32 by 32

Our list of the finest literary works with a Memphis flavor.




We close our 32nd year of publication with a survey of 32 exceptional examples of literature by Memphians, about Memphis, or set in the city. Many tough decisions had to be made in the selection of the 32, and plenty of deserving titles didn't make the final cut, including the collected works of photographers Ernest Withers and William Eggleston, since neither artist engaged in the creation of literature. You'll see a little bit of everything else here, from a children's book to noir novels, and plenty of history. A Nobel laureate, a Pulitzer Prize winner, and an amazon.com top-seller grace the list. Whether you agree with our selections or not, one thing is clear: in terms of our contributions to the world, there's more to Memphis than blues and barbecue. Staffers Greg Akers, Susan Ellis, Michael Finger, Leonard Gill, Preston Lauterbach, Frank Murtaugh, Mary Helen Tibbs, and Bruce VanWyngarden shaped the list and contributed their reviews to it.

Will Christopher Baer

Kiss Me, Judas

He spent his childhood in Mississippi and later years in Memphis before heading west to work as a homeless counselor, taxi driver, bartender, teacher, and journalist. He's a writer too of short stories and novels. Now he's back, living in Memphis, with a forthcoming novel, Godspeed. He's Will Christopher Baer, author of Kiss Me, Judas, Penny Dreadful, and Hell's Half Acre, a trio of titles featuring hard-put lead character, Phineas Poe — a disgraced cop, according to Baer, "turned junkie turned fool for love turned apocalyptic antihero." Strong stuff, sure, but it's earned Baer fans who take their noir super black, no sugar. — LG

Joan Beifuss

At the River I Stand

The hugeness of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. overshadows the events in Memphis that drew him here in spring 1968. Beifuss offers the definitive account of those events, not just from the newspapers or national leaders, but from the many local actors in the sanitation workers strike, for and against. The author weaves their words into a breathtaking narrative that delivers the tragedy in its authentic context. She takes the reader through contentious negotiations between the city and its garbagemen, and into the emergency room where the civil rights' martyr's heart beat last. — PL

Lucius Burch

Lucius: Writings of Lucius Burch

Often called "the most liberal conscience in Memphis," Lucius Burch was acclaimed as a trial lawyer, scholar, political activist, outdoorsman, environmentalist, world traveler, and writer. Founder of the Burch, Porter and Johnson law firm, he made his presence felt in local courtrooms — and throughout our city — for nearly half a century. In the absence of a biography, this collection of his letters offers a glimpse into the mind and manners of this remarkable gentleman. — MF

James Conaway

Memphis Afternoons

In 1993, Conaway — former reporter for The Washington Post; best-selling author of Napa, which focused on the "lost Eden" of California's wine country — was in search of another elusive landscape: his hometown's past. He called the memoir Memphis Afternoons a family portrait, but it's a Memphis portrait too. Conaway's grandfather, J.P. Alley, may have won a Pulitzer Prize for his cartoons criticizing the Ku Klux Klan, but the city Conaway describes is a town, in the 1950s and '60s, where segregation was a given and social status said it all. — LG

Molly Caldwell Crosby

The American Plague

The dreaded "yellow jack" had struck cities across America before, but nobody had ever witnessed anything like the yellow fever epidemics of the 1870s, when entire cities such as Memphis and New Orleans were essentially wiped out by a disease that no doctor or scientist of the day understood. Looking back at its lasting impact, Crosby considered yellow fever "the epidemic that shaped our history." Publisher's Weekly considers her book "a forceful narrative of the disease's ravages."

We agree. — MF

Eric Jerome Dickey

Chasing Destiny

His stories of contemporary, urban, African-American life may be too steamy for some, but there's no arguing with Eric Jerome Dickey's nationwide popularity. He's a regular on the "Blackboard" best-seller list, not to mention those of The New York Times, The Washington Post, and USA Today. And he knows to keep those stories coming — over two dozen so far, with two novels in 2007 alone. Not bad for a native Memphian and graduate of the University of Memphis who's gone from computer programmer in California to teaching to acting to stand-up comedy to award-winning author. In 2006, Dickey was a two-time winner: The African-American Literary Awards named him Male Author of the Year; Dickey's novel Chasing Destiny won Best Contemporary Fiction. — LG

William Faulkner

The Reivers

You can point to Yoknapatawpha County as ground zero in the work of William Faulkner — a fictionalized Lafayette County, Mississippi; the county's town of Jefferson: a fictionalized Oxford. But when Faulkner's characters talk of the big city, it's Memphis, by name, they often mean. In the novel Sanctuary (1931), that's where a young woman named Temple Drake ends up — on the sordid side of town inside a brothel. Thirty years later, Faulkner wrote The Reivers, and we're inside another Memphis brothel. Lucius Quick, an 11-year-old from a wealthy family in Jefferson, has some growing up to do. In Memphis, he does. — LG

Louise Fitzhugh

Harriet the Spy

My desire to be a writer was cemented after I read Memphian Louise Fitzhugh's children's book in elementary school. The precocious protagonist is the nosy neighbor you wish you didn't have. Each day, she heads off on her "spy route" through her upper-class neighborhood to eavesdrop and commit to paper the goings-on of the grown-ups and even classmates and friends. Harriet's notebook fodder is more than hilarious hearsay; it's social commentary on class, privilege, and human nature. When the notebook is stolen and read by those who fill its pages, Harriet finds herself defending her private thoughts in a very public way. In the end, she's humbled, and finds that she has as many faults as those she's judged over the years. Funny, heartbreaking at times, and utterly readable, even after childhood has long passed. — MHT

Shelby Foote

The Civil War: A Narrative

Foote famously said that anyone who wants to understand America had better study the Civil War. How gracious of him to educate us with such surpassing literature. His three-volume narrative — a modern Iliad in the eyes of many — looks at the struggles within the men who fought this country's most significant war. Without bias for Johnny Reb or Billy Yank, Foote documents (with extraordinary detail on strategy and military execution) a period that defined for Americans what "one nation, under God" actually means. Ken Burns' documentary — while extraordinary — happens to be the second-best chronicle of the Civil War. — FM

Robert Gordon

It Came from Memphis

Elvis, Al Green, Sun, and Stax you know. Alex Chilton, the Mar-Keys, Mud Boy and the Neutrons, Furry Lewis, and wrestler Sputnik Monroe you should if you don't already. These are the subjects of Gordon's It Came from Memphis, a popular history written from the perspective of the underappreciated and behind-the-scenes players that helped define the Memphis sound and identity. Defining moments include the British Invasion in the Bluff City and Bill Eggleston's film Stranded in Canton. There's also a chronicle of "The Tennessee Waltz," back when it meant the Orpheum rock show where Tav Falco bowled over the audience instead of under-the-table politician payoffs. — GA

John Grisham

The Firm

"The Godfather meets L.A. Law." So wrote reviewers from coast to coast when Southaven's favorite attorney/scribe hit the big time with his second novel. The unintended adventures of Mitch McDeere introduced a nation to Memphis landmarks, from Beale Street to the Rendezvous. Business probably picked up in the Cayman Islands as well. This novel launched an industry, one where titles (be they for books or movies) are more than a little secondary to the author's name. — FM

Peter Guralnick

Last Train to Memphis

When Elvis Presley died at Graceland in 1977, he was fat, washed up, and irrelevant. Or at least that was the conventional thinking at the time. But if that's the case, then why has his music — and his fame — endured 30 years after his death? In Last Train to Memphis, Peter Guralnik traces the amazing journey of the shy kid from Tupelo who became the biggest rock star in the world. The follow-up book, Careless Love, examines the final days when, as the author says, Presley "simply lost his way." Both books exceed 1,300 pages — probably the longest biography you'll ever read, and quite possibly the best. — MF

Richard Halliburton

Richard Halliburton's Complete Book of Marvels

Visitors to Elmwood Cemetery today may notice a simple gravestone for Richard Halliburton inscribed "Lost at Sea" and wonder who he was, and what happened to him. But when Halliburton vanished in 1939, trying to sail a Chinese junk across the Pacific — the last of his many outrageous exploits — newspapers across the land carried word of his death. In the 1920s and 1930s, this Memphis native was one of the world's best-known adventurers. Books like Seven League Boots and The Royal Road to Romance were instant best-sellers, enthralling readers with his exploits. Halliburton's fame died shortly after he did; his books are out of print, but in his day, he was one of the most popular writers in the world. — MF

Stanley Hamilton

Machine Gun Kelly's Last Stand

Memphian George Kelly Barnes was a two-bit crook and bootlegger, until he met a feisty redhead named Katherine Thorne, who bought her new husband a tommygun and decided to make (pardon the pun) a big shot out of him. After the sensational kidnapping of an Oklahoma millionaire, Machine Gun Kelly — his new moniker — became Public Enemy Number One, and newspaper headlines stunned Memphians in 1933 when they announced Kelly had been nabbed in his hometown after a daring raid by police and the FBI. This book, rich in narrative and details, not only creates a vivid portrait of the time but traces the life of the Central High graduate who became the most wanted man in America. — MF

W.C. Handy

Father of the Blues

William Christopher Handy stands tall as one of the most important figures in the history of our city. Want to know how Memphis would look in the eyes of the world had Handy settled in, say, Atlanta in 1907, and composed the "Auburn Avenue Blues" instead of coming to Memphis and composing the "Beale Street Blues"? See Jackson, Mississippi, or Little Rock, Arkansas. In addition to putting Memphis on the world map, he authored a colorful, evocative, and enduring memoir that captures the City of Good Abode in all its early twentieth-century grime and glory. — PL

Jack Hurst

Nathan Bedford Forrest

Brilliant Civil War general, or demonic murderous racist? Somewhere in between lies the truth behind Nathan Bedford Forrest, as polarizing a Southern icon as history has given us. Hurst tells the Forrest story with remarkable detail and with a disconcerting intimacy. Whatever you think of his statue on Union Avenue, Forrest grew into legend, where he'll remain forever. Hurst reminds us that he was human. — FM

Eugene Johnson and Robert Russell

Memphis: An Architectural Guide

This book belongs on the shelves of anyone even remotely interested in the history of Memphis homes, businesses, schools, churches, and other landmarks. The authors showcase more than 575 properties, providing a brief but informative overview of each building's designer, construction, architectural style, modifications, and other details. An impressive amount of work went into each page of Memphis: An Architectural Guide, and it will answer many questions, except one: Why is such a fine book out of print? — MF

Alan Lightman

Good Benito

When he was a student in the 1960s at White Station High School, Alan Lightman combined an interest in science and writing. He's gone on to become the first professor in MIT history to receive a dual faculty appointment in science and humanities. A physicist by training, Lightman wrote Einstein's Dreams in 1993, a novel that became a surprise best-seller nationally and went on to be translated into 30 languages. But it's Good Benito (1995) that sets several key scenes in Memphis, where we follow the young life of Bennett ("Benito") Lang . It's also where we read of a father haunted by his experiences in World War II, of a mother suffering from chronic insomnia, and of an uncle gambling against the odds. It's Lightman writing at perhaps his most autobiographically. — LG

Jay McInerny

The Last of the Savages

Following the lives of two boys through prep school and decades beyond, McInerney's tale of Will Savage and Patrick Keane's unlikely friendship centers around the South's sordid past and the guilt that can accompany privilege. Savage, the son of a prominent Memphis family, and Keane, a scholarship student, are different in every way imaginable, but both are haunted by their backgrounds. The theme of freedom and slavery dominates the narrative, and makes the reader question who — if any — among us is truly free. — MHT

Thomas McNamee

Alice Waters and Chez Panisse

It's easy to recommend McNamee's family saga A Story of Deep Delight, which depicts multiple generations in three stories that go from the Chickasaws of West Tennessee to Memphis in the twentieth century. Easy, except that the book is out of print and wouldn't quite reflect the career of McNamee, born in Memphis but a national name in natural-history writing (The Grizzly Bear, Nature First, and The Return of the Wolf to Yellowstone). He's also an Emmy Award winner for a PBS documentary that he wrote on artist Alexander Calder. But his most recent book shows yet another side of the author: an entertaining, enlightening biography titled Alice Waters and Chez Panisse: The Romantic, Impractical, Often Eccentric, Ultimately Brilliant Making of a Food Revolution. Like A Story of Deep Delight, it's easy to recommend. Unlike Deep Delight, it's easy to find. — LG

Tova Mirvis

Ladies Auxiliary

Mirvis' first novel takes readers inside the lives of the orthodox Jewish families of Memphis in a way only one who has lived in that world can. The Ladies Auxiliary brings to light many of the hardships faced by those who live in the tightly bound community, and the pressure to follow the rules of the religion without question. For some, the lifestyle comes naturally, but the struggle to keep the faith in today's modern world finds many of the characters questioning everything they've been taught about life. A must-read for anyone who's ever struggled with the constraints of religion, and the South. — MHT

Gerald Posner

Killing the Dream

Myth-busting can be heartbreaking. How could a two-bit hood like James Earl Ray end the life of a giant like Martin Luther King Jr.? Gerald Posner spares no detail in tracking the path of Ray as he stalked King, finally firing a shot that changed history from a Main Street boarding house on April 4, 1968. In exposing the misdirected life of a killer, the author is clinical as he peels away the many layers of speculation that have always swirled around the assassination. Posner's account is, in its own way, a tribute to Dr. King, as truth is the lifeblood of justice. — FM

John Pritchard

Junior Ray

Pritchard, who grew up in the Mississippi Delta and now teaches college English in Memphis, wrote this provocative novella about a racist "good ole boy" sheriff from Mississippi a couple of years back. In his first work of fiction, he lets Junior Ray Loveblood tell his story in his own profane voice. It's a Southern redneck tour de force — a dark and telling comedy, not for the squeamish. — BV

John Fergus Ryan

The Redneck Bride

The most famous of maverick Memphis author John Fergus Ryan's novels, The Redneck Bride is a darkly comedic Southern farce. A Falstaffian man-about-Midtown, Ryan died in 2003, but he is survived by his characters, with their absurd names and even more absurd proclivities. They were Ryan's greatest creations and his gift to Southern literature. The "plot," such as it is, of Redneck Bride, serves mainly as a skeletal architecture for Ryan's satirical takes on the bizarre country ways of his characters. Out of print, but well worth tracking down. as is his 1997 novel, Watching, a must read. — BV

Hampton Sides

Ghost Soldiers

Having written one of the finest pieces in Memphis magazine history ("Sad Song from the Hills," a Mississippi murder mystery, in December 1985), Sides followed a trail from the Bluff City to the top of The New York Times bestseller list. This tale of the survivors of the infamous Bataan Death March of 1945 managed to introduce new drama to a World War II saga bursting with a half-century of tales and tragedies. From tropical disease to torture, the tests endured by these heroes are yet another reminder of war's atrocity, and the strength of will exemplified by those who survive it. — FM

Steve Stern

Angel of Forgetfulness

These days, Stern is at home in Saratoga Springs, New York, teaching creative writing at Skidmore College. But in his imagination, he's likely to be back in his hometown, Memphis, and specifically that downtown neighborhood known as the Pinch — onetime home of Irish immigrants; more importantly for Stern's purposes (in A Plague of Dreamers, Lazar Malkin Enters Heaven, and Harry Kaplan's Adventures Underground) Jewish immigrants. Since the 1980s, Stern's made this largely unexplored territory his literary own. The Angel of Forgetfulness visits East Memphis and a hippie commune in Arkansas, when it's not traveling the streets of New York, Prague, and Russia. — LG

Peter Taylor

A Summons to Memphis

Two words: Pulitzer Prize. Taylor received the award in 1987 for this, his seventh novel. Taylor also authored renowned short stories, including The Old Forest set in Overton Park. In Summons, the narrator Phillip Carver, a rational, reverse-carpetbagger has been beckoned back home to Memphis from New York at the behest of his meddling spinster sisters, who hope to prevent their father from marrying. Instead of altering the future, though, Carver tries to reconcile his family's past. — PL

Phyllis Tickle

God-Talk in America

Tickle's home has been just north of town, in Lucy, Tennessee, for decades. You can read about her personal past in The Shaping of a Life, What the Land Already Knows, and Wisdom in the Waiting — rearing seven children, running a farm, acting as academic dean at Memphis College of Art, and observing religion in America, a topic she covers in God-Talk in America. That's just one of Tickle's multiple titles on the subject of faith and the practice of prayer, a subject she knows a good deal about after acting as founding editor of the religion department of Publisher's Weekly — LG

Ida B. Wells

Memphis Diary of Ida B. Wells

Born into slavery in Holly Springs, Mississippi, Ida B. Wells was an orphan at 16, worked her way through Rust College, and became a teacher to support her younger siblings. By the time she died in 1931, she was a respected journalist — respected enough to be the first black female correspondent for a white mainstream newspaper (in Chicago). Earlier in her career, though, she'd made her name as an anti-lynching activist in Memphis, and those years are detailed in her personal diary, the subject of The Memphis Diary of Ida B. Wells (edited by Miriam DeCosta-Willis). There we learn of Wells' pivotal role in the early fight for civil rights. There we follow her on the issue of women's suffrage. And there we learn of Free Speech, the anti-segregationist newspaper she co-owned and edited. — LG

Joan Williams

The Wintering

Williams' first novel was The Morning and the Evening (1961), and writer William Styron cited its "perfectly focused rendering of the Southern landscape." Her novel Old Powder Man (1966) was inspired by her father, a self-made man and expert in dynamite, and writer Robert Penn Warren praised it as "Death of a Salesman — Southern style." Then in 1971, her novel The Wintering appeared, a fictionalized account of her relationship with William Faulkner, who had encouraged her to write when they met in 1949. Over the course of five novels and numerous short stories, the South was her literary terrain, whether she was living in New York City or Connecticut, Virginia or Mississippi. — LG

Tennessee Williams

Cat On a Hot Tin Roof

"Big daddy wanted me to become a lawyer. I became a lawyer," Gooper says in Tennessee Williams' Delta-set Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. "He said: 'Get married.' I got married. He said: 'Have kids.' I had kids. He said: 'Live in Memphis.' I lived in Memphis. Whatever he said: 'Do!' I did all right." But what's not all right is the relationship between Gooper's brother Brick and Brick's wife, Maggie (the "Cat") — a childless marriage despite the fact that Maggie's doctor says there's no reason she can't have a baby. Those are just a couple of references, among many, in one of Williams' most popular plays. And speaking of his plays, the first to be performed, Cairo, Shanghai, Bombay!, was right here in Memphis in the mid-1930s when Williams was living here with his grandparents — a pivotal moment in the life of one of America's foremost playwrights. — LG

Richard Wright

Black Boy

Wright provides perhaps the most egregious example of Memphis not appreciating its own. His depiction of a Memphis few seem anxious to remember may explain the local amnesia surrounding the author. One of the literary giants of the twentieth century, he spent many of his formative years here, and later wrote about the city in his novelistic memoir Black Boy, including a scene in which young Richard uses a phony permission note and white co-worker's library card to check books out of the segregated library. — PL M

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