The Literary Charm of Oxford, Mississippi

Christopher Churchill

Just a little more than an hour down the road from Memphis, the town made famous by William Faulkner beguiles not so much with Old South architecture but through the spell of its creative class.

On a long-distance road trip, my car, despite surgery in Nevada and Missouri, had begun to sputter and cough in the middle of Mississippi—or, as a naïve Californian whose only idea of the South derived from Gone With the Wind was bound to see it: strange, exotic Mississippi.

Somehow Oxford, a nearby pinprick on the map, suggested a plan: Park, get a job, fix up my honey—a used BMW with more looks than heart—and then, after car and finances were mended, hit the road again. When I finally left Oxford, 15 years had zipped by and I had somehow nudged a magazine about the South, of all things, into existence.

Back in 1987, the year of my arrival, Oxford felt isolated: 80 miles from a big city (Memphis, where Elvis died); 50 from the next biggest (Tupelo, where he rose). And roomy. Only 10,000 people lived in town, while the same number made up the adjoining University of Mississippi. (Both populations have since almost doubled.)

Sleepy streets of Greek Revival mansions and tasteful bungalows surrounded the “historic” (i.e., Civil War–ravaged) Square. In 1987 the Square—then, as now, the hub of commerce and mingling—was quiet, a tad shabby and humbly utilitarian: For nails, you went to its hardware store. A few decades later, change swooped in. Boy, did it. The current Square swirls with trendy boutiques and magnificently spruced-up buildings. In the middle, on its own islet, the courthouse, age 142, still looms proud and observant, but you want change?

For all the years I lived in town, a memorial in front of the courthouse divided the local soldiers who lost their lives in various wars into two groups: center stage and “colored.” It was only after I moved out that the memorial underwent a facelift. It now boasts a shiny new plaque…and new phrasing.

Although postcard-pretty, Oxford doesn’t flash the exorbitant natural or manmade splendor of such Mississippi beauties as Clarksdale, Vicksburg, Holly Springs and Bay St. Louis. No, it enchants differently: through the creativity and vividness of its characters—I mean, people. Which leads to my four-word theory on how best to experience Oxford: Engage its creative class.

On the Square, you will find not one, not two, but three bookstores. Each can siphon hours out of your day. That some major cities lack this kind of literary hullabaloo points to what keeps tiny Oxford distinct. As do remnants, and echoes, of William Faulkner, the only Southerner to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.

One way to absorb Faulkner is to visit Rowan Oak (Old Taylor Rd.), his home, which, ironically, welcomes visitors—ironic because the author was notorious for scramming people off his land. Any 1844 mansion holds secrets and charms, but my preference is to wander the 29 soothing acres that enwrap Rowan Oak. There in the hush out past his old horse stable or near the shack where his “colored” help lived, you can forget time and slip into a sense of what it was like in Faulkner’s world.

Some locals thought the young Faulkner put on airs and, behind his back at least, called him names. Writing, for them, did not constitute honest or even sane toil. Of course, Faulkner was a provocateur. He once admitted that he had become a poet (before switching to prose) “to complete a youthful gesture I was then making of being ‘different’ in a small town.”

Mockery of Faulkner turned into awe when Hollywood buzzed into town in 1949 to remake his novel Intruder in the Dust into a movie. Nothing alters perspectives like fame. But the struggle with Faulkner wasn’t done. In the ’50s and ’60s, he ruffled neighbors with his so-called radical views on race. Faulkner, from 1956: “To live anywhere in the world today and be against equality because of race or color, is like living in Alaska and being against snow.”

Nearly three months after Faulkner died in 1962, a riot shook Oxford when James Meredith, a black man, tried to enroll at the University of Mississippi. Faulkner’s death left a burning question: If the provocateur had lived just a little longer, what would he have said or done during that nation-changing upheaval?

Oxford’s literary flame reignited when Square Books (160 Courthouse Sq.) opened in 1979. Because I eventually worked there, I’m biased, but the store’s cocreators, Richard and Lisa Howorth, didn’t just react to the market; they deepened and extended it. In their hands, literature never seemed so fun and welcoming. All the warm touches—the chic flea-market­ decor, the serving of Oxford’s first cappuccinos in the second-floor café—added up. A year later the writer and former Harper’s editor Willie Morris came to town and so began a convergence of writer and bookstore that has yet to pause. After Morris came Barry Hannah, a prose innovator of cataclysmic force. After Hannah came Larry Brown—let’s call him the Raymond Carver of the South. After Brown came John Grisham, the phenom. After Grisham came a deluge. And not just “after”; for a brief, wondrous spell, they were all in town together.

The names above are the headliners with the surest roots in town, but you can add others, an insane amount of others, including this year’s winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, Donna Tartt, a protégé of Morris’s, who spent her freshman year at Ole Miss. Another Pulitzer winner, Richard Ford, also lived here for a spell. As did Robert Palmer, the first pop-music critic for The New York Times. And on and on, until you exhaust yourself trying to name them all.

Morris and Brown and Hannah and Palmer have died, and the others moved on. But Oxford keeps seducing writers to move in—or visit. Proof: Square Books will sometimes squeeze four readings or signings into a week. No, Oxford not only seduces but also fortifies and babies them.

In the new wave, there is Jack Pendarvis, a novelist, essayist and staff writer at the hit cartoon series Adventure Time. In my 20 years of editing, Pendarvis is among the smattering who routinely dazzled me, sentence by sentence. (Another is John Jeremiah Sullivan. And yup, he, too, once lived in Oxford.)

Pendarvis meets me at the Oxford Canteen (1006 Van Buren Ave.), a new lunch counter serving exotica like cold peanut noodles with chicken and scallions and a grilled beef brisket sandwich with cheese and sriracha mayo. After a night of gorging on the briskets at the Lamar Lounge (1309 N. Lamar Blvd.; 662-513-6197), I opt for the dirty rice veggie dish. The Canteen is literally a hole in the wall. To take your order, the chef peeps out from an opening in a brick wall on the side of a building in an alleyway where there is barely room, as they say, for elbows.

Pendarvis, with me at least, and before my reporter’s notebook, is shy and mumbles. He channels his zaniness in print, not life. In this he contrasts with the swashbuckling Hannah, whose quips could slice through any subject. (Hannah: “A good funeral should make you horny.”) You tended to duck.

It’s not until Pendarvis is ready to leave that he utters a line, apropos of nothing, that I hope I can somehow use: “Fried eggs are good on everything.”

Pendarvis wanders off, and a man in line asks if I am a professional interviewer. Before I can pull out my stock reply of “Yes, and an amateur bon vivant,” I am regaled with stories about his cousin, who interviews celebrities (which explains why one story involves Cher) and whose name (Kevin Sessums) I vaguely recall but, until now, had no idea was among the multitude of Mississippi writers who have infiltrated the outside circle of publishing.

Whether Oxford Canteen will prove to be a magnet for meeting writers or their kin I can’t say. (If it gets a liquor license, my answer changes to yes.) For the nonce, the two best places to engage the creative class remain the bar of City Grocery (152 Courthouse Sq.; 662-232-8080) and any Square Books–related event.

A sonic circus bustling with guest musical and literary talent, the Thacker Mountain Radio show is recorded live every Thursday at Off Square Books (129 Courthouse Sq.). The performance I caught packed the room, and I had to eavesdrop from the sidewalk. That was all right because as I stood there, a flow of creative types circulated by me, including: Anna, the schoolteacher daughter of Maude Schuyler Clay, a photographer whose beguiling portrait of the child version of Anna I used on the cover of the magazine I edited; Scott Barretta, a preeminent blues expert; Timothy Ivy, a fine photographer (and furniture maker) who’d just moved back after 12 years away; the writer Chris Offutt and his mother (both of whom now reside in town—Mrs. Offutt was a guest writer on that night’s show); the brooding rock star Charlie Mars (who broke from a brood into gusto when recommending the new Whirlpool nature trail); Ron Shapiro, a paid “literary escort” (he drives visiting writers around); Matt Patton, the bassist for the band the Drive-By Truckers, and his wife, Megan, who together own the Yalo Studio & Gallery in neighboring Water Valley; and Tim Kerr, the guitarist in the ’80s punk band the Big Boys, whose show of paintings the next night at Yalo delighted everyone who saw it. What radio show? We made our own happening on the street.

For more concentrated, or lubricated, doses of the town’s talent, you must sample City Grocery, especially its balcony, if you can beat the crowds. On this visit to that balcony, I fell into a flurry of talking with: an English professor, a watercolorist, a student journalist­, a website curator, a bookstore-clerking poet and a globe-trotting musician. Speaking of music: Back in a different century, we enjoyed intermittent access to a local act or two or neighboring blues giants like Junior Kimbrough and R. L. Burnside. But the talent was simply not as widespread as now. For the first time, Oxford vaunts a multilayered community of genre-crossing musicians—a scene!—who can be caught in the town’s many clubs or in a recent documentary or on a cassette of Oxford bands. The cassette was compiled by The End of All Music (1423 N. Lamar Blvd.), a newish record store cofounded by Bruce Watson, who also cofounded the internationally revered Fat Possum record label. The End of All Music is now one of my favorite haunts for vinyl in the South, but unlike your typical dungeon of a record store, it is clean, well lit and spiffy enough for dates.

For somebody who knew the “old” Oxford, it sometimes feels as if the mania for construction and costly refurbishing has modified every nook and cranny. Two of the buildings I lived in—both right off the Square—have, for example, been demolished. An old ice-making plant that was just a blip down from the Square has likewise vanished—­except in name. In its vacancy towers a stylish but jarring subdivision of condos called…the Ice House.

With record-breaking growth comes complaining. But I’ve seen uglier spurts. Many of Oxford’s new buildings, however pushy they are about cramming into every available inch, at least strive for pleasing aesthetics. The deeper problem is that real estate is now so prized that the (creative) underclass can’t afford it—the same underclass that serves the new home and condo owners in the town’s restaurants, bookstores and boutiques. They are shoved farther and farther from the Square, if not Oxford. Odd to think that a town this small would have suburbs, but now many people commute from the neighboring towns or countryside. That’s nothing like the old days, when my fellow low-wage ragamuffins and I engulfed the Square. Lodging used to be a problem only for travelers forced to choose between cheesy and rundown. Today groovy options abound.

One person with both “old” and “new” Oxford experience is Bess Currence, a former colleague of mine. She is married to John Currence, the chef and entrepreneur whose cofounding of the City Grocery in 1992 was vital to the town’s cultural rebirth. City Grocery gave Oxford what it didn’t have before: award-winning cuisine. Or, to be specific, shrimp and grits you could tell your mama about on a postcard. Like Square Books, City Grocery infused Oxford with possibility.

When I ask Bess if she prefers the old Oxford to the new, she says: “Nostalgia is the biggest waste of time. Beyond that, it’s exclusive.” (The other bracing response I got to this question—which I asked of many—came from writer/musician Pat Cochran­, who said: “I like them both.”) Bess and I then began­ to toss around a famous Faulkner insight whose meaning has been diluted. It’s that one about the past, which can be found in almost every article about Oxford, including this one: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” To this, Bess says, “That means you don’t have to worry about holding onto it. The past is already out there, whether we like it or not.”

For a few years, Bess helped run my favorite Currence joint: Big Bad Breakfast (719 N. Lamar Blvd.; 662-236-2666). In theory, nothing should be better than a Southern diner. Loads of them exist, and many nail the requisite Mayberry R.F.D. vibe. But then there’s the grub. What too many diners serve is ghastly: over-fried, over-greased and over-sweet. And that’s just the veggies.

Thank God for Big Bad Breakfast. It feels like a Southern diner should feel, but also its simple dishes are executed with intelligence and care. If you know of a place with a superior offering of pancakes and whipped cream (both of which are not drowned in sugar), please do tell.

Some locals complain about the reach, and grip, of the Currence empire. Mr. and Mrs. Currence own five restaurants in town (as of this typing), with out-of-state sites in the offing. Add to this Chef John’s reputed abrasiveness. I can still bring to mind a moment in the ’90s when clanging metal and fiery shouting erupted from the kitchen of City Grocery. This was before reality TV got us used to explosive chefs. But I gotta love a person who fights for quality, and I strongly suspect Currence motivates other restaurateurs to up their game, an everybody-wins scenario.

Because I kept hearing about The Inn at Ravine (rooms, from $135; 53 County Rd. 321; 662-234-4555), a rustic lodge and restaurant, I stayed one night. My room was fine. Maybe the decor was a tad Cracker Barrel. But it was fine. Then came breakfast, and breakfast killed “fine.” The poached egg had been handled with such precision that its springy exterior and tender, liquidy insides achieved a kind of perfection that has probably ruined­ future specimens for me. Also, the egg had been scooped up at a nearby farm. (The menu is silly with contributions from nearby farms, one of which, Woodson Ridge Farms, I couldn’t resist visiting.) My best attempt­ to describe the sausage (from local stock) is to say it was spicy but didn’t show off. The sourdough toast, which I’ve never craved in the morning, is what catapulted the experience into the uncanny. Chef Joel Miller turned sourdough toast into the breakfast staple I’d missed out on my entire life. When I sauntered out of the Ravine, there was a bounce in my step and a grin on my mug. You would not have guessed that I had woken up groggy and reluctant.

A few weeks before my spring visit, three white frat boys hung a noose around the statue of James Meredith that stands in front of the Ole Miss library. Similar outbursts involving fraternities, hazing and racism seemed an annual barbarism during my time in Oxford. But there’s been true progress. For one thing, the ugliness stunned and revolted townies; it was not accepted as business as usual (the boys and the frat were kicked off campus). For another, on this visit I saw and met many more young African Americans and interracial couples hanging out on the Square than I ever did before. And I don’t think that’s insignifcant.

The youth of America can annoy—­with their youth, their technophilia and their funny haircuts—but they are change makers. Somehow they are attuned not to Faulkner’s “the past is not even past” idea but to the many variations of his “change or die” philosophy. (Faulkner: “The only alternative to change is death.”) These kids even change how we hang out.

Such is their love for Oxford, Mississippi, that some of the locals I spoke with seemed to convey real dread when I asked if they could imagine living anywhere else in the state. The way they emphasized “no!” made me think I had crossed a line. Then they sighed. Yes, the enchantments of Oxford had become public, and publicized, and because of that, Oxford got crowded and expensive. But still, how could you not want to be here? If you are a person who needs culture and pizzazz in your life and the life of your family, but who also wants safety and calm, where else—and this is the kicker—could you possibly live in the state of Mississippi?

And that is why for many the answer was, and is: Oxford or bust.

Where to Stay

The options in Oxford, Mississippi, used to be cheerless: a generic hotel or something sketchy. Not anymore. A mere block or two away from the Square is The 5 Twelve (rooms, from $140; 512 Van Buren Ave.; 662-234-8043), a snazzy Greek Revival with maybe the highest ceilings you’ve ever slept under. The Z Shanty (cottage, from $400; 1015 S. 11th St.; 713-927-1295), also just off the Square, jubilantly min­gles 1980s decor (note the two silver lamé couches) with the classic feel of a small-town cottage.

Just a few years old, the Castle Hill (rooms, from $130; 120 Castlehill Dr.; 662-234-3735) replicates an Old South mansion. Everything about it, from the columns that line the front to the four-poster bed in your room, is massive.

Five to ten minutes out of town is a livable piece of history called the Blue Creek Cabin (rooms, from $70; 535 Hwy. 30 E.; 662-238-2897). To quench your thirst, for example, just crank the hand water pump in the kitchen. The 19th-century relic is appropriately humble but also spacious and comfortable.