A Tribute to Doug Marlette

Doug Marlette’s Cartoons

Gray walls in the hallways of the Overby Center at Ole Miss display framed black-and-whites of Doug Marlette‘s cartoons. Friday’s workshop prior to the Mid-South Creative Nonfiction Conference was held here and so were the agent/editor One-on-Ones, so I had some time to browse.

Marlette’s editorial cartoon The Challenger — in the center above — is probably the most widely known. On the day of the shuttle accident, he captured the look we all felt — shock, sadness, a grave sense of loss.

He won every major award for his editorial cartoons, including the Pulitzer. But Marlette was also a novelist. His first book The Bridge was published in 2001 and named Best Fiction Book of the Year by SEBA in 2002. His second novel, Magic Time, was published in 2006, less than a year before his untimely death.

Magic Time moves between two periods of time: New York City and small-town Mississippi during the early 1990’s and flashbacks to Mississippi’s Freedom Summer of 1964 — a church bombing that took the life of NYC newspaper columnist Carter Ransom’s first love and the deaths of three civil rights workers. Marlette gives an honest account of what it was like back then.

I know. I was there.

Marlette spent his growing up years in Mississippi and graduated from Laurel High School in 1967. His father helped search for the three civil rights workers, and Marlette didn’t even know that until after he had written Magic Time.

Months prior to the book’s release, I got an email from the publisher, asking if I’d excerpt Magic Time on the online journal I publish — Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal. I was thrilled at the opportunity. They mailed an unedited copy of the author’s typed manuscript, and I selected a portion of Chapter 5 to feature.

I met Doug Marlette at the 2006 Southern Festival of Books in Memphis and he signed my Magic Time: “Mississippi girl, you’ll know these folks.” Yes, Doug, I do.

Marlette was on his way to Oxford when he was killed July 10, 2007. The Toyota truck in which he was riding hydroplaned on rain-slick Highway 78, hit a tree, and he died instantly. I had the same pained expression as the American eagle in his cartoon when I got an email from my friend Currie: “Oh my God, Kathy, I just heard Doug Marlette was killed.”

Shock. Sadness. A grave sense of loss. I couldn’t fit the word “killed” in the same sentence as his name. I cried. I didn’t want to drive to Mississippi. I didn’t want to go home. I refused to drive there in the rain. He was too young. He was my age.

I felt connected to him through his book about civil rights and race in Mississippi during that long, hot summer of ’64. It was our coming-of-age period in a sensational time and place unmatched in American history.

Marlette had a history of openness and honesty on national and world issues in his cartoons, and his written words on the page will go long into the future without him because they speak of raw reality — he tells it as it was. In that way, Doug Marlette will always be with us.

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2 Comments on “A Tribute to Doug Marlette”

  1. John says:

    Kathy-

    This is a beautiful post. I didn’t know Doug, but this post helped me feel like I did. I remember the Challenger disaster well. We were watching it at school, and I remember feeling so shocked and horrified. Doug’s cartoon perfectly captures the feelings of most Americans on that day.

    Doug sounds like an incredible man. Thanks for sharing. I’ll look for his books.

  2. Janis says:

    Hi Kathy,
    I was a friend of Doug’s and came across your wonderful article and smiled. You made my day.
    A hundred-thousand thanks. He deserves to be remembered forever.


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