Questions for Discussion
1. Taps opens with this description of Fisk’s Landing: “The hills came sweeping down from their hardwood forests and challenged the flatness, mingling with it in querulous juxtaposition” (p. 1). How is landscape, particularly the relationship between the flatlands and the hills, important to the story? How are the characters shaped by the land around them?
2. When recalling his father’s death Swayze remarks, “Selective memory is a human trait, and memory itself, I have learned, is the ‘corrector is existence’” (p. 18). In what ways does memory operate as a “corrector of existence” in this novel, and in life?
3. Swayze notes, “An observant boy in the small town of that long-ago American era could learn much by just listening and watching, and could privately appropriate merely in the course of events more knowledge of an adult person than that person might have of himself” (p. 33). Whom does Swayze understand better than the person understands him or herself?
4. On some levels, Durley Godbold and Amanda Pettibone seem poorly suited for each other. The town gossips burst with ideas as to why they are together — most hypotheses centering on the Godbold money. Why do you think Amanda marries Durley?
5. Swayze recognizes that in his position of funeral director Potter Ricks has become “a custodian of our past” (p. 121). Are there any other characters who can be similarly described?
6. Swayze asserts that doing something well makes one a hero (p. 290). Who are the heroes in Taps?
7. When Swayze and Arch are first commissioned to play “Taps,” they look upon it as a somewhat unwelcome task. By the end of the novel, their playing has clearly taken on a new meaning for them? In what ways does this experience change them? Is it for the better?
8. Fisk’s Landing has sent its young men to many a war — the Legionnaires, for the most part, represent veterans of WWI, and the VFW has begun recruiting from the veterans of more recent wars. How does the Korean War affect the town differently from any past war?
9. Willie Morris has often been categorized as a “Southern” writer. Could this story have been set anyplace else?
10. Luke Cartwright is described as “achingly American” (p. 70). What makes him so? What is Willie Morris’s definition of “American”?
Willie Morris was born in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1934. He graduated from the University of Texas and pursued graduate studies in history at Oxford University. During the Korean War, Morris played “Taps” for military funerals in his hometown of Yazoo City, Mississippi. He worked on Taps from the late 1960s until his death in 1999.
Morris held editorial roles at the Daily Texan and the Texas Observer, and was the youngest editor in chief of Harper’s, the nation’s oldest magazine. From 1967 to 1971, while at Harper’s, he worked with writers such as William Styron, Gay Talese, David Halberstam, and Norman Mailer. Morris wrote for many publications, including Vanity Fair, George, Esquire, the Oxford American, and Southern Living.
Morris won numerous awards, including the Houghton Mifflin Literary Fellowship for North Toward Home (1967), the Christopher Medal, the Richard Wright Medal for Literary Excellence, and the Governor’s Award for Literature. His works include My Cat Spit McGee (1999), The Ghosts of Medgar Evers: A Tale of Race, Murder, and Hollywood (1998), Prayer for the Opening of the Little League Season (1995), Terrains of the Heart and Other Essays on Home (1981), The Last of the Southern Girls (1973), and Yazoo: Integration in a Deep Southern Town (1971). Morris’s novel My Dog Skip (1995) was adapted for the screen and made into a popular film.
Morris directed much literary energy and great passion towards Mississippi and its environs. He sought to change both the way Northerners perceive Southerners and to change the way Southerners themselves dealt with the legacy of slavery. Morris used writing to express his dueling sense of alienation from and affection for his native state, and in doing so gave voice to a generation of displaced Southerners.
Morris returned to Mississippi in 1980 and served as writer-in-residence at the University of Mississippi in Oxford. In 1999 he died of a heart attack at the age of sixty-four. He is survived by his wife, JoAnne Prichard Morris, and his son, David Rae Morris. Compatriots from the literary world and Yazoo City united to pay tribute to their lost friend as he lay in state in the rotunda of Mississippi’s Old Capitol. William Styron remarked that Willie’s “country-boy openheartedness and candor masked an encyclopedic knowledge and an elegantly furnished mind.” David Halberstam proclaimed, “No one ever did it better, no one made it more fun, and no one did it with greater sweetness.”
“Mississippi is America writ large,” Willie Morris used to say. Through his writing and editing, he helped to redefine what it means to be Southern, and in a larger sense what it means to be American.
JoAnne Prichard Morris was born in Indianola, Mississippi, in 1944. She graduated from the University of Mississippi and pursued graduate studies in folklore and American and Southern culture at Western Kentucky University. She is the coauthor of Yazoo: Its Legends and Legacies (1976) and was executive editor at the University of Mississippi Press from 1983 to 1997. JoAnne met Willie Morris in 1967 while teaching high school in Yazoo City. She has said that her marriage to Willie was “a very happy and a richly textured one, based on books and writing, love of the ragged beauty of our native Mississippi, politics, friends, family, and Willie’s wonderful capacity for generating warmth and fun everywhere he went.”
Q) When did Willie Morris write Taps?
A) In a way, Willie had been writing Taps for most of his writing life — that is, from the mid-1960s, before he even published his first book, North Toward Home. Before he began NTH, he had experimented with a novel using material from his boyhood, including the scenes in the cemetery when Swayze plays “Taps” for local boys killed in the Korean War. These scenes form the central image of Taps. Over the years Taps stayed on his mind; he pondered plot and organization, he wrote sections of it, off and on, and in the 1980s, after he had come back to live in Mississippi, he began writing in earnest. He completed a good working draft in the late 1980s. Then other projects intervened. Periodically, he would get the manuscript out, make notations, polish the language a little. Sometimes he would ask me to read a section, and we’d discuss it. There wasn’t much he wanted to change. I think he just wanted it to be perfect.
Also — and I’m speculating here, but I believe I’m right — I think he sensed on some deeper level that Taps would be his last book. He knew he was very close to finishing it, and he had other books he wanted to write. Taps was very special to Willie — his “baby,” he called it.
Q) Why was Taps so special to him?
A) First of all, I think the experience of playing “Taps” for military graveside services when he was in high school touched him deeply, profoundly on an emotional level. It also gave him ideas he contemplated and developed — was consumed by, really — throughout the remainder of his life and through all his work — about human emotions (love, sacrifice, patriotism, joy, and melancholy) and complicated personal relationships, social and racial divisions and injustices, the power of land, and the presence of death in life. He wanted to say in one book all he felt and had learned over a lifetime. Taps is that book. So, in a real sense, Taps was his life’s work. He loved it, and he feared it, too, I think.
Q) Why did he fear it?
A) I think he feared he wouldn’t get it right, or maybe that he couldn’t. Here was a man who had spent most of life writing memoirs and other very personal nonfiction; yet in this book of fiction, he probably got closer to his own flaws and regrets and demons than he ever did in nonfiction.
Q) How did you feel about helping prepare Taps for publication?
A) I had some reluctance about getting involved so soon after Willie’s death. I put off getting “inside” the manuscript as I knew I must, apprehensive that it would be too difficult emotionally. But I knew that Willie wanted me to do it: among his final words to me were “get Taps together.” It was together really; there wasn’t much he had wanted to change. I knew he trusted my judgment, and he had always felt I could and should trust my editorial instincts.
When I finally delved deeply into it, I found myself in touch with Willie in a way I had not been since his death. We had conversations, just as we always had, about words and ideas. Sometimes I’d go to sleep wondering about what to do about a detail or even a particular word, and the next morning it would be clear to me.
I went over the manuscript line by line, word by word like this, making the deletions Willie had indicated, checking spellings and meanings and usages of words, checking facts and regional cultural information — matters Eudora Welty has described as making sure the moon is in the right part of the sky. (Were the titles of songs playing in the juke joint correct for that time? Were the flowers blooming in the correct month?) I didn’t write any new material other than a word or phrase here and there. The big difference, of course, was that Willie couldn’t respond in person to what I suggested, but we talked so many times about Taps over the years that I knew I was carrying out his final wishes for the book. This is absolutely Willie’s book.
Ultimately, the whole process was a uniquely fulfilling one — a sweet and wonderfully intimate conversation with Willie. As always, I learned much from Willie about words and ideas, and even more about his tender, sorrowful, loving, full heart.
Q) Do you think Willie would be pleased with Taps in its final form?
A) Yes — not only with my part but with the loving care Houghton Mifflin has given his “baby.” Houghton Mifflin published his first book and now this, his last. Everything comes full circle. Willie would love that. I wish he could see the final book.
Q) Willie Morris is best known for North Toward Home, his first book, and My Dog Skip, a more recent one, which was made into a popular family movie. Both books were memoirs. Taps is fiction. Will fans of those books find similarities in Taps?
A) Yes, of course. It has humor and small-town adventures, tender moments, touching scenes, and Willie’s wonderfully lyrical prose.
Taps is set in a small town (Fisk’s Landing), which is physically quite similar to his own hometown of Yazoo City, Mississippi, on the edge of the Mississippi Delta.
It has a teenage boy as its main character and narrator. He has a dog, a girlfriend, and a prankster pal. There’s an eccentric supporting cast: a snoopy, obsessive mother who teaches tap dancing; a foul-mouthed basketball coach; a demanding English teacher; a paranoid undertaker and his blind black helper; a greedy, racist plantation owner; a smart black football player; and a retinue of quirky old World War I veterans, raucous hill-boy soldiers, and self-absorbed Southern girls.
In Taps he draws on the prodigious memory and attention to detail for which he is known in North Toward Home, My Dog Skip, and all his other books. I think those who have read many of Willie’s books and friends who knew him will feel his presence in every line.
But there are some surprises in Taps, some dimensions as yet undiscovered.
Q) What surprises will readers of Willie Morris’s previous books find in Taps?
A) Taps is a bigger, deeper book than his most well known previous books. It is as thoughtful and wise as it is entertaining. The novel form, which Willie had used only once before, allowed him to develop characters, scenes, ideas, and emotions more fully. In Taps, he shows great depth and understanding of human motivations, failings, and triumphs. Both expansive and intimate, Taps is a serious, mature realization of the themes and obsessions that preoccupied him for most of his life. (And it has sex, intrigue, and murder, too!)