This post was originally published on the blog of BookPeople, where I am a bookseller.
April is the month of the feast day of Saint George. In celebration of the life of the third century Roman military martyr, our booksellers have been honoring a centuries old tradition of offering a rose and a book. In fact, all this month, we have been recommending books from the catalogue of our friends at Random House. (You can find my selection, North Toward Home, and other picks from my fellow booksellers on our Saint George’s Day display in our store at the front of the staircase.)
Willie Morris’ North Toward Home is a book that evokes both passion and nostalgia in me. I discovered it about a decade ago when I was a student at UT, and a reporter for The Daily Texan. I learned that Morris was a legendary editor of UT’s decorated student newspaper in the 50s. His editorials against segregation and the university’s ties with oil and business interests earned him the enmity of UT administration. He earned a Rhodes Scholarship, and went on to become the youngest editor of Harper’s Magazine in 1967, the same year he published his seminal memoir.
As a writer, I most admire Morris for his ability to evoke the nuances of culture in his prose. His work is striking for how firmly he is able to establish a sense of place. In one of my favorite passages from North Toward Home, Morris has just left his home in Mississippi as a boy of seventeen. It is 1953. He arrives in Austin on a Greyhound and describes stepping onto the University of Texas campus for the first time as an awestruck freshman:
“It was early fall, with that crispness in the air that awakened one’s senses and seemed to make everything wondrously alive. My first days I wandered above that enormous campus, mingling silently with its thousands of nameless students. I walked past the fraternity and sorority houses, which were like palaces to me with their broad porches and columns and patios, and down “The Drag” with its bookstores and restaurants, a perfectly contained little city of its own. On a slight rise dominating the place was a thirty-story skyscraper called the “Tower,” topped with an edifice that was a mock Greek temple; the words carved on white sandstone said, “Ye Shall Know the Truth and the Truth Shall Make You Free,” causing me to catch my breath in wonder and bafflement. That first morning I took the elevator to the top and looked out on those majestic purple hills to the west, changing to lighter shades of blue or a deeper purple as wisps of autumn clouds drifted around the sun; this, they would tell me, was the great Balconies Divide, where the South ended and the West began, with its stark, severe landscape so different from any I had known before…”
There are other reminisces of Austin and UT in this book that are unforgettable. As Morris voyages north to New York, where he breaks into the world of American letters, and then makes a restless and nostalgic return back home, we are given a portrait of a country in transition, entering the civil rights era. Morris was clearly influenced by Richard Wright’s Black Boy, published a generation earlier, and his journey reflects a country still struggling to define itself. He achieves a singular grace with his effort. As Walter Percy put it, North Toward Home is the story of “one man’s pilgrimage.” Fifty years after its release, it stands as one of the great American autobiographies.
This Saint George’s Day, I am happy to share North Toward Home with you. Buy a copy for yourself; buy a copy for a UT student or alumnus, or for someone else in your life who will appreciate it for its mesmerizing beauty, its fierce intelligence, and for Morris’ deeply felt and resonant reflections on the American south and the meaning of home.