Correspondent Chris Farrell went to Greenville, Mississippi to report on agriculture, but he also discovered the town's surprisingly rich literary history.
Greenville is in the heart of the Mississippi Delta. Cotton is still king in the Delta, although there are also fields of soybeans, rice, corn, and other crops. The Mississippi River is bunkered behind giant levees. Greenville was a bustling river port in the 1900s, but it started to decline following the great flood of 1927. The region lost most of its Black population during the great migration north following the great flood. Today, the only remnant of the port is several docked casino riverboats.
American RadioWorks Producer Stephanie Curtis and I learned that Greenville was once a literary center of the South. We stopped by a small independent bookstore in town, and started talking to the owner about the history of the town. It turned out that Hugh McCormick collected books, magazine articles, and a pamphlet of Greenville's many authors. His collected works of first editions are in a backroom in a glass case that takes up much of one wall. Among the better-known Greenville authors are the turn-of-the-century poet Walker Alexander Percy, his adopted son and novelist Walker Percy, the novelist and historian Shelby Foote, and newspaper legend Hodding Carter. "As I was saying about the writers, we claim to have more per capita than any other community in the country," said McCormick.
Carter was the liberal editor of the Delta Democrat, which he founded in 1936. He used the paper to fight racial segregation and prejudice in the Delta. He wrote about his life in Greenville in his book, Where Mainstreet Meets the River. McCormick pointed out a number of novels written by Carter, children's books, and pamphlets. One intriguing item was the booklet, "I Was A Negro in the South for 30 Days." In the 1940s, a white journalist colored his skin and spent three weeks in Georgia, and then wrote a series of searing articles for the Pittsburgh Gazette about his experiences. Carter didn't like the attack, and wrote a rebuttal, arguing that he had encountered the same prejudices in the North.
Walker Alexander Percy published a number of volumes of poetry in the 20s and 30s. His most studied work is Lanterns on the Levy, a memoir of what life was like in the Mississippi Delta between 1900 and 1940. I've read a several of the novels written by his adopted son, Walker Percy, including The Moviegoer. Shelby Foote, the Civil War historian that dominated the Ken Burn's documentary, wrote several novels while living in Greenville before he began his Civil War trilogy.
Hugh McCormick pointed out a lesser-known name, David Cohen. A contemporary of William Alexander Percy, he wrote a book called God Shakes Creation, also a memoir life in the Delta from the '20s through the '40s. He was a businessman who quit to write, and ended up as a speechwriter for Adlai Stevenson, a ghostwriter for Eisenhower, and one of The Atlantic Monthly's favorite writers.
Why did Greenville nurture so many writers? McCormick didn't have any real idea, although he thought being a port town meant that Greenville was exposed to more ideas and different people than its more insular neighbors.