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Gently Mad

Down South

Using the Alluvian Hotel in Greenwood as home base—the Tallahatchie and Yalobusha rivers meet here in the heart of cotton country to form the Yazoo River—we filled our days with visits to a remarkable variety of cultural landmarks, including some fabulous public libraries and sites associated with Southern authors, artists, and musicians, and feasted on a memorable succession of regional foods. In Yazoo City, 52 miles due south and known as the “Gateway to the Delta,” the focus was on a heritage that includes dozens of writers with strong local connections, most prominent among them the late novelist and nonfiction writer Willie Morris and the noted critic and editor Henry Herschel Brickell.

Fifty-five miles due west in Greenville, and hard on the banks of the Mississippi, we learned about local luminaries William Alexander Percy—for whom the public library there is named—Percy’s cousin Walker Percy, Walker Percy’s life-long friend Shelby Foote, as well as Hodding Carter Jr., Charles Bell, Ellen Douglas, Bern Keating, and David L. Cohn, a truly remarkable pantheon of writing talent whose output is represented in the special collections of the library; a bust of native son Jim Henson cuddling a figure of Kermit the Frog graces the downstairs reading room. A stop at the B.B. King Museum in Indianola, and a nice visit to McCormick Book Inn, Mississippi’s oldest independent bookstore, rounded out the day.

Our third day brought forth yet another whirlwind of stimulating activity, with lively enroute commentary from Luther P. Brown, director of the Delta Center for Culture and Learning. The day’s events included a program of gospel music by a group of local women in the Tutwiler Community Education Center, and an introduction to the exquisite quilts they make; this initiative was featured in 1990 on 60 Minutes. From there it was on to Clarksville, the home for a period of the playwright Tennessee Williams, and a productive round of events there.

Once relocated in Oxford for the conference, the beat went on; this year’s theme was centered around a tribute to local writer Barry Hannah, who died just a few days before the opening events. A succession of friends and writers, led by the bestselling author John Grisham, honored Hannah’s memory and his legacy. The bookstore of note in Oxford is Square Books, where I found a couple of items I was pleased to acquire and pack for the trip home.

With some free time to spare, Connie and I met up with good friends and fellow bibliophiles Carol Fitzgerald (Ole Miss, Class of 1964) and her husband Jean, and did a little literary touring of our own, beginning with a splendid visit to nearby Rowan Oak, the home of William Faulkner. We all decided that our next visit to Mississippi will have to include some time in Jackson, and a visit to the home of Eudora Welty. So many book places, it seems, so little time.

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Nicholas A. BasbanesNicholas A. Basbanes recently received a National Endowment for the Humanities fellowship to work on his book on paper, which is forthcoming from Knopf. His most recent book is Editions & Impressions, a collection of essays. His other works include the acclaimed A Gentle Madness, Every Book Its Reader, Patience & Fortitude, Among the Gently Mad, and A Splendor of Letters.