Back in the late 1960′s, before any of us really understood how decisively our literary and intellectual world would soon be breaking apart, Willie Morris came to be both my boss and my playmate.
Willie was a boy out of Mississippi by way of the University of Texas and Oxford University in England, where, like our current President, he had been a Rhodes scholar. When I first met him, he had only recently come from working on a small Texas magazine to the city he never ceased to call the “Big Cave,” where, virtually before he had set foot in the place, he found himself named the editor of Harper’s magazine.
This may have set some kind of record for career upward mobility—at least in those days—but it was not really surprising, for at the time a very large number of major editorships in New York, including the managing editorship of the New York Times, happened to be in the hands of Southerners. Nor did this seem to be a mere coincidence: it was as if the romance of defeat that had for so long pervaded the South’s local literary culture had all at once been transmuted into some kind of newly energized determination to soar.
Anyway, at the time of Willie’s ascension, I was holding down a very peculiar job in the company then known as Columbia Records. I was not having a bad time exactly, but I kept wondering what the people who were signing my paychecks actually had in mind for me to be doing. And just as my puzzlement was becoming seriously uncomfortable, Willie called and asked me to come work for him. It took me three seconds to say yes.
His hiring me, as I understood, was part of a general campaign to hang out an “Under New Management” sign at Harper’s as quickly as possible. Naturally, many of the old hands at the magazine were less than overjoyed at finding themselves under the authority of a man only slightly more than half their age and one, moreover, who could not quite conceal his disdain for their rather fusty literary tastes. One by one, with the very happy exception of Robert Kotlowitz, who had been and continued to be the managing editor, they retired.
In addition to me, Willie brought in two “contributing editors” who were in essence staff writers: a young Pulitzer-prize-winning journalist named David Halberstam, who had just quit the New York Times over some grievance, and a Texas buddy of Willie’s named Larry L. King, who would one day make himself rich and famous with a piece of journalism that would become the basis for both a Broadway show and a movie called The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. Somewhat later, the staff was joined by yet another refugee from the New York Times, John Corry; by virtue of his sense of life and his relation to the world around him, Cony, like me, was a premature neoconservative—a fact about himself it would take him a few more years to discover than it took me.
So there we were, Willie’s people, now including Bob Kotlowitz, whom we all came to love, and for a while anyway the good times were rolling for fair.
One aspect of the good times was the fact that, all in all, Willie was an author’s editor. Just about anyone who wrote well could seduce him, literarily speaking, and many who did not write that well but had some kind of ear for the music of language could at least get to first base. It would be right to say of Willie, as I think probably of no other editor then working in the Big Cave, that for him a beautiful sentence trumped the right attitude every time. He was a devotee of what, in the boyhood accent that had not been the least bit attenuated by his years in Texas and Oxford—and later New York—he spoke of as “fahn writin’.” And the point is, he really knew what that was.
So his magazine was on the whole a very comforting place for its contributors and hence an extremely cheery one for its editors. For the rest, there was a lot of hard work followed by fun and games, including the consumption of a good deal of alcohol, after-hours gossip, and much horsing around, Southern-style. Along with the telling of tales, some of them pretty tall and all of them funny, horsing around Southern-style seemed to entail the plotting of a whole variety of none too pleasant practical jokes, several of which were actually carried out. Thus, though he was a generous spirit, playing with Willie could sometimes be no fit recreation for the soft-hearted.
I have always thought that Willie’s particular romance with writing was a special inheritance from Mississippi. To be sure, in the early postwar years writers from all over the South had been involved in a literary explosion, whose effect was bound to be felt by any young literary would-be. But Mississippi had been the mother lode of William Faulkner, that most territorial of all the modern gods of literature, and to a boy born there with any ear for words and an eye for the life around him, Mississippi must have seemed more like a fate than a mere birthplace.
Whatever the reason for it, in Willie Morris’s Harper’s, writers as a class were courted, nourished, and given latitude, and the result was that the magazine quickly became known in the parlance of the trade as a “hot book.” To anyone unfamiliar with the world of magazines, such a designation might be thought to suggest financial success; but it rarely does, and in this Willie’s Harper’s was no exception. The reputation of a magazine depends, rather, on the buzz it creates in the literary-journalistic world, and a “hot book” is one to which already established writers are pleased to contribute and which by the same token has the power to confer success on the as-yet unknown. Repute in the magazine business is thus a kind of circular process, and Willie was then at its center, all awhirl, half pretending to be, and half being, a bedazzled country boy.
In addition to being “hot,” Harper’s happened also to be the oldest continuously published magazine in the country. Thus Willie was also able to feel—something clearly very important to him—that what he was doing was in some way of a piece with America. Indeed, he would often wax romantic about being part of American history. This was not hubris—quite the contrary—but it led to certain gestures that must have been a puzzle to those who did not know him well. I remember being with him once on a mission to Provincetown, Massachusetts, where we were to collect from Norman Mailer the manuscript of a book-length article that would ultimately be known as The Armies of the Night. We were going to be devoting an entire issue of the magazine to this piece about the 1968 anti-Vietnam-war march on Washington—it was published in Harper’s under the title, “The Steps of the Pentagon”—and to do so required our receiving the manuscript, as it were, straight from the typewriter.
Just before we left to return to New York, Mailer took us around Provincetown, which Willie had never seen. We drove out to the tip of Cape Cod, Mailer explaining how the Pilgrims had originally arrived here but felt it was too desolate and so sailed on to Plymouth. For years afterward, Willie did not stop talking about this moment, and he wrote about it as well: how a boy from Yazoo City, Mississippi, had been taken by a Jew from Brooklyn to see the spot where the Pilgrims had almost landed. O my America, my new-found land!
Willie’s preoccupation with his place in the larger scheme of things, then, contained a considerable taste for melodrama. But it was also very real to him. And like his romance with and about writing, the need to place himself in historic context seemed to me then, and seems even more to me now, a very Southern condition.
We Northerners are, after all, such a motley crew, and for us collectively there are so many American histories, each commencing at a different period, that “placing” ourselves in this way is an unfamiliar exercise; perhaps even the descendants of the Boston Brahmins no longer engage in it. But born-and-bred Southern men—at least the ones I have known—seem preoccupied with the American past to an inordinate degree, perhaps precisely because they still have not made their inner settlement with it. And since the time I am writing about was also the time when the South was being decisively shaken up by the civil-rights movement, the Southerners’ ambivalence must if anything have become even more intense. (I do not speak of Southern women. Women almost never exist in that kind of near-mystical relation to their birthplace.)
I have said Willie was my playmate; not mine alone, of course, because, in those days anyway, he was a man perpetually in need of company—preferably a gang, and preferably over beer. And that is how I got to know the people who have remained in my mind ever since as the “Southern Boys.” They were Willie’s old friends from here and there. A couple of them wrote for us. All of them visited our office whenever they came to town, which was fairly often, and they were also then involved in the after-work beer sessions at which Willie held court in a nearby Chinese restaurant. I think they continued to make Willie feel more at ease than he ever came to feel in literary New York, despite his years of importance and high connection in literary society there. And indeed, after some travail—travail being something at which Willie was not much good—he would all too soon leave Harper’s and then, after a while, up and leave the North altogether and return to Mississippi, where he has remained ever since.
It was easy to see why someone, especially a compatriot settled in the North like Willie, might come to depend on the society of the Southern Boys. They could be so relentlessly informal, so willfully without pretense, so insistently lacking in urbanity, that sometimes you might imagine they had just been sitting on the porch of a country store making fun of the city slickers driving by. What better company in which to grow a little sloppy on beer and contemplate life?
The role they played was all nonsense, of course; none of them was the “good ol’ boy” he pretended to be. Still, they seemed to find the pretense useful. For one thing, it helped mask a kind of lurking, peculiarly Southern, ill humor, the kind that could appear one moment as teasing comradeship and the next moment as menace. With the Southern Boys, the latter never led to actual violence, but violence could be threatened at the drop of a hat.
Speaking of beer, in my experience most drunks sooner or later become aggressive, if not aggressively hostile then aggressively boring or aggressively sentimental, and frequently a combination of the three. But the drunkenness of the Southern Boys was profoundly interesting to me, especially as the need to go home and feed my family protected me from having to witness too many scenes of their ever-pantomimed but nevertheless extremely convincing truculence. Aside from the fact that I truly relished their company, one of the reasons for my special interest was that hanging out with them taught me something of great value that I might otherwise have never had any way of knowing.
What they taught me to see was that the blacks who were my neighbors and near-neighbors on the Upper West Side of Manhattan were not in fact members of a separate and distinct culture, as in those years they themselves were coming ever more vociferously to claim. On the contrary, I now understood that most blacks in Northern cities were primarily still children of the South. They were Southerners who had taken an unremitting centuries’-long beating from their white compatriots, but they were Southerners nonetheless. Which, when you come to think about it, should hardly be surprising: culture is after all a very sticky substance.
Among the ways that many Northern blacks still evince the Southern influence I would include a certain much-remarked-upon carelessness among the men about responsibilities and obligations and promises; a certain ironclad sense of life among the women; a special responsiveness to a sheer cascade of words and sounds, whether from preacher or poet or “rap artist”; and a tendency to sudden-onset surliness that has about it nothing so much as the air of people quitting before they are fired.
I once experienced an extraordinary confirmation of the notion that Northern blacks and Southern whites are very often a case of deep calling unto deep. One evening Ralph Ellison, perhaps in his time the most distinguished of all black writers, was for some reason I cannot remember meeting with Willie and me in Willie’s apartment. Presumably we were trying to seduce him into writing something for the magazine. I had known Ralph, though not well, for a long time: he and I would frequently find ourselves at the same literary party and exchange distant hellos. In dress and bearing he was an extremely elegant man, and a rather prickly one, inclined to stiffen at things spoken in his hearing that somehow displeased him. Indeed, he managed to make it clear that much in this world was not up to his standard, and I once actually heard him declare, in answer to something said: “As for me, I happen to have values.”
And here was this persnickety man, standing in Willie’s living room, being transformed before my eyes by an unspoken exchange between him and the boy from Mississippi. His voice softened, the gestures of his face and hands softened, his very body seemed to turn pliant. He was actually . . . joshing. And Willie, too, was doing something I had never seen him do in the presence of an admired author: he was being kind. Ellison had grown up in Oklahoma, which is not, I know, Deep South; but Southern enough in its way. And I thought: though they are not friends and never could be—Willie certainly not being Ralph’s cup of tea—and though all three of us are members of the same literary community, these two have some connection with each other that neither could ever have with me.
As for Southern-style surliness—a quality of which even the distinguished Ralph Ellison was not always entirely free—my buddies could certainly not be said to have evinced any instinctual readiness for being fired. They had, after all, reached the higher levels of social and professional ambition. Moreover, as I have said, their mode of being surly seldom resulted in anything more than a momentary frisson of threatened violence. Nevertheless, it was as hair-triggered as any of the true violence that is perpetually ready to break out on the street corners of a New York or Chicago slum.
Defeat must be what does this to the tempers of men. And more than a hundred years later, not so deeply buried as to withstand even the mildest assaults of alcohol, what had happened to the South at the hands of Grant and Sherman would rise to the lips of these true sons of Dixie. “We had the best men in the field,” Willie late at night in his cups used to say over and over; “but our machines failed us.” One was, moreover, required by the dictates of etiquette to take it as merely a bit of humor when a Southern acquaintance responded to a mention of the Civil War with the reminder that that conflict was more accurately known as “the War of the Northern Aggression,” and one was required at the same time to acknowledge that this was at best not even half a joke.
Willie’s Harper’s, “hot” though it may have been, was, for reasons of his own, brought to an end by its owner in the early 70′s. Little by little, the old office gang was broken up. By today, of course, decades later, all those up-and-coming Southern Boys I used to have beer with have long since settled into whatever they were going to be. I have not seen them in years. But one thing about them on which I would be willing to bet something of large value is that all of them have remained men of the Left. They have been locked into that posture most of all by the imposition on them of a new kind of entanglement with America’s blacks.
All their lives, to be sure, the Boys had been deeply bound up in the fortunes of black people. But the same civil-rights revolution that liberated Southern blacks from the oppressive thrall of Southern white men seems in some sense to have had the opposite effect on a decisive group of their former tormentors. To put it simply, the battle for civil rights that took place in the South was a dangerous struggle for the right and the good in which a group of Southern blacks acted with genuine heroism and, with only a couple of highly notable exceptions, the Southern Boys did not. Could educated, intelligent young Southerners at the time actually not have known where their duty lay? Of course they knew, but the combination of guilt and contempt they must all their lives have felt toward blacks no doubt made it impossible for them to participate outright in the action.
How they did ultimately respond to the death of Jim Crow was given expression in two separate ways, and unfortunately both turned out to be deeply influential. First, they staked their personal claim to decency by reminding us how much worse they could have been expected to be. Take the case of Tom Wicker, the former New York Times columnist and Southern liberal par excellence. In A Time To Die (1975), a memoir of his experience as a journalist during the famous riot at Attica prison in upstate New York in 1971, Wicker mused: “In 1946 [I] had made the great discovery that blacks were as human and individual as anyone. It was not much to learn, yet it was more than some people learn in a lifetime.”
What Wicker was really saying here was that, given where and how he grew up, to have discovered that Negroes were human made him a better man than those who had never doubted the proposition in the first place. Whether or not, in the dark night of his own soul, Wicker really got away with this piece of moral grandstanding, his notion of a special virtue attaching to the Southern liberal was accepted with enthusiasm, and taken up in a variety of ways, by a whole host of his fellow Southerners.
The second response of the Southern Boys to the disruption of their old social habits was contained in a formulation that, despite being quite untrue, again turned out to be not only psychically soothing to them but fateful for everyone else. What they commenced to declare in the mid-1960′s was that the experience of black people in the North was, in its own way, far worse than the experience of black people in the South. This claim, ridden for all it was worth, helped to create a whole new agenda for Northern civil-rights activists who had long been fighting the good fight in the courts—something it was, after all, possible to do in the bad old North—but had missed out on the defining experience of heroism that had been vouchsafed their Southern counterparts.
Thus was born the idea of de-facto segregation, now declared to be far more difficult to overcome than the de-jure segregation of Jim Crow. In the South, it was argued, blacks had always lived cheek-by-jowl with white folks, while in Northern cities they had been forced to remain isolated in ghettos, as poor as ever but faceless into the bargain. Moreover, simple legislation in the South was bringing about desegregation more rapidly than might have been imagined, while Northern blacks, already more segregated to begin with, were likely to remain so forever. Racism that was endemic, it was asserted, would prove to be far more difficult to root out than racism imposed by law.1
Whatever relief this falsehood about the relatively more intractable racism of the North brought to the consciences of Southerners, it had a positively devastating influence on the course of Northern black activism. In particular, the thought that they suffered just as great a disadvantage as the sharecropping cousins they had left behind in the cotton fields and shanty towns of the South served psychologically to relieve Northern blacks of the need to shoulder responsibility for the improvement of their own social and economic condition. Thus, instead of fighting to reform the schools in which their children might acquire the skills to move upward and outward, they identified the problem of the schools as one of de-facto segregation, demanding first the racial integration of each and every classroom and, when that proved impossible to achieve, a revision of the curriculum to make it user-friendly to black children.
The result of the first of these demands was that school system after school system was distracted from the problems of pedagogy by the great national row over busing. The result of the second, which issued in the teaching of such things as black English, black “social studies,” and so on, was that the hopes of whole generations of black children were sacrificed to the grievances of their elders. As for “black power,” still another expression of the preoccupation with Northern racism, this meant, and still means, its exact opposite: not the pursuit of real power but a device for extracting hand-outs. The combined consequence of these misbegotten initiatives has been to add not to the sum of racial justice in American society but to the spread of an unearned cynicism on the part of the presumed beneficiaries and of an unearned sense of virtue on the part of their liberal “benefactors.”
My old buddies, men of the Left though they were, would have had to be superhuman not to have regarded this unfolding drama with a shiver of satisfaction. Not that they would have wished to see blacks in trouble, or behaving self-destructively. But by means of a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, North and South had now been placed, racially speaking, on an equal footing. Once, a couple of the Southern Boys and I were riding in a taxi, and for the entire trip the cabbie, an Italian well on in years, inveighed most uninhibitedly against both the driving habits and the general demeanor and style of life of “Nee-groes.” As we were leaving, one of my companions read him a stern lecture about what it was like to listen to such disgusting talk But as we walked away he turned to us and said, in mock soul-weariness, “Oh, how I despise an amateur bigot.”
It was a joke, and we all laughed. But, considering the record of subsequent racial unpleasantness in the North, I have often thought of how pleasing it must have been to my friend’s liberal soul to be able to declare himself, over and over again, the righteous enemy of all that amateur bigotry.
The South, it goes without saying, is no longer the Old South of Willie’s and his friends’ boyhood experience. Now it is even being advertised as nothing less than the American future. Clearly there has been a huge demographic shift in a southerly direction, brought about primarily by the growing population of retirees who seek the sun and have the means to find it, not to mention the transfer of many Northern industries to a region where there is still a supply of lowerage, nonunion labor. These movements have meant new business and banking and foreign trade, which have in turn augmented the population still more. Obviously, a serious increase in population means, as well, a serious shift in the regional balance of political power.
A couple of years ago, Peter Applebome, who began reporting on the South in the 1970′s and has for some time been the New York Times man in Atlanta, wrote a book called Dixie Rising. It is a city-by-city, state-by-state account of “how,” in the words of its subtitle, “the South is shaping American values, politics, and culture.” Applebome clearly loves the place, every inch of it, though (as he himself says) his 21 years as a sojourner have hardly counted to make him one of its true sons. The reporting in Dixie Rising is both vivid and interesting, and if the author’s evidence for a Southern takeover of our national culture and politics seems less than convincing, that is not due to any lack of journalistic energy on his part. It is just hard to get over the sense that, except for some of the comforts of its climate, what Peter Applebome touts as new and rising in the new and rising South is little different from what he might find old and declining in the old and declining North.
Take the allegedly great new spread of Southern cultural influence. That influence can hardly be called new. On the contrary, the very elements that have so rapidly shifted economic and political power to the South are likely to weaken that cultural influence, leading precisely to the kind of homogenization that has already taken over the rest of the country. Industrialization and immigration do not, after all, encourage the kind of rootedness-in-place that accounts for the enduring special appeal of Southern literature. And as for country music, prominent among Applebome’s examples of the spread of Southern taste throughout the country at large, here, too, a comparison of any of today’s performances with those of the past must surely lead to the conclusion that the influence has all been in the opposite direction—toward, that is, a dilution of the Southernness of country music by the importation into it of the universalizing influence of rock.
The point is that in Dixie Rising Peter Applebome does not come clean. The explicit message of his book is that the South is now the up-and-coming America. Maybe that is so, though with the kind of technological onrush through which we are nowadays consigned to live, up-and-coming is a dime a dozen. But the real presence lurking beneath Applebome’s reporting is not so much the new South as a kind of Tom Wickerish version of the old—that is, a place given to a certain smugness about its reclaimed humanity.
I do not mean to belittle what the children of the Old South have been doing in recent years to undo the shame of their past. It cannot be easy, for in some cases the process of exposure and purgation may turn out to involve those near and dear—relatives, neighbors, colleagues. Just this past March, for example, Mississippi unsealed more than 124,000 pages of secret files belonging to an erstwhile state agency called the Sovereignty Commission. This agency had been given the job of preventing the success of the civil-rights movement, a task it carried out by means of such tactics as spying, intimidation, false imprisonment, and jury tampering. Among the files were to be found discussions of the possible use of violence, and though this particular discussion may never have been carried beyond the hypothetical by the Sovereignty Commission itself, certainly there was a great deal of violence, up to and including murder, and it could hardly be said that any agency of the state worked to put a stop to it. Mississippians, of course, knew all along about what was going on in their state, but now there are 124,000 pages of hard evidence for the world to lay its hands on.
At the time, the killing of the young activists Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, and James Chaney made the loudest of the nationwide noises about the state of play in Mississippi. But as far as real and lasting damage to the civil-rights movement is concerned, nothing was in the league of the 1964 assassination of Medgar Evers, chairman of the Mississippi NAACP. Evers, the most intelligent and, it has been said, noblest of the Southern leaders, was shot in the back as he stood in the driveway of his home in Jackson. His death was especially fateful because it was after he went down that the movement he served became radicalized and, in doing so, lost its sense of who its real friends and enemies were and what in the long run would actually best conduce to the welfare of its constituency.2
Twice, Evers’s assassin, Byron De La Beckwith, was brought to trial, and twice, with the help of the Klan and, it now turns out, the Sovereignty Commission, he escaped with a hung jury. Then, in 1994, Bobby DeLaughter, an assistant district attorney, tried the aging De La Beckwith one more time. And this time he was found guilty.
Which brings me back to Willie Morris. When Willie left the environs of the Big Cave, he went to live in Oxford, home of Ole Miss, where he had been invited to play the role of writer-in-residence. Now he lives in Jackson, where he happens to have been born and where as a little boy he had spent many summer idylls with his grandmother and grandfather, who worked in a potato-chip factory. In 1994 he watched the last, finally successful, trial of De La Beckwith, made the acquaintance of Bobby DeLaughter, and decided that the combined story of Evers, De La Beckwith, and DeLaughter would make a terrific movie. As he tells it in his new book, The Ghosts of Medgar Evers,3 he urged his old friend, the producer Fred Zollo, to make the movie, and Zollo in turn persuaded Rob Reiner to direct it.
At one point in The Ghosts of Medgar Evers, Willie quotes Faulkner to the effect that if you want to understand the world, first you have to understand Mississippi. Perhaps on the strength of that idea, or perhaps because the notion of a movie had originally been his, Willie was made an official adviser to the project. In addition to giving Reiner & Co. a special—and, if I remember my Willie, unsparingly romantic—tour of the Delta, he seems to have helped with finding locations and perhaps, though he does not mention it, with advice about how not to step on certain Mississippi toes. (Not surprisingly, as he tells it, some Mississippi authorities were not too happy about the prospect of having Evers’s murder dredged up by Hollywood, especially after the bruising the place had taken in Mississippi Burning, the 1988 movie about the murder of Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney.) But to judge by his own account, what Willie was mainly doing was hanging around in the way that had once given me so many hours of amusement, namely, as a companion, a teller of tales, and an organizer of practical jokes—in this case, it seems, mostly having to do with snakes.
The movie (screenplay by Lewis Collick) stars Alec Baldwin as DeLaughter, James Woods as De La Beckwith, and, in a rather odd and no doubt box-office-driven bit of casting, Whoopi Goldberg as Evers’s widow Myrlie. When it was released, Ghosts of Mississippi, as it was called, was very badly received, and disappeared before I got around to seeing it. But the fate of the movie is anyway not of primary importance to Willie’s real story. He obviously kept a day-by-day diary of the shooting (for which Reiner had been given, or perhaps had given himself, a deadline of 61 days), and he provides portraits of the three stars as well as a considerably detailed and characteristically sentimental account of how the director and the members of the technical staff went about their respective business. If you know Willie, all of this is interesting, but if you do not, it might well fall into the category of “Who cares?”
Finally, however, the book’s most affecting presence is its ghost. Which is not Medgar Evers, not by a long shot: Willie did not know him, nor is he haunted by him. Moreover, Evers does not really figure in the movie, which is primarily the story of the conflict between an assistant district attorney and a long-protected murderer whom he at last brings to justice. Willie tells us that Myrlie Evers, who after some reluctance had agreed to cooperate with Rob Reiner, was in the end displeased by the movie, and it is not hard to figure out why, if what she had hoped for was some kind of tribute to her dead husband. Even in The Ghosts of Medgar Evers, the role played by Evers is the same role played by the Pilgrims in Willie’s account of our drive around Provincetown: a foil for his desire to find himself engaged in some profoundly moving relation to a piece of history.
No, the real ghost in the book is that damnable Old kudzu-covered South, which declines any longer to defend itself and yet will not go away and cease to be an embarrassment to its loving sons. There is, for example, much old-style mystical talk in the book about Mississippi, its extraordinary riches and poverty, its beauty and its tragedy, its “brooding sadness” and its “physical power”—the kind of rhetoric a certain Yankee wag of my acquaintance used to call “Faulkner and water.”
Such talk is as indispensable a part of the sensibility of Willie Morris as the English language itself. Yet he is at the same time constantly driven by a need to express his racial enlightenment. Thus, offering a by-the-way observation concerning Spike Lee’s movie about Malcolm X, he must refer to Lee as “my fellow Southerner” and suggest that Lee’s difficulties in getting funding had to do with Hollywood’s prejudice against blacks. Evidently, Willie has not been to many movies lately, or paid much attention to the professional fortunes of this particular fellow Southerner.
In aid of his predictable Southern Boy’s claim that race relations are better in the South than in the North, Willie also seems to take satisfaction in mentioning the names of Rodney King and O.J. Simpson in the same sentence, as if the two cases had anything in common or said anything about North versus South—and also as if both of these gentlemen were not nowadays pursuing their accustomed entertainments in Los Angeles. It could of course be said that O. J. Simpson’s freedom is the result of racism—but hardly of the kind intended by this loyal son of Mississippi.
Willie Morris is, after all, a decent man, and there is no reason to doubt the sincerity of his feelings of friendship for blacks, or the validity of his belief that the South is not the place it once was. For of course it is not the place it once was. But the idea—an idea expressed more than once in Willie’s book—that the North is more racist than the South is not only untrue, it has proved a very rickety political and cultural crutch for all too many black leaders and perhaps an even more rickety one for my former good buddies.
In the case of black leaders, this idea has served as an alibi for their own failure to work at remoralizing those downcast members of their community whose very lives have been given in forfeit to the deadly game of victimhood. Meanwhile, for Willie and his old gang, accusing the North of a greater criminality than the South’s has made it possible for them to shift at virtually a moment’s notice from looking down on blacks to not seeing them at all. For it is no less dismissive of someone’s humanity to offer him blanket sympathy regardless of who he most particularly is, and what he might most particularly have done, than it is to oppress him for the color of his skin. The god they always refer to as “Mr.” Faulkner, if he were able, would surely tell Willie, and Tom Wicker, and Peter Applebome, and all the other liberal members of my old gang of Southern Boys that to lose sight of the particular—whether North, South, East, West, black, white, guilty, innocent, or in-between—is to fail both oneself and the truth needed for serious literature and serious morality at once.
It may take another generation until American blacks learn to dispense with all the blind and uncaring sympathy that liberals have used to cosset and at the same time ignore them. It will probably take easily as long for the Old South to become the truly New. There is no question that in some ways this development will entail a loss; but it is a loss the United States would immeasurably benefit from sustaining. As for Willie, my loving editor and terrific playmate, some long-ago childhood part of me has always wished that I had not had to move away from him and his Boys. Nobody I have ever known was randier for the heady pleasures of a beautiful sentence and a hot sentiment. These are admittedly mere baubles, but oh what fun it was to wallow in that old Southern swamp when one wanted to play hooky from a complicated and demanding world.
1 There is no question that, at the time, blacks in Northern cities lived almost entirely segregated lives. This was, however, as much a result of economics as of bigotry—and, in New York City, of a now-forgotten irony. New York's postwar public housing was originally meant to be racially integrated; but blacks objected on the ground that they were more entitled than whites to this public benefit. The municipal housing authority was also originally required to keep its buildings free of people with criminal records, but that, too, was objected to as a form of racial injustice. Hence New York public housing has long been not only segregated but unsafe.
2 Nowadays people have forgotten that when Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, the young radicals had already largely repudiated him. They were prepared to encourage riots as a memorial to him, but were—fatefully—no longer under his intellectual influence.
3 Random House, 288 pp., $23.00.