The Sounds and the Fury - Down Home with Ole Miss, Beauty Queens and Literary Greatness in Oxford

Oxford is more than a town, much more.  It's a way of life, a place built with words that holds the heart, mind and spirit of those who call it home whether for four years or a lifetime.  Oxford is at the crossroads of Southern culture, class and cuisine.  The storied buildings around the picture perfect town square seem to hold the key to Southern culture, equally embracing learning and leisure.  In many ways Oxford is a dichotomy, simultaneously offering stimulation and serenity, creativity and calm.  Oxford is a state of mind, a gateway to some and a lifelong home to others.  It's a place where all four seasons take a firm hold, accentuated by football games, festivals and friendships.  

Oxford is full of stories that resonate with a tenor that can only be found in a town that reverberates Southern charisma and charm.  Enjoy the slices of life that follow as they are but snapshots of the town and university we so deeply love and admire.

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The Sounds and the Fury - Down Home with Ole Miss, Beauty Queens and Literary Greatness in Oxford

- Bill Thomas, The Washington Post

A line of heavy thunderstorms up from the Gulf is moving across the Mississippi Delta. Driving north on Route 49, I'm hoping to beat the rain to Yazoo City, but 10 minutes out of town, a monsoon begins. In a part of the country famous for floods, getting off the road suddenly seems like a good idea, which is when I spot a rundown building with a sign on top that says Clancy's Bar B-Q.

By the time I make it inside, I'm soaked to the bone. "Poor darlin'," fusses the waitress. "What you need is the rib special." Clancy's has more mismatched dinette furniture than a neighborhood yard sale, and when a guy at the next table hears I'm headed to Oxford to see Mississippi play Alabama, he predicts, "We gonna beat 'em."

There's not much doubt about the meaning of "we." For the next hour, people are reminiscing about past Ole Miss greats and big games, such as the one in 1969, when legendary quarterback Archie Manning passed for 436 yards and ran for another 104. Forget that Mississippi lost in a 33-32 heartbreaker, or that the 2009 Ole Miss Rebels are no match for the same Alabama Crimson Tide, ranked No. 2 in the nation. In Clancy's, the only team that matters -- maybe the only thing that matters -- every football season is Ole Miss.

"You'll find that's pretty much true all over the state," another customer says. "We love our Rebs."

There is some question, I'm told, about the exact dimensions of Mississippi's delta region. One theory is that it starts in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel in Memphis and ends 200 miles downriver in Vicksburg's Cat Fish Row. The vast alluvial plain in between, full of cotton fields, bayous and stately plantations, encompasses as much fable as it does actual real estate. There's Clarksdale, the town where blues pioneer Robert Johnson is supposed to have traded his soul to the devil for a life of fame and fortune, and the imaginary Yoknapatawpha County, "surveyed and mapped" in the fiction of William Faulkner.

But the delta, however it's measured, is the heart of Dixie. Everywhere you go, music and literature mix with the turbulent history of the Civil War and civil rights to surprise visitors, especially Northerners such as myself, with how different Mississippi is from what they imagined.

Several years ago on a business trip, I met Hiram Eastland, a lawyer from Greenwood and nephew of the late Sen. James O. Eastland of Mississippi, staunch defender of the Old South during his many decades in Washington. Hiram, 60, seemed to know everyone in the state, an accomplishment made easier than it sounds, he explained, since tens of thousands of them show up in Oxford whenever the University of Mississippi plays a home football game.

They pitch tents in the Grove, a wooded area in the middle of campus, set up bars and sumptuous buffets, hire their own live entertainment, and basically turn the occasion into a giant reunion. The partying continues until game time and, win or lose, resumes afterward, frequently lasting late into the night.

"You've got to see it to believe it," said Eastland, an Ole Miss grad, who soon had me persuaded to join him, his family and friends for a football weekend Mississippi-style.

So here I am. When I arrive in Oxford, it's just getting dark. Hiram's wife, Gail, and her sister Debbie are waiting for me in front of Abner's, a fried-chicken landmark already crowded with customers placing carryout orders for tomorrow's game. The plan is to rendezvous with Eastland, then go to a party at a friend's house near campus. On the way, I get a chance to take in some of the sights as we drive down tree-lined streets, past columned mansions and the old county courthouse in the town square with its stone statue of a Confederate soldier.

Named after the university city in England, Oxford (population just over 19,000) is so much a part of Ole Miss it's hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. Oxford also occupies a unique place in American literary history. William Faulkner lived here for most of his life, using the town as a setting for many of his novels and short stories. Willie Morris, whose own work explores the strange hold his native state has on Mississippians, wrote that Faulkner's "physical and emotional fidelity to Oxford ... was at the core of his being, so that today Oxford [is] the most tangibly connected to one writer's soul of any locale in America."

In addition to Morris, who lived here for years before his death in 1999, the town has been home to dozens of authors, including John Grisham, Barry Hannah, Larry Brown and Richard Ford. But Faulkner (1897-1962) was -- and is -- such an enduring presence that people talk about him as if he were still around. He attended Ole Miss for three semesters, dropping out in 1920 to embark on a writing career that earned him the Nobel Prize for Literature 29 years later.

Today, Faulkner might have a hard time recognizing his home town. Square Books occupies the old drugstore building across from the courthouse. The Lyric Theatre, where the film version of his novel "Intruder in the Dust" premiered in 1949, now hosts rock concerts. Once the bustling hub of Mississippi's cotton industry, Oxford has become a trendy tourist destination known for its art galleries, shops and chef-owned restaurants, such as City Grocery, that specialize in reconstructed regional dishes.

One thing that hasn't changed, however, is the devotion to Ole Miss football, such a major fall attraction that many alumni buy second homes in the area just to use on game weekends. "Prices have gone through the roof," Gail says.

The party, hosted by Jimbo and Peggy Adams, is well underway by the time we get there. A spread of food and drinks extends from the kitchen into the hallway. The Adams and their guests are all loyal Ole Miss fans, and everyone is talking about the Alabama game until Eastland mentions he's bringing his friend James Meredith. The two have been close since meeting a few years back. "James is a big Ole Miss fan," he says. Which might come as a surprise to some. In the fall of 1962, Meredith was the first black student to enroll at the university. The rioting that followed focused the nation's attention on Oxford. Most of the partygoers at the Adamses', teenagers at the time, have vivid memories of what happened.

"It was outsiders that caused the trouble, not students," insists Johnnie Freeman from Greenwood. Others agree. Two people were killed and scores injured before President John F. Kennedy called out the National Guard to restore order. More than 10,000 troops turned Oxford into an armed camp in what one news report called "the greatest crisis the South has faced since the Civil War."

Wilbur Abernathy, an Oxford businessman, remembers a friend of his taking home an unexploded tear gas canister he found on the campus. "He started playing around with it in his bedroom one day, and the darn thing went off. Years later, he told me, you could still smell tear gas on some of his books."

After dinner, Eastland and I are off to sample Oxford nightlife. Outside the Lyric Theatre, we run into Johnnie Freeman and his wife, Leslie, from the party, and the four us follow the crowds along Van Buren Avenue. On Friday nights before Ole Miss home games, Oxford's courthouse square becomes a mini-New Orleans.

By 9 o'clock, the sidewalks are filled with students and alums. Sorority girls in cocktail dresses and high heels stroll from bar to bar, while frat brothers whoop it up in front of Proud Larry's, Rooster's and other noisy hangouts. Later, a few of the more literary types will be visiting nearby St. Peter's Cemetery, where spilling a shot of bourbon on Faulkner's grave is an honored tradition. It's "Breakfast at Tiffany's" meets "Animal House," part fashion show, part pep rally and part hangover in the making.

Eastland leads us to a lively get-together at a downtown law firm. The second-floor balcony is an ideal spot for watching all of the activity in the streets. In the reception area, I overhear a group of lawyers discussing how little Northerners know about Mississippi. "They think we're all a bunch of rednecks," says a perfectly coiffed blond attorney, sipping a glass of bourbon and water. I feel compelled to politely disagree. "Actually, they're right in some cases," she laughs, cracking up everybody within hearing distance. Something tells me I'm not the first person to fall for that one.

"A lot of people have ideas about Mississippi based on things that happened years ago," Eastland says later. "All that stuff's in our rearview mirror."

As we get ready to call it a night, I notice the statue in front of the courthouse. The Confederate soldier is standing at ease and looking South, a pose that might describe the way Oxford likes to see itself, laid-back and down-home, sociable but set in its ways, particularly when it comes to the three things that matter most to people who live here: Faulkner, friends and football.

By midmorning Saturday, the Grove looks like a huge encampment with hundreds of white tents covering every inch of available space. People started grabbing the best locations at the stroke of midnight. The first to go are places along the Walk of Champions, the route team members take to the stadium.

Football fans are pouring onto campus from all directions. Some make a beeline for hometown tents serving such local delicacies as venison chili and pecan pie; others gather around portable smokers the size of road-repair equipment for helpings of tangy Mississippi barbecue. At one tent, the featured entertainment is an Elvis impersonator in a sequined jumpsuit. The King, I'm reminded, was from nearby Tupelo. People roam from tent to tent looking up old friends, and soon whole geographical contingents from the Gulf Coast, hill country and the Delta are reconnecting. The mood is so convivial, even visiting Alabama supporters are welcome.

Eastland, who's wearing his game-day blue blazer and striped tie, takes a deep breath. "Ummm," he says. "My favorite smell. Bourbon and Chanel No. 5."

One thing about the Grove that's immediately apparent is the number of impeccably attired female students; getting dressed up is the style here for football Saturdays. Mississippians have good reason to believe they lead the nation in the production of beauty queens. In a remarkable achievement in competitive good looks the state has produced four Miss Americas, three of whom attended Ole Miss. Two of those, Mary Ann Mobley and Linda Mead Shea, back-to-back winners in 1959 and '60, were members of the same sorority, Chi Omega.

Meredith and his wife, Judy, are waiting for us at the Lyceum, the university administration building and scene of the most violent clashes during the 1962 riots. Bullet holes are still visible in the columns on the building's portico. Dressed in a white suit and a white straw hat, Meredith, 77, is hard to miss. This is his first visit to campus since the 2006 dedication of a statue that depicts him walking through an open door. It takes some coaxing to persuade him to walk past his likeness, which he finally agrees to do with his eyes closed, holding on to my elbow. "I don't want to see that thing," he says.

The memorial suggests how far the university and the state have come since his college days, a time in his life, Meredith says, he doesn't look back on with any nostalgia. "I didn't come here to get an education. I came to destroy white supremacy." During the year he spent in Oxford -- he graduated in 1963 -- federal marshals accompanied him virtually everywhere he went.

Meredith, who lives in Jackson, had served in the Air Force and later studied at historically black Jackson State before applying to Ole Miss. "I sincerely hope that your attitude toward me as a potential member of your student body ... will not change upon learning that I am not a white applicant," he wrote in a letter to the admissions office. "I am an American-Mississippi-Negro citizen." The effort to keep him from enrolling went on for almost a year. Today, African Americans make up 15 percent of the university's student population.

A white man in the crowd introduces himself and shakes Meredith's hand. "I just want to thank you for what you did," he says. Meredith smiles as the two reminisce about campus life a half-century ago. Henry McCaslin, now a bank president in Cleveland, Miss., says he was an Ole Miss freshman in the fall Meredith arrived. "I just wanted to say I'm sorry for everything he went through."

On a one-man voting-rights march from Memphis to Jackson in 1966, Meredith was shot and wounded by a sniper. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Stokely Carmichael, then-leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, took over the march, eventually joined by thousands in what would be the last big demonstration of its kind in Mississippi. Meredith, who has a law degree from Columbia, distanced himself from the civil rights movement.

"He never got along with the leaders," says David Sansing, retired professor of history at Ole Miss, who has written extensively on the period. "Meredith has always been his own man." That has infuriated his critics, never more than when he became an adviser to conservative North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms in the late 1980s. "I wrote to every office on Capitol Hill looking for work, and he was the only one who offered me a job," Meredith says.

But his historical status appears secure. As the throng moves from the Grove to the game, we meet three black students, all Ole Miss freshmen. One calls Meredith his hero. "You hear about him all the time," he says. "But I never thought I'd get to see him."

Vaught-Hemingway Stadium is by far the largest structure on campus, and the 60,000-seat shrine to Mississippi football is filled to capacity for today's game. Thousands of crimson-clad Alabama fans are on hand, many seated behind one end zone with their team's famed "million-dollar" marching band, which puts on an impressive pre-game show.

Eastland and Meredith have seats near midfield just below the press box, where, according to Hiram, Archie Manning is a home-game regular. In Mississippi, Manning is a football icon. He's so revered at Ole Miss that the campus speed limit is 18 miles an hour, the uniform number he wore when he played quarterback. He and his wife, Olivia, a former Ole Miss homecoming queen, live in New Orleans and own a condo in Oxford.

Manning, unfortunately, isn't at the game, but it's hard not to feel his presence. A towering action photo of him taken during his Ole Miss playing days dominates the press box lobby where sportswriters continue to follow his every move. He's in New York, one writer says, to watch his son Eli quarterback the Giants. Eli played college football at Ole Miss. His older brother Peyton, who broke with family tradition to play at Tennessee, quarterbacks the Indianapolis Colts.

Alabama lives up to its national ranking, dominating Ole Miss during the first half. When Eastland hears that Archie Manning's not in town, he suggests I give him a call. The two grew up together in the Mississippi Delta. Manning was a high school phenom sought by colleges in the North and South, but everyone who knew him was sure he'd end up a Rebel.

"The only dream I ever had was to play quarterback for Ole Miss," Manning tells me later by phone. He got the job at age 19, the first time coach Johnny Vaught had ever started a sophomore signal caller. The decision paid off. Manning went on to set school records for running and passing, and in 1969 was named the most valuable player in the Southeastern Conference.

Now a football analyst on television, Manning's never regretted spending most of his 14-year professional career with the once-lowly New Orleans Saints. It's hard to compile Hall of Fame statistics with a lackluster team. "I know my heart was there to accomplish success," he said in an interview when he retired from the game in 1985. "I'm not scared by the lack of winning." And there's no denying he's begotten winners. Manning's greatest contribution to the NFL could be his two sons, Peyton and Eli, each of whom has quarterbacked victorious Super Bowl teams.

"I love Ole Miss," Manning says, adding he's sorry he couldn't make the Alabama game, which may be just as well. His alma mater lost 22-3.

"Meredith and Manning helped redefine Ole Miss -- one in civil rights, the other on the football field," David Sansing says after the game. "What makes them unique is that they aren't celebrities. They're folk heroes. There's even a folk song about Archie Manning. But the point is they never sought the limelight, never pretend to be anything other than what they are. Two totally normal people who gave the university an authenticity it wouldn't have had otherwise."

Eastland and Meredith are back at Eastland's tent near the Lyceum. The sky is overcast, and there's a fall chill in the air. Reason enough for a final round of bourbon and water, accompanied by what's left of a plate of Abner's fried chicken. James and Judy Meredith have to leave for Jackson, and Eastland and I walk them part of the way to their car.

"James really enjoyed himself," Judy says. Eastland promises to see them again over Christmas.

Walking around in the Grove, Eastland spots his Greenwood neighbors the Freemans talking to Jeannie Falkner. "Jeannie's related to William Faulkner," he says. "And spells her name the old way without the 'u' that Faulkner added."

Falkner, who teaches social work at Delta State University, explains that her grandfather and Faulkner's father were brothers, which makes her part of the most celebrated literary family in the state. "I hate to admit it," she says. "I just haven't read that much Faulkner. And I majored in English at Ole Miss, too."

This year, she provided an elaborate cotton-branch centerpiece for the Greenville tent. "With everybody growing corn and soybeans these days, it gets harder and harder to find nice white Mississippi cotton. I found this bunch in Sunflower County."

The next morning before I fly back to Washington, Eastland wants to show me Rowan Oak, William Faulkner's house. The drive takes us past another famous Oxford residence, an imposing white mansion that inspired the Compson home in "The Sound and the Fury," Faulkner's 1929 novel whose theme of spiritual strength would recur throughout his fiction.

Rowan Oak, three blocks away, is a museum owned by the university. It looks so Faulknerian, it could have materialized out of one of the former home-owner's books. An overnight rain has left puddles on the cedar-lined walkway leading to the Greek-revival house where Faulkner did much of his writing, and even scrawled the outline of one novel, "The Fable," on the wall of his study.

While he lived in Oxford, Faulkner always knew when Ole Miss was playing football. It would have been hard not to. The stadium is only a short walk from his back porch. In fact, there's a football story about the author that his nephew Jimmy once told Eastland.

After Faulkner won the Nobel Prize for Literature, he decided to celebrate by getting drunk for a few days. Jimmy was given strict instructions to sober him up the following Sunday so he could write his acceptance speech on Monday, then depart for Sweden the next morning. But Jimmy began thinking about how important the speech would be and got his uncle sober a day earlier than he'd promised.

When Faulkner walked into his back yard and heard cheers coming from the stadium, he knew Ole Miss was playing. It couldn't be Sunday. It was Saturday. He was so mad at his nephew that he got drunk all over again and didn't have the time to compose his speech.

"So he wrote it on the plane, producing one of the great Nobel acceptance speeches ever given," says Eastland, reciting his favorite part as we walk to the car: "I believe that man will not merely endure; he will prevail. He is immortal not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance."

Jimmy told Eastland another story about his famous uncle that always gets a laugh around Oxford. Shortly after receiving the Nobel Prize, Faulkner spoke at a meeting of the New York Literary Society. He enjoyed putting pretentious intellectuals in their place, and fresh from winning the world's top literary award, he thought he'd have some fun.

"Now I know you people up here in New York think that Mississippians can't even read," Faulkner said. "But we sure can write."

Bill Thomas, an author and journalist, is a regular contributor to the Magazine. His last story was on South African bush pilots. He can be reached at wpmagazine@washpost.com.