The 17th Annual Oxford Conference for the Book, held March 4—6, in Oxford, Miss., was to be a special celebration this year, dedicated to the award-winning author, teacher, and local legend, Barry Hannah. Instead the conference became an emotional final farewell, after the 67-year-old Hannah died suddenly on March 1, just three days before the event intended to honor his life and work was set to begin. “It’s difficult to imagine this place, Oxford, Ole Miss, and Square Books without Barry,” part-time Oxford resident John Grisham solemnly told a large crowd of students and Oxford literati on the conference’s opening day, as he regaled them with stories of Hannah’s wicked wit.
Born in Meridian, Miss., in 1942, Barry Hannah became the state’s most famous author since William Faulkner. His first novel, 1972’s Geronimo Rex, was a National Book Award nominee and winner of the William Faulkner Prize. Over the next 37 years, Hannah released seven more novels and five story collections, including Airships (1978), widely considered to be his masterpiece. His largest, and most long-lasting impact, however, may have been on his students at Ole Miss, where he taught creative writing for 28 years.
Over the past 30 years, Hannah, along with Richard Howorth, owner of the equally iconic Square Books, represented the two sides of Oxford’s literary coin, together working to establish Oxford as one of the nation’s literary capitals. Hannah created compelling works of fiction and was a beloved leader for Oxford’s community of authors, while Howorth created a community-centered business that brought in authors from all over the world. In many ways, it was a perfect marriage of commerce and creativity.
Square Books sits in a multilevel, terra-cotta building that dates back to post—Civil War Reconstruction. Howorth and his wife, Lisa, opened the bookstore in 1979. “When I first opened the store there weren’t really any writers living here,” Howorth says. “There was Faulkner, who by then had been dead 16 years, and no one took Faulkner’s place, you just tried to stay out of his wake.” Howorth quotes Flannery O’Connor’s famous remark about avoiding comparisons to Faulkner: “Nobody wants his mule and wagon stalled on the same track the Dixie Limited is roaring down.”
Within a few years of the bookstore’s opening, things began to change. For one, Barry Hannah had arrived. Soon, the likes of Willie Morris, Richard Ford, and Larry Brown were spending time on the bookstore’s veranda, beginning to forge the reputation that Oxford enjoys to this day, and christening a literary style that would come to be known as “Rough South.”
Despite Hannah’s sudden death, most of the conference’s events went on as scheduled, with those programs relating directly to Hannah taking on “additional weight,” Howorth notes. The final day of the conference boasted a full slate of events about Hannah, with panel discussions on “Barry Hannah as Teacher,” as well as “Teaching Barry Hannah” and “Barry Hannah as Writer.”
Tom Franklin, the acclaimed Southern writer and heir apparent to Hannah’s crown, moderated the panel on Barry Hannah’s teaching career. Along with writers and former Hannah students Jonathan Miles, Anne Rapp, and Cynthia Shearer, Franklin presided over one of the largest and most engaged crowds of the conference.
The emotional weekend concluded with a “marathon book signing” at Off Square Books, the bargain-priced remainder store just down the street from the original store (there is also Square Books Jr., for the kids). A partylike atmosphere and an abundance of complimentary champagne created the feeling of a wake, a celebration of Hannah’s life. There was even a cake, though its actual presence was to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the University of Mississippi Press.
The lingering question now is: how will Hannah’s sudden loss affect Oxford’s literary culture? As with Faulkner, Howorth says there will be no replacing Hannah, but he is confident the town has a strong foundation in place. “There are a lot of writers living here, good ones,” he notes. “Ace Atkins, Jere Hoar, Beth Ann Fennelly, Lee Durkee, Jack Pendarvis, Tom Franklin, Neil White, and young writers who are from Oxford, but don’t live here, Jessica Fisher and Bethany Moreton, or who once went to school here, such as Donna Tartt.”
Oxford is also home to the John and Renee Grisham Writer-in-Residence program, which feeds the local talent pool by bringing young and emerging writers to the campus of Ole Miss for yearlong residencies. Even though it bears the name “Grisham,” it was Barry Hannah who made the final selections. In his talk at the conference, Grisham recalled one of the last conversations he had with Hannah. “He loved this program,” Grisham said. “Barry said, 'I’ve got the best job. I get to call them and ask them to come.’”
John Brandon, the current writer-in-residence, was lucky enough to get one of those calls last summer. In the spring of 2008, Brandon’s debut novel, Arkansas (McSweeney’s), brought him through Oxford for a signing at Square Books and an appearance on Thacker Mountain Radio, the Prairie Home Companion—like literary and musical program that airs weekly on Mississippi Public Radio. It was this appearance that brought him to the attention of the Oxford literary community—and Barry Hannah. Brandon says he and his wife were living in San Diego when he came home one day to find an e-mail from Ole Miss about the residency. “I picked up the phone to call and realized that it was already late in Mississippi. But I didn’t want to wait,” Brandon tells PW. Weeks later, Brandon was packed up and on his way to Oxford to begin his term. At the conference, Brandon read from his work alongside Donna Hemans (whose 2002 debut novel, River Woman, was praised by PW as a “potent accomplished debut), part of a roster of over 50 speakers and panelists including Jonathan Miles (Dear American Airlines), Hendrik Hertzberg (the New Yorker), and acclaimed short story writer Wells Tower.
At the conference, Tower, whose collection of stories, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, was a finalist for the Story Prize, was visibly affected by the sudden loss of Barry Hannah. “I think the first story I read was 'Testimony of Pilot,’ ” Tower says, recalling his introduction to Barry Hannah’s work at age 23. After lending a copy of Larry Brown’s Big Bad Love to a friend in Charlottesville, the friend reciprocated by giving Tower a copy of Airships. “That whole book, each sentence has its own energy. There’s just no one doing this now in such a weird and fierce way.” Tower says.
Hannah may be gone, and will be sorely missed, but the literary life in Oxford will go on. Now out of office after serving as Oxford’s mayor, Howorth says he is excited to get back to his roots keeping the town’s literary flame. “I am loving being back in the bookstore,” he says, “and, for now, simply working on the floor, merchandising, talking to customers, selling books.” While he says he loved his time in office, Howorth tells PW that he is “not going through any withdrawals.”
Still, when one thinks of Oxford, it will be hard not to think about Barry Hannah. Leading up to the conference, it was assumed by everyone involved that Hannah would be on hand to take part in the celebration and the discussions of his life and work, adding his much-admired signature humor and bite to all of the accolades and adjectives being thrown his way. At one point, an audience member at the conference asked how Hannah might have felt about the sad timing of his death. Wells Tower answered: “He would have thought it was a pretty good joke.”