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Book Review: John Cofield’s Pictorial History of Oxford Is a Notable Achievement

john-cofieldBook review: Oxford, Mississippi: The Cofield Collection.  By John Cofield.  Cofield Press, 310 pages, $44.95.
“The richness of Oxford, Mississippi, is there for the taking, for the loving, the honoring,” John Cofield (pictured above) writes. “We are Southern Americana at its finest … as colorful a population of Southern ladies and gentlemen, leaders and characters, both famous and infamous, as any Southern setting anywhere.” That is an extravagant claim, but the photographs in this book bear it out.
John Cofield is Oxford’s most notable local historian. He is a worthy successor to his father, Jack Cofield, and grandfather, J.R. “Colonel” Cofield (who opened his photography studio in Oxford in 1928).  The Cofield Collection of photographs of Oxford and University life is one of the gems of the Ole Miss archives. The Colonel took William Faulkner’s portraits. Just as Faulkner found he could write forever about “my own little postage stamp of native soil,” Cofield concludes, “I, too, learned along the way that my hometown had all the photographs I could ever write about, and that I would never live long enough to exhaust it.”

jack-and-colonel-cofield
Jack Cofield (left) and the Colonel

The first and the final chapters are brief, overview and afterword. Cofield imagines other chapters in terms of a stroll or a childhood dash, along streets and through neighborhoods. The narrative flows with the images. In the memories that Cofield presents, just as in the composition of a photograph, there is for every image a perspective.
“Ammadelle to the Square” is about North Lamar. In this chapter, change is embodied by the transformation of architecture—demolition and construction and radical surgery. It is shown by the transportation of Cedar Oaks, sawn in half from roof to joists so that the mansion could be trucked away, and the generations of buildings that stood on that northeast corner of North Lamar and Jefferson Avenue—the Downtowner Inn, the Holiday Inn, most recently the Graduate.
Cofield pays respect to what came before the boutiques and bistros and modern county offices. It is good to see Mr. Levy once again, and Jitney Jungle, and the old black men sitting on the low brick wall that ran south toward the Square, passing time while their wives shopped at Jitney or James Food Center, and the lawmen bantering with each other on the steps at the back door of the jail.
william-faulknerWhen Faulkner wrote, “the center, the focus, the hub,” he meant the courthouse – the center of Jefferson, the hub of Yoknapatawpha County. For Cofield, the courthouse is an expression of the life that has gone on in and around. The Square is the Yankee bivouac of the Civil War, and the muddy thoroughfare of a century ago, and the bank blanketed by the Big Snow of January 1935. It is the crowds thronging to a mule auction or farmers’ market or the Double Decker Arts Festival.
With the Cofield family studio (on the corner of South Tenth Street) and Leslie Drug Store and its soda fountain, Jackson Avenue holds a place in Cofield’s view of Oxford history. “Coming up that Jackson Avenue sidewalk from the Grammar School, thousands of school shoe footfalls carried us into these memories.” This stretch of territory has perhaps changed the most. It is now only in photographs that a reader will find the Mistilis Restaurant, Freeland & Gafford, Wiley’s Shoe Shop, Purvis’ Pool Hall, Parks Barber Shop, and the surveying establishment of Eph and Ed Lowe.
The last long chapter is “Then Came Sanctuary,” which wraps in nearly half the book’s length. This chapter begins with Faulkner portraits and covers images of the family’s novels—not only William Cuthbert Faulkner’s work, but William Clark Falkner’s 1881 bestseller, “The White Rose of Memphis.”
Then the focus swings through Faulkner Alley, to survey the people and stores on the southwest corner of the Square: Gathright-Reed Drug Store, Marchbanks Insurance, the Morgan family and their appliance store, Southside Gallery, the Bank of Oxford, Smitty’s Restaurant, and Square Books.
The title of this chapter plays on words. Only when Faulkner had written his sixth novel, “Sanctuary,” did he gain recognition as a writer (and become a regular client of Colonel Cofield, who shot the publicity photo for the book and went on to create a photographic record of the novelist’s life). But for Cofield, sanctuary stands for the comfort that a community offers. Gathright-Reed was where Faulkner borrowed books and bought pipe tobacco. Townspeople gathered at Smitty’s and in Morgan’s, and Square Books has given its town the stability of a bank and the nourishment of a diner. This chapter ends with farewells: a view along North Lamar as it runs out of town, a gathering of city fathers, and a shot of empty benches on the Square.
One chapter deals expressly with change. It covers the last months of 1962. This was the period in which William Faulkner died, James Meredith determined to enroll at the University of Mississippi, the Riot broke out in the last hours of September, and the campus and city were occupied by federal troops. And yet, by year-end, there was an achievement to be marked. Ole Miss crowned no homecoming queen, but John Howard Vaught led his team to an undefeated 7-0 season. “We stood cheering,” Cofield recalls, “on a field surrounded by the last five months’ ashes.”
Color or lack of color cue the reader immediately to what era Cofield is discussing. A photo taken by young Ed Meek, in breaking-news black and white, shows federal marshals defending the front steps of the Lyceum during the first hours of the Riot. Cofield balances this with Susan Foust’s landscape pastel image of the Lyceum’s west portico and James Meredith’s statue. Colonel Cofield’s view of the Square from Blaylock’s Drugstore’s creaky gallery is matched by Jim Hendrix’s photo from the same vantage point, saturated with color and taken under the aegis of Square Books. 
A notable achievement for its author, this book is grounded on the work of Colonel Cofield and his son. It owes debts to other photographers: to Martin Dain’s photos of sidewalks and storefronts and Milly Moorhead West’s portraits of people in their landscapes. Among Deborah Freeland’s contributions is the lively cover photo. It is patriotic and celebratory and fits this book well.


Allen Boyer, a native of Oxford, is Book Editor for HottyToddy.  His book “Rocky Boyer’s War,” a WWII history based on his father’s wartime diary, was recently  published by the Naval Institute Press.

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