William R. Ferris has had a big hand in elevating Southern studies to an art form, as founding director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi, associate director of the Center for the Study of the American South at the University of North Carolina and editor of the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture.
But he’s an academic who started out as a folklorist and he has used all the tools of that profession, including the tape recorder and movie camera, while interviewing the South’s great writers and artists. It is Ferris the academic who decodes the importance of Robert Penn Warren in American literature, but it is Ferris the folklorist who brings us indelible images of Warren doing chores around his Fairfield, Conn., home or of a half-smiling young Alice Walker, her natural hairdo in full bloom.
In his latest book, “The Storied South: Voices of Writers and Artists,” Ferris offers a collection of his interviews with writers and artists he has come to know personally during 40 years of tramping around his native land, a book he will discuss this weekend at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution/Decatur Book Festival.
He is particularly proud of the DVD and CD included with the book, which offer taped interviews and film clips of his subjects.
“The new technology of publishing allows me to pull all of that onto a common platform with the book, the CD, the DVD and the enhanced e-book embed sound and film into its text,” he said. “I lived long enough to see this! It’s the folklorist’s dream.”
Featured in “The Storied South”: Interviews with writers (including Eudora Welty, Ernest Gaines, Robert Penn Warren and Alice Walker), scholars (such as C. Vann Woodward) photographers (including Walker Evans and William Eggleston) and painters (including Sam Gilliam and Benny Andrews).
His books: Include “Mule Trader: Ray Lum’s Tales of Horses, Mules, and Men” (with Eudora Welty, 1998), “Blues from the Delta” (1988) and “A Sense of Place in Folk Art” (with Robert Penn Warren, 1982).
His career: Ferris, a native of Vicksburg, Miss., has taught at Jackson State University, Yale University, Mississippi State University and UNC. In 1997 President Bill Clinton appointed Ferris chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities. He served in that position until 2001.
The one that got away: Among all the southern writers he has interviewed is one major absence: the famously reclusive William Faulkner. Ferris points out that the writers interviewed in his book spend more time talking about Faulkner than any other writer. “We can’t do anything about the South without dealing with the long shadow that he casts across the landscape,” he said.