Oxford, Mississippi

I wish I could be there this evening. Mary Karr is there at Square Books to sign Lit. Oxford is about 5 hours from here. I’ve made it there and back in a day and if I didn’t have other things going on, I’d jump in the Outback in a heartbeat and head south. Oxford is on the mind a lot lately, what with the Oxford Creative Nonfiction Conference coming up in November. Oxford is just such a “busy” artsy wordsy town with things going on in a literary sense that no other small town can match. Not even my own town of Franklin. Not by a stretch.

Three or four years ago, my writers’ group made a trip to Oxford. Me, Currie, Colleen, Susie, Chance. Below, I’m posting the description of that little jaunt that I wrote after I got home.

*****

It was a jam-packed twenty-seven hour weekend for five Writers in CAPS, built around two noted Mississippi authors and one famous little independent bookstore. We arrived in the quaint hill town of Oxford at noon last Friday, and the first thing we did was a photo shoot on the courthouse lawn with William Faulkner. His statue, that is.

Square Books was first on our agenda. Suzanne Kingsbury had told us about it. In fact, it’s where she met author William Gay, with whom she became good friends and later edited The Alumni Grill, an anthology of writers from the Blue Moon series.

The building is one of the first built in Oxford after the Civil War. On the square, thus its name, and across from the county courthouse, it housed a dry goods store and a drugstore until Square Books opened in 1979. Its founder is Richard Howorth, now the mayor, who graduated from high school with my brother-in-law. The bookstore is filled with whirling, old-looking ceiling fans, faded and worn Oriental rugs, cozy chairs, and a slew of photos, framed and signed, of Mississippi authors, including native son William Faulkner and fellow Mississippian Eudora Welty. It hosts an impressive schedule of readings by internationally acclaimed writers and is regarded as one of the finest bookstores in the nation.

I picked out a soft chair upstairs in the History section to sit and meditate, to absorb the muse gathered there and preserved over the years. I could smell it, I could feel the energy of ink and print. I was drawn to this spot because there is a red and blue Oriental rug under a table of books, and an area of the rug in front of the table was worn through to the backing where people have stood to look at the print and turn the pages. It spoke to me.

I walked to the other side of the room, past the café where the coffee machine whirred, to the fiction section—three rows and ten racks of towering books, the right wall devoted to locals. I sat on a rickety wooden bench, one end chewed up, and on one side of me were books of Mississippi authors, one rack, four sections—John Grisham, Larry Brown, Shelby Foote, Walker Percy, Willie Morris, Barry Hannah, Eudora Welty. Behind me, against the wall that backed up to the balcony, was William Faulkner.

I walked outside to the balcony where people were sitting and chatting and drinking lattes and eating ice cream.

Before leaving, I bought a light blue Square Books T-shirt and Suzanne Marrs’ new biography, Eudora Welty.

My own Pink Butterbeans was on the front table to my right as I exited the store.

I walked with my writing group down the wide sidewalk to Off Square Books, set up for Suzanne Marrs’ book signing. The front of the store was open wide to the evening breeze that rushed through the one long room with books on both side walls. There’s a stage at back, appropriate for speakers, and Off Square is home to Thacker Mountain Radio and an affectionate brown and black cat named Mamacita.

Suzanne Marrs, a Millsaps College English professor, moved to Mississippi to study the writings of Eudora Welty. She developed a close friendship with Eudora, which lasted twenty years, and gained permission to write a biography. In the newly released book, Marrs concentrates on Eudora’s private life, describing her routines, her friendships, her encounters with love. Eudora’s own letters are included in the book. In one, after meeting William Faulkner and touring his home, she wrote a friend that he was “besides being the greatest writer to me, an attractive, darling person.”

In her hour and a half lecture at Off Square, Marrs offered interesting tidbits about Eudora. For example, Eudora always wrote on a typewriter. After she wrote her rough draft, she’d spread it out on her bed or on the dining table and then cut it up and put it back together. Sort of like the Cut and Paste feature on the computer long before the concept of the PC. She placed her desk so that she could look out a window as she wrote. And she was a morning person. She’d get up early and write all morning, pecking away at her typewriter, in her nightgown. I’m so pleased to have things in common with Eudora Welty.

I couldn’t resist buying The Optimist’s Daughter, Eudora’s favorite of her works, the one for which she won a 1973 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

I got up early Saturday morning, made coffee in my room at the Holiday Inn, and pulled out a copy of the short story “Barn Burning” from my suitcase. I wanted to brush up on Faulkner, kind of get in the mood, before visiting his home. I laughed out loud at two lines of smooth Faulkner transition:

“Get on to bed now. Tomorrow we’ll get there.”

To-morrow they got there.

Late morning, we got to Rowan Oak.  The house pre-dates the Civil War, but Faulkner purchased it in 1930 and named for the rowan tree, a symbol of security and peace. Standing secluded among cedars and hardwoods, it was Faulkner’s home until 1962, the year he died. It’s a step back in time to the way Faulkner lived and wrote. He spent his productive years there as he set his stories and novels to paper and got the Nobel Prize in 1950 for his literary genius, right about the time I was born about a hundred miles away. He remains the most-studied author in the world, with more books, articles, and papers written about his work than any other writer besides Shakespeare. And I spent my childhood about two hours away from him.

During Faulkner’s first years at Rowan Oak, he wrote in the library, the first room to the left as you enter the front foyer. His picture hangs over the mantel. He had a Thirteen Colonies secretary just like the one my mother-in-law gave me. After he won the Nobel Prize, he added on a small office which became his sanctuary. Here, he wrote the plot outline for his novel A Fable on the wall, where it remains. He used graphite pencil and a red grease pencil to set down this working plan of the novel about Holy Week set during World War I. The novel was published in 1954, and he won the 1956 Pulitzer Prize for it.

Faulkner’s old Underwood portable typewriter still sits on a small table near the window of the office. The table was given to him by his mother, and he used it virtually all the years he lived at Rowan Oak. Sometimes, he moved it outside with one of the Adirondack chairs to enjoy the outdoors while he wrote. He wrote nineteen novels at Rowan Oak.

It was Faulkner’s desire to have his obituary and epitaph be the same:

He made the books and he died.

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