Let’s start with the facts: the artists of the Mississippi Hills rocked the world, and the roll call of genius you’ll meet on this tour is pretty amazing: artists like Faulkner, Elvis, Tennessee Williams, Howlin’ Wolf. On the page and on the stage, these giants created American culture as we know it, and here in the places where these icons were born, raised—and occasionally raised hell—you’ll get the kind of first-person feel that no mere biography can communicate. Along the way, you’ll also meet some pretty special people in friendly communities that have their own genius for making visitors feel right at home.
Faulkner claimed that “the tools I need for my work are paper, tobacco, food, and a little whiskey.” Maybe so. However, in Oxford he also found raw materials and role models that played crucial inspiration to his genius.
For serious admirers of Faulkner, Oxford is not just the place to see the sites but also an opportunity to play literary snoops (or is that Snopes?) in the tantalizing detection game of which porch, which pediment, which picturesque façade—and which family secret behind it— played what part in the Nobel-prize winner’s fiction. But the truth is, you don’t have to know the first thing about Faulkner to appreciate this charmingly novel town that combines a wealth of historic homes and haunts with a world-class academic campus offering its own rich architectural history. Throw in a thriving arts scene and hip town-gown vibe thanks to a range of restaurants, clubs and boutiques and what you’ve got well nigh defies description. Really, you’d need one of those endless Faulknerian sentences to fit it all in.
New Albany made history the night William Falkner was born here, into a family that was both notable and notorious. And while the family home has gone, there’s still some background history here to explore, particularly in the downtown historic district that fills the bill with delightful shopping and delectable menus. By the way, in case you thought you caught a typo in the sentence above, it was the writer himself who changed the family name from Falkner to Faulkner.
Before Elvis bridged the racial and musical divide with his groundbreaking amalgam of styles, he soaked up those sounds right here in Tupelo, then a bustling city with a history that encompassed both triumph and tragedy in the form of a devastating tornado that swept through the city when Elvis was only a year old. The Presleys’ tiny shotgun house was spared from the storm and then spared from oblivion after Elvis became—Elvis.
While he left the city as a 13-year-old boy in 1948, in 1956, as the first global superstar, he returned with an electrifying homecoming concert on the city’s fairgrounds. Today, the old Fairgrounds have found new life as the Fairpark District, a masterpiece of new urbanism that has struck a chord with residents and visitors alike.
While life wasn’t kind to the young Chester Arthur Burnett when he was born in West Point into poverty and a terrible family situation, the city of his birth has since been kind to his memory, thanks in large part to the efforts of the passionate Howlin’ Wolf Blues Society, which has erected a statue in his honor in the city park, helped establish the Howlin’ Wolf Blues Museum and continues to sponsor an annual blues festival as well as a “blues in the schools” program.
It’s time to cue the romance as you head into Columbus, where dramatic architectural flair certainly helped set the stage for Tennessee Williams’ legendary Southern Belles. Although the playwright and his mother (and his doomed sister Rose) left the city while young Tom was still a child, the glamour of the town’s antebellum splendor had already made its mark on the budding writer’s imagination.
Lucky for you, today more than 200 of those gorgeous historic homes and structures still remain (many of them open for daily tours; some as bed-and-breakfasts) in a town that preserves both its architecture as well as its legendary charm and hospitality, with a downtown that’s a real beauty.
You’ve visited the home places of past geniuses; now take a tour of the college and college town where current blockbuster writer John Grisham learned a thing or two before he became the best-selling thriller writer on the planet. With its blend of high-tech academic research and both historic and historically inspired neighborhoods like the quaint Cotton District, Starkville offers its own unique flavor.