Mr. William’s Walk

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The trouble with coming to Mississippi in winter is that, throughout his writing, William Faulkner has rarely pictured it that way for you. He almost always has that heavy summer air over everything, and you would not imagine these crisp brown January lawns. Along the sides of the highway from Memphis into Lafayette County the snaky kudzu vine is dormant.

Oxford’s downtown, now as when Faulkner lived here, is built around its centerpiece Lafayette County Courthouse. The proprietors of the stores on the surrounding square have changed over, of course, as have a few of the buildings, but other differences take a little digging to become clear. In 1950, the year Mr. William (as a few around town knew him) went to Stockholm to accept his Nobel medal, someone could start walking from the courthouse with a rifle and in twenty minutes be in woods deep and wild enough for hunting. In that sense, says Howard Bahr, until recently the curator of William Faulkner’s house, this town of ten thousand has seen a sea change.

The white-plastered brick courthouse that appears over and over like a dream symbol in Faulkner’s work went up in 1871 to replace one that burned along with much of the town during the War, as they put it down here. Parts of the University of Mississippi served as hospitals for both sides following the Battle of Shiloh. The town was occupied by Grant’s army briefly in 1862 and was burned from one end to the other on August 22,1864, by the Union forces of Andrew Jackson Smith. A fair number of antebellum houses survive along the elegant strip of North and South Lamar avenues, though.

To the rest of the world Oxford may be Faulkner or the violent struggle over James Meredith’s integration of the university in the fall of 1962. But to the town itself the university (“Ole Miss”) and its teams seem to be the real identity. The school came along almost ten years after the village of Oxford was incorporated in May of 1837. The town’s name seems to have been a bit of hopeful politicking to attract the newly conceived state-university franchise.

Of course, the football team is famously known as the Rebels. Sweat shirts, decals, glasses, a wall of the furniture store, and the 4 Corners gas station all picture the Rebels’ mascot, a cartoon Southern colonel in a red suit. By comparison, there is very little cashing in on Oxford’s most famous son. No sandwiches or novelty drinks honoring the Snopses or Compsons appear on menus. The only thing named after Faulkner is an alley.

And though thirty-one years in the ground, he is not long dead, after all. On my first night in Oxford, I wandered into the Gathright-Reed drugstore on Van Buren Avenue and fell into a conversation with its charming druggist, Aston Holley, who remembered “Uncle Billy” very well. Behind the register hangs a blown-up photograph of a “Tom Thumb Wedding” from about 1933. William Faulkner’s stepson Malcolm is the boy groom in the picture, and Aston Holley the tenyear-old minister at the gathering. “I said a few words,” he recalled, eyeing his gangly young self sixty years ago. Smitty’s, I had been advised by George Smith, the former university football coach, on the drive in from Memphis, is “where all the deals are made by nine o’clock.” Smitty’s has a filling buffet of greens, mashed potatoes, and chicken-fried steak at night, but breakfast is really the time to come. The local gentlemen fill its high-backed green chairs then, enjoying eggs with grits and biscuits and waiting for pauses in one another’s stories. On the morning after the presidential inaugural, a man in a brown suit who looked like the mayor burst into Smitty’s and stopped before the long table of regulars. “Boys,” he said, “it’s a great day to be a Democrat!” The boys pounded their knives.

Twin stands of rain-darkened cedar trees announced William Faulkner’s Rowan Oak off Old Taylor Road. As you approach it—especially in an unbecoming morning drizzle—the house doesn’t look like any kind of shrine at all. A single light burned inside when Howard Bahr opened the door and welcomed me in, palming a dark wood pipe in his free hand. Here and there he pointed out a detail on request, but mostly let me glance around the spare old place as if Mr. Faulkner were away for his morning ride.

The house and its outbuildings were a wreck when Faulkner bought the place from a family friend in 1930. The dilapidated new property he named for luck after the Scottish legend of the rowan oak tree.

To the left as you enter is the library, with straightforward paintings by William’s mother, Maud Butler Falkner. Faulkner used to write in this room, longhand on white paper, before he added what became his “office” to the back in 1950. The office is nicely unadorned. There is a simple daybed and a small black Underwood by the window, where he would type up his drafts in later years. Over two walls of the room Faulkner scratched his outline for A Fable (1954), in blocky letters.

The parlor room has a Chickering piano that belonged to Faulkner’s wife, “Miss Estelle.” It was here in February 1940 that Caroline Barr, known as Mammy in the family and the model for Dilsey in The Sound and the Fury , had her funeral at the age of one hundred. “She had the handicap to be born without money and with a black skin and at a bad time in this country,” Faulkner said that day of the former slave who had helped raise him. “She was paid for the devotion she gave but still that is only money.” He dedicated Go Down, Moses to Caroline Barr two years later.