When Mississippi author Willie Morris died in August of this year, President Bill Clinton said the nation had lost a national treasure. Of course, we lost more than that. We lost a piece of our collective soul.
No one expected Willie Morris to die, not yet anyway. Among the many gifts he left behind was his final book, My Cat Spit McGee. He never lived to see it published and that is a shame, for in some respects it is his best. Morris lived through some miserable years as he came to terms with a divorce, struggled to establish himself as a writer, and battled personal demons. In the final years of his life, however, he found love and contentment with a woman named JoAnne, whom he married in spite of her unrelenting love of cats.
It was in his relationship with JoAnne and Spit McGee, the cat he rescued from certain death, that he finally came to terms with his own mortality. On one level, the book is a humorous, old-soul wise story about a dog man learning to live in a household with a furry, white cat. But there is a second level. With My Cat Spit McGee, Morris did what Ernest Hemingway did with The Old Man and the Sea. He took a simple story and, with writing that is honest and true, wove it into a soulful allegory that is timeless in its wisdom and depth of feeling.
That was always Morris's strength as a writer his soul. You could see it in his eyes, the way his feelings ran wide and deep like the Mississippi River. I first met Willie Morris in 1978, when he traveled to Mississippi from his home in Bridgehampton, New York, to promote his book, Yazoo: Integration in a Deep Southern Town. After interviewing him for a local newspaper, I asked him to autograph the book.
He did considerably more than that: Knowing that one of my goals was to someday write a book, he admonished me, within the confines of the title page of his book, to never give up in my efforts.