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Friday, November 9, 2012

Ellen, We Can't Quit You, Baby

Have you ever heard of Josephine Haxton? Born in 1921 in Natchez, she's the author of several soul-searching books about the South-Mississippi in particular. She passed away Wednesday (November 7, 2012) here in Jackson, MS.

Perhaps you're more familiar with her nom de plume. Back when Haxton began writing, she based her first book on two of her aunts. When it was ready to wing its way into the world, she didn't want her relatives to be recognized. Ellen Douglas, the author, and A Family's Affairs, the book, were both "born" in 1962. The book won a Houghton Mifflin Fellowship. Several other novels followed, in addition to essays and other nonfiction. Her novel Apostles of Light was nominated for a National Book Award. In 2000, she received the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in Literature, and in 2008, a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters.

Haxton hobnobbed with some of the literary giants of Mississippi: Shelby Foote, Walker Percy, Eudora Welty, Charles Bell. She was well acquainted with newspaperman Hodding Carter, too. In their own small way, the Haxtons both tried to stave off the insanity of some Mississippians' response to the Civil Rights Movement. Josephine held meetings in her home and ignored color boundaries. Her husband Kenneth advocated school integration. The two stayed in Greenville and raised a family. These influences consistently appeared in Haxton's books.

One of Haxton's hallmarks was her honest prose. She didn't sugar coat. She didn't shy away from hard truths. Haxton consistently confronted tensions in her home state with a sharp eye and ear for the people who live there. She saw the faults, the quirks, the human foibles within all of us-even ones we didn't know we possessed. She painted authentic pictures-of the awkward relationships between men and women; of the stumbling unions between blacks and whites; of what the South used to be and what it is becoming-that we recognized as and in ourselves.

In her last book, a collection of essays entitled Witnessing, Haxton had this to say:
I remember saying to a friend of mine, joking one day while we sat in the Greenville cemetery, the unlikely but beautiful spot where we often went to share a beer and look at the headstones, that my own epitaph should be, "She was always willing to take a small chance."
I think she did better than that. Don't you?

Douglas, Ellen. Witnessing. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2004.
Inge, William, ed. The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, Volume 9: Literature. The University of North Carolina Press, 2008.

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