William Weaks "Willie" Morris (November 29, 1934 – August 2, 1999), was an American writer and editor born in Jackson, Mississippi, though his family later moved to Yazoo City, Mississippi, which he immortalized in his works of prose. Morris' trademark was his lyrical prose style and reflections on the American South, particularly the Mississippi Delta. In 1967 he became the youngest editor of Harper's Magazine. He wrote several works of fiction and non-fiction, including his seminal book North Toward Home, as well as My Dog Skip.
Morris' parents moved to Yazoo City, Mississippi when he was just six months old. Yazoo City figures prominently in much of Morris' writing. After graduating as valedictorian of Yazoo City high school, Morris traveled to Austin to attend the University of Texas at Austin. He became a member of Delta Tau Delta international fraternity, where he has a room named after him in the chapter house.
His senior year in college, Morris was elected editor of the university's student newspaper, the award-winning The Daily Texan. His scathing editorials against segregation, censorship and state officials' collusion with oil and gas interests soon earned him the enmity of university administrators, particularly from the university's Board of Regents. As an example of the animosity, Morris wrote in North Toward Home that the university did not acknowledge his award of a Rhodes Scholarship with even as much as a letter of congratulation. Although Morris's contribution to the university continues to go unrecognized, in 1997 The Daily Texan began honoring each year's best editorial writer with "The Willie Morris Award for Editorial Excellence."
Morris graduated in 1957 and began studying History at Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar. In 1958 he married Celia Buchan of Houston, and in 1959 they had a son, David Rae. The next year they returned to the United States, where he became the editor of The Texas Observer, a liberal bi-weekly newspaper. The marriage lasted 10 years, and Celia Morris writes about Willie and their divorce in her fourth book, Finding Celia's Place.
In 1963, Morris joined the staff of Harper's Magazine as Associate Editor, and became Editor-in-Chief four years later. On publication, North Toward Home became a best-selling book and earned the prestigious Houghton Mifflin Literary Fellowship Award for non-fiction. It is an autobiographical account of his childhood in Yazoo City, Mississippi, early adulthood in Austin, Texas, and eventual move from the South to New York City. Critics cited the author for his tender reflections on Southern smalltown culture, and for the tone of those alienated expatriate Southerners who move north, but retain nostalgia for the South they left behind.
As the youngest-ever editor-in-chief of an influential literary magazine, Morris helped to launch the careers of notable writers such as William Styron and Norman Mailer. But the Cowles family, owners of Harper's Magazine, was perplexed by the content Morris published: longer articles of overtly liberal sentiment that offended more cautious advertisers. Amidst falling ad sales, the Cowles family expressed their dissatisfaction with Morris until he ultimately resigned under pressure in 1971.
Willie Morris Award for Southern Fiction
Since 2007, Reba White Williams and Dave H. Williams have sponsored the Willie Morris Award for Southern Fiction. The award is given to a novel set in one of the original eleven Confederate States of America that reflects the spirit of Morris's work, and stands out for the quality of its prose, its originality, its sense of place and period, and the appeal of its characters.
An independent panel of judges votes on the award from books submitted for consideration. Recipients of the award to date:
2007: The King of Colored Town by Darryl Wimberley 2008: City of Refuge by Tom Piazza 2009: Secret Keepers by Mindy Friddle 2010: Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin 2011: If Jack's In Love by Stephen Wetta 2012: A Short Time to Stay Here by Terry Roberts 2013: Nowhere But Home by Liza Palmer 2014: Long Man by Amy Greene
Morris on Long Island
Following his resignation from Harper's, Morris moved to Bridgehampton, Long Island, where he lived for many years before returning to the South. During that time he became close friends with fellow writer James Jones, author of From Here to Eternity, and Jones's wife Gloria. Later, when his friend lay dying in Southampton Hospital of heart failure, Willie Morris took notes from Jones about his work-in-progress, the novel Whistle, which Morris finished for his friend Jones.
Morris returns home
In 1980, Morris returned to his native state to be writer-in-residence at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, Mississippi where he encouraged a new generation of Mississippi writers including John Grisham, who acknowledged auditing Morris's writing classes and Donna Tartt, who enrolled in the University of Mississippi in 1981, and her writing caught the attention of Willie Morris when she was a freshman. Following the suggestion of Morris and others, she transferred to Bennington College in 1982. One of Morris' books, Good Old Boy: A Delta Boyhood was made into a TV movie for Public Television by Disney and PBS Wonderworks and later re-titled The River Pirates in 1988 not far from where Morris lived. It starred Richard Farnsworth, Maureen O'Sullivan, Dixie Wade, Ryan Francis, Caryn West and Richard E. Council. In 2000, My Dog Skip, another of Morris' books and an unofficial prequel to the earlier film, was made into a major motion picture starring Frankie Muniz, Diane Lane, Luke Wilson and Kevin Bacon. (Morris had previously written for Reader's Digest a profile of his dog 'Pete,' whom he had adopted while living in Bridgehampton, New York. When Morris left Bridgehampton, he took Pete, who had formerly belonged to the owner of a local service station and whom Willie referred to as 'the Mayor of Bridgehampton,' back to Mississippi with him. Later, after Pete's death, Morris requested and received permission from the Episcopal church for a burial of Pete within the same cemetery where Morris himself would later be buried.) Morris died of a heart attack just before the movie debuted, after seeing an advance screening of the film and praising it.
Willie Morris is buried in Glenwood Cemetery in Yazoo City, close to the "grave" of the fictitious Witch of Yazoo, a character from one of Morris' books, Good Old Boy: A Delta Boyhood. In life he counted among his friends a wide circle, including Yazoo City childhood friends, well-known writers like Winston Groom (Forrest Gump'), William Styron (Sophie's Choice), John Knowles (A Separate Peace), James Dickey (Deliverance) and Irwin Shaw (Rich Man, Poor Man), and Larry L. King ("The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas"). Morris invited Dickey and King to join him as Associate Editors of Harper's when he became editor. Morris and King wrote for the Texas Observer, the progressive voice of Texas in the mid 20th century.
Morris was revered by the students in his writing classes in Oxford. He was known as an unerring mimic with a warm sense of humor and a sense of the absurd.
Morris helped two Mississippi residents by giving them a second chance at sight by being an eye donor.
Books by Willie Morris
- My Dog Skip
- My Cat Spit McGee
- Faulkner's Mississippi
- Good Old Boy: A Delta Boyhood
- Good Old Boy and the Witch of Yazoo
- The Courting of Marcus Dupree
- New York Days
- The Last of the Southern Girls
- My Mississippi
- Terrains of the Heart and Other Essays on Home
- Ghosts of Medgar Evers
- South Today
- Always Stand in Against the Curve, and Other Sports Stories
- Yazoo: Integration in a Deep-Southern Town
- North Toward Home
- After All, It's Only a Game
- Prayer for the Opening of the Little League Season
- James Jones: A Friendship
- "A Tribute to Willie Morris," in The Southerner (1999), which includes Morris's essay, "Is There a South Anymore?"
- In Search of Willie Morris: The Mercurial Life of a Legendary Writer and Editor, by Larry L. King
- Diane Rehm (NPR) Interview with Larry L. King, author of Willie Morris biography
- Willie Morris,” by Jack Bales, Mississippi Writers Page, University of Mississippi.
- Conversations with Willie Morris, edited by Jack Bales
- Shifting Interludes: Selected Essays, by Willie Morris, edited by Jack Bales
- Willie Morris: An Exhaustive Annotated Bibliography and a Biography, by Jack Bales
- Willie Morris Collection (MUM00321) owned by the University of Mississippi Department of Archives and Special Collections.
- Michael Feldman Interview with Willie Morris, Whad'ya Know, 01/27/96