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New York Times Obituary for Jim Whitehead


photo by Chris Boese, Copyright 2003-2005

James Whitehead, 67, Author of 'Joiner,' Novel of Deep South, Dies

August 19,2003


FAYETTEVILLE, Ark., Aug. 18 —James T. Whitehead, whose only published novel, "Joiner," a coming-of-age novel about segregationist Mississippi, received critical acclaim, died here on Friday. He was 67 and lived in Fayetteville.

The cause was a ruptured aortic aneurysm, his family said.

In 1971 Mr. Whitehead, a poet and teacher, published the story of Sonny Joiner, an oversize former football player and a man of excesses, intellectual and otherwise, passionate about history, theological discourse, painting, politics, quarreling, literature and sports. So was his creator.

The novelist R. V. Cassill, reviewing the book for The New York Times, wrote: "What Whitehead has achieved is to sound the full range of the Deep South's exultation and lament. Once again, we are told that Mississippi is our Ireland, in literature and politics. His tirade makes an awesome, fearful and glorious impact on the mind and ear."

Mr. Whitehead was born on March 15, 1936, in St. Louis. He grew up in Jackson, Miss. He stood 6 feet 5 inches by the time he went to Vanderbilt University on a football scholarship. There he met William Harrison, the budding writer who became his lifelong friend and associate. Mr. Harrison remembered that as a student Mr. Whitehead had a keen intellect, a firm sense of justice on the race issue that was roiling the South at the time and a fully formed ferocity on a broad range of thought from the painting of Vermeer to the theology of St. Augustine.

Mr. Whitehead's hope of a professional football career was dashed by an injury in college. He left Vanderbilt with a bachelor's in philosophy and a master's in English. He graduated from the creative writing program at the University of Iowa, then joined Mr. Harrison to found a similar program at the University of Arkansas. They were shortly joined by their friend Miller Williams, the poet. The master of fine arts program that they established became one of the nation's most acclaimed. Its students have included Barry Hannah, Ellen Gilchrist and others who have made their mark in fiction, poetry, translation, and film.

Mr. Whitehead also published four books of poetry, "Domains," "Local Men," "Actual Size" and "Near at Hand." He was known as a skilled sonneteer. He favored a conversational style that drew on his affection for the country Southerner. A sonnet he titled "A Local Man Doesn't Like the Music" begins:

Those tunes don't recollect one memory
I ever had. Not one could call my name.
And when the music isn't company
It's time to go and time to change your mind.

He is survived by his wife, the former Guendaline Graeber (he died on their 44th wedding anniversary); seven children, including triplets; a brother, Jared, of Marietta, Ga.; and 10 grandchildren.

October 3, 2003 in Obituaries | Permalink


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