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The Ellen Payne Odom Genealogy Library Family Tree
The Family Tree - December/January 2006
The American South: Mississippi’s Willie Morris

By Hank Segars

One of our region’s most talented and unsung writers has to be Willie Morris (1934-1999), a native of Yazoo City, Mississippi, who became the youngest editor of Harper’s Magazine in 1967. Today, Morris is perhaps best known for his ability to convey deep, innermost feelings about what it means to be a southerner living outside the South.

A Phi Beta Kappan at the University of Texas and a Rhode Scholar at Oxford, England, Willie Morris wrote both fiction and nonfiction with heartfelt emotion. His literary works are memorable and includes such diverse titles as North Toward Home, The Last of the Southern Girls, and The South Today: 100 Years After Appomattox. The autobiographical My Dog Skip was released as a major motion picture in 2000 and recalls the authentic South for those of us who have bittersweet memories of country folk, rural living and, of all things . . . family pets.  

In 1980, the author moved from New York City to his beloved homeland to become writer-in-residence at the University of Mississippi. During this time he continued to produce extraordinary prose and released a number of bestsellers to include The Courting of Marcus Dupree, My Two Oxfords, and Terrains of the Heart and Other Essays on Home.

Willie Morris, an outspoken advocate of the downtrodden, passed away in 1999 at the age of sixty-four. Ironically, he remains as the only author to lie in state in the Rotunda of the Old Capitol in Jackson, Mississippi and his well-chosen words continue to haunt us—especially when he says things like:

I passionately believe that there is an ineluctable continuity to Southern experience that still exits; I see it everywhere. It is a matter of the stories passed along, of the music and the speech, of knowing who lives in such-and-such house and who lived there before, and where the wisteria grows best and the robin eats her first crocus.” (From one of Morris’s finest articles entitled “Is There a South Anymore?”)

My first (and favorite) encounter with Willie Morris was the discovery of a coffee-table sized book tagged with an intriguing title: A Southern Album: Recollections of Some People and Places and Times Gone By. This volume of exquisite photographs was first published in 1975 by Oxmoor House of Birmingham, Alabama with Irwin Glusker serving as editor and the irrepressible Morris as writer of the narrative. The pictures (as we say down heah-ah) are nothing short of startling graphics, in both black and white and color. The photographs are southerners in their natural habitat with captions like “Wedding group,” “River baptism,” “Four generations of a Louisville family,” and “Olympia Brass Marching Band, New Orleans.” 

A Southern Album contains memorable scenes of clapboard churches, cotton fields, country roads, tenant farmers, and smiling children. Scattered throughout are historical imprints of notable personalities to include Sam Ervin, Will Rogers, Clarence Darrow, Huey Long, Lyndon Johnson, and Tallulah Bankhead. And there are pictures with Georgia connections: “Ty Cobb stealing third base,” “Bobby Jones on the first fairway at Pebble Beach,” “Franklin Roosevelt fishing at Warm Springs,” “Wagon wheels in Madison,” “Caretakers among the Union tombstones at Andersonville,” and “The Apalachee River.”

Like a lost treasure, this brilliant collection of images is no longer in print. Nevertheless, copies of A Southern Album can still be found in local libraries, at antiquarian book stores, and on the web pages of major booksellers (for example, see the Barnes and Nobles web site for their “used books” page). Locating your own copy will be a view of the unvarnished South and an introduction to one of Mississippi’s—and America’s—greatest writers, Willie Morris.   

J. H. (Hank) Segars is the editor of Andersonville: The Southern Perspective (Pelican Publishing Co.)  E-mail: and for more books about the American South, please see

Return to December/January 2006 index page


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