Delta Voodoo

Indianola, Mississippi has the dubious distinction of being the subject of not one but two studies by Northern anthropologists. The more prominent study by John Dollard, Caste and Class in a Southern Town (1937) comprises a psychological perspective on how race relations in the Deep South were shaped by “caste” and class. While in Indianola, Dollard stayed at the boarding house of the formidable Kathleen Claiborne, who, when her guest complained that she was over-cooking her leaf vegetables, set a plate of chopped fresh turnip greens before the anthropologist and sedately walked away. Her son Craig was to recall this years later when he encountered Dollard in the offices of the New York Times. Dollard graciously asked of Mrs. Claiborne, and hearing of her demise, recounted that she was “a great lady”.

The second, lesser-known study was written by the delightfully-named Hortense Powdermaker, who, fresh from work with a “primitive” people, the Lesu of New Ireland in present-day Papua New Guinea, came to Indianola to study the black community. After Freedom (1939) is the first complete ethnography of an African-American community in the United States. Powdermaker’s goal was to use anthropological methods to give insight into American society. She considered race relations to be one of the most pressing social problems of her day—as indeed it was, and continues to be—and she hoped that her work would prove valuable to those in a position to promote change.

Needless to say, those who could affect a change ignored Hortense’s study, After Freedom presents us with a fascinating look at life in the Mississippi Delta during the Depression. Among the more interesting sections is “Lagging Beliefs” in which Powdermaker documents the folk superstitions then prevalent in the black community. The following is a short excerpt.

A large number of the superstitions practiced in the community today to be concerned with love, or connected in some way with the relations between men and women. Others have to do with luck in general, and still others are designed to bring bad luck to an enemy. Many are concerned with physical health. individuals are not really superstitious give a perfunctory observance to certain superstitions, much as a northern white person may knock on wood without really “believing” in the necessity for the gesture. Others take their superstitions more seriously. These for whom superstitions have most meaning go for assistance to the voodoo doctors who dispense advice, charms, and spells. The types and varieties of superstitious beliefs may be suggested by a small sampling:

Wearing a punctured dime around the ankle will keep trouble away.

Stray cats or kittens who wander into a house and stay there bring good luck.

Dreams foretell events. If a dream is told before sunrise, it is bound to come true.

A woman described a very vivid dream in which her dead father came to take away her mother, who was still alive and apparently well. Next day the mother died.

Throwing salt after an enemy brings him bad luck.

The hair of an enemy can be used to bring him disaster. Usually it is concealed under his doorstep or someplace where he will walk over it. An old woman who is a sharecropper believes this firmly that she never allows anyone to comb her hair or use her comb, and always takes great care to destroy her combings, so as “not to take any chances.”

Certain perfumes will “hold” a man by magic as well as by allure. A woman can hold a man by putting something in his food. No information could be obtained about what was put in, and this belief appears less widespread than those concerning “poison.”

“Poison” put into an enemy’s food will work him harm. One woman told how her husband died because an enemy put poison in his whisky. Snake poison is among the worst; a sloughed snake skin, dried and made into a powder, is sprinkled into the enemy’s food while he is not looking. The powder comes to life in his stomach and gives him fits. The tale is told of one man who had such fits, and finally the snake ran right out of his mouth.

The mother of a young boy who had recently died told that for four years he had been subject to fits, during which he would scream, kick, and twist his head “almost clear around.” The mother had a “friend,” and another woman was jealous of her. The jealous one made some “poison” to put into her food, but nobody would take it to her, and the woman could not come to the house herself. One day, however, when her rival’s little boy was playing near her house, she gave him food containing the poison, Immediately the child began to have fits. His mother took him to doctors, to hospitals, to a voodoo doctor, but nobody could cure him. Finally she carried him to an especially famous voodoo doctor, who gave the boy some medicine, which made the poison come out. It emerged in a terrific bowel movement—a long narrow thing, about five inches in length, which had given him the fits by running around in his stomach. At the same time there came out a lot of little things that looked like maggots. Now the child was cured of fits. But immediately after he grew very sick, first with flu and then pneumonia, and soon he died.

The voodoo doctors employ a variety of cures for an even larger variety of ills; they claim to restorc health, to revive fortunes, to unravel mysteries. Often they give a charm in the form of a “hand,” less commonly called a “toby.” A “hand” is usually a small bag, one to two inches square, made of silk or sometimes of cotton, said to be stuffed with spider webs and horse hair worked into a powder, Sometimes very fine bits of glass are added. The bags should never be opened. They are carried in a pocket or worn next to the body, and are to help the wearer in love, business, or some other venture, One of these bags may be used to hold the hair of an enemy when it is placed under his doorstep to give him bad luck.

Instead of the hand, some voodoo doctors give their clients a small piece of paper with writing on it. This is worn next to the skin, and should not be read. Herbs, roots, small bottles filled with oil or other liquids are also given. On one occasion, a woman was given a small sealed bottle to conceal in her bed as a love charm. Later she went to a voodoo doctor for help in repulsing the attentions of a man she did not want. For this he gave her a piece of paper sealed with wax so that she could not read the inscription. She wore it in her stocking, and after that she was able to rid herself of the undesired attentions.

A hand was considered responsible for the incessant quarreling of a couple. One day the wife saw a small black bag under the front steps. Trembling, she dug it up and found it filled with steel needles and spices. She was sure this had been planted by her enemy and had caused the quarreling. She destroyed it at once; the report did not tell whether the quarreling stopped.

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.

Levee Press: The Delta Imprimatur

“For reasons best known to ourselves,” Hodding Carter, Ben Wasson and Kenneth Haxton decided “one low-water night some time back” to organize “still another addition to the multiplicity of publishing houses whose directors dream of an America that will some day read instead of write.”

Their brainchild, Levee Press, ranks among those small publishing enterprises—the Woolfs’ Hogarth and the Webbs’ Loujon, for instance—that are distinguished by the quality of their production. Though its output was miniscule by any standards—only four publications in roughly that many years totaling somewhat less than 3000 copies (2635 “official” count)—Levee Press imprints command a significant price among an elite of discerning bibliophiles because the names of the four authors—Foote, Welty, Faulkner and Percy—resonate in the state, the region and the world. Had Levee Press maintained production at such a level of quality, the Greenville publishing house could very well in time have become one of the premiere imprints in the nation, but indifference, dissent, certainly some combination of the two—melded to bring an end to it.

In the late 1940s, during the “golden age” of Mississippi literature, the output was phenomenal, with Welty and Faulkner as cynosures in a stellar flurry of belles lettres including works from Carter himself, who had commandeered the Greenville Delta Democrat-Times—as he had the Hammond Daily Courier—into a newspaper of integrity and distinction, an achievement acknowledged by the Pulitzer jury that awarded him the prize for editorial writing in 1946. Hodding was at the peak of his career; his reputation as a capable spokesman for a progressive South was solidly entrenched across the nation. Ben Wasson, who had worked in New York theater with Leland Hayward and acted as Faulkner’s first literary agent, wrote on the arts and as a literary critic for the newspaper. Kenneth Haxton, a composer and husband of National Book Award nominee Josephine Ayers Haxton, who wrote under the surname Ellen Douglas, worked full-time at his family’s department store, Nelms and Blum’s (his mother was a Blum), where he had installed a bookstore. Carter also had young Shelby Foote working for him at the Delta Democrat-Times then, and while Hodding can dryly drawl about the enterprising intentions of him and his cronies in their cups, it was Foote who came up with the idea to publish a book using the resources of the Delta Democrat-Times.

Shelby Foote grew up in Greenville alongside his fraternal friend Walker Percy under the patriarchal wing of planter/poet William Alexander Percy. Foote, like Walker, had literary ambitions which in time both realized, but in early 1947, Foote had just turned 30, had only one major work in progress (Tournament), and his expenses were mounting. Apparently quite on his own initiative, he decided to print and publish his own work with the limited resources of the Delta Democrat-Times print shop. Since his enterprise just happened to mesh with their own previous plans to publish books in the hub of the Delta, Ben Wasson, representing Hodding Carter and Kenneth Haxton, asked Foote if he would add the name “Levee Press” to the pamphlet they had heard he was planning to print. “We gonna call it the Levee Press,” Wasson said, nodding out the window at the earthworks against the river.

From within the Tournament manuscript, Foote excised the grim story of Abraham Wisten, the tragic story of an ambitious Jewish immigrant, entitled it The Merchant of Bristol and hired co-worker Bill Yarborough to typeset and print 260 copies of the 20-page novella on June 2, 1947. Foote stapled them together himself and—with considerable pluck—signed,  numbered and marketed his work in the book section of Nelms and Blum’s at $1.50 a copy. More than one wit remarked that just as much would buy a good dress shirt, and sales were predictably disappointing, not only perhaps because of Foote’s perceived pretentions but more likely because as a publication, The Merchant of Bristol is nothing more than a pamphlet, reminiscent of the blue essay books used for university examinations. Wisten’s tragedy was reprinted in Foote’s first work of fiction, Tournament, in 1949.

Writing in the Commercial Appeal on July 6, 1947, columnist Paul Flowers announced, “Freshest literary venture in the South today is the Levee Press at Greenville, Miss. (there’s always something going on among the literati of Washington County.) The Levee Press is the idea of a group of writers, for the perpetuation of stories, essays, and other literary material which may not have enough general interest for publication on a national scale, but too good to be forgotten… Shelby Foote broke the ice with a short story, published in pamphlet form, and 250 copies, each one numbered and autographed, went out to persons who had subscribed. The project is non-profit and there’s no incentive except to keep alive bits of writing which ought to live. More small volumes will be coming from the Levee Press. It will not be commercial, and no one connected with it is looking for material gain (except Foote, of course: JY) However, most, if not all of its insiders are welling manuscripts in the open market, but they will publish at home, just for collector’s items some of the pieces nearest their hearts.” Flowers doubtless received this description of the Levee Press’s objectives from Hodding Carter himself by way of promotion, and perhaps this is an echo of the “reasons best known to ourselves” that he referred to some six years later in Where Main Street Meets the River, where he claimed—again, after the fact—that the purpose of the Levee Press was to “publish limited, signed editions of new, relatively short books—“novella” sounds better—by established Southern writers.”

With the publication of A Curtain of Green (1941) and The Wide Net and Other Stories (1943), Welty had garnered three O. Henry awards and a Guggenheim fellowship, which made her a clear candidate for publication with the Levee Press. Wasson “brazenly” asked Welty if she would permit the new publishing firm to issue one of her manuscripts as a book and had told her the plans for the new press. In Count no ‘Count, Wasson recounts, “The great and gracious lady replied that she approved of such a venture, that Mississippi needed a limited editions press, and that, as it happened, she did have a manuscript. It was a novella, Music from Spain.” In December, 1946, Welty traveled to San Francisco to visit her friend and ofttime paramour John Robinson, rented her own apartment there in January and between then and March wrote a lengthy story, “Music from Spain”. The story stands at somewhat of a distance from the body of Welty’s oeuvre because it is set outside of Mississippi, in San Francisco, its narrative is stream-of-consciousness and it is distinctly erotic—indeed, homoerotic— a daring element in a work for publication in Greenville, Mississippi in the late 1940s. After contacting Welty’s agent, Diarmuid Russell, Carter and company contracted Welty for 750 copies was agreed to give her 25 per cent of the $2.50 price—Wasson claims $4—in exchange for non-exclusive rights to “Music from Spain”.

When Ben Wasson proposed that Levee Press “do a Faulkner”, the other two laughed. Even though Faulkner in 1946 was one of three finalists for the first Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine Award (second to Rhea Galati), he was by most other standards the single most important Southern American writer of his day, but Wesson had a card up his sleeve. Not only had he been Faulkner’s agent when Faulkner was struggling to publish Flags in the Dust, but it was Wesson who for fifty dollars a week pared down Faulkner’s novel for the demands of Harcourt, Brace. For two weeks, while Faulkner sat nearby writing The Sound and the Fury, Wasson cut almost a fourth of the book, and Harcourt, Brace published the truncated version on January 31, 1929, as Sartoris. Some might say that Ben Wesson was calling in a debt, but for whatever reason, in late February, 1948, Wesson traveled with Carter to Oxford for an evening at Rowan Oak. Faulkner, “at-first-reticent”, gradually warmed his visitors, who left with an original manuscript, a “horse race piece” Faulkner suggested they call “A Long Dangling Clause from a Work in Progress.”

On March 1, Faulkner reported his commitment to his agent, Robert K. Haas: “Hodding Carter and an old friend of Mine, Ben Wasson, have what they call the Levee Press, at Greenville, Miss. Three times a year they get out an issue, which is sort of a colophon thing: a single story or article, limited number. I am letting them have the section of the big mss. Which Ober offered to Partisan Review and was declined. It will resemble a special edition pamphlet, bound of course, signed by me, to sell at $2.50. I get 25%. This is all right with Random House, isn’t it? The section is about 80-100 pages typescript. They will call it Section (of from) Work in Progress. I think. I want to do it mainly to confound the people who say nothing good out of Miss. The Press is less than a year old, is already getting known even though in slightly precious circles, like Yale reviews etc. Its foundation is Carter’s Greenville daily newspaper. His name is familiar to you, probably: lecturer, liberal, champion of Negro injustice though no radical, no communist despite Bilbo and Rankin.”

So it was with these commitments an announcement was made in the Commercial Appeal on May 2, 1948: “The Levee Press probably will be doing some celebrating about that time also (2nd week in May with publication of Cohn’s Where I Was Born and Raised), announcing books by Eudora Welty and William Faulkner, to be issued by the Greenville house. That won’t hurt the Levee Press, either, starting off with a pair of names such as Welty and Faulkner, for those are two writers highly esteemed in the English speaking world. The Levee Press may turn into an important venture in the American publishing world. It got off to a modest beginning about a year ago with a short story by Shelby Foote.”

For the Welty book, Carter stepped up his game considerably. Always the consummate newspaperman, he purchased a Jansen type plate that he had admired in certain Knopf publications. With no local bindery available, he contracted that job to a publishing company in Texas Dickens. Carter also hired local artist Elizabeth Calvert to design the colophon, a stylized “L” bracketing a river steamer, which was ensconced beneath those of Welty and Faulkner (Percy died in 1943). Ken Haxton designed and drew the Picassoesque/art deco guitar for the terra-cotta cover and chose for each of the seven section headings musical motifs from the Spanish composer Isaac Albeniz, Recuerdos de viaje, “En la Alhambra”.  Writing in The New York Times Book Review in 1949, Charles Poore called the volume a “handsome example of bookmaking”. Music from Spain was incorporated into Welty’s third collection of short stories, Golden Apples, published by Harcourt, Brace in 1949. Welty’s 25 per cent of the $2.50 take was the price of literary notoriety in Mississippi at the time, but on the current market a (quality) copy of Music from Spain published by the Levee Press sells for $1000, a distinguished association copy, inscribed and signed by Eudora Welty, to authors Allen Tate and Caroline Gordon: “To Caroline + Allen/ with love/ from Eudora”.)

Though Levee Press’s relationship with Eudora Welty is undocumented, Faulkner’s exchanges are unsurprisingly high-profile, with vibrant accounts provided by both Carter, in Where Main Street Meets the River and Wasson, in Count no ‘Count, given that the author was awarded the Nobel Prize during the publishing process. Carter, Wasson and Haxton shortened the title of the Faulkner manuscript to Notes on a Horsethief. “It was good,” Carter claimed, “even though a few readers have since complained that they never before had read thirty thousand words divided into only three sentences.”  Again, Levee Press extended its resources for Notes on a Horsethief. Elizabeth Calvert’s flowing, linear artwork for the rich, Sherwood green cover and the endpapers, described by Jean Stein as “horses in flight”, are striking and dramatic. Horsethief is arguably Levee Press’s highest achievement both in terms of art and letters.

Notes on a Horsethief was printed on November 4, 1950, and the following January, on the 23rd, Estelle Faulkner phoned Carter, telling him that her husband had decided that there was no sense in unpacking the nine hundred and fifty books he had received the month before for signing only to ship them right back, and he had put the unopened crate in his station wagon early that morning and was on his way to Greenville.  Carter alerted Wasson, who “smuggled” Faulkner into Hodding’s office at the Delta Democrat-Times, sent out for the crate of books, and an ad hoc assembly line was organized with Wasson opening the books for a signature, Faulkner—standing, in a half-crouch—signing and numbering them and a young woman from the bindery took it from him to blot the signatures and replace them in the box. Carter sent out to Al’s Café for beer. “Hospitality dictated that I do something for a man who had driven one hundred and twenty miles just to stand in my office and sign his name to copies of a book for which he could have received far more than our limited edition’s twenty-five percent royalty could bring him at six dollars a copy,” Carter wrote, recording “for the factual-minded” that Faulkner’s ration of signed books to beers turned out that day and the next morning to be “sixty volumes of Faulkner to one bottle of Budweiser.”

Notes on a Horse Thief was published scarcely a month before Faulkner accepted the Nobel Prize Stockholm’s City Hall on December 10, 1950. The nine hundred copies sold out quickly, and soon copies were selling for as high as $25 in. Irving Howe, reviewing this “privately printed and fabulously pieced story” in The Nation, said it was “a bad piece of writing,” but Charles Poore in the New York Times Book Review, called it “at once a brilliantly told story of a manhunt and a subtly woven allegory on man’s fate.” Notes later became a section in Faulkner’s much-belated Pulitzer winner, A Fable, with gracious thanks from the author to Levee Press for permission to reproduce the material.

Choosing the next work to be published proved problematic; Carter, Wasson and Caxton intimated later that it had been their intention to publish Mississippi writers exclusively, but in the end it just turned out that way. In fact, Carter was considering publishing a book of poems by John Gould Fletcher of Arkansas that had been turned down by his New York publisher, but at the last minute the decided to print them after all. Wasson wrote to Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullers and Robert Penn Warren, but none had a manuscript of suitable length ready for publication. Writer and photographer Carl Van Vechten, who Gertrude Stein had appointed her literary executor, sent some unpublished works by her, but the three principals of Levee Press found them so mystifying that they returned them, regretfully, to a subsequently indignant Van Vechten. Unknown writers (including Greenville son Howard Mitcham jly) submitted hundreds of manuscripts, but none of them seemed good enough.

The shadow of William Alexander Percy looms large in Greenville, and Carter, Wasson and Haxton all knew the man well and admired him immensely. Percy died in 1942, and Knopf published The Collected Poems of William Alexander Percy in 1943, with a second edition the following year. Yet Ann Stokes, who claimed to have worked with Percy in editing the poems for the collection, claimed that she had variant forms of some of the published poems that should be printed, and insisted with no small degree of persistence that Hodding Carter publish these poems as well. Carter felt some degree of obligation to Stokes, who sold him the land on which he had built his new Feliciana house. Ben Wasson thought publishing Percy’s poetry was redundant and the book would not sell, and Carter, while engaged in a lengthy and complicated correspondence with Alfred Knopf, whose company held the copyright to the Percy poems, actually went so far as to ask Knopf to deny him permission to reprint the poems, Knopf consented, giving Carter no excuse to refuse Stokes’ nagging.

Of Silence and of Stars, with a forward by Carter, edited by Anne Stokes, decorations by Elizabeth Calvert, was issued in mid-1953, the title taken from the poem “Home” (“I have a need of silence and of stars…”). It is a handsome volume, with a deep blue cover featuring a sketch of herons somewhat similar but not as striking as the horses on the Faulkner cover, and the end papers are illustrated with drawings of cypress in a bayou. A note on the dedication page is a quote from Faulkner’s Nobel acceptance speech. Stokes dated each poem and divided them into three groups: those written before 1915, those written between 1915 and 1920 and those completed after Percy’s World War I experiences. Six hundred and fifty copies were printed, and while each copy was numbered, of course they are unsigned.

Although Ben Haxton placed “The Levee Press” on the title page of his 1997 work The Undiscovered Country as a tribute to the spirit of the enterprise he shared with Carter and Wasson, Of Silence and of Stars proved to be the last book issued by Levee Press. Carter toyed with the idea of publishing “lost literature” of the South, particularly a stirring antebellum courtroom plea that Natchez lawyer Sargent S. Prentiss made in a Kentucky court to save the lives of three Mississippi planters involved in a bloody brawl while attending a wedding, this idea never came to fruition, and after failing to get a manuscript from Tennessee Williams, the Levee Press passed out of existence. Carter, Wasson and Haxton all had other, more pressing involvements, and Wasson, evidently the principal behind the publishing venture, clearly lost interest after the Percy work was foisted on the press. Still, the output of the Levee Press is a high-water mark in the publishing history of Mississippi and a notable achievement that’s likely never to be duplicated in this state or any other.