The Delta 101 by Julia Reed

By giftshop  |  July 10, 2013  |  Uncategorized

Last spring I went off on a book tour that took me everywhere from Knoxville to Vermont and I found myself having to explain—a lot—what it was that I meant exactly when I referred to the Mississippi Delta. So I made like a first grade teacher and held up my forefingers and thumbs in front of my face in the shape of a diamond. “This is Memphis,” I’d say, tapping my fingers together at the top. “Down here where my thumbs meet is Vicksburg, and over here on my right is the Yazoo.” I repeated what David Cohn said about the Delta beginning in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel and told about the ducks that swim there in the marble fountain. I explained that the Delta is not an actual delta but one of the richest alluvial flood plains in the world—and pretty much uninhabitable until well into the 1820s when a handful of folks rich enough and crazy enough (Cohn’s “pioneers with means”) turned up to literally hack it out.

By that time, my audience was transfixed so it got more personal. When I was growing up, I said, my hometown of Greenville was the most sophisticated place I’ve lived in since. It’s where I got my first by-line (a review of a book written by my next-door neighbor, Bern Keating, for our paper, which won a Pulitzer Prize), saw my first Broadway musical (when Carole Brent and Burrell McGee starred in “Kiss Me Kate”), tried on my first designer dress (at Hafter’s downtown where I also had my first job, attaching price tags to the clothes).

I told them we’d never had much truck with the “moonlight and magnolias” Old South (via a typically spot-on quote by Shelby Foote) and pointed out that the Delta had always been a melting pot. Greenville’s first mayor after the Civil War had been Jewish; the town was like a peaceful West Bank where Jews and Syrians and Lebanese had for generations lived and worked side by side. I explained why it was that I’d become an aficionado of Chinese and Southern Italian food before I’d even left home.

Finally, I told them that we have always, from the get-go and by necessity, been seriously adept at making our own fun. And that everywhere there are reminders of the ancient hardwood forest from whence we sprang. Before we bought our house, there’d been a yellow fever cemetery in our back yard; even now my mother shouts at me to shut the door because of the snakes. A few years ago Howard Brent was so convinced he’d found panther tracks at his aptly named hunting club Panther Tract, he sent them off to the Smithsonian to be analyzed.

Always, they were wide-eyed. “We didn’t know any of that,” they’d say. “You ought to write about it.”

But then there was the stuff I couldn’t really explain, the stuff better written in songs or fiction. The way my heart skips a beat every time I drive over that last “hill” outside Memphis and into what feels like an enormous dome turned on its side. That earthy chemical smell more powerful than any of Proust’s madeleines. The towns that read like reassuring mantras as I blow by: Rena Lara, Midnight, Nitta Yuma, Louise.

There’s the breathtaking starkness of the landscape in winter, the sunsets that drench the sky, my favorite stretch of blacktop connecting 61 to old Highway One at Duncan. There’s the memory of just-caught crappie frying in a pan at the Highland Club, of a barbecue sandwich at Sherman’s when it was still a grocery store, of the pet deer at the gas station north of Gunnison who would smoke, and swallow, a cigarette. There’s the memory of, well, everything. I pop open a cold one while driving on the levee and I am forever sixteen. I walk into to Doe’s and thank God every time for that broiler and those skillets, for Florence and Sug and Judy and the staff as close as family, for that lone Mexican who wandered through our towns and left his tamale recipe behind.

No matter what, there’s the soundtrack: Eden Brent channeling Boogaloo on the piano, Ralph McGee and Jimmy Phillips playing “Panther Burn” in our living room, Duff Dorrough bringing me to my knees from the dead on my iPod with “Rock My Soul.” I listen to it all and realize that what I should have said to everyone who asked that the Delta is a great gift, of thousands of years of flooding and all those who carved it out and worked it afterwards in conditions so insufferable it gave us the blues. It’s also entirely inseparable from who I am.

Delta Magazine July/August 2013

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  1. Loved this arTicle. I hope everyone from the Delta will get the opportunity to read it…. There is no place like home….. You can take…. ‘Em from the Delta … But ain’t no takin the dirt from their roads…. Sort of like gettin mud on your tires. Ya know…The Delta will be always be “home”…. That “familiar” place…. That always just sticks. —

  2. Lacy Tollison says:

    Love, love, love this! Thank you Julia for putting it into words. For all that is considered wrong with the delta, this and so much more makes it so right. The delta will always be “my hometown”. No matter where I go or who I meet, the delta and its people will always be my home, my people and my heritage.

  3. Donna Morris says:

    Oh my Lawd, you just sent shivers down my spine with that one! Great descriptive notes, you have forever touched my heart with those flooding memories. The DELTA ain’t what it use to be, but in my soul it will be forever more.

    Thank you….

  4. Rebecca says:

    Wonderful article.

  5. Jaime Fratesi says:

    Well spoken words!! Thank you!

  6. Reb Sheldon says:

    My mama loves the author’s writings. I grew up in Greenville, but call Avon “home.” Actually, Keystone Plantation, south of Avon, is home, for me, no matter where I lay my head. I’ll always love the Delta. I’ve got muddy water in my veins, and a perpetual bit of buckshot under my finger nails, whether you can see it, or not.
    I, too, have a favorite stretch of blacktop; mine is Highway 1, between Avon and James Crossing. It rides right through my family’s farm. Some of the scene’s I’ve passed through, over the years, still leave me breathless. One, in particular, was a field of three week old soybeans, surrounded by the rich, black soil of the field. About 10 o’clock in the morning, with a big old cottonwood tree at the rear of the field. Blue skies, and the sun was right at the top of the tree… I was going fishing somewhere up-river, and passed through. I saw it only briefly, but I remember seeing the shadows of the clouds moving across the field… I’ve been all over the world. I’ve worked offshore; worked in Brazil, Scotland, Norway, the Persian Gulf area, the Gulf of Mexico, and Mexico. Have travelled the USA a fair bit, and seen mountains and waterfalls. I’ve seen the Grand Canyon. ALL of that pales in comparison to that one scene of the Mississippi Delta, with the new beans growing in buckshot, and the sun rising behind a cottonwood tree…
    Now, I sit in an office in Houston, TX, and don’t get home nearly as much as I’d like. But, I still have my memories, and call them up when I am reminded of the majesty of my home.

    Thank you, Ms. Reed, for reminding me once more.

  7. Cathy Mansour says:

    What a wonderful description of the Mississippi Delta and I could not have explained it any better myself. You are right… it is entirely inseparable from who we are and I am so very honored to have been raised in such an area rich in everything important…….

  8. Marsha Goodwin says:

    I lived in my hometown of Drew 47 years. I moved an hour away 15 years ago to the ‘hills’, but I go to THE DELTA at least once a week to see family and friends. My favorite season of the year is spring, and I travel the flat roads in the Delta to SMELL THE DIRT during first diskings as often as I can. There’s no place like it, there are no people in the world any greater, and I’ll move back someday. I miss it just that much! Loved your article. Thank you for sharing such a beautiful picture of our Delta!

  9. Vicki Downs Brocato says:

    Trying to explain the Delta to “outsiders” can be difficult, but Julia Reed did a hell of a job. It made my heart hurt, and I’ve been back in the Delta for 30 years. I remember when I was young, I couldn’t wait to get out of the Delta, but once I was out, I couln’t wait to get back.
    Our very souls are tied to this place, and it is always calling us home.

  10. Ruth Mcgee Eatherly Saed says:

    Way to go Julia, you can always say it the best to bring back the wonderful memories of the Delta.

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