Richard Ford, Mississippi, And The Relationship of Politics and Literature

by evanmcmurry

On le Twitter the other day, following the passage of North Dakota’s new more-restrictive-than-thou abortion law, someone (I forget whom) quipped that ND just gave its dwindling residents even more reason to pack up and move elsewhere. At the time such a point seemed glib—the importance of these laws aside, who leaves a state over abortion restrictions?

But Richard Ford made a similar comment tonight at BookCourt, in a much larger context. Someone asked him why he didn’t write about the south given that he grew up in Jackson, Mississippi (home of the world’s awesomest state capitol museum, by the by), and Ford responded, almost in so many words: because Mississippi sucks. Ford knew he hated the bigotry and backwardness by age sixteen. He left as soon as possible, and while he has since made peace with his hometown and state, he still sees no reason to write about them.

And so Mississippi lost itself a major novelist. And lest you counter, “Who in that state gives a flying bayou what some writer thinks?” see how many famous Mississippians you can name before getting to this guy, and imagine our conception of the state and its meaning without him. Literature helps define a place in the national, political, and cultural consciousness. Mississippi already ignored its main cultural export—blues—until it was almost too late; the Clarksdale Blues Museum wasn’t established until the mid-90s, after most of the bluesmen were dead. Now it lost a key literary endorsement, to New Jersey of all places.

States like Mississippi are currently in a race to the bottom to cut taxes in order to lure corporations. But how much good does it do to get people to move to your state if nobody wants to stay? And how much does a state like North Dakota lose by using punitive, radical laws to push out anybody who might otherwise contribute to the promotion of the state?