On a weeknight, a person can walk down Courthouse Square in Oxford and be pulled into an art gallery of only Southern making. Hanging at Eastside Gallery are the works of William Dunlap, whose major works can be affectionately summed up as “dogs and barns.” Hanging nearby is the photography of Maude Schuyler Clay, depicting the landscape of the mythic Mississippi Delta in all its thin-treed and swampy glory.
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Continue on past the historic Oxford courthouse and Southern cuisine hub City Grocery, where Wright Thompson, the Clarksdale native and senior writer for ESPN, is known to haunt the rooftop bar. Since it’s a Thursday, the airwaves are playing a weekly radio hour dedicated to author readings called the Thacker Mountain Show. A block away is Proud Larry’s, where, on this particular evening, a star-studded cast of Magnolia State writers has gathered for a Noir at the Bar reading event. To name a few: Ace Atkins, the former Tampa cop reporter–turned–New York Times best-seller; Tom Franklin, whose 2013 novel, Tilted World, co-written with his wife, Beth Ann Fennelly, had reviewers calling them “the king and queen of contemporary Southern literature.”
Mississippi has long been known for its prowess in prose. From Tennessee Williams to Eudora Welty, John Grisham and, of course, William Faulkner, the state has far out-punched culturally its otherwise national obscurity. But a fresh wave of literary talent from the state is now making its presence felt nationally. This decade alone, Jesmyn Ward, born in rural DeLisle, has twice won the National Book Award for fiction — for Salvage the Bones in 2011, and Sing, Unburied, Sing in 2017. Only New York state has her beat, with three authors winning the prestigious award this decade.
“That shit’s unheard of,” says Chuck Reece, editor of The Bitter Southerner, an online magazine that intimately covers the arts, culture and politics of the modern South. Wryly, he adds: “And you know what’s even weirder? She deserves it.”
Weirdness. That’s the undeniable feeling of witnessing the literary rush in Mississippi, the place “where the South rubs up against itself most harshly,” Reece says. There is a generational change, he adds, from writers who grew up in conversation with the settings and stereotypes of Gone With the Wind mythology, to a new set that’s “not going back over old Southern themes” but “are writing very deeply Southern works.” Adds Reece: “To explain why so much great literature comes out of Mississippi is a fool’s errand. But it always has, and it still does now.”
Some writers, like ESPN’s Thompson, describe it to OZY as contending with the state’s ghosts. His pieces, about Mississippi and other settings, are imbued with a vivid sense of the way a place’s history remains in dialogue with its present. “It’s a stark, beautiful, weird place,” Thompson says. “You can drive out to the store in Money, Mississippi, where Emmett Till whistled at the white woman. It’s still there, the ruins of it. Nobody has knocked it down.” Others, like 2014 Mississippi Author of the Year Michael Farris Smith, say the state’s racial history is ever present, but the state’s relative, if insufficient, progress has allowed for topics to expand from race to issues around “the working class, the underdog, people struggling to make ends meet.”
The opening scene of Smith’s latest book, The Fighter, debuting this spring, tosses bourbon, painkillers, wood tip cigars and gas station coffee into the front seat of his protagonist’s car, melding it with a Southern noir twist on Faulknerian prose:
His eyes scattered and alive and his cigar hand tapping the steering wheel to the stiff metal beat from the radio and the thumpity thump of the uneven highway. Half-wired, half-drunk, fully loaded.
The Fighter, by Michael Farris Smith
Part of Mississippi’s advantage is a culture that celebrates its literary history. When Smith moved to Oxford last spring from downstate, he was given a brick — from the plant at Ole Miss where Faulkner sat on the back of a wagon and wrote As I Lay Dying. “You move to Oxford, Mississippi, and you end up drinking with the niece of William Faulkner in her kitchen,” as Thompson puts it. That’s the kind of town this is. The kind of place where writers gift strangers wooden sidings from the old patio of the independent bookstore Square Books, whose opening here in 1979 is seen by some as the beginning of Oxford’s transformation from Mississippi outpost to greater literary significance on the national scene.
That’s easy to believe when you witness Square Books co-owner Lisa Howorth hovering through crowds: the city literary scene’s biggest champion, the connective tissue between the old guard of Barry Hannah, Willie Morris and the new folks like the Bronx-born, Oxford-resident noir novelist William Boyle, whose works have developed a cult following in France, and Melissa Ginsburg, an Ole Miss professor, poet and writer. Literature here is complex, still sorting out its own challenges. A professor at historically black Jackson State University, C. Liegh McInnis writes about “a problem of forced identity” that had many writers, especially in the ’80s and ’90s, either writing about Jim Crow–era sentiments or fading into obscurity. A reflection of modern Mississippi, still grappling with its ghosts but firmly set in the present, has only been made possible with time and distance.
Yet interest in Mississippi — which always holds a strange, exotic air to outsiders — will only increase, as the rest of the nation grapples with the racial complexity and conservatism that has long rooted itself in the Magnolia State. As Smith wrote in a recent piece for The Bitter Southerner: “When it was clear that Donald Trump was going to win the presidency, I said to my wife, ‘The rest of the country is about to find out what we’ve always had to deal with in Mississippi.’”