April 1994 | Volume 45, Issue 2
Before there was William Faulkner, there was the small Southern universe of Oxford, Mississippi
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.
Upstairs are the equally uncluttered bedrooms; perhaps making their estrangement a little easier, Faulkner built a room for Miss Estelle around 1934. His own quarters hold dark wood dressers and, on the bedside table, a bottle of Jack Daniel’s that Bahr found in the house and placed there for authenticity.
In the late 1970s, when Bahr came to work at Rowan Oak, he lived in a former slave cabin down the road that had been the model for Dilsey’s cabin in The Sound and the Fury . In front was the former Chandler house of the same book; a retarded boy named Edwin Chandler roamed behind the iron fence of this antebellum homestead in Faulkner’s day. He became its famous idiot-narrator, Benjy. Today only a meaningless iron post remains of the fence.
When he went to town along South Lamar Boulevard, William Faulkner would leave his world of sibling lusts and jailhouse lynchings to walk five minutes to his mother’s house. The house now belongs to his niece, Dean Faulkner Wells, and is separated by a chain-link fence from a Chevron station at Lamar and University. After visiting with his mother, he might go next to the old red-brick post office on the square in what is now city hall. Then maybe to Gathright-Reed’s, where Mr. Reed leant him dime mystery novels (many of which are still in his house). If he was hitting all his favorite stops in town, Faulkner might visit with his lawyer friend and early mentor Phil Stone, a block west of the square.
The building that once housed the Lyric movie theater on Van Buren Avenue was before 1913 the site of Murry Falkner’s livery stable. Several biographers have pointed out that the hunting stories and tales of drunken fights the elder Falkner’s customers told to kill time in the stable must have fed for a lifetime his writer son, who, though also a hunter, was otherwise runty and bookish by local standards. The Lyric theater, where Intruder in the Dust had its world premiere in 1949, burned in 1970, and its charred shell was eventually bought by an orthodontist named Watt Bishop.
Square Books faces the south side of the courthouse, down the block on Van Buren from the former stable. This beautiful bookstore vies with Smitty’s for the social center of downtown.
Throughout the town, you see a big house the Falkner family either lived in at one time or that William Faulkner stole for his fiction. His grandfather J. W. T. Falkner’s bank on North Lamar is where William had his first miserable job as a bookkeeper.
When they buried William Faulkner in July 1962, it was properly hot. William Styron, covering the funeral for Life magazine, could place the suffocating feeling almost immediately. “It is a heat which is like a small mean death itself,” he wrote, ”… encountered before, in all those novels and stories.” The memorial, of course, took place in the Rowan Oak parlor.
St. Peter’s Cemetery is lovely and still of a manageable size. Down the hill from his ancestors lies William Faulkner himself. Miss Estelle is united with him here, along with her son, Malcolm Argyle Franklin, who died an alcoholic in Charleston in 1977 and had been the happy child groom years before.
It is a quiet spot and a relatively undecorated grave as the graves of the famous go. There was a carnation and a dead potted flower on it when I visited and cold, spongy ground from a week’s rain. It was a soft day in January, disturbed only by a respectful graveyard jogger.