Greenville’s Legendary Water

 

When trying to get a book published, I was told to go to this small town and drink the water.

SOUTHERN LIVING November 2002 edition

Some small towns in The Delta grow corn, others produce cotton. It seems Greenville, Mississippi, raises crops of published writers. The list is so long that writer David Cohn once said in The Atlantic Monthly magazine that there are more published writers per capita in Greenville than in any other city in the United States. Of course, Cohn’s hometown was Greenville, but he was published in The Atlantic Monthly, so no one questioned his credentials.

 

Greenville’s other claim to fame is that its water is brown. I first heard about this when I was doing interviews for my first book, A Southern Belle Primer or Why Princess Margaret Will Never Be A Kappa Kappa Gamma. I was in the Mississippi Delta when an insistent woman pointed me toward the quiet little town of 47,000.

“It will be very helpful,” she said. “Are there a lot of Southern belles there?” I asked. “Probably,” she said. “Are there a lot of Kappas there?” “Probably.” She said. “But the real reason is that people in Greenville always get published. You go there, and I guarantee you’ll sell your book.” She then leaned in closed and explained “It’s the water – there’s something in the water.” Sure! I thought.

However, Greenville wasn’t far away, so I dropped by for a visit. She was right about the water. It was a strange brown color.

I was assured that this liquid is perfectly safe – it’s just a Greenville eccentricity. I wasn’t convinced, so I didn’t drink it at first; I just brushed my teeth with it. Right away, I started hearing about the writers.

Civil War historian and author Shelby Foote grew up here. One of his good friends in high school was Walker Percy – an acclaimed author who won a National Book Award. Percy wasn’t born in the town but moved there at a young age when his parents died and his bachelor cousin, William Alexander Percy, adopted him and his siblings. The elder Percy was a published poet.

 

Hodding Carter, Jr., was editor of Greenville’s Delta Democrat Times. He won a Pulitzer Prize. Josephine Haxton has written short stories and six novels. She is known as Ellen Douglas because of a story she wrote about her family; her aunts insisted that if she published it, she couldn’t use their real names or even her own name. She was very successful and even won a coveted Houghton Mifflin award.

Greenville’s library has a permanent exhibit of more than 16 of its best known writers, and Hugh McCormick at his Book Inn bookstore has collection of books by more than 50 of the town’s writers. Someone even started talking about William Faulkner.

“Don’t tell me Faulkner is from Greenville,” I said. “I happen to know he’s from Oxford.” Yes, I was told, “But his literary agent Ben Wasson was from Greenville. He got Faulkner’s first to books published. Faulkner visited and wrote here all the time.”

I discovered this town brags about its writers the way some places revere their high school football teams. I was told, though, that not as many young writers are coming up today. Folks here blame it on all the bottled water the kids now drink.

By the end of my two-day visit, I was not only drinking the strange water, I was bathing in it. Then I went home and finished my book. Of course, I wasn’t foolish enough to think the water would help. It was silly to think such a liquid could have mystical powers. Maybe so. But not for too long after, I had a national best-seller.

 

– Maryln Schwartz

Maryln Schwartz lives in Dallas. She is writing a new book and plans another visit to Greenville real soon.