Tucked between Yazoo Pass and the Mississippi River, a few miles north of Clarksdale and a little south of the Helena, Arkansas bridge, it sat alongside Moon Lake, an oxbow good for fishing, if not for navigation and commerce.
Far from a typical bed-and-breakfast, Uncle Henry’s Inn and Restaurant provided its guests with a spacious gallery, a west-facing view over the lake, no scheduled activities, and plenty of solitude. Not every lodging encourages sitting and thinking, but, whether by accident or intention, Uncle Henry’s did.
Established as an Elks’ Lodge in 1926, the place was purchased in 1933 by a local named William Wilkerson. Known as the Moon Lake Club, it became a Prohibition landmark famous for good food, high living, and assorted illegalities: primarily forms of gambling. Connections to the Chicago mob led to a loss of respectability, but locals eventually cut those ties, and the Club prospered as a family destination for dancing, dining, and swimming.
In 1946, it was purchased by Henry Trevino, the foster father of Sarah Bates Wright, and became Uncle Henry’s Place. In time, the Club seems to have passed out of the family’s control, but in 1986 Sarah entered into litigation that led to her reacquisition of the property. After extensive renovations, she and her son, George Jr., re-opened the restaurant and inn, maintaining Uncle Henry’s name in honor of her step-father.
By the time I arrived, the place had become a little shabby and quite a bit quirky, imbued with fading elegance and filled with piles of indiscriminate memories. A combination of dust, torn draperies, and the occasional skeletal mouse quietly fading away behind a sofa made it easy to imagine Uncle Henry’s as a prototypical Southern Lady: temporarily down on her luck, but genteel and dignified nonetheless.
Obviously, Uncle Henry’s was a treasured part of local lore and legend, not to mention local life. As guests gathered for dinner, the room filled with regular customers who’d been coming for so many years the waitress knew every answer before asking, politely: “Will you be having the usual this evening?”
Somewhat later, when I mentioned Moon Lake to a pair of fishermen eating breakfast in the Cleveland, Mississippi Huddle House, they stopped eating and grinned. “Did you stop by Uncle Henry’s?” one asked. When I allowed as how I’d not only stopped but had lingered for a few days, the other man said, “Well, it’s not the Holiday Inn, that’s for sure. But it’s a whole lot more interesting.”
It certainly wasn’t the Holiday Inn. George hinted at that himself when I called for a reservation after a late, impulsive decision to attend Clarksdale’s Juke Joint Festival. Every motel had been booked for weeks, and most had waiting lists, but when I called the humorously-named but perfectly respectable Shack Up Inn, the proprietor said, “You better call up to Uncle Henry’s. I 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. “Now, you know this isn’t the Hilton,” he said on the phone. “We’re old and comfortable, but you’re not going to have that wi-fi business or a jacuzzi in your room.”
After my arrival, he added another caveat or two. “There aren’t any keys to the rooms,” he said, “so be sure you’ve got the right one. And don’t take a shower except before five and after ten at night, because sometimes water leaks from your shower down through the ceiling into the dining room.”
Despite the less than perfect accomodations, I was willing to adapt, since Uncle Henry’s had a couple of things going for it no Hilton or Holiday Inn could dream of matching — it had played host to William Faulkner and Tennessee Williams, another pair of Mississippi boys who’d done really, really well for themselves.
I hadn’t intended to land in the lap of Faulkner and Williams when I decided to head to the blues festival, but that’s exactly what happened.
Faulkner frequented the Moon Lake Club as an adult — sometimes sharing time there with Williams — but Tennessee Williams’s connections were forged in childhood. His early impressions and memories, combined with the extraordinarily colorful history of the place, helped him transform the Club into the Moon Lake Casino in dramas such as Summer and Smoke, Eccentricities of a Nightingale, The Glass Menagerie, Orpheus Descending, and A Streetcar Named Desire.
Sitting in the gallery one afternoon, re-reading Williams’s plays and pondering what it must have required for him to transform this sleepy Mississippi world into works of dramatic art, I happened upon quite a different piece: an essay titled, The Catastrophe of Success.
An addendum to a copy of The Glass Menagerie I’d tucked into my bag, the essay originally was published in a 1947 edition of The New York Times, three years after the Chicago opening of The Glass Menagerie and during a time when Williams finally was receiving recognition as a serious playwright.
In the languor of those Mississippi afternoons, I found the essay particularly resonant — not only because I was in the playwright’s own country, but also because his words resonated with all the clarity and force of a plantation bell.
Most of us hope to succeed in one way or another, but Williams did succeed, and did so marvelously well. As he reflected on the circumstances of his life and career in the essay, the authority implicit in Williams’ words is undeniable, and worth considering.
The sort of life that I 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 inch 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…
You cannot arbitrarily say to yourself, I will 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, [once you understand] 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 – with this knowledge you are at least in a position of knowing where danger lies…
Then what is good? An 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!” says Saroyan. 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 Williams’s essay today, I imagine the scent of dogwood and azalea, the dark, moody flow of the great river, and low murmur of mist-shrouded voices.
Across the Helena Bridge, juke joints glisten in the rain, and from the shores along the river a plaintive, tremulous cry falls and rises like riffs of breeze across the Delta.
Rocking in the early evening gloom, I hear the clatter of a small boy’s feet running headlong across the gallery toward 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 sweetgum and magnolia.
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 toward creation, while the clock ticks its loss, and the heart counts its gain, and life begins anew.