Memphis, so well known in song (see: “I met a gin-soaked, bar-room queen in Memphis . . .” or “Long distance information, give me Memphis, Tennessee . . .” among thousands of others) is also no stranger to the printed word. Here,
in recognition of our fortieth anniversary, we look at the many books with a Memphis connection. Some of those connections are obvious while others may only make a mention of the city. Either way, it proves that the storied past and present of Memphis is on the minds of some of the best writers.
While some have written volumes on the city’s famous denizens and sounds, we’ve limited this list to one per author, but hope that you’ll explore on your own, using this as a mere jumping-off point for “reading local.”
A special thank-you to our book-loving friends and local authors Corey Mesler and David Wesley Williams for their help with the list (you’ll find their books herein as well).
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A Summons to Memphis (1986) by Peter Taylor.
Phillip Carver is called south from New York to help neutralize family drama in Peter Taylor’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel
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September, September (1978) by Shelby Foote
From the author of the Civil War trilogy, Shelby Foote’s thrilling tale of kidnapping and race relations in the South of 1957 gives us a glimpse of Beale Street and the bluffs.
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Hellhound on His Trail: The Electrifying Account of the Largest Manhunt in American History (2010) by Hampton Sides
Is there a more in-depth chronicling of the events following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King? Not that we’ve found.
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The Firm (1991) by John Grisham
This page-turner gave Memphis significant national attention, both in print and on the big screen.
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It Came From Memphis (1995) by Robert Gordon
Anybody can write about Elvis or B.B., but it takes Robert Gordon to fill in the blanks with the misfits and miscreants of music.
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Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley (1994) by Peter Guralnick
Speaking of Elvis, this should be your first and last stop for all of your King info. (Okay, we’ll throw the follow-up, Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley, as a bonus stop.)
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Memphis Afternoons (1993) by James Conaway
Hometown boy James Conaway may have left Memphis for Washington, D.C., but this memoir proves his heart is still in the Bluff City.
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The Pinch (2015) by Steve Stern
This novel regales us with a history within a history set in the mythical and magical neighborhood of the title just north of downtown.
“The Pinch — for many years in the early 20th century a predominantly Jewish section of Memphis — has found its Whitman and its Faulkner in Stern, who’s written a stylistically effusive, verbally extravagant novel. . . . Audacious, hilarious, unabashed fiction.” — Kirkus Reviews
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Screening Room: Family Pictures (2015) by Alan Lightman
Having grown up in the movie theatres of his family, Lightman has a unique perspective on the city’s culture, business, and the entrepreneurial family that started and still runs Malco Theatres itself.
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Long Gone Daddies (2013) by David Wesley Williams
Luther Gaunt and company chase a dream and a birthright to town and find that it’s populated with the ghosts of rock-and-roll past.
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On The Road (1955) by Jack Kerouac
You can hardly travel across the country without a stop in Memphis, and it is no different for Sal Paradise in Kerouac’s classic novel of the Beat Generation: “In the morning the car skidded on an icy hill and flapped into a ditch. A farmer offered to help them out. They got hung-up when they picked up a hitchhiker who promised them a dollar if they’d let him ride to Memphis. In Memphis he went into his house, puttered around looking for the dollar, got drunk, and said he couldn’t find it. ”
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Alice + Freda Forever: A Murder in Memphis (2014) by Alexis Coe
A torrid, real-life love affair that played out on the cobblestones at the front door of Memphis is fictionalized here.
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Beale Street Dynasty: Sex, Song, and the Struggle for the Soul of Memphis (2015) by Preston Lauterbach
Well-known for his love and knowledge of Memphis, Preston Lauterbach takes us all to school on the history of the most-visited tourist destination in Tennessee.
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Life on the Mississippi (1883) by Mark Twain
“The boat was to tarry at Memphis till ten the next morning. It is a beautiful city, nobly situated on a commanding bluff overlooking the river. The streets are straight and spacious, though not paved in a way to incite distempered admiration. No, the admiration must be reserved for the town’s sewerage system, which is called perfect; a recent reform, however, for it was just the other way, up to a few years ago — a reform resulting from the lesson taught by a desolating visitation of the yellow-fever. In those awful days the people were swept off by hundreds, by thousands; and so great was the reduction caused by flight and by death together, that the population was diminished three-fourths, and so remained for a time. Business stood nearly still, and the streets bore an empty Sunday aspect.”
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Memphis Movie (2015) by Corey Mesler
It’s no secret that Corey Mesler (co-owner with wife Cheryl of local institution Burke’s Book Store) is a lover of the printed word, yet he may be equally as passionate for cinema and it shines through in this novel.
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A Brief History of Memphis (2011) by G. Wayne Dowdy
Memphis’ history is anything but brief, yet Dowdy’s masterful writing and attention to detail touches on the highlights so that we come away with a better understanding of how we got to where we are. It’s a view of Memphis that is as vibrant and welcoming as the city itself.
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Before, During, After (2014) by Richard Bausch
Bausch taught for a stint at the University of Memphis and sets his post-9/11 novel in and around the High Point Terrace and Cooper-Young neighborhoods. He is the recipient of the Literature Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
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Memphis Noir (2015) edited by Laureen Cantwell and Leonard Gill
What lurks down the alleys and in the shadows of this city on the river? Those characters and tales can be found in this anthology of 15 stories (including one graphic novella) by some of the city’s best writers.
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Three Story House (2014) by Courtney Miller Santo
A creative writing instructor at the University of Memphis, Santo’s sophomore novel follows the lives of three cousins as they work to renovate their grandmother’s “spite house” on the bluff overlooking the Mississippi River.
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From Here to Eternity (1951) by James Jones James
Jones was wounded at Guadalcanal and spent time convalescing at Kennedy General Hospital. Much of this World War II novel (later made into a movie starring Frank Sinatra) was written later when he lived at Leahy’s Trailer Court on Summer Avenue.
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Ladies Night at the Dreamland (2016) by Sonja Livingston
Originally from Rochester, New York, Livingston is an assistant professor in the English Department of the University of Memphis. Here, she’s crafted creative nonfiction to share the tales of women both near and far.
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If Beale Street Could Talk (1974) by James Baldwin
A tale of race and injustice and love set in Harlem from this great American novelist, essayist, playwright, poet, and social critic. The title is a reference to the 1916 W.C. Handy blues song “Beale Street Blues.”
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The Palace Blues (2014) by Brandy T. Wilson
The journey of love and obsession between 17-year-old Dorothy Frances Corbin and the cross-dressing blues singer Jean Bailey brings the pair to 1920s Memphis in this debut novel by Wilson, an instructor in the English Department at the University of Memphis.
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Taft (1994) by Ann Patchett
Ann Patchett’s novel takes place all over the city and in recognizable locations such as Chickasaw Gardens and the bar on Beale Street managed by protagonist John Nickel.
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The Silence of the Lambs (1988) by Thomas Harris
Born just up the road in Jackson, Tennessee, author Thomas Harris no doubt visited Memphis. One thing is for sure, the creepy Hannibal Lecter spends some time here. Spoiler: He makes his escape from our courthouse, so be on the lookout.
26 of 40
High Fidelity (1995) by Nick Hornby
It’s not much, but Hornby’s love of Memphis music is well-documented elsewhere. Here, he lists his Top Five dream jobs, including “Any kind of musician (apart from classical or rap) speaks for itself. But I’d have settled just for being one of the Memphis Horns — I’m not asking to be Hendrix or Jagger or Otis Redding.”
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Rythm Oil: A Journey Through the Music of the American South (1991) by Stanley Booth
Stanley Booth makes his way from Memphis to the Mississippi Delta to the depths of the Georgia woods exploring the sounds, the music, and the culture of the American South.
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Sanctuary (1931) by William Faulkner
Mississippi debutante Temple Drake is kidnapped and held in Memphis in this work of hard-boiled detective fiction with Faulkner’s distinct voice. A book The New York Times once called “A haunting study of evil triumphant.”
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Hellfire: The Jerry Lee Lewis Story (1982) by Nick Tosches
There is not a novelist alive who could have created the character of hellraiser Jerry Lee Lewis. He could only exist in real life, and Tosches gives us real life with a pounding piano and backbeat. “Quite simply the best rock and roll biography ever written.” — Rolling Stone
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Escape Velocity: A Charles Portis Miscellany (2012) by Charles Portis
Essays, memoirs, and articles from the author of True Grit. Included are pieces he wrote as a young journalist for The Commercial Appeal.
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Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ’n’ Roll (1975) by Greil Marcus
An unprecedented analysis of the relationship between rock-and-roll and American culture.
“ . . . an explosion as unexpected and indelible as the first records Elvis Presley had cut almost exactly twenty years before.” — Los Angeles Times
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At the River I Stand: Memphis, the 1968 Strike, and Martin Luther King (1985) by Joan Turner Beifuss
A narrative history of the seismic event that brought Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to Memphis where he would eventually meet his tragic fate.
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Memphis Man: Living High, Laying Low (2015) by Don Nix
The memoir of Don Nix who played saxophone for the Mar-Keys, earning Stax Records one of its first Top 10 hits, before going on to become a prolific songwriter and record producer.
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American Plague: The Untold Story of Yellow Fever, the Epidemic That Shaped Our History (2006) by Molly Caldwell Crosby
Of all the events — good and bad — that have helped shape our city, the two bouts of yellow fever may have been the most devastating and influential.
35 of 40
Another Good Loving Blues (1993) by Arthur Flowers
“It’s Beale Street in Memphis in the age when jazz was spelled “jass” and ragtime was just a glint in Scott Joplin’s eye. Lucas Bodeen is the bluesman, and Melvira Dupree is the conjure woman he loves. But pitted against them are all the forces of nature, the clashing of their own stubborn wills, and a society mired in the laws of Jim Crow and the mob. Combining the ancient African storytelling art of the griot with the American offshoots of blues and hoodoo, Arthur Flowers sings us a story that makes us smile — a story of life, and how love and happiness really happen.” — The New York Times
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Rowdy Memphis: The South Unscripted (2004) by John Branston
The cast is all here — the politicians, developers, musicians, visionaries, lawyers, brawlers, killers, and activists who have made Memphis what it is today.
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Trouble Boys: The True Story of the Replacements (2016) by Bob Mehr
“Following the precipitous fall of Stax Records in 1975, the Memphis music scene had all but collapsed. The community was still psychically scarred from the assassination of Martin Luther King, Beale Street was lifeless, Sun Studio was boarded up, and the Stax building was empty and crumbling. Tommy Stinson [bassist for The Replacements] described the city in late 1986 as ‘this weird ghost town where rock-and-roll had come from.’”
38 of 40
The Baby Thief: The Untold Story of Georgia Tann, the Baby Seller Who Corrupted Adoption (2009) by Barbara Bisantz
Raymond For decades in the early twentieth century, Georgia Tann was lauded for her children’s home in Memphis while in reality she was selling many of those children to buyers across the country. Her story, and that of some of her charges, is told here.
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Five Night Stand (2015) by Richard J. Alley
In this lyrical debut novel, Memphis journalist Frank Severs travels to New York to interview Oliver Pleasant, a retiring, world-renowned jazz musician from the Mississippi Delta.
40 of 40
Ask Vance (2003) by Vance Lauderdale
No such list would be complete without Memphis magazine’s own man-about-town who chronicles the offbeat and unusual in this volume of favorite columns.