My father 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 perhaps beyond me as an old man. Still the books set a mold of time, of place and of my father as well, the contours being set by such things 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 The indictment was revoked.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 redneck 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 his books, I have little of his life, since his papers were destroyed (purportedly unintentionally) by a relative, so he remains and always will remain a puzzle to the man I am, but not to the boy I was who loved him with my very being.