This is the latest post in a series about a road trip to New Orleans that starts here.
Lynn and I dumped our bags in our room at the Quality Inn, then headed in to central Oxford. Since visiting the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, I had thought it would be a nice bookend to visit the University of Mississippi campus where James Meredith was denied entrance as the first African American student. Riots ensued, and two people died before he was finally allowed to enroll.
After passing another five miles of chain stores, we turned a corner and suddenly it was like we had entered a portal into ye olde tyme worlde. The old town square was compact; we walked around its circumference in 10 minutes. There were the usual plethora of gift shops and upscale women’s clothing stores. Maybe because it’s a university town, there were also two good bookstores.
I had finished reading Memoir of a Geisha. I won’t claim it was Great Literature, but it was a good story. At the end of the first chapter I had already been thinking, “Oh no! I don’t want this to end! What will I read when I finish it?”
At Square Books, I found Geisha, a Life by Mineko Iwasaki, who the author of Memoir of a Geisha had interviewed extensively for his book. Apparently she was so unhappy with how he portrayed geisha life that she decided to write her own side of the story. I was a little leery of how well it could be written, since she’d had no academic schooling and I don’t believe she speaks English. But it turned out to be every bit of a page turner as the first book.
At Rebel Bookstore I bought The Optimist’s Daughter by Eudora Welty whom I’d never read. Believe me, it’s not optimistic. Southern writers tend to be dark and slow paced and there’s always a funeral. Faulkner is the best example. I enjoy a good Faulker, but you have to be in the right frame of mind. If you are depressed when you attempt to read As I Lay Dying, it might put you over the edge. Lynn had never heard of Faulker, who grew up in Oxford.
In case you’re wondering, other famous Southern writers—at least to Americans—include Kate Chopin (The Awakening), Robert Penn Warren (All the King’s Men), Katherine Anne Porter (Ship of Fools and many short stories), Flannery O’Connor (Wise Blood), Carson McCullers (The Heart is a Lonely Hunter), Harper Lee (To Kill a Mockingbird), Truman Capote (In Cold Blood), William Styron (Sophie’s Choice), Anne Tyler (The Accidental Tourist), Barbara Kingsolver (The Poisonwood Bible), Anne Rice (Interview with the Vampire), Ernest Gaines (A Lesson Before Dying), John Grisham (The Firm), Pat Conroy (Prince of Tides), and James Dickey (Deliverance). If you’ve read any of these, you know most of them are about themes like child molestation, racism, death, rape, adolescent angst, murder, poverty, and of course, vampires.
One of my all-time favorite novels is Their Eyes were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston, an African-American writer who was born in Notasulga, Alabama.
There are two major exceptions to the rule that southern writers pen morbidly dark tales. One is Margaret Mitchell, who wrote Gone with the Wind. The other is Mark Twain, author of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.
After buying our books, we searched for a place to eat and found a steakhouse. Lynn treated. I rarely have steak (ha ha!) and it was delicious. We had a long conversation about mustards and in the end, agreed that brown was superior to yellow. This was not as boring as it sounds.
Then we drove through the University of Mississippi campus looking for a memorial to James Meredith, which we never found. I don’t know if there is one. If there isn’t, there should be. What we did see was one fraternity and sorority house after another.
“We don’t have them in England,” Lynn said. “Were they formed to keep Black students out?” Lynn asked. I had no idea, but we would find out in St. Louis.