We decide to break our trip to Memphis in Oxford, MS, where William Faulkner lived and wrote. After leaving the Battle of New Orleans National Park, we head north. It turns out that Memphis is pretty much due north from NOLA, and Oxford is not too far out of the way.
The drive is green. Really green. This was the view from the highway for the 4 hours of driving we did. The sheer number of trees is kind of staggering to a gal who grew up in Colorado, which is classified as alpine desert due to low rainfall, then from AZ which is straight-up desert, then to CA which is hella populated. I’ve never seen so many leafy trees. They make pleasant scenery, but rather monotonous after a while. Green. Seriously.
We did stop at the Smoothie King, a totally kick-ass drive-through healthy smoothie kiosk we found driving through Jackson. We both like smoothies, but this is Jamba Juice on protein powder (they don’t use steroids :-D). Seriously, dozens of choices, tons of add-ins, all healthy, with calories, protein and vitamins labeled. We smoothied up and headed down the road. Dropping knowledge note: Jackson is the state capitol and largest city with a population of 175,000, in contrast to Sacramento’s Metro Area population of 485,000. The entire state of MS has a population of 3 million. I had not realized how rural much of MS is. Very small towns surrounded by farmland. Hidden behind trees.
When we arrived in Oxford, we found our AirBnB was a delightful apartment, close to town, but surrounded by … trees! We headed into downtown to scope out one of the restaurants recommended by the Uber driver in NOLA. Score! It was right on the town square and the food was yummy. The university students had evidently just finished classes and were looking forward to graduation, according to the chatter of the surrounding tables. The university of Mississippi is in Oxford. The town fathers actually chose Oxford because they were hoping to get the university. Guess it worked.
Then it hit me. University of Mississippi. Ole Miss. Pictures of one extraordinarily brave young man and military veteran, James Meredith, determined to get an education using his G.I. bill. Pictures of crowds of white people, faces twisted by hate. Pictures of the “Ole Miss Riots” in 1962. Pictures of Mr. Meredith being escorted by National Guard. Because the state troopers were against integration and not controlling the crowds.
I started feeling distinctly uncomfortable. I can’t even imagine how frightening it would be to HAVE to walk to class escorted by armed guards. The crowd around me was integrated, comfortably so (meaning blacks and whites at the same tables, laughing together). But I felt the creep of history and the hatred and evil underneath my feet. Since I’ve never been to the South before, I’d never been so close to a ground zero battlefield of the Civil Rights movement, which I’ve studied. But I’m going to be in the South a while. This is going to be interesting.
The next day we drove a short distance just outside of town to Rowan Oak, the home of William Faulkner, the Nobel Prize-winning novelist whose entire cannon is set in a fictional county in rural Mississippi. Rowan Oak has a quiet awe. Set quite a ways back from the street, I had to walk through trees (not kidding) to approach the two-story home. It still feels like a home. I’ve been on a lot of home tours from the summer ‘cottages’ of the NY uber-rich to the Molly Brown house in Denver, to Miz Ima Hogg’s place in Houston, but it was the first one that has ever felt like a home. The furnishings were lovely but comfortable. You could really see someone living here. The BF and I decided it’s a beautiful place to be a writer.
According to Biography.com:
“Faulkner became known for his faithful and accurate dictation of Southern speech. He also boldly illuminated social issues that many American writers left in the dark, including slavery, the “good old boys” club and Southern aristocracy.”
I had never read Faulkner, but became intrigued and started reading. As my friend LE said, he’s a man of his time, but the WORDS! His writing is dense and non-linear but extraordinary and very impactful. I found I have to trust that it will all make sense and just keep reading. I’m glad I started with his short stories and I’m loving his writing, but I don’t think I would have made much sense of it without driving through Mississippi and learning some history.
One of my Uber drivers in NOLA went to school at UMiss and recommended a few “must-try” restaurants. He also told us that Faulker used to go drinking at The City Grocery, which is a restaurant/bar, but there never was a bar there when he was alive. But it overlooks the courthouse, which is exquisitely described in more than one of his novels and I totally saw him there, drink in hand, thinking of the citizens of his MS county and looking at the majestic courthouse across the street as he wrote:
“At the center of both the town and the county of Jefferson, the square features the courthouse and the Confederate memorial, as well as stores and law and medical offices.” and
“But above all, the courthouse: the center, the focus, the hub; sitting looming in the center of the county’s circumference like a single cloud in its ring of horizon, laying its vast shadow to the uttermost rim of horizon; musing, brooding, symbolic and ponderable, tall as cloud, solid as rock, dominating all: protector of the weak, judiciate and curb of the passions and lusts, repository and guardian of the aspirations and hopes….”
After Faulkner’s home, we, of course, had to go by his books at the local independent books store, situated across from courthouse. Square Books was recommended by our Uber driver. It has a whole section on Faulkner and we browse in the air conditioning, each deciding which book we want to take home with us. I choose the heavy anthology and sit down to peruse it while the BF roams the bookstore, happy as a clam.
We grab lunch down the street, snagging a window seat to look at the courthouse one last time, then head two hours up the road to look at more trees on the way to Memphis.
Next up: Memphis
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