William Ferris’ storied South

Nov. 02, 2013 @ 09:21 AM

“The book really tracks my love for and interest in the American South over the last 40 years – the people who are my heroes and heroines whose work inspired my own. I was able to meet these people along the way, and they graciously invited me in for an interview. I did interviews and photographs and films with them.”
William Ferris was describing his new multimedia book “The Storied South: Voices of Writers and Artists,” that collects the voices and images of 26 Southern writers, scholars, artists, and composers, including Eudora Welty, Ernest Gaines, Alex Haley, Alice Walker, Robert Penn Warren, John Blassingame, Cleanth Brooks, C. Vann Woodward, William Christenberry, William Eggleston, Walker Evans, Pete Seeger, and others Ferris came to know.
Ferris is the Joel R. Williamson Eminent Professor of History and senior associate director of the Center for the Study of the American South at UNC-Chapel Hill. He was chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities and was the co-editor of the award-winning "Encyclopedia of Southern Culture."
When I spoke with him recently about the new book, I asked how he came to be so close to the acclaimed writer, Eudora Welty, whose photo is on the cover of the new book.
Here is what he said:
“It goes back to before I was born. Her parents and my grandparents lived near each other in Jackson, Mississippi. When I was a young child on the farm where I grew up, Eudora and some of her friends who were artists came and picnicked and spent the day doing watercolors of the landscape and sharing the outdoors. After they left, my mother told me that one day you will know the name of one of these people, who is a famous writer named Eudora Welty. Years later at Davidson College, I invited Eudora to be our speaker of the year.
“To my amazement she came. When the English faculty asked Ms. Welty why she agreed to come, she said ‘Well, Bill Ferris invited me and I know his family and felt I just had to come.’
“My stock went through the roof.
“Eudora was an inspiration. I began reading her work in high school, her dramatic monologues like ‘Why I Live at the P.O.,’ I began writing short stories at Davidson, inspired by her. Later I saw her photography when I was doing my fieldwork in folklore and that inspired me to do similar kinds of things, black-and-white portraits of people and landscapes.
“Then I became really a friend of hers. We saw each other. She came to my classes at Yale and to the University of Mississippi. I would always visit her when I came back home and take her a bottle of Maker's Mark and we would sit around and talk.
“This book takes her back behind the scenes into her imagination. What it was like to travel around Mississippi photographing, then to translate stories and images into fiction. It also is important because she reflects on why a region like the South, at her particular time, produced so many writers: William Faulkner, Richard Wright, Thomas Wolfe, Tennessee Williams.
“She talks about her first meeting with Faulkner when he took her sailing for a day on a lake.  They never spoke to each other. They simply sat there and drifted around the lake, never speaking. She understood that, as did he, as a communication that did not require words. These are moments in Eudora’s life that we can enter in a very private way.”
Ferris reflected on what Welty taught him:
“I started at Davidson with aspirations of being a writer and then I realized that I was not good enough. So I found myself moving in another direction and as a folklorist to record voices that Eudora wrote about.
“It has always been my interest and I teach a course on this, southern literature in the oral tradition, looking at how the folklore of a region, be it the South or Ireland or Nigeria, shapes the writers, and how a writer like Eudora Welty listens for stories and for the qualities of voice that we hear and read in her short stories and novels. So I wanted her to talk about that process, which is a very personal, private world, a workshop inside the writer's imagination. As she and other writers say, they write about the literary, imaginative region rather than the geographic region. But those are connected and she talks about that, the sense of place, which she was fond of writing about, is a powerful vehicle in her fiction.”
Ferris’s productive friendship with Welty inspired his efforts to connect similarly with the other southern writers and artists who are featured in the book. So we can thank both Ferris and Welty for the treasure of the connections brought to us by “The Storied South.”

D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” which airs Sundays at noon and Thursdays at 5 p.m. on UNC-TV. For information or to view prior programs visit the webpage at www.unctv.org/ncbookwatch.