Faulkner's Sanctuary

Contributing Editor Wayne Curtis discovers that Oxford, Miss., is filled with history, tradition, and books—lots of books

Ventress
Ventress Hall, on the Ole Miss campus

Credit: Steven Jones

Here's the best way to get to Rowan Oak. Drive to the University of Mississippi in Oxford and park at the museum near the edge of campus. Find the walking trail located behind the museum, then set off into an old, tangled, oaky forest. After 10 minutes, you'll reach it: the brooding, two-story 1844 Greek Revival where William Faulkner lived for 32 years and wrote many of his best-loved novels. You'll find no well-intentioned visitors center here—in short, no roll of the timpani drums. Just a relatively austere house with a few low and unprepossessing outbuildings, yet filled with a powerful sense of history and place.

Actually, I haven't been wholly truthful in my description. When my wife and I arrived one morning last fall, a damp Tuesday with dark clouds pressing down upon us, we did hear a timpani roll—in the form of thunder rumbling in the distance. The air was thick, and all color seemed blanched out of the landscape. Stepping over gnarled roots, we made our way up a muddy walk, past an ancient brick-edged labyrinth garden. (It was built before The War—which hereabouts means The War Between the States—and was badly overgrown, but Faulkner liked it that way and left it undisturbed.)

Inside, a student collected our fee (the university owns and administers the house), then went back to tapping away on his laptop, filling the house with a pleasing clickety sound, like Scrabble tiles being sorted. When I asked if Faulkner had Wi-Fi, he said, sheepishly, "I sometimes feel a little guilty about this."

The home has ells and porticos and dim rooms, and features sparely furnished quarters, which have been left much as they were when Faulkner died in 1962. Scrawled on the wall of the writing room, in lead and grease pencil, is an outline of his 1954 work, A Fable. Though I knew that Faulkner was fond of horses, I was still taken aback by the oil portrait of him in brilliant riding regalia, his jacket as red as Santa's.

The whole setting was more intimate than heroic. For some reason, I expected something monumental, a literary San Simeon or a Deep South Monticello—I mean, it's Faulkner—but here it was, just a house, a bit drab and even a touch dowdy. Which is probably how it should be. Rowan Oak feels like a time capsule filled with unfinished stories.

Much the same can be said of the rest of Oxford. It's small and human scaled, and everywhere you get the sense of tales not yet fully told.

"To me, Oxford's charm and appeal have to do with its character as a town," says architect Tom Howorth, whom I had asked to show me around on the recommendation of several knowledgeable friends.

Howorth drove me along North 14th Street and South 11th Street, which are lined with low, modest houses clustered together, many under a canopy of trees. Oxford is not a city of mansions, he explained. It wasn't built by rail barons or merchant kings or cotton planters, but rather by professors who had come to teach at the university. Oxford, after all, was given its name to persuade Mississippi legislators to site a state university here. Ole Miss opened its doors to 80 students in 1848; the nearby town of College Hill clearly missed out.

Not that the town is entirely lacking in  grandeur. We drove by Ammadelle, a handsome Italianate villa with arched windows and heavy brackets designed by Calvert Vaux in 1859 for a planter who wanted an in-town home to complement his 2,400-acre farm. Another quietly grand residence is the onetime home of the extravagantly named Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus Lamar II (1825-1893), a prominent secessionist who later served in all three branches of government at the federal level (U.S. House and Senate, Interior Department, U.S. Supreme Court). His house, which had fallen into an aggravated state of disrepair in recent years, was acquired by the Oxford-Lafayette County Heritage Foundation in 2004. Its renovation has now been completed, and plans call for exhibits showcasing Lamar's illustrious life.

A few blocks away is Oxford's handsome and busy town square, which seems to hold the residential neighborhoods in its thrall through mass and a certain architectural gravity. The buildings around the square have an updated but still antiquated charm, with complicated brick cornices and a handful of galleries to shade passersby from the sun.

The Lafayette County Courthouse, dating to the early 1870s, will be of particular interest to anyone who has read Faulkner. In his novels, Oxford is called Jefferson, the seat of his famously fictional Yoknapatawpha County. "The courthouse," Faulkner wrote in Requiem for a Nun, is "the center, the focus, the hub; sitting looming in the center of the county's circumference ... musing, brooding, symbolic and ponderable, tall as a cloud, solid as a rock, dominating all."

The courthouse today still dominates and is set in a vortex of cars circling counterclockwise. It's gleaming and white, and has recently undergone an extensive restoration. The second-floor courtroom has a stout balcony and curved, pew-like spectator benches, and it's not hard to imagine it filled with seersucker and the slow wafting of pasteboard fans.

In 1947 Faulker groused that the shade trees on the square had been leveled, and he feared that Oxford would soon look like "any one of ten thousand towns built yesterday from Kansas to California." In 1994 a Los Angeles Times reporter observed that residents regarded "creeping boutiquism on the square" as a persistent threat. But he also added that "as long as a $3 shoeshine, a $5 haircut and a $2.50 bowl of collard greens and hog jowls can be had in the neighborhood, it's hard for a stranger to take the threat too seriously."

Well, you can't get a $5 haircut here anymore, or a $2.50 bowl of collards. And the square does feature an assortment of storefronts hawking fashionable dresses (designed for the "painfully thin," one Oxonian said to me) and colorful art suitable for homes with white walls. But this trend is offset by a preponderance of books—not surprising, given how literary Oxonion culture has always been, with numerous writers calling this town of about 19,000 home.

Founded in 1979 by Richard Howorth (brother of Tom), Square Books has since expanded to include two other storefronts facing the square, one stocked with children's books, the other with magazines and remainders. The main space, which occupies a former drugstore, could very well be the quintessential bookshop, a creaky two-story affair where books are marketed not as commodities but more like gems at a jewelers. Upstairs, the quiet is punctuated with the occasional quoooosh of a cappuccino machine, and there's a broad balcony for the lesser castes: gossipers and compulsive users of cell phones. Where better to sit and watch life unfold around the square?

If the courthouse is the heart of town, Square Books is its frontal lobe. And the stomach? Facing the square is the Ajax Diner, with a faux-haute roadhouse sensibility that extends to a bar constructed of Mississippi license plates. The fried catfish is superb. Also on the square is the remarkable City Grocery, generally regarded as one of the best restaurants in the South. The old brick-walled storefront has worn wood floors, a buckled beadboard ceiling, and butcher paper on the tables. Past meets present when meals emerge from the kitchen, where cooks prepare enticing modern variations of old-fashioned regional cuisine. The shrimp and grits, which has been on the menu for 17 years, will permanently alter how you view shrimp and grits.

Chef John Currence, like Richard Howorth and his bookstore, may harbor minor ambitions of empire. Currence has opened Big Bad Breakfast in an unlovely strip mall, presumably placed so that locals can come and go without being seen by their doctors. Just looking at the menu might cause your cholesterol readings to spike. ("The Good Old Boy," for example, is a two-egg omelet with chili and cheddar, served with a choice of a biscuit, grits, or toast.) Currence has just opened up Snackbar in the same strip mall, where he serves small plates based on Mississippi-Louisiana classics.

Of course, you can try walking off the calories. One of Oxford's great pleasures is strolling from the courthouse square down University Avenue and ending up, unsurprisingly, at the university. Here at last, you'll find the monumental—grand centers of research and athletics, including the Vaught-Hemingway Stadium ablaze with its digital billboard. We walked through The Grove, perhaps best known as a backdrop for epic pregame picnics on football Saturdays, and up to a loop road edged with historic buildings called The Circle. (When even simple descriptors are capitalized, you know you're encountering the monumental.)

We stopped by the turreted Ventress Hall, built in 1889 and featuring a grand Tiffany glass window depicting a university regiment that suffered nearly universal casualties during The War. At the opposite end of The Circle, we passed between towering Ionic columns and into the Lyceum, which dates to the opening of the university and was the site of a more recent civil war. In the fall of 1962, James Meredith became the first African American to matriculate at the University of Mississippi. His arrival provoked riots among white reactionaries, and the Lyceum, where federal marshals were based, was besieged by bricks, rocks, gasoline bombs, a stolen bulldozer, and rifles. A French journalist and a spectator died before the fighting was over.

We'd been told that you could still see pockmarks in the columns from the bullets, but if they were there, I couldn't make them out. A monument on the west side of the building depicts a life-sized Meredith striding toward open doors.

"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," William Faulkner wrote. He died fewer than three months before the 1962 riots, and one can only wonder if this episode would have found its way, even obliquely, into his enduring narrative of north-central Mississippi.

No matter, really. Because Oxford is a town of storytellers, and there will always be another to take up an unfinished tale.    

Save America's Treasures gave a grant of $299,000 toward the restoration of Rowan Oak in 2001.

Read more stories by Wayne Curtis:

New Orleans, Block by Block

Distillery Crawl

The Plaza Checks Out

Belle Epoxy: Is Las Vegas' Venetian Hotel So Fake It's Real?

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