Mention “Oxford, Mississippi” to a Southerner—especially one who took a literature course in college—and you’re likely to get a lengthy soliloquy on the literary merits of one William Faulkner. But Oxford is no one-hit wonder. The little town just an hour south of one of our most treasured music capitals, Memphis, could easily be heralded as the literary capital of the South.
Ever since Faulkner turned out his tales about Yoknapatawpha County, the city that lies at the center of the fictionalized county has been teeming with talent. Whether inspired by Faulkner or mere coincidence, Oxford has spent the past half-century or so steeped in literary talent, especially of the Southern fiction variety. Often lost in the long shadow of Faulkner, these younger writers owe nearly as much to the town—and the town to them—as Faulkner himself. Here are some of the best writers to come out of, or end up in, Oxford, Mississippi.
- John Faulkner John Faulkner, the oft-overlooked younger brother of William, was a writer as well
The name’s no accident—John Faulkner, the oft-overlooked younger brother of William, was a writer too. Unlike his big bro, who ventured into stream of consciousness and the lengthy, sometimes messy, tones of experiment, John Faulkner wrote in a simpler, plain style. After spending extensive time with the rural farmers surrounding his native lands, John Faulkner penned tales of their plight in his novels, like Men Working and Dollar Cotton. John Faulkner also published a memoir of his famous brother, My Brother Bill: An Affectionate Reminiscence.
- Willie Weaks MorrisWillie Weaks Morris’s tales, based on his experiences in the rural South, gained both critical and popular acclaim (photo courtesy of David Rae Morris).
Seemingly destined for a literary life, Morris became the youngest editor of Harper’s magazine in 1967 at thirty-three. But after a decade in the world of editorial, Morris veered into fiction. His seminal works follow his personal experiences in the Deep South, especially the Mississippi Delta around which he grew up. His novels, such as North Toward Home, gained both popular and critical approval, some of them even ending up on the silver screen, like My Dog Skip. Morris’s work eventually drew him home to Mississippi where he took up a position as writer-in-residence at Ole Miss.
- Barry Hannah Barry Hannah’s writing was all noteworthy, but it was his short stories that earned him countless accolades and awards (photo by Maude Schuyler Clay)
Born and raised in the heart of Mississippi, Hannah’s novels and short stories gained him innumerable awards and accolades. From the release of his earliest works Hannah stole the hearts of critics; his first novel, Geronimo Rex, was nominated for the National Book Award, with other prestigious awards (including a Guggenheim) to follow. Employing humor and stark visions of reality, Hannah’s tales span topics like coming of age and war, yet remain relate-able to all readers. In addition to critical acclaim, Hannah’s innate talent (and innate Mississippi-ness) also earned him a position as Director of the MFA program at the University of Mississippi.
- Larry BrownAfter careers in the military and firefighting, Oxford native Larry Brown embarked on an award–winning literary career (photo courtesy of Tom Rankin).
Unlike many of the literary talents drawn to Oxford, Brown’s path to literary acclaim was not predestined or predicted. After graduating from high school, Brown skipped college and headed straight for the military, eventually settling into a position as a firefighter near Oxford. While the other firefighters slept between calls, Brown sat awake, poring over books or penning manuscripts. Brown eventually turned to writing full time, composing everything from novels to non-fiction to short stories. Brown’s multi-faceted talents resulted in a deluge of accolades; he even became the first two-time winner of the Southern Book Award for Fiction.
- John Grisham John Grisham’s novels of crime and the South have sold over 275 million copies worldwide (photo courtesy of Penguin Books).
Perhaps the only Oxfordian whose popularity rivals Faulkner, Grisham was a lawyer by trade (educated at the University of Mississippi School of Law in Oxford) when he began penning his first novel, A Time to Kill, based loosely upon a case he had witnessed. Grisham’s firm grasp of the dramatic world of law and politics inspires and threads his novels, which have sold more than 275 million copies worldwide. The immense popularity of his writing has spilled over into film and television, his introspective glance at the South and the law gripping the masses.
- Donna Tartt After being mentored by both Willie Morris and Barry Hannah during her year at Ole Miss, Donna Tartt was destined for literary fame (photo courtesy of Gino Domenico).
Though Donna Tartt only spent her freshman year at Ole Miss, it is to this one year that she owes, many would argue, much of her literary success. While at the university, Tartt found herself under the guiding wing of Willie Weaks Morris, who convinced Barry Hannah to allow the young Tartt into his graduate-level creative writing course. Both Morris and Hannah recognized the protege and encouraged her writing—as well as her transfer to Bennington College. Tartt’s lyrical novels, like The Goldfinch and The Secret History, are award-winning works balanced on her Southern history.