From front-porch rocking chairs to the dog-eared pages of novels, the South boasts a rich legacy of storytelling.
A complex brew of poverty and racial strife has inspired writers as diverse as William Faulkner, Richard Wright, Eudora Welty, Flannery O'Connor, Pat Conroy and John Grisham. But those same social pathologies have burdened the South with a stubbornly enduring legacy of illiteracy.
This clash of literature and illiteracy is one of the great contradictions in a region filled with them. And it's particularly stark in Mississippi, where studies have found that 30 percent of adults can't read well enough to fill out a job application, the dropout rate is 40 percent and public schools rank near the bottom in nearly every category.
"When I first came here, they told me the state has more writers than it does readers," says Richard Boyd, who did two stints as state superintendent of education in the 1980s and '90s.
Indeed, Mississippi was a tortured subject for Faulkner himself, who once wrote of his native state: "You don't love because, you love despite; not for the virtues, but despite the faults." But the problems of black and white, injustice and intolerance, were what drove Faulkner and motivate Mississippi writers to this day.
"If you don't have conflict, you don't have fiction," says author Josephine Haxton, who writes under the pen name Ellen Douglas.
Among the efforts to turn around Mississippi's illiteracy rate is the Oxford-based Barksdale Reading Institute, founded with a $100 million grant by former Netscape CEO Jim Barksdale. It seeks to get children reading as early as preschool and provides books and teacher training for some of the state's poorest and lowest-performing schools.
"Does poverty produce illiteracy or does illiteracy produce poverty? The answer to both is yes," says attorney Claiborne Barksdale, Jim's brother and the institute's executive director.
"If we were a nice, homogenous, upper-middle-class society, we wouldn't have produced the fiction we've produced," Claiborne Barksdale says. "The question is: Would you trade all the poverty and forgo 'The Sound and the Fury'?
"Of course you would."
Writers and historians agree Mississippi was slower than most parts of the United States to develop an energetic, well-funded public school system, and it has been playing catch-up for some time. That's particularly true in rural areas where business owners and plantation managers once saw no need to educate their future laborers.
Richard Ford, a Mississippi native whose novel "Independence Day" won the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, says Mississippi still suffers from providing "separate and unequal" schools for blacks and whites.
When desegregation finally happened in Mississippi the 1960s, more than a decade after the Supreme Court ordered it, "you had white schools raiding the black schools and taking their books and doing all they could do to suppress black education in Mississippi," Ford says.
That legacy of poverty and substandard education has been passed down to people like Annie Quinn, 59-year-old housekeeper at the state Capitol in Jackson who is still struggling to learn to read and write.
Quinn's mother was illiterate. Quinn's father left when she was in fourth grade, and she had to quit school to help take care of her 10 brothers and sisters.
It wasn't until the late 1980s, when her 12-year-old daughter saw a TV commercial and sent away for adult literacy materials, that Quinn started learning to read. Today she still listens to phonics tapes and often reads children's Sunday school lessons during her breaks at the Capitol.
"I just pick up books and sound out words," she says with a smile. "It might take me a day to read a sentence, but I just stick with it."
Olympia Vernon, a 32-year-old writer whose first novel, "Eden," was nominated for the 2004 Pulitzer Prize, was born in Louisiana and spent most of her childhood summers visiting her grandmother in rural south Mississippi. When Vernon was 12, she and her mother moved to her grandmother's hometown of Osyka just north of the Louisiana line.
"When I was in Louisiana, reading was stressed a lot," Vernon says. "But I noticed that as I crossed the state line to Mississippi, I couldn't talk about my intelligence, I couldn't talk about the books I had read."
But for every community where reading is shunned, there are others where it's celebrated: Greenville, for example, boasts of being home to the late Shelby Foote, Walker Percy and William Alexander Percy. In Jackson, tourists drive past the Tudor-style home of the late Welty. And in Oxford, pilgrims regularly walk among the cedars at Faulkner's home, Rowan Oak.
Ann Abadie, associate director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi, says the isolation of the rural South helped build a strong tradition of storytelling among the educated and uneducated alike. Most small-town and country folk didn't have access to theater or movie theaters -- and before television and radio, the best entertainment was often the exchange of gossip or tall tales on the front porch.
"Without a lot of sophisticated things, you have an opportunity to listen to people," Abadie notes.
Faulkner, for example, grew up hearing tales of aging Confederate veterans, and Welty as a child would settle in among adults and demand that they tell stories.
Vernon, now writer in residence at Southeastern Louisiana University, carries that tradition on to a new generation by telling the kinds of stories that surrounded her when she was growing up. Her next novel is called "A Killing in This Town," a tale about the Ku Klux Klan in fictional Bullock County, Miss.
This past June, Vernon drove to Philadelphia, Miss., to attend part of the trial of onetime local Klan leader Edgar Ray Killen, charged in the 1964 slayings of civil rights workers James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman. Killen was convicted of manslaughter 41 years to the day after the three young men were killed and buried in an earthen dam.
"We probably couldn't write the way we did if we did not have Mississippi," Vernon says. "But at the same time, Mississippi is something we carry."