Impulsive Traveler: Historic Oxford, beyond Faulkner and Ole Miss

Ole Miss's greatest hits: Square Books, which sits on Courthouse Square, keeps the college town's literary tradition alive.
Ole Miss's greatest hits: Square Books, which sits on Courthouse Square, keeps the college town's literary tradition alive. (Alamy)
By Nancy Trejos
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 6, 2010; 8:49 AM

Some people think of the Deep South town of Oxford as just a college town. True, it's home to the University of Mississippi. It may even have been named after that other college town across the Atlantic.

But on a recent visit, I found that there's a lot more to hit there than just the books.

Founded in 1837, Oxford was burned down by Union soldiers in 1864. At the center of the town square, in front of the great white Lafayette County courthouse, stands an imposing statue of a Confederate soldier. More than a century later, in 1962, troops once again descended upon the town when James Meredith became the first black student to enroll at Ole Miss, sparking campus riots. A life-size bronze statue of Meredith now stands on campus next to the Lyceum, which houses the university's administrative offices. I was glad to see Oxford acknowledging both its Civil War and its civil rights history.

Eager to learn more, I headed to the L.Q.C. Lamar House. Lucius Lamar was one of Mississippi's greatest statesmen - a congressman, a senator and a U.S. Supreme Court justice. He wrote the state's ordinance of secession from the Union but changed his tune after the Civil War and urged reconciliation.

Lamar's modest Greek Revival home, where he lived from 1870 to 1888, fell into disrepair after his death, and the Oxford-Lafayette Heritage Foundation has spent more than three years restoring it. Open for tours by appointment only, the house will have regular hours starting early next year, once new exhibits are added. According to my tour guide, Darlene Copp, each room will have a different theme: Lamar's family life, his oratory, his politics, the war and secession, and reconciliation. Unlike many other historic homes-turned-museums that rely on replicas, only furniture that belonged to Lamar will decorate the house, including a blue velvet divan that his students gave him when he taught law at Ole Miss.

A bronze statue of the statesman will also be taken out of storage soon and placed in front of the house. At 800 pounds, it's larger than life, as was Lamar.

And as was that other native son, William Faulkner. No visit to Oxford would be complete without a stop at the writer's house, Rowan Oak. (I never was able to find the home of the town's other fiction-writing icon, John Grisham.) Though bigger than Lamar's house, Faulkner's Greek Revival, shielded by a long row of tall trees, is just as modest inside, with the type of country furnishings you'd find in any other charming Southern home. In the library are bookshelves Faulkner built himself. Many of his belongings remain, including the typewriter his mother gave him.

Pasted to the walls in his office are cards on which he'd sketched out the plot outline to the Pulitzer Prize-winning "A Fable," using a graphic pencil and a red grease pencil. I thought there was something very manic-looking about it.

Faulkner's 1949 Nobel Prize in Literature was not far away, in a display case in the middle of a dreary room on the third floor of the university's J.D. Williams Library.

But again, there was a lot more to discover there. In adjacent rooms, the university houses its Blues Archive, one of the largest collections of blues recordings in the world, containing more than 60,000 sound recordings and 20,000 photographs. The highlight: B.B. King's personal record collection.

An exhibit called "Still Got the Blues" celebrates the archive's 25th anniversary and tells even more about Mississippi's rich blues history. In display cases surrounding Faulkner's awards, I saw the original recording contracts for Elmore James and Sonny Boy Williamson, the ledger book that the Red Tops' manager used to record their gigs and earnings, and artwork by Lightnin' Hopkins and James "Son" Thomas.

I was craving some Southern comfort food, so I returned to Courthouse Square. At the Ajax Diner, I skipped the meat dishes in favor of the vegetable platter, but it was hard to choose from the long list of veggies, among them items I've never had, such as turnip greens and sweet potato casserole. "You've never had turnip greens? Go for the turnip greens," a cop sitting next to me instructed. Who was I to disobey authority?

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