The Water In Which You Swim

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William Ferris, fifty-two years old, is a prolific writer in folklore, American literature, fiction, and photography and is co-editor of the monumental Encyclopedia of Southern Culture . Since 1979 he has been the director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi in Oxford. His establishment is quartered in the recently renovated Barnard Observatory on the beautiful, wooded Ole Miss campus. That notable edifice and the Center itself are emblematically important, for there Ferris and his colleagues have everything in Southern Studies in one place— just as they have in the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture , an ambitious highbrow, middlebrow, lowbrow mosaic.

Willie Morris interviews William Ferris— connoisseur and chronicler of everything Southern—on the South’s past and present culture, its burdens and its pleasures

Ferris’s Center’s pinnacle of achievement to date is the Encyclopedia , by any measure a stunning work. Co-edited by the historian Charles Reagan Wilson and published by the University of North Carolina Press in 1989, the 1,630-page volume involved more than eight hundred scholars and writers of various disciplines and callings. One national reviewer judged it “the first attempt ever to describe every aspect of a region’s life and thought … even the iced tea that washes down its catfish and cornbread.”

 

I returned from the East to my native Mississippi in 1980, only a year or so after Ferris himself had done so, and our friendship goes back to those early days at Oxford. The father of a young daughter, Bill is a tall, agile fellow, a figure of fine company whose moods, depending on the milieu, swing easily from serious to whimsical to mischievous. He is noted for a certain sartorial casualness, having reputedly worn a suit and tie only four times since coming home.

He resides in a rambling, eclectic house directly across the street from the Oxford town cemetery where all the Faulkners (or, if you prefer, Falkners) lie buried, not to mention Augustus B. Longstreet and Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus Lamar. Bill’s dwelling will be remembered by all indigenous chroniclers for its Christmas parties, at which is served the most efficacious celebratory punch south of the Tennessee line, and for a former pet parrot as voluble and garrulous as the guests themselves.

 

In all such as this Bill Ferris is a valuable and singular comrade, who serves his civilization—America and the South that is an indwelling part of it—with good cheer, resourcefulness, and distinction. I interviewed him last summer at a hotel in Natchez, where we both were addressing a symposium on that city’s history and culture.

It’s June the sixth. It’s D-day, isn’t it, Bill?

This is D-day all right.

Give us some background on the founding of your center.

The Center was the idea of several faculty members at Ole Miss who felt that something needed to be done at the university to focus on the region and to draw on the history of the university itself—Faulkner, civil rights—and they received a grant to bring in a consultant, Richard Brown from the Newberry Library, for a year. They developed the concept of a Center for the Study of Southern Culture that would essentially be involved with teaching and research and outreach activities. They advertised for a director and encouraged me to apply, and I came to Oxford from Yale in 1979 to get the project under way.

What is your present curriculum at the Center?

We have basically an American Studies approach to the South. We offer some thirty to forty courses each semester at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. We offer both the B.A. and the nation’s only M.A. degree in Southern Studies. These courses cover a broad range, from literature and history to music, folklore, anthropology, religion. And increasingly, as we’ve grown, we’ve become interested in other topics, such as the study of Southern law, economic development, health care. There’s nothing equivalent to this new curriculum anywhere in the nation.

How many students do you have now in your degree programs, and where do they come from?

Our undergraduate major involves students primarily from the South. Our M.A. program, with about forty-five candidates, is global: we have students there from China, from Germany, France, Japan, from all over the world and throughout America. They’re some of the brightest and best students I’ve ever taught. The Chinese students are especially drawn to the civil rights movement because of the parallels with changes in their own country. Others are attracted to the blues, and to Faulkner.

How do the international students respond to the American South?