Finding Faulkner, Forging a Different Path

Commentator Richard Howorth is the mayor of Oxford, Miss., and the owner of a well-known bookstore there. He says that many writers have come to Oxford in search of William Faulkner's legacy. And like them, the town has had to find its own identity apart from the celebrated author.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Since Faulkner's time, a number of well-known writers have found it impossible to pull themselves away from Oxford. Most eventually make their way to the bookstore owned by commentator Richard Howorth, who is also the town's mayor.

RICHARD HOWORTH:

When I'm asked why so many writers live in Oxford, I mention that there is a great university, but the memory of Faulkner--`the ghost who walks back and forth through my room,' as novelist Barry Hannah put it--is the main thing. The late poet Jim Whitehead viewed Faulkner as much a natural element of the place as the weather, saying that, `Faulkner is like the humidity in Mississippi. You don't avoid Mr. Faulkner; you grow up with him.'

I never met William Faulkner, but I did grow up with the ghost, literally just across the street from his home, Rowan Oak, where my family moved in 1963. I understand that he used to walk from his house up South 11th Street to the square, where he would stand silently, contemplating his work, or perhaps just getting away from it.

I walked up that street, too, to get out of the house, to the movie theater uptown, to one of those early Clint Eastwood movies or Alfred Hitchcock's "The Birds." I didn't see in the early '60s quite how my town would be affected by the world beyond and how we would affect it. In a brief span, as I hit my teens, Faulkner died, James Meredith desegregated the University of Mississippi and the Freedom Riders Goodman, Cheney and Schwerner were murdered in Philadelphia, Mississippi, some 150 miles away.

Today, Oxford doesn't feel much like the ...(unintelligible) that Faulkner wrote about. There's been a lot of development around here, subdivisions growing up like cotton. Most of it looks more like and is the place that the late, great Oxford writer Larry Brown wrote so beautifully about. The bottomland farms and hardwood hills are sprinkled with flowering dogwood trees this time of year.

When we started the bookstore in 1979, we put nearly all our money into the initial inventory, which included a good selection of books by and about Faulkner, as well as many books by other writers from Mississippi and the South. A few years later, Josephine Humphreys, the novelist from coastal South Carolina, a place that has its own kind of balmy, stifling heat, was in Oxford. We'd taken our coffee out on the bookstore balcony overlooking the town square, a serene and self-possessed place for which she had already had an image in her mind from having read "The Sound and the Fury" and "Intruder in the Dust." She announced, `This is the center of the universe.' `Hmm,' I said. `No, I mean it,' she said.

Good writers know that no place is really the center of the universe and every place can be made to seem so. Maybe bookstores and entire communities manifest themselves in the same way, through accident and aspirations.

INSKEEP: Commentator Richard Howorth is mayor of Oxford, Mississippi, and the owner of Square Books.

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