Uncle Henry’s at Moon Lake was a fine place to mark a literary anniversary.
Tucked between Yazoo Pass and the Mississippi River just north of Clarksdale, Mississippi, Moon Lake itself is an oxbow, good for fishing if not for navigation and commerce.
Across the road from the water, Uncle Henry’s awaited its guests with a spacious gallery, a west-facing view perfect for sunset-watching and no scheduled activities. On the other hand, there was all the time in the world for sitting and thinking, two activities particularly dear to writers. While robins stitched their song through dogwood and azaleas and the morning spread across the sky, I was more than happy to sit, pondering the nature of persistence and how quickly a year can flee down corridors of time.
Uncle Henry wasn’t my uncle, of course, but the fellow whose name was given to the now-closed Mississippi establishment.
Uncle Henry’s started life as an Elks’ Lodge in 1926. Sold to William Wilkerson in 1933, it became known as the Moon Lake Club, a Prohibition landmark known for good food, high living and assorted illegalities. It lost, 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 deceased) ran Uncle Henry’s as an Inn and Restaurant, though tourist guides referred to it as a bed and breakfast. A little shabby, quite a bit quirky, it was imbued with fading elegance and filled with piles of indiscriminate memories. I wasn’t raised in the South, but I always thought of Uncle Henry’s as a “she” - a prototypical Southern Lady who might have been just a little down on her luck, but who remained genteel and dignified.
I learned soon enough that Uncle Henry’s was a treasured part of local lore and legend - not to mention local life. When I visited, there were “regulars” in the dining room, people who’d been coming there for so many years the waitresses knew the answer to her question before asking, “Will you be having the usual?”
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 wasn’t the Holiday Inn. George himself told me that when I made my sight-unseen reservation. A late, 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, by the way) they also were booked full. 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.
Remarkably, 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 blog’s first year of life 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 early 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 such as Summer and Smoke, Eccentricities of a Nightingale, The Glass Menagerie, Orpheus Descending, and A Streetcar Named Desire.
Reading through Williams’ work, thinking about what it cost him in time and perseverance to transform a sleepy Mississippi world into enduring works of literary worth, I wondered if he might have appreciated at least the tone of my own, first blog entry.
“ 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.
Re-reading that entry, the declarative force seems inexplicable: ”I have words to write.” In that sense at least, I’ve been successful beyond words. I have written, and in a bit of delicious irony the very man whose moonlit casino served as my temporary front porch affirmed the importance of equating perseverance and success.
Before my 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 had tucked into my bag for the trip. 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 Williams was being recognized at last as a playwright.
In the languor of those Mississippi afternoons, I found the essay particularly resonant – not because I was in Tennessee Williams country, and not because I thought I “ought” to consider his words, but because his essay resonates with the clarity and force of a plantation bell.
It is filled with wonderful truth, recognizable truths, memorable truth that demands retelling. All of us hope to succeed, but Williams was the one willing to consider what he famously called “The Catastrophe of Success”. As he reflects 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 higher 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.”
Re-reading the essay today, I find myself looking again through the veil of dogwood and azalea toward Moon Lake. I think about Uncle Henry’s, now closed. I remember Yazoo Pass winding along behind and ponder 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 still glisten in the rain, and from the shores of the river a plaintive, tremulous cry falls and rises like a riff of breeze across the Delta.
In imagination, I rock again on the gallery, hearing 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.
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