Oxford, Mississippi, is best known for two things. Since 1844 it’s been the home of Ole Miss, whose students and alumni claim to never lose a party, never mind what their sports teams do on the field. And thanks to native son William Faulkner, who based his fictional world of Yoknapatawpha County on Oxford and the surrounding hill country, it’s been the spiritual home of Southern literature for nearly a century.
These two worlds commingle quite easily in the town’s bustling courthouse square, where visitors can tap into the Faulknerian magic at Square Books and then chase the spirits to the balcony at City Grocery for an aperitif or nightcap—and maybe run into a contemporary writer or two along the way.
Here are a few places to immerse yourself in the land where “the past is never dead,” as Faulkner famously wrote.
Celebrated chef John Currence, whose menus at City Grocery, Bouré, and Snackbar earned him Best Chef: South honors from the James Beard Foundation in 2009, jumped into the breakfast game to re-create the flavors he experienced at his grandmother’s table. The restaurant’s name is a reference to Big Bad Love, a short story collection by his late friend, the grit-lit master Larry Brown, but the literary allusions don’t stop there. The “Secret History Omelette,” a menu highlight, is a nod to the novel A Secret History by Donna Tartt, who studied at Ole Miss under Willie Morris and Barry Hannah.
Situated on twenty-nine wooded acres a short walk from the town square, the home of William Faulkner is an essential pilgrimage for any literary enthusiast. The author bought the 1840s Greek Revival in 1930 following the success of The Sound and the Fury and wrote novels such as Light in August, Absalom, Absalom! and A Fable here. (Visitors can still see his plot outline for Fable, which earned a Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award in 1955, on the wall of his writing room.) Don’t forget to visit Faulkner’s grave at nearby Saint Peter’s Cemetery, where fans leave whiskey for him to enjoy in the afterlife.
The unquestionable center of Oxford’s (and the South’s) literary scene is Square Books, founded here in 1979 by Richard and Lisa Howorth just in time for the arrival of Willie Morris as writer in residence at Ole Miss. More than two thousand writers have appeared at the shop for readings and book signings, including John Grisham, a former student of Morris who held his first signing here in 1989, as well as Toni Morrison, Allen Ginsberg, Richard Ford, and James Dickey. In addition to the store’s two-story original footprint, three additional locations—Square Books Jr., Off Square Books, and Rare Square Books—are now located on the same block.
Currence’s signature restaurant, a favorite haunt of legendary writers Hannah and Brown, among others, is still a preferred place to belly up after meeting the day’s page quota. (Just ask current Oxford scribes Michael Farris Smith, Tom Franklin, Beth Ann Fennelley, Wright Thompson, and Ace Atkins.) Founded in 1992, the restaurant was a key part of Oxford’s rebirth and helped transform the sleepy college town into a center of Southern cuisine, music, and arts. While the shrimp and grits or muffuletta might put you in a New Orleans frame of mind, the vibe at City Grocery is all Mississippi Hill Country.