A Road Trip for the Books: Trailing Fiction and Food Through Mississippi’s Storied State
I came to drink the water. A great fertile crescent, the Delta region of Mississippi is known for its deep topsoil and slightly askew horizon, sprouting row after row of cotton, soybeans and corn. Through centuries of flood waters and isolation, a unique culture has grown here too, most often portrayed through the blues tunes of juke joints, lawyers and novelists who also seem to spring from the land and are known the world over.
Don’t worry –I didn’t literally cup my hands when we finally stood on the banks of the river like Ponce de Leon searching for the Fountain of Youth. Nor was I truly convinced some secret ingredient could magically grant me the same prowess as the successful writers who have collectively called the Magnolia State home.
I curiously logged more than a thousand miles following some of the Southern Literary Trail –a route any bibliophile would deem road-trip worthy –to see it for myself. After all, William Faulkner did famously say, “To understand the world, you must first understand a place like Mississippi.”
If water was truly all I drank, I would have returned a few pounds lighter, both in terms of the books I toted back and all the “Miss’ippi” (read: bourbon and catfish) that seeped into my soul.
“If the writing is honest it cannot be separated from the man who wrote it.” –Tennessee Williams
The first stop from Atlanta was Columbus. Pulling onto Main Street, it’s nearly impossible to miss the boldly painted house – the birthplace of the bohemian playwright Thomas Lanier “Tennessee” Williams and now home to The Columbus-Lowndes Convention and Visitors Bureau. Inside, you might just have the pleasure of meeting Nancy Carpenter who, as CEO and Executive Director of the Columbus Cultural Heritage Foundation, has personally invested much time in preserving the place. She won’t oversell the first three years of life Williams spent in what was then a rectory, but she will proudly emphasize, “you’re only born one place” and describe in detail what the house truly represents: his family. Therein lies the source of many of his Southern Gothic stories and dysfunctional characters. Relics exhibited throughout the home help complete the picture of the man whose works still captivate audiences today, as I witnessed again in June at Serenbe Playhouse’s timeless rendition of “A Streetcar Named Desire.”
Williams was also heavily influenced by time spent in New Orleans, and Cajun life extends to Columbus tables, particularly those at J. Broussards. Conversation turned to Galatoire’s while forks dug into brie baked with brown sugar, crispy Gulf shrimp mousseline with Creole pepper jelly, pecan-pane catfish and homemade Jack Daniels sea salt caramel ice cream.
Get your fill a number of ways while visiting Columbus. The Williams’ home is one of many historical stops you can tour six days a week. A drive through town also displays the Mississippi University for Women, where Williams’ and Faulkners’ mothers were educated and the school’s most famous alumna Eudora Welty. A Writers’ Symposium is hosted each October in her honor. visitcolumbusms.org
“Southerners love a good tale. They are born reciters, great memory retainers, diary keepers, letter exchangers … great talkers.” –Eudora Welty
Before making our way to Welty’s hometown of Jackson, I knew more about the Kardashians than the acclaimed author. Afterward, I wished nothing more than to have joined her for a cocktail on her porch.
A different kind of celebrity, Welty spent 73 years in the Tudor Revival before her death in 2001; now maintained by the state, the home and gardens remain one of the country’s most intact and authentic literary houses. She received 38 honorary doctorate degrees and more than 40 major literary awards in her lifetime, yet you won’t see one on display.
Nearly every wall (and available seat) is covered with art, thousands of books and many mementos from her many friends. Even the latter continues to inspire fellow writers — “Meanwhile There Are Letters” is a new release, compiled from Welty’s letter correspondence with novelist Ross Macdonald.
While her sweet disposition and career were content in the capital city, the social butterfly’s life was far from boring. She loved traveling and lived briefly in New York after college, but returned home when her father was sick — a theme portrayed in her Pulitzer Prize winner, “The Optimist’s Daughter.” Beyond what meets the eye, Welty believed, “A sheltered life can be a daring life as well. For all serious daring starts from within.”
It is so easy to picture her sitting at her typewriter with the window open, working in her garden or eating at the Mayflower Café downtown.
If you choose to visit the famous lunch spot, the “comeback” salad dressing is a must, and again, you can’t go wrong with fried fish. Fans of more recent Jackson native Kathryn Stockett may recognize the diner interior from the big screen adaptation of her book, “The Help.” Scenes were also filmed in Fondren, Jackson’s funky neighboring community of artsy shops with nostalgic storefronts.
Drive a few minutes to the commercial side of town to browse the enormous Lemuria Books – you’ll be itching for a good read after seeing Welty’s collection. Across I-55, a top-ranked table in town (of more than 300 restaurant options) waits at Char Restaurant, best followed by a nightcap at The Fairview Inn’s Library Lounge. Located just steps away from Welty’s house museum, the Fairview is a dream for B&B lovers. The reimagined 1908 Colonial Revival mansion touts its own fair share of fame, both in accolades and celebrity guests (including stars from “The Help” during filming; a quote from the book even adorns the Inn’s coffee mugs). visitjackson.com
“Mississippi is like my mother. I am allowed to complain about her all I want, but God help the person who raises an ill word about her around me, unless she is their mother too.” – Kathryn Stockett
We delved deeper into the Delta, where the cosmopolitan Alluvian Hotel is least expected and a welcomed anchor to downtown Greenwood. Recreated from the 1917 Hotel Irving, the elegant lobby displays eye-catching William Dunlap artwork and spacious guest rooms are more than comfortable. Owned by Viking Range Corporation, your stay at The Alluvian could include a class at the cooking school or High Cotton Indulgence at the Spa, but our afternoon was otherwise booked.
A few blocks down Howard Street, Turn Row Books is a place to get lost for hours and was designed to do just that, with an inviting back porch and upstairs café. Owner Jamie Kornegay speaks softly and kindly, sharing suggestions with shoppers. He opened the store in 2006 after learning the trade at Oxford’s famous Square Books and studying creative fiction under Barry Hannah at the University of Mississippi.
“If Will Percy had lived in Tupelo, there would have been a lot of writers from Tupelo.” – Shelby Foote
While chasing the green historical markers, it’s hard to miss another shade of signs marking the state’s Blues Trail.
Considering how the places they lived and times they faced influenced their music, the blues and literary traditions are two birds of a feather in a state where everybody has a story to tell.
The morning we departed for Greenville coincided with B.B. King’s public viewing, and off we went on a brief detour to Indianola to pay respects to him and Lucille. While waiting with thousands of others in line, friendly locals directed us toward a roadside hot tamale stand. After four days of being in Mississippi, I saw the river and truly felt I had a taste of the Delta.
In fact, Greenville is now dubbed the Hot Tamale capital of the World. Albeit no glammed-up hotels or cosmopolitan restaurants in sight, a roundup of literary towns would be incomplete without this little town which boasts “more published writers per capita” than any other in the nation.
Inside the William Alexander Percy Memorial Library, a humble Writer’s Exhibit on the second floor begins with his family’s contribution and the following string, including Walker Percy, Ellen Douglas, Beverly Lowry, David Cohn, Charles Bell, Ben Wasson (also Faulkner’s literary agent), Shelby Foote, Hodding Carter (Jr., III and IV) … the list goes on, but has yet to be updated with my favorite Julia Reed, who grew up two doors down from the Percys and whose memoirs truly piqued my interest in visiting Mississippi. Instead, the exhibit describes a town where everyone wanted to become a writer, or was keenly aware of who in the community would be so lucky, while “sober citizens wonder who will do the useful work such as baking bread and repairing cars,” to borrow the words of David Cohn.
The answer at dinnertime is the original Doe’s Eat Place. There’s no menu, but considering guests enter through the kitchen, you’ll already know what you want — one of the oversized sizzling steaks. Want wine? Brown bag it yourself. Want a beer? Pick it out from their fridge. Not much has changed at Doe’s in the past 74 years except its increased popularity. Recent visitors include both President Obama and Anthony Bourdain and what do you know, Reed is a regular. visitgreenville.org
“I discovered that my own little postage stamp of native soil was worth writing about and that I would never live long enough to exhaust it.”
– William Faulkner
An appropriate grand finale, the picturesque Oxford Square was bustling with pastel prints, lively college students and new-meets-old Southern charm. The town’s name isn’t the only thing borrowed from England; old-fashioned, red telephone booths and double-decker buses are now as iconic as the soulful Ajax Dinner, Chef John Currence’s City Grocery and Square Books. In the center, the courthouse looked just as I remembered it from the 1996 film adaptation of John Grisham’s first law thriller, “A Time To Kill.”
A few minutes from the bustle, Faulkner’s white columned, private world of Rowan Oak beckons visitors year-round from dawn to dusk. For more than 40 years, the Nobel Prize Laureate and Pulitzer winner lived here with his family and drew inspiration from the 29 acres and history of the home, originally built in 1844. While there’s no fee to visit the grounds, $5 grants admittance inside the house to witness eccentricities such as his mint julep cup and plot outline of 1954 National Book Award winner “Fable” scrawled on the wall of his office. True devotees can attend Ole Miss’ annual Faulkner and Yoknaptawpha Conference for five days of lectures and discussions, or spend just five minutes by his gravestone in St. Peter’s Cemetery. The afternoon I visited, a student from Vermont already left a bourbon tribute and thesis on “As I Lay Dying.”
By dinner, it was hard to believe the coincidence when while delivering our oysters, the waitress at Snackbar confessed she moved to Mississippi to become a writer, to drink the water.
Before heading back to Atlanta, we fulfill promises to visit Big Bad Breakfast (yet another standout by Currence). No one said it would be pretty, but everyone said it would be good – and the aftermath of stacked skillets and plates of biscuits, grits and sweet potato hash, like every other bit of Oxford, did not disappoint. visitoxfordms.com
After a week on the flat highways, I left with a full belly and flooded mind, but as thirsty as ever for good tales. visitmississippi.com
Ready to plan a trip? Head to the Mississippi Book Festival, held in the state capitol on Aug. 22. The inaugural year of this fest celebrates authors and their contributions to the culture of literacy, ideas and imagination. msbookfestival.com
[A version of this story originally was published in the August 2015 issue of Points North Atlanta magazine | Photos courtesy of Visit Columbus; Eudora Welty, LLC; Visit Jackson; Visit Mississippi; Visit Greenwood; Delta Bistropub; Visit Oxford; Snackbar; Square Books]