James Tillotson (Jim) Whitehead (1936–2003)

James Tillotson Whitehead was a Mississippi-reared athlete who received a classical education at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee to prepare himself for a career writing poetry and fiction and teaching in Arkansas. He won some literary acclaim for his single completed work of fiction, the novel Joiner, and published four books of poetry. With his Vanderbilt pal William Harrison, he started the creative-writing program at the University of Arkansas (UA) in Fayetteville (Washington County).

Jim Whitehead was born on March 15, 1936, in St. Louis, Missouri, the son of Dick Bruun Whitehead and Ruth Ann Tillotson Whitehead. The family moved to Jackson, Mississippi, at the end of World War II, and Whitehead attended school there. His large size, strength, and agility made him an athletic star in football and track at the city’s big high school for white students, in a state that valued athletic prowess above all other virtues. Vanderbilt University offered him an athletic scholarship. Nimble at six feet and five inches tall, 230 pounds, he was quickly an all-conference candidate and a professional prospect, but an injury ended those ambitions.

At Vanderbilt, Whitehead majored in philosophy, studied literature, ventured into theology (he was a disciple of St. Augustine), and became a connoisseur of art and medieval and romantic music. His novel Joiner would revel in all those topics, as well as, of course, football. He got a master’s degree in English at Vanderbilt and then went to the University of Iowa, where he received an MFA in creative writing.

In 1959, he married Guendaline Graeber; they had seven children, including a set of triplets.

William Harrison, a Vanderbilt friend, had joined the faculty at UA in 1964 and hoped to start one of the nation’s few graduate programs in creative writing. A year later, he recruited Whitehead to join the faculty, chiefly to teach poetry. Miller Williams, a poet who later became director of the University of Arkansas Press, joined them in this creative-writing program in 1970, as did Donald “Skip” Hays, who himself was one of the early products of the writing program.

Alfred A. Knopf published Joiner in 1971, and the big, garrulous novel was critically acclaimed, with the New York Times review calling it a “tirade” that left “an awesome, fearful and glorious impact on the mind and ear.” Although he received a Guggenheim Fellowship in fiction and had an unusually promising beginning, Whitehead never completed another novel. A literary critic who posthumously sorted through Whitehead’s cache of unfinished manuscripts said Whitehead’s intense writing process seemed to have produced paralysis. He could never again be satisfied with what he had begun. Hundreds of drafts seemed to be thrown aside so the author could start over. He stewed over his poems with the same desperate concentration on every word, but nevertheless produced many poems—four books of them.

Joiner is a raging first-person account of protagonist Sonny Joiner losing his beautiful sweetheart and wife to his best friend and teammate and of having to kill another former teammate, Billy Weatherford, who is a white supremacist and “essentially a cruel, depraved somitch.” Sonny, like his creator, was something of a socialist and despised the racism that he found everywhere.

Joiner might have been the distillation of two regional literary influences—Mississippian William Faulkner’s stream-of-consciousness technique of character building, as seen in The Sound and the Fury, and Arkansan Charles Portis’s first novel, Norwood, published in 1966, the year that Whitehead arrived to teach at Portis’s alma mater.

Whitehead’s first collection of poems, Domains, appeared in 1966 as he joined the UA faculty. It earned him a Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference Robert Frost Fellowship. It was followed by Local Men in 1979, Actual Size in 1985, and Near at Hand in 1993. President Jimmy Carter was an admirer of Joiner and sought Whitehead out at the university. Whitehead wrote a poem for Carter’s return to his home in Georgia after he left the White House in 1981 and delivered it at a ceremony on Carter’s return to Plains, Georgia. He later edited Carter’s collection of poetry.

Whitehead died of a ruptured aortic aneurysm on August 15, 2003. He is buried in Fairview Memorial Gardens in Fayetteville.

For additional information:
Burns, Michael, and Bruce West, eds. For, From, About James T. Whitehead: Poems, Stories, Photographs, and Recollections. Springfield, MO: Moon City Press, 2009.

Carr, John, and John Little. Kite-Flying and Other Irrational Acts: Conversations with Twelve Southern Writers. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1972.

Prevost, Verbie Lovorn. “James Whitehead.” Mississippi Encyclopedia. https://mississippiencyclopedia.org/entries/james-whitehead/ (accessed April 22, 2022).

Reed, Roy. “James Whitehead, 67, Author of ‘Joiner,’ Novel of Deep South, Dies.” New York Times, August 19, 2003, p. C 13.

Ernest Dumas
Little Rock, Arkansas

Last Updated: 04/22/2022

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