Fifty years ago, Oxford was a small county seat town isolated in the hill country of North Mississippi and there was little in Oxford to indicate that it was the home of the University of Mississippi (Ole Miss), not even a bookstore. There were visitors, but only to football games.
William Faulkner — some local people still called him “Count No Count” — could be seen on the Oxford streets or in a store or restaurant, but he preferred the seclusion of his home, Rowan Oak. His privacy there became so important to him that he built a brick wall on the street side of his property to keep strangers from staring at the house.
Though Faulkner had won the Noble Prize in 1950, he had been out of print in the United States for a time in the 1940s and was hardly a household word in Mississippi — or any other state.
Today, there’s probably no part of Mississippi that has changed more dramatically than Oxford.
Though the city only has a population of 12,000, it draws a million visitors a year, according to Jennifer Downs, assistant director of the Oxford Tourism Council. Oxford has a 2% sales tax on food and beverages and, Downs said, this alone raises over $1 million annually.
And William Faulkner, Noble Prize laureate and the subject of more study than any author but Shakespeare, has become a vital part of Oxford’s appeal to tourists.
“Faulkner and Rowan Oak have a great importance to Oxford tourism,” Downs said. “If we didn’t have that, it would be a great loss. People associate Oxford with Ole Miss, then with Faulkner.”
Rowan Oak, Faulkner’s former refuge — he died in 1962 — now teems with visitors, some 20,000 “unique” visitors a year, which means they’ve come to Oxford for the specific purpose of that visit, according to William Griffith, the curator of Rowan Oak.
This past July, Rowan Oak reopened after a two-year, nearly $1-million renovation that included new plumbing and electrical wiring, a museum-grade climate control system and the shoring up of the foundation. There were also repairs to the walls, painting and reproduction wallpaper.
The work was financed by a $500,000 Ole Miss bond sale and $379,000 from the “Save America’s Treasures” program established by the Clinton administration, Griffith said.
Still to come is the renovation of the grounds and outbuildings, to be paid for by $400,000 from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
“Our goal was to restore the house as it was in 1962 and we’ve done that,” Griffith said.
He added that the house will be in good shape for years to come and will assure visitors the experience of seeing what life was like for Faulkner at Rowan Oak.
Rowan Oak was built in the 1840s and bought by Faulkner in 1930. Faulkner added a small office and brick terraces and built a stable and the brick wall that assured his privacy. He lived there until his death in 1962.
Jill Faulkner Summers, his daughter, sold Rowan Oak to Ole Miss in 1972. It was last restored in 1980.
This past July at the 31st-annual Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha Conference, the opening reception at the University Museums included a special presentation that outlined the design proposal for a new Faulkner wing.
Plans call for a 5,000-square-foot, $12-million museum addition that will include a bridge over the woods to Rowan Oak. The two properties are adjacent.
“The bridge will make it accessible to everyone and linking the museum and the house will provide a kind of biographical time line,” Griffith said. “Because Rowan Oak is only 1930 to 1962 and there are no manuscripts in the house, and few photographs.”
Tourist magnet, but nothing tacky
One of the more popular spots for tourists with cameras is the sculpture of Faulkner in Courthouse Square.
But Oxford still looks much as it did in Faulkner’s lifetime. The stores that sold basic clothes and farm supplies may have been replaced by boutiques and trendy restaurants, but the stores are still intact, the same brick buildings, several fronted with wrought iron grillwork.
That Faulkner’s appeal is world-wide is shown by the variety of people — Chinese, Korean, Japanese, French, German, Canadian — who visit Rowan Oak, pose for pictures at the Faulkner statue or seek out the places about which Faulkner wrote. Perhaps it’s the courthouse of “Intruder In The Dust” or Frenchman’s Bend of “The Hamlet,” where Flem Snopes first appeared, to work in Will Varner’s store and marry his daughter, Eula.
Unlike other tourists meccas, Oxford has no tacky souvenir shops selling “The Sound and the Fury” T-shirts or “Sanctuary” kewpie dolls. But then, it’s hard to imagine tourists drawn by Faulkner’s novels to be much into kitsch.
Stop in for cake
Oxford has attracted more than 500 retirees in the past few years and, “Retirees like an area that has a rich cultural presence,” according to Christy Knapp, Oxford’s retiree attraction director.
USA Today describes Oxford as, “a thriving New South Arts Mecca.”
Oxford today is much more than a William Faulkner cottage industry. It’s home to Square Books, one of the nation’s most acclaimed bookstores and offers such activities as the Oxford Conference for the Book, art, film and Shakespeare festivals, and a 10-minute play contest that draws entries from around the country.
And Ole Miss has grown from the 2,400 students that it had back in the 1950s to some 12,000 students today, from a sleepy, low-keyed state university to a thriving arena of creative and artistic activities, home of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture, a Phi Beta Kappa chapter and an Honors College.
But Faulkner, who was there first, remains the most enduring tourist draw to Oxford.
And anyone in the Oxford area from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. September 25, might want to drop by Rowan Oak for the marathon reading of Faulkner’s “Absolom, Absolom!” Cake will be served to celebrate Faulkner’s birthday.
Contact MBJ contributing writer at George McNeill at email@example.com.