Big Bad Breakfast
Oxford, Mississippi, founded in 1837 and named for Oxford, England in hopes becoming the location of Mississippi’s state university. It did successfully attract the University of Mississippi, better known as Ole Miss.
Arriving in the college town, rather sleepy due to their own spring break, the most relevant fact was not any historical significance or even what we would be doing later that day. The most important matter at hand was food. We had been cooking most of our breakfasts and dinners, a rotation of one cabin feeding everyone else, but the fourth morning we got a break. In Oxford, we’d be having brunch at Big Bad Breakfast.
Even with a head’s up or reservation, I’m sure the group of us were daunting for any restaurant we invaded. Suddenly, we would appear and take over a bar or some tables, and there would be sixteen orders on separate tickets flooding the kitchen.
“I’ll order the short stack,” I thought, reading the menu. “I can totally eat all that. It’s only three pancakes.”
Yeah, three pancakes the size of my face. Southern portions never disappoint.
Delicious pancakes, topped with whip cream and strawberries, served with spicy breakfast sausage. I covered everything with syrup.
I finally got a good enough signal and the time to load up Pokemon Go. It felt like a luxury. (I caught a Nidorino, which I lovingly named Oxford.) I ate pancakes and sipped coffee and felt like I was in civilization again, especially after the long drive over from the Tallahatchie Flats. If traveling through Mississippi did nothing else, it was determined to prove I was a city girl without a doubt. A metropolitan girl, to boot, with most anything smaller than Houston feeling agoraphobically small.
We were still in Mississippi but Oxford is not part of the Delta. The contrast is not quite as stark as night and day. Oxford is still Southern and still very much a part of Mississippi, Ole Miss makes sure of that. But the ground is hillier and the view is never consumed by miles of cotton fields or forests. Nor is there the contrast of plantation owner’s mansion just down the road from the sharecroppers shacks. It lacked as much of the haunted feeling that the Delta had. But the day had just begun and I considered that perhaps the ghosts were just stopping for brunch as well.
Rowan Oak and the Grave of William Faulkner
Oxford, Mississippi, is the home of Ole Miss, which is not particularly pertinent to me as a University of Houston student. But, while we spent a day in this college town, I discovered something pertinent to me as a writer: Rowan Oak, and the grave of William Faulkner.
His classic As I Lay Dying has been one of our books in the classroom, and I didn’t like it at all. I had trouble with it, though I have to admit it’s a beautifully written book. Almost as beautiful in simplicity as his home at Rowan Oak — a two-story, Greek revival house of white wood and green trim, on a several-acre plot of hardwood and cedar trees away from the town. I think now I can kind of understand how his home may have inspired him, because he spent most of his life in Mississippi, and set many of his stories in a fictional county that he based on the real Lafayette County — and the driving plot point of As I Lay Dying is that Addie Bundren wants to be buried in Jefferson, which is meant to be Oxford. It kind of created a parallel between our reading the book in a classroom in Houston, and then actually visiting and exploring the region in which it was set, and in which lies so much related history.
Because Rowan Oak is a museum today under the care of Ole Miss, it still looks a lot like it did when it belonged to Faulkner and his family. The first floor houses, of course, a dining room which opens to a pantry and then a kitchen, and, directly off the foyer on the right side, a parlor, which hosted occasions from wedding receptions to a funeral viewing (not Faulkner’s!) Across from the parlor is the library in which Faulkner wrote until after 1950, when he added his office and writing room in the back left corner. I liked this room best; its most intriguing characteristic is the wall, because here Faulkner outlined in his own hand the plot of his novel A Fable. The story spans one week, so Faulkner wrote the outline day by day in graphite and red pencil, and it was never erased, never painted over.
Faulkner’s outline of his novel, A Fable. Photo by Corinna Richardson.
The second floor is comprised of four bedrooms, two bathrooms, a sewing room, and a storage space. William Faulkner and his wife Estelle had separate bedrooms, both large and modestly decorated like the rest of the house. (Fun fact: Faulkner disliked air conditioning, so the window unit in Estelle’s room was installed the day after his funeral.)
A few detached buildings dot the open grounds, and deck chairs are arranged in a semicircle on the grass in the backyard. A circular garden remains, and brick steps trek down a hillside toward a brick patio — these, presumably left from daughter Jill Faulkner’s wedding. It was Jill who sold the house to the University of Mississippi in 1972, ten years after the death of her father, in order to preserve it as a place to learn about William Faulkner and his work.
In St. Peter’s Cemetery in Oxford, William Faulkner is buried next to his wife, Estelle. Photo by Corinna Richardson.
The Legacy of Square Books
It was sometime in the morning when we arrived in the main square of Oxford, Mississippi aka the “Cultural Mecca of the South”, home of William Faulkner. As we got out of our vans, we noticed there were stores surrounding the whole square. Some were fancy boutiques, others were stores that sold college and sports merchandise. We all went our separate ways, but were told to meet at Off Square Books in about thirty minutes or so to hear Richard Howorth, the founder of Square Books, speak about the literary history of Oxford and how Square Books came to be.
At the beginning of our talk, Richard Howorth talked about how Oxford has always been a hub for authors, books, and knowledge. Howorth said that this was due to the people the University of Mississippi would bring to Oxford during the early 1920s and 30s. Although acknowledging that there was a pre Faulkner literary history in Oxford, he admits that Faulkner broke all the barriers.
“People have been coming here (Oxford) as literary tourists for a very long time. Including when I was growing up, I actually lived across the street from where Faulkner’s house is. I didn’t live there until after he had died so I never knew Faulkner but many people in my family did.” Richard Howorth
After speaking of Faulkner’s works for a bit, he began to tell us about Square Books.
“I’d always thought of about opening a bookstore sort of in the back of my mind.” Richard Howorth
After working for a couple of years in Washington, D.C. at a local bookstore, he decided to come back to Mississippi and open up his own bookstore with his wife Lisa. Square Books was the first to open in 1979, but then came Off Square Books in 1993, and then came Square Books Jr in 2003. Each store sells specific items. Square Books focuses on selling literary fiction books and books on the American South and by Southern writers. Off Square books sells art & photography, cooking, gardening, travel, and it has a large inventory of reduced-price remainders. Square Books Jr sells children’s books.
When Howorth finished talking, we were told to go explore Oxford. I decided to explore the bookstores. Square Books has a certain charm to it. It is located at the left corner of the square right next to the entrance. It is a two story building with a terracotta hue and huge windows with cream colored arches surrounding the building. One can see the books from inside as if they were calling out to you.
Once inside, a sea of books surrounds you. Books of all kinds of subjects, signed by their authors, pictures, bookmarks, and posters with inspirational quotes on them.
In the middle of the store is a set of stairs that leads up to the second floor. On each step of the stairs, there is a word that describes subjects the bookstore sells.
African American Studies
Everywhere you looked there was something interesting to read. I remember talking to a few of my classmates and we all felt like we either we wanted to stay there forever or buy all the books in the store. Nobody wanted to leave. I remember feeling happy and sad. I was sad because in Puerto Rico, I grew up going to a Borders Bookstore and when I moved to Texas they closed it down. I found myself wishing this kind of store existed over in Puerto Rico and that Texas had more bookstores like these too.
On the second floor there was a little coffee place right in the middle of it all. That’s how they trap us book lovers. Don’t tell anyone. Frames of pictures of authors, artists surrounded the walls and it was hard not to want to look at each frame. I looked around for a bit and I saw in the back right corner was the Faulkner section. I made my way over there and saw out the window. Through the window one could see the square of Oxford which Faulkner had made famous in his works. I realized this Faulkner section was probably placed here so the customers could see the square whilst reading his books, as if Faulkner was there reading with you. It’s the little details like this that made me fall in love with these bookstores.
Of course there are some funny details too. For example in the Off Square bookstore bathroom, the toilet seat had the words “Ministry of Magic”, a reference to the Harry Potter books, with an arrow pointing down to the toilet. Because of how faded the words are, that joke must have been there for years and that made me smile.
Each bookstore sold different things, but they all felt like home because of the little details in each section of the bookstore, the people who worked there were true book lovers and being surrounded by books like that made me feel like I was in a dream.
We arrived at the campus of Ole Miss and there was not another soul in sight. There was a general reluctance to actually get out of the vans. It was cold. We were tired. We simply didn’t wanna.
But we filed out of the vans anyways. It was far colder in Mississippi than any of us had really anticipated and unfortunately Walmart had been out of gloves. I had to content myself with the fact I at least bought a thermal, shoved my hands in my jacket pockets, and hunched my shoulders.
The tour of Ole Miss was to be a brief one. We did have to admire that it looked like a proper college campus, the architecture all going to together with a uniformity alien to our UH senses, accustomed to the eclectic mishmash of styles that made up our own campus. The contrast of a Starbucks sign in one of the windows was amusing, commercialism among all the stately architecture. I wondered if we could go in to grab a coffee, just for something warm to hold. We kept moving, though.
All huddled together for warmth, we passed by all the red-brick-white-column buildings, searching the Lyceum. The squirrels that scampered by us were tragically normal sized unlike the fat ones we had at UH that will boldly walk up to anyone who passes by. They obviously did not feed the squirrels at Ole Miss like we did back home.
There had been a riot at the Lyceum in 1962. James Meredith was to enroll at the Ole Miss. He was going to be the first black student at Ole Miss. The riot was an attempt by segregationists to keep him out.
There was a statue to commemorate James Meredith in the Lyceum. All of us gathered around it, it felt lackluster. The style looked like it was supposed to be rough hand molded clay cast in bronze but it came off more rushed than rustic. The stature, too, was underwhelming.
Photo by Ramsha Momin
Photo by Ramsha Momin
While not technically wrong, the plaque did not do justice to the events that had occurred. There was a search for something else. Maybe we were all just missing the point. Maybe the cold had gotten to us. But the statue and its plaque did not convey what had happened.
Someone saw a sign.
A literal sign.
Photo by Ramsha Momin
Again it was underwhelming. Insulting, even. What they called “a night-long riot” had been a battle between segregationists and the National Guard and had ended in over three-hundred injuries and two deaths. Nowhere were the deaths mentioned. They did not speak of the Molotov Cocktails or the bricks thrown or the gunshots. They did not talk about the aftermath either. James Meredith lived alone in his dorm, accompanied only by a twenty-four-seven guard, under constant threat of violence.
Brevity may be the soul of wit but this was dismissive, not brief.
We laughed it off and shook our heads and started to circle back to our vans. There was little else to do other than laugh. Ole Miss had acknowledged James Meredith, happy to take credit for progress, but seemed to be sweeping all the actual hardship under the rug. Or under the statue, maybe, in this case.
The sight of a confederate soldier greeted us.
Photo by Ramsha Momin
And again there was a plaque. Despite the cold, we stopped to read it. After what we had seen done for Civil Rights, what could be said of this?
Photo by Ramsha Momin
The words felt like back peddling. A recent scramble to justify keeping a monument to the Confederacy on their campus while still being able to say they were a welcoming place. They could call the statue “a reminder of the university’s diverse past” all they pleased but they never discussed what that past really entailed. Of all the signs, this was the only one that actually mentioned the segregationists, though called them “opponents of integration,” because the segregationists used the confederate memorial as a rallying point in 1962.
Three plaques were read at Ole Miss. None of them said half of what they should have.