Nestled away in Northern Mississippi, a half-hour from the closest interstate and an hour from the closest airport, lies Oxford, perhaps the most literary small town in the United States. Home of the University of Mississippi ("Ole Miss"), which has anchored the town's intellectual community since before the Civil War, Oxford is a mecca for book-lovers of all stripes, from fans of William Faulkner's Southern Gothic prose to John Grisham's page-turning courtroom dramas.
William Faulkner's Rowan Oak
William Faulkner, who once held (and loathed) the job of postmaster at the University of Mississippi, is certainly Oxford's most noteworthy former resident, and you will find references to the man and his work throughout town. Take an afternoon to visit his home in Oxford, the stately if moderately run-down Rowan Oak (see photo), which sits on Old Taylor Road right past the Eastern edge of the Ole Miss campus. Here he wrote many of his finest works, including As I Lay Dying, Absalom, Absalom!, Light in August, and A Fable. You will see his simple writing table, as well as various and sundry knick-knacks, a favorite being his little metal Mint Julep cup. Rowan Oak is open Tuesday through Sunday during scheduled hours with extended summer hours. Guided tours may be arranged by appointment only.
If you are on the Faulkner trail, you may also want to visit his grave, which you will find in St.
Peter's Cemetery, also known as the Old Oxford Cemetery, at the corner of Jefferson Avenue and North 16th Street. Tradition holds that you leave a pint of whiskey at his grave, especially if you are a writer looking for the muse.
The Campus of Ole Miss
You can't visit Oxford without touring the Ole Miss campus a bit, and it is certainly a beautiful one for a simple outdoor stroll.
While you are there, though, consider stopping in at one of the excellent museums and collections that are open to the public. The University Museum is a diverse collection of smaller museums, and offers exhibits of art, antiquities, scientific instruments, literary ephemera and all sorts of traveling exhibits. Find it at the corner of University Avenue and 5th Street. The Museum is open Tuesday through Saturday during scheduled hours and closed during regular university holidays. General admission is free, although there may be an admission fee for some traveling exhibits. The Museum and Rowan Oak are connected via a footpath, so they can dovetail into a long afternoon easily.
Also on the Ole Miss Campus is the Blues Archive, housed in the J.D. Williams Library, which is more of a stopover for researchers than tourists, but if you're a huge fan of this poetic genre, it may be worth stopping in anyway. It is the largest collection of blues recordings, books, and ephemera in the world. Call (662) 915-7753 to make an appointment.
A more general-interest stop is the Library's Archives and Manuscripts Collection, which includes Faulkner's papers and ephemera (as well as his Nobel Prize) and a huge collection of other works as well.
Rotating exhibits are on display, usually focused on a Mississippi-centric literary or historical theme, and can be found on the third floor. The J.D. Williams Library is located at 1 Library Loop, right in the heart of the campus. Hours vary throughout the year.
Before you leave the campus, be sure to stop in at the Center for the Study of Southern Culture, which houses the Southern Foodways Alliance, Living Blues Magazine, and dozens of other special projects, including major Southern Studies conferences like the Music of the South Conference, Conference for the Book, and the Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha Conference.
They are also host to the Gammill Gallery, open to the public Monday through Friday during scheduled hours, except on University holidays. The Gammill Gallery specializes in documentary photography of the American South, and though it is a quick diversion, it is a special one, which is beautifully curated and consistently worth the time.
Do have a look at their calendar before your visit, also, because there are frequently lectures, readings, musical performances, and other one-of-a-kind displays that are free or cheap and open to the public.
A highlight of any literary tour of Oxford is found off the campus, right in the heart of the old town's Courthouse Square: Square Books (see photo). This little shop, which has gained national fame in its own right, is everything you could ever want in an independent bookstore — a cozy environment, an astoundingly well-read staff, and a dazzling array of books. There is a heavy focus on Southern writers, who frequently pass through for book readings and signings. Do ask about signed copies, because there are usually several in stock. (I picked up a signed copy of Charles Frazier's Thirteen Moons on my last visit.)
Off Square Books is an annex of Square Books, just a few doors down on the Square, which specializes in used books and bargain books (remainders), and hosts most of the readings, children's story times and other events. A weekly radio broadcast called Thacker Mountain Radio is like a less-corny Prairie Home Companion, or perhaps an upscale Grand Ole Opry. Authors and poets read excerpts from recent works, and great Southern music — from blues to alternative country to bluegrass to Cajun — provides a live soundtrack. If a bigger-name artist or author is set to appear on the show, it will sometimes be recorded just down the street in the much-larger Lyric Theater, so watch for signs or check the website ahead of time. Tapings are on Thursday nights at 6 p.m.
Dining and Accommodations
While you are in Oxford, you will need to eat and sleep, presumably. Here are a few ideas.
- Restaurants: For an upscale dinner, try City Grocery, one of four local restaurants helmed by James Beard Award Winning chef John Currence. For breakfast, check out his Big Bad Breakfast joint — Southern lit fans will have a giggle at all of the story references in the names of the dishes. For something more casual, head to Proud Larry's for some live music, beer, and not-half-bad pizzas, or to Ajax Diner for simple Southern cooking done right. For a true Mississippi experience, the locals will all send you 15 miles out of town to Taylor Grocery, an old-school catfish shack. Oxford takes great pride in their local restaurant scene (remember, the Southern Foodways Alliance is based here), so do everyone a favor and skip the chain restaurants.
- Accommodations: The standard slate of chain hotels and motels are available (Days Inn, Hampton Inn, Holiday Inn Express, Super 8, etc.), but they are mostly a bit out of town. To stay more central, try the Downtown Oxford Inn and Suites or the Inn at Ole Miss, both of which are clean, safe, and affordable. To get a real flavor of the town, though, do try one of the many character-filled and moderately-priced Bed and Breakfasts. Puddin' Place and the 5 Twelve, the latter of which is owned and operated by the former guitar player for rock/jam band Widespread Panic are both good bets within walking distance of the Square and the University campus.