Sunday, November 28, 2021

Oxford, Mississippi, a literary town where--from Stark Young & William Faulkner to Barry Hannah & Willie Morris to Tom Franklin, Ace Atkins, Mary Miller & William Boyle--the creative well never runs dry

(William Faulkner, photo by Carl Van Vechten in 1954)

 As I did once recently on the subject of labor, I was asked by the Reverend Gail Tapscott to join a panel discussion on Oxford, Mississippi, and its literary tradition today (November 28, 2021) for the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Oxford. I joined my friend Kaye Bryant, who told of meeting William Faulkner as a young girl and hearing his ghost tales. Below are some of my prepared remarks for today's service: 

Many people think it all began with Faulkner, this identification of Oxford, Mississippi, as a literary town. That’s not true. I’d say it began with drama critic, playwright, and novelist Stark Young, whose home still stands on Oxford’s University Boulevard, next door to William Faulkner’s novelist brother John’s home.


By the time William Faulkner started writing fiction seriously in 1925, Stark Young was already a well-known theater critic and the author of The Flower in Drama: A Book of Papers on the Theater (1923). He would also gain renown as a novelist. Ellen Glasgow said of his 1934 novel So Red The Rose: “There has never been a novel of the South … that can compare with it.”  Born in Como, Mississippi, Young graduated from the University of Mississippi in 1901 and taught there from 1905 to 1907. He became drama critic at the New York Times and the New Republic magazine. Young was one of the Nashville-based Southern Agrarians, which also included Robert Penn Warren and other poets and writers who yearned for a non-industrial South that held true to its better values of the past.

(To the right, Stark Young)


Faulkner’s brother John deserves mention here. Always in the shadow of his more famous brother, he wrote novels such as Men Working (1941) and Dollar Cotton (1942).


Of courses, there’s Faulkner himself, the Nobel Prize winner, the creator of the Yoknapatawpha series. My late friend Jere Hoar, a widely published short story writer and author of the classic hardboiled novel The Hit (2002), was one of the last living links to Faulkner before he recently died. He attended the wedding of Faulkner’s daughter at the writer’s fabled home, Rowan Oak, and was close enough to the family to have been asked to drive to Chicago to pick up Faulkner at the airport and drive him back to Oxford. Unsure of his navigational skills, Jere declined, a decision he regretted the rest of his life.


Another important Faulkner link in Oxford today is writer and publisher Larry Wells, whose late wife Dean Faulkner Wells was the great writer’s niece and grew up in Rowan Oak after her father, Faulkner’s brother, died in an airplane crash. I loved listening to her many tales of “Pappy” as she was growing up.


New York Times bestselling writer Ace Atkins (no relation but a kindred spirit!) and I would gather at Jere’s farmhouse off what is now called “Faulkner Highway) every month or so and talk about books, writing, and film over glasses of bourbon and platefuls of fried chicken. I miss those days. Jere would regale us with tales of his writer friends like Jim Harrison and another Oxford writer, Barry Hannah. Barry loved guns and often came over to target shoot on Jere’s many acres. Barry’s own short stories were always razor edged, even poison tipped, a shot to the heart. Like this line from his story “Ride, Fly, Penetrate, Loiter”: “You may see me with the eye-patch. In almost any city of the South, the Far West, or the Northwest. I am on the black and chrome Triumph, riding right into your face.”


(Barry Hannah, from the back cover of his 1985 collection of stories, Captain Maximus)


Another is, and I’ll paraphrase: “See that beautiful blonde sitting over there. Somewhere there’s a guy who’s glad as hell she’s no longer in his life.” 


Jere’s home was a step into Faulkner land. The walls were covered with paintings of prized bulls, horses, and dogs. He loved to hunt and kept horses till his dying day.


I first met Barry Hannah as a political reporter in the early 1980s. I came to Oxford to cover a political fundraiser at the old Downtown Grill (now called Boure's), and there was Barry deep in his cups on one side of the room, and fellow Oxonian Willie Morris on the other. Both holding court, neither particularly interested in talking to one another. A rivalry of sorts existed between the two very different writers. Morris was journalist-in-residence at the University of Mississippi for many years. His books North Toward Home and Terrains of the Heart are personal favorites.


In Terrains of the Heart, he waxes nostalgic about the bar at the old Holiday Inn near the Oxford town square, arguably, he said, the best Holiday Inn bar in the country. I once wrote a column on the locally famous bartender there, Clyde Goolsby.


(To the right, Willie Morris on the University of Mississippi campus)


I met Willie several times and once interviewed him on the phone. I’ll never forget his visit to Oxford to help commemorate the Faulkner statue by the City Hall. The historian Shelby Foote was there, too, and I remember remarking what two classic Southern faces on that small stage.


One of my prized possessions is a signed copy of Larry Brown’s collection of short stories, Facing the Music (1988) (another is a signed copy of Eudora Welty’s collected works. I met her once when I was working as a reporter in Jackson). A local firefighter before he became a nationally known writer, Brown wrote tough, gritty stories about the people in the rural environs around Oxford. I never actually met him, but I saw him sometimes at a favorite watering hole, the City Grocery bar, and walking—or should I say staggering—along the Square at night.


Soon after I first moved my little family to Oxford in 1990, I took my late wife Marilyn and two small children, 7-year-old Rachel and 6-year-old Michael, to a reading by Larry Brown at one of the courthouses on the Square. Brown’s writing could be full of expletives and raw scenes, and so was his reading. I began to squirm as I realized my two were the only children in the room, and they were getting an earful, or so I thought. Near the very end of Brown’s reading, he said something like “hell” or “damn”, and Rachel turned to me and said, “Daddy, he just said a bad word!” Apparently she hadn’t been paying much attention during the reading!


Oxford today is still chock-full of top-notch writers. My gosh, too many to even name. There’s Mary Miller, a Grisham Writer-in-Residence whose short play “A Young Ghost” I was pleased to direct for an Oxford Theatre production last year. Noted short story writer and screenwriter Chris Offutt writes and teaches here. William Boyle’s 2013 novel Gravesend is one of the best I’ve read in the past decade or more. He works at a local vinyl store when he’s not in New York City or somewhere in France being touted as one of the best young writers on the scene.


My buddy Ace Atkins has written dozens of novels and generally enjoys a commanding presence on the New York Times bestselling lists. Another top writer is novelist Tom Franklin, and his wife, Beth Ann Fennelly, is a major poet who served as Mississippi’s poet laureate.  Legendary journalist Curtis Wilkie lives here. Ralph Eubanks writes and teaches here. Lisa Howorth’s novels have gotten much attention. Jack Pendarvis lives and writes here. Many others have come through, lived for a while, and moved on, including Richard Ford, Megan Abbott, Maurice Carlos Ruffin, and, of course, John Grisham, whose commanding home on a hill just outside of town provides shelter to the Grisham Writers-in-Residence.


This is a literary town. It’s in its life’s blood. The well is deep, and I don’t think it will ever run dry.



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