Such is the fate of a white southern intellectual with slavery, the civil war and segregation in his heritage. But that did not stop him returning to the south, attracted not only by its rich literary and political history, but by a fascination with its constantly shifting significance to America as a whole. "I go back to the south physically and in my memories, to remind myself who I am, for the south keeps me going," he wrote in Terrains of the Heart and Other Essays on Home.
The south, and in particular the tiny town of Yazoo City where he grew up, also helped fuel his career, providing a constant backdrop for his essays and memoirs. The town, which he described as being "on the edge of the delta, straddling that memorable divide where the hills end and the flatland begins", became a focal point for many of his stories including Yazoo and North Toward Home.
Morris remained in the south for most of his youth, leaving Yazoo for the University of Texas at Austin, before going to England for two years on a Rhodes scholarship.
He returned to Austin to edit the Texas Observer. But like many southern writers, from James Baldwin to Maya Angelou, the south could not hold him. He loved it and left it, as his sense of ambition trumped his sense of place. In 1963 he was made associate editor of Harper's Magazine and, within four years was running the show.
It was a remarkable time for magazines and America, and Morris seized the moment with a bold editing style. The March 1968 issue of Harper's included a 45,000-word excerpt from William Styron's Confessions of Nat Turner and 90,000 words of Norman Mailer's Steps of the Pentagon about a Vietnam war demonstration.
"He brought that magazine kicking and screaming into the present," said writer David Halberstam, who was recruited by Morris. "With his love of words and very considerable charm, he'd taken an archaic magazine and made it an exciting magazine that was on the cutting edge. There was a moment he sort of owned New York."
A change of management at Harper's, however, prompted his departure in 1971, although he stayed in New York until 1980. He returned to Oxford, Mississippi, where he became writer-in-residence at the university's Centre for Southern Culture.
Morris went there as something of a pioneer - one of the few southern scholars at the time who was interested not only in the south itself but in its developing relationship with the rest of America. Like others, he was keen to understand how the north had affected the south, particularly since the civil war: "If there is anything that makes southerners distinctive from the main body of Americans, it is a certain burden of memory and a burden of history . . . I think sensitive southerners have this in their bones, this profound awareness of the past."
But unlike others, Morris also had a keen interest in how the south had influenced the rest of the nation, giving it everybody from Elvis to BB King, from Clinton to Newt Gingrich.
"Willie said that Mississ-ippi is America writ large," Richard Howorth, owner of Square Books, the main literary haunt in the town square of Oxford, Mississippi, told the New York Times. "And to understand Willie you have to know that he had this amazing knowledge of American history. And I think his understanding of the south and curiosity about the south was very much a part of his understanding and curiosity about America. He understood the south as only a southerner could, but his perspective was so much broader than just thinking and writing about the south."
It was a breadth evident in his writing, with subjects ranging from his childhood English fox terrier in My Dog Skip to the intersection of football and race in The Courting of Marcus Dupree. In 1996, he won the Richard Wright Medal for literary excellence. His last work, The Ghosts of Medgar Evers (1998) was about the history of the production of the 1996 film Ghosts of Mississippi which focused on the assassination of civil rights campaigner Medgar Evers, and the trials of his killer. While his intellectual approach was eclectic, Morris sought to break through southern clichés and find new avenues to illustrate how the south was changing and what remained the same.
"One has to seek the answer on one's own terms, of course," he once wrote. "But to do that I suggest one should spurn the boardrooms and the country clubs and the countless college seminars on the subject and spend a little time at the ball games and the funerals and the bus stations and the courthouses and the bargain-rate beauty parlours and the little churches and the roadhouses and the joints near closing hour . . . Perhaps in the end it is the old devil-may-care instinct of the south that remains in the most abundance and will sustain the south in its uncertain future. It is gambling with the heart. It is a glass menagerie. It is something that won't let go."
Morris leaves a son, David.
William Morris, writer, born November 29, 1934; died August 2, 1999