An outsider, an Englishman no less, who really “gets it” about Mississippi will speak at the annual Faulkner Literary Luncheon, Thursday, September 28.
Richard Grant, author of the non-fiction best seller, Dispatches From Pluto, Lost and Found in the Mississippi Delta, is one of those rare individuals, whether native Mississippian or foreigner, who kind of understand this mystical place where what you see (or think you see) is not necessarily what is.
The son of a British businessman, Grant was born in Malaysia, lived in Kuwait, and then moved to London, where he took a history degree from University College. A travel writer, Grant was going broke living with his then girlfriend in an expensive 400 square foot apartment in Manhattan.
Thinking about becoming a Mississippian
Then he made his first exploration of the Mississippi Delta with a writer friend, native to the area. Near the community known as Pluto, in Holmes County, he was shown a century-old farmhouse with 4,500 square feet of living space, ten times that of his underground, “shoe box” apartment in New York. He learned that he could buy the old house, make an affordable down payment, and have monthly mortgage payments less than a quarter of the rent for his place in Manhattan.
One New York woman, who had never been to Mississippi, told Grant his very willingness to live in the state was proof he was a degenerate racist. Perhaps she was one of those parochial New York sophisticates who never learned to drive a car and KNOW that the Hudson River is the western border of the country.
He bought the farmhouse, talked his girlfriend into moving to the poorest county in the poorest state in the country. The nearest grocery store was 25 miles away, and stocked with pig knuckles, white rice and white bread, and “streak o’ lean.” They moved to Pluto in 2012.
Learning to survive and thrive in Mississippi
Fortunately, Grant had seen enough of the world that he was able to arrive in Holmes County with an open mind. During his youth in London, Grant he had developed a fascination with Mississippi, owing substantially to his appreciation of the music of Jimmie Rogers, Elvis, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf et al. Also, he read some William Faulkner and was mystified by the incongruous characters and events in Yoknapatawpha County.
He soon learned how to shoot a rifle, chop firewood, and overcome a fear of crop dusters roaring toward him ten feet off the ground at 180 miles per hour.
Grant and his girlfriend became friends with white people of the planter and professional and working classes. They got married at their house in Pluto. One neighboring family sort of adopted them. He also developed friendships with black laborers and blues musicians. He got to know James “T-Model” Ford and Super Chican and other bluesmen. He drank with them in juke joints where he was the only white man.
This worldly and educated Englishman developed, among other things, a shrewd understanding of the various layers and degrees of “racism,” white and black, as it exists in Mississippi in the early part of the 21st century.
He came to love Mississippi in a different way than a sixth generation native can ever love it. The place will never be as exotic and enigmatic to someone born and raised here as it is to an outsider,
I know something about that myself. I, too, am a Mississippian by choice, a sixth generation native of Callaway County, Missouri. My introduction to the state was reading about Yoknapatawpha County when I was a junior in high school. Mississippi set the hook when I made my first visit to Oxford and the Delta when I was 16 years old, summer of 1964.
Dispatches from Pluto: a rarity in the Mississippi book world
Early on, Grant realized that Pluto and its environs would be the subject of a book he wanted to write. He explains in the prologue of Dispatches From Pluto:
“One of my hopes in writing this book is to dissolve these clumsy old stereotypes, and illustrate my conviction that Mississippi is the best-kept secret in America. Nowhere else is so poorly understood by outsiders, so unfairly maligned, so surreal and peculiar, so charming and maddening. Individually, collectively, and above all politically, Mississippians have a kind of genius for charging after phantoms and lost causes. Nowhere else in the world have I met so many fine, generous, honorable people, but if you look at the statistics, and read the news stories coming out of Mississippi, the state gives every appearance of being a redneck disaster zone.”
Tens of thousands of pages of excellent fiction have been published about Mississippi — Faulkner, Larry Brown, Eudora Welty, Walker Percy, Shelby Foote, Donna Tartt, John Grisham, Lewis Nordan and many others. But when it comes to non-fiction I can name less than half a dozen books I believe to be really superb. There would be William Alexander Percy’s Lanterns on the Levee (1941), Richard Wright’s Black Boy (1940), Willie Morris’ North Toward Home (1967), John M. Barry’s Rising Tide (1997), maybe a couple more, but not many.
Without hesitation, I add Richard Grant’s Dispatches From Pluto (2015) to my personal list of great non-fiction about the Magnolia State.
You can hear Grant speak Thursday at noon at the First United Methodist Church. Tickets are available at the Union County Heritage Museum on Cleveland Street, phone 662-538-0014. Fifteen bucks each, and that includes lunch.