By Julia Reed
Last spring I went off on a book tour that took me everywhere from Knoxville to Vermont and I found myself having to explain—a lot—what it was that I meant exactly when I referred to the Mississippi Delta. So I made like a first grade teacher and held up my forefingers and thumbs in front of my face in the shape of a diamond. “This is Memphis,” I’d say, tapping my fingers together at the top. “Down here where my thumbs meet is Vicksburg, and over here on my right is the Yazoo.” I repeated what David Cohn said about the Delta beginning in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel and told about the ducks that swim there in the marble fountain. I explained that the Delta is not an actual delta but one of the richest alluvial flood plains in the world—and pretty much uninhabitable until well into the 1820s when a handful of folks rich enough and crazy enough (Cohn’s “pioneers with means”) turned up to literally hack it out.
By that time, my audience was transfixed so it got more personal. When I was growing up, I said, my hometown of Greenville was the most sophisticated place I’ve lived in since. It’s where I got my first by-line (a review of a book written by my next-door neighbor, Bern Keating, for our paper, which won a Pulitzer Prize), saw my first Broadway musical (when Carole Brent and Burrell McGee starred in “Kiss Me Kate”), tried on my first designer dress (at Hafter’s downtown where I also had my first job, attaching price tags to the clothes).
I told them we’d never had much truck with the “moonlight and magnolias” Old South (via a typically spot-on quote by Shelby Foote) and pointed out that the Delta had always been a melting pot. Greenville’s first mayor after the Civil War had been Jewish; the town was like a peaceful West Bank where Jews and Syrians and Lebanese had for generations lived and worked side by side. I explained why it was that I’d become an aficionado of Chinese and Southern Italian food before I’d even left home.
Finally, I told them that we have always, from the get-go and by necessity, been seriously adept at making our own fun. And that everywhere there are reminders of the ancient hardwood forest from whence we sprang. Before we bought our house, there’d been a yellow fever cemetery in our back yard; even now my mother shouts at me to shut the door because of the snakes. A few years ago Howard Brent was so convinced he’d found panther tracks at his aptly named hunting club Panther Tract, he sent them off to the Smithsonian to be analyzed.
Always, they were wide-eyed. “We didn’t know any of that,” they’d say. “You ought to write about it.”
But then there was the stuff I couldn’t really explain, the stuff better written in songs or fiction. The way my heart skips a beat every time I drive over that last “hill” outside Memphis and into what feels like an enormous dome turned on its side. That earthy chemical smell more powerful than any of Proust’s madeleines. The towns that read like reassuring mantras as I blow by: Rena Lara, Midnight, Nitta Yuma, Louise.
There’s the breathtaking starkness of the landscape in winter, the sunsets that drench the sky, my favorite stretch of blacktop connecting 61 to old Highway One at Duncan. There’s the memory of just-caught crappie frying in a pan at the Highland Club, of a barbecue sandwich at Sherman’s when it was still a grocery store, of the pet deer at the gas station north of Gunnison who would smoke, and swallow, a cigarette. There’s the memory of, well, everything. I pop open a cold one while driving on the levee and I am forever sixteen. I walk into to Doe’s and thank God every time for that broiler and those skillets, for Florence and Sug and Judy and the staff as close as family, for that lone Mexican who wandered through our towns and left his tamale recipe behind.
No matter what, there’s the soundtrack: Eden Brent channeling Boogaloo on the piano, Ralph McGee and Jimmy Phillips playing “Panther Burn” in our living room, Duff Dorrough bringing me to my knees from the dead on my iPod with “Rock My Soul.” I listen to it all and realize that what I should have said to everyone who asked that the Delta is a great gift, of thousands of years of flooding and all those who carved it out and worked it afterwards in conditions so insufferable it gave us the blues. It’s also entirely inseparable from who I am.
Delta Magazine July/August 2013