Some Mississippi authors are great, some are good, all are good reads

Published 12:52 pm Friday, August 18, 2006

Even as I read Ferling’s “A Shot in the Dark,” I am also reading other books.

For the past couple of days, I have been reading Caroline Haines’s “Crossed Bones.” She is originally from George County and now lives in Alabama, but she writes about the Mississippi Delta and in this book touches on another of Mississippi’s gifts to the arts, blues music.

Mississippi is a schizophrenic state in some ways. The ignorance and illiteracy of so many Mississippians are suffocating the state’s economy. At the same time, the state continues to pour out a wealth of artistic talent in all fields of art, from writing, to music, to acting, to the visual arts of painting and sculpture.

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A glance at the list of greats in all the arts from this state can make you wonder if any other state out there is producing any artists. Of course they are, Mississippi just happens to be doing more of it for a state with such a relatively small population and such rampant illiteracy.

To many people, Mississippi’s authors are the signature of the state in the world of artistry. William Faulkner and Eudora Welty cemented that thought in many people’s minds. Of course, there have been a great many more, from the great to the merely good.

I doubt Carolyn Haines has any illusions about her work. It is entertaining, magnificently entertaining. She’s no writer of simple fluff, though. This state’s history of racial division flows through many of her murder mysteries. She handles it well, but it is not Faulknerian.

What I really like about her mysteries is the humor that permeates them. I read books by authors such as Ferling for serious reading these days. I have read Faulkner, Welty, Barry Hannah, Richard Ford, Willie Morris and other authors for my serious fiction reading, but now I’m back into studying history, a long time avocation and serious fiction doesn’t rest the mind.

Haines, and occasionally John Grisham, among Mississippi authors, does help rest the mind. In my youth, books by James Street were among the less serious fallbacks, though in my opinion he did write some classics. “Good-Bye, My Lady” was one of them.

He was a contemporary of Faulkner and wrote far fewer books but was much better read than Faulkner when both were alive. Street was a “popular” author, Faulkner wasn’t. Today, Street is little remembered and Faulkner is studied in all the colleges. Street also was a friend of my grandfather and my father, hence my early interest in him. My grandmother couldn’t stand him.

You can still find Street’s books, especially “Good-Bye, My Lady,” if you are interested. I still like him.

Mississippi’s connections to the arts aren’t as celebrated in this state as they are in other states. In fact, there continues to appear to be some animosity to the arts by many Mississippians, which is something that worries me.

The Picayune school system made some great strides in introducing the arts to its students during the time that Dr. Penny Wallin was superintendent here. I hope that strong connection to the arts doesn’t go away simply because she has moved on. That would be a great pity.

In four short years, Picayune vaulted to near the top of schools in forensics and drama competitions. Picayune has long prided itself in its sports prowess. I hope that the district now will begin to take pride in its arts prowess as well.

One thing became evident through the district’s arts programs. Students who were considering dropping out stayed in school because they had something that made them find a reason to stay in school.

Some youngsters professed that they had found their life’s work through their participation in the arts programs and have gone off to college to pursue those dreams. Think how wonderful it would be if an artist that found their life’s work through their participation in arts programs in Picayune’s schools became the next really great artist this state gives to the world.

I keep hearing rumors that the arts are being diminished without Dr. Wallin to push them. I hope that is wrong. If the arts are being diminished, then the school board has much to answer for since it is that group that keeps insisting that nothing has changed.

Picayune, nor any other school district, needs to be one dimensional in seeking bragging rights. The base of education — reading, writing and arithmetic — need to be pushed, since that is where most students will find the tools they need to succeed. So do sports and so do the arts, since it is those fields that will give a dimension to education for many students, whether they pursue sports or the arts professionally.

One of the things I have found most interesting is that many students seem to excel in both sports and the arts.

Frankly, as a reader I would like to see another Faulkner, or another Street, or another Haines come from the ranks of students in any of the school districts in Pearl River County.

One thing is for certain, Mississippi has the talent. That has been proven. We just need to help develop it.