Twirling at Ole Miss

Just read Terry Southern’s marvellous 1963 essay ‘Twirling at Ole Miss’, from Esquire. A Texan returning to the south. Fantastic and evocative writing. Scenes we can watch as in a film (and Southern was a very good screenwriter).

A sample:

Arriving in Oxford [Mississippi] then, on a hot midday in July, after the three-­hour bus ride from Memphis, I stepped off in front of the Old Colonial Hotel and meandered across the sleepy square toward the only sign of life at hand—the proverbial row of shirt-sleeved men sitting on benches in front of the county courthouse, a sort of permanent jury.

”Howdy,” I say, striking an easy stance, smiling friendly-like, “whar the school?”

The nearest regard me in narrow surmise: they are quick to spot the stranger here, but a bit slow to cotton. One turns to another.

”What’s that he say, Ed?”

Big Ed shifts his wad, sluices a long spurt of juice into the dust, gazes at it reflectively before fixing me again with gun-blue-cold eyes.

”Reckon you mean, ‘Whar the school at?’, don’t you, stranger?” Next to the benches, and about three feet apart, are two public drinking fountains, and I notice that the one boldly marked “For Colored” is sitting squarely in the shadow cast by the justice symbol on the courthouse façade—to be entered later, of course, in my writer’s notebook, under “Imagery, sociochiaroscurian, hack.”


Another sample, when he decides to take a taxi:

Which is nearer,” I asked the driver, “Faulkner’s house or his grave?”

”Wal,” he said without looking around, “now that would take a little studyin’, if you were gonna hold a man to it, but offhand I’d say they were pretty damn near the same—about ten minutes from where we’re sittin’ and fifty cents each. They’re in opposite directions.”


Interestingly Southern also notes an early example of “upspeak”: He meets a girl who speaks “in that oddly rising inflection peculiar to girls of the South, making parts of a reply sound like a question: ‘Why, back home near Macon … Macon, Georgia? At Robert E. Lee High? … we've got these outfits with tassels! And a little red-and-gold skirt?’ …”

Is that where it came from?