Benjamin Nugent at The Paris Review:
After I’d wandered the grounds, I spent the weekend in Oxford, a heady experience for a Northern fetishist of things Southern. I ate catfish and grits, drank whiskey in a bar on the outskirts of town where old men in hats played guitars. I visited Faulkner’s grave and his birthplace, drove around the Mississippi hill country, and ate okra with congenial strangers. I tried to understand why I felt drawn to this part of the world. To that end, I drank whiskey in a second bar, this one downtown, overlooking the statue of the Confederate soldier who gazed “with empty eyes,” in Faulkner’s phrase, at the square. I decided the reason was this. I grew up in Amherst, a mile down the road from Dickinson’s house, and Massachusetts is the Mississippi of the North, Mississippi the Massachusetts of the South. They’re on opposite sides of the American political spectrum, but they’re both places where the present is dwarfed and chastened by the past. In Massachusetts, a given location is known as the spot where the minutemen faced the redcoats on the green, or where Jonathan Edwards delivered his sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” or where the Mayflower landed, or where the whalers set sail, or where the tea was dumped in the harbor. In Mississippi, it’s the same: here’s where Grant’s army bivouacked; here’s where the formerly enslaved Union soldiers drove the Texans from the field; here’s where Elvis grew up; here’s where Emmett Till was murdered; here’s where the earliest blues music was performed. I’ve heard both Massachusetts and Mississippi maligned as boring, and I’ve tried to explain to the maligners: You need to stop living so much in the present.