“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” That quote by the 19th century philosopher Kierkegaard lies at the heart of the novels written by William Faulkner, one of the giants of American literature. Faulkner believed the reality of one’s life experience almost invariably falls short of expectations and is therefore tragic. A dim view but one that speaks to the place he came from, a place that has had to come to terms with the difference between what it thought it would be, and what it has actually become, a place called Oxford, Mississippi.
Flags in the Dust
To acknowledge that aspirations fall short of expectations doesn’t mean that things turn out badly. In fact, things may turn out for the better. But things almost certainly turn out differently, which means you don’t get the benefit of understanding your fate until it’s too late to change it. And that’s the tragedy.
In 1927 at the age of 30, Faulkner, a supremely talented writer, submitted his novel Flags in the Dust to his publisher. It was a straightforward narrative about a soldier returning from war. He was extremely proud of the novel and believed it would be well received. It was rejected.
In a fit of pique, the author wrote a follow-up novel that threw aside all conventions. It was a big F-you to his publisher. His expectations were low. That novel, The Sound and the Fury, went on to become a gigantic commercial success and is now considered one of the greatest American novels of all time.
The Sound and the Fury is difficult to read. It uses stream of consciousness, multiple points of view, and shifts in time in an attempt by Faulkner to capture the lived experiences of his characters, both their expectations of what their lives would be and what their lives actually became. It’s a tragedy. But Faulkner’s life was not. He went on to write sixteen more novels, prospered financially, and lived comfortably on his estate in Oxford, MS.
Today you can visit Faulkner’s estate and see how he lived and worked. Rowan Oak sits on four landscaped acres in a charming woods of cedars and oaks. The Greek Revival house was built in 1840 and was refurbished by Faulkner in the 1930’s. It consists of nine rooms, including Faulkner’s writing room where he scribbled the outline of his 1954 novel A Fable on the walls. The home has been preserved as it was in 1962 when Faulkner passed away.
Over the years other famous authors have made the pilgrimage to Rowan Oak, and some have contributed to its upkeep, most notably John Grisham, another former resident of Oxford.
A Time to Kill
Grisham attended the University of Mississippi at Oxford where he received a J.D. degree in Law in 1981. In 1984, while observing a trial, he gathered source material for his first novel A Time to Kill, which was published in 1989. That novel is set in a fictional town called Clanton where the protagonist’s law office is just off the town square. It doesn’t take much sleuthing to figure out that Clanton’s town square is modeled after the town square in Oxford.
The town square Grisham describes is not the worn out, abandoned town square of so many small towns in America, but a vibrant, bustling commercial center complete with an impressive antebellum era courthouse in the center. This is Oxford’s town square to a “T”. There are even law offices just off the square.
Using A Time to Kill as his launching pad, Grisham went on to write many more legal thrillers, some thirty-three to date, several using Clanton as a setting. Unlike Faulkner, Grisham favors a traditional chronological narrative, events unfolding in the order of their occurrence. However, as with all mystery thrillers, the plot involves a twist, a reversal of expectation, in which a life lived forward is understood differently from the perspective of looking backwards.
Around the Square
Oxford’s rich literary heritage is given its due at Square Books on the town square where there are special sections for Faulkner and Grisham. Established in 1979, Square Books has three different locations around the square, totaling 10,000 square feet, making it one of the largest independent bookstores in the country. It hosts 150 literary events each year. The main store includes a coffee shop with a balcony overlooking the square, a great place to relax and take in the ambiance of Oxford.
After browsing the selection at Square Books, check out Nielson’s Department Store, the oldest department store in the South, established in 1839. This place looks like it has been transported through time from the 1940’s, yet its selection of apparel and housewares is up to date and trendy.
For dining on the square, you’ll find a number of good choices. Two of the best are City Grocery, specializing in Southern cuisine by a James Beard award winning chef; and Bouré, housed in the former location of Leslie’s Drug Store, which is on the national register of historic places. In addition, the square boasts a number of bars and lounges catering to the college crowd.
Today Oxford town square is a bright, upbeat, enlightened place. But it wasn’t always that way. Looking backwards, you can see a Mississippi past that had a somewhat less enlightened vision of its future.
Prone to Bite
On the square before the wedding cake white courthouse, you will see a historical marker that acknowledges the lynchings that occurred in the county. That’s lynchings, plural. At the beginning of the 20th century Lafayette County, Mississippi was one of the most rabidly racist counties in America, while at the same time it was home to the state’s seat of higher learning, the University of Mississippi, affectionately known as Ole Miss, like a beloved old hound—but one prone to bite.
To square the two things, to understand how intellectual refinement could walk hand-in-hand with murderous racism, you have to appreciate how deeply embedded the idea of white supremacy was in Mississippi in the first half of the 20th century. It permeated the society to the extent that most white Mississippians believed their future would be an extension of their antebellum past, that their loss in the Civil War was a mere setback, and that they would return to the genteel, planter-based society of their ancestors where gracious white men were at the top of the pecking order, and groveling black people were their servants.
Anything that threatened that vision was met with violence. And plenty of things did threaten that vision, not the least of which were political and cultural incursions from the North which weighed so heavily on it that it eventually brought the whole thing crashing down.
The campus of Ole Miss is one of the loveliest college campuses in America. Centuries old oaks line winding pathways amidst historic buildings like Ventress Hall, a red brick Victorian gem built in 1889 as the University’s first library, and Barnard Observatory built in 1859 to house the world’s largest telescope, a project that was terminated by the onset of the Civil War.
Chief among these buildings is the Lyceum. Built in 1849, it is one of the original six structures that established the university. This Greek Revival style beauty was the campus’s first academic building, housed its first lecture hall and served as a hospital during the Civil War. But it is best known for what happened there in 1962, the incident that forced Mississippi to come to terms with its unrealistic vision of the future.
At the time, the University of Mississippi was a whites only university. James Meredith, a black man, applied for admission and was rejected. He filed suit with the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi alleging racial bias in admission policies. Eventually the case reached the U.S. Supreme Court, which agreed with the ruling of a lower court and ordered Meredith to be admitted to the University. In defiance, the governor of Mississippi refused to comply with the order, so U.S. attorney General Robert F. Kennedy arranged for Meredith to be escorted by 127 armed U.S. Marshalls as he walked to the Lyceum to register.
In response a segregationist mob gathered and violence broke out. Federal agents found themselves under fire. Cars were burned, property destroyed and two civilians were killed. To this day you can see the bullet holes above the doors and in the columns of the Lyceum, a mute reminder of how far Mississippians were willing to go to defend their vision of a white supremacist South.
In the end, however, James Meredith registered and attended the University of Mississippi, graduating in 1963 with a degree in Political Science. Today 12.4% of students at Ole Miss are black, a starkly different reality than the one envisioned to by white Mississippians in the early part of the 20th century, but one that is inarguably better after all.
Understanding Backwards: Coming to Terms with the Past in Oxford, Mississippi
How would Mississippians in 1962 have acted differently had they known beforehand things would turn out as they did? Would they have acted so atrociously had they known that a half century later Oxford would be doing just fine, a beacon of higher learning, a seedbed of literary letters, a model for small town America? The tragedy is they could not know, and so they acted in accordance with the trajectory they were on, assuming the worst and resisting with everything they had, and in so doing, staining the reputation of the state and embarrassing themselves.
“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” William Faulkner perceived the tragedy in those words. He understood you don’t get the benefit of understanding your fate until it’s too late to change it. In Oxford, Mississippi the truth of that is all around you, in the art, in the culture, in the history. Tragedy is a part of what Oxford is, but today it’s a town that has to come to terms with what it was and is once again living forward.
Previous Stop on the Odyssey: Muscle Shoals, AL
Next Stop on the Odyssey: The Natchez Trace
My American Odyssey Route Map
Weinstein, Phillip. Becoming Faulkner: The Art and Life of William Faulkner, Oxford University Press, 16 April 2012
Elliott, Debbie. “Integrating Ole Miss: A Transformative, Deadly Riot,” Here & Now/NPR, 1 October 2012.
Historic Oxford Square, Oxford Mississippi/Lafayette Country, acquired 12 October 2021
John Grisham Bio, JGrisham.com, acquired 12 October 2021
Courthouse in Oxford, MS, Oxfordms.com
William Faulkner, RowanOak.com
Faulkner’s writing desk, Malcolm Logan
Rowan Oak, Malcolm Logan
Grisham books, Malcolm Logan
Law office off the square, Malcolm Logan
Square Books, Malcolm Logan
City Grocery, CityGroceryRestaurantGroup.com
Flowers before the courthouse, Malcolm Logan
Historical marker, Malcolm Logan
Ventress Hall, Malcolm Logan
James Meredith being escorted to Ole Miss, AP file photo/Valley Public Radio
Segregationist mob at Ole Miss, AP file photo/Valley Public Radio
Lyceum, Malcolm Logan