Give the world a little better picture of the way we do it: Literary illustrations of jurisprudence in Mississippi

Angela Gray Dunlap

Abstract

Art, it is said, imitates life; and with the possible exception of Ireland, the literati of no Western political society have more graphically illustrated native dreams, prejudices, and, yes, ironies, than those of the often misunderstood state of Mississippi. White Mississippians have been and remain (to a degree) a people divided, a people whose ancestors were one and all schooled in social inequality, decimated and impoverished by civil war, humiliated by the bigotry of more fortunate countrymen, taught to hate, and at last to legislate injustice by a Jim Crow system that gained ascendancy through a republican-controlled political process gone awry. Yet through it all, one perceives, these misguided and misunderstood citizens knew that their social, political, and legal institutions were dysfunctional, out of kilter with the nobler callings of their Judeo-Christian faith, with the political ideals of the nation of which they were a part, and with the dictates of ethics and justice. Nowhere is this contradiction reflected with greater clarity than in the published works of the state's principal writers of fiction. This study examines selected works of William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Elizabeth Spencer, Anne Moody, and Larry Brown. Of the five chosen writers, Faulkner, Welty, Spencer, and Moody spent much of their adult lives in Jim Crow Mississippi, wrote of its contradictions, and thereby emerged more or less as the native literary vanguard of the Civil Rights Movement. In one way or another, all of these writers respond to the social and political climate in which they live and likewise all of them offer relevant social commentary for what was going on in Mississippi in the Jim Crow era, a period in Mississippi history that best illustrates rampant ethical, social, and political bankruptcy. Thus, they indict the prevailing attitudes and injustices that would eventually culminate in the struggle for civil rights in the 1960s. Necessarily, the breadth of this examination must be limited, and accordingly it focuses on the nexus of the concept of justice as well as the complexity of defining and administering justice in Mississippi during the pre- and post Civil Rights Movement era. Thus, this study seeks to convey the extent to which the writers not only identify these complexities, but provide an understanding of the many intersecting forces that influence human beings' efforts to define, apply, accept, or evade justice.