American Atlas: Oxford, Mississippi
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.
- Texas Visionary Brings Development, Love to Oxford
- Ronzo: The Gateway Drug to Cool
- Ron Shapiro, one-of-a-kind ‘cultural ambassador’ for Oxford, Mississippi, has died
- Four Decades of Oxford’s Square Books
- Tailgating Goes Above and Beyond at the University of Mississippi
- At Ole Miss, evolving perceptions both outward and inward
- Week 6: What Happened To You On Saturday?
- Real Estate Students Network With Wine-Tasting, Plan Future Goals
- The Anatomy of a Field Storming: The Fantastic Saga of the Ole Miss Goalposts
- Hotel for College Towns Coming to Oxford in 2015
- Harvest Supper: An Unforgettable Night
- Movie Magic
- Who Remembers the Rebel Deli?
- American Atlas: Oxford, Mississippi
- The Sounds and the Fury - Down Home with Ole Miss, Beauty Queens and Literary Greatness in Oxford
- Are You Ready to Ryde?
- Ole Miss, MSU Real Estate Producing Grads Schooled in the Art of the Deal
- About Oxford
- Ole Miss’ Bo Wallace and Rebels Boat Race Longhorns 44-23
- Top 10 Best Small Towns, 2013
- Throwback Friday
- Oxford Takes the Tailgate
- Of Parties, Prose and Football
- A Sincere Thank You To The Good Folks of Ole Miss
- America’s Best College Bars
- New Oxford High School Under Construction
- They’re Bitin’ at Ezell’s Fish Camp
- Oxford Ranked as Nation’s Second-Best College Town
- Best of 2012- #4 Oxford Ranked as Nation’s Second-Best College Town
- Oxford Tourism: ‘All Good News’
- Best Breakfasts Around the World
- Take Monday Off: Oxford
- The Grove at Ole Miss
- Goose Creek Club Breaks Ground
- Inside Forbes: On a Visit to Ole Miss, a Look Into Journalism’s Past, Present and Future
- Forward Together: We Are Ole Miss
- Ole Miss National 60 Second Spot
- Sorry We’re Open
- Tailgate Movie
- Ole Miss Football: Vanderbilt Highlight ‘13
- The Tailgating Experience at Ole Miss
- The Pride of the South: From Dixie With Love
- Oxford, Mississippi on CNBC Boomer Nation
- Oxford, Mississippi
- Best Atmosphere in College Baseball
- Ole Miss Football - Opening Weekend 2012
- Ole Miss Football Team Intro 2012
- America’s Game - 1962 Ole Miss Rebels National Champions - John Vaught
- “Lock The Vaught”
- Ole Miss Baseball Home Run Shower
- The Ole Miss Rebels Throw Texas Size Party
- Ole Miss Band Dixie
- Ole Miss HOTTY TODDY Cheer
- The Oak Ridge Boys Tribute to George Jones
- Hoka Video / Documentary
- Oak Ridge Boys Stop in Oxford
- George Will Gives Honors Convocation Address
- College Towns Doubling as Retirement Communities
- Town and Country, Chris Offutt
The small town where Faulkner created masterpieces has a larger-than-life reputation as the South’s downhome capital of culture. It’s place where mavericks still congregate—and where tailgating is a fine art.
I have a special affinity for the literary history of Oxford, Mississippi, beginning with William Faulkner. The town pretty much ignored him until a film version of his novel Intruder in the Dust was shot here in 1949; it had more impact than his Nobel Prize the following year. Now his former home of Rowan Oak is fully renovated and presided over by Bill Griffith, who will show you the phone on which Faulkner received word he had won the Nobel, the same phone on which he refused to speak to Edward Murrow, who had the audacity to call during supper hour.
My relationship with Oxford began during a publicity tour for my second book, The Same River Twice, in 1994. The worst ice storm in Mississippi in over 40 years occurred, dropping power lines and trees across every road, stranding me there for three days, unable to make my flight. Electricity and water were out. The roads were slicked by two inches of ice. Every surface glittered in the sun, which wasn’t quite hot enough to melt the ice. The lack of cars created a silence in which the only sound was the creaking of frozen branches and the fierce crash of trees falling from weight. I didn’t know anyone, but it didn’t matter—all the people in the town pulled together to assist one another: checking on older folks, sharing food and water, breaking cars free, chainsawing trees out of city streets. I joined in, and at the end of each night drank with my new friends in bars that insisted on staying open despite low supplies, dim lights, and no music. I fell in love with the place.
I would not possibly have believed a fortune teller who presaged my future: In 18 years you will leave Hollywood and move to Oxford with a different wife for a tenure-track position teaching screenwriting at Ole Miss. I’d have laughed like a maniac. I had a solid marriage, no desire to teach, and, despite some successes, no real ambition toward Hollywood. Nevertheless, that’s what came about.
Oxford has made up for slighting Faulkner by welcoming successive generations of writers, beginning with Barry Hannah, Willie Morris, Richard Ford, and Curtis Wilkie, then locals Larry Brown and John Grisham. Stories about these writers take on the timbre of legend around town. Taverns and restaurants feature their books and photographs. Big Bad Breakfast—chef John Currence’s place out on North Lamar Boulevard—takes its name from a Larry Brown book, and the entire menu is composed of variations on titles by Southern writers. My favorite is the Smonk Burger, described as “the big nasty with everything on it!” (Smonk was the misanthropic protagonist of a novel by Tom Franklin.)
Currently making their home in Oxford are a suite of sweet poets: Beth Ann Fennelly and Ann Fisher-Wirth, along with newcomers Melissa Ginsburg, Derrick Harriell, Chiyuma Elliott, and Dave Smith. On any given weekend night, you’ll find them at the movies, in the bookstore, at a literary reading, at a band show, or carousing on the Square. Into this mix are thrown fiction writers—Franklin, Ace Atkins, Jack Pendarvis, and Lee Durkee—always ready to listen seriously or laugh uproariously. The food writer John T. Edge, who heads up the Southern Foodways Alliance, will not only buy you a drink but tell you its history, the provenance of its ingredients, and the etymology of its name. No gathering is complete without the bighearted Wright Thompson, the best sportswriter in America, telling the outrageous details he had to cut from his last article, or Larry Wells, keeper of the Faulkner flame.
The writers converge primarily at another Currence establishment, City Grocery, a tavern where bartenders remember your name, shake your hand, and know your drink. It specializes in local ingredients, traditional Southern fare, and great shellfish, steak, black-eyed peas, grits, fried boudin balls, pork rilletes, and hummingbird cake. Everyone mixes at City Grocery, from 21-year-olds to my mother—lawyers and carpenters, bankers and house painters. People smoke on the balcony and recall the time so-and-so jumped off to escape an oncoming ex-wife, landed on the hood of a giant pickup, rolled to the pavement, and fled into the night.
Oxford is home to the Howorth Nation, five brothers who live and work here , including Richard, former mayor and husband of the witty, kind, and phenomenal party hostess Lisa. Thirty-four years ago they cofounded Square Books, chosen by Publishers Weekly as its Bookstore of the Year for 2013. The store hosts at least two well-attended author readings per week. Every Thursday evening at 6 p.m. Thacker Mountain Radio broadcasts live from the bookstore’s annex, the event hosted by the inimitable Jim Dees. The show typically includes two or three musical guests and at least one writer reading original material. I have seen an a cappella gospel group reduce a fervent agnostic to tears, followed by a humorous reading that had the audience laughing so hard the show came to a halt.
Everyone in town does double duty. Slade Lewis, the bass man in Thacker Mountain’s house band, the Yalobushwackers, will discuss novels with you while ringing up sales at the bookstore. A local dentist performs in community theater. Organic farmers volunteer at the Yoknapatawpha Arts Council, which offers art classes for children by day and hosts films at night. The actress Joey Lauren Adams prefers to live here rather than Los Angeles, serving as a volunteer for the Lafayette County Literacy Council. We recently chatted in a parking lot beside her pickup truck, her dog in the front seat.
Word of mouth reigns as the chief means of communication in Oxford. A typical day entails running into friends—at Kroger, in the post office, on the Square, or at a café—and learning the top social event of the evening, along with a few auxiliary options depending upon preference. Oxford events are eclectic and surprising. Two years ago we could attend a reading by Pulitzer Prize winner Jeffrey Eugenides, then walk a few blocks to see a Snoop Dogg show at the Lyric Theatre. Another night might include running into Dolly Parton on the Square, or a meal with Morgan Freeman at a friend’s house. Bob Dylan rolled through town not too long ago wanting to meet a favorite writer. (It was Larry Brown.) Tom Waits surprised people by eating health food and being polite to everyone.
Significant to Oxonians is how Ole Miss is holding up in the SEC. Our motto is simple: We may not win the game, but we will win the party. Tailgating has evolved to an art form here. A section of campus called the Grove is set aside for aficionados not just of sports but also of food, fashion, and strong cocktails. Citizens arrange tents with silent generators that power stoves, chandeliers, and wide-screen TV sets. Ole Miss honored quarterback alum Archie Manning by making his jersey number, 18, the official campus speed limit. The week after his son Eli, another Ole Miss alum, won the Super Bowl, in February 2012, I ate lunch at Ajax and was seated at a table beside him, his wife, and his young daughter. We nodded to each other. Other patrons did as well. Nobody bothered him because he was out with his family. In Oxford, that’s just how it’s done.
I moved here just over two years ago. After decades of relentless travel, I sought a more settled life in a small town and managed to pick the best place in the South. No snow (despite the odd ice storm), great people, spectacular food. They’ll carry me out of here feet first, if I don’t leap off the balcony one wild night.