnificence. Featuring canonical authors such as Eudora Welty and William Faulkner as well as contemporary writers including Jesmyn Ward and Donna Tartt, A Place Like Mississippi by W. Ralph Eubanks reveals the deep and palpable connection between the land and the works it has informed.
A graduate of the University of Mississippi, Eubanks lives in Washington, D.C., but is currently a visiting professor of English and Southern Studies at the University of Mississippi. The excerpt from his latest book (out March 16) below explores why Mississippi’s landscape inspires and perplexes so many writers and the stories they tell
As Faulkner is said to have observed, “To understand the world, you must first understand a place like Mississippi.”
When a place is experienced through the lens of the real and the imagined, whether through our own eyes or those of a writer, it takes on a heightened sense of reality. When Nina Simone sings “Everybody knows about Mississippi, goddam,” images of the violent, turbulent civil rights era come to mind and those scenes from the past become vividly real. Natasha Trethewey evokes a different image in “Theories of Time and Space” when she implores you, her reader, to head south on U.S. Route 49 until it dead-ends in the coastal town of Gulfport, asks you to walk on its artificial beach, and then reminds you to “Bring only what you must carry—tome of memory, its random blank pages.” These two impressions of Mississippi—one forged in anger and the other in a mixture of love, memory, loss, and recovery—have much in common. What each writer reveals are the complex emotions that a place so beautiful yet so confounding can bring about.
Whether the pages of your notebook are blank or filled with memory, Mississippi’s landscape is one that feeds the work of its writers. When I returned to Mississippi in 1999 to begin research for what I thought would be a narrative history of the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission—a civil rights–era, pro-segregation spy agency run and funded by the state for nearly twenty years—I found myself drawn in by the land itself because it was this landscape that made me a writer. That narrative history became a memoir and place became central to the story I decided to tell. What I realized upon returning was how much of my imagination was threaded together in Mississippi, so much so that it affected the way I looked at the entire world. Growing up on a farm, I also knew the rhythm of the land, with pictures imprinted on my mind of what it looked like in each of the four seasons. That is why my hometown and my farm are characters as much as the people I interviewed and wrote about in Ever Is a Long Time.
This transformation of Mississippi’s landscape into the canon of American letters is one that makes many ask, “Why does this land”—a very poor rural state with a high rate of illiteracy—“inspire and produce so many writers?” While many have sought to find the answer to this great anomaly, some, like Mississippi-born literary critic Noel Polk, facetiously ascribe it to the air Mississippians breathe and the water they drink. In his book Tell About the South, Fred Hobson notes that, “The Southerner, more than any other Americans, has felt he had something to explain, to justify, to defend, or to affirm.” John Grisham believes Mississippi’s outsized literary output has its origins in suffering, but a particular type of suffering. “Suffering that has been self-inflicted by slavery, war, poverty, injustice, intolerance. Great conflict produces great art, and Mississippi has its share of both.” Poet Natasha Trethewey also notes that the pain in Mississippi, like the pain in other parts of the world, leads to art. She writes, “In his memorial to William Butler Yeats, W. H. Auden wrote ‘Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry.’ Likewise, my native land, my South, my Mississippi . . . hurt me into poetry, inflicting my first wound.”
Like Ireland, Mississippi’s history is filled with suffering that must be explained; it is a place that comes alive in its stories and inspires those stories, which flow through every bend of its winding rivers and across every piece of land within its borders. It is the beauty of the land mixed with the state’s complex history that inspires and perplexes its writers. That is the burden one feels when writing about Mississippi, because it is a place that everyone knows about—or at least claims to—yet few are willing to understand.
Excerpt and images courtesy of Timber Press. A Place Like Mississippi is available March 16. Purchase a copy here.