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A visit to the real Yoknapatawpha County

By Sean Fabery

Section: Arts, Featured

September 2, 2011

Our culture is obsessed with the origins and beginnings of our icons—think George Washington and the cherry tree, this summer’s “X-Men: First Class” and, of course, “Muppet Babies.” We have an insatiable desire to know what shaped them into the legendary figures we know today and it’s a desire that’s unlikely to be quenched anytime soon.

The same applies to writers. Each year, numerous biographies of noted writers find their way to bookstores, occasionally having the power to regenerate renewed interest in a writer’s works, as happened with Richard Yates this past decade. When you discuss a writer in an English class, you inevitably bring up biographical details: Was he an alcoholic? How did he treat his wife?

I’ve known people who’ve made it a habit of visiting the historic homes of America’s great writers. I can’t say that I’m usually in that camp. I spent most of my life living in Columbus, Ga., the hometown of Carson McCullers, yet I’ve never had any compulsion to visit her home despite living in the very city that inspired “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter” and “The Member of the Wedding.”

After I interned at a magazine located outside Little Rock this summer, I decided that I’d make a detour on the drive home and visit William Faulkner’s home in Oxford, Miss. Faulkner lived in the home for 32 years; it’s where he wrote many of his masterpieces, including “Absalom, Absalom!” and “Light in August.”

I arrived in Oxford on an unusually overcast afternoon. Storm clouds and intermittent rain had followed me all the way there from Arkansas, imbuing the usual August humidity with an unusual chill. Oxford has a special place in Faulkner’s canon—it wasn’t simply his hometown. Almost all of Faulkner’s works take place in mythical Yoknapatawpha County. Yoknapatawpha’s county seat, Jefferson, is modeled closely on Oxford itself. Oxford itself is a booming college town, as it’s the home of Ole Miss. That laureled university now boasts one of the premiere Southern studies departments in the country, understandable when you consider that the premiere chronicler of the South lived just down the road.

Having never seen a picture of Rowan Oak—this English major wanted to be surprised—it was exactly what I expected it to be. Built in the Greek Revival style, it’s refined in a subtle way, neither too ostentatious nor too grand. It was built in 1844 when Oxford was still a small town; when I saw it, I imagined it being like a scaled-down version of the house Thomas Sutpen constructs in “Absalom, Absalom!”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, you’re confronted by Faulknerian ruins the moment you approach the house. Across from the cedar-lined walkway that leads to its front door, there are vague outlines of an old garden—a maze garden, in fact—which ceased to exist after Reconstruction. When Faulkner moved into the house in 1930, he decided not to clear the few shrubs and bricks that remain, liking their gothic effect. Faulkner assumed degradation as a stylistic choice—it’s easy to imagine this being the same man who wrote “A Rose for Emily.”

Once you leave the ruins and enter the house proper, it’s striking just how normal everything is. Having entered my fair share of old Southern houses, there was nothing too atypical. Sure, there are a few antiquated aspects that have been retained. For instance, there are servants’ quarters in the back, which were once inhabited by the house’s caretaker, Mammy Callie. Aside from the appliances, you can see someone inhabiting these rooms today. The bedrooms are sparsely furnished, with only a few items hinting at their inhabitant’s proclivities. An easel adorns the room of Faulkner’s wife, while two cameras are stowed away in Faulkner’s own room.

Only occasionally do you stumble upon evidence that a great writer—perhaps the greatest writer in the American canon—lived here. In his office, Faulkner etched an outline of his 1954 novel “A Fable” on the wall, where it remains today. Over the years, the house’s caretakers have also uncovered liquor bottles on the grounds that belonged to Faulkner, who would go on notorious drinking binges after completing his novels. From the looks of it, he enjoyed his Four Roses Bourbon. Aside from that, it looks like a house that was inhabited by a close, lively family.

Faulkner would’ve liked it that way. His novels may display a reverence for history and the acrobatics of memory, but he wanted people to remember his work, not necessarily the man behind it.

“It is my ambition to be, as a private individual, abolished and voided from history, leaving it markless, no refuse save the printed books,” he said in 1943. “I wish I had enough sense to see ahead thirty years ago and, like some of the Elizabethans, not signed them.”

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