OXFORD, Mississippi – Many travelers find their way to Oxford, Mississippi, as fans of novelist William Faulkner.
But there’s much more to do in Oxford than visiting Faulkner’s home and grave. A wooded trail leads from his house to the University of Mississippi campus, aka Ole Miss. There you’ll find statues marking separate chapters of Southern history: one of a Confederate soldier, the other of African-American James Meredith, whose integration of the school sparked riots in 1962.
Other stops in Oxford include award-winning restaurants and a bookstore, Square Books, with a well-curated selection about the region. Lodging options include the Graduate, a sleek, fun and funky boutique hotel where card keys bear pictures of famous Ole Miss alumni like quarterback Eli Manning.
Faulkner bought the home and grounds he called Rowan Oak in 1930. He lived there with his family until his death in 1962. Don’t miss the room where he wrote a plot outline on the wall. Also on display are empty liquor bottles, with a card under a bottle of Four Roses bourbon explaining that Faulkner was “a notorious binge drinker” who favored “inexpensive and readily available” booze. It’s also not unusual to find liquor bottles left by fans at his grave at St. Peter’s Cemetery.
Exhibits of photos and articles about his life and work include quotes that will inspire and resonate with anyone who’s ever agonized over the written word. “The writer’s got to be demon-driven. He’s got to have to write, he don’t know why, and sometimes he will wish that he didn’t have to, but he does,” reads one. In a speech he gave after winning the Nobel Prize for literature, he said: “The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.” Of his Southern settings, including his famed fictional county, Yoknapatawpha, he said, “I discovered that my own little postage stamp of native soil was worth writing about and that I would never live long enough to exhaust it.”
The property includes a stable, barn and gardens. You can walk from Rowan Oak through Bailey’s Woods to the Ole Miss campus, where an annual Faulkner conference is scheduled this year for July 23-27.
Founded in 1848, the University of Mississippi campus was spared when Union troops burned Oxford during the Civil War in 1864. In 2008, the university hosted the first presidential debate ever held in Mississippi, between Barack Obama and John McCain.
But its biggest headlines were made in 1962 when riots broke out over the enrollment of the university’s first African-American student, James Meredith. A marker of the violence has been preserved in the form of a hole where a bullet hit the Lyceum, the oldest building on campus. A workman who tried to fill the hollowed-out hole above the Lyceum door during a remodeling was told to leave it, according to Andy Mullins, an expert on Ole Miss history. “We want to keep it for historical purposes to make sure we’re reminded of our dark past,” said Mullins. About 13 percent of students at the university’s four campuses are now African-American.
A statue of a Confederate soldier near the Lyceum once served as a rallying point for segregationists. A sculpture of Meredith can be found on the other side of the building, with engravings of the words courage, perseverance, opportunity and knowledge. Headlines about intolerance were made again in 2014 when a noose was found on the Meredith statue.
“The past is never dead,” Faulkner wrote. “It’s not even past.”
Good eats, good books
Make time for as many meals as you can because Oxford has great dining options. Chef John Currence owns a group of restaurants here, including his flagship James Beard Award winner, City Grocery, and a fantastic cafe in a strip mall, Big Bad Breakfast.
The chef at Snackbar, Vishwesh Bhatt, also got a nod from the Beards. He’s a native of India who channels his culinary heritage into dishes like chai-spice smoked duck breast and winter squash biryani.
Saint Leo, an Italian restaurant with a hipster vibe owned by Emily Blount, was named a James Beard semifinalist this year. Gus’s Fried Chicken is a chain, but the Oxford outlet is as good a place as any to try its perfect fried chicken.
Stop at Square Books, 160 Courthouse Square, before you head home. See if you can penetrate a Faulkner novel like “As I Lay Dying” or “The Sound and the Fury.” Or learn more about life in Mississippi with Richard Grant’s “Dispatches from Pluto,” about an Englishman who moves to the Delta, or James Cobb’s “The Most Southern Place on Earth,” about the state’s fraught history from slavery through the civil rights era.