Obituary: Willie Morris

Click to follow
"THIS ELECTRIC town, which I adore," wrote Wallace Stevens of New York - a more tenable point of view than that of Barry Goldwater, who called it such an alien grotesquerie it ought to be severed from the continent and floated out to sea. The editor and autobiographer Willie Morris was one of those immigrants from elsewhere in the country who could recognise that in fact New York is

both our city state and America done large, that far from being an aberration from the national life the city was if anything the crux and apogee of our contemporary existence, because it brought together, however tenuously, the whole range and spectrum, manifestation and extreme, of the American breed and temper.

None the less, brought up in the Mississippi Delta, in Yazoo City, Morris was suffused with the spirit of the South, just as he quickly absorbed that of Manhattan to which he came in 1963. After studying at the University of Texas and then at Oxford, he had worked as editor at the Texas Observer in Austin. He came to New York to join Harper's magazine, then a stolid literary publication, and four years later was duly made editor. At only 33, he was the youngest ever editor of America's oldest magazine. He took it from a semi-bufferish state to the vanguard of literate counter-culture.

Morris had little funds at his disposal - a copy boy at The New York Times earned almost as much as a star contributor to Harper's - but he realised that when the urge is upon a writer to produce something that would not be countenanced elsewhere, then any dictum about blockheads and money falls by the wayside.

Ever alert to racial inequality, he gave much of one issue to a large extract from William Styron's influential The Confessions of Nat Turner (1967); realised that Seymour Hersh needed a minimum of 40,000 words for his exposure of the My Lai massacre; and, after persuading Norman Mailer to write about the celebrated anti-Vietnam march on the Pentagon, joined the novelist at his retreat on the Cape, where - in six weeks - Mailer produced 90,000 words, each section of the heavily emended, forthright manuscript typed in the adjoining room while he produced the next.

Morris realised that there was nothing for it but to turn over a whole issue to the piece (which became The Armies of the Night, 1968); he telephoned the managing editor, who greeted the news with a cool "Well, why the hell not?"

It caused a sensation, and drew more letters than anything in the magazine's long history. Mailer read them all and remarked, "All those people sitting all over America writing these letters. They're carrying on a conversation with a magazine as if a magazine itself were a human being." That is a neat definition of a successful magazine, something which cannot be produced to order, and it was also to be Morris's downfall, for in 1971 the family which controlled it duly eased him out: the familiar tactic of economic arguments masked disquiet at editorial tack - in Morris's case, opposition to the Vietnam War from the start.

The demands of the magazine and nights on the town - as well as a disdain for the academia which absorbed his wife - took their toll on his marriage; this, along with the ousting from the magazine, left him footloose for a while but there came fresh stability with a return South and marriage to JoAnne Pritchard. Ironically enough, he himself now taught for a while, at the University of Mississippi.

Morris's finances received a fillip with the serialisation of his first book, the childhood memoir North Toward Home (1967) in the Saturday Evening Post, and he would turn variants upon his own life and that of the country in diverse books, such as the recent charming memoir of a canny, madcap boyhood companion, My Dog Skip (1995). This was not published in Britain, nor his account of the 1960s at Harper's, New York Days (1993) - a book that captures the rumbustious, booze-flooded vexation and exhilaration of running a magazine, one which nurtured such staff writers as David Halberstam and Larry L. King (who, on meeting Morris, was down to his last 25 cents, a situation which improved, to the tune of $200m, with his The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas).

A taste for good prose - whether highly wrought or demotic - ran in Morris's blood, and he credited much of his education to his time in Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, where afternoons in the cinema with Dennis Potter were as stimulating as anything that New College had to offer (something overlooked by Humphrey Carpenter in his hefty 1998 biography of the dramatist). In 1992 he published a limited-edition book entitled My Two Oxfords - about Oxford University and Oxford, Mississippi.

On his return south, he remarked that, after the pell-mell life of Manhattan, he was content that literary life was now a matter of taking Eudora Welty out to dinner once a month. As he recalled of the Fifties, many a night was spent in a huge Chevy and driving

with dual exhausts hundreds of miles into the night-time, up to Memphis or down to the Gulf, watching an autumn moon above the sea of dead stalks, the bare trees silhouetted against a sweep of skyline. Once we drove all the way to New Orleans without a stop for Saturday night in the Quarter, then turned around and came back, and the next week drove up to Asheville to see Thomas Wolfe's grave, where the caretaker said, "Tom Wolfe never amounted to much."

Naturally North Toward Home disturbed Yazoo (where it was sold in a pharmacy, the town lacking a bookstore). One friend called it the biggest event to hit the place since the Civil War, and those most agitated were those not in it. Whatever the shock to the residents in 1968 of seeing their small-town life so precisely evoked, three decades on what becomes clear is Morris's profound love of the place. Perhaps the most famous incident in the book concerns his hiding in a shrubbery and jumping from it upon a three-year-old Negro. He was challenged about this on television by Barbara Walters, and said of childhood's undoubted cruelties that "it wasn't so much that he was Negro as that he was so little".

Willie Morris, journalist and writer: born Jackson, Mississippi 29 November 1934; married 1958 Celia Buchan (one son; marriage dissolved 1969), 1991 JoAnne Prichard; died Jackson 2 August 1999.