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American Cultural Icons – Tour

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.

Day 1

 OXFORD

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

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.

916 Old Taylor Road, Oxford, Mississippi 38655, United States

Home to William Faulkner and his family for over 40 years, Rowan Oak was originally built in 1844, and stands on over 29 acres of land just south of the Square in Oxford, MS.  The clapboard house had no electricity, plumbing or even sound construction when Faulkner bought it in 1930. The writer did much of the renovation himself, even designing the study where today visitors can still see the grease pencil outline for A Fable scrawled on the walls. Details like that—and like Faulkner’s riding boots standing guard near a bedroom chair—yield both a stillness and a presence that makes this National Literary Landmark a personal milestone for the visitors who make the pilgrimage each year.

309 North 16th Street, Oxford, Mississippi 38655, United States

A few blocks northeast of the Square, the old Oxford Cemetery is nestled in the rolling hills of a quiet neighborhood.  Saint Peter’s is the final resting place for novelist William Faulkner as well as many of Oxford’s most prominent citizens.  L.Q.C. Lamar, a former U.S. Congressman, Secretary of the Interior under President Cleveland, and U.S. Supreme Court Justice, is buried here.  Beside the circle of cedars lies a Revolutionary War Veteran, as well as a Confederate General.

J D Williams Library, University, Mississippi 38677, United States

Located in the heart of Ole Miss, the John Davis Williams Library is known for its literary collections, the crown jewel of which is William Faulkner’s “Rowan Oak Papers”.  Discovered in a broom closet at Faulkner’s home, this collection is one of the greatest finds of modern literary manuscripts. They contain several thousand sheets of autograph and typescript drafts of poems, short stories, film scripts, and novels written by Faulkner in some of his most creative years, between 1925 and 1939.

415 South Lamar Boulevard, Oxford, Mississippi 38655, United States

Established in 1836, Lafayette County was named in honor of the Marquis de Lafayette and was one of ten counties into which the Chickasaw Cession was divided.  Since Oxford was incorporated in 1837, the square has remained the cultural and economic hub of the city and is home to a variety of shops and boutiques, including the South’s oldest department store and one of the nation’s most-renowned independent bookstores.  Oxford was selected as the name of the county seat in hopes that it would also become a seat of higher learning, and this goal was realized when the University of Mississippi was chartered in 1844 and opened in 1848. The historic county courthouse is referenced in several of William Faulkner’s works; Faulkner family members and mentor Phil Stone once had offices in this National Historic District; the film adaptation of The Sound and the Fury was shot here; and the Confederate statue that Faulkner memorialized in his fiction (and that his grandmother donated to the town) still stands.

114 Cleveland Street, New Albany, Mississippi 38652, United States

Exhibits in “Frenchman’s Bend”, an outdoor exhibit area, give the visitor interactive experiences and a feel for Mississippi’s rural culture with the Faulkner Literary Garden, the Storyteller’s Chair, Varner’s Country Store, a caboose, an early 20th century doctor’s office, a black smith shop, a 1950s auto body shop,  agricultural exhibits and great outdoor  folk art. The museum complex occupies a city block in New Albany one block from the birthplace of Nobel Prize winning writer William Faulkner.

 

Day 2

TUPELO

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.

WEST POINT

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.

306 Elvis Presley Drive, Tupelo, Mississippi 38804, United States

The Elvis Presley Birthplace Park features the Birthplace, Museum, Chapel, Gift Shop, “Elvis at 13” statue, Fountain of Life, Walk of Life, “Memphis Bound” car feature and Story Wall.

307 East Westbrook Street, West Point, Mississippi 39773, United States

Blues museum featuring history & artifacts of Howlin’ Wolf and the Black Prairie Region, Big Joe Williams, Bukka White. Granite statue of Howlin’ Wolf on display.

 

Day 3

 COLUMBUS

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.

STARKVILLE

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.

300 Main Street, Columbus, Mississippi 39701, United States

First home of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tennessee Williams, author of A Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and The Glass Menagerie. Williams, considered the most important American playwright, was born in Columbus, Mississippi in 1911. He spent his beginning years in an old Victorian home that was the rectory for St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, where his grandfather served as minister. The home was recently honored with the designation of a National Literary Landmark, and it now serves as the official Welcome Center for Columbus.

318 College Street, Columbus, Mississippi 39701, United States

Tennessee Williams’ grandfather, Rev. Walter Dakin, was rector at St. Paul’s.

Mississippi State University, 449 Hardy Road, Mississippi State University, MS 39762, United States

On the third floor of Mitchell Memorial Library at Mississippi State University, this facility contains materials and memorabilia from the writings and achievements of bestselling author, former Mississippi legislator and MSU alumnus John Grisham.