A Sweet, Fertile Soil for the Growth of Writers
"My country is the Mississippi Delta, the river country. It lies flat, like a badly drawn half oval, with Memphis at its northern and Vicksburg at its southern tip. Its western boundary is the Mississippi River, which coils and returns on itself in great loops and crescents ... every few years it rises like a monster from its bed and pushes over its banks to vex and sweeten the land it has made. For our soil, very dark brown, creamy and sweet-smelling, without substrata of rock or shale, was built up slowly, century after century, by the sediment gathered by the river in its solemn task of cleansing the continent ..."--from Lanterns on the Levee, by William Alexander Percy, 1941.
There is something about Greenville that produces writers. Mr. Percy's younger cousin Walker, whom he raised after Walker's mother died, is a novelist whose books include The Moviegoer and The Last Gentleman. Shelby Foote, also a product of Greenville's schools, is a novelist and historian who wrote a classic three-volume history of the Civil War.
And the city is perhaps best known as the home of Hodding Carter, the crusading journalist who founded The Delta Democrat-Times, the newspaper in which he wrote the series of editorials--many of them calling for racial tolerance--that won him a Pulitzer Prize in 1946.
As different as these writers are, they were all shaped in part by the Delta. They and many others have written about it, usually with the same sense of reverence and mystery as the elder Mr. Percy.
What distinguishes the Delta for these writers goes beyond terrain and lifestyle and ambience. It includes the curious contradictions of character--built up, like the Delta itself, over time--that have often made the region's fierce loyalties and social compacts enigmatic to outsiders.
Walker Percy tells, for example, that his cousin, at one point in his varied life, lived briefly on the beach at Bora Bora, and that, though he sometimes dreamed of returning there, he stayed in Greenville and tried to run his plantation "according to the Golden Rule." William Alexander Percy, though once touched by wanderlust, believed it a worthy calling for a man to stay in his home town and do what he could for the community.
The elder Mr. Percy's friend, David L. Cohn, a Greenvillian who went north to write, also found the lure of the Delta hard to escape entirely. Mr. Cohn, who served 50 years ago as The Atlantic Monthly's "cabinet member for the South," wrote what is perhaps the most famous single sentence about the region. In one of two books about the Delta, published together in 1948 under the title Where I Was Born and Raised, he declared
that "The Mississippi Delta begins in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel in Memphis and ends on Catfish Row in Vicksburg."
To rediscover "this familiar-unfamiliar land" was something of a lifelong enterprise for Mr. Cohn. In his collections of journalistic essays, he described the Delta and its people as a region at once violent and tragic, beautiful and proud, and altogether contradictory.
'The One Indispensable Fact'
The first white settlers in the Delta--"pioneers with means" Mr. Cohn called them--arrived in 1825 and created an economy based on huge plantations run by the labor of large numbers of slaves. This system, which failed to take root in the less fertile "Hill Country" of central and east Mississippi, led to what he called "the one fact indispensable to an understanding of this society": the preponderance of blacks in the Delta population. "Here live 293,000 Negroes and 98,000 whites."
Mr. Cohn wrote of the strong friendships and emotional bonds that developed between many whites and blacks in the midst of a totally segregated and often oppressive Delta environment. Of the strict legal ban on sexual intermingling between the races and the "miscegenation" that was a common practice among white Delta men. Of murder and rape and lynching. Of "hoodoo" and "the conjure man" coexisting with organized religion and charismatic black preachers. Of the primitive cabins of sharecroppers and the fine homes of cotton planters. And of characters in scenes like this one, which he observed one evening on a Delta plantation:
"Suddenly a wagon rumbles up out of the darkness, dripping water. The driver jumps down from his seat, lights two or three lanterns, and in a loud sing-song voice cries his wares:
'I got yellow cat and the white cat,
Got everything but the tom cat,
And he's on the inside.
If you believe I'm lying
Buy one and try him.
Take him home,
And then you fry him.'
Of course, the Delta Mr. Cohn described is part of a South that no longer exists. Today, you could wait a long time on a Greenville street for "the catfish man" to roll by. People still catch them on their own, but catfish in modern-day Mississippi are big business--they're a crop, grown on a massive commercial scale in man-made ponds.
Today, someone traveling to Vicksburg in search of catfish would as likely as not be sent to The Cock of the Walk, a gimmicky theme restaurant where the waiters dress like Mike Fink. And in many towns, including Greenville, fast-food marketers are experimenting with "catfish nuggets."
Like most American towns its size, today's Greenville has been homogenized--it has its strip of fast-food franchises, discount stores, and muffler shops, its flashing "port-a-signs," and a Ramada Inn lounge with a band playing "nitely."
Still, there are reminders, small and large--from accents to food to geography--that Greenville is not just anyplace. One of them is the town's most famous restaurant, Doe's Eat Place. Said to be "a favorite of Liza Minelli's," Doe's is a decaying structure where customers sit near or in the kitchen and eat hot tamales, chili, and oven-broiled
slab steaks--two pounds minimum--that go for $10 a pound.
"You're paying for the atmosphere," Greenvillians jokingly say of Doe's. And how many other towns can boast small carry-outs that sell greasy brown bags full of "HOT Buffalo Fish"?
Also, the town retains, even in its modern state, the sense of contrast and contradiction that so fascinated Mr. Cohn. A 10-minute drive will take you from the sprawling mansions on Bayou Road south of town, through the section of older white homes settled back in the shade of Washington Avenue, to the ramshackle houses that front Highway 82 and lead to the rundown neighborhood around T.L. Weston High School.
Taming the River
Rising above it all is the levee.
Greenville has the distinction of being Mississippi's largest river port, even though it technically is no longer on the river. In 1935, the citizens diverted the headstrong Mississippi, which had periodically claimed portions of the town through floods and course changes, by building a new system of levees. The embankment forced the river six miles to the west, and now Greenville harbor is
actually on a man-made lake.
Delta levees are massive--they are large enough to drive on, and roads run up their sides and along the rims. The force of the river required as much.
In April 1927, following an autumn and winter with abnormally large amounts of rain and snow in the many states whose waters eventually feed into the Mississippi, the levee 20 miles above Greenville burst and the "great flood of 1927"--probably the most disastrous in Mississippi history--was on.
William Faulkner would later use the 1927 flood as the dramatic setting for his novella, Old Man. Mr. Cohn described the same event this way:
"The number of human beings drowned will never be known ... Within a week, the inundation extended over an area 30 miles wide and 100 miles long. The water stood from 4 to 15 feet in depth."
In Greenville, a refugee camp of some 10,000 people, mostly blacks, sprang up on the existing levee, to remain for 70 days, until the water subsided. A flotilla of Greenville's citizens worked constantly to keep the encampment supplied and to rescue people stranded in the country.
Some Greenvillians, however, did not stay to help. To William Alexander Percy, those who fled would forever after be known simply as "the rabbit people."
The flood reminded Delta residents, wrote Mr. Cohn, of what a Mississippian named S.S. Prentiss had written many years before:
"When God made the world, He had a large amount of surplus water which he turned loose and told to go where it pleased; it has been going where it pleased ever since and that is the Mississippi River."ah