-Jerry Ainsworth, contributing writer
In the back of the basement of Leland Speed Library near the study rooms a shelf can be found. This shelf contains all the works of Mississippi College’s most prolific graduate, Barry Hannah. When Hannah departed he most certainly followed MC’s charge and “shared his culture with all of mankind”—anyone who was brash enough to open his books. Hannah, not unlike many of his MC colleagues, grew up in Clinton, played in the band at Clinton High School, and went to Mississippi College. When Hannah was a little kid walking to school in 1947, a car hit him on College Street near where University Place stands today. Clinton would not give him a break. In 1972 at age 30, he wrote about Clinton, Mississippi College, and growing up. They threw a car at him and he threw a novel right back.
“They can send me fools to teach, and I will send them back educated fools; nobody can teach the fool out of them!” read the entrance arches of the fictional Hedermansever College in Barry Hannah’s first novel Geronimo Rex.
Hannah was born in 1942, moved to Clinton at a young age and graduated from Mississippi College in 1964. In the tradition of many students, he began his studies as a Pre-Med student until experiencing what he described in an interview with The Paris Review as a “religious conversion” to a Literature major. (This interview is likely the only time Mississippi College has ever been mentioned in The Paris Review.)
Geronimo Rex, published in 1972, is a story of a young man, Harriman “Harry” Monroe, finding his identity in the turbulent time of the early 1960s. In 381 pages of Southern Postmodernism, Hannah’s novel traces the early life of Harry from growing up in Dream of Pines, La., to Hedermansever College and lastly to the University of Arkansas. The primary interest modern Mississippi College Students would have in the book is Harry Monroe’s time at Hedermansever College from 1960-1964. The years happen to correspond with Hannah’s time at Mississippi College, leading may to believe this book serves as a semi-autobiographical sketch of his time here.
In the novel, Harry loves music (particularly Jazz) and gets a scholarship to play in the band at Hedermansever. He shows up to the campus in a Thunderbird with a California license plate ready to throw himself onto the unsuspecting of campus of a small Baptist College near Jackson. It becomes obvious to those familiar with the campus of Mississippi College that throughout the novel Hannah makes Hedermansever a close replica of Mississippi College. From naming a dorm “Crestman” to describing a chapel at the center of campus in which General Grant kept his horses during the Civil War, it seems as though Harry Monroe’s Hedermansever is Barry Hannah’s Mississippi College. Harry seems to experience a lot of problems MC student’s face today—not being allowed to play Jazz in the Student Center, getting chased by his crush’s uncle in Crestman, and fears of Russians invading the Quad. Well, perhaps Harry’s are not the most relatable, but the situations he finds himself in seem very familiar to many and give a glimpse into the life of someone coming of age in that time period.
Perhaps the most relatable parts of the book involve Harry’s struggle to find out who he is as a person. The natural problems associated with becoming a man were compounded by Harry growing up in the early 60’s. One sees Harry being torn between the traditional South (represented by a variety of white supremacists) and the new upcoming South (represented by an African-American band director in the book). These people come at odds many times throughout the book. Through this, Harry goes through a change in which violence helps him determine where he stands on the racial issues of the time. To cope with all this, he finds a hero in an unlikely place, the Apache warrior Geronimo. A man of action, Geronimo represents everything Harry wants to be. Harry becomes fixated on the image of Geronimo and starts to dress like him, complete with knee high boots, gun, and scarf. In Harry’s mind, this all made him a man. He became the hero he wanted to be, or in the words of his roommate, “Hero of the criminally stupid.”
This book contains strong language, violence, and racism. It is not for the faint of heart or those who wish to ignore the history of Mississippi College. Hannah is brutally honest in this book, he pulls no punches, he does not tone anything down, and one receives the full, uncensored view of what life was like for male students at Mississippi College between 1960 and 1964. Many claim this book is an autobiography of sorts for Hannah as he looked back at age 30 and tried to make sense of his life up until that point.
“But I do not readily admit that I had come to the wrong place,” Hannah writes in the book. “Hedermansever was gruesome in many ways, but I confess it was not all dead. There were a half dozen members on the faculty who did teach me there were alternatives between being a corpse and being an (expletive)…”
This book, a red and tan book that reads “Geronimo Rex” on its side, is for those people who wander the Quad and wonder, “What kind of earth is this?”