50 States in 50 Days: Mississippi & the Great American Story

Posted by: Eric A. Johnson, Public Affairs Officer

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Pier At Sunrise

Americans – especially those in literary and academic circles – often go in search of the “Great American Novel.” Some eventually make the case for Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, or some other beloved American masterwork and stop there. As for me, I’ve always thought that almost everyone tends to go looking in the wrong time and place. The Great American Novel is actually the Great American Story. And it was written by native Mississippian and Nobel Prize winning author William Faulkner. What makes his Great American Novel a little more difficult to find is that he parceled out his story across fourteen novels and a handful of shorter works devoted to the imaginary Mississippi district known as Yoknapatawpha County.

Map of Yoknapatawpha County, drawn by William Faulkner

If you doubt that rural Mississippi – located along the eastern banks of the Mighty Mississippi River itself – is a land of imagination, then just think about how many other great American writers called the state their home: Pulitzer prize winning novelist Eudora Welty, Pulitzer prize winning playwright Tennessee Williams, and ground-breaking African-American writer Richard Wright to name only a few. And while the Mississippi River has earned the affectionate nickname of the Big Muddy due to the color of its water, Mississippi’s words have always flowed clear.

I’ve crisscrossed the state of Mississippi many times on my motorcycle, by train, and even in more mundane automobiles in my quest for that elusive font of Mississippi prose. Armed with Faulkner’s map of Yoknapatawpha County from his masterpiece Absalom, Absalom! (if you’ve never read any Faulkner before you should probably start somewhere else like Go Down, Moses instead), I travelled all around Lafayette County as I tried to trace the boundary between the imagined and the real. Although I always failed to find that line, I got to see a lot of the state along the way.

William Faulkner

For me, every proper journey to Mississippi begins with a visit to Faulkner’s wonderful house in the town of Oxford. Home to the University of Mississippi (affectionately known as “Ole Miss”), Oxford is such a great place that it’s no wonder that Faulkner made it his home although he never finished college himself. After spending some time in Oxford, I travel to Eudora Welty’s home, the state capital of Jackson, to visit some of my college friends. Although it is the largest city in the state, Jackson’s population is still under 175,000 as most of Mississippi’s three million inhabitants live scattered across the state in small towns. It’s no wonder that the imagination of home grown writers like Tennessee Williams tended to wander both up the Great River (the original meaning of the word “Mississippi” in the Ojibwe Indian dialect) to Memphis, Tennessee or down the Great River to New Orleans, Louisiana. But before I go back to the River, I always try to pay a visit to the bustling coastal cities of Gulfport and Biloxi along the Gulf of Mexico.

And while I must confess that I look at Mississippi first and foremost as the home of America’s greatest writers, Mississippi prides itself most of all for being the “Birthplace of America’s Music” – and this is not just because Elvis Presley, the King of Rock-n-Roll, was born in Tupelo. Mississippi is the home of the blues and rhythm & blues, in addition to rock-n-roll which evolved from it. Blues founders and masters Charlie Patton, Robert Johnson, Mississippi John Hurt, Howlin’ Wolf, B.B. King, Muddy Waters, and Bo Diddley – all of them hail from Mississippi. The state also gave birth to country music pioneer Jimmie Rodgers who was later followed by fellow Mississippians Conway Twitty, Charlie Pride, Tammy Wynette, LeAnn Rimes, and Faith Hill (most of whom migrated northwards towards that other musical mecca of Nashville, Tennessee). Hey, even Britney Spears was born in the town of McComb! So clearly there has to be a special kind of magic in the very word – in the magical incantation – known as “Mississippi.” After all, every American kid grows up playing hide-seek and counting off his or her Mississippis – “one Mississippi, two Mississippis, three Mississippis, …” — to mark the passing of each second.

And if you prefer films to music, I could always point out that three of American’s greatest African-American actors come from Mississippi: James Earl Jones, Morgan Freeman, and Oprah Winfrey – who, of course, went on to become America’s number one talk show host, America’s first African-American billionaire, and the mother of Oprah’s Book Club which is designed to promote the next Great American Novel. This, of course, only brings me right back to where I started with William Faulkner.

The reason why Faulkner’s novels of Yoknapatawpha County are the Great American Story is because the tales of this small imaginary county encapsulates the Story of America. As someone who has spent half of his life living inside America and half of it outside, I’ve always thought that one of the things which makes the United States of America unique is that it is the one country in the world which lives in its future rather than in its past or present. And as someone whose paternal ancestors fought for the North and whose maternal ancestors fought for the South during the U.S. Civil War, I’ve always found myself caught somewhere between Winston Churchill’s “history is written by the victors” and Aeschylus’ observation that “knowledge comes through suffering” – in other words, from loss.

As a Mississippian – and as a Southerner born into a regional American culture which had experienced defeat and was still caught in its past – Faulkner was able to understand America as no one had ever done so before him. In his story of Yoknapatawpha County, Faulkner realized that the American Dream of our Founding Fathers was built upon two “original sins:” the stripping of life and land from America’s native population and the enslavement of African-Americans (the only Americans who didn’t come to America by choice). For it is only when we can acknowledge and then overcome our two inherited “sins” that we can hope to create the “more perfect union” described by our Founding Fathers in the preamble to the U.S. Constitution. And it is Faulkner who provides us with the roadmap for making the imagined become real.

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