The past is never dead. It's not even past.

William Faulkner

"I WAS AN ONLY child. After my mother died, I had no more close relatives. I felt the need to come home."

Willie Morris is drinking bourbon by the fire in the house that belonged to Faulkner's sister, next door to the Exxon station in Oxford. Not Oxford, England, where Morris was once a Rhodes scholar, but Oxford, Miss., home of the Ole Miss Rebels, the author of "Intruder in the Dust," and now Morris himself.

"I couldn't go back to Yazoo City," he says softly. "I know the people there too well, and they know me. Besides, there aren't any bars or restaurants in Yazoo City. I didn't want to go Greenville"--the Athens of the Delta--"after the Hodding Carters sold that newspaper. In Jackson, the new South is writ too large. Oxford's the only place in the state where I could live."

Morris's dog, Pete, a black Lab with the canine equivalent of a beer belly, sleeps noisily on the rug. Morris, 48, has himself grown broad of beam. He wears a faded jacket and a pair of wrinkled trousers torn in the seat. But the eyes -- deep-set in the backcountry countenance of a Magnolia State axle-snapper--have an idealist's intensity.

It was 15 years ago that Morris emerged from the cultural kudzu to become the youngest editor ever of Harper's magazine, and the author of an extraordinary autobiography, "North Toward Home." The word "home" echoed through his work with an extraterrestrial fervor. At Harper's he encouraged others to write about home, inspiring reminiscences and accounts of homegoings that drifted around the literary marketplace long after he had departed.

Morris created a regional flower garden in the Big Cave -- his characterization of Manhattan -- and a sense of excitement in the late '60s that many people think was Harper's finest time. He was one of the most talked-about writers in America. But his stewardship foundered in 1971, mostly on the publication in Harper's of Norman Mailer's "Prisoner of Sex," a lurid, sometimes brilliant extrapolation on writers and the reproductive act.

Morris then went to dwell on the cusp of his own notoriety, at the far end of Long Island, close to writing constellations such as Irwin Shaw and James Jones. He already had formally bid goodbye to the South. "Why is it," he wrote at the conclusion of "North Toward Home," "in such moments before I leave the South, did I always feel some easing of a great burden? It was as if someone had taken some terrible weight off my shoulders, or as if some old grievance had suddenly fallen away."

Now Morris has again taken up that burden. His migration back to his native state in 1980 is a study in southern ways, southern pride and southern comfort, a new perspective on an old land that, curiously, is as intertwined with sports as it is with literature.

Morris is working on a book for Doubleday about "a middle-aging man, and a 19-year-old black athlete." The middle-aging man is Morris; the athlete, Marcus Dupree, is a star University of Oklahoma running back and a native of Philadelphia, Miss. The idea for such a book was suggested by Morris' friend, David Halberstam, when he passed through Oxford two years ago.

"Willie jumped at it," says Dean Faulkner Wells, William Faulkner's niece. It is in her house that Morris is holding forth. "Sometimes I think he has a guardian angel. This gives him a chance to write about the great hope of the blacks in Mississippi."

Morris has spent many hours talking with Dupree's friends and family, and has just returned from watching Nebraska defeat Oklahoma in far-off Lincoln, Neb. He leans forward in the chair and hugs himself, emulating Marcus Dupree sitting on the Oklahoma bench, in preparation for a bit of southern storytelling:

"Marcus just sat and stared at the ground while the defensive team was on the field. He never looked up. His old high school coach was there, patting Marcus' hurt hand." Morris pauses, and says, for dramatic effect, "They had driven a thousand miles."

There are tears in his eyes. Morris says the book will be constructed with alternating chapters dealing with the past and present; the author plans to share equal billing with Dupree, a unique way to write a sports book.

"It's going to be great," says Dean Wells. Wells and her husband, Larry, own Yoknapatawpha Press, named after Faulkner's fictional county, and have published several of Morris's earlier works, including "North Toward Home" and a collection of his short pieces, "Terrains of the Heart."

"I feel Pappy's spirit hovering over the press," says Dean Wells.

The Wellses act as intermediaries between Morris and the outside world; he often dines in their home. Morris is notorious in Oxford for not answering his own telephone. One insistent visitor, according to a friend of Morris', entered his house on Ole Miss' faculty row uninvited, and found the former editor of Harper's hiding behind his bed.

"We share a great love of sports," says Morris, of the Wellses in particular and Oxford in general. "Somebody said that in the East, sports is big business. On the West Coast it's a tourist attraction. In the Midwest it's cannibalism. And in the South, it's religion."

He sips his bourbon and adds, "Pappy said that you can cure people of everything but marriage. Well, I would add talk to that. For the last month all the talk in Oxford has been about Steve Sloan (until recently the Ole Miss football coach), just as in Rome everybody would be talking about the Pope. In Bridgehampton, everybody would be talking about The New York Times Book Review, and The New York Review of Books, and who was saying what about whom. I'm not sure that's a plus." Yazoo Prodigy

Ten years ago, Morris formed a highly publicized alliance with Barbara Howar, Washington socialite, hand-holder of Lyndon Johnson and a budding author. They brought some Delta sparkle to the Potomac, and held what remains the most publicized garage sale in Washington annals, long before Jimmy Carter buried southern chic for the millenium.

When their books were published, the reviewers performed a Sherman on Morris' new literary Georgia. "The Last of the Southern Girls," a novel about a honeysuckled beauty who oozes up the trellis of Washington power, was embarrassingly similar to Howar's autobiographical "Laughing All the Way," and a disappointment to his admirers.

Two years later a book to which he contributed, "A Southern Album," was panned in The New York Times Book Review. "Willie Morris's unfortunate prose contribution here," wrote Edward Hoagland, "is derivative drivel. It is foggy Faulkner, when not frankly written more about Bridgehampton, Long Island, than the old or new South, which, to judge by what he has to say, he has not visited for a long while."

Morris surfaced again with "James Jones: A Friendship," a sentimental narrative about his famous neighbor's last years that did nothing to enhance Morris' reputation. He also helped Jones' editors write the conclusion to the novel, "Whistle," which Jones had been working on at the time of his death, the ultimate act of friendship, perhaps, but a dubious editorial function.

Occasional pieces by Morris appeared in newspapers and magazines as disparate as The Washington Star and Reader's Digest.

In a piece for Life last year, he wrote: "I dined in the Four Seasons and the Oak Room of The Plaza and the executive suites of skyscrapers, and mingled with the scions of the Establishment in the Century, and sipped Bordolino with the movie actresses in Elaine's, and performed on the Talk Shows, and stood on the balconies of the apartments on Central Park West and tinkled the ice in my glass and watched the great lights of Manhattan come on. Like the cotton candy at the county fairs of one's youth, it was all so wonderfully sweet . . ."

But soon the world--viz., the Big Cave -- had forgotten the prodigy of Yazoo City . . .

Dean Wells serves Morris lasagna; he eats at a library table, head propped on one hand, listening to the Tulane-LSU game on the radio. Tulane wins--a triumph of culture over barbarism in some southern eyes--and the cheering brings the Wellses' dog, Lion, bounding into the room.

"Tulane beat LSU, Lion!" says Dean Wells. Lion is named after the feist in "The Bear."

Morris says, "That's the best news since the dissolving of the Nazi-Soviet pact." 'Faulkner Country'

"This was upland country," Faulkner wrote in "Sartoris," of the outskirts of Jefferson, his fictional Oxford, "lying in tilted slopes against the unbroken blue of the hills, but soon the road descended sheerly into a valley of good broad fields richly somnolent in the leveling afternoon."

Today those good fields are full of automatic cottonpickers and the road is lined with Shoney's Big Boy, Wendy's and Taco Hut. Oxford has quadrupled in population since Faulkner's death in 1962. Suburban manses have sprung up around Faulkner's home, Rowan Oak, which retains a hokey grandeur, too small for the Sartoris family, and too neat for the Snopeses.

Every year it attracts thousands of visitors; many of them end up in John Leslie's drug store, on the square, where the mayor of Oxford has been dispensing medicine for 30 years.

"Willie's quite a fella," says Leslie, Morris' good friend. "When Willie first came here, and talked about all the famous people he knew, I thought it was bull----. Then I was sitting in his house one day when the phone rang. I answered it, and Lauren Bacall said, 'Is Willie there?' "

Faulkner was much less accessible. "He didn't have any formal education," according to the mayor, "or intellectual friends. I don't know how he got any stimulation--I guess he was a natural-born genius. It's incredible what he's meant to this town, though. Last week we got two busloads of firemen's wives in here from Memphis. Firemen's wives!"

Strangers who come into his drugstore often want a Faulkner quote; Leslie gives them one about change from "Light in August." "I think it's on page 127 of the paperback edition."

Townsmen gather regularly in the back of the drugstore, to talk and drink coffee. Leslie's cup has the words "Ole Miss" printed on it, also "Faulkner Country." One of his regular patrons is Chooky Faulkner, Dean Faulkner Wells' first cousin. Another is Motee Daniels, former bootlegger to William Faulkner and lesser Oxfordians, before the county went wet.

"They threw away the pattern after they made Willie," says Daniels, who is fond of him. "When he wants to drink, you got to drink with him. He takes poor ole Pete along. I've seen him look up at Willie with those red eyes, and you know Pete's thinking, 'Why the hell don't we go home?' I read in a magazine that a dog needs sleep more than he does food."

Daniels did not care for William Faulkner, however. "He had a split personality. Some days he'd speak to you, some days he wouldn't. He'd just stand out there on the square and stare at that blamed statue."

In "Terrains of the Heart," Morris wrote: "William Faulkner, the poet and chronicler of Mississippi, understood how deeply we care for it despite what it was and is--the gulf between its manners and morals, the extraordinary apposition of its violence and kindliness."

Also: "It was in the East that I grew to middle age. I cared for it but it was not mine . . . It grew upon me that a man had best be coming back to where his strongest feelings lay. For there, then, after all of it, was the heart."

There also, after all of it, was a job teaching at Ole Miss, created largely by Larry Wells, who met Morris at a cultural festival in Greenwood three years ago, when Morris still was living in Bridgehampton. "We had dinner together, and got a little drunk," says Wells. "We called up William Styron at 2 in the morning. He was a real gentleman about it."

Morris suggested to Wells that he would like to teach at Ole Miss; Wells took the message back to the university.

"The chancellor said the English department couldn't afford Willie Morris, so I asked for permission to raise supplemental funds." Wells got money from doctors, lawyers and businessmen around the state, including $5,000 from the Mississippi Chemical Corp. The Ole Miss journalism department also put up $5,000, a remarkable bit of cross-cultural brokering, and Morris was invited down to teach the modern novel as writer-in-residence.

"Willie showed up one night with Pete in an old car, with a lot of his stuff," recalls Larry Wells. "We took him over to the house, and soon had a fire going."

Morris quickly established himself as a presence in Oxford. "He's intensely social," says Wells. "A catalyst--he makes things happen." He auditioned the bartenders around town, choosing Clyde Goolsby, the black proprietor of the Prince Albert Lounge at the Holiday Inn, as his favorite.

"He was too much for the English professors," says one of them. "They didn't know how to handle Willie."

Morris helped the Ole Miss athletic department recruit high school ball players; he hobnobbed with the state representative, and wrote speeches for Mayor Leslie. "One day we were drinking over at the Warehouse," Leslie recalls, "and I said I had to go home and write a speech. Willie asked me what it was about, and took some notes on a napkin. The next day he brought this speech around, and it was terrific."

The two of them have even asked Styron for some expository prose. "He sent me a couple of great paragraphs," Leslie says.

"Willie aligned himself with the athletes and the politicians," says the head of the Ole Miss English department, Evans Harrington, himself a Faulkner scholar and a Morris supporter. "When he went to speak to the Touchdown Club, for instance, he would be identified on the program as Coach Morris. Now academics are not known for their affinity with coaches."

Morris invited Styron, James Dickey, John Knowles and other established writers to his classes, which were popular. "The publicity he has brought the university could not be purchased at any price," says Harrington.

But Morris was too personal with his students, says a colleague. And he ridiculed the annual Faulkner Conference. This year he and others gathered at the Wellses' house for an Alternate Faulkner Conference, awarding a Bronze Corncob, in absentia, to the scholar who had unearthed the most Faulkner lore.

"Some of the distinguished professors think Willie's a prima donna," says a younger member of the Ole Miss faculty. "They're just jealous, but we can't afford to pay $50,000 to those rumheads. They don't even understand the idea behind having a writer-in-residence. They didn't like Faulkner, either -- when he was alive."

Faulkner spoke to Ole Miss students only once, in 1946, first stipulating that no notes be taken, and no professors present. But news leaked out that he had rated himself among the top novelists in America, with more elevation than Ernest Hemingway. From that time on Papa Hemingway referred disparagingly to Pappy Faulkner as "ole corn-drinking mellifluous."

"Faulkner's a toy for these people," says Morris, of the academics. "Irwin Shaw used to say, 'Once you're dead, they've got you.' They couldn't handle Faulkner when he was alive. But now he's dead, and they've got him where they want him. If he was writing 'The Sound and the Fury' now, they would all be gossiping about his drinking, and his being broke. The English department doesn't understand writers. They hate writers."

"They like to discover a writer's lies," says Dean Wells. "Pappy had wonderful lies--about being a pilot in the war, and having a silver plate in his head. He bought a pair of RAF wings in a pawn shop. It's a shame that biographers have to come along and destroy people's lies."

Morris is now attached in the journalism department. He is on sabbatical for a semester to finish his book about Dupree, but classes, when he holds them, are still crowded, his methods somewhat unorthodox. He asked Motee Daniels to address his students at a bar. "He wanted me to speak about good common horse sense," says Daniels. "All those educated people were sitting around with pitchers of beer, and I told the bartender, 'Give me a glass of that conversation juice!' "

Daniels spoke about his bootlegging days, when the police sometimes arrested students with carloads of beer. "We'd tell the police to treat the students like everybody else, and the police would have to load the beer back into the cars. They'd get mad as hell." He also introduced the subject of his "jukehouse"--a roadside tavern. "Those ole country girls would chop cotton and corn all day, and juke in there all night. There were fights. My head would feel like a sack of walnuts the next day."

"Willie's a major asset," says Will Norton Jr., chairman of the journalism department. "He draws famous people to conferences. He's an ideal editor, good at matching people with stories, and suggesting ideas." He edited the Ole Miss Magazine. "The students think, 'If the editor of Harper's thinks I'm good, then I must be worth something.' "

Morris has also been called a prima donna by professors of journalism. Nevertheless, there is talk of creating a permanent chair for him at Ole Miss.

"I hate teaching," Morris says simply. "But anything that keeps a writer going is to the good."

Larry Wells said earlier, "Willie won't compromise. Faulkner was like that, and everyone around him suffered. I guess that's what it takes."

Morris has a contract for two novels, in addition to the Dupree book. One of the novels, to be called "Taps," is about growing up in Mississippi. 'Just a Writer'

Morris is scheduled to move into a cabin on nearby Sardis Lake the next day, to devote himself wholly to writing. He says goodnight to Dean Faulkner Wells, and invites a reporter to have a final drink at the Holiday Inn, where other friends are waiting.

"I suspect," he confides, "that they have already cracked the corn gourd."

Outside, it is raining. Morris cuts across the lawn, water brimming over his penny loafers, and climbs into the car. "I always liked Washington," he says. "I used to do research -- I don't remember what for -- in the Georgetown library. I remember walking home in the evenings, on the brick sidewalks, and looking in at people having their preliminary drinks."

The car circles the square. Part of Faulkner's description of it, taken from "Requiem for a Nun," is to be reproduced on a plaque and put up in memory of him: "But above all, the courthouse: the center, the focus, the hub . . . musing, brooding, symbolic and ponderable, tall as cloud, solid as rock, dominating all: protector of the weak, judiciate and curb of the passions and lusts, repository and guardian of the aspirations and the hopes . . ."

The Holiday Inn bar is smoke-laden, and crowded. A likeness of Colonel Rebel, the mascot of the University of Mississippi, in stained glass hangs on the wall; the day's football highlights are being replayed on a six-foot video screen.

"Willie!"

The men wear boots and camouflage hunting caps, and have an average girth of just under four feet. They have indeed already cracked the corn gourd, in a deer-hunting camp--a trailer full of bourbon, stashed in the woods.

"We didn't kill a thing," admits an insurance agent.

The agent's wife has ordered Morris a pizza, not knowing that he has already eaten. "We got to take care of you, Willie."

Morris tells them about the Nebraska-Oklahoma game and demonstrates how Marcus Dupree hugged himself on the bench.

"I saw some of it on television," says the insurance agent. "The commentator said some bad stuff about Marcus. Don't worry, I taped it."

"Television is ruining the country," Morris tells them. "And nobody in this town cares but me and Pete."

There's a pause. The video screen is rampant with football, Oxford's main lifeline to the outside. Finally the insurance agent says, "Well, I half-care."

Morris turns to the reporter and says, "I'm talking to my friends, and you're taking notes. I've already written about coming back to Mississippi, I don't know what else to say. I'm just a writer. I'm trying to write a book, and I'm scared."

The insurance agent invites the reporter to step into the back room. "I'm 'a do you a favor," he says. "Willie's not himself tonight, he don't feel like talking. I'm his best friend in town, and I can tell."

They are joined by another deer hunter. He lists against one wall like a badly loaded freighter. "You better hear what he says," he tells the reporter, poking him on the shoulder with a thick finger. "You . . . better . . . listen . . . to . . . what . . . he . . ."

Morris does not look up as the reporter leaves.