How the Mississippi Encyclopedia was made

September 12, 2017 10:31:59 AM

Slim Smith - [email protected]


The Mississippi Encyclopedia is the literary equivalent of the Great Pyramids -- 1,400 entries written by 650 contributors, researched by 100 more. It runs 1,500 pages, weighs nine pounds and was 14 years in the making. 


From the first entry -- Abdul-Rauf, Mahmoud -- to the last -- Ziglar, Zig -- the state's first comprehensive encyclopedia tells the sweeping story of Mississippi. Although published this year to coincide with the bi-centennial of Mississippi statehood, it chronicles the state's history back to the time of the dinosaurs. 


Monday evening, Ted Ownby, professor of history and southern studies at the University of Mississippi and one of the book's co-editors, joined three Mississippi University for Women faculty members -- Bridget Smith Pieschel, Amy Pardo and Melissa Smith, all of whom wrote entries for the encyclopedia -- at MUW's Fant Memorial Library for a one-hour presentation on the book followed by a question-and-answer session. 


"Having contributors at these events has been really exciting because it embodies the collaborative nature of the book," Ownby said. "It's a significant work of shared authorship." 


Ownby said the discussion of the book started in 2000 with the actual work beginning in 2003. 


"Seetha Srinivasan at the University Press of Mississippi saw that other states were doing encyclopedias and came to my colleagues, Charles Wilson and Ann Abadie, based on the success they had had with the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture (published in 1989)," Ownby said. "The book has been important to us in its inclusive scope, saying that everybody belongs, that all groups and experiences belong as part of the study of Southern Culture. It was a creative book, a surprising book, that got more attention than academic books generally get." 


Ownby and co-editor Wilson reached out to 30 scholars in their respective fields, who assembled a long list of topics, which became what Ownby called the skeleton of the book. 


The goals, he said, were many. 


"They are the same as any good encyclopedia -- to be thorough, academic, well-researched and accessible," Ownby said. "Beyond that, people want to know what it is. Is it a celebration of Mississippi? Is it a critique of Mississippi? Is it a defensive about Mississippi? 


"The very true answer is we understand all those questions and the goal is to study the celebrations, the defenses and the critiques," he added. "They are all a part of Mississippi or ideas about Mississippi, its past and present." 




Local contributors 


Smith Pieschel, a professor of English at MUW, was invited to write two entries -- one of the history of The W and another on the "Founding Mothers" of the university -- Annie Coleman, Peyton, Sally Reneau and Olivia Valentine Hastings. 


The invitation evoked childhood memories, she said, when she was fascinated with the World Book Encyclopedia. 


"It never occurred to me as a child that real people wrote the entries," she said. "I don't know what I thought, maybe that the encyclopedias were like the Bible. I've become slightly more sophisticated since then." 


She said the first entry -- the history of the W -- was not particularly daunting, since he had compiled most of that information for other MUW projects. 


"The Founding Mothers was more difficult," she said. "I tend to overwrite, and it was important for me to not only talk about the Founding Mothers, but why what they were doing was significant. I needed to provide enough background to make the entry complete. So that was the biggest challenge." 


Amy Pardo, also a professor of English, contributed an entry on Sarah Anne Ellis Dorsey, a native of Natchez who gained fame not only as an author, but a close friend of Jefferson Davis. A wealthy widow, Dorsey gave Davis her home, which is known today at Beauvoir. 


Melissa Smith, associate professor of communication, said her entry allowed her to work on two of her favorite topics -- media and politics -- in writing the profile of Larry Speakes, who grew up in the Delta and served as press secretary for Nixon and Reagan. 


"I think it's an inspiring story," Smith said. "Here's someone from a tiny little town in the Delta, Marigold, who went on to have an amazing career. Maybe some child will see that entry and be inspired the same way." 


Ownby said he believes one of the Mississippi Encyclopedia's greatest assets will be its surprises. 


"You know that the governors are going to be in there. You know there will be entries on all 82 Mississippi counties, that there will be entries of Civil War characters," he said. "But there are surprises, too. I like the randomness of the alphabetical order so that when you go to look up an entry, it's very likely there will be something more interesting right next to it. I like the individual topics and people that don't conform to anybody's expectations of Mississippi." 


The books are $70 and are available online and in various bookstores.

Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]