Moon Lake Legacies

Moon Lake Casino Pier ~ Featured in “A Streetcar Named Desire”

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.

Plantation bell ~ Uncle Henry’s Place, Moon Lake, Mississippi
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.

 

Comments always are welcome.
Today, George, his mother Sarah, and many of the locals who contributed so much color to Uncle Henry’s have passed away, and the Moon Lake landmark no longer is in operation. Needless to say, the memories remain.

Laundry Days

My maternal grandmother, c.1920

Every era defines its necessities differently. For my grandmother, a clothesline was as much a necessity as her twin aluminum wash tubs and the assortment of scrub boards that hung in the mud room.

Even my mother, blessed early in marriage with an electric washing machine, found her clothesline a necessity. Laundry fed through wringer bars could be squeezed nearly dry, but nearly dry wasn’t good enough. With no gas or electric clothes dryers to finish the task, the piles of laundry — damp, wrinkled, and still heavy after passing through the wringers — had to be hung on clotheslines before being ironed, or folded into closets and drawers. Continue reading

The View from Uncle Henry’s

Uncle Henry’s was a fine place to celebrate a first year of writing.

Tucked between Yazoo Pass and the Mississippi River, just north of Clarksdale and a little south of the Helena bridge, it sat alongside Moon Lake, an oxbow good for fishing, if not for navigation and commerce.

Across the road from the lake, Uncle Henry’s provided its guests with a spacious gallery, a west-facing view perfect for sunset-watching, no scheduled activities, and plenty of solitude — perhaps its greatest virtue. Not every lodging encourages just sitting and thinking, those necessary components of the creative process. Uncle Henry’s did.

While robins stitched their song through branches of dogwood and azalea and morning flared out across the sky, I was more than happy to sit and think, particularly about 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 had become attached to the now-shuttered Mississippi landmark.

Established as an Elks’ Lodge in 1926, the place was sold in 1933 to William Wilkerson. Known in those days as the Moon Lake Club, it became a Prohibition landmark famous 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) transformed Uncle Henry’s into an Inn and Restaurant. Tourist guides referred to it as a Bed and Breakfast, but none of the common terms quite captured its dusty reality.

A little shabby, quite a bit quirky, the place was imbued with fading elegance and filled with piles of indiscriminate memories. It was easy to imagine Uncle Henry’s as a “she” — the prototypical Southern Lady, temporarily down on her luck, but genteel and dignified nonetheless.

There’s no question Uncle Henry’s was a treasured part of local lore and legend, not to mention local life. At dinner, more than a few locals gathered in the dining room, old-timers who’d been coming for so many years the waitress knew every answer before asking her polite question: “Will you be having the usual this evening?”

Some days later, I mentioned Moon Lake to a pair of fishermen eating breakfast in the Cleveland, Mississippi Huddle House. They grinned, and one asked, “Did you stop by Uncle Henry’s?” When I admitted I’d not only stopped there, but had lingered for a few days, the other fellow 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 hinted at that himself 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 humorously-named but perfectly respectable Shack Up Inn, they had a waiting list in addition to their reservations. But, with the solicitous kindness I was coming to associate with Mississippians, 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.” Once I arrived, he added another caveat or two. “There aren’t any keys to the rooms,” he said, “and you can’t take a shower except before five and after ten at night, because sometimes water leaks from your shower down into the dining room.”

That was fine by me. After all, Uncle Henry’s had a couple of things going for it no Hilton or Holiday Inn could dream of matching — William Faulkner and Tennessee Williams, a pair of local 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 hit the road for the blues festival, but that’s exactly what happened.

Faulkner frequented the Moon Lake Club as an adult, but Tennessee Williams’ connections were forged in childhood. His early impressions and memories, combined with the extraordinarily colorful history of the place, helped Williams transform 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.

Sitting in the gallery one afternoon, reading Williams’ work and pondering what it must have required of him to transform his sleepy, Mississippi world into works of dramatic art, I amused myself with the thought that 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 to suit myself and perhaps others…
If I’m to share my words and my vision, it [will require] energy and perseverance.

The confidence and declarative force of the words still seems entirely inexplicable to me. But I had persevered during that first year, at least in the sense that I had written, and on that late Mississippi afternoon, I found Williams himself eloquently affirming the importance of perseverance as a first step toward success.

Before my trip, I’d never read Tennessee Williams’ essay, The Catastrophe of Success. I discovered it as an addendum to a copy of The Glass Menagerie I’d tucked into my bag as travel reading. Originally published in a 1947 edition of The New York Times, the essay was written as Williams celebrated an anniversary of his own. Three years had passed since the Chicago opening of The Glass Menagerie, and Williams finally was receiving recognition as a playwright.

In the languor of those Mississippi afternoons, I found the essay particularly resonant – not only because I was in Tennessee Williams’ country, but because his words rang out with the clarity and force of a plantation bell.

The essay is filled with truth, memorable and recognizable truths that demand retelling. All of us hope to succeed, but Williams did succeed, marvelously well. Reflecting on the circumstances of his own life and career, the authority implicit in Williams’ words is undeniable.

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 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…
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 the essay today, I find myself once again drawn through the veil of dogwood and azalea toward Moon Lake. I imagine Uncle Henry, and mourn the closing of his Inn. I remember Yazoo Pass, sluggish and narrow, winding its way toward Vicksburg, and consider my great-grandfather’s Union Regiment — the 34th Iowa — trembling there at the edge of their own great, unwelcome adventure.

Across the Helena Bridge, juke joints 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.

Where I sit, rocking in the late afternoon warmth, 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 south and west while the clock ticks its loss, and the heart counts its gain, and the perseverance begins again.

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Mississippi Writin’ Blues

When circumstances converge to produce an unexpected or unusual result, some people call it “intuitive planning”.   Others call it temporary insanity, or taking leave of one’s senses.  Roger Stolle, proprietor of Cat Head Delta Blues and Folk Art  in Clarksdale, Mississippi, has heard it all.  A St. Louis executive with a love for the Blues and high tolerance for risk, he  left a lucrative job in advertising to move to the Mississippi Delta and start promoting musicians with names like Jimmy “Duck” Holmes, Robert “Wolfman” Belfour and Bill “Howl-N-Madd” Perry.  “A year ago, I was meeting with the CEO of May Company and traveling to Hong Kong on business,” explained Roger, speaking of his changed life. “Last week, I booked a blues musician named T-Model Ford for our grand opening and set up a store display that included a chair made out of painted cow bones. You tell me which sounds more fun.”     

I’ve had my own experience with the kind of intuitive planning that turned Roger into a combination entrepreneur and impresario – I ended up varnishing boats for fun as well as profit, after all  – so when I spot the first signs of circumstantial convergence drifting over the horizon like high cirrus, I start looking for the storm.  Not so long ago, a casual browse through Words..Music..and Sometimes Baseball, an obviously eclectic blog,  sent me over to Cat Head for the first time.  Browsing their site, I discovered something called the Juke Joint Festival, a gathering of home-grown Delta blues musicians taking place just on the fringes of William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County.  I could sense an impulse running down the tracks toward me like the 3:09 out of Memphis when it still barreled straight for the heart of the Delta.  I found Clarksdale on the map.  I looked at the calendar.  I thought about my old twelve-string guitar and wondered, “Whatever did happen to Howlin’ Wolf?”  There was no turning back.

 

The town of Clarksdale sits in the heart of the alluvial plain known as the Mississippi Delta, at the convergence of two highways traveled in spirit by Blues lovers around the world.  Running north from Baton Rouge, US 61 reaches to Vicksburg, and then on up to Rolling Fork, home of Muddy Waters.  It crosses US 49 in Clarksdale and continues on to Memphis.  From Clarksdale, US 49 extends south to Greenville, home of the Mississippi Blues and Heritage Festival and northwest to Helena, Arkansas, where King Biscuit Time”, the radio show that helped popularize the blues, began broadcasting  in 1941. ”King Biscuit Time” is still on air, hosted by its longtime emcee, John W. (Sunshine Sonny) Payne and preserving an irreplaceable part of American culture. Continue reading

The Writing Life – Practice Makes Human

During my first year of college, before I came to terms with the fact that I had neither the desire nor the drive to continue as a music major, I spent a good portion of my life in practice booths.  Tiny, tomb-like and entirely primitive by today’s standards,  they encased virtuoso and struggling beginner alike in soundproof solitude.   Hidden from prying eyes, protected from critical comments, we hauled ourselves through scales, arpeggios and etudes like half-mad mountaineers.  Climbing by half-steps up, sliding by half-steps down, we felt the hours tick by like the steady clicking of the metronome. 

Sometimes practice was enjoyable.  Occasionally, when fingers turned awkward and timing was off, it was frustrating beyond belief.   Progress was satisfying, but we never expected our solitary hours to be fun. We accepted the premise that the goal of practice was performance.  Emerging from the solitude and semi-gloom of our booths into the light of recital or concert halls, we put our carefully-honed techniques into the service of Beethoven, Mozart or Brahms.  Practice was private, performance was public, and those long hours of solitary practice were only a means to that quite public end.

When I think about writing and consider this week’s Write on Wednesday question (“Do you have a writing practice?  What’s it like?  How has it helped you become a better writer?” ), I realize how differently I approach my writing than I did my music. I don’t “practice” writing as a completely private act, hidden from public eyes.  While I sometimes work in an isolated silence that rivals any practice booth, in the process of writing, practice and performance collapse into a single event.  What I write, I post – for good or for ill.  There are no hours devoted to vocabulary scales or grammatical arpeggios.  There are only the literary equivalents to concerto, partita and sonata: writing, more writing and writing again, performed for anyone to see.

Because I write primarily for others and not for myself, the content of my writing and the readers I hope to engage are as important to me as the craft.  While the ability to structure an essay is important, and even though constructing interesting sentences and paragraphs is necessary, I’m equally concerned with the human qualities that shape my identity as a writer, and determine the nature of my work.

The qualities I consider important don’t come easily.  Discipline, perspective, perseverance, integrity, responsibility and confidence aren’t given at birth, like blue eyes or long fingers.  They require development over time, and a willingness to re-commit to their value over and over again.  In short, they require practice.

Discipline

Because I’m essentially flighty and undisciplined, easily distracted by the beautiful or interesting and more than willing to veer down roads that aren’t roads at all but merely footpaths through the grass, discipline is critical for me.  At its heart, discipline is about choices: I will do this, I won’t do that.  Choosing on a daily basis to read, to write and to think is important for any writer.   In the same way, decisions to engage fully in the disciplines of daily life and a willingness to respond to the needs of the world in which we live help form us as human beings, and as writers with something to say.  

Integrity

I’ve always considered integrity to be foundational for good writing.  I don’t mean this in a strictly moral or ethical sense, although questions of morality and ethics abound for anyone who writes.  Here, I mean integrity in the sense of wholeness, a consonance of word and deed so complete that who I am and what I say are obvious reflections of one another.

One of my favorite authors, Anne Morrow Lindberg, said it beautifully in her exquisite reflection, Gift From the Sea: I want a singleness of eye, a purity of intention, a central core to my life that will enable me to carry out these obligations and activities as well as I can…  I am seeking perhaps what Socrates asked for in the prayer from the Phaedrus when he said, “May the outward and inward man be at one.”  There is no doubt that outward and inward can be joined, but that, too, takes practice.

Perseverance

There is nothing mysterious about perseverance.  Perseverance is getting up at 4 a.m. in order to write.  Perseverance is coffee at midnight, because the paragraph is almost right.  Perseverance is meeting apathy with renewed effort, criticism with dignity, and failure with a firm commitment to re-set higher goals.  Perseverance can be a bit tiresome, but it’s as easily practiced as putting one foot in front of the other, over and over again.

Perspective      

Everyone has a perspective on life.  Not everyone shares my perspective – that our world is a gift to be treasured and preserved, that goodness and beauty are real, or that love and trust are worth even the discovery they may have been misplaced.  For that matter, not everyone believes that words matter, or that on the deepest levels they participate in the rich, complex and vibrant realities they represent.   In a world filled with cynicism and laziness, choosing the right word can be an act of artistic rebellion against the prevailing culture, but doing it effectively requires practice. 

Confidence

In time, a writer has to stop looking into the mirror of public response in order to begin trusting his or her own vision and nurturing a deeply personal sense of what is right and true.  Beyond that, there is tremendous freedom in communicating without hestitation or regret.  However strange it may seem, I’ve never asked someone to read my work before I publish it, and I’ve never removed any of the essays I’ve posted.  Instead, I write and re-write until I’m satisfied my words are ready to stand.  Then, I allow them to do so.  For now, it’s simply my way of practicing confidence.

Responsibility

Finally, words have meaning, and those who craft them are charged with using them responsibly.  Whether the final product is an essay or poem, a flight of fanciful fiction or a satirical screenplay, a novel or simple notations in a blog, the writer is called to understand how powerfully words affect the world, and use that power with wisdom and discretion. 

Discipline, integrity, perseverance, confidence and responsibility – when those qualities are developed in the hiddenness of life’s practice booth, they allow performances to shine.  William Faulkner had his own memorable perspective on these issues, and expressed them in his 1950 Nobel Prize acceptance speech.

The young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing, because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.  He must learn them again.  He must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid; and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truth of the heart; the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed – love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice.”

The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things.  It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past.  The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.”

Faulkner’s words are so nearly perfect it seems impossible to improve upon them.  And yet, I would dare to add this – in order to write about the heart, you have to have a heart, a heart which is whole and responsible, disciplined enough to persevere, and confident in its conviction that the heart of the world is worth a lifetime of commitment.

That’s why I practice being a writer as well as doing my writingWith a practiced heart, you can perform without fear, and let the sentences fall where they may.

 

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