In The Reivers, a short, rambunctious novel published weeks before his death in 1962, William Faulkner offered a bittersweet story about coming-of-age in his fictional slice of the South, Yoknapatawpha County, half a century earlier. Taps, the late Willie Morris’s final testament, also looks back fifty years to ponder the mysteries of growing up in the Mississippi Delta at mid-century during the Korean War.
In 1951, the young men of Fisk’s Landing, a Dixie cotton town so close to the soil that none of its buildings exceeds four stories, begin to return from Asia in caskets. The area’s entire National Guard unit had been mobilized in response to hostilities in Korea. For the increasingly common graveside ceremonies, two high school trumpeters, Arch Kidd and Swayze Barksdale, are recruited by the local American Legion chapter to play “Taps.” Although he is not quite old enough for military service, Swayze bears vigilant witness to the dismal fate of local boys who were. Lank Hemphill returns without an arm, but many others come back to Fisk’s Landing only as corpses. For each burial, the flip of a coin determines who—either Swayze or Arch—performs beside the coffin and who stands at a distance repeating on his own horn every mournful phrase. Those notes in turn resound throughout the county, and, later, in the memories of a grown-up trumpeter. Swayze, the fictional narrator whose recollections of his seventeenth year constitute Taps, can still summon up “the wonderful thrill of hearing the echo to one’s own echo as it dissolves tenderly, reluctantly almost, into the distance, palpitating into the faraway hush.”
If writing is an echo of experience, it also generates its own resonances. In writing the novel Taps, Morris, who inscribes the book “For the people of Yazoo,” drew on his own childhood in the Mississippi Delta, a time and place evoked exquisitely in the first section of his first book, North Toward Home (1967). “The past is never dead,” declared Faulkner in a statement that Morris appropriated as his memoir’s epigraph. “It’s not even past.” Reviving things past, Morris in Taps again revisits Yazoo City, renaming it Fisk’s Landing, a rural metropolis with a population of 10,184, and he calls himself Swayze. Taps is in effect a gloss on the seventh chapter of the “Mississippi” section in North Toward Home, a ten-page stretch in which Morris recalls his adolescent experience playing trumpet at the funerals of Korean fatalities. (Chapter 5 is the germ of a 1995 novel, My Dog Skip). “Is it not true that the past is the only thing we truly possess?” asks Swayze, acutely aware that the answer is no, that everything is always slipping away. Precisely because the past is never dead, it is elusive. Invoking memory and invention, Taps returns one last time to scenes that can be glimpsed but not fixed.
In 1952, Morris left Mississippi for Austin, Texas, to attend the University of Texas and edit The Daily Texan. At age twenty-five, he returned to the Texas capital, after four years in Oxford—England, not Mississippi—as a Rhodes Scholar, to edit The Texas Observer. At thirty-two, he became editor of Harper’s magazine and an influential figure in American literary culture. He conquered New York, but even after Gotham deposed its conqueror and Morris headed south toward home for his final years, he never lost the aura of the wunderkind. If, as George Orwell noted, “at fifty, everyone has the face he deserves,” Morris’s famous babyface revealed a man who never outgrew youthful wonder. Perhaps because they so often cultivate green memories, even his seasoned efforts seem precocious.
At the time of his early death at age sixty-four in 1999, Taps, which Morris worked on throughout his adult life, was still in manuscript, and its author was denied the thrill of hearing an echo to his own echo. In a seamless job of editing and a labor of love, his widow, JoAnne Prichard Morris, has brought the book into posthumous print. Taps is a fitting valediction to a man whose work deserves to echo. Its title refers not only to the lament that teenage Swayze plays in memoriam to his fallen townsmen, or to the fact that his widowed, alcoholic mother, a frustrated ballerina, gives lessons to local children in tap dancing. It also recalls the lesson that an adolescent learns...
(The entire section is 1835 words.)