Thank you , Nora, for that introduction. And Kendall, Bridget, Tom, I am in awe of how smoothly and superbly the Welty Symposium is run. More than that I am bowled over by your students, the ways in which they gladly participate, the dreams they have shared with us writers at lunches and dinners, their amazing questions after readings. Talk about cause for optimism.
I am an insanely incurable optimist. Tommy Franklin said in his reading yesterday that it was a leap of faith to publish a book. If that is true, then making a living at a small publisher is a leap of faith over a gorge filled with pine trees. But for 72 books each year, that is what we do at University Press of Mississippi, we leap. I may not look the athlete, but when it comes to authors, I think even Kierkegaard would say: “Have you seen the vertical leap on this guy? Over the backboard, Baby!”
Morkan’s Quarry took many leaps of faith to write and to publish, for me and for my eventual publisher, Moon City Press. The book burned through two agents in New York. And it received a lot of thoughtful letters of rejection and even long phone calls from editors and agents. I benefitted greatly from these criticisms, and knew I was very lucky to have them. Most starting writers get silence and photocopied form letters.
But a few things New York told me seemed unworkable. Chief among these, editors kept saying there was too much suffering, that the war was too harsh, surely it wasn’t that bad?
Well, you should have seen what I left out! The war in the Ozarks bears some explaining. In Missouri, when asked to vote on even holding a secession convention, 73% voted no. In the Ozarks, in the hills and mountains that number was often 80-90%. Nonetheless in June of 1861, when Missouri’s elected government was abolished not by just gunpoint but by gunfire, civil authority collapsed. And shortly after that as the Ozarks became a distant sideshow to the war across the river, a neglected backwater after March of 1862 really, there unfolded what one historian has called “a period of savagery unparalleled in American history.”
In every diary I read, in every account from the White River Chronicles of S.C. Turnbo, I find William Garrett Piston’s statement affirmed. Springfield, my hometown, and the Morkans hometown, changed hands five times and was occupied by six different armies in just the first six months of the war. In that time, men such as Michael Morkan, who wanted nothing to do with the war, had to make sudden and life-changing decisions about whom to trust, about who would be in charge.
The Morkans own the lime quarry in Springfield, and had something few citizens would need in any quantity, black powder. Morkan gets corraled by Missouri’s Confederates and has to give that powder to them. After all, it looked for a bit as if they would be in charge. But from then on he is labeled a secessionist traitor. Like many civilians in the Ozarks, he’s captured, imprisoned, and taken to St. Louis. And that’s where we will pick up with him in this reading, on foot, in winter in the Ozarks, which means something a little icier than it does here in Mississippi.