The American South has inspired many great artists in every medium, and after my first trip there, which included visits to Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Arkansas, I finally understand why. First of all, it’s too hot to do anything else. Writing merely requires the ability to hold a pen or type on some keys, which is one thing you can do even when it’s sweltering outside. (And, I might add, it’s something you can do while clutching an ice-cold alcoholic beverage.)
More than that, though, the South is very evocative. The oppressive heat, the hanging vines, the paint peeling off of decrepit houses, the jazz soundtrack: they all combine to form a place that’s full of history and contradictions—a place that’s begging to have its stories told.
I read As I Lay Dying, by William Faulkner, in college—the only Faulkner I’ve ever read. As it happens, I should have read more because Faulkner’s ghosts are everywhere in the South, and I felt a bit sad visiting so many landmarks devoted to him without fully appreciating his genius.
I visited Lafayette County, Mississippi, the inspiration for his fictional Yoknapatawpha County, and the lovely little city of Oxford, Mississippi–home to Ole Miss–where I was able to see the house in which he resided for thirty years and wrote many of his novels. Here it is:
It’s called Rowan Oak, and it’s nestled right in the middle of an idyllic neighborhood just a few blocks from Oxford’s town square, which, if it hasn’t already been the setting for a movie, certainly should be. (It was the setting for the Bob Dylan song “Oxford Town,” about the race riots of 1962, but that might not be its proudest moment.)
In New Orleans, we saw another of Faulkner’s former residences, which has now been converted into a very quaint bookstore called, appropriately enough, Faulkner House Books. It’s located right behind St. Louis Cathedral, in a shady alley next to a gated garden. It’s a very cool spot, and it has the coolest address ever: 624 Pirate’s Alley.
There are, of course, lots of other writers with connections to this part of the world, including Eudora Welty, Walker Percy, Robert Penn Warren, Anne Rice, and John Grisham. I don’t, however, have pictures of any of their houses.