[percy-l] Mississippi Literacy and the Walker Percy Festival - Peter Augustine Lawler
wppdirector at gmail.com
Thu Jun 11 08:28:49 EDT 2015
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:
*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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