In Search of Willie Morris

Jul 31, 2006

Larry L. King takes up the challenge of answering the question (What happened to Willie Morris?) in this volume which is partly a researched biography of Morris and partly a memoir of Willie by King. This is no whitewash.

In the spring of 1967, at the tender age of thirty-two, Willie Morris became the editor-in-chief of Harper?s, America?s oldest magazine. Harper?s was 117 years old and Willie was only its eighth editor. It was the apex of his career.

In the nineteenth century, Harper?s editor William Dean Howells had published his friends, including Mark Twain. Morris published his friends?William Styron, Norman Mailer, James Baldwin, Walker Percy, C. Vann Woodward, and many others. Morris hired four contributing editors, Marshall Frady, David Halberstam, John Corry, and Larry L. King, at the time a political writer who later achieved considerable acclaim and prosperity co-authoring the play The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.

In March of 1971, after only four years, Morris was fired from Harper?s; his marriage was in ruins; he had gone into a kind of exile on eastern Long Island; and his drinking was destroying his health and his friendships.

What happened? Larry L. King takes up the challenge of answering that question in this volume which is partly a researched biography of Morris and partly a memoir of Willie by King. This is no whitewash. King is determined to be honest and tell the truth about his old buddy as he sees it. And it won?t always be easy or pleasant. Morris was brilliant and stubborn, playful and sullen, generous and unreliable.

King says that ?several Willies existed and . . . sometimes it seemed we hardly knew any of them.? Larry Wells, of Oxford, Mississippi, said, ??There were two Willies . . . and if they had met in public . . . there?s a good chance neither would have recognized the other.??

King tries to sort this out, but, I think, not hard enough. He skimps on Morris?s childhood in Yazoo City, Mississippi, moving Willie from his birth, on November 29, 1934, to his freshman year at the University of Texas in only eleven pages. King does manage to tell us that Willie?s father, Henry Rae, was a serious solitary drinker and Willie?s mother, Marion, was a serious secret drinker. Morris himself never acknowledged that he had an alcohol problem, although he was a rather famous drunk, and he probably suffered from clinical depression, again, untreated.

Nevertheless, Morris had been a courageous editor of the UT Daily Texan and then for four years a Rhodes Scholar, reading history, in Oxford, England. About Oxford, Willie said little, and so, alas, King says little. After his Long Island rustication, Morris was rescued, I think it is fair to say, by Dean Faulkner Wells and Larry Wells, who arranged for him to become a faculty member/writer-in-residence at Ole Miss.

At first this suited Morris fine, and although some think it is slick to say that those who can?t do, teach, it is truer to say that many who can do, can?t teach. Willie soon came to hate teaching and eventually eased the pain by holding his classes in a restaurant where he bought steak dinners, with wine, for all fifteen students, at a cost greater than his weekly salary. He had good attendance at these ?classes.?

Morris was, throughout, a fine writer, however, and North Toward Home and New York Days will be read for a hundred years. I am less optimistic about My Dog Skip and My Cat, Spit McGee. Willie was also a superb editor and one wishes he had been alive to edit this volume, which is full of howlers such as Willie?s first wife getting a divorce degree, the Willie Morris Room at UT being ?formerly? dedicated, and, lamentably, many others.

Although he died young, on August 2, 1999, at age sixty-four, of a heart attack, Morris?s life does have a kind of happy ending. He married JoAnne Prichard, a loving and sensible woman who understood him and made a home for him. Morris?s funeral was a huge literary event, attended by hundreds of friends, many of them writers. Rick Bragg covered the funeral for the New York Times and Winston Groom played taps. Willie would have been pleased.

Morris wrote six books during the last decade of his life, and four of them, including his novel, Taps, for which he had great hopes, were published posthumously. That, at least, shows a man happy and working well.