Willie Morris, 64, one of Mississippi's most treasured writers, whose 16 books included memoirs of his Mississippi childhood and of his stint as editor of Harper's Magazine as well as stories based on his childhood in the Delta, died Aug. 2 at a hospital after a heart attack.
Mr. Morris, a sixth-generation Mississippian, was born in Jackson and grew up in nearby Yazoo City. He attended the University of Texas, where he edited the school newspaper, and won a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford University, where he studied history.
After college, he returned to Texas and joined the staff of the alternative weekly newspaper the Texas Observer and served as its editor in chief from 1960 to 1962.
The next year he moved to New York as associate editor of Harper's Magazine. In 1967, at the age of 33, he published a prizewinning autobiography, "North Toward Home," and became Harper's editor in chief--only the eighth in the 117-year history of America's oldest magazine.
During Mr. Morris's four years at the helm, the monthly published Seymour Hersh's 40,000-word expose of the My Lai massacre in Vietnam and "The Selling of the President," Joe McGinniss's history of Richard Nixon's 1968 presidential campaign. Other contributors included Norman Mailer, Alfred Kazin, William Styron, Bill Moyers and David Halberstam.
Mr. Morris found himself at the center of New York's intellectual and literary world--and then on its periphery, forced to resign from Harper's in a dispute over the outspoken content of the magazine.
"He brought that magazine kicking and screaming into the present. With his love of words and very considerable charm, he'd taken an archaic magazine and made it an exciting magazine that was on the cutting edge," said Halberstam, recruited by Mr. Morris at Harper's. "There was a moment he sort of owned New York."
After almost a decade on Long Island's fashionable East End, he returned to Mississippi. "For some writers, it is important to live in proximity of the main landmarks of one's own past," he said.
Mr. Morris, who developed what he called a "good ol' boy love for the South," used Yazoo City as the small town that would become the focal point for many of his stories.
In his work "North Toward Home," he described Yazoo City as "on the edge of the delta, straddling that memorable divide where the hills end and flat land begins."
He served from 1980 to 1991 as writer in residence at the University of Mississippi. His writing courses proved hugely popular, and his own output--mostly autobiography or reflections on the South--established his name alongside such past or present residents as William Faulkner, Ellen Douglas, Barry Hannah and Richard Ford. He moved to Jackson after leaving the university known as Ole Miss.
While at Ole Miss, he wrote "The Courting of Marcus Dupree" (1983), based on a standout football player.
Among Mr. Morris's later works were "Terrains of the Heart and Other Essays on Home," (1981).
His latest published book was "The Ghosts of Medgar Evers," a 1998 work about the history of the production of the 1996 film "Ghosts of Mississippi." That film was about the 1963 assassination of the civil rights figure and the conviction of Byron De La Beckwith for his murder.
"The basic crisis in America is that of racism," he wrote. "Mississippi has always been the crucible of national guilt."
His other books included the novel "The Last of the Southern Girls" and a belated look at his Harper's experiences, "New York Days." His children's book "Good Old Boy" became a movie.
In 1996, Mr. Morris won the Richard Wright Medal for Literary Excellence.
Writer Larry Wells said Mr. Morris "was one of the true literary voices of the South and of America."
On a personal level, he said Mr. Morris was a famous practical jokester who "had fun, everything about him was fun."