Faulkner Slept Here: The Draw of Literary History
For literarians who dream of walking in the footsteps of one of the greats, Square books, located in Oxford, Mississippi, offers what few bookstores can—a look into the life and literature of William Faulkner, writer and nobel prize winner of The Sound of the Fury and As I Lay Dying fame. For decades, scholars have been arguing the physical and cultural similarities between Faulkner’s fictional Yoknapatawpha County, the dominant setting of his work, and Mississippi’s Lafayette County, of which Oxford is a part. The town happily claims ownership over these connections to the past, carefully maintaining warmly colored storefronts with thick trims and brownstone buildings reeking of old-world charm.
Explore the old-world charm of The Square, the cultural hub of Oxford, Mississippi.
Contributing to Oxford’s designation as the “Cultural Mecca of the South” is its proximity to Ole Miss, the affectionate nickname given to the University of Mississippi, which sits a short five-minute drive from the three storefronts of Square Books, all located in the heart of Oxford. Locals happily spread the rumor that the town name came about as an early initiative by government officials to attract college campuses to the region, with the city in England of the same name (and its accompanying university) acting to inspire visions of what the town could become. Regardless of whether Ole Miss’ eventual claim over the town came about through fate or design, the university happily supports the area’s cultural flourishing, encouraging students to frequent the many local businesses and hosting a number of artistic performances, including broadway shows that entertain the locals, in their Gertrude C. Ford Center. Ole Miss even bought the 29-acre Faulkner estate, Rowan Oak, in the early 1970s, home to the family for over forty years, now carefully restoring and maintaining the property while leaving it available for public visitation. Perhaps nothing quite illustrates this close relationship between Ole Miss and the town of Oxford like the claims, made by many real estate agents in the area, that the local housing market fluctuates severely with the season success of Ole Miss’ football team, the Rebels, showing the living relationship between the success of Ole Miss and the success of Oxford at large.
A view of Oxford, Mississippi, with Square Books locations marked in red, Ole Miss marked in blue, and Faulkner’s estate, Rowan Oak, marked in green.
Square Books’ three storefronts (an origin store, along with two satellites—Off Square Books, offering a selection of lifestyle literature, and Square Books, Jr., specifically marketed towards children, all distanced about 100 feet apart), are situated in a backwards ‘L’ around one slope of The Square, the name given to the shopping and restaurant district that creates a ring around the grounds of the old Lafayette Courthouse. Though the borders of Oxford spread out far past this part of town, encompassing the bounds of the Ole Miss campus and forming somewhat of a misshapen cross of 16.2 total square miles around the suburbs left of highway seven, locals nonetheless flock to this area, with housing prices tripling or quadrupling in the small space of this city center. Square Books neighbors restaurants with a long history of notable food culture, like City Grocery, a Southern restaurant known throughout Mississippi that has been offering the same famous dishes for the last twenty years. Acting as a leader in the district, Square Books often takes responsibility for assuring the flourishing presence of literary culture in The Square, bringing in authors from all over the world for over 150 events a year, co-founding the Oxford Conference for the Book and hosting a radio show, Thacker Mountain, from their locations, which often features bluegrass music and author readings.
With 20,000 students calling Ole Miss home, the university matches Oxford residents in population almost exactly. Some locals laughingly claim that students “retire” in the Oxford community after graduation, driving down median age and income statistics for the area. Though the national average median age in 2010 was 37.2, the median female age in Oxford is 26, with a median male age of 36.6, indicating the younger demographic increasingly settling in the area. With median household incomes of $31,000, $23,000 below the reported national average, it is clear that Oxford is attracting, and retaining, interest with the younger crowd.
Yet regardless of local demographics, the cultural history of the town, best acknowledged by Faulkner when he claimed it as a “postage stamp of native soil,” creates a bustling hub of academic activity that leaves independent businesses like Square Books flourishing. Authors like John Grisham follow in Faulkner’s footsteps and settle nearby, while celebrities from Morgan Freeman to Dolly Parton frequent the town with its old-charm businesses and artistic interest. In speaking of the communication between literature, Christopher Morley tried to give voice to its “spiritual genealogy,” “the way that books we love reach out to other books, and how all these interlacing roots of association wind together” (64). I like to think that Faulkner, in writing about the land he loved, started growing the roots for a community that now fully supports literary and artistic initiatives, reaching out to similar lovers of culture until the winding together of these voices helped create the Oxford that flourishes today. In memorializing the town in his art, Faulkner seems to have permanently altered the town from the stagnancy of a simple landscape to the activity of a place with uncuttable cultural roots, leaving it with a cultural impact far beyond most simple university towns.
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Morley, Christopher. Ex Libris Carissimis. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania, 1932. Print.
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“Welcome to Rowan Oak.” Rowan Oak. University of Mississippi, n.d. Web. 05 Feb. 2016.