A Sense of Place
By Kevin Wierzbicki | Photography Credits: Author headshot by Ed Croom
W. Ralph Eubanks’ new book journeys through the literary landscape that produced so many talented writers.
A tamale joint in Vicksburg, the golden sand beaches of the Gulf Coast, a blues music experience in Clarksdale. For native Mississippians and visitors alike, these are a few of the things that might pop to mind when thinking about things that define Mississippi.
But there’s another Mississippi, so to speak: the one written about by famed authors like William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Richard Wright, and more recently, Jesmyn Ward. The works of these writers may broaden the reader’s mental image of Mississippi, maybe even to the extent of creating some interesting myths along the way.
The new book “A Place Like Mississippi” by W. Ralph Eubanks is a fascinating literary travelogue that visits both versions of the state. Eubanks, a native Mississippian, is the author of such books as “Ever Is a Long Time” and “The House at the End of the Road” and is currently visiting professor of English and Southern Studies at the University of Mississippi.
An example of how the new book functions is the chapter “A Tale of Two Jacksons.” Predominantly about writer Eudora Welty, Eubanks visits Welty’s old Jackson neighborhood and documents how Welty’s work, not just her fiction but also her photography, was very much informed by place. Eubanks cites Welty’s “A Worn Path,” featuring the memorable character Phoenix Jackson, as an example of how, as Welty herself said, “Place opens a door in the mind.”
As well-traveled as he is, Eubanks learned plenty about his home state as he did research for “A Place Like Mississippi.”
“There were numerous surprises along the way, the first being Jesmyn Ward’s attachment to the Gulf Coast,” says Eubanks. “Although I had read her essays about attachment to her hometown of Delisle I was not prepared for the way the sensory experience of place was a part of that attachment. I was also surprised to find that I had played near the (Jackson) home of Medgar Evers as a child ― the home where he was murdered ― which is also in the same neighborhood where writers Angie Thomas and Kiese Laymon had grown up. As I wrote in my book, ‘In the silence we create under central Mississippi skies, we also find how we are connected’.”
One location that appears numerous times in “A Place Like Mississippi” is not even in the state. A mere hop, skip, and jump away from Mississippi geographically, Eubanks finds that the city of Memphis cannot be separated from Mississippi’s “real and imagined literary landscape.”
“Memphis is one of Mississippi’s great cities, I often tell my friends,” the author says. “But it is also a liminal space in the American South, one that connects the North and South. It was a way station along the way for African Americans who traveled north during the Great Migration, including writer Richard Wright. Wright saw Memphis as ‘the first lap of my journey to the land where I could live with a little less fear.’
“Memphis is also the capital of the Mississippi Delta and a crossroads of the cotton trade. But most important, Memphis is a place of escape, an urban space where people from small towns in north Mississippi can escape into anonymity.”
Escape of another sort has definitely crossed the mind of many residents at the Mississippi State Penitentiary’s maximum-security prison at Parchman Farm in the Delta’s Sunflower County. Eubanks, on the other hand, was anxious to get in. He went there to teach and also see for himself this place of such renowned horror that many Mississippi authors of note have written about imaginatively. About his first visit to Parchman, Eubanks says, “Having the prison gates clang behind me is a sound I will never forget. There was something haunting to me in that sound, since I realized how many people hear that sound when they enter and never have the opportunity to leave.”
He adds, “I thought of all the people who went before me; it was quite humbling. But I also thought about the men who entered with some innate talent, perhaps writing, who could never find an artistic passion because they had to work those immense fields that surround Parchman. Some poured that into music, like Bukka White. But I am certain there were others who could have been writers, yet they never had the chance to nurture their talent.”
Since the publication of “A Place Like Mississippi” the state has changed its flag, removing the divisive Confederate battle flag and replacing it with the state flower, the magnolia. Eubanks says the new flag “presents an opportunity for Mississippi to build and promulgate a new cultural narrative, one rooted in truth rather than the deception about the past. The new narrative about Mississippi that I think we should be telling is how the state has produced so many writers. Defining and imagining that future is the challenge for Mississippi’s next generation of writers. I’m certain they’re up to the challenge.”