OXFORD, Miss. – Of all that draws visitors to Oxford – the Civil War and Civil Rights, team spirit and distilled spirits – the pull of Nobel Prize-winning author William Faulkner’s home, Rowan Oak, is perhaps hardest to define.
For some, it’s a literary compulsion that must be fulfilled.
“We have people who have read all his books, and it’s almost a religious pilgrimage for them,” said Andrew Thomas, a part-time staff member at Rowan Oak.
Thomas’ own mission to Oxford happened as an undergraduate at the University of Houston, and Faulkner’s work brought him back for graduate school at the University of Mississippi, which owns the house and grounds.
Such pilgrims might stand on the east porch, where Estelle Faulkner’s remark on the afternoon sun in late summer provided the title for her husband’s novel “Light in August.”
They might pore over the author’s maps of his fictional Yoknapatawpha County and its seat, Jefferson. One must is to visit Faulkner’s office, where the wall still bears his handwritten outline to “A Fable.”
Alexandra Olmsted visited recently from Amherst, Mass., where she works at the Emily Dickinson Museum, and was inspired to read more Faulkner.
“I’ve only read ‘The Sound and the Fury,’” she said. “I’m actually more interested in the person. You can get to know a writer before you get to know their work.”
Rowan Oak draws many visitors who aren’t really Faulkner fans at all.
“I really haven’t tried but one or two of his books,” said John Baxter, a recent visitor from Stateline. “You see a lot of mentions of Rowan Oak. I’ve always wanted to come, but it’s one of those places that you have to make a point of going.”
Baxter found the writer intriguing.
“Something that I didn’t realize was (Faulkner’s) screenwriting skills. There were any number of Humphrey Bogart-type films that he’d written the screenplay for,” he said.
Visitors will find plenty else to interest them. Original outbuildings reflect life in the 1840s, when the house was built. Scores of personal items in the home from tobacco tins and whiskey bottles – “(T)he tools I need for my trade are paper, tobacco, food, and a little whiskey,” Faulkner wrote – to his shotgun and family Bibles offer insights into the author’s genius.
“People are interested in the personal influences that went into his writing,” Thomas said. “He wasn’t just constantly writing and rewriting: ‘Binge writing’ is a good term for it. When people come here, they can see that he had a personal life outside of his writing. He did a lot of the renovation here himself. He loved his horses; he loved his dogs; he loved the outdoors; he loved children.”
Rowan Oak is one of several stops on a Faulkner-themed day trip. A few minutes’ walk through Bailey’s Woods brings one to the University Museum.
“The Museum has two Faulkner-related exhibits right now,” said Rowan Oak Curator Bill Griffith. “One is of his wife Estelle’s paintings” – each inspired, the artist said, by “a snatch of poetry or a sentence out of a book.”
“The other is ‘Waking and Sleeping’ – an exhibit by John Shorb, that deals with Faulkner’s novel ‘Absalom! Absalom!’,” Griffith said.
Square Books devotes a sizable upstairs space to Faulkner’s books, and its balcony offers a unique view of what he called his “postage stamp of native soil.” In front of City Hall is a life-size statue of Faulkner that looks into the eyes of anyone who shares its bench, and a plaque on the Lafayette County Courthouse borrows Faulkner’s words from “Requiem for a Nun” to describe itself: “But above all, the courthouse: the center, the focus, the hub …”
Just a few steps off 16th Street, Faulkner’s gravesite often bears coins, flowers and other offerings of pilgrimages – the most traditional being a partly full bottle of Jack Daniels.
Rowan Oak staffer Sarah Thomas – Andrew’s wife – said a visit to Faulkner’s home is enlightening for people of any background.
“I think almost all the people that come through appreciate the visit and the glimpse they get into William Faulkner’s life,” she said. “I think it presents him as belonging to more than just the Oxford community or the more general writer community. It’s the whole Southern community; he’s kind of their spokesman.”
Information from: Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal, http://djournal.com
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