The Water In Which You Swim

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When I was twenty-one and a student in England, I went to France and met Richard Wright. I just called him up out of the blue and explained I was a student and had been reading his work, and could I buy him a drink? He was aloof and cold at first. Then when I told him over the phone that I was from Yazoo City, Mississippi, he immediately warmed up and said, “Well, come on over.” We went out to an Arab bar, and we talked until the early hours. Wright’s daughter, Julia, came here for the first time some years back, and you spent a lot of time with her. So did I, cruising around Mississippi, looking for the landmarks of her father’s upbringing in Jackson and Natchez. She was so touched she often seemed on the verge of tears. Did you notice that when she was here?

 

I think it was a powerful experience for her. Julia was clearly very close to her father. In a sense it was his return through her. She met her family, and people in Natchez who had known her father as a child. She’s now writing a book on that whole odyssey.

What about other centers like yours in the South?

There are the important Institute for Southern Studies at the University of South Carolina, the Texas Studies Center at Baylor University, and centers that deal with civil rights history at Duke and regional studies at Chapel Hill. And there are other centers around the nation with which we also work. We work with colleagues overseas as well. The A. M. Gorky Institute of World Literature in Moscow and projects in Africa and Australia. They all see in our Center something that they hope to emulate in various ways.

You’ve had quite a number of Russian writers and intellectuals visit the Center. What is their response to what you’re doing?

The Russians, like the French, have a deep affinity and love for the South. Faulkner is their most celebrated American writer. I’ve led four American delegations to Russia, for symposia on Faulkner, Faulkner and Sholokhov, Richard Wright, and a comparison of the American South and the Russian South.

I’ve met a number of Russian writers and scholars at your Center over the years, and I remember one of the first I met. After talking with him for a long time, I said, “Well, you Russians are Southerners.” He said, “Well, you Southerners are Russians.” Are there inherent advantages in your Center’s being located in Mississippi?

Yes, we’re in the heart of the beast. Mississippi and Oxford represent the heart of darkness and light, everything the South has represented. The best and the worst can be clearly viewed from that terrain: the great achievements of William Faulkner, the terrible tragedy of the riots surrounding the admission of James Meredith to the university in 1962, and the legacy of Southern intellectuals trying to shape an academic institution, literally in the frontier forest, in the early 1800s. We have a kind of perspective on the South and, as some would say, a living library around us. The community at large is very important, because we’re studying the world in which we’re living. Robert Penn Warren once remarked to me that a fish never thinks about water until he’s out of it. There’s a complex kind of relationship that develops as you study the water in which you swim. It’s easier to look at it from a distance, but when you’re in the midst of it, you realize that you have to factor in other considerations and somehow understand that you’re studying yourself, in a sense. Our Center is part of a process and is shaping the South at the very time that it seeks to understand it.

I’ve noticed a number of your visiting scholars sit in the south end-zone with us at the football games in the fall in Oxford and always remark on the fact that the Ole Miss team is almost exactly half-white and half-black, as if this had some kind of symbolism in it.

I think sports and music have really reflected and in some ways anticipated changes of the culture at large. This is where people’s emotions are most clearly visible, and the sports field at the university is certainly one of the centers of social change. The inclusion of blacks in every aspect of the university was anticipated by the role of blacks in athletics.

Now, what exactly are you and others talking about in Southern Studies programs that you couldn’t have done, say, twenty-five years ago?