From basketball player Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf to motivational speaker Zig Ziglar, there’s a lot more to Mississippi than meets the eye.
It’s with the goal of offering as broad a view as possible of the Magnolia State that the UM Center for the Study of Southern Culture debuts The Mississippi Encyclopedia, set for publication in 2014.
“This will be the first book of its kind in a hundred years. It’s a big obligation,” said Ted Ownby, CSSC director and a professor of history and Southern studies. “It’s the kind of book we hope will be on every coffee table and in every school library, as well as being a resource to journalists and business people.”
The project was proposed by the University Press of Mississippi and has involved collaboration with the Mississippi Humanities Council, Mississippi Department of Archives and History and Mississippi Arts Commission.
The Center for the Study of Southern Culture was well positioned to take on such an effort, having produced The Encyclopedia of Southern Culture in 1989 and its 24-volume expanded second edition completed in 2013.
The Mississippi Encyclopedia will be similar in scale to the original 1,600-page Encyclopedia of Southern Culture. The Mississippi project enlisted more than 300 writers to craft some 1,500 entries, which are organized alphabetically rather than by theme.
While the effort avoided setting a particular thesis or agenda, its governing ideas were those of inclusiveness and surprise, Ownby said.
“Inclusiveness, in trying to get the whole range of Mississippi experiences into one book, to the degree that we can,” he said. “And surprise, in that I think a lot of people have one or two ideas about Mississippi, and this project will show many, many more facets of the state.”
Ted Ownby (left) and Charles Wilson (right)
The elements of surprise and discovery are magnified by the medium itself, Ownby said. While many states have published state encyclopedias online as an evolving guide and resource for the public, the choice to publish Mississippi’s in book form was intentional.
“Websites can be hard to thumb through,” Ownby said. “With a book, you’ll find one entry alphabetically next to another, so there’s a greater possibility for the experience of learning the unexpected.”
Many of the stories that encyclopedia readers will come across won’t be the flattering variety.
“It’s important that people know an encyclopedia isn’t intended as a celebration,” Ownby said. “We have an obligation to get right the worst sides of Mississippi. And along with that, it’s our job to include lots of people and groups who have critiqued and worked to address those troubled sides.”
From A to Z, the goal is a balanced and sober reflection, from stories of the state’s troubled past to the remarkable writers, artists and musicians Mississippi has produced.
Such cultural contributions were not a focus back in 1907, when the last attempt at a Mississippi encyclopedia was made. The Encyclopedia of Mississippi History by Dunbar Rowland, then head of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, was more concerned with the state’s early history and geography.
“If there is surprise when people look at The Mississippi Encyclopedia, it will be the choices we have made and the range of topics we’ve included,” Ownby said, adding that Rowland has an entry of his own in the new encyclopedia.
“There are all sorts of decisions we’ve had to make about who’s important, what’s important,” Ownby said. “We hope that this volume will give people new topics to think about and new ways to think about Mississippi.”