Through this riveting inaugural volume of China Grove, an editorial team rooted in Mississippi unveils the identity of the last of the great Southern literati, Mark Twain’s intellectual property battles, and love stories real and apocryphal, in one polished collection.
Co-editor Lucius Lampton explores “China Grove” as both a ghost town and an editorial perspective in his opening essay. He describes the many meanings of the journal’s title: an extinct town, the Chinaberry trees of the Deep South, and “a spiritual China Grove for those who love literature and art.” The journal editors orchestrate a compendium of more than twenty talented writers of this latter persuasion. Place and tradition (ebulliently originating in, but not limited to, the South) overlap tidally across the included writings.
One of the more distinctive features of the journal is its inclusion of reproductions of primary sources and its focus on interpretation of the past, or things passing. Take, for example, the exploration of Mark Twain and, separately, of Eudora Welty through extant documentation. It remains an exceptional way to broach literary discussion.
In 1898, Mark Twain had lost his beloved daughter and his fortune and was forced to pursue speaking tours to raise funds to protect what he had left. He pitched a manuscript to McClure’s Magazine as he followed the copyright debates being waged contemporaneously in English courts. China Grove reprints the pitch so that the reader can see the letter in Twain’s own hand, on his mourning stationary. Lampton comments, “In the ‘Peanut Stand’ the voice of Twain emerges . . . in a 7,000 word discussion over the idea of copyright and an author’s right to fair compensation for literary creation. The essay is easily Twain’s most expansive and serious writing on copyright law.” The examination Lampton prompts is a vital one to the present as copyright laws and other intellectual property vehicles—such as international drug patents—that are still under evaluation for continued protection.
An examination of Eudora Welty, herself a Mississippian, follows. Lampton unveils Welty’s relationship with literary detective fiction writer Ken Millar (who wrote under the pen name Ross Macdonald) through primary sources in this journal. Use of original materials in analyzing truths is one of the features that sets the magazine apart—the diversity of genres and evidence that appear neatly in its pages. Even in the final “Back Gate,” drafted by perhaps the other co-editor, R. Scott Anderson, one can read verse, memoir, and the entertainment of fiction—by an author who throws identity into the lottery machine.
For the premier issue, the editors recruited a renowned Mississippian, Ellen Gilchrist, to discuss writing—and it is the reader’s privilege to ‘hear’ it. Between 1981 and 2008, Gilchrist published more than twenty books of fiction, winning the National Book Award in 1984 for her collection of short stories Victory over Japan. A Vicksburg native who studied under Eudora Welty, Gilchrist granted the editors of this volume a vantage look, through fiction, about how our lives have changed in an age of increased terror—and how they have not.
The editors examine in their interview with Gilchrist whether she is one of the last Southern writers, which is, however wryly posed, a tough question. In a region of Rick Bragg enthusiasts and the poetry of bible study, Gilchrist remains maybe one of the last Southern classical storytellers, post-O’Henry but not quite disintegrating into Salinger. She might appear to represent the last of the classicists, one who invokes Chaucer and the tri-delts of Vanderbilt in a setting of history, family lineage, love and survival, but not the last of the Southern writers.
The short story she provided to the volume, “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor,” reflects the narrative discipline of a literary fugue that has been dominated by Southerners: Styron, Wolfe, O’Connor, Faulkner, Porter, and on and on. Speaking as an American and not only an American from the South, she writes in her concluding paragraph, a triumph against terror: “This is our parade and I’m marching in it.”
Meanwhile, a century after Twain, and living in the same general region as Gilchrist, a writer illuminates the Southern Transcendenta: nature and community that incorporate the best of both philosophical and literary movements. A physician explores her daily travels to and from the clinic where she works, describing the people and place that characterizes that passage.
The first dwelling on my detour once belonged to that cantankerous Verrell ‘Pappy’ Miller. Pappy knew my schedule and about once a week would flag me down on the roadside, sometimes to ask for a refill on a prescription (because he ‘didn’t want to bother me at work’) but often to give me a whole smoked pork shoulder (because he ‘knew I didn’t have much time to cook’). The cadence of his signature greeting phrase “You better GIT SOMEWHERE!” has become part of my own vocabulary.
Dwalia South’s essay concludes with a promise of spring, and the “daffodils planted perhaps a century ago.” We, too, look toward spring, toward a botany that survives the centuries, and this volume marries it to the autumn in which it originated, rich with stories and poems that transcend time and place, without forgetting where you might be from, or who you are, somewhere in the leaves of printed words.