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Here’s the article I wrote that the other Oxford photos (see below) were supposed to accompany:
From BOOK magazine, January 2001
by GARY BRIDGMAN
Faulkner may have put Oxford, Mississippi on the literary map, but he’s not the only reason it stayed there.
MOST OF THE entry points into beautiful and bookish Oxford, Mississippi, are disguised–guarded even–by the landmarks common to the sub-rural South: strip malls in varying degrees of decay; doublewide mobile homes for sale, still in their clear wrappers; food-mart filling stations selling more heat-lamped grease than motor oil.
Closer to the center of this town of 10,000 people, the Lafayette County Courthouse and its grounds, along with the shops and businesses surrounding it, comprise one of the most enjoyable–even hip–public spaces in the Deep South. William Faulkner described the setting famously in Requiem for a Nun:
Above all, the courthouse, the center, the focus, the hub sitting looming in the center of the county’s circumference, like a single cloud in the ring of the horizon.
Infused with the youthful vigor and economy of a university town, while enjoying a reputation as a writers community, Oxford actually lives up to its predictable chamber-of-commerce hype about "small-town charm with big-city amenities." The body-pierced kids behind the coffee counters on the square know how to look cool and bored, just like everywhere else, but their soft drawls on "yes, sir" and "no, ma’am" tend to betray their Southern manners.
So is Oxford where Mayberry collides with Greenwich Village? Hardly. Bantam-weight millionaires who keep vacation homes just for Ole Miss (University of Mississippi) football weekends have recast it as more of a moonlight-and-magnolia Aspen. And some parts of it are more Mayberry than Mayberry ever was. There is still a barber shop, a shoe-shine place and Gathright-Reed Drug Company, which was one of the first places in Oxford to sell Faulkner’s books.
And every once in a while, you may still see a couple of old men sitting on a bench in the shadow of the courthouse.
"Fortunately, life in Oxford changes just a little bit, and the old, funky stuff isn’t disappearing too fast," says Richard Howorth, owner of the town’s well-known and well-regarded Square Books. [author’s note: He’s now Mayor Richard Howorth.]
The literary feel is impressive and pervasive. A few years back, author Rick Bass stopped by Square Books to read and sign Where the Sea Used to Be. In the middle of answering a question, he spotted local novelist Barry Hannah near the back of the audience. "Shit! There’s Barry Hannah!" he said, looking almost embarrassed to be standing behind a podium in his presence. "You all don’t know what you’ve got here."
The vibrant literary life of Oxford began within the feverish imagination of William Cuthbert Faulkner, who arrived there as a boy with his family when his father took a job at the University of Mississippi in 1902. From 1924 to 1962, he produced experimental prose, written mainly in Oxford and about Oxford, although he dubbed his backyard universe "Yoknapatawpha County."
His home was Rowan Oak, which has become something of a thinking person’s Graceland. One of the oldest structures in Oxford, this Greek Revival fixer-upper on Old Taylor Road was built in the 1840s by a Colonel Shegog. Faulkner bought the crumbling house, then known as the Bailey Place in 1930 and slowly refurbished it. (Faulkner promptly renamed the house after the Rowan tree, a small tree found in Scotland, England and Ireland that he had read was a Celtic symbol for good luck. There has never been a Rowan tree on the property.)
Faulkner’s daughter sold Rowan Oak to the university in 1972 so it could become a place for people from all over the world to learn about her father’s work. The best room to see is Faulkner’s study, where his Underwood typewriter sits and where his handwritten outline of the plot of A Fable is still legible on the walls.
"Younger people are more interested in Faulkner’s writing while the older people are more into the history, architecture and the grounds," said Bill Griffith, Rowan Oak’s curator. "I know I’m doing my tour right when the old guys start asking me what they should read."
A former Rowan Oak docent, Jim Higgins, tells a funny story about one busload of senior citizens who arrived on a tour from a casino in nearby Tunica County, Mississippi. A woman walked up to Higgins and demanded to see the swimming pool "where his wife drowned last year." Knowing that Estelle Faulkner had died of natural causes decades earlier and that there had never been a pool at Rowan Oak, Higgins was mystified by the request until he realized that the woman thought this was the home of William Shatner.
Faulkner’s grave, usually festooned with coins, flowers and whiskey bottles, is the other popular Faulkner pilgrimage site (in St. Peter’s Cemetery–look for the historical marker on Avent Street off Jefferson Avenue).
Mr. Bill, as locals knew him, was widely praised and often misunderstood. He died in 1962 and was quickly replaced as the town’s most famous living resident by James Meredith, the first black student at Ole Miss.
The deadly riots that followed Meredith’s enrollment in the fall of 1962 branded the community as a bastion of racial hatred, which didn’t seem to bother most white Mississippians. The only writers hanging around the town were journalists who slept with their shoes on. Today, that image has faded just enough to make it more interesting than dangerous. Bob Dylan described the 1962 violence in his song "Oxford Town;" today Oxford Town is the name of the local newspaper’s weekly entertainment supplement.
The town was transformed from one writer’s town to a Writers’ Town around 1980, when native Mississippian Willie Morris ( North Toward Home, My Dog Skip) became the writer in residence at the university. He knew many renowned authors from his youthful tenure as editor of Harper’s during the 1960s and cajoled a few of them to come and read at Square Books, which Richard Howorth had opened a year earlier.
After Barry Hannah ( Airships, High Lonesome) joined Morris as a writer in residence in 1982, the two went on to instruct or encourage many nascent writers, including Donna Tartt ( The Secret History), John Grisham ( A Time to … well, you know) and Larry Brown (Dirty Work, Fay). Brown went on to teach fiction workshops himself at Ole Miss and later the University of Montana; Hannah went on to serve as interim director of the Iowa Writers Workshop on the heels of a Pulitzer Prize nomination; Grisham personally endowed the visiting Southern writer-in-residence program at Ole Miss.
Hannah, whose latest novel, Yonder Stands Your Orphan is due out in May, likes to ride around Oxford on his motorcycle when he’s not writing, teaching or tending to his six dogs. "For my friends who come here to visit, I recommend a very leisurely tour of Rowan Oak and Faulkner’s grave," Hannah says. "People get a lot of strength from those places. I always take friends down to Taylor for catfish. That’s a lovely trip and the food is excellent. Hell, you can know this town in forty-five minutes."
Perhaps a bit longer than 45 minutes, if you want to experience the University’s more significant cultural offerings for the literate traveler. The Center for the Study of Southern Culture, housed in the antebellum Barnard Observatory (whose telescope was intercepted in shipment by Union troops and now resides at Northwestern University) on Grove Loop, hosts special events that exhaustively explore all things Southern. The center co-sponsors the outstanding Oxford Conference for the Book with Square Books each April; the annual Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha Conference with the Ole Miss English department each August; and the Southern Foodways Symposium in October.
While you’re there, pop next door to Farley Hall and visit the Blues Archive. A few old brick buildings west of there, the J.D. Williams Library’s Archives and Special Collections Department displays the papers and mementos of William Faulkner and James Meredith, including Mr. Bill’s Nobel citation from 1950 (Faulkner’s 1949 Nobel Prize for Literature was awarded the following year).
Meanwhile, back at the square, visit Southside Gallery to see the excellent photographs Martin Dain took of Faulkner and Oxford in 1961 and 1962. There is a good selection of Southern and Cuban folk art as well.
Even aside from its central role in the development of Oxford as a literary hub and owner Richard Howorth’s prominence as past president of the American Booksellers Association, Square Books is simply a remarkable place to visit. If the courthouse is the heart of the square (and the bars at City Grocery and Ajax Diner are its liver), then its brain is Square Books. Potential employees must pass a literary awareness test, and once employed they are required to read and review new books. The ninety-foot-long balcony along the upstairs side of the store is the second-best people-watching spot on the square, after the balcony at the City Grocery restaurant.
Howorth’s quick advice for visitors is to tour the obvious places, then get out on your feet and ask some questions. "Before there was a tourism industry in Oxford, there was still tourism," Howorth says. "These people who came here knew how to see all this without being too obvious. They are the kind of people who will be able to encounter strangers and find out what’s going on."
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