[percy-l] Mississippi Literacy and the Walker Percy Festival - Peter Augustine Lawler

Henry Mills wppdirector at gmail.com
Thu Jun 11 08:28:49 EDT 2015

Dear Percy-L:

I've posted the full text of this blog by Peter Lawler here because the 
blog page contains more than its share of other articles slowing the 
download speed of the page.  Lawler is co-editor of "A Political 
Companion to Walker Percy (Political Companions to Great American 
Authors)," The University Press of Kentucky (2013).

With any good fortune, in days coming other reports on last weekend's 
Walker Percy Festival will surface (this one seems to be a "wind up").  
All Percy-L community members are invited to share any they may find.

The original post of the below blog is located at: 

Henry Mills
Percy-L Administrator

*Postmodern Conservative: Reflections on Politics, Culture, and Education*
"Mississippi Literacy and the Walker Percy Festival"
Peter Augustine Lawler
June 10, 2015 1:47 PM

So I’m sitting in a motel in Tuscaloosa, Ala., with my wife, Rita, on 
the way home from St. Francisville, La., and the Walker Percy festival.

One thing I’ve done is dramatically increase my Mississippi literacy. We 
spent one night in Meridian, which turns out to be an architectural 
marvel. Why? Sherman helpfully burned the town to the ground in the 
so-called Battle of Meridian, which really wasn’t a battle because there 
were no Confederate troops present. Sherman thought Meridian had been 
wiped off the map forever, but the locals got the railroad going in just 
29 days. Meridian was the largest city in Mississippi from 1890 to 1930, 
as a railroad and industrial center. So plenty of citizens had lots of 
money and lots of class, and they hired the nation’s leading architects 
(during the golden age of distinctively American architecture) to build 
their homes. After decades of decline, Meridian seems to be on a slight 
upswing now, and there’s the will and some real money available to 
return the downtown to some of its former glory.

Today, Meridian is also distinguished by huge, almost palatial, versions 
of chain motels on the interstate — in some ways worthy successors of 
the beautiful hotels that used to grace downtown (including just about 
the only hotel available to black travelers in the South) near the train 
station. We stayed at a Drury with nine floors, which was plenty nice. 
The Drury should be the choice of anyone traveling with kids. It has a 
complimentary happy hour with a buffet full of food kids love — such as 
hot dogs and mac-n-cheese — and, for all practical purposes, unlimited 
mixed drinks for parents.

We also stopped in Jackson to visit the home of Eudora Welty. It turns 
out to be intact and organized as a thoroughly instructive introduction 
to the life of the great writer. Miss Welty grew up and spent almost all 
of her life here. She was exceedingly well raised (as were her siblings) 
by middle-class, highly functional parents. She wasn’t obviously plagued 
by the high-octane existential issues (related to being personally 
wounded) on display in the work of Percy, O’Connor, and Faulkner. She 
excelled in her uncannily attentive descriptions of the ways of living — 
beginning, of course, with the manner of speaking — that surrounded her 
in her place. But she was also a highly sophisticated writer completely 
connected with the best writers and currents of thought of her (and 
other) times. I don’t know enough to be able to say whether she’s the 
best Southern writer, but she might be. She said she was always about 
the particular, never the general. Although all Southern writers seem to 
say something like that, she’s the one who might have stayed most 
perfectly in character in accessing the general through the particular 
and in showing, not telling, the truth about who each of us is. Miss 
Welty also said something like small-town Southerners love to dramatize 
the details of daily life. Let’s say that Southerners are particularly 
adept at doing that.

At St. Francisville (which I will talk about soon), someone said that 
Mississippi is the best and worst of states. Someone could add, of 
course, that the South is the best and worst part of our country.

Someone could say that the best of Mississippi is displayed in the 
writing of Welty, Faulkner, and William Alexander Percy (of Greenville 
and responsible for the outstanding public schools that educated Walker 
Percy and Shelby Foote) — as part of a long list of writers, white and 
black. But you also find it in the music memorialized all along the 
blues trail that meanders across Mississippi. In general, small 
Mississippi towns arouse nostalgia for ways of life no longer present. 
Things are much better, of course, when it comes to black participation 
in political life and the administration of justice. But it’s hard to 
say that things are good for blacks who have no access to decent jobs 
and, in some places, the public schools all to themselves.

Is Mississippi still better in some ways? You have to look to the 
persisting manners and morals and general interpersonal gentleness and 
savvy. And you might add the abiding presence of the living God of the 
Bible. Mississippi is somewhere between Christ-centered and 
Christ-haunted, and there’s not much evidence that it’s on the way to 
becoming more post-Christian. You also have to say something about the 
upsides of the honor, violence, and patriotism of democratized Southern 

Still, all in all, things continue to get worse in rural Mississippi, 
even as the cities of the South (such as Jackson) have become the most 
livable parts of our country. Things continue to get worse in rural 
America, as most of the “mental labor” has traveled elsewhere.

There’s a lot more to say about Mississippi. I will conclude with a word 
about the festival in St. Francisville. It was, in part, a homecoming 
for me, as about half of the hundreds of people there this year were 
repeat attenders. Whole families — from little kids through grandparents 
— show up. There aren’t many professors, but lots of doctors and lawyers 
and various other professionals. They’re just about all there because 
they read Percy, O’Connor, Welty, and all kinds of contemporary writers 
(such as David Foster Wallace). Going to hang out with other readers is 
their idea of a fine time. More soon.

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