Sunday, March 1, 2015

Mississippi Mecca

One of the perks of teaching English, for me, is the chance to attend conferences across the country.  I've always found myself rejuvenated and energized after spending a few days sharing teaching ideas, brainstorming solutions to our common challenges, and yes--talking about books with people who love books and encountering authors who might have written the next good book I might teach in class.

Mid-February I went to Jackson, Mississippi, with four of my teaching colleagues to attend the conference of the Southeast Region of Two-Year College Associate (TYCA). The local committee had obviously worked hard to put together a great conference. Since the organization was celebrating its 50th birthday, we were invited to "Party Like It's 1965."

In addition to the sessions, the conference featured authors.  Husband-and-wife team Tom Franklin and Beth Ann Fennelly read from their novel The Tilted World, and Jessmyn Ward, whose novel Salvage the Bones won the National Book Award in 2011, read from The Men We Reaped, the story of the death of brother and three other young black men from the same town.

Since the other four members of my group had not been to Mississippi before and weren't sure they'd have a chance again, we planned our trip so that we'd have time to visit sites connected to two very important American authors.

We visited the home of Eudora Welty the day we arrived and were treated to a wonderful tour, with a most excellent docent Cynthia Lyons provided plenty of stories and details along the way.  I felt quite at home, especially with the stacks of books on every conceivable surface, a decorating trend I much prefer.

I've always been as much a fan of Welty's superb memoir One Writer's Beginnings as of her fiction, so the memorabilia and the film that wrapped up our tour satisfied nicely.  Ms. Lyons told us that as long as Miss Welty was in good health, she was often seen at her front door.  In fact, as long as she could, she would sign books people brought by, and when health prevented such generous hospitality, people would leave their books on the porch, and she would sign and leave them for retrieval later.

My musician friends from nearby Madison also met us at Brent's Drugs, the little soda shop that appears in the movie The Help, and later showed us other areas from the movie.

At the end of our conference, we rode north toward Oxford to visit Rowan Oak, the home of William Faulkner, that other literary giant of Mississippi.  We were lucky enough to have my friend B.C. Crawford joining us, pointing out other sites of local interest in Oxford as well.

We arrive at Rowan Oak during a deluge.  We had to scurry up the tree-lined drive to the house. Inside we were given a little brochure and told to guide ourselves.  Evidently, the surviving members of Faulkner's family have been less generous with details and artifacts, so the home was a bit more sparse than Welty's.  In our group, we discussed the potential of producing a podcast for the house tour, especially when we saw the pictures from Faulkner's daughter's wedding and recalled the apocryphal story that he had told her, nodding toward the crowd assembling for her nuptials, "You know they're here to see me, not you. Right?"

Of course, a visit to either Jackson or Oxford would have been incomplete without visits to the two wonderful independent bookstores. Since I've been a "First Editions Club" member at Lemuria Books for years, I was pleased to see the actual brick and mortar store in Jackson. Then in Oxford, after a perfect lunch at Ajax Diner, we visit Square Books, taking time to look at all the signed author photographs.

I wonder sometimes what math teachers or science teachers do at conferences. Do they stand in line at book signing? Make pi jokes?  Share scantron tips?  They can't have as much fun as we English instructors do when we're out on holiday.

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