Photo provided by Millsaps College
Eudora Welty coined the term “sense of place” to explain how it shaped the “goodness” of writing. Explaining the importance of place to a writer, she wrote “place is where he has his roots, place is where he stands; in his experience out of which he writes, it provides the base of reference; in his work, the point of view.”
W. Ralph Eubanks, a renowned author and accomplished publisher, recently returned to his native Mississippi and embraced wholly this sense of place as Welty describes it above. Although he was born in Mount Olive and is a graduate of Ole Miss, Ralph hasn’t called any place in Mississippi home since 1978. Ralph was a longtime director of publishing of the Library of Congress in Washington, DC and more recently served as the editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review. He is the author of critically acclaimed books Ever Is a Long Time: A Journey Into Mississippi’s Dark Past and The House at the End of the Road: The Story of Three Generations of an Interracial Family in the American South.
Last spring, facing a crossroads in his career, he made a decision to move to Jackson and accept a position as the Eudora Welty professor of Southern Studies at Millsaps College. Ralph found the position attractive because of the creativity it afforded him. “I was given the chance to teach whatever I wanted. I was able to design a course and reading list from scratch,” he explained. “I’ve always enjoyed teaching, especially the aspect of working with and mentoring students.”
After teaching two courses last spring, Ralph has decided to return to Millsaps for the upcoming fall semester. He will teach a class on writing the personal essay where he will instruct students on how to not only craft an essay but also the more practical aspect of how and where to publish such a piece. He will also offer a course that will focus on faith and fiction, exploring faith and belief in twentieth century and contemporary fiction.
When he’s not in the classroom, Ralph spends a lot of time thinking and writing about his return to Mississippi. He’s penned several personal essays about his experiences including a piece for New Yorker about the state flag controversy. Not lacking for material since his return, he says, “Mississippi is a place that gives a writer a lot of things to write about. The old maxim that ‘everything is copy’ is very true in Mississippi.”
He also spends a lot of time in the Delta. Ralph is at work on a book project about the history of the Mileston farming community in Holmes County where his parents first settled when arriving in Mississippi. The book will focus on the Delta not only as a place but also as a symbol and a microcosm for larger issues facing the whole country— income inequality, technology, education, globalism.
His return has also shaped and molded his writing about the state as he is able to bridge the line between memory and reality. “What you see and how you perceive things changes when you live somewhere. That feeling is important to capturing the place as I saw it rather than how I remember it.”
Ralph also observes and takes part in a lot of conversations about Jackson and its future. He sees potential in the capital city. “One of the things I think about is how Mississippians can rally around Jackson. The capital should not just be the center of government but the center of culture, too. How do we make it [Jackson] the jewel in the crown of the state?
He doesn’t have the answers, but hopes that the state gets more comfortable with urban spaces and stops neglecting the city. He adds, “There are lots of people working hard to make Jackson better. A true alliance between the city and state that will ensure the future of Jackson. And ensure it becomes and remains the center of culture.”
Today, he feels very much at home in two places, Jackson and his adopted hometown of Washington, DC. “It’s nice to feel at home in Jackson and Mississippi again. I feel like I’m not just a visitor this time.”