A Southpaw from Calhoun

Among the first professional sports players from Calhoun County, Mississippi was a rangy lefty from Banner named James Corbett Edwards, most often called “Jim Joe” or “Little Joe” when he played major league baseball in the 1920s.

Edwards was born Dec. 14, 1894. He enlisted during World War I as a Marine, later joining the Navy, where he became a Pharmacist’s Mate 3rd Class. On March 25, 1920, Edwards, who was by that time enrolled at Mississippi College in Clinton, was awarded the Croix de Guerre with palm by the Third Republic of France, the highest military honor of the French Government. Exceptionally heroic services must be rendered to entitle any person to receive this tribute. The Croix de Guerre with palm was issued to military units whose men performed heroic deeds in combat and were subsequently recognized by headquarters.

In the 1920s, baseball was easily the premiere sports activity in the nation, and while playing ball at Mississippi College Jim Joe caught the eye of professional scouts. According to Mike Christensen, author of the recently-released Of Mudcat, Boo, The Rope and Oil Can: An Informal History of Mississippians in Major League Baseball, “Edwards debuted with the Cleveland Indians on May 14, 1922, going five innings in a loss to the Washington Senators at Griffith Stadium in Washington, D.C. I think it’s interesting that other players in that game included Sam Rice, Goose Goslin and Bucky Harris of the Senators and Tris Speaker, Stuffy McInnis and Doc Evans, a Meridian native, for the Indians. Those are some famous names.”

Edwards batted right and threw left. He pitched in 10 games for the Indians, and had a 4-3 record and a 2.84 ERA. After 13 games and an ERA of 8.25 the following season, he was released and picked up by the Chicago White Sox, pitching in nine games towards the end of the season. He spent the 1926 season with the White Sox, and had a 6-9 record and a 4.18 ERA in 32 games, 16 of them starts. In 1927 he had his first taste of minor league baseball and spent the year with the Seattle Indians. In 41 games for them, he had a 20-17 record and a 3.36 ERA. The following season he had a 1-8 record and a 3.14 ERA in ten games. The Cincinnati Reds signed him to a contract during part of the 1928 season, and in his last season in the majors, he had a 2-2 record and a 7.59 ERA in 18 appearances. He then spent four more seasons in the minor leagues to end his professional career. In a six-season career, Jim Joe posted a 26–37 record with 211 strikeouts and a 4.37 ERA in 145 appearances, including 59 starts, 23 complete games, six shutouts, four saves, and 584 ⅓ innings of work.

After his career in baseball, Edwards was postmaster at Banner before moving to Pontotoc. While there he was postmaster for a short while before retiring as a mail carrier. He was also a teacher and football coach. He died after a car accident in Sarepta on January 19, 1965.

Daddy’s Books

My dad had a soft touch for door-to-door salesmen. I can still see him laid back on the couch in his boxers listening to some guy spell out his hard-luck story. I doubt if any of them left without an order and a couple of dollars in their pocket. We had three sets of encyclopedias and all kinds of serials put out by national publication like Time/Life or the Reader’s Digest. Our home was full of books full of words and pictures, and I spent hours poring over them when as a boy.

It wasn’t until a decade after he died that I began to explore the other books, the old faded covers and the tattered paperbacks. There I found the father I didn’t know, a man beyond my comprehension as a child, and certainly beyond mine as an old man. Still the books set a mold of time, of place, and more so of my father, the contours set by such as a raggedly paperback edition of Greek poetry in English translation in which I found the epigram of Simonides that Senator John F. Kennedy cited in his speech at the Syria Mosque in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in October, 1960: “Passerby: Tell Sparta we fell faithful to her service.”

Jess Jr. had a personal connection with the Kennedys, since in his capacity as District Attorney for Lafayette County in 1962 he had to juggle the political ramifications of a grand jury indictment against James J.P. McShane, who led the federal agents who escorted James Meredith, the first African American student at University of Mississippi. The indictment was eventually revoked.

He had a copy of C.H. Cramer’s Royal Bob: The Life of Robert Ingersoll. Ingersoll, an American lawyer, Civil War veteran, political leader and orator during the Golden Age of Free Thought (roughly from 1875 to 1914), was noted for his broad range of cultural activities and his defense of agnosticism. Another book relating to Jess Jr.’s political leanings on a more local level is Kirwan’s Revolt of the Rednecks: Mississippi Politics, 1876-1925, a solid nod to his political roots in the hills of north Mississippi.

One of the most puzzling yet astoundingly revealing works I found among my father’s books was Richard Brautigan’s first novel. A Confederate General from Big Sur, published in 1964. Jess Jr. was a student of the Civil War not only as a Southerner but as a politician since its ramifications were being felt with intensity in his lifetime. In Brautigan’s novel, which takes place in 1957, a man named Mellon believes he is a descendant of a Confederate general from Big Sur, California. There is no proof of his existence, although Mellon meets a drifter who has also heard of this general. Mellon seeks the truth of his own modern-day struggle in the United States in light of the Confederacy’s past struggle with the Union. I like to believe my father picked this book up on the basis of its title alone, but read it in its entirety in what was an ongoing effort to keep abreast of the mindset of the nation.

As to other fiction, he had Faulkner’s A Fable and The Town, two very divergent works; Jess Jr. knew Faulkner’s attorney Phil Stone and might have met the writer, but I feel he read Faulkner’s works more out of a desire to understand how this man from Lafayette County came to win a Nobel Prize than for any other reason. He also had a copy of Welty’s Golden Apples, which is puzzling, since of Welty’s works this is more rooted in classical mythology than any other, and my father was very much a student of reality. Like me, perhaps he was just a rube who came to read old books, and their poems and legends became a part of who he was.

In retrospect Jess Jr. could well be considered a learned man, and as such he was quite different from his peers, who included the political lights of his day as well as an across-the-board array of businessmen and dignitaries but perhaps most importantly people from every walk of life. For all that I have a handful of his books, I have little of his life, since his papers were destroyed by his law partner, who was also his brother-in-law. He will always be a puzzle to the man I am, but not to the boy I was who loved him with every fiber of my being.

Home to the Flowers

The most evocative personal memoir to come out of Calhoun County, Mississippi, Home to the Flowers is described as an “anecdotal history” in Lives of Mississippi Authors, 1817-1967, and though it’s certainly populated with folk tales—some of them quite “earthy”—Smith’s account of his life in the area during the first two decades of the 20th century is lyrical and poignant, the detailed observations of an educated man living in a quasi-frontier setting.

Tilmon Henry Smith, son of Tilmon Holley and Fannie Hawkins Smith, was born in 1883 in Water Valley, Mississippi, and received his M.D. from the University of Tennessee in 1915. He began practicing medicine in Banner, Mississippi in 1915. He moved to New London, Ohio in 1922 where he remained until his death in 1969. His memoir, Home to the Flowers was published privately in 1964.

When Smith was six, the family moved to Pittsboro, where his father was postmaster before becoming pastor of a church in Ellzey, where they built a home, he remembers his mother surrounded with flowers, particularly roses. Young Smith attended the school there, which was established by brothers W.T. and B.G. Lowery and T.C. Lowery, who later founded Blue Mountain College. When still a boy, he and his brother started a brick manufacturing business and built the J.D. Richards store in Vardaman, which is still standing. Smith moved to Vardaman in 1901 after his father’s death. He was still in the brick business, but he also worked on Mississippi river barges and as a logger in Yazoo County to help support the family. He attended Meridian Medical College, and graduated from the University of Tennessee Medical School after a short stint in the Chicago School of Medicine. He served as the health inspector for Calhoun County throughout World War I and beyond.

Here he recounts the struggles of the people of Calhoun in the early decades of the 20th century against typhoid and the devastating influenza epidemic of 1918:

“One must realize the primitiveness of our existence to understand. These people had no indoor water supply or toilet facilities. Water was secured from a well in the yard, or a spring or a creed–often a quarter of a mile away. Toilet facilities were at best an outdoor privy in the back yard. Many times, during this period, my first duty upon arriving at the patient’s home was to bring buckets of water from the spring and remove the offal from another bucket beside the bed.

This time of trial and ordeal gave me an abiding faith in people. They exhibited gallantry far beyond the call of duty. Some people had a mysterious resistance to the flue germ. A dozen people would be stricken down around them and they would nurse and care for them all. When this group was reasonably comfortable and cared for, they would walk to miles to minister to other friends or relatives who had no well person to look after them. Some people cut and ran. They used all sorts of low excuses, but it came down to the fact that they were overwhelmed by the solid fear of death. I was continuously amazed by those who really had the sand, as well as those who did not. There were so many heroes and heroines in this terrible tragedy that all cannot possibly be mentioned, but some of my expected friends let me and themselves down, as well as their dependents. I do not remember this with bitterness or condemnation, but with pity.

During the epidemic the community drunk, faced with adversity, found himself and became one of the noblest men of my acquaintance. He sobered up for the first time in years and walked the roads giving help to all in need. It was not unusual to find him carrying water to the sick in one community, and a day later he would be ten miles away cutting wood to warm another family, both of which had probably ignored him in the past. It was just as astounding to find a logging camp lady of the evening bending over the sickbed, tending the sick with all the tenderness of a Florence Nightingale. My dear old mother always referred to her in a disdainful manner as a scarlet woman. I thanked God for this scarlet woman, and learned again that nobility of the soul is sometimes lodged in strange places.”

Fannie Hawkins Smith

My Uncle L.

Larry Wayne Thomas breezed into my life on a random wind, and we sailed together happily for many years.

We first met in April, 1976. I was a freshman at Ole Miss, where L.W. was teaching English. My roommate, a dissolute mental lightweight who went on to serve two spectacularly disgraceful terms in the Mississippi legislature, was his student. He paid me to write his term paper for L.W.’s class. Not only did I write it, but I was prevailed upon to deliver it to his teacher’s office at the last minute. L.W., a handsome young man in a tiny office in Bondurant, received the paper and my lame excuse about the roommate being called home due to a family emergency with undisguised ill-humor. The paper got an “A”, the roommate passed the class with a “C” and I walked away with thirty bucks. When I finally got around to telling L.W. this over twenty years later, he said, “I knew that idiot couldn’t have written a paper that good, but I couldn’t prove he didn’t.”

We came to know each other well during the intervening years, seeing one another around town, mostly at watering holes such as the Rose, the Gin or Ireland’s, among many mutual friends such as George Kehoe, Jere and Joe Allen and his future bride, Jean Tatum. L.W. began working at the Warehouse about that time while I bounced from one ill-fated restaurant to another. After the failure of Audie Michael’s, I found myself unemployed. Shortly after that, L.W. came to my apartment and offered me a job at the Warehouse. I don’t know whose idea it was, his, Frank Odom’s or Don Carlisle’s, but of course I took the job and for years he and I worked shoulder to shoulder in Oxford’s best-known and most respected dining establishment.

L.W. was my boss, the primary liaison between the kitchen and the floor, a job that’s bound to make anyone a nervous wreck, and L.W. was no exception; busy nights reduced him to fussing and fretting to no end. My job, as I saw it, was to keep the kitchen working smoothly, which involved a minimum amount of interference from management. L.W. and I had our disagreements (most notably over his insisting on adding bell peppers to a shrimp boil), but after the last tables were served, everything was rosy. Outside the kitchen doors, with his droll wit and unfailing good humor, L.W. was the most congenial, amiable restaurant host possible. He knew everybody and everybody knew him, and (for the most part) their knowledge of one another was infused with warmth and life. L.W. and I usually traveled in different circles, but we would often bend elbows together; he was smart, funny, a joy to be around, and I basked in his company. I began to call him Uncle L., a sobriquet his many friends used. He put up a fuss about that, but anybody’ll tell you it didn’t take much to ruffle his feathers.

The morning after the Warehouse burned, February 16, 1983 we met one another on the northeast corner of the Square and walked east on Jackson Avenue. We barely spoke until we got to the smoking ruins of Country Village. We stood there for a moment, and L.W. gave voice to what was running through both of our minds: “It didn’t start in our kitchen.”

We both moved away after that; me to Florida, L.W. to Colorado. I returned to Oxford after four years and re-entered Ole Miss, but I got L.W.’s address from a mutual friend and wrote to him, saying how much I missed him and half-jokingly urging him to move back. Well, he did, and though I have a feeling that he was just as miserable in Colorado as I was in Florida and my plea was just added incentive, he later told me on more than one occasion that my letter made him so homesick he just had to return.

It wasn’t long afterwards that I moved from Oxford again. To my everlasting regret, I missed his wedding to Jean, and as fate would have it, I never saw my Uncle L. again. How I wish I could write him another letter and tell him to come back to us.

The irascible Howard Bahr with the irrepressible L.W. Thomas

The Beginnings of Doe’s Eat Place

The following is an excerpt from Paul V. Canonici’s The Delta Italians, a two-volume work published by the author in 2013, “a compilation of stories and experiences of early Italian settlers in the Arkansas and Mississippi Delta. Some of the content is documented history, but most consists of bits and pieces of family stories that have survived the test of time and memory.”

Salvadore Signa said in a 1976 interview that he was born in 1902 in a small shotgun house, St. Michael’s Parish, Louisiana, across the Mississippi River from Donaldsonville. His father Carmelo Signa worked in the sugar cane fields. When Salvador was still an infant, Carmelo moved his family to Vicksburg and worked in a fruit stand at the corner of Clay and Washington Streets. In 1912, when Salvador was ten years old, Carmelo Signa moved to Greenville and opened a grocery store at the corner of Hinds and Nelson Streets. The Signa family lived in a small house behind the store in a predominantly African-American neighborhood.

Carmelo Signa and his wife Mattea Maucelli had twelve children: Lena, Carmelo, Jr., Frances, Dominic E., Antonia, Josephine, Sarah, Paule, Rosalie, Frank, Santo and Lucille. Son Salvador had a career with the post office. Dominic work for the Corps of Engineers but on weekends off and off-time he joined his wife Mamie in helping out in his father’s business. “Papa’s Store”, as it was known, thrived in the community until 1927. That year the Great Flood pushed the Mississippi River out of its banks and consumed much of the riverside community that Papa’s Store was located in and depended on. The community around Nelson Street was eventually rebuilt. Carmelo decided to open a honky tonk in the front part of the store. The honky tonk became a popular gathering and entertainment place for the black community surrounding Nelson Street.

In the back of the old store there was a small kitchen where Carmelo’s son, Dominic “Big Doe” Signa and his wife Mamie prepared food such as buffalo fish, catfish and chili for patrons of the honky tonk. On weekends Dominic prepared meals for a group of professionals—doctors and lawyers—who got together and bought him a specially-made grill, and in 1941 someone gave Mamie a partial recipe for traditional Delta-style hot tamales. She improved on the recipe and began selling them at the honky tonk. This was the beginning of Doe’s Eat Place.

Big Doe relied on the help of family and friends to keep up with the demands of his thriving new restaurant. Eventually he closed down the honky tonk to expand and stay focused on the Eat Place. The added space allowed Big Doe and Mamie to prepare a full course meal for their patrons including Mamie’s marinated salad and fresh cut French fries prepared in a cast iron skillet. Despite the added space, the eat Place’s growing popularity never allowed for the dining tables to be removed from the kitchen where several remain to this day. Mamie passed away on November 5, 1955. Dig Doe Signa retired in 1974 and turned the Eat Place over to his sons Charles and Dominic “Little Doe” Signa. Big Doe passed away on April 29, 1987.

Though time has taken its toll on the old building once known as Papa’s Store, the tradition of the family Eat Place hasn’t changed. Today, when you walk in the front door of the former honky tonk on Nelson Street, you’ll be greeted in the front kitchen where Little Doe cooks steaks for the locals, as well as travelers who have gone miles out of their way to make the pilgrimage to this icon of the South. He uses the same grill that was specially made for Big Doe. There’s nothing fancy about it. It’s simply good people carrying on the delicious Delta tradition of mouthwatering steaks and hot tamales.

Willie’s Liver

Willie Morris, by most accounts one of Mississippi’s most beloved authors, particularly for his homespun WWII memoir, My Dog Skip (1995), is perhaps less fondly remembered for his autobiographical North Toward Home (1967; written when Morris was all of 29). Hailed by the Sunday (London) Times as “the finest evocation of an American boyhood since Mark Twain”,  but damned with faint praise by the Sunday (New York) Times as though “lacking in focus”, “well-written.” Then there’s The Courting of Marcus Depree (1983), which Christopher Lehmann-Haupt says that, “Instead of catching a story by the tail, Willie Morris staggers around, lunging after whatever happens to catch his eye.” (“Lurching” would have been more apt.)

Morris’s early successes as editor of Harper’s led to early failure. After his summary dismissal by John Cowles, Jr., the scion of the conservative family that owned the magazine over a dispute about the publisher meddling in editorial operations in 1971, Willie hit the skids. He bummed around Long Island for a while, soaking up booze with the likes of Craig Claiborne, whom he recklessly advised to write an embarrassing memoir. He then he came home to Mississippi, to Oxford, the literary nipple of Mississippi, where he quickly became the central figure of a dissolute group of rakes and hangers-on who trolled the bars in varying degrees of pixilation and retired to his home at closing time for late-night revels with Willie as the Prince des Sots.

At that time, I was working at The Warehouse, a restaurant in Oxford that saw its heyday in the early 80s, where James Ruffin was the head cook. Garrulous and scrappy, James scared the hell out of me when I came to work there as his right-hand-man. James was blind in one eye, as I am, so I figured between us we would get along like those old women from myth who shared a single eye. And we did, working together in a cramped, noisy, hot kitchen. We came to know and trust each other well. The last time I saw him was the day after the Warehouse burned in the wee hours of February 15, 1986. When he died many years later, our old boss Frank Odom let me know, and I was saddened. James was a good man who lived a hard life.

The Warehouse enjoyed a somewhat upscale reputation and business was good. Now, after-hour diners are always an irritant to restaurant staff, but they hold big appeal for management who enjoy enabling significant people to entertain themselves and their significant friends after the riff-raff have gone and a strategic table can be commanded. Willie Morris always came in at closing time with a number of his adherents to occupy the big round table in the southwest corner of the floor, far enough away from the noisy bar where Willie could hold court without distraction. The management always alerted us that they were coming, which gave me and James ample time to halt our closing procedures and grumble until the table had been seated and lubricated with ample rounds. Almost invariably, Willie ordered the calf’s liver, which came to us pre-sliced and individually quick-frozen. A serving consisted of two 4-oz. slices of liver, dusted with seasoned flour and cooked on a well-oiled griddle and served with potatoes and a small salad. At $9.95, it was our cheapest entrée.

Cooked properly, a seared slice of liver is a wonderful thing. But it takes a little consideration, and by 11 p.m., James and I were on our last legs of the day. His wife had been waiting for him in the parking lot for an hour (he couldn’t drive at night), and I had less than 30 minutes to have a beer with my friends at the Rose before it shut down. So when it came time to prepare Willie’s liver, James put a griddle iron on it and let it cook while we mopped the floor. The end result was leather. Neither the besotted nor the hungover Morris ever complained.

This grumpery against Morris can easily be dismissed as carping of the pettiest sort, but one day I was in the Gin, a landmark Oxford restaurant and watering-hole with a small group. At the bar, in his usual corner on the south end, sat Doxie Kent Williford, one of the smartest, kindest people I’ve ever known and one of the very few openly gay men in Oxford at the time. You rarely heard Doxie say an unkind word about anyone (including Willie Morris), and he was regarded with affection not only by the staff in the Gin, but by many Oxford residents and students.

I remember it was a late afternoon, and Willie came through the swinging doors with his entourage. They settled in at a large table in the center of the floor and not a half-hour had passed when Willie, in a very loud voice, said, “Look at that faggot at the end of the bar!” Then he snickered.

The room fell silent. Doxie put his head in his hands, asked for his check and left. Willie laughed more at that and resumed telling whatever impressive lie he had launched upon earlier. We were all in shock, and I tried to follow Doxie out to say something, but he left in a hurry. He was back the next day, but refused to talk about it. I let it go for then, but after forty years, Willie’s gross incivility and utter lack of regard for those considered unworthy of his company remains a defining moment for me of his corrupt, dissolute character.

Season liver with salt and pepper, sear in light oil, turning once until just done and set aside; working quickly, add more oil, increase heat, add clove of crushed garlic and a half an onion, sliced into slivers or rings. Layer liver atop vegetables and cover for about five minutes, or until the meat is firm. Invert to serve.

The Dixie Limited: A Review

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 complacent 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.

 

Letter to a Young Scholar

Bruce, Mississippi is some three miles south of a hamlet in Calhoun County named Banner. In 1975, Tom Yancy, a junior at Bruce High School, wrote a letter to Eudora Welty, who responded with much grace.

 

Water Buffalo

We are what we eat: our food is very much an indication of who we are, of our place on the planet in every facet of our existence: our age, our geography, our society, our ethnic background and our own sense of self.

You’ll often hear of fish being talked about as trash fish. Trash fish is a slang term for what U.S. state agencies and anglers call rough fish to describe larger fish species not commonly eaten or fished for sport. A fish considered rough fish in one region may be considered a game or food fish in another, often due to culture or tradition. For example, the common carp is considered an undesirable rough fish in the United States and Australia, but is the premier game fish of Europe and the most valuable food fish across most of Asia. Gar is an undesirable nuisance in most places in the U.S., but in Louisiana it’s mashed, made into balls with seasonings and fried.

Buffalo is a genus (Ictiobus) of freshwater fish common in the United States. It is sometimes mistaken for carp because of its flat face and large, silver scales running along the body, though it lacks the whisker-like mouth appendages common to carp. Buffalo live in most types of freshwater bodies where panfish are found, such as ponds, creeks, rivers and lakes. From a fisherman’s point of view, the buffalo is difficult to catch; the preferred method is with gill nets.

According to Dr. Jim Steeby, former research and extension professor at MSU, “There are three species of buffalo: bigmouth, smallmouth and black. The smallmouth, also called the razorback, is most commonly caught in rivers with hoop nests.

“We can spawn and grow them with catfish in ponds,” Jim said. “They are minnow family fishes so they have bones in their flesh, but it’s a Southern favorite; the ribs are the best part. In the Delta at Stoneville, we did mostly catfish research, but we worked on some other species. Back in the early 60s they started growing buffalo in ponds in Arkansas, then switching to catfish as the market for them was better. Buffalo are not grown much anymore. Most of the harvest comes from commercial fishermen. If the market were bigger we could easily supply it, but buffalo seems likely to remain a regional favorite.”

Jackson chef Nick Wallace said that the unpopularity of buffalo might have something to do with the bones, “But you can go to some of these Southern fish markets and find buffalo. It’s not cooked in the restaurants at all; maybe because the chefs don’t like the quality because of the bones, I’m not sure; maybe it doesn’t fit to their clientele. But fish markets that do six hundred, seven hundred thousand dollars a year, they have it. It is seasonal, mainly winter, but it has a long season. To me, it is a delicate fish. If you eat it, you have to eat it delicately.”

“Last July, I called Mark Beason early one morning, and I said, ‘Mark, I have B.B. King coming in, and B.B. wants some buffalo.’ Mark took his nets to the Big Black River and an hour later I had two big buffalo. I checked it for abrasions and dark marks; you want to watch out for things like that. The whole fish is edible, and the tail is great. B.B. wanted it the next day, too. I had gotten a couple more, and he took two whole buffalo with him. They had a kitchen on his bus, and he had a guy with him who was back in the kitchen when I was cooking it, looking over my shoulder.”

“It has a nice pink flesh,” Nick said. “The fish needs to be eaten piping hot because the taste is more pronounced when you eat it hot. If you let it cool down, it’s almost like a muscle, the fish tightens up. You want to handle this fish hot. When my granny made buffalo cakes, she would get her hands in the hot cooked meat to make them. That’s what I like about cooking this type of fish, it actually takes work, it’s not just a simple meat you slice on the bias and throw in the skillet. You have to really touch this food, feel it, know it and work with it. She’d make the cakes like a croquette. She’d put mustard in the cakes and if you’re making a buffalo sandwich you’re going to want good mustard on it: white bread, mustard and tomatoes. Best sandwiches in the world.”

“Buffalo should stand out a lot more than sea bass, halibut and tilapia,” Wallas adds. “We were raised on Mississippi fish, that’s what we were used to, and that needs to be talked about. I just don’t understand how you can go to a restaurant and find sea bass on the menu, when you have anything you could really want to be sustainable here in Mississippi.”

A Love for the Printed Page

In January, 2010, a book written and illustrated by a man who lived and worked in Mississippi sold for a record-setting $11.4 million in a Sotheby auction; another copy of the same work sold for $9.7 million this year. Fred Smith, owner of Choctaw Books in Jackson, says he wouldn’t be at all surprised if there weren’t still a folio of Birds of America in Natchez, where Audubon lived in 1832.

“He would have known people down there,” Fred says, “And Natchez had more millionaires per capita than anywhere in the country before the war, so they certainly could have afforded to subscribe to the book.” Smith knows, since he has spent over a quarter of a century dealing with collectors, estates and institutions as a buyer, seller and appraiser of books, manuscripts and documents of every description, but primarily works about or related to Mississippi, the South and the Civil War; in short, every aspect of our multi-faceted regional history. As a result, he has become a one-man institution in and of himself, the go-to man for anyone in (or out) of the state wanting a set, subset or full collection of volumes of pages you’re unlikely to find at Books-a-Million or Barnes & Noble.

John Evans, owner of Lemuria Books in Jackson, has known Smith for over thirty years; he calls Fred a compadre, and after reflecting back to the times when they’d alert one another to a shifty customer, says, “A great used book seller is there to provide information you can’t find anywhere else. Oh, you can google a book on some obscure moonshiner in the Delta, but Fred’s going to tell you if you really need that book at all, and if you’re lucky, he’ll know of a book you ought to have instead of that one. Fred’s father Frank knew the past seventy-five years of the culture of Mississippi, and he handed that down to his son Fred.”

Frank E. Smith was a managing editor of the Greenwood Morning Star, served as an aide to Senator John Stennis, as a member of the Mississippi state senate, in the U.S. Congress, and as a director of the Tennessee Valley Authority. He and Fred began thinking about opening a business in the 1970s. “We figured the state needed a used bookstore. Our literary culture was so important that someone needed to make them available for people here to own and to treasure,” Smith says. “The goal was that we’d pull together an inventory and open up a store in 1983. Then my aunt, who had an antique store in Vicksburg where we’d place books to see how they’d sell, had an accident and had to close her store. All of a sudden, we had a lot of nice furniture. When we opened up, we were half antiques and half books.”

“That first year, Eudora Welty bought a piece of furniture for $700,” Fred remembers. “Now, selling a few books here and there is one thing, but that was by far my biggest sale. I wanted to keep the check, but the furniture was not mine, so I had to go ahead and cash it. Years later, I did two appraisals for Miss Welty, one on the letter that Faulkner had written to her and another on some other correspondence. I called up her lawyer, Carl Black, and asked him if it would be alright to keep one of the checks (for $250) and he said that she’d never know. I kept the check.”

“I don’t always make people happy,” Fred says, though it’s hard to imagine, since Fred has a jovial, Dickensian presence, the proprietor of a modern-day curiosity shop, an unpretentious clapboard building at 926 North Street in Jackson’s Belhaven Heights neighborhood that’s chock-a-block with books, maps and manuscripts. But Fred, because of his unique knowledge and sincere appreciation of Mississippi’s history, literature and bibliographic legacy, is also the premier appraiser of the state’s books, manuscripts, maps and other assorted documents, making him a unique denizen of Mississippi’s bibliophilic Parnassus.

“My job as an independent appraiser is to put a value that I consider to be valid on materials I’m asked to consider. Most of what I do is for tax purposes because people are donating materials for tax breaks. But a lot of folks think their stuff is worth a lot of money just because it’s theirs, and that’s not necessarily the case. I have done many appraisals over the years, and have not been called into question on any of them; people know to call me.”

Hugh McCormick, who started McCormick’s Book Inn in Greenville in 1965 and closed the business last year, says, “I admire Fred a lot. As far as I know, he’s the only person who occupies the sort of role he does in the Tri-state area. People who come to Fred are looking for something very specific and generally very hard to find, and he knows what they’re talking about.”

Cham Trotter says that when he first began collecting Old Miss yearbooks, Fred was the first person he thought of going to for help. “I’m a Civil War buff, so I had been in Fred’s store before. Ole Miss started publishing yearbooks in 1897; what I had in mind to do was to have a yearbook from each decade. I had several yearbooks from when I was in school from the Sixties and Seventies, from my parents who went to school there in the Forties, from my grandfather, who was business manager at Ole Miss in the Thirties and a few from when he had been a student there around 1909.”

“But I walked in Choctaw Books one day and Fred had boxes and boxes of Ole Miss annuals from the Thirties, Forties, Fifties, even up into the Seventies and Eighties. The family of Dean Frank Moak had given these yearbooks to Fred on consignment. So I decided to try and get one from every year. I got even more from Fred over the years, and now I have a full set.”

John Evans, who has every reason to know, says that the preponderance of the internet spells the end of the used book business as we know it. “The used book seller could come back, but I think we’re going to go through a void before that happens. When Fred’s business goes away, you’re not going to have someone to rush in and start another store like Choctaw Books the next day.”