Brickell first to put Yazoo on the literary map
Long before Willie Morris made his name in New York’s literary world, another Yazoo City boy had arrived there in the early 1920s. By the time of his death in 1952, he was recognized as one of the outstanding literary critics, book reviewers and publishers in America.
His name was Henry Herschel Brickell, and though many may have forgotten his literary contributions, he deserves far more recognition by our community.
One of the purposes of the soon-to-be dedicated Yazoo Literary Walkway is to memorialize Herschel Brickell, and to remind future generations of the accomplishments of a fellow Yazooan who never lost his love for this place.
Brickell was born in Senatobia in 1889, but like Willie, who was born in Jackson, was brought to Yazoo City while still a tiny child. He was raised here, received his elementary and high school education in our public schools and spent hours reading books in the B.S. Ricks Memorial Library. He even played right guard on the Yazoo team on Dec. 9, 1905 that won the first high school football game ever played in Mississippi against Winona.
He went on to be valedictorian of his graduating class, then spent four years at Ole Miss where he majored in English and edited The University of Mississippi Magazine.
After college Brickell worked as a newspaper reporter and journalist for several small papers in Alabama and Florida, eventually becoming editor of the Jackson Daily News. While back in Mississippi, he married Norma Long, an accomplished Jackson pianist.
But the adventurous young couple shortly decided to head for New York City, where he soon landed the job of copyreader and book reviewer for the New York Evening Post. He had for years his own highly admired book review column, “Books on Our Table.”
He also wrote book reviews and criticism for three other leading New York newspapers, several prominent magazines and many literary journals.
From 1928 to 1933 he became editor of the respected New York book publisher Henry Holt and Company. Later he was editor of The O. Henry Memorial Award Prize Stories from 1940-52.
During that time two awards for short stories went to fellow Mississippian Eudora Welty. This effectively launched her career.
With the outbreak of World War II, he was named advisor on Latin American Culture to the U.S. Department of State and served for three years as Cultural Attache to the U.S. Embassy in Bogata, Columbia.
Above all Brickell is probably remembered for his contributions to the Southern Literary Renaissance. He always gave special attention and prominence in his book reviews to emerging Southern writers like William Alexander Percy, Langston Hughes, Stark Young and Eudora Welty. He was the first journalist to interview Margaret Mitchell after publication of her Gone With the Wind in 1936, and she credited his especially complimentary reviews of her book in New York for much of its subsequent success. The two became fast friends.
Mitchell was only one of a vast number of writers of his era with whom Brickell enjoyed personal contact and friendships. There were also Sinclair Lewis, Theodore Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson, Ernest Hemingway, Ellen Glasgow, DuBose Hayward, Fannie Hurst, John Marquand, H.L. Menken, Arthur Miller, Truman Capote, Robert Penn Warren, the American poet Robert Frost and the Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca.
That is quite a compliment and tribute indeed to the talents of a young man who was raised right here in Yazoo City.
Sam Olden is a local historian and former president of the Yazoo Historical Society.
Last Updated (Wednesday, 02 June 2010 20:41)