A Review of:
Richard Grant, Dispatches from Pluto: Lost and Found in the Mississippi Delta (Simon & Schuster, 2015)
You’re Richard Grant, a native of Great Britain and a journalist whose writing and documentary film work have shed light on cultures in various parts of the world. You live in New York City with your girl friend, Mariah. You are a Blues fan. And then, a friend, cookbook writer Martha Foose, suggests that you move to Mississippi, where her family is trying to dispose of an old plantation in Holmes County, near the hamlet of Pluto. Seemingly on a whim, you agree, even though, according to Martha, “You have no idea what you’re getting into down here, and that’s what makes it so perfect. . . . We’re going to be neighbors, and you’re going to write a book about the whole thing.” (12) And that’s pretty much what happened. . . .
Grant’s explanation for his decision to move to Pluto is not all that clear otherwise. OK, so girlfriend Mariah is having trouble getting a job in the Big Apple. She wants to earn a degree in librarianship, which she can do online, and Richard’s job took him to various exotic climes, most of them out of the country, so perhaps where they lived wouldn’t matter all that much, at least for a time.
And yet, Mississippi was the poorest, most obese state in the Union; it had more teenage pregnancy, illiteracy, and failure to graduate from high school than any other American state. Not only that, Mississippi also led the nation in religious devotion, political conservatism, and sexually transmitted diseases, none of which appealed to Grant and Mariah. And to top things off, the nearest grocery store carrying “organic eggs, strong cheese, or crusty bread” was fifty miles away. (1) What to do, what to do?
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Well, what Grant did, with the help of Martha Foose’s dad, whose former home was on the market, was to line up the financing, convince Mariah to accompany him, and head for Pluto. Once they settled in, the couple discovered that the property was covered by mosquitoes, to which Mariah was allergic; they had too little furniture to make the place livable; there was a serious leak in the roof; and, oh, by the way, the family “to-do” list was both never-ending and increasingly expensive, which made their new home a yawning “money pit.”
Their neighbors were almost all white Republicans, but Grant and Mariah soon learned that things like political differences seemingly did not affect “southern hospitality.” Neighbors loaned them furniture and a vehicle (because Grant and Mariah “only” had one car); heck, despite the fact the newcomers weren’t even married, their neighbors threw them a terrific party, where one showed up “with a bottle of Glenlivet and a silver ice tray as housewarming gifts.” (36)
Still, like Margaret Mead in Samoa, Grant and Mariah had lots to learn, and not all of it was comfortable. For example, life in the Delta was free of restraints: “If I wanted to, I was free to piss naked off my porch, shoot guns, take drugs, drive drunk, and make all the noise I wanted.” (40) In fact, it was easier to buy a gun in Mississippi than to get a driver’s license. On balance, Grant decided that living in Mississippi reminded him of life in “Latin America, Africa, and the Caribbean: the collapsing infrastructure, the intermittent electrical supply, the air of lassitude and disorganization, the ancient forms.” (49)
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Blues fans and southern historians will probably be interested in Grant’s take on two key themes regarding the Mississippi Delta, the Blues and racism. Grant is a fan of the Delta Blues, and this was one of the factors that drew him towards settling there. A decade before moving to Pluto, in fact, Grant had met regional Bluesman James “T-Model” Ford and been impressed by his optimism, both in his personality and in his music.
When he reconnected with Ford after moving to Pluto, however, Grant saw a different man—one who was sick, afraid, and pessimistic. Ford had stopped playing the Blues in his later years, turning exclusively to religious music, because he feared going to Hell when he died, a development not that unusual in the biographies of Blues performers. Sure enough, when Ford finally became “another Blues stringer called home,” his minister delivered a warm eulogy, noting that, although there were few Blues players in Heaven, T-Model was surely one of them, because the pastor and two other witnesses had been present when, on his deathbed, Ford accepted Jesus as his Lord and Savior.
Grant also enters the debate over the origins of the Blues. He maintains that the black presence in the Delta was the product of the post-Civil War years, not slavery times, and that African Americans moved there willingly after Emancipation in hopes of improving their livelihoods through owning and working their own land. By 1900, two-thirds of the Delta’s farmers were black; yet, by 1920, whites, who controlled economic life there, including credit, had dispossessed those black families and reduced them to sharecroppers. And that, Grant believes, gave birth to the Blues: “It was not an ancient ancestral moan but the cry of alienated, uprooted modern man, craving independence and strongly individualistic in a way that African music had never been.” (138)
The Blues also were featured in several of the black clubs that Grant attended in the Delta. Perhaps the most interesting was Po Monkey’s, one of the last remaining juke joints in the area (strikingly pictured on the book’s cover). The club was presided over by Willie Seaberry, “Mr. Po Monkey himself.” Po Monkey’s–dark, smoky, with sloping floors– featured toy monkeys hanging from the ceilings, along with “colored lights, pieces of tinsel, naked plastic baby dolls, a revolving disco ball, and a perennial sign scissored out of paper that read SEASONS GREETINGS.” (153) Like everything else in the Delta, perhaps even the Blues themselves, Po Monkey’s appeared to be on its last legs.
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Grant’s assessment of race relations in the Delta can be rather confusing, but then he would probably argue that that’s the reality. He and Mariah were overwhelmed by the kindness and consideration of their white, mostly Republican neighbors as they helped the couple adapt to their new life. Grant interprets his neighbors’ views of race as a product of history and tradition, “the kind of affectionate racism” that “prevailed among the Delta gentry.” (259-262)
Yet, when these same Delta whites, with apparent sincerity, posed the question, “Why can’t blacks get their acts together,” Grant’s reaction was withering: “After 250 years of slavery, 90 years of plantation sharecropping and Jim Crow, and 50 years more of unequal opportunity, deep poverty, and very slowly diminishing racism, black folks were expected to shake all that off like it was nothing and be grateful for their civil rights.” (264) To Grant, there was “a huge chasm between the races, a deep history of prejudice, and bonds so close they feel like kinship.” (269)
A gregarious fellow, Grant also tried to view racism through the eyes of local blacks, including those who worked on the plantation in Pluto, but without much luck. His maid, for example, adamantly refused to sit with him at the lunch table, let alone talk with him about the race issue in the Delta.
To his credit, Grant persisted in trying to form relationships with Delta blacks through other means, including visits to a local club, accompanied by an African American friend who was a member of the National Rifle Association and never left home without a gun. Eventually, though, that friend told Grant he could no longer protect him at the club because members were suspicious of Grant’s motives for attending. So much for trying to learn about race relations through the eyes of African Americans. . . .
Grant also was fortunate to make the acquaintance of noted Hollywood actor Morgan Freeman, who, with his white partner Bill Luckett, owned the Ground Zero Blues Club in Clarksdale. Grant was invited to play golf with Freeman and his friends, and, on one memorable occasion the cinema icon shared his view of “the meaning of life.” (And, if you think I’m going to tell you what Freeman said, you’ve got another think coming. Read the book!)
Grant accompanied Bill Luckett during the final days of his campaign for mayor of Clarksdale, which Luckett won in a landslide. Despite Luckett’s victory in the majority black town, though, Grant still wondered why blacks and whites in the Delta couldn’t just get along, to which Luckett replied (full disclosure: U.S. Surgeon General’s Warning) that racism was a lot like smoking: “People are hooked on it, even though they know it’s bad for them. It’s hard to quit smoking. It takes effort and willpower and perseverance, but millions of people have done it, and it’s becoming a thing of the past.” (258) But, apparently, not yet in the Mississippi Delta. . . . In fact, to Richard Grant, the local Walmart was one of the few places “that reflected the true demography of the Delta—majority black, minority white, with a smattering of Mexicans, Chinese, Lebanese.” (148)
Richard and Mariah finally set all of their neighbors’ misgivings to rest about their relationship. Mariah finished her online library degree and landed a job at historically black Mississippi Valley State University in Itta Bena, where she would be the only white woman on the library staff. As a sort of commemoration of this achievement, Grant decided to “pop the question,” and Mariah accepted.
The happy couple began to plan a wedding, only to learn that, according to tradition among Delta whites, such a “do” would be a nine-month round of parties and other celebrations that would cost, at a minimum, $50,000! Grant tried to pare expenses but met resistance from Mariah and her woman friends. Finally, one of his male, Republican neighbors advised Grant to leave things to the women, which was what he decided to do. Then, wouldn’t you know it, a downpour drowned the ladies’ high expectations for wedding decorum, but at least Richard and Mariah did marry, and set off for a New Orleans honeymoon.
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Richard Grant’s Dispatches from Pluto: Lost and Found in the Mississippi Delta, is a fascinating, thoroughly delightful read. Grant brings to his time in the Delta the perspective of the “outsider,” an educated, intelligent observer from a different culture who doesn’t know exactly what awaits him in Pluto, but, once he and Mariah begin to experience life there, they do their best to adjust. And, as they do, the reader is along for the ride.
Obviously, the view of a single observer of life in the modern Mississippi Delta, even one as thoughtful and engaging as Richard Grant, is not the final word, nor should it be. By the time the reader closes the volume, he or she will probably still wonder about some of the questions Grant raised and attempted to answer. Grant’s account may be neither strictly scholarly nor exactly historical, but he knows what he’s trying to do—and he does it very well, indeed!
(NOTE: A more scholarly, but also entertaining, take on the Delta, its history, and its culture is James C. Cobb’s classic work, The Most Southern Place on Earth: The Mississippi Delta and the Roots of Regional Identity [Oxford University Press, 1992].)
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For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to several books on the subject:
Rancorous Enmities and Blind Partialities: Parties and Factions in Georgia, 1807-1845 (University Press of America, 2015)
In Pursuit of Dead Georgians: One Historian’s Excursions into the History of His Adopted State (iUniverse, 2015)
Politics on the Periphery: Factions and Parties in Georgia, 1783-1806 (University of Delaware Press, 1986)
Nice review of what sounds like a very interesting read. The “historian” or perhaps “cynic” in me could not help but note at least one fascinating point. He argues that the blues is a post-slavery phenomenon, but argues that it was 250 plus years of slavery, racism, etc. that hindered upward mobility for African-Americans. I don’t think I buy his post-slavery demographic shift as the origin of the blues. At any rate, I could have saved him a great deal of money and time on his learning curve, but he didn’t have my number.
I take your point, but Grant’s was a narrower one: he was entering the debate over the origin of the Blues in the Delta, not the origin of the Blues in general. Historiography agrees with him that the Delta wasn’t really developed until after The War, and that the African Americans who settled there did so voluntarily, trying to get out from under sharecropping. I think he’s a bit too rosy in describing the large number of those black settlers who were landowners, but it is true, as Grant says, that by early in the 20th century there were few independent African American farmers left in the Delta.
I recommend the book highly. It’s a lot of fun to read, and the clash of cultures represented by Grant and Mariah on one side and everyone else in the Delta on the other would make a great movie!