- The Washington Times - Friday, September 10, 2004

OXFORD, Miss. — The Tokyo fashionista in Rock & Republic jeans raced as fast as her snakeskin stilettos could carry her toward the bronze statue of William Faulkner lounging on a bench.

She perched gingerly next to the statue and snatched a magenta camera from her Aqua Man backpack. Her boyfriend photographed her snuggling with the Pulitzer- and Nobel Prize-winner.

The Mississippi novelist would cringe if he were flesh. The hard-drinking, often prickly Faulkner hated the casual touch. His spectacular novels are as thorny as he was. His mile-long sentences and fated characters seem unfashionable for today’s best-sellers lists.

Yet Faulkner annually draws thousands of tourists to Oxford, the beautiful Mississippi town in the middle of nowhere that inspired his work. Like Elvis Presley in Tupelo, Faulkner is a one-man cottage industry.

“Tourism exploded in the last two years even though Faulkner’s home, Rowan Oak, was closed for renovations,” says Oxford tourism director Max Hipp. “They walked the grounds, looked at Faulkner memorabilia at Ole Miss, soaked up Oxford’s atmosphere. Maybe it’s a fascination with what’s left of the Deep South and the Southern psyche. So much of the region has been malled and Wal-Mart-ized. Downtown Oxford still looks a lot like it did when Faulkner used it as a stage for his characters.”

Many stores that once sold sorghum, muslin and ringworm medicine have become restaurants serving Godiva chocolate bread pudding or shops selling children’s silk jogging suits. Yet Oxford doesn’t peddle Faulkner as a pop icon. There are no gift shops packed with Faulkner bath mats, “Sound and Fury” musical mugs or “Light in August” ashtrays.

Courthouse Square is framed by creamy white and red brick buildings laced with Corinthian columns, a site Faulkner would recognize as home. In his novels, he renamed Oxford Jefferson, the biggest town in imaginary Yoknapatawpha County. Fans love navigating his fantasy landscape.

During the University of Mississippi’s 31st annual Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha Conference in July, Korean students retraced the steps of the author’s character Linda Snopes, the Spanish Civil War heroine with hyacinth-colored eyes, as she outfoxed her diabolical father. A Parisian couple searched for the store where Faulkner’s sex-crazed Thomas Sutpen bought construction supplies for his wilderness palace.

“You hear accents that gave Faulkner his rhythms, see beauty and also some of the poverty that shaped his work,” said Paul Rose, a Manhattan art gallery owner who was touring Oxford with his wife, Natalie.

“You absorb more than scenery. This is the Bible Belt, but you pick up a bittersweet mood that God is watching because He enjoys a good story and fascinating personalities, not because He’ll jump in and solve things.”

The University of Mississippi has announced plans for a 5,000-square-foot, $12 million Faulkner museum. A path from the museum will carve through a pine and oak forest sliced by ravines to Rowan Oak’s magnolia-shaded lawns. Rowan Oak got a $1.34 million renovation courtesy of grants from the state and from the federal Departments of the Interior and Housing and Urban Development. Admission is free.

Faulkner’s original furniture fills the house. Cards covered in red greasepaint and graphite are pasted on his office walls. Faulkner wrote “The Fable” plot outline by hand on the cards so he could glance up from his typewriter if he got tangled in his own prose.

Rowan Oak curator William Griffith points out recent signatures in the guest book by a Japanese Esquire editor and a group of Korean students.

“We got 20,000 visitors last year, and I’m sure we’ll have more in 2004,” Mr. Griffith says. It’s a feat, considering Oxford has about 12,000 residents.

Mr. Griffith attributes some of the tourism surge to Faulkner’s new popularity in China and across Asia, especially Japan. Faulkner wrote about the South as a defeated nation scarred by racism, a theme that resonates with a nation just now confronting its World War II conduct.

The university, particularly its football program, always generated dollars for Oxford, but Mayor Richard Howorth sees this spurt in tourism as a new trend: wealthy retirees and owners of second homes buying small-town gems rather than urban condos. He has some qualms about Oxford’s successful Retirement Attraction Program.

Program director Christy Knapp is swamped with queries. “I’d say our biggest competition for retirees is Florida, North and South Carolina,” Miss Knapp says. “Most of my queries come from California, New York, Texas, Michigan and Florida.”

The influx seems a godsend for merchants, but some brood that soaring property values will force them out.

The mayor owns Square Books, a beloved bookstore where John Grisham and Pulitzer Prize-winner Richard Ford occasionally drop in for coffee.

“Property values increased ridiculously; my wife and I couldn’t buy our house if we were moving here now,” Mr. Howorth says.

A 1,200-square-foot home costs about $104,000, too pricey for the cashiers, waiters and barkeeps who are tourism’s rank and file. Mr. Howorth has discovered that just three of Oxford’s 56 police officers own Oxford homes.

The Oxford Eagle reported that Lafayette County’s assessed property value rocketed over $300 million for the first time in history. “The increase in assessed value flies in the face of local plant closings and payroll cutbacks in the past year,” the newspaper said.

Greenwich Village in Manhattan is Oxford’s cautionary example. The bohemian enclave was so charming that prices soared beyond the reach of the artists, writers and blue-collar workers who made its streets vibrant and colorful.

Mr. Howorth is consoled that gritty pubs like the ones that nourished writers Willie Morris and William Stryon still thrive in downtown Oxford.

One bar has a Dean Martin quote instead of the menu scrawled on its chalkboard: “You aren’t drunk if you can lie on the floor without holding on.”

Across the street, the Levee tapes drink specials to the window: the Mullet, Toxic Waste, Monkey Blood. A hand-lettered poster by the door says: “You are now leaving a bar. Do you need to call —.” A picture of a taxi is below for those too bombed to read on.

• • •

Oxford, Miss.: www.touroxfordms.com or 800/758-9177.

Rowan Oak: www.mcsr.olemiss.edu/~egjbp/faulkner/rowanoak.html or 662/915-7074. Open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; 1 to 4 p.m. Sunday.

University of Mississippi Museums: www.olemiss.edu/depts/u_museum or 662/915-7073.

Square Books: 160 Courthouse Square, Oxford, Miss.; www.squarebooks.com or 800/648-4001.

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