Book Tour: Mississippi

Explore the Southern origins of William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, and Eudora Welty
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MississippiTwo rows of towering red spruce trees stand like sentinels on either side of a worn brick path. Light and shadow play along the avenue as you approach the ghostly white 1844 primitive Greek Revival house. This is Rowan Oak, the Oxford home of William Faulkner from 1930 until his death in 1962. For anyone interested in Southern letters, it’s hallowed ground, and as such, a wholly fitting starting point for your tour of major literary sites in the region.

A leading figure in the Southern Renaissance movement that redefined the literature of the South between the world wars, Faulkner explored the burden of history and the primacy of place in Southern life. His body of work—including The Sound and the Fury, Light in August, As I Lay Dying, and Absalom, Absalom!—examined the plight of the individual in a culture that placed great value on community, tradition, and strict adherence to societal norms. He tackled issues of race and gender, class and religion, sometimes employing modern techniques (such as stream of consciousness) to bring his stories to life. In 1949, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for his significant contributions to the development of the American novel.

Understandably, the man is oftentimes obscured by the cult of personality surrounding him. But at his beloved home several blocks south of downtown Oxford, the proverbial curtain is parted, affording glimpses into the workaday life of the literary giant. The scuppernong vines he planted behind the house still climb their aging arbor. Upstairs in his bedroom, riding boots stand ready beside the fireplace and a jumble of books crowd the bedside shelf. Perhaps most poignantly, the plot outline for A Fable, written in his own hand in graphite and red grease pencil, is still legible on the walls of his writing room. A Fable, of course, went on to win the 1954 Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.

You’ll also want to spend some time strolling the streets of Oxford, which served as the inspiration for Jefferson, the seat of Faulkner’s fictional Yoknapatawpha County (where fourteen of his nineteen novels are set). Stop by the Faulkner statue seated on a bench outside City Hall, then continue on to his gravesite in St. Peter’s Cemetery just a few blocks northeast of the square. If you’re a diehard Faulkner fan, pay your respects in the traditional manner: Take a swig of whiskey (Four Roses was his brand) and leave the bottle on the Faulkner family marker.

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Visit Oxford Mississippi

Fellow Southern Renaissance writer Tennessee Williams is claimed by two Mississippi towns: Columbus and Clarksdale. The preeminent American playwright, whose works include The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, was born in 1911 in the east Mississippi town of Columbus. The 1875 Victorian home in which he spent his first few years has been restored and furnished with antiques dating to the period. Once a rectory for St. Paul’s Episcopal Church (Williams and his mother lived with her father, who was the church’s minister), the house has been rechristened the Tennessee Williams Home. One of the upstairs bedrooms has been converted into a library dedicated to telling the story of Williams’s life and showcasing some of his personal artifacts, including the laurel wreath that lay on his body during the visitation preceding his funeral.

Follow in young Williams’s footsteps, moving from Columbus to Clarksdale in the heart of west Mississippi’s Delta region. Here Williams spent his childhood, living in the rectory of St. George’s Episcopal Church and gathering inspiration for his later plays from the town’s citizens and settings. Pick up a Tennessee Williams walking tour map at Clarksdale’s welcome center and immerse yourself in the steamy, and oftentimes salacious, world of the Pulitzer Prize winner’s Delta plays. The tour’s undeniable standout, the 1916 Italian Renaissance Cutrer Mansion, is widely held to be the model for Belle Reve, the longed-for ancestral home of Blanche and Stella in A Streetcar Named Desire. Today, the house serves as an educational and cultural center and hosts productions of Williams’s plays during the annual Mississippi Delta Tennessee Williams Festival each fall.

Your next stop is Jackson, the state capital and lifelong home of short story writer and novelist Eudora Welty. Like Faulkner and Williams, Welty was a major contributor to the Southern Renaissance movement. Considered a master of the short story, her collections, including A Curtain of Green and The Golden Apples, won her critical and popular acclaim when they were published in the 1940s, and her 1972 short novel, The Optimist’s Daughter, captured the Pulitzer Prize.

The lovely Tudor Revival house in Jackson’s Belhaven neighborhood, now known as the Eudora Welty House and Garden, was constructed in 1925 as a family home for Welty, her parents, and her two brothers. It would remain her home until her death in 2001, and today, it’s regarded as one of the most intact literary house museums in the country. Every room is open to visitors, and all the furnishings are original to the house. You’ll also find her beloved books (she collected more than 5,000) piled on chairs and tables throughout the residence, and her edited manuscripts—slips of paper snipped, rearranged, and pinned back together (her early approach to “cut and paste”)—stacked on the dining room table. So faithfully has the home been preserved, you can easily imagine that Welty has just stepped out to pick up a carton of milk at the Jitney 14.

You’ll also want to spend time in the extensive gardens planted by Welty’s mother. The grounds showcase native trees and shrubs, colorful annuals, and impressive collections of roses and camellias, Welty’s favorite flower. Stop by the clubhouse in the woodland garden, where a young Welty wrote and performed plays with her friends; today, it’s set up like a photo booth where visitors are encouraged to recreate her archival family photos.

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