An Interview with Elbert Hilliard

Sometime in 2018, I began working on a profile of Charlotte Capers, and in the course of my research was fortunate enough to get an interview with Elbert Hilliard..

The interview was held on March 21, 2019 in a conference room on the second floor of the William F. Winter Building in Jackson, Mississippi. Also present was De’niecechsi Leyton, Head of Reference Services at the Mississippi Department of Archives and History.

Though the purpose of my interview was to gather information about Mr. Hilliard’s brilliant predecessor, Charlotte Capers, Hilliard spoke of many other things, most notably about his outstanding career as a historian and director of MDAH.

* * * * *

I think Miss Capers shares what a lot of people share, is that once you’re gone, then you tend to be forgotten to a degree, plus the fact that, I hate to say it, but probably the vast majority of citizens don’t do a very good job of keeping up with history of studying history of remembering people in the past. Now, of course, when you say, Miss Welty, that’s different. She was a prolific author, yet Miss Capers, had she had the time, probably could have written books that we would still be reading today. As you’ve already stated, she was a very capable talented writer and very capable and talented person.

I did not meet Miss Capers until the spring of 1959, when I was at Mississippi State in graduate school studying history. And truthfully, I had never heard of the Mississippi Department of Archives & History until I was in graduate school. Sadly, though (the Department) has grown, and we have a wonderful publicity department, you con probably walk down the street here outside, go down a few blocks and ask someone how to get to the Department of Archives & History, we may or may not get an accurate answer.

But getting back to Miss Capers, that was when I met her in the spring of 1959. Probably the first time that I heard her name mentioned was in a conversation I had with Dr. John K. Bettersworth. He was head of the Department of History at Mississippi State when I was in graduate school, and I’ll always be indebted to him because he took a chance with me and approved a graduate assistantship for me. Clara and I were married on August 3, 1958, and we went up there the 1st of September, 1958.

After Christmas, when we got to the second semester there, we started thinking about jobs, and apparently Mr. Bettersworth was thinking the same thing. He came by my desk are there in Lee Hall, second floor, and I told him we were going to be contacting the top school districts in Mississippi. He said, “You also ought to contact Charlotte Capers at Archives & History.” By that time, I think I was smart enough, having been told by Dr. Glover Moore about the Department of Archives & History, I put two and two together and concluded that she was the director. Of course, he said “Charlotte Capers”, and here I am, eighty-two years old, and she’ll always be “Miss Capers” to me. I loved Miss Capers.

I did contact her, I can’t remember the specific dates, came down to Jackson and met with her in her office in the War Memorial Building. You went in the front door, you turned left, and then you made the first left, this north wing of the War Memorial Building was the Archives & History Department. They had just initiated or were in the process of initiating the restoration of the Old Capitol. That was a crucial moment in Miss Capers’ life, because here she is, Director of the Department of Archives & History, and as you noted earlier, it was a very small department with a very, very small staff, probably at that time less than 10 people, I can go back and check that, but I think it’s right. Years later, after I came into the department, we became very close and she would tell me stories. One day she told me her telephone rang, and the conversation went something like this:

“Charlotte? This is J.P.” (Gov. Coleman; they had been in school together at Ole Miss.) “Charlotte, the building commission just met.” (Back then, Jesse, the governor was the ex officio chair of the building commission, and when I say “ex officio”, depending on the nature and the personality of the governor, he was the chairman of the building commission. And that was the case with Gov. Coleman, because he was a strong, forceful leader, and fortunately he was very interested in history.) “And we have voted to restore the Old Capitol, to become the state historical museum, and we also voted to have you be responsible for doing it.” This was probably early 1959. (cf.: They started restoration work in 1959.

She said, “Elbert, I almost collapsed of apoplexy there on the spur of the moment.”

Well, you can imagine. Here is a lady who, as I said, in this small department, had nobody to help her on this. They’re not allocating any extra funds for staff people for Archives & History, so she had had no former experience in museum work, and certainly not museum planning or restoration details. She had high blood pressure as well!

So she took than on, and she was smart enough to know she needed to contact the top people, so she contacted the top people, so she contacted the American Association of Museums and the National Park Service and got some experts to give her guidance and advice. Well, as the process went along there, one of the things she recognized was that the museum needed to have written policies outlining the purpose of the museum and the scope of the collections because what had happened was that the museum function of the Department of Archives & History had been started back in the very early days by Dr. Dunbar Rowland, who was the first director.

Dr. Rowland had started the museum over in the first floor over on the first floor of what we call the New Capitol. Archives & History had moved from the Old Capitol to the New Capitol in 1903; Archives & History was founded in 1902, started out in the Old Capitol, and then was moved to the New Capitol in 1903. I’m sure he planned it that way, but he cited the fact that he was the last person—he was very proud of the fact—the last person to leave the Old Capitol. He then began to call for its preservation as a shrine—that was his word for it—to Mississippi history. He sent out that call in 1903, and it took a long time to be answered. That’s the way we do things in Mississippi.

After he (Rowland) became director, he began to assemble a museum collection. The approach that he took was common to most entities back then that were involved in museum work which was that they collected virtually everything that was old and unique and different. There were no written policies. That led to the department acquiring many historical artifacts but it also led to the department acquiring a number of artifacts that had nothing to do with Mississippi whatsoever. For example, there was an artifact associated with Lafayette’s visit to Natchez in 1825, there were all sorts of Civil War swords and pistols and so on, some of them belonged to prominent people. Then you had things with no connection, for example the hair from the mane of Stonewall Jackson, who never set foot in Mississippi. There were bricks from Independence Hall in Philadelphia. There were a pair of size 21 boots worn by a Negro soldier in 1901.

And then perhaps the most acclaimed one was the Egyptian mummy. And that’s a story in itself related to Miss Capers and me as well. As the years went by, if you were to conduct a poll of the museum there in the New Capitol and asked them what was their favorite artifact, they would have chosen the Egyptian mummy. They lined up to see the Egyptian mummy. Miss Capers told me that as a child they would skate through the New Capitol; they lived a few blocks away.

Anyway, this is what she inherited, that and the fact also that there had never been an official curator of the museum. The department was just so small. Dr. McCain succeeded Dr. Rowland, and Dr. McCain went off to war twice, so the museum was just sort of frozen in time then. I forgot to tell you also that Miss Capers had this great sense of humor and—this was after I’d been there and worked with her for a while—she told me some of the things that I’ve told you there about the museum collection. She said that the practice (viz: to collect virtually everything, jly) had been under Dr. Rowland, and it had probably been majorly curtailed under Dr. McCain and her, but Miss Capers said that one day a couple appeared in her office there in the War Memorial when she was director, and they said they had something to donate.

She asked, “What is it?”
And they said, “A stump.”
“A stump?”
“Yes, ma’am, a stump.”
“Well,” Capers asked, “What is the historical significance of the stump?”
She said they looked at her straight in the eye and said, without hesitation, that it was the stump on which Adam and Eve sat in the Garden of Eden.
“Oh,” Capers said. “Well, where did y’all find the stump.”
Again without hesitation, they replied, “Madison County.”
Of course, those of us who live in Madison County have always felt that we live in the Garden of Eden. But I asked, “Miss Capers, what did you do?”
“Well,” Capers said, “Dr. McCain told me never to alienate anyone, so I accepted the stump, and after a proper passage of time, I had it burned.”

So that was the type of thing she had to deal with, and as I said there was no curator, there were no professional museum standards, there was no catalogue system, so when I came with the department in July of 1965—I’ll catch up with that later on—what I found when I got involved with the state historical museum in the Old Capitol that they had instigated a professional cataloguing system. Now, what predated that was simply somebody years ago back in the early 1900s had simply gone to the exhibit cases, looked at the exhibit cases, saw what was in there, probably with a typed or handwritten label, had written that down and produced a page-by-page typescript that listed each artifact.

So here it gets to be 1960 or thereabouts and that’s what Miss Capers was dealing with was to get a professional curator on board who could then train the staff to catalogue the collection, which involved having a bound accession book, a catalogue number for each artifact which was entered and put on each artifact with indelible ink and sealed appropriately. That had to be done and then you had cards, object and donor cards so that you could find things in case someone came in and said, “Years ago, Great-great Grandaddy did this, do you have this?” What problems would develop from time-to-time was that in the early days prior to the restoration of the Old Capitol, there were no contracts of gifts that people signs, so Miss Capers had to start that, composing a contract stating that the donors were giving these items with no limiting restrictions or conditions. They became the property of the Department of Archives & History. Anyhow, she deserves credit for doing the research, recognizing what had to be done to have a professional museum, and getting the staff to implement that.

As I said, the first time I met her was in the spring of 1959, and I came in, of course I was a little nervous, since I’d never met her. That was not the first time I’d come to the Department of Archives & History; the first time would have been in the early fall of 1958 to do research on my thesis, a biography of Fielding Wright. That was my first visit, and of course I was impressed with the department, but the first thing they told me was that Gov. Wright’s papers had burned in his law office in Rolling Fork. That was a disappointment, so I had to find a way to get enough material to put together the thesis. I did not meet her on that occasion. So here I am coming back in the spring of ’59, and told her that Dr. Bettersworth recommended I come and talk with her. Now, it helped that Dr. Bettersworth was on the Board of Trustees of the Department of Archives & History. That kind of gave me an entrée. She said that she was interested in talking with me, but that she did not have a position at that particular time.

Back then, the state was on a legislative biennium, meaning that the legislature only met every two years. Of course, they’d have special sessions as needed, but they only dealt with the budget every two years. She said that they had a request before the legislature for a position, but added that they did not know how that was going to turn out, so they’d have to wait and see. Well, here Clare and I are, Clare had taught a year before we married, so she had a little money saved up. I was getting $100 a month teaching two classes at MSU, American Civilization survey courses, and so I knew that we couldn’t take a chance on waiting to see if this position would open.

So I sent letters to the top three (paying) school districts in Mississippi at that time: Jackson, Natchez and Meridian. I heard back from Meridian and Natchez, didn’t hear from Jackson. I never did get my nerve up, years later when I got to know Kirby Walker, kidding him about missing out on such a talented young man. I loved Dr. Walker. He was a delightful gentleman. Anyway, being in Starkville, the first appointment we made was in Meridian, then we’d go on to Natchez. In Meridian, I interviewed with Dr. Ivy. Now, this tells you something else about schools at that time. We’ve named the top three (sadly no longer the top three), but the difference is, who is interviewing us? The superintendent. This tells you that back then superintendents were hands-on managers.

Dr. Ivy was a very learned and erudite gentleman, held in high esteem in education circles in Mississippi, but when you started meeting and talking with him you quickly came to know that he knew that he was erudite and scholarly and held in high esteem. Dr. Ivy said that he would take us under consideration. So we went to Natchez, which I was familiar with because my sisters had worked there. Clare hated the smell of the paper mills. The superintendent was Mr. D.G. McLaurin. He had asked the president of the school board, Mr. Brent Foreman, a prominent attorney, to meet with us. Now, when you met with Mr. McLaurin, as opposed to Mr. Ivy, you realized you were in the presence of a servant/leader and a very special gentleman. I don’t know if you’ve ever been with Gov. Winter, but when you’re with Gov. Winter, you know you’re in the presence of a servant/leader and you feel comfortable. When Mr. McLaurin finished interviewing us, he asked Clare what she thought about Natchez and Clare, being one who always says exactly what she thinks, she didn’t have to work with the legislature, said, “Well, it’s a beautiful city, and the historical architecture is magnificent. But that odor is terrible.” I though to myself, well, we’ve blown it now, but he just smiled and said, “Well, down here we think it smells like money.”

So spontaneously, he offered us contracts for her to teach at the institute school and for me to teach at Washington High School. We were running out of money, so we singed the contracts. We came back to Starkville, and about a month later the telephone rang and who would it be but Miss Capers. She said, “Mr. Hilliard, I’m just checking back with you and wanted you to know that the legislature has approved a budget, we have a new position and I was wondering if you were interested in coming with us. I said, “Miss Capers, I am greatly interested in coming with the Department of Archives & History, particularly in working with you, but we have signed contracts with the Adams County school system.”

Well, this was 1959, back when contracts meant something. It wasn’t long after that when Paul Dietzel, who was at LSU, broke his contract, and that kicked off a great furor, but nowadays things have changed completely, and nowadays contracts don’t mean anything. So I told her I felt obligated to honor that contract, and she responded that she understood, to stay in touch and down the road if I was still interested in coming, to get back in touch with her.

There I am in 1959, and at that point I’m concentrating on finishing my master’s, getting to teach, and then my high school coach and history teacher had come that year from Anguilla to Madison/Ridgeland to be the principal. He was my first hero, and he started working on me to come teach and coach basketball and baseball there for him. I tactfully declined at first, but as time went on—as I said he was a hero of mine and I loved basketball and baseball part—we agreed to do that. I had to tell Mr. McLaurin that spring, and he wanted me to stay and to go into administration. I just wanted to follow this dream I had of teaching and coaching. So we came to Madison/Ridgeland, that would have been around the first of June in 1960. There were about 700 people in Madison, about 1100 people in Ridgeland. And those were five wonderful years. It was a different era altogether.

In the late winter of 1964, I began to wonder what to do with my life and what all was happening with the school system, so I sat down and wrote Miss Capers, “wondering if you might remember me” or words to that effect, and enclosed an updated resume. A few days pass, here comes an envelope with the Department of Archives & History letter head on it, “Dr. Mr. Hilliard, I am in receipt of your letter and am interested in your working with us, however the updated resume you mentioned was not enclosed.” Fortunately, she didn’t hold that against me, and scheduled a meeting. She grilled me thoroughly, and it was just luck that I had written at a time that she had just gotten a new position that she called Curator of History, who would serve not only as the curator of history but also as the administrator of the State Historical (Old Capitol) Museum.

She said that the person she had hired to come onboard to guide the development of the museum, Robert S. Nietzel—I guess the ‘S’ was for Stewart, since people would call him ‘Stew’—was an archaeologist, that he was very talented and that she wouldn’t have been able to get the museum going without his help and leadership. He is an interesting gentleman, she said, but that he’d just “burned out on me”. She said that she wanted me to go over there and motivate him. She said that he had excavated the Grand Village of the Natchez Indians with a National Science Foundation grant, that he’d supposed to have written a report on that which he had not done, and that he had not finished the exhibit on the Natchez that he was supposed to do.

I’m hearing her tell me all this, and then she asked me what my salary was at Madison/Ridgeland. I told her it was $5300. She offered me the job at $5400. Years later, after I’d worked with her for a while, I asked her if she remembered what she’d offered me and told her I’d often thought that I should have looked her straight in the eye and asked her &7800. She said, “That wouldn’t have done you any good, I wasn’t making that much myself.” I’m guessing in all likelihood that as a female agency head, perhaps at that time the only agency head, I’ve not researched that. If she was not the first, she was one of. Miss Cook was there, but anyhow, what with her being a lady her salary might not have been as good if she had been a man. She said, “I am literally exhausted.” The museum opened in June 1961. (She was 52.) She said that the Board had agreed to give her the summer off, that she was taking an Aegean cruise and would be back in September. She said, “You will come in when I’m gone and will start work July 1. I am going to start you here in the Archives and will ask Laura (Drake Siderfield) Harrell to train you.” (Sister of John Siderfield).

Laura was a diminutive, beautiful lady, the research assistant, and she was also what we would call today the managing editor of The Journal of Mississippi History. She started out in the basement of the War Memorial Building in one of those big old double desks that dated back to Dunbar Rowland’s era. It was piled up through the sky; I used to tell her she trained me how to pile up a desk. I was fortunate in having her because she was kind, and helpful. One day, she gave me a letter and said, “Elbert, I just don’t have time to work on this.” It was from a 92-year old lawyer up on Canton named Herman Dean seeking information on the Treaty of Hobukintoopa, which I was unfamiliar with though I knew many others. So she referred me to The American State Papers on Indian Affairs and Clarence Carter’s papers. Back then life moved at a slower pace, so I was able to work my way through that, to pick up clues until finally I could document that Hobukintoopa was the Indian name for Ft. St. Stephens on the lower Tombigbee.

I wrote it all up and showed Miss Harrell, sent that to Mr. Dean. I didn’t hear back. But when Miss Capers came back to the office in September, she called me into the office to talk with her, and she reaches in her desk, pulls out a letter and reads, “Dear Miss Capers, In all my years of legal research, I have never seen anything surpassing that done by your young Mr. Hilliard.” Bless Mr. Dean’s heart, he got me off to a good start, and Miss Capers said, “Elbert, you’re going over to the Old Capitol now, and take over there.”

Fortunately Mr. Nietzel was gracious enough not to be resentful of this young man who knew absolutely nothing coming in. He and I had a good relationship over the years and after he left the department, Dr. McLemore was director, I got him to come in and head up another excavation of the Grand Village when we were developing it as a state historical site.

Elbert Hilliard (seated) with William Winter in the State Archives, Oct. 2003. Photo courtesy of Chris Goodwin

Halcyon Soup

Homemade soups should grace our tables more often; they’ve fed body and soul long before canning came along, and a good soup made with stout stock and proper care is a measure of the cook.

Gazpacho is a king of cold soups, an easily-made, refreshing and to most minds somewhat novel way to serve fresh summer vegetables. Old recipes of this dish always include bread as one of the basic ingredients, usually melded early on with oil, salt and garlic into something resembling a paste. While my recipe does not include bread at that juncture–to me, it gums up the soup–take it from someone who crumbles cold cornbread over his, bread is a service requirement, and any well-textured bread will do.

This recipe is from my halcyon days in Oxford, which was an intoxicating environment, doubly augmented by the wine of youth itself.  I was desultorily studying for a degree, diligently exploring my capacities for vice, and desolately working in a string of eateries, among them The Bean Blossom Bistro, by some reckoning the first health-food restaurant in Oxford. It was located on Jackson Avenue across from the old telephone exchange.  The Good Food Store, Oxford’s first health-food store—then in its second incarnation—was on the corner next door. Carol Davis opened the Bean Blossom in 1978. We had worked together at the old Moonlight Café, which Betty Blair had opened up in the Hoka a couple of years earlier. Carol and I became fast friends during that time, and when she opened up her own place, she brought me with her.

The Bean Blossom, like so many small restaurants, was founded more on good intentions than experience. I don’t think we ever seated more than fifty people at one time, and usually far, far less. The kitchen could barely hold more than three people. Our menu changed daily, though we could always whip up a tofu burger, or a veggie stir-fry or a great salad any time you wanted it. Carol introduced me to a lot of new foods, including adzuki beans, which I cook like cowpeas, and tofu, which I of course deep-fry.

She also brought gazpacho into my world, and for that I am evermore grateful. I remember dipping the soup from a bucket in the bottom of our double-door refrigerator, a sheen of oil glistening atop the mixture. We served it with a variety of breads, and each bowl I eat now is a serving of nostalgia. Like memories themselves, this soup improves with age.

Bean Blossom Gazpacho

Take two or three cloves of garlic, mince very, very finely and mash in the bottom of a glass or enamel bowl with a teaspoon of salt and about a half a cup of olive oil. If you want to try adding bread, now is the time, but I can’t make a recommendation as to what kind. Add in fine dice one yellow onion, three very ripe summer tomatoes, two peeled cucumbers, two ribs celery (with leaves), and a sweet pepper if you like, though be careful, since the pepper can overpower the other vegetables; a sweet yellow banana pepper works well. If you want to add a hot pepper such as a jalapeno, fine, but I don’t recommend heat; this is a cooling dish, and should be refreshing rather than pungent. Likewise, starchy vegetables such as fresh corn or peas seem out-of-place to me as well, though there are countless variations.

Add another teaspoon of salt, a teaspoon of cumin, a teaspoon of fresh basil, a heaping tablespoon of freshly-chopped parsley, a teaspoon of coarsely ground black pepper and a bit more olive oil, perhaps a tablespoon. Add a vegetable juice such as V8; tomato juice is too thick. Let this mixture sit for a couple of hours in the refrigerator in a sealed non-metallic container overnight. An hour before serving, add more juice if needed, a little fresh chopped parsley, adjust the salt and pepper and return to the refrigerator. Serve in chilled bowls (freshly chopped chives are a nice touch) with good crusty bread.

Derogating the Delta: An Exercise in Reverse Hubris

When I was a boy, I won an essay contest sponsored by the local library committee in my hometown in the north Mississippi hills. The speaker at the awards presentation was a lady from some literary society in the Delta.

This woman just radiated dignity and graciousness from the top of her pill-box hat cum veil to the bottoms of her sensibly modest heels. She even wore little white cotton gloves with mother-of-pearl buttons. The ladies on our library committee were just undone by this exotic creature (the local women’s apparel store sold out of teeny-tiny white cotton gloves the very next morning).

Being a brash thirteen years old, I was totally unimpressed; I just wanted to grab my $25 check and dash, but I had to sing for my supper by sitting through (poorly) selected passages from Lanterns on the Levee. Somehow, I don’t think our girls—who, I’ll remind you, played a big hand in the literary life of our little town—were listening; they had only one thing on their mind: “What all’s she got in that purse?”

But I listened, and as I did, it slowly dawned on me that this lady was proselytizing; she had set her beady, be-vailed hat towards bringing the gilded prose of Percy to us heathen hill folk with the flattest, longest vowels possible with all the fervency of Luther bearing a hammer.

My Aunt Robbie Rae made me stay for the reception (cookies and Kool-Aid with a discreet splash of Evan Williams for everyone but me). The grande dame, to my mind, seemed just a tad bit patronizing to the other ladies. (They didn’t notice, of course; they were too busy pumping the old girl for the best places in Memphis to shop.) As our august speaker left, she came up to congratulate me, and even though I was as tall as she was, she patted me on the head.

To me that bit of petty patting summed up her whole attitude. By the time she left I was ready to lead the next revolt of the rednecks. I would have been willing enough to dismiss this exhibition of arrogance as an individual aberration until I met others from the Delta.

You see, I was so ignorant: I didn’t know that the Delta was as close to the celestial as geography gets and that its denizens were canonized at birth. I did not know that my forehead automatically slopes when I mention that I am from Calhoun County.

But now I know better; I know to speak of the Delta—”DAY-uhL-Tuh”–and have come to acknowledge the exclusivity (if not quite their quasi/semi/demi divinity) of its children, many of whom (he hastens to add) I love with all my heart. Occasionally I slip and call them Bourbons, but they shrug it off, thinking it’s a slur on their thirst rather than their politics.

It’s not.

The Dixie Limited: Faulkner’s Influence Around the World

With The Dixie Limited, M. Thomas Inge fills a crucial academic niche in work on the Faulkner canon. Arranged chronologically from over the last eight decades in a collection of essays, articles, reviews, letters, and interviews by Faulkner’s contemporaries and their successors.

In his introduction Inge refers to a paper presented by Thomas L. McHaney at the 1979 Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha Conference at the University of Mississippi, “Watching for the Dixie Limited: Faulkner’s Impact upon the Creative Writer,” later published in Fifty Years of Yoknapatawpha (University Press of Mississippi: 1980), edited by Dr. Doreen Fowler and Ann Abadie. McHaney stated that “writers seem to have more in common with one another than with their own native literary establishments.” He continues to say that “the literary establishment, especially in the sense that it constitutes the best-seller and the major book-reviewing media, did not have as much to do with him . . . as did the other creative writers in English. His impact on them was immediate and sustained . . .” Inge’s thesis echoes—and subsequently amplifies—this assessment: “The novel has certainly not been the same since Faulkner, that much seems clear, and the intent here is to document some of the reasons by surveying the exact nature of what Faulkner has meant to his colleagues both in the United States and abroad.”

The title references a famous quote by Flannery O’Connor that first appeared in a paper she read in 1960 at Wesleyan College in Macon, Georgia. The subject of the speech, “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Fiction,” notes a tendency to the grotesque in the “Southern situation” as well as the “prevalence of good Southern writers.” She then states, “The presence alone of Faulkner in our midst makes a great difference in what the writer can and cannot permit himself to do. Nobody wants his mule and wagon stalled on the same track the Dixie Limited is roaring down.” Inge notes that O’Connor took heed of her own advice, and developed an original vision and distinctive style of spiritual and gothic austerity. Eudora Welty also cultivated her own talents in Faulkner’s looming shadow. “It was like living near a big mountain, something majestic—it made me happy to know it was there, all that work of his life,” she wrote. “But it wasn’t a helping or hindering presence.” She also said—with characteristic modesty—that “[Faulkner] wrote about a much vaster world than anything I ever contemplated in my own work.” She was not intimidated by Faulkner; she learned from him.

We often lose sight of Faulkner’s earlier works, situated as they are behind the towering edifices of his Yoknapatawpha novels, but he attracted the attention of other writers at the beginning of his career. The Fugitive poet and future Agrarian Donald Davidson found Soldiers’ Pay (1926) the product of “an artist in language, a sort of poet turned into prose,” and considered Mosquitoes (1927) grotesque, too heavily influenced by Joyce, yet admirable “for the skill of the performance.” Lillian Hellman read the manuscript of Mosquitoes (for publisher Boni & Liveright) and in an enthusiastic review for the New York Herald Tribune likewise found Faulkner at his worst under the influence of Joyce in overwritten passages, but the novel demonstrated to her a genius “found in the writings of only a few men.”

Following the publication of The Sound and the Fury (1929), As I Lay Dying (1930), Sanctuary (1931), Light in August (1932) and Absalom, Absalom! (1936), nobody with an eye to the landscape of American literature could ignore the emergence of William Faulkner as a dominant if not to say dominating presence. Sherwood Anderson, writing in an essay for The American Mercury in 1930—sixteen years after the editor, H. L. Mencken, published his searing denunciation of the state of southern literature, “The Sahara of the Bozart” in the New York Evening Mail—set the stage for the century’s most celebrated literary rivalry by saying, “The two most notable young writers who have come on in America since the war, it seems to me, are William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway.” This comparison became even more unavoidable as the two barreled down, traveled the same track, or —in a perhaps more apt Hemingwayesque metaphor—faced off in the same ring.

As the century wore on, more and more writers, playwrights, and poets found it contingent upon them to weigh in on Faulkner’s looming stature. His impact in Britain was impressive, though mixed, with Rebecca West and George Orwell, who, as a champion of lucid style, condemning The Hamlet in 1940 as “fatiguing” and “certainly not worth a second reading to understand it.” Somewhat predictably, considering Faulkner’s own indebtedness to Proust in both style and theme, his reception in France was both spectacular and profound. Sartre declared in 1946 that Faulkner had “evoked a revolution” through his innovations in perspective, tonal monologues, and changing the “chronological order of the story” in behalf of “a more subtle order, half logical, half intuitive.” In a letter to Malcolm Cowley, Sartre wrote, “Pour la jeune France, Faulkner c’est un dieu.”

Inge delineates Faulkner’s deep impression on the literature of South America, saying, “By liberating these writers, and many others, from the traditional themes and methods of narration, and paving the way for new techniques in dealing with time and history and modern tragedy, Faulkner helped generate what may be the most vital writing in the world at the century’s end,” even going so far as to say, “It is indeed arguable that [Gabriel García] Márquez’s 1967 masterpiece, Cien años de soledad (One Hundred Years of Solitude), could not have been possible without Faulkner’s fiction to serve as inspiration and master instruction.” Inge also describes Faulkner’s global impact with contributions from writers in South Africa, Japan, and China.

In addition to the two above-mentioned, Dixie Limited includes a generous portion of women writers: Kay Boyle, Dorothy Parker, Elizabeth Spencer, Lee Smith, and others. Excruciatingly appropriate on several levels are selections from black writers: Ralph Ellison, Chester Gaines, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, and Faulkner’s fellow Mississippian Richard Wright. Faulkner’s impact—and lack thereof—on political and social issues features prominently in Baldwin’s essay, “Faulkner and Desegregation,” and it’s also the theme of perhaps the most endearing essay in the collection, Roark Bradford’s “The Private World of William Faulkner” (1984).

Faulkner’s critics are not ignored. In addition to Orwell, you’ll find disparaging statements—in varying degrees and often at different stages in their own careers—from Ellen Glasgow, Booth Tarkington, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Thomas Wolfe, Katherine Ann Porter, John Barth, Truman Capote, John Steinbeck, and Vladimir Nabokov, as well as a generous helping of bile from Hemingway. Inge includes “one of the most damning assessments perhaps ever written about Faulkner” from Irish short story writer Sean O’Faolain, who concluded in a1953 address at Princeton University, that Faulkner demonstrated “More genius than talent.”  You’ll find most of these in Inge’s remarkable introduction, which deserves reading and re-reading for only for those includes these poison pen remarks, but also for and also paeons from the likes of Katherine Anne Porter, Carson McCullers, William Styron, Shelby Foote, and Walker Percy, along with illuminating observations from Richard Ford and John Grisham.

Though The Dixie Limited is an academic work, it is important for the lay scholar as well, particularly those of us who grew up in the same milieu as that of the man many consider the most important writer of the Twentieth Century. Our proximity to Faulkner seems to have bred in us a nonchalant acceptance of his stature. This book provides us with perspectives for a more balanced appreciation of a literary figure of global stature who just happened to have been born in the wilds of North Mississippi.

Eudora on the Rocks

The muse of fiction is a thirsty bawd, particularly in the South where the icon of a hard-drinking writer unjustly brushes even us most humble wordsmiths with a tar of dissolution.

Eudora Welty, every inch a lady, certainly did not fall into the rough-hewn writer category. Nonetheless, I have it on good authority that Welty and her friend Charlotte Capers, a Jackson historian, wit, and essayist, and various wafting guests were often found on the porch at Eudora’s home on Pinehurst with a bottle of Old Crow.  (The same authority relays that Welty later became a convert to Maker’s Mark, which she took on the rocks with a splash of water.)

Eudora lived to a ripe old age, garnering laurels all the way. In her youth, she worked for the short-lived (1935-39) Federal Writer’s Project. Thousands worked on the project, including several well-known authors, many of them women. Fieldworkers such as Welty made about $80 a month, working 20 to 30 hours a week, collecting stories, local histories and taking photographs. They also collected recipes for a project entitled “America Eats”, and most of these recipes and recollections of foods have been gathered together by Mark Kurlansky in his splendid Food of a Younger Nation. Welty’s contributions to “America Eats” are somewhat substantial, and from all over the state: stuffed apples, stuffed eggs, lye hominy, barbecue sauce, a seafood and an okra gumbo, court bouillon, beaten biscuit, Spanish rice, potato salad and, last but not least, a mint julep. Welty writes:

A collection of recipes from the Old South is no more complete than the Old South itself without that magic ingredient, the mint julep. In the fine old City of Columbus, in the northeastern part of the state, hospitality for many years is said to have reached its height in Whitehall, the home of Mr. and Mrs. T.C. Billups. “The drink is refreshing,’ Mrs. Billups says, needlessly enough, “and carries with it all the charm of the Old South when life was less strenuous than it is today; when brave men and beautiful women loved and laughed and danced the hours away, but in their serious moments, which were many, aspired to develop minds and souls that made them among the finest people this old world has known.’ The Whitehall recipe is as follows:

Have silver goblet thoroughly chilled.
Take half lump sugar and dissolve in tablespoon water.
Take single leaf mint and bruise it between fingers, dropping into dissolved sugar.
Strain after stirring.
Fill the goblet with crushed ice, to capacity.
Pour in all the bourbon whiskey the goblet will hold.
Put a spring of mint in the top of the goblet, for bouquet.
Let goblet stand until FROSTED.
Serve rapidly.

“Who could ask for anything more?” she adds.

Kettle-Fried Matzo Balls

The name beneath this recipe from Jackson’s New Stage Theatre’s Standing Room Only: Recipes for Entertaining (1983) is Ellen Douglas, but everyone should know that Ellen Douglas is the pen name for writer Josephine Ayers Haxton. Born in Natchez, she married composer Kenneth Haxton in 1945 and shortly afterwards moved to Haxton’s hometown of Greenville. There she befriended Shelby Foote, Hodding Carter, and other local literati.

According to the author, she entered into a wager with her husband and a mutual friend on who could finish a novel in the least amount of time. She won the bet by writing A Family’s Affairs (1962), which is largely autobiographical in nature, requiring her to get her family’s permission to publish the narrative and resulting in her adoption of the pen name Ellen Douglas. The book not only sold well, but it also won the Houghton Mifflin Esquire Fellowship Award for best new novel and was named as one the year’s ten best books by The New York Times. Her second work, Black Cloud, White Cloud (1963), a collection of short stories, also won the Houghton Mifflin Esquire Fellowship Award, and her 1973 novel Apostles of Light was a finalist for the National Book Award. Other works include The Rock Cried Out (1973) and A Lifetime Burning (1982). Josephine Haxton died in Jackson in 2012.

Though Ayers was not Jewish, her mother-in-law Ellise Blum Haxton was the daughter of Jewish merchant Aaron Blum of Nelms and Blum department store in Greenville, and this recipe may have come from her kitchen. From my (demonstrably non-Jewish) perspective, fried matzos seem like just another variety of hushpuppy, though serving them with catfish—which is decidedly non-kosher—might be a bit rude. These make a great side for any number of meat dishes—baked chicken or fish, beef roast, what have you—but they’re also a great buffet nosh served with a sauce made with one part each grated horseradish, sour cream and mayonnaise seasoned with salt and cayenne to taste.

Soak two matzo crackers in water; drain and squeeze dry. Heat 2 tablespoons chicken fat, and sauté ¼ medium onion until golden brown. Add soaked crackers and cook and stir until the mixture “clears” the skillet. Cool. Add a teaspoon chopped parsley, a teaspoon salt, a quarter teaspoon of ground ginger, an eighth teaspoon both ground pepper and nutmeg, two lightly beaten eggs and enough matzo meal (about a quarter cup) to make a soft dough. Let stand for several hours to swell. Shape into small balls. Fry in deep fat (assumedly not lard, jly) until golden brown. The balls can be formed and frozen before frying. (This recipe makes about 20 balls.)

Drama Peas

As a librarian in Tupelo, a colleague and I were in charge of taking books to those who couldn’t come to us. Every Wednesday we’d load up our trusty little station wagon and drive around the city dropping off new checkouts and picking up returns.

Our main destinations were nursing homes, and they were all, without exception, far from the dismal environments some people might imagine. As a matter of fact, those under care were often robust enough to elbow a neighbor out of the way to get the best Cartlands, Christies, or L’Amours, and if we didn’t have enough copies of the latest John Grisham potboiler, they’d fight over them.

We once had to disarm a dame wielding a plastic knife. During one of these feeding frenzies, a blue stocking with pink hair sniffed and said to me, “They shouldn’t have been taught how to read.”

My partner Beverly, a seasoned veteran, rarely instructed me on nuances, so the assignment was full of pleasant surprises and lessons. We often picked up returns at the nurses’ stations, which are always a nexus of activity. I remember once early on reaching a station just as a produce man was dropping off three bushels peas in the pod.

Being a fugitive kitchen grunt myself, I expected some surly person to appear, haul them in the back, and begin the tedium of shelling them, so I was astounded when at least a dozen ladies came out of the TV room, ripped a pea sack open in seconds, filled up their colanders, and retreated—just yakkin’ up a storm the whole time—back into the TV room.

I was trying to take it all in while Bev started packing up the returned books. Finally I tapped her on the shoulder and asked, “Bev, are they in there shelling peas?”

She looked over at the TV room door and said, “Oh, yes. They love watching soap operas and shelling peas.”

Sure enough, a squadron of ladies had settled into their seats with peas and bowls in their laps and paper sacks on the floor at their sides. They didn’t even look at the peas as they shelled them; their eyes were glued to the drama unfolding before them. The nurse on duty told me that the shelled peas were collected before dinner (I had a vision of some old lady trying to stash HER colander of peas in a bottom drawer), bagged and kept in the refrigerator until cooked or offered to visitors, but “sometimes there’s so much in there, we just end up taking some home to keep them from being wasted.”

Bill Neale suspected that the Lord invented porches and television to make pea-shelling easier. My mother Barbara, as a young bride, was out on her porch one afternoon sweeping when she saw her husband’s Aunt Bess walking down the road with a sack and crying her eyes out, going to her sister Ethel’s, who was Barbara’s mother-in-law. Not being one to impose (at that point), mother assumed the worst and started cooking. After about an hour, with two casseroles and a cake in the oven, she called up Daddy and said, “Jess, your Aunt Bess just went over to Ethel’s just bawling her eyes out. I think Uncle Ed’s finally died.”

So Daddy ran up to Ethel’s house, assessed the situation, came out sweating and said: “Barbara, Ed didn’t die, Bess is just all wrung out over some soap character dying—her and Momma both.” Then Daddy handed her a bag of shelled peas.

“Here,” he said. “I told them to come over for dinner tonight. You need to start watching ‘Days of Our Lives.’”

The Sultan of Jazz: A Black Russian from Mississippi

If you were to travel back in time to Constantinople’s Taksim Square in the 1920s, you might hear the lively beat from Club Maxim. Inside, you’d likely find a black man in a top hat, perhaps with a pipe in his hand. He might just tell you, as he did one tourist, how he’d overcome “difficulties that would stagger the ordinary man.”

This would be Frederick Bruce Thomas, known later in his life as Fyodor Fyodorovich Tomas, the Mississippi farm boy who became a Moscow impresario and introduced jazz to Asia.

Thomas was born June 12th, 1872 to Hannah and Lewis Thomas, who owned 600-plus acres in Coahoma County, Mississippi. In 1886, a white planter took over their land. Against all odds, the Thomas family sued the planter, and in what must have been one of the few successful cases for black landowners at the time, the Mississippi Supreme Court ruled in their favor. However, the planter appealed and, under threat, in 1890 the Thomas family decided to leave Mississippi and settle in Memphis. In late October, 1890, just a few months after moving the family to Memphis, where he took work as a flagman for the railroad, Lewis Thomas was hacked to death in bed by a jealous husband.

A short time later, Frederick Bruce Thomas, who’d only known life in the South, hopped on the rails, first to Arkansas, then to St. Louis, Chicago, and Brooklyn. He went to Europe in 1894, and in 1899, after crisscrossing the Continent, mastering French, and honing his skills as a waiter and valet, he signed on to accompany a nobleman to Russia.

Thomas’s career in Moscow proved to be more successful than he could ever have imagined. He found no color line in Moscow, where he worked for ten years as a waiter, a butler, and a valet, before becoming assistant to the owner of Yar, the city’s most prominent café-theatre. The Sokolovsky gypsy choir performed there on a regular basis and their songs about their years as slaves likely reminded him of his own people’s story.

Yar was frequented by the bourgeoisie of Moscow and Frederick Thomas became the darling of the wealthy clientele. By 1911 he had earned enough money to open an entertainment garden, “Aquarium,” with the help of two Russian partners. In 1912, he rented a music venue in the city center called “Maxim” which very quickly became popular with wealthy Muscovites.

In Russia, Thomas was one of only a dozen blacks. With his résumé of jobs in the finest European hotels and restaurants, he had the three things he needed most: opportunity, access and know-how. Ironically, he also had history on his side. The African Abraham Gannibal had been seen as “the dark star of the Enlightenment” in Russia as far back as the 18th century, and his great-grandson, Alexander Pushkin, became an icon of Russian literature.

With his talent for booking musical acts from Western Europe, Thomas’ night spots, Aquarium and Maxim, became the spots in which to be seen (and from which to disappear) during Russia’s late imperial era. Black performers visiting from the States remembered, everything was “gold and plush” so that “you would sink so deep in carpets that you would think that you would be going through the door to the cellar.”

Frederick Thomas blossomed in Moscow. He obtained Russian citizenship, was married three times and had five children. Around 1914, he bought a dacha near Odessa and he also owned buildings in Moscow. An African-American immigrant from Mississippi, the son of slaves, had made a fortune in Russia.

But when the Bolsheviks seized power in 1917, Thomas found himself on the wrong side. His newly acquired wealth trumped his past oppression as a black man in the United States. He went to Odessa, but the city was evacuated in April 1919 by the French and British forces allied to the White Army. He managed to embark with his wife Elvira, his children and other refugees on the Russian ship “Emperor Nicholas” bound for Constantinople.

Arriving in the Ottoman capital, he hastened to the American embassy to seek help, or even repatriation to the United States. Officials at the embassy refused to recognize his American nationality and therefore refused to help him; his skin color undoubtedly played a decisive role.

Having lost all his wealth, Frederick Thomas started to do business again in Constantinople, like many Russian refugees. After three months, he opened his Anglo-American Garden Villa (the “Stella Club”) on August 31, 1919, with acts by “Mr. F. Miller and Mr. Tom.” Thanks to his new establishment’s success, he rented the basement of the Magic cinema with gardens in Pera in 1921, and transformed it into a jazz and night club. He named it “Maxim” in memory of Maxim in Moscow which had allowed him to start his career in the entertainment world.  Harry A. Carter and the Shimmie Orchestra to headlined the first season, 1921-22.

Though opening “Maxim” left Thomas on the verge of bankruptcy, business at last started to pick up. After the First World War, you had been an American tourist looking for a good time in Constantinople, you probably would’ve been directed across the Golden Horn to one of the popular Russian-Western, European-style “cafés chantant,” where you could order a drink (outside of Prohibition), sample the finest cuisine, listen to all kinds of music and dance.

Despite the economic and political upheavals of the crumbling Ottoman Empire, Frederick Thomas succeeded in making his establishment the most popular place in the city.  He was the first person to import jazz to Turkey, and its popularity among the city’s natives and swarms of well-heeled tourists consolidated his success and made him rich once again. All those who remained of the Stanbuliot bourgeoisie, along with the English and French soldiers occupying the capital, hurried to listen to jazz at Maxim. Thomas became known as the “Sultan of Jazz.”

It’s astonishing that a black American who’d left the U.S. in 1894 and became a Russian citizen in 1914 was bringing America’s greatest music to the other side of the world by hosting black jazz bands in Constantinople before Louis Armstrong had even joined King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band. But Thomas had already done similar things for the tango in Russia, and whatever obstacles he had to overcome as a Russian refugee. Ottoman Turkish had no word for Negro. Thomas told those who visited his clubs “he was ‘conservatively rated to be worth at least $250,000,’ which would amount to $10 million today.

Then, during the first years of the Turkish Republic, business began to decline. Foreigners and a large part of the bourgeoisie had left the city, while embassies and their staff began to be transferred to the new capital, Ankara. Frederick Thomas plunged into debt. Unable to pay his creditors, they had him put in jail and seized his nightclub, which they renamed “Yeni Maksim”.

Frederick Thomas was never to recover. Although his skin color was of no concern to the Turks, he could not avoid dealing with the diplomats in the American Consulate General in Constantinople, or with their racist superiors in the State Department. When he most needed their help, they refused to recognize him as an American and to give him legal protection.

Abandoned by the United States, and caught between the xenophobia of the new Turkish Republic and his own extravagance, Thomas fell on hard times, was thrown into debtor’s prison, and died in Constantinople on July 12th, 1928 at Pasteur Hospital in Taksim. Forgotten by the Americans, Russians, Stanbuliots and all those he had entertained throughout Europe, Fyodor Fyodorovich Tomas was laid to rest at the Protestant Feriköy Cemetery in Istanbul, far away from the “most Southern place on earth.”

(Thomas’s biography, The Black Russian, by Vladimir Alexandrov, was released by Atlantic Monthly Press in 2013.)