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The Water in Which You Swim

June 2024
21min read

Willie Morris interviews William Ferris, connoisseur and chronicler of everything Southern.

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?

There’s always either a honeymoon or a period of shock. Many of them who’ve read Faulkner and loved the blues are starry-eyed when they get here and visit Faulkner’s home, Rowan Oak, or drive through the Delta. Others feel dismay at how different the little community, the town square, is from the large urban worlds they’ve lived in. There’s always a time of transition, which I think in Oxford is a fairly smooth one, because people are quite warm and the community is accessible.

Some years back a French woman was at the Faulkner Conference in Oxford, and we took her out in the countryside, where she saw all these crumbling houses and poor cabins straight out of Faulkner, and poor little villages with the firewood stacked up on the front porches of the post offices, and she exclaimed: “This decadence, I love this decadence . I wish I could bottle it and take it back to France.” Have you seen much of that?

There will always be a kind of two-way street we live on in the South: the Americanization of Dixie and the Southernizing of the nation.

Yes. I think people find what they want in the countryside. The South has a mythic quality because of the writers who shaped those myths, and certainly Faulkner is a great architect of all of that mythology, the world of Yoknapatawpha. The French, above all people, have a love affair with the South. They’re filmmakers, they’re writers, they’re photographers. They’re constantly visiting our Center. I worked as an associate producer with Bertrand Tavernier on his film Mississippi Blues , which he co-directed with Robert Parrish. Later the French government made me a chevalier of arts and letters because of that project.

Can I see your medal now, Professor?

I keep it under wraps.

William Styron wears his on his lapel. The Japanese, I’ve noticed in my time at Oxford, are profoundly drawn to what they see and absorb in the Deep South. Have you noticed that from the Japanese?

Yes, very much so.

Why the Japanese? How do they relate to all this?

I think one of the aspects about the South is its accessibility culturally, the fact that we are not dealing with large urban worlds. We have a rural world that’s family-related. It’s also a society that has known defeat and poverty and illiteracy. It’s a Third World culture in many ways, not the high-tech, progress-related cosmos that America projects in its public image. The Japanese, I think, are profoundly moved by the whole question of defeat and triumph over defeat. The associations with Faulkner for the Japanese are intensely real. We have a young woman recently arrived in Oxford who’s very much drawn to the blues. She came here to study the blues and visited an old black musician whose recordings she had admired in Japan. When she told him that she’d come from Japan and was in awe of his work, he began to play for her. She told me this. As he was playing, she saw tears coming down his cheeks; he was crying because he was so touched that someone would come from Japan to hear his music. She left a teaching career to come and take courses at our Center.

Why does there need to be a Center to study Southern culture?

For the same reason there needs to be a hearth in a house, a place that represents a kind of center of a home, where people can sit and talk and look at the embers as they share an intimate time and space. There’s never been such a place for the South. Ironically, the places where people spoke about the South earlier in this century were outside the region, places like Yale, where C. Vann Woodward, Cleanth Brooks, and Robert Penn Warren chronicled our region in such wonderful ways. The South needs and deserves to have a place where people can gather, a kind of think tank, a kind of research center, a kind of family reunion. And the Center offers all these dimensions. It’s not your traditional academic research center. It’s open to all manner of events, including discussions of civil rights, the Civil War, music, literature. The South’s culture has come of age, we’re at a point now where Southerners, black and white, old and young, men and women, can join together and concentrate on things they share. This increasingly is the role that our Center will have: a bridge among groups that have rarely come together. We see this as a process of healing the old wounds and making our culture healthier and stronger for the future.

How do you define the South in terms of the Center’s focus?

Well, we have defined the South in three ways: first, the geographic South, which we see as going from Baltimore, Maryland, to West Texas. Then there is the South outside the South, in that you have black Southerners from the Mississippi Delta who moved to Chicago, whites from Appalachia living in Cincinnati; you also have the expatriate Southern community, which you chronicled in North Toward Home . You have Richard Wright in Paris, Tennessee Williams in New York, and Willie Morris, formerly in New York— a kind of diaspora of Southern cultures, and artistic communities. The third definition is the global world of the mythic South, which has touched people everywhere, from “Roots” to Gone with the Wind , the blues, rock ’n’ roll, Faulkner, Styron, Welty. These are realities of the imagination.

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?

First of all, we’re looking in a much more open way at the taboos, like race and religion. Relationships that simply were not discussed openly within a classroom are being discussed frankly and candidly by faculty and students. There’s also a whole new chemistry at work in our program that allows us to deal with religion, race, literature, and music with connections that were never before possible. If you studied the South earlier, you studied it through Southern literature, or as a history major. You certainly couldn’t bring the various fields into a holistic portrait. Doing that is especially exciting. Every day the parents of students visit the Center and say, “If only we could have had this opportunity when we were growing up.” To study the South when I was a student, you had to dig it out yourself. If you were interested, as I was, in folklore, there were no courses. You had to locate things yourself—say, Library of Congress recordings of Leadbelly by the Lomaxes. We discovered them on our own rather than find them fully blown and in place within a university setting. That is why our world is so gratifying.

We’re not unlike what Ireland is to England. Some people always expect the worst, and if they see it, they’ll feel vindicated in their prejudice.

Were you surprised by the national success and impact of the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture ?

We were. Obviously we always believed in the project. But we thought that if we could have a few thousand sales to libraries, and good reviews within the academic journals, it would be considered a success. Instead it’s now sold well over a hundred thousand copies in hardback and four-volume paperback editions. And it really has done what we hoped, which is to reach beyond the academic halls and into the community at large. Many people who’ve bought it don’t even have a high school education, but they find some aspect of their life reflected in the book. It’s been a nurturing world for people interested in the South, and as you look through the pages, it unveils the diversity of our region.

It’s an extraordinary book. It’s a volume that you can study as a scholar. On another level, and most enjoyably, you can just browse through it. It’s a treasure trove. There’s even an entry on GooGoo Clusters.

I’ve got to say that my colleague and collaborator Charles Wilson was the key to the book’s success. He labored more than a hundred percent of his time on it. He’s an extraordinarily diverse scholar who has a wide range of interests. And he wrote many of the entries himself. Charles and I and two other editors, Ann Abadie and Sue Hart, read every entry two times, so there was a winnowing process as we tried to move the publication from thousands of disparate entries into a single flowing text that I think we achieved.

Much has happened since the publication of Wilbur Cash’s The Mind of the South , in 1941. Maybe such a book would not be possible today. What is different from it about your Encyclopedia of Southern Culture ? Is yours more inclusive? Is it the South looking at itself?

I think Cash’s book is, and will always be, a classic. If you wish to understand the mind of the South, lay it out on the couch and do a little analysis. Those compulsions and obsessions of race and class and gender that he explores so beautifully are still there and, I would think, will always be a part of our culture. ‘Ours is a different kind of book. While it does deal with the mind of the South, it offers a cataloging of items in a thoughtful way that we rarely, if ever, associate together. If we approach the South as literary critics, we know about the rich array of writers, but we may not know about country music, or if we do, we may not know about the blues, or if we do, we may not know about education in the South. There are encyclopedias of Southern history, religion, or literature. But nowhere has there been an attempt to synthesize the full range of the region’s intellectual and cultural activity in a single volume. Increasingly, people in other countries and in other regions are modeling major encyclopedias on this one. Encyclopedias of New England culture and Western culture based on our work are currently being developed at the University of New Hampshire and at Stanford.

How much does your encyclopedia weigh?

More than eight pounds.

Outside of the Encyclopedia , Bill, what programs at the Center have you been proudest of over the years?

Well, I think our best-known project in the field of literature is our annual Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha symposium, a weeklong gathering of Faulkner lovers, the first week of every August. Another project that I’ve been personally very involved in and pleased about is our university’s blues archive, which is the world’s largest, with almost forty thousand records, the personal record collection of B. B. King, and the Kenneth S. Goldstein Folklore Collection. It’s really the consummate research collection on blues and Southern music. Associated with that is our magazine Living Blues , which is considered the pre-eminent blues publication in the world. In the fields of Faulkner and blues and, by extension, literature and Southern music, we’ve helped assemble truly significant and growing research collections and publications.

I understand you’ve been working with some of your colleagues in Cambridge and Boston to develop an unusual public school curriculum.

Yes. Isaac Tigrett, who’s the founder of the Hard Rock Café and whose home is in Memphis, and his partner, Dan Ackroyd, have established the House of Blues clubs. The first clubs opened on Harvard Square in Cambridge and in New Orleans and Los Angeles. Associated with these clubs will be a curriculum for public schools that will concentrate on blues, folk art, and race relations. Our Center and other staff at the university are developing this curriculum, which we feel it is going to be very exciting.


Have you received a lot of phone calls and queries at the Center from the national press since the election of Clinton and Gore?

We have. Our press inquiries have always been numerous, but they’ve dramatically increased with people wanting to know the definition of Bubba . They also want to know about the formula for Coca-Cola.

Are you implying that the Center has the secret formula for Coca-Cola?

Well, I can’t give it out, but I can share a taste of it with you.

You wrote recently that with the election of Clinton and Gore we can declare that a new South has emerged and that the region is finally joining the nation. And then you asked: Or is the nation joining the South?

That will always be a kind of two-way street that we are living on in the South: the Americanization of Dixie and the Southernizing of the nation. This in many ways has been part of our world from the very beginning, with figures like Thomas Jefferson, who so significantly shaped our nation’s future. Southern worlds, from country music and blues and rock ’n’ roll to Faulkner to politics, are significant to the nation’s identity. We’ve always been what Vann Woodward has called a counterpoint to the American experience. While the nation has aspired to financial achievement and progress, the South has stood apart in many ways. And yet emerging from the South we see the quintessential images of corporate America: Coca-Cola, CNN, Federal Express, Holiday Inn, WalMart. These are Southern-bred institutions that symbolize not so much the South as America.

Is there a true South today? And a “real Southerner”?

I think so. It’s like someone who was trying to find the Scutchalo Hills near where I was born. My father used to talk about how he once looked for it. He would drive down the road, and the local farmers would say, “Well, it’s just a mile down the road.” He would drive a mile, and the next person would say, “You just passed it. It’s a mile up the road.” I don’t think we’ll ever find the true South or the true Southerner, but there is such a place and such a being. They are lodged in storytelling, in a love for family, and in a love for humor and a good tale. A love for people. Eudora Welty has said that for her the family has always been the center of things Southern. Her wonderful book on friendship reflects a value that Southerners hold close to their heart, of trying to identify the places that shape people. And to celebrate those places. Even though we now have high-rises in Atlanta, you can still sit in a taxi there and hear the talk flow from the driver and know you’re in a place where talk and stories will always be at the core.

How would you describe the worst forms of racism in the modern-day South?

The worst forms of racism today are not the old nightmares of lynching and civil rights violence, of people shot and injured. It’s a more subtle racism now. We’ve become more American. We’ve become more like the rest of the country in that we do have desegregated public facilities, but what does it mean if you can eat in a Howard Johnson’s or Holiday Inn but don’t have the money to pay for the meal? You’re still vulnerable and still a victim. I like to quote the title of William Winter’s recent report on the South, Halfway Home and a Long Way to Go . The old blatant, grotesque worlds of racism have changed. And while race relations and friendships have improved, black unemployment and lack of opportunities in education and business are still there. We have a long way to go.

What are the South’s greatest hopes for race relations today?

The South is who I am. I will visit other places, but every Southerner wants to get home and reconnect. That’s why I stay.

Integration is definitely working. I look back on my childhood in the fifties, going to schools that were segregated, and then I see my daughter, who’s nine, going to a school with not only black children but children from Chinese and Lebanese backgrounds. Our hope is always in our children. Our hope also lies in our educational institutions. In the South a few people and a very few dollars can do a great deal. Our problems can be resolved if we put our minds and hearts toward that end. Racism has been the Achilles’ heel of the South. And, really, of the Western world, but especially of the South. Only to the degree that we come to terms with racism and racial discrimination, in both blatant and subtle forms, do we truly move our region and nation forward. White and black coalition is our hope for the future.

You and I both spent years in the North. How would you respond to Northern intellectuals who still deplore and disparage the American South? And if this Clinton-Gore administration proves to be a failure, or less than a success, will this reflect adversely on the South?

There’s always going to be this national stereotype of the South. We’re not unlike what Ireland is to England. Some people will always expect the worst, and if they see it, they’ll feel vindicated in their prejudice. Those who do not believe the South can rise above whatever problems they associate with it may in some ways be right. Certainly race has been, and always will be, with us, and corruption will be found in every administration. It’s the nature of the beast. What we have to do is look to the great dream, the Jeffersonian dream, of a democracy. Whether this is achieved in the fullest degree or in small degree is less important than that the dream be kept alive and aspired to. It’s that effort that’s more important.

Let’s discuss that American phenomenon Bill Ferris himself. What was it like growing up in Vicksburg from an old family, as we say in the South, with all of the town’s Civil War resonances?

It was a mixed blessing. It gave me something to rebel against, as I saw it. I felt I had to escape in order to appreciate my own world. As Mr. Warren said, I had to get out of the water to appreciate it. I had the luxury of growing up on a farm—southeast of Vicksburg, just off the Natchez Trace—with a grandfather who was a great storyteller, and we would milk cows together every morning. And in a community with closely knit black and white families. As my grandmother, who was born in Yazoo City, and lived to be 101, used to say to me, blood is thicker than water. The spirits of those people I knew as a child live with me: my father and grandmother, the teachers I had. I went to a little three-room schoolhouse where each teacher taught two grades. That was the best education I ever received. I was the only child in the whole school whose parents had ever been to college. I realized I was different. The teacher once said to our class, “How many of you children are going to college?” No one raised a hand. I didn’t raise mine, because I didn’t want to be different. She pointed to me and said, “You’ll go to college. Your parents will see to it that you go to college.” And I said, “I ain’t goin’ to no college … I ain’t goin’ to no college.” I wanted to speak and act and be like my friends. That world of rural Mississippi, which was very rural in those days, is something I always carry with me.

What eventually made you decide to get a Ph.D. in folklore?

I had unknowingly been moving that way for a long time. In high school and later in college I began recording and photographing blues singers and religious services in an old church on our farm that had been erected during slavery. Those were the roots of realities that I saw as disappearing. I found myself in graduate school in English while on a fellowship at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland, in 1966, and was frustrated because increasingly I realized there was no way in the field of English literature to study folktales and music, which I loved so dearly. Purely by accident one morning over breakfast I was complaining about this with a medievalist literary scholar, and he said, “Well, you should study folklore.” I didn’t realize there were programs that allowed you to do that. He said, yes, there were. I ended up at the University of Pennsylvania and did my Ph.D. in folklore there, focusing on the blues and the traditions that I’d been working with since high school.

You mention you began photographing your world in high school. Do you see any significant developments in Southern photography?

Photography, to my mind, is the single most important area of visual arts in the South today. Our greatest color photographer in America, William Eggleston, is a Southerner. His best work, I would argue, has been done in the South. The book he did with you on Faulkner’s Mississippi is a stunning example of a collaboration between a writer and a photographer. It’s in the tradition of James Agee and Walker Evans. There are many, many young photographers working with both color and black and white today in the South. I think of the photographer David Rae Morris and his beautiful work in Mississippi. His photographs up and down Highway 61. The work he did with the pioneer black Ph.D. from Columbia University in the field of education, Dr. Jane McAllister, who’s a native of my hometown, Vicksburg. She’s ninety-six and still very alert and full of wonderful tales of her life as a teacher, a black teacher in Mississippi over the years. David’s photographic exhibition of her life and her work is a classic statement. I’m personally a photographer and filmmaker. I love photography. I had the pleasure of knowing Walker Evans and continue to be close with photographers like Eggleston and William Christenberry. Our Center will be more and more involved with this area. We’re shaping and creating an archive of Southern film and photography. We’ve just released a limited-edition portfolio of photographic prints by the black photographer Roland Freeman, who’s done extensive work in the South.


Eudora Welty was a very fine photographer.

Eudora is one of our greatest photographers. I did an interview with her and a similar one with Walker Evans looking at the tradition of photography they both shaped in the South. Without knowing it, they photographed worlds that have a close affinity. Eudora has continued to use a camera over the years. There’s an intriguing relationship between Southern writers and photographers. Virtually all of our Southern writers at some point have used a camera to capture landscape and places also reflected in their fiction.

As we know, the South takes a lot out of all of us, personally and emotionally. Its burdens are sometimes very hard. Why do you stay?

Well, where can you go? Faulkner once said he preferred the problems that he knew to the ones that he didn’t know. Sure we’ve got problems, but what place doesn’t have them? You hope, over the years, to find the wisdom, as an old prayer says, to change those things you can change and to leave the others alone. I stay here because I love the South. I love the people, the friendships, the family. I love the landscape and the smell of the place in the spring, in the summer, in the fall, in the winter. I need those smells. I need to smell the landscape I smelled as a child. When I wake up in the morning and I hear birds and I look out and see a kind of world that is connected in some way to my childhood, it makes me feel happy. For me, the South is who I am. If I’m comfortable with myself, this is where I want to be. I’ve lived outside the South, and I’ve had the pleasure of learning those worlds. And I still, obviously, will visit those other places from time to time. But every Southerner wants to get back home. Every Southerner wants to reconnect. I luckily was able to find a job that would pay me to do the things I love. I don’t need to take a vacation. I stay here and feel I’m celebrating life. That’s why I stay.






































It’s appropriate that we can see the Mississippi River from the window here. Appropriate also that this is the anniversary of D-day. I think we’ve established a beachhead, Professor. Thank you.








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