I wrote a high school junior class paper on Absalom, Absalom!, and one day I pointed out to the teacher the passage describing Charles Bon lounging in an effeminate silk robe before the cloddish Henry Sutpen. “Does this mean they were homosexuals?” I asked. She replied that Mr. Faulkner “would never write about something like that.” Years later, as a more literate scholar, I found that William Faulkner did indeed write about “things like that”; he wrote about humanity from every angle, including sexuality and homosexuality. Furthermore, I found my assessment of Charles Bon and Henry Sutpen’s relationship supported by others.
Between 1929 and 1939, Faulkner puslished The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, Sanctuary, Light in August, and Absalom, Absalom! as well as dozens of short stories. These works have been thoroughly studied and analyzed, and it’s not surprising that scholars and critics have identified homosexual themes in them. Absalom, Absalom! has been the focus of much interest in homosexual matters, and as early as 1955, Ilse Dusoir Lind commented upon the “affection, mildly homosexual in basis” between Shreve and Quentin.
The first essay devoted to the question of homosexuality in Faulkner’s works was published by Don Merrick Liles in 1983. Absalom, Absalom! and “A Rose for Emily” spurred discussion about homosexuality in Faulkner’s works. The 1980s saw Queer Theory evolve from the increasing visibility of sexual minorities. These critical analyses resulted in a multiplicity of approaches that in turn became dialogues about homosexuality in the Faulkner canon.
These exchanges allow us to see Faulkner’s work differently and over time come to new understandings. With Gay Faulkner: Uncovering a Homosexual Presence in Yoknapatawpha and Beyond, Phillip Gordon broadens our concepts of Faulkner and his works by examining his immersion in gay subcultures throughout his life, especially during the 1920s, and his strong and meaningful relationships with specific gay men, particularly his lifelong friend and sometime editor Ben Wasson. Gordon’s study focuses on male homosexuality simply because that is the most revealing perspective. He also concentrates his study on As I Lay Dying and the Snopes trilogy—with particular emphasis on Darl Bundren and V.K. Ratliff—rather than the major novels of the 1930s in order “to turn a light on other works to bring into focus themes that have not yet been deeply explored.”
Gordon states flatly that the question at the heart of his study is not if Faulkner was gay, but, “Is there a gay Faulkner?” Gordon seeks to reveal a gay presence not only in Faulkner’s work, but also in his life as well, establishing Faulkner’s awareness of homosexuality and homosexuals, and his acceptance and participation in gay culture. Gay Faulkner is a solid academic work; the notes are as absorbing as the text, and the bibliography constitutes a summation of Queer Faulkner studies. Gordon also offers insight, information, and even entertainment for the general reader.
Gordon’s documentation of Faulkner’s stay in New Orleans explores the bohemian atmosphere as well as the writers’ community of the Vieux Carré. Central to this section of the book is Gordon’s account of Faulkner’s relationship with his longtime friend and roommate, the gay artist William Spratling, including an intriguing account of a trip to Italy with Spratling, a journey that resulted in Faulkner’s most openly gay story, “A Divorce in Naples.” This period of Faulkner’s life, as well as the literary and artistic scene in the city at the time, is the subject of an essay by Gary Richards, “The Artful and Crafty Ones of the French Quarter: Male Homosexuality and Faulkner’s Early Prose Writings.” According to Richards, Spratling, not the literary lion Sherwood Anderson, stood at the center of the New Orleans artists and writers. He also points out that Faulkner’s early sketches for the Times-Picayune and the literary magazine, Double Dealer, as well as some of the characters and scenes in Mosquitoes (1927), are strongly homoerotic. Richards’s paper was presented at the 34th Faulkner Conference in 2007; Annette Trafzer states that conference’s subject, “Faulkner’s Sexualities,” is an “intentionally ambiguous” subject that “blurs the line between the author’s body and the body of his work .…” (Trefzer). This conference as well as “Faulkner and Women” (1985) and “Faulkner and Gender” (1994), featured other studies on Faulkner and homosexuality.
With Ben Wasson and the New Orleans-born gay writer, Lyle Saxon in New York City after the publication of Sanctuary (1931), Faulkner interacted with the Algonquin Round Table and met Alexander Woollcott. Faulkner toured Harlem’s gay clubs and cabarets with Carl Van Vetchen, where he attended a show by the famous drag “king” Gladys Bentley. This encounter was recounted by Wasson in the Blotner Papers at Southeastern Missouri State University, a rich source for scholarship that Gordon calls “fascinating, complex, and, for lack of a better word, beautiful.” Despite his earlier disclaimer concerning Faulkner’s personal proclivities, Gordon also avers that “there is evidence in the Blotner papers that suggest our understanding of Faulkner’s sexuality might not be what we have generally assumed.”
Gordon frames Faulkner within the literary milieu of early 20th century Mississippi–by any standards a cutting edge of the Southern Renaissance in American literature–and includes several prominent gay writers. The queer planter, poet, and memoirist William Alexander Percy of Greenville nurtured a clutch of writers, including Hodding Carter, Walker Percy, Shelby Foote, and Wasson. Gordon also illuminates Oxford’s fascinating and cosmopolitan Stark Young as well as the undeservedly obscure poet and scholar Hubert Creekmore of Water Valley.
In a text, Gordon and other queer critics focus on the meaning and nuances of a text, and amplify its implications. Some readers may think Gordon is reaching to make a point, but in the end, the words and their meanings are there for any reader to understand. Gay Faulkner has a great deal to recommend it; it’s interesting, educational, and entertaining. The book is also an excellent introduction to current and ongoing studies that seek to explore new avenues in Faulkner’s work.
“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.
A writer, scholar and artist as well as the first and still foremost chef of note from Mississippi, Howard Mitcham was a brilliant, stone-deaf, hard-drinking bohemian, raconteur and bon vivant who knew and corresponded with the great and near-great but who himself remains shadowed today. A name chef during what Anthony Bourdain called “the early happy days before the glamorization of chefs”, we should remember Mitcham well. His Creole Gumbo and All That Jazz stands loud, proud and without a smidgeon of pretention alongside any cookbook written in the past century, a robust ragout of recipes, music, art and lore. His Provincetown Seafood Cookbook, written with the same gregarious spirit, surely sates my fellow countrymen in Massachusetts as fully, but as his fellow Mississippian, Creole Gumbo strikes much closer to my heart.
As an artist, Mitcham printed his own woodcuttings, harnessed watercolor and dabbled in oils. As a man of boundless spirit and generosity, he sent one of his paintings to a writer in Oxford he very much admired, and received this letter in response. It’s not known if the painting ever did hang in the Buie Museum, but the painting is still at Rowan Oak. Fred Smith, owner of Choctaw Books in Jackson, pointing out the date (1955) as well as the elements of the painting (a Tokyo newspaper, a bottle of Tabasco sauce and a pipe) said, “Mitcham probably painted this to mark the publication of Faulkner’s New Orleans Sketches by Hokuseido Press in April, and Faulkner traveled to Japan that August on a goodwill tour.”
In 1975 high school junior Tom Yancy wrote a paper on a novel by Eudora Welty and sent a letter to the author. Tom was from Bruce, Mississippi some three miles south of a hamlet in Calhoun County named Banner. Eudora graciously responded.
The muse of fiction is a thirsty bawd, especially in the South where the icon of a hard-drinking writer unjustly tars even us most humble wordsmiths with the brush of dissolution. Eudora Welty, every inch a lady, certainly did not fall into this rough-hewn category. Nonetheless, Eudora did enjoy the occasional bourbon. I have it on good authority that Welty and her friend Charlotte Capers, a Jackson historian, wit and essayist, were often to be found ensconced in Eudora’s home on Pinehurst with a bottle of Old Crow. Later, the authority insists, Welty became a convert to Maker’s Mark, and she invariably took it 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.
I can’t claim to have known Barry Hannah well, but we knew each other. I took Barry’s first class at Ole Miss as an undergraduate. The class was held in Bondurant East, second floor, overlooking the Williams Library. Donna Tartt was in the class as well, a very pretty young lady who turned in a wonderful short story about a woman held captive by a man whose passion was orchids. I turned in one about a woman who had murdered her husband in front of her youngest child, a brutal little story that Hannah found “too much”, since the child later went on to commit suicide as an adult. “Murder and suicide both in less than five pages?” he asked. He looked at me, shrugged and grinned.
Barry was drinking heavily at that time, and it wasn’t a week later before he showed up just as drunk as he could be. The entire class just sat in their seats, dumbfounded, as he rambled on about poetry, fiction and flying around the Gulf of Mexico shooting tequila with Jimmy Buffet. We were dismissed early. My friend and classmate Robert Yarborough told me to stay after class and help him get Hannah home. I drove Barry’s car, Robert followed on his motorcycle. First stop was to a supermarket, where Barry gave me a wad of money and told me to buy a steak (“I need protein!”), then to the run-down duplex he shared with Robert on Johnson Avenue. At the next class we were on pins and needles wondering if Hannah would show up, but of course he did, apologized, told us to forget about it and delivered one of the best lectures on the craft of writing I’ve ever heard before or since. “You’ve got to write, write, write” he said. “If you don’t use it, you’ll lose it.” Trite, I know, but when Barry said it with that raffish grin of his, he made it stick.
Later on that semester, I was sitting in the Gin having a few beers and scribbling on a pad when Hannah walked in. I nodded a greeting, and eventually he ambled over and we started talking. He asked about the short story I’d written. I told him I’d gotten the title (“A Roof of Wind”) from Faulkner. This infuriated him; I got the impression that he was sick and tired having his mule and wagon stalled on the same track the Dixie Limited roared down. Not knowing what else to do, I apologized and left posthaste. He never brought it up again, and I certainly wasn’t.
Like Morris, Hannah was subject to the fawnings of a legion of fans, but while Willie reveled in holding late-night, dissolute salons where he was the center of the attentions of a cadre of hangers-on, Barry kept a somewhat lower profile and a more select company. I knew many people who traveled in those circles, and they enjoyed regaling those of us who weren’t members of those cliques relishing their wit and wisdom. On reflection, it wasn’t a good time for either Morris or Hannah. Neither published anything of matter those years; Barry began bottoming out with Ray, while Willie was churning out even worse froth in the form of Terrains of the Heart.
Unlike Morris, Hannah pulled out of it, wrote, and wrote well. He had to, and he did. Hannah is the finest Southern writer of his generation, eye, ear and voice. Oh, he was a bad boy to be sure; he had the witting arrogance to be vulgar when the situation presented itself and his snide insinuations peppered anything he wrote. Begrudge his digressions, but Hannah was a lyricist; he taught us to listen to ourselves.
It’s difficult for us now to imagine mayonnaise as exotic, but Welty remembers its advent in Jackson as an event.
Welty’s use of foods in her fiction brings two notable examples to my mind; the “green-tomato pickle” in Why I Live at the P.O. and the shrimp boil at Baba’s in No Place for You, My Love, not to mention the groaning boards in her Delta Wedding. But she also wrote the introductions for three Jackson cookbooks that I know of, Winifred Green Cheney’s Southern Hospitality (1976); The Country Gourmet (1982), put out by the Mississippi Animal Rescue League; and The Jackson Cookbook (1971), which was compiled by the Symphony League of Jackson. Mark Kurlansky, in his The Food of a Younger Land (2009), includes an essay of hers entitled “Mississippi Food” that Kurlansky claims was “a mimeographed pamphlet that she wrote for the Mississippi Advertising Commission and which they distributed.” Kurlansky doesn’t provide a date for the essay, but it was doubtless written in the 1930s.
More on that essay in a later post, but back to her introduction to The Jackson Cookbook, “The Flavor of Jackson”, which is a savory dish of Southern culinary exposition. The editor of a local publication once expressed surprise that Jackson had a culinary history “worth writing about”, but like every other editor in Jackson, she was unfamiliar with Welty’s work. Eudora’s essay is a finely-seasoned piece with a wonderful flavor all its own. Most of the city’s culinary history concerns home cooking, of course, since restaurants here were rather much a novelty until the mid-twentieth century, but Jackson’s storied hospitality has always featured a superb board. I’m including a part of the introduction here, specifically that section dealing with mayonnaise because it explains to a “t” just how exotic this now-prosaic kitchen item was then.
“As a child, I heard it said that two well-travelled bachelors of the town, Mr. Erskin Helm and Mr. Charles Pierce, who lived on Amite Street, had ‘brought mayonnaise to Jackson’. Well they might have though not in the literal way I pictured the event. Mayonnaise had a mystique. Little girls were initiated into it by being allowed to stand at the kitchen table and help make it, for making mayonnaise takes three hands. While the main two hands keep up the uninterrupted beat in the bowl, the smaller hand is allowed to slowly add the olive oil, drop-by-counted-drop. The solemn fact was that sometimes mayonnaise didn’t make. Only the sudden dash of the red pepper into the brimming, smooth-as-cream bowlful told you it was finished and a triumph. Of course you couldn’t buy mayonnaise and if you could, you wouldn’t. For the generation bringing my generation up, everything made in the kitchen started from scratch.”
Welty goes on to describe a typical Jackson kitchen in the twenties and thirties, and mentions a great many women who made significant contributions to the local cuisine. If you can find a copy of The Jackson Cookbook, buy it, read about Jackson’s culinary history from a master of her craft and cook the superlative recipes. No wrong could come from it at all.