Uncle Henry’s at Moon Lake is a fine place to mark a literary anniversary. Tucked between Yazoo Pass and the Mississippi River just north of Clarksdale, Moon Lake itself is an oxbow, good for fishing if not for navigation and commerce. Across the road from the lake, Uncle Henry’s awaits its guests with a spacious gallery, a west-facing view perfect for sunset-watching and no scheduled activities. On the other hand, there’s all the time in the world for sitting and thinking, two activities particularly dear to writers. While robins stitch their song through dogwood and azaleas and morning blooms more yellow than the iris, I’ve been sitting with all my might, and doing some thinking, too - about the nature of persistence, and how quickly a year can flee down the corridors of time.
Uncle Henry isn’t my uncle, of course, but the fellow whose name was given to a traditional Mississippi establishment. Uncle Henry’s started life as an Elks’ Lodge in 1926. Sold in 1933 to William Wilkerson, it became known as the Moon Lake Club, a Prohibition landmark known for good food, high living and assorted illegalities. It lost and then re-gained respectability when the locals cut its connections to the Chicago mob. Finally, in 1946 it was purchased by Henry Trevino, the foster father of Sarah Wright. Sarah and her son George now run Uncle Henry’s, an Inn and Restaurant by its sign, a Bed & Breakfast in the tourist guides. It’s a little shabby, quite a bit quirky, imbued with fading elegance and filled with piles of indiscriminate memories. You don’t have to have been raised in the South to recognize that Uncle Henry’s actually is a “she” - the prototypical genteel Southern Lady who’s just a little down on her luck.
On the other hand, Uncle Henry’s is a treasured part of local lore and legend - not to mention local life. On Friday and Saturday nights, there are “regulars” in the restaurant, the kind of folks waitresses ask, “Will you be having the usual?” even while knowing the answer to their own question. When I mentioned Moon Lake to some fishermen eating breakfast in the Cleveland, Mississippi Huddle House, their first question was, “Did you stop by Uncle Henry’s?” When I said I’d been staying there, one of the men said, “Well, it’s not the Holiday Inn, that’s for sure. But that’s the good news – it’s not the Holiday Inn.”
It certainly isn’t the Holiday Inn. George himself told me that when I made my sight-unseen reservation. A late and impulsive decision to attend Clarksdale’s Juke Joint Festival had left me scrambling for a room. Motels were booked, and had been for weeks. When I called the Shack Up Inn (perfectly respectable lodging, by the way), they were full, too. But with the solicitous kindness I’d already come to associate with Mississippians, the proprietor said, “You better call up at Uncle Henry’s. I do believe I heard they had a cancellation and they might be able to put you up. Of course, they might not, but you call George. He’ll tell you how things are.”
As it turned out, Uncle Henry could put me up and George did tell me how things were, saying, “Now, you know – this isn’t the Hilton. We’re old and comfortable, but you’re not going to have that wi-fi business or a jacuzzi in your room.” That was fine by me. After all, Uncle Henry’s had a couple of things going for it the Holiday Inn couldn’t dream of matching: William Faulkner and Tennessee Williams, a pair of local boys who’d done really, really well for themselves.
I didn’t understand it at first, but eventually I came to see that my spontaneous decision to hit the road for a Blues festival had landed me on the front porch of a literary landmark. I hadn’t set out to celebrate my one year “blogoversary” sitting in the lap of Faulkner and Williams, but that’s exactly what happened. While Faulkner frequented Uncle Henry’s as an adult, Tennessee Williams’ connections were forged in childhood. Those earlier impressions and memories, combined with the extraordinarily colorful history of the place, may help to explain Williams’ transformation of the Club into Moon Lake Casino in dramas ranging from Summer and Smoke and Eccentricities of a Nightingale to The Glass Menagerie, Orpheus Descending, and A Streetcar Named Desire.
The Gallery at Uncle Henry’s
Looking at the whole scope of Williams’ work, thinking about what it must have cost him in terms of time and perseverance to transform this sleepy world into enduring works of literary worth, I wondered if he might have appreciated at least the tone of my own, first work – a little blog published just a year ago and titled Dazed and Confused:
“ I have things to say – words to write, metaphors to build, conclusions to draw, paragraphs to stack and reorder and move around to suit myself, and perhaps others… If I am to share my words and my vision, it (will require) energy and perseverance.
I have far less time than I wish, and my energy can ebb, but I know attentiveness and perseverance. Perseverance is making coffee at 2 a.m. Perseverance is changing a title in order to attract more readers, and then changing it back to its original form because it is right. Perseverance is continuing to listen for the voice that lures us to the edge of the precipice even when the voice falls silent. Perseverance is singing in the night, though all others may sleep - believing that the song will be heard.
The question no longer is: do you want to write? For good or for ill, read or unread, poorly scribed or passionately sung, I will write. At the edge of the precipice, a bit dazed, a good bit confused, I have made my commitment. Let the perseverance begin.”
Re-reading the entry, I’m filled with amazement. The commitment is so clear, my intuitive understanding of future obstacles even clearer. Looking back, the declarative force seems inexplicable: ”I am going to write.” In that sense at least, I’ve been successful beyond words. For ”good or for ill, read or unread”, I have written, and in a bit of delicious irony the very man whose moonlit casino now serves as my temporary front porch affirms the importance of understanding perseverance as success.
Before this trip, I’d never read Tennessee Williams’ essay entitled The Catastrophe of Success. I discovered it as a footnote to a copy of The Glass Menagerie I picked up to tuck into my bag. Originally published in The New York Times, it was written as Williams celebrated an anniversary of his own. Three years had passed since the 1944 Chicago opening of The Glass Menagerie and, at last, Williams was being recognized as a playwright.
Now, in the languor of a Mississippi afternoon, I find the essay worth quoting at length – not because I am in Tennessee Williams country, nor because I think I “ought” to consider his words, and most especially not because I am suggesting any resemblance between my “messing about with words” and the writing of Tennessee Williams. But his essay resonates with the clarity and force of a plantation bell. It is filled with a wonderful truth, a recognizable truth, a memorable truth that demands retelling. All of us want to succeed, but it is worth considering what Williams famously called “The Catastrophe of Success”. Reflecting on the circumstances of his own life and career, the force and directness of Williams’ words is stunning.
“…The sort of life that I had had previous to this popular success was one that required endurance, a life of clawing and scratching along a sheer surface and holding on tight with raw fingers to every ince of rock high than the one caught hold of before, but it was a good life because it was the sort of life for which the human organism is created.”
“I was not aware of how much vital energy had gone into this struggle until the struggle was removed. I was out on a level plateau with my arms still thrashing and my lungs still grabbing at air that no longer resisted. This was security at last..”
“Now, you cannot arbitrarily say to yourself, I will now continue my life as it was before this thing, Success, happened to me. But once you fully apprehend the vacuity of a life without struggle you are equipped with the basic means of salvation. Once you know this is true, that the heart of man, his body and his brain, are forged in a white-hot furnace for the purpose of conflict (the struggle of creation) and that with the conflict removed, the man is a sword cutting daisies, that not privation but luxury is the wolf at the door and that the fangs of this wolf are all the little vanities and conceits and laxities that Success is heir to – why, then with this knowledge you are at least in a position of knowing where danger lies…”
“…Then what is good? The obsessive interest in human affairs, plus a certain amount of compassion and moral conviction, that first made the experience of living something that must be translated into pigment or music or bodily movement or poetry or prose or anything that’s dynamic and expressive – that’s what’s good for you if you’re at all serious in your aims. William Saroyan wrote a great play on this theme, that purity of heart is the one success worth having. “In the time of your life – live!” That time is short and it doesn’t return again. It is slipping away while I write this and while you read it, and the monosyllable of the clock is Loss, loss, loss, unless you devote your heart to its opposition.”
Finished with the essay and looking again beyond the dogwood and azaleas toward Moon Lake, I think about Yazoo Pass winding along behind, and my great-grandfather’s regiment, the 34th Iowa, trembling on the edge of their own great, unwelcome adventure. Across the Helena Bridge, juke joints ignored by tourists and festival-goers glisten in the rain, and from the shores of the river a plaintive, tremulous cry rises and falls like a riff of breeze across the Delta.
Rocking on the gallery, I hear the clatter of a small boy’s feet running headlong into an unimaginable future, surefooted as any child still certain of his world. ”Time is short”, he shouts back across the decades, his words twining like unstoppable vines through the great magnolias. Hearing his voice, I stop my rocking. Planting my feet on boards that creak and complain like the bones of time itself I rise, my thoughts turning south and west while the clock ticks its loss, and the heart counts its gain, and the perseverance begins again.
Steps Down to Yazoo Pass ~ Uncle Henry’s at Moon Lake