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William Weaks "Willie" Morris

Death: August 02, 1999 (64)
Immediate Family:

Son of Henry Rae Morris and Marion Harper Morris
Husband of Jill Conner Browne
Ex-husband of Celia Morris
Father of Private

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Immediate Family

About Willie Morris

William Weaks Morris (November 29, 1934 – August 2, 1999) was an American writer and editor born in Jackson, Mississippi, though his family later moved to Yazoo City, Mississippi, which he immortalized in his works of prose. Morris' trademark was his lyrical prose style and reflections on the American South, particularly the Mississippi Delta. In 1967 he became the youngest editor of Harper's Magazine. He wrote several works of fiction and non-fiction, including his seminal book North Toward Home, as well as My Dog Skip.

Early years

Morris' parents moved to Yazoo City, Mississippi when he was just six months old. Yazoo City figures prominently in much of Morris' writing. After graduating as valedictorian of Yazoo City high school, Morris traveled to Austin to attend the University of Texas at Austin. He became a member of Delta Tau Delta international fraternity, where he has a room named after him in the chapter house.

His senior year in college, Morris was elected editor of the university's student newspaper, the award-winning The Daily Texan. His scathing editorials against segregation, censorship and state officials' collusion with oil and gas interests soon earned him the enmity of university administrators, particularly from the university's Board of Regents. As an example of the animosity, Morris wrote in North Toward Home that the university did not acknowledge his award of a Rhodes Scholarship with even as much as a letter of congratulation. Although Morris's contribution to the university continues to go unrecognized, in 1997 The Daily Texan began honoring each year's best editorial writer with "The Willie Morris Award for Editorial Excellence."

Morris graduated in 1957 and began studying History at Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar. While at Oxford, Morris played for the Oxford University men's basketball team. In 1958 he married Celia Buchan of Houston, and in 1959 they had a son, David Rae. The next year they returned to the United States, where he became the editor of The Texas Observer, a liberal bi-weekly newspaper. The marriage lasted 10 years, and Celia Morris writes about Willie and their divorce in her fourth book, Finding Celia's Place.

In 1963, Morris joined the staff of Harper's Magazine as Associate Editor, and became Editor-in-Chief four years later. On publication, North Toward Home became a best-selling book and earned the prestigious Houghton Mifflin Literary Fellowship Award for non-fiction. It is an autobiographical account of his childhood in Yazoo City, Mississippi, early adulthood in Austin, Texas, and eventual move from the South to New York City. Critics cited the author for his tender reflections on Southern smalltown culture, and for the tone of those alienated expatriate Southerners who move north, but retain nostalgia for the South they left behind.

As the youngest-ever editor-in-chief of an influential literary magazine, Morris helped to launch the careers of notable writers such as William Styron and Norman Mailer. But the Cowles family, owners of Harper's Magazine, was perplexed by the content Morris published: longer articles of overtly liberal sentiment that offended more cautious advertisers. Amidst falling ad sales, the Cowles family expressed their dissatisfaction with Morris until he ultimately resigned under pressure in 1971.

Willie Morris Award for Southern Fiction

Since 2007, Reba White Williams and Dave H. Williams have sponsored the Willie Morris Award for Southern Fiction. The award is given to a novel set in one of following Southern states: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia,[2] and which reflects the spirit of Morris's work. The novel should stand out for the quality of its prose, its originality, its sense of place and period, and the appeal of its characters.

Morris on Long Island

Following his resignation from Harper's, Morris moved to Bridgehampton, Long Island, where he lived for many years before returning to the South. During that time he became close friends with fellow writer James Jones, author of From Here to Eternity, and Jones's wife Gloria. Later, when his friend lay dying in Southampton Hospital of heart failure, Willie Morris took notes from Jones about his work-in-progress, the novel Whistle, which Morris finished for his friend Jones.

Morris returns home

In 1980, Morris returned to his native state to be writer-in-residence at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, Mississippi where he encouraged a new generation of Mississippi writers including John Grisham, who acknowledged auditing Morris's writing classes, and Donna Tartt, who enrolled in the University of Mississippi in 1981, and whose writing caught the attention of Willie Morris when she was a freshman. Following the suggestion of Morris and others, she transferred to Bennington College in 1982. One of Morris' books, Good Old Boy: A Delta Boyhood was made into a TV movie for Public Television by Disney and PBS Wonderworks and later re-titled The River Pirates in 1988 not far from where Morris lived. It starred Richard Farnsworth, Maureen O'Sullivan, Dixie Wade, Ryan Francis, Caryn West and Richard E. Council. In 2000, My Dog Skip, another of Morris' books and an unofficial prequel to the earlier film, was made into a major motion picture starring Frankie Muniz, Diane Lane, Luke Wilson and Kevin Bacon. (Morris had previously written for Reader's Digest a profile of his dog 'Pete,' whom he had adopted while living in Bridgehampton, New York. When Morris left Bridgehampton, he took Pete, who had formerly belonged to the owner of a local service station and whom Willie referred to as 'the Mayor of Bridgehampton,' back to Mississippi with him. Later, after Pete's death, Morris requested and received permission from the Episcopal church for a burial of Pete within the same cemetery where Morris himself would later be buried.) Morris died of a heart attack just before the movie debuted, after seeing an advance screening of the film and praising it.

Willie Morris is buried in Glenwood Cemetery in Yazoo City, close to the "grave" of the fictitious Witch of Yazoo, a character from one of Morris' books, Good Old Boy: A Delta Boyhood. In life he counted among his friends a wide circle, including Yazoo City childhood friends, well-known writers like Winston Groom (Forrest Gump), William Styron (Sophie's Choice), John Knowles (A Separate Peace), James Dickey (Deliverance) and Irwin Shaw (Rich Man, Poor Man), and Larry L. King ("The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas"). Morris invited Dickey and King to join him as Associate Editors of Harper's when he became editor. Morris and King wrote for the Texas Observer, the progressive voice of Texas in the mid 20th century.

Morris was revered by the students in his writing classes in Oxford. He was known as an unerring mimic with a warm sense of humor and a sense of the absurd.

Morris helped two Mississippi residents by giving them a second chance at sight by being an eye donor.

Morris appeared in Ken Burns's 1994 documentary Baseball.

Books by Willie Morris

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Willie Morris's Timeline

November 29, 1934
August 2, 1999
Age 64