Its hard to imagine what Oxford, Miss. would be like without its literary culturenot to see, on a daily basis, such acclaimed authors as Barry Hannah and Larry Brown sitting in local bars or walking down the street, deep in conversation with friends and devoted readers. Or to go a whole month without someone mentioning author William Faulkner as if he were still alive, writing in eternal solitude.
Oxford is inextricably linked to Faulkner, winner of the 1949 Nobel Prize in Literature, and his fictional Yoknapatawpha County. Willie Morris, the native son who moved to New York and became the youngest ever editor-in-chief at Harpers Magazine in 1967, once wrote in National Geographic, Faulkners physical and emotional fidelity to Oxford . . . was at the core of his being, so that today Oxford and the real countyLafayetteare the most tangibly connected to one writers soul of any locale in America.
Since Faulkners death in 1962, a strong literary culture has built upon his legacy, and Oxford has transformed to the literary mecca it is today. Oxfords been home to more writers than anyone can count, including novices, university professors, writers for the national publication, The Oxford American, and the local daily, Oxford Eagleand of course, lauded fiction writers such as Hannah, Brown, Morris, and John Grisham.
In 1979, Richard Howorth and his wife, Lisa, opened Square Books on the town square, which at the time was still Oxfords center of commerce, hardware, and dry good stores.
I must say, the town was a lot duller then, says Hannah. It was more like a village. The dogs slept in the streets. It was much quieter.
Says Howorth, When we first opened the store, we had readings within the first month. Those readings are now a weekly staple in Oxfords cultural diet. Partly as a result of Square Books push to grow the town into a literary center, writers have found it a welcoming place. I think, too, that Faulkner made it possible for other artists to be accorded much more, if not respect, then distance and latitude from people in the community, Howorth adds.
By the time Willie Morris returned to Mississippi in the early 80s, farm and working class life had changed. Racial intolerance and suspicion of outsiders began to fade as a new self-awareness and literary consciousness emerged.
Willie was a kind of bridge between Faulkner and the new writers . . . between that traditional South and the new contemporary South. He was one of the major boosts to Oxfords literary culture, says Charles Wilson, director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at Ole Miss (The University of Mississippi, located in Oxford).
Larry Brown has twice won the Southern Book Critics Circle Award, one each for his novels Joe and Father and Son. He was born in Lafayette County and says he lives here simply because its home. My familys here, he says. My great-grandfather was from here, fought in the Civil War.
Wilson talks of Brown as a link between working class culture and the contemporary literary culture. Out of Faulkners mythical county comes Brown, a real fireman, Wilson says. Hes a very interesting character in all this.
Brown was an Oxford firefighter for 16 years before he started writing full time. His numerous novels and collections of short stories are testaments to how certain strong elements of the traditional South remaina fervent spiritualness, a deep connection to landscapedespite the regions cultural changes.
Barry Hannah moved to Oxford in 1982 to teach creative writing at Ole Miss. His debut novel, Geronimo Rex, was nominated for the National Book Award. Hannahs stories depict people very much caught in the context of Mississippis conflicted historywrestling with the die-hard memories of the Civil War and the civil rights movement.
His first home in Oxford was a rented house on the land of the fabled Compsons, from Faulkners The Sound and the Fury. The town was gorgeous. Almost brought me back to the bricky streets of my youth down in Clinton (Miss.), Hannah says. I loved the big ol palatial oak trees in Oxford, over these two- and three-story homes with spires . . . And the shade, the good shade. He admits he likes living among Faulkners ghosts, likes the high standards his writing has set.
I finally found a scene to look out on. For me, Ive got to have a world to really look at a world; and thats what I found in Oxford.