OXFORD, Miss. – Five decades after his death, William Faulkner still draws literary pilgrims to his Mississippi hometown, the “little postage stamp of native soil” he made famous through his novels.
Oxford inspired the fictional town of Jefferson that was a frequent setting for his stories, and it’s commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Nobel laureate’s death last week with several events that include a tag-team reading of his novel, “The Reivers,” beginning about daybreak.
Roughly 25,000 people a year visit Faulkner’s antebellum home, Rowan Oak, which is now owned by the University of Mississippi. The author’s meticulous handwriting appears on the walls of his downstairs office. Using pencil, he outlined events of his 1954 novel, “A Fable.”
William Griffith, the Rowan Oak curator since 1999, said writing was a “demon-driven” task for Faulkner.
“You’re going to hear about the agony and the sweat and the difficulty and the compulsion,” Griffith said. “You’re not going to hear anything about how great it was, how relaxing and beautiful it was. None of that. He just did what he had to do to get it done.”
Oxford’s lure is similar to that of Key West, Fla., for fans of Ernest Hemingway and Salinas, Calif., for devotees of John Steinbeck.
“I’ve just always wanted to see this,” Lisa McDanels of Rocky River, Ohio, said as she and her husband toured Faulkner’s home. “You think, ‘Oh, he walked here.’ ”
The two-story Greek Revival home was built in 1848, and Faulkner bought it in 1930. It sits a mile from the town square, but feels isolated because it’s encircled by woods – oaks, magnolias, cedars, dogwoods and honeysuckle. Griffith said the home retains its character, with one important addition – climate control.
Faulkner added central heating in the 1930s but scorned air conditioning, despite summer temperatures that reach the 90s and stifling humidity. In “The Reivers,” a character groused, “there are no seasons at all any more, with interiors artificially contrived at sixty degrees in summer and ninety degrees in winter, so that mossbacked recidivists like me must go outside in summer to escape cold and in winter to escape heat.”
The day after Faulkner died, his wife, Estelle, had a window-unit air conditioner installed in her upstairs bedroom.
Ole Miss bought Rowan Oak in 1972 from the Faulkners’ daughter, Jill. The house was renovated from 2001 to 2003, and central air conditioning was added.
Faulkner was known for sitting on the square to observe Oxford’s small-town comings and goings. In 1997, to mark the 100th anniversary of his birth in nearby New Albany, Oxford dedicated a Faulkner statue in front of its own City Hall. Now, tourists snap photos by the life-sized bronze.
Faulkner and his wife are buried in St. Peter’s Cemetery, north of the square, and fans pay tribute by pouring bourbon on the gravesite.
Donald Kartiganer, professor emeritus of English who held the Faulkner studies chair at Ole Miss, recalled taking Salman Rushdie on a private tour of Rowan Oak in 2006. When Rushdie saw Faulkner’s writing table and typewriter, his voice fell into hushed reverence and he asked if he could sit there. Kartiganer said yes.
“He sits down and he puts his hands, not touching the keys, just sort of hovering over them, the way you would if you were in the vicinity of a holy relic,” Kartiganer recalled. “Then he reaches into his pocket and pulls out the smallest digital camera I’ve ever seen and says, ‘Would you take my picture?’ ”
Mississippi Arts Commission director Malcolm White compares Faulkner’s posthumous fame to that of another north Mississippi native.
“He’s like Elvis,” White said. “He’s never been bigger than he is today.”
English professor Jay Watson, Kartiganer’s successor as Faulkner specialist, politely disagrees with White’s assessment. Even during Faulkner’s lifetime, he was recognized as one of the most important literary figures of the 20th Century. But, Watson concedes Faulkner is more appreciated in Oxford these days.
“Oxford didn’t start coming around to him until after he won the Nobel Prize” in 1949, Watson said. “Before then, most people in Oxford just thought he was somebody who was making Oxford look bad. But after he won the Nobel, all the sudden, he was kind of making Oxford look good, because he was this small-town native son who won the most distinguished award in literature.”
Locals saw Faulkner as an oddball who’d be so wrapped up in his own thoughts that he’d often walk past people he knew without exchanging pleasantries. Faulkner went to Canada and trained as a Royal Air Force aviator, but never saw combat because World War I ended before he completed training. Nonetheless, Watson said, Faulkner would walk around Oxford in a flight officer’s uniform, complete with a cane and sometimes with a limp, and tell people he’d been wounded in a plane crash, which wasn’t true. Because he acted like a dandy, locals nicknamed him “Count No-Count.”
The local newspaper, The Oxford Eagle, is publishing essays this year from people who remember Faulkner. In one, J.W. “Jay” Mitchell, who grew up in Oxford, recalled being on the square with friends and making fun of the writer.
“I remember one day, 1952 or ’53, me and a few friends decided to walk by Mr. Faulkner, one at a time, and holler, ‘Good morning, Mr. Faulkner,’ or ‘How are you?,’ knowing that he would not answer,” Mitchell wrote. “After we passed him, we would circle around and get in front and repeat our taunting again. He acted as if we were not even there.
“There he was – head held high, with a swagger stick under his arm, wearing his English riding pants, knee-high leather boots and tweed jacket.
“Move forward over 50 years and ask me if I feel proud of this,” Mitchell wrote. “People, some of us didn’t know what we had in our midst. (I will take this opportunity to apologize.)”
Griffith said he came into the curator’s job with a respect for Faulkner’s prose but not as a “super fan.” When he was growing up in Illinois, an English teacher assigned him to read “As I Lay Dying,” and he protested with an essay called, “As I Die Reading.“
“I remember arguing, telling her that I’d never thought about Mississippi and I’m quite sure I’ll never go to Mississippi,” said Griffith, who has since re-read the book several times.
Griffith said when the teacher heard he’d been hired at Rowan Oak, she told one of his relatives:
“ ‘I hope he knows karma is a real thing.’ ”