M.F.K. Fisher was at Piney Woods for a very short time, less than six months all told. But she left her mark on the Mississippi school, and it left its mark on her.
By the middle of the last century, Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher, known to the world of letters as M.F.K. Fisher, had established herself as the preeminent culinary essayist in the English language.
Her visits to Dijon, Vevey and Provence resulted in works such as Serve It Forth (1937), Consider the Oyster (1941), How to Cook a Wolf (1942) and The Gastronomical Me (1941). Those and her translation of The Physiology of Taste by Brillat-Savarin (1949) had garnered her praises from around the globe. W.H. Auden said of her, “I do not know of anyone in the United States who writes better prose,” no small acclaim in the age of Faulkner, Hemingway, and Steinbeck.
In 1964, Fisher had just finished the stunning Map of Another Town, an excerpt of which was published in The New Yorker in January. Subtitled “A Memoir of Provence,” the work marks a departure from her gastronomical memoir-cum-recipe format since the book is built not around food but around places: the cours Mirabear, the Deaux Garcons, La Toronde and other sites associated with Aix-en-Provence.
She had established herself as a writer, but she had already told friends she wanted to do something different: she wanted to teach. Other than a writing workshop in Utah in 1954 and various public speaking engagements, she had no teaching experience.
She also lacked sufficient academic credits to qualify for certification at public schools, but private schools like Piney Woods offered leeway in the matter of credentials and she entertained the idea of teaching English literature, basic composition, home economics (try to imagine taking home economics from M.F.K. Fisher) and tutoring students in French, Spanish and Italian.
“I’ll be working with students in advanced high school and junior college who are preparing for the ministry, the law, teaching and medicine. I’ll also be working with students who have come from the most God-forsaken rural areas in the state. The main thing is that they will be there because they WILL it, and not because it is the easiest, coziest and most indicated way to social and economic success.”
Fisher first heard about Piney Woods in the early 1920s when their gospel choir performed at The Bishop’s School in La Jolla, California, where the teen-aged Mary Frances and her younger sister were enrolled. For some time afterwards, her mother Edith subscribed to the Piney Woods bulletin and regularly sent donations of money and books, which her daughter continued to do for decades.
In her letters to family and friends in the early months of 1964, M.F. wrote of her preliminary discussion with Dr. Laurence Jones, the founder of Piney Woods, about her plans to volunteer her services at the school and her reasons for doing so, saying that she had “almost finished the active mother-role and that I am destined to go to waste unless I make some strong move.”
The year 1964 was a sadly historic one for Mississippi; the state had become a battleground in the American struggle for civil rights. Fisher confessed that she was no martyr to the cause of racial equality, and “as for accepting and being accepted, I honestly think that would soon take care of itself, easily and thoroughly . . . there would be suspicion of my motives at first, as is very understandable . . . so many white people want to ‘help’ but, are conditioned too far back to be anything but self-conscious about it, and I seem to be born without a racial conscience or whatever it is.” She was not being altruistic at all, she was doing this for herself because after so many comfortable years in St. Helena and so many years of raising her daughters to be citizens of the world, she now had her back to the wall and needed Piney Woods as much as or more than the school needed her.
After sharing her plans with family (to mixed responses), Fisher boarded the California Zephyr in San Francisco on June 22. Once in Chicago, she boarded a train bound for Jackson, some twenty miles from Piney Woods. During that time radio broadcasts and news coverage focused on the disappearance of two white civil rights workers from New York, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and their black activist host, James Chaney, who were the first casualties of what was to become known as the “Freedom Summer”. On August 4, the FBI would discover the inhumed bodies of Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney, and the South would explode in acts of violence and bigotry. But at Piney Woods, the focus was on work and education. Fisher said that the students were “too busy for trouble.”
She eased into teaching with noncredit courses on fables (“from Aesop to Thurber”) and also tutored a handful of students. She lived in the comparative luxury of an air-conditioned mobile home of a faculty member who was away on vacation and ate most of her meals in the dining hall, which she considered disastrous because of the emphasis on starchy foods. It should be noted that Fisher dined at the famous Revolving Tables in the Mendenhall Hotel, but records of the meal and her impressions of it are if in existence unavailable.
Fisher was at Piney Woods for a very short time, less than six months all told: two school terms, a summer and a fall. Despite the miserable Mississippi summer heat, her first term was the happiest. She wrote, “For the first time in many years what creative energy I have is being directed toward other things than my professional and emotional self.” She spoke of “wooing the students” to make herself acceptable, and her non-credit courses were popular.
She talked of her time with Dr. Jones, who was away from campus most of the time on fundraising junkets. During his absence, the dean of the school Dr. Chandler was in charge, and Fisher described her as a “somewhat ridiculous little figure,” Fisher was soon to tangle with the steely Chandler and became outraged at a librarian who would not check out books “to NEGRO students!”
During the October break between the summer and fall semesters, things began to go awry. Even as she boarded the plane in Jackson, “I was surrounded by men and women and their frightened children speaking Mississippi dialects, several civil rights workers were flying out, the plane was stiff with heavily armed police, and I became more convinced that I could never come back.”
She spent her break at a beach house in Bridgehampton, New York, attending Broadway musicals and dining with Truman Capote, but that autumn her daughter Anna lost her job and became pregnant, her friend and editor Pat Convici became gravely ill, and her sister Anne was also in poor health.
When she returned to Piney Woods, she threw herself back into teaching, but the daily grind soon began to wear. After a difficult Thanksgiving with her family in California, when she returned to Piney Woods in December, she asked to be relieved of her teaching duties for the remainder of the fall semester. Her plans were to return to California to her daughters Norah and Anna, but, incensed that she seemed to have abandoned them in their time of need (Norah was by now caring for the pregnant and unstable Anna) for a group of Negro students in the middle of nowhere, they both insisted that she shouldn’t come.
Fisher left Piney Woods for Chicago in January 1965 and never returned. She had lost 20 pounds and was absorbed in self-reflection. Looking back on that time she wrote, “I began to come to life again.” She later described her time in Mississippi as “a pit of non-existence” to which she subjected herself.
Once back in Chicago, she began writing again and sold some articles she had written long ago. “I thought a great deal about Piney Woods – the iron hand of Dr. Chandler, the librarian who didn’t want books taken out of the library, the conformity. People want me to write controversial stuff about it, but I am still too close, and I do not want to hurt the old man who founded the School. He is a rascal, but he is also something of a real saint, in my eyes. I am making many notes, of course, and may someday be able to tell what I think is the truth about the basically noble but infamous place.”
These notes were never assembled, much less expounded upon. In Conversations with M.F.K. Fisher, edited by David Lazar (University Press of Mississippi: 1992), Ruth Riechl in 1990 describes this exchange:
“Mississippi?” I ask. Fisher sighs. “In 1964 the kids were all gone and I thought I’d find out if the South was as bad as I thought. So I went to teach at the Piney Woods School.”
Piney Woods was a school for black students; the faculty, says Fisher, was half black and half white. She taught English. “The South was worse than I expected. I didn’t go to town at all while I was there.”
But why did she go in the first place? Did she plan to write a book, to fight a fight? She looks slightly horrified. “God, no, I wasn’t planning on writing anything about it. And I didn’t go there to fight anything. I just went.” Fisher smiles a little, remembering. “I found it took six months before the kids would eyeball me. But after six months I was without color, and so were they.” She smiles. “I was not invited back,” she adds with a certain amount of pride, “because I was a trouble maker.” She seems pleased by this, and then abruptly stops talking.