Friday, May 5, 2017

William Faulkner's Rowan Oak--

    I lived over half my life in Mississippi. When I tell people where I'm from "originally," (I was born in Washington, D.C.), I get one of two reactions. One--"You don't sound like you're from Mississippi."(An Two--"You lived in Mississippi? WHY?"

It's complicated.

One of the most wonderful features of my adopted home state, is it's fertile ground for the artist. Even better, Mississippi honors and reveres it's artists and writers. Pulitzer winner Eudora Welty lived in a couple of blocks from my elementary school in Jackson. It wasn't unusual to see her in the supermarket or ensconced in a oversized leather chair at my favorite bookstore, a tower of "to-be-browsed" books at her feet. All the customers knew her, and let "our Miss Eudora" read in peace. Richard Wright, National Award winner Ellen Gilchrist and Newbery winner Mildred D Taylor are all Mississippi natives. Oh and don't forget Barry Hannah, Willie Morris and of course, John Grisham (who wasn't born there and doesn't live there now, but still claims the place as a home.)

OK, having dropped enough names, let's get to the subject of the post...a visit to an author's home. You might have noticed, William Faulkner was not on my list. IMHO, is The Man of American literature. Faulkner must surely occupy an honored corner of Heaven, where he is sipping whiskey with the likes of Flannery O'Connor. Pat Conroy and Carson McCullers, most of whom were also "sippers."

I first met Mr. Faulkner in a high school American novel course, when we were assigned The Sound and the Fury. Talk about a whack on the side of the head. I had never read a multiple POV non-linear novel, the narrators' voice each so distinct, you didn't need to check the chapter headings to know who was speaking. I had never had an author all but say, "Hey, I wrote this. You figure out who these people are and what's going on." I loved his utter disregard for sentence construction (the master of the run-on sentence) and punctuation. Although when I tried it, my teacher said, "When you win the Nobel Prize for Literature, you can leave out all the commas you want."

That particular lit teacher had attended Ole Miss (the University of Mississippi) while Faulkner still lived in Oxford. She told us stories of him pacing the town, mumbling to himself, or talking to invisible people. ("Probably drunk," she sniffed. Obviously he was talking to his characters. Duh!) He was not a popular figure in Oxford since he based his characters on people everyone knew and recognized. (He's still not too popular with some in Mississippi for that reason.)

I knew that his home, Rowan Oak still existed somewhere in Oxford, but back in the day (1977) interstates were all but non-existent in Mississippi and none of them ran near Oxford. 162 miles of rotten two-lane roads running through jungles of kudzu was not an expedition to be taken lightly. However, when college friends showed up to visit, I gathered my courage (along with the two males who knew how to change a tire) and headed north.

Once in Oxford, we couldn't find Rowan Oak. I knew that any house in Mississippi with a name would be too big to miss. There were no signs, "Faulkner's home this way", nothing named "Faulkner Lane." We asked students, we asked gas station attendants, we asked storekeepers.  It is no credit to the University that not only did the students not know where or what Rowan Oak was, some of them didn't know who Faulkner was either. Everyone else gave us blank stares (remember, not a popular guy, Faulkner.)

After bumbling around the town square multiple times and meandering through likely-looking neighborhoods, we found it. Although it was a scorching August day, the house seemed to rise out of a mist, at the end of a lane of cedars. A long lane. Mysterious. Only later did I learn that it is alleged to be haunted.

At a distance, it looked like any other antebellum home but as we came closer I could see that it was not as elaborate as the mansions of Natchez. Low brick porch in place of a sweeping veranda. Plain old square columns.  The once-white paint peeled in some spots and was mossy in others.

Once inside, the caretaker took our money, handed us a brochure and said "Take your time folks" and disappeared. I'd never been in a historical site where there wasn't a guide talking a mile a minute about this or that doodad, pausing only to say "Don't touch anything" and "Remember to visit out gift shop." (There wasn't one.)

The brochure informed us that 1) the house was built in 1844 2) on 49 acres of mostly timberland 3) "rowan oak" is a tree from Celtic mythology  4)Faulkner bought it during the Great Depression, living there until after he won the Nobel, where upon he moved to Charlottesville, Virginia.  The end.

My first impression was of being somewhere timeless, like a forest floor. I don't know if the walls were pale green or not, but in my mind they were. Timeless, like Faulkner's stories.

As I went from room to room, I was surprised by the sparseness of the furnishings. Every other house of this vintage I'd seen was wall to wall with fainting couches, grand pianos and dining rooms with Old Paris porcelain service for twenty. These rooms weren't empty, but they felt that way. Totally uncluttered (again, like Faulkner's prose.) I had heard that Mrs. Faulkner was something of a shopaholic. If she was, somebody with a Spartan sense of decor had come after her and re-furnished it.

I've never been anywhere so large, so uncluttered, yet so full of life. Dilsey, Benjy, Caddy, Luster and Quentin of The Sound and the Fury seemed to be just around the next corner, watching us, maybe wondering what we found so fascinating.

Because Faulkner bought in the 1930's, it looked a lot like my grandmother's house. Straight back, no-nonsense chairs. The world tiniest desk, just large enough for his portable Underwood.  A bag of golf clubs propped in a corner.A tall pedestal floor fan. Moth eaten rugs here and there. Some seriously uncomfortable looking Adirondack chairs (which I would've put on the porch). Yet even though I recognized the chairs and tables and couches as being of my grandparents' era, I didn't feel as if I were in a Great Depression time capsule.

I was in the world of Faulkner's mind--utilitarian, but taking unexpected turns (the Adirondack chairs, the golf clubs) But what drew me most out of this tranquil room, and into the true mind of Faulkner, was the penciled outline for his Pulitzer/National Book Award WWI novel (and Faulkner's personal favorite) A Fable. Penciled outline on his wall. He could glance up and see where he was in his time line. Oh, for a house where you could outline your stories on the wall!

This picture of William and Estelle Faulkner was for A Fable's publication. Notice the somewhat scruffy exterior of  the house.  That's pretty much how it looked when I was there in 1977. In the ensuing years, all of those grand pianos and fancy furnishings (that would befit a Nobel Laureate) have been added in the restoration.  Faulkner himself never lived at Rowan Oak full time from the late 1950's until his death in 1962, splitting his time between Oxford, and the University of Virginia where he was the Writer-in-Residence and Lecturer in American Literature.

Having seen the pictures of the finely restored Rowan Oak, I will never go back. I prefer my memory of a mystically green place on a hot August morning, curiously empty, yet bursting with the world of Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County.

Don't forget, today is your last chance to enter our Blogiversary Book Giveaway, Lisa Cron's, STORY GENIUS.  For details, link back to Esther's post for details.

Posted by Mary Ann Rodman
P.S. Dear devoted TA readers;  I am taking a summer sabbatical so this will be my last post until fall. Transitioning my 94-year-old dad (who lives 500 miles away) and Young Authors' Camps will pretty well usurp my writing time.  But I'll be back.  See y'all in the fall, as we say in the South.


April Halprin Wayland said...

I was there with you every step of the way, Mary Ann. Thank you for the tour, your memories, and, as always, your warm and inviting writing ~

Carla Killough McClafferty said...

Great post! Carla