Summer 2009: Features
Exploring the places and people of Faulkner country
By Sally Wolff-King 79G 83PhD
Fifty years ago, Floyd Watkins, Candler Professor of American Literature, went to Mississippi in search of William Faulkner.
That trip, and Watkins’s study of the writer, was the beginning of an Emory tradition now a half-century old. Each autumn, a group of Southern literature students and their professor set out for Faulkner country—Oxford, Mississippi—to see Rowan Oak, Faulkner’s home, and its environs. As an Emory graduate student in English, I participated in one of these excursions in the 1970s; several alumni have told me that they, too, remember traveling with Watkins on these trips.
Professor Watkins and I subsequently interviewed Faulkner’s nephew James M. Faulkner extensively and later published these interviews. James (Jimmy) Faulkner knew his uncle well. Jimmy’s father, John Faulkner, William’s brother, dropped Jimmy off at Will Faulkner’s house when he had to go out of town. Jimmy thus spent many weekends with his uncle and knew details about Faulkner’s life, such as what he ate for breakfast (eggs, bacon, toast, orange marmalade, and coffee). He recalled, as well, what Faulkner said to Jimmy when Faulkner won the Nobel Prize. Jimmy went to see him and offered his congratulations. His uncle replied, “Fine, thank you. Let’s go hunting.” Jimmy also said William—or “Brother Will”—gave him advice on many matters. For example, he said, “Anytime you can trade money for pleasure, do it.” Will also gave a blank check to Jimmy and said, “If you ever need to, cash it.”
This Emory literary pilgrimage to Faulkner country, now in almost its fiftieth year, takes us to see the places and people of Faulkner’s stories and novels.
I begin the planning process with a call to Meg Faulkner DuChaine, Jimmy’s daughter and William’s great-niece, to arrange a time to visit. This task is challenging because she is a busy paralegal and also shows horses in the show ring in Memphis, Tennessee. Even that equestrian activity that keeps her so busy is essentially Faulknerian: she inherited a love of horses and horseback riding from her Nobel Laureate great-uncle.
When all preparations and reservations are complete, the students, and sometimes alumni, and I load into rented vans and take off on a Friday morning for a weekend. We seek Southern landscapes and people, complete with a little Elvis and plenty of Faulkner.
Our first taste of the South begins with lunch at the Golden Rule barbecue restaurant in Birmingham, Alabama. We stop at Elvis Presley’s two-room, shotgun-style birth home in Tupelo, Mississippi, for a look at a songwriter’s modest Southern roots. The birth home is distinct from the expansiveness of Graceland. This simple, wood-frame house and museum offer much information about Elvis’s early years as a boy in Tupelo; his introduction to music at home, in church, and in the bluegrass and jazz nightclubs of Memphis; and his rise to fame.
Then we wade into Faulkner territory. Our first stop is the home of Meg and her husband, John. I met Meg in the 1970s on one of the early trips we made to Oxford. After Jimmy Faulkner’s death in 2001, I asked Meg to host our annual trip as her father had done for many years. Meg now gives Emory students the impressive tour her father gave but adds her own female Faulkner voice and perspective to the visit.
A young woman when I first began trips to Oxford, Meg was present as her father regaled classes of students with stories of Faulkner’s life and times. Seemingly shy then, Meg did not appear to be listening hard to her father’s stories. She was listening intently, however, as it turns out, and I discovered this fact as she led our tour for the first time and gave verbatim accounts of her dad’s stories. Meg and John welcome Emory students to their pre-Civil War home and share family stories about their famous great-uncle. They display and discuss the family heirlooms that belonged to William Faulkner, including his hunting rifles and bird-dog whistle; pocket watches of his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather; the family Bible and genealogy; and sailing equipment from Faulkner’s sailboat, the Ringdove. We see a first edition of The Sound and the Fury, autographed to Nan and Jim Faulkner, and other signed first editions dedicated to Faulkner’s brothers and their wives. Meg shows us the fabric book jacket handmade by William Faulkner’s mother, Maud Butler Faulkner, to cover the signed first edition of The Sound and the Fury, which Meg now owns. She also leads us on a tour of Faulkner’s home, which he named Rowan Oak, built by the same architect who built her home. Both are antebellum structures with long histories.
The tour continues. We look for ways to see and understand sites in town and around the county that Faulkner wrote about in his stories. Rowan Oak is a vital part of the visit. Now on the National Historic Register, Rowan Oak has a curator, and more than a hundred thousand visitors a year walk the cedar-lined drive and enter the doorway to see the sights, including the library, where Faulkner sat to read; his manual typewriter; and the famous walls of the bedroom on which Faulkner outlined his novel A Fable and where he stacked draft copies of each chapter. The backyard reveals the old kitchen, separated from the main house in the old days to keep the heat of cooking away from the main sleeping quarters. Faulkner’s riding stables are also there, and an old cabin built of hand-hewn logs. The current kitchen, indoors, still boasts a fireplace and mantel with wine bottles used in former times. Faulkner liked to cook game over the open fire and use the wine for basting. All give us a sense of what Faulkner’s domestic life was like and how that life was reflected in his stories and novels.
We see also some of the other antebellum houses in town, such as Shadowlawn (also known as the Neilson-Culley House), which many believe Faulkner used as a model for his famous story “A Rose for Emily.” We visit, too, the Chandler House, which Faulkner apparently had in mind in writing The Sound and the Fury. I like to take students to see this home twice in one visit—during daylight hours, but also at midnight, to show them what the huge home looks like in moonlight and shadow. On the night of one particular visit, the sky was very dark, and the atmosphere especially eerie in the almost-green light of a lunar eclipse. I asked the students to stay on the sidewalk and away from the grand, looming house, since the current owners of the home were clearly at home.
In defiance of my instructions, however, a few brazen students slipped past me and onto the front yard. Then one yelled to the rest of the group, “Oh my God, the door is ajar!” Peering carefully, eyes adjusting to the dark, I eventually could see that the door was not ajar, but the shadows cast by the luminescent evening made the black door, framed against the white house, appear mysteriously open. The once fearless students gasped in fright, “What if the ghosts of Caddy and Benjy appear in the doorway?” I scolded them first for disobeying, but later noted their imaginative interpolation of The Sound and the Fury.
We visit St. Peter’s Episcopal Cemetery, where the Faulkner family members are buried, and we pay our respects at the grave of William Faulkner and his wife, Estelle. We visit the grave of Mammy Callie, Faulkner’s beloved mammy and mentor, depicted in The Sound and the Fury. When Mammy Callie died, Faulkner delivered her eulogy and lovingly dedicated his novel Go Down, Moses to her. Other graves in this cemetery are noteworthy, including those of Faulkner’s parents and other relatives, such as “Auntee” (Faulkner’s paternal aunt), who some believe was the model for Granny Millard in The Unvanquished; and Sallie Murry, a cousin and one of the plausible models for Caddy Compson, the heroine of Faulkner’s most famous novel. Augustus Baldwin Longstreet, famous author of Georgia Scenes and former president of Emory, and Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus Lamar 1845C, Emory College graduate, lawyer, statesman, and United States Supreme Court justice, also rest in this cemetery.
Trekking deeper into the county, we observe an old, weathered, never painted, wooden home with an upstairs balustrade and features reminiscent of those portrayed by Faulkner in his novel Absalom, Absalom! Other more impressive structures of this kind are already returned to dust; the one we see is the only one remaining in the county. We see Yellow Leaf Creek, which Faulkner renamed White Leaf Creek, and we note the seemingly endless miles of pine and oak forest in the northwest corner of the county that characterize the hundred square miles of wildernesses of Absalom, Absalom! and the dense woods of Go Down, Moses.
The Yocona River is next on our list. The original name of the river was “Yocanapatafa,” although two variant historical spellings include “Yockeny Petafa” and “Yockny Pattafan.” Faulkner transmutes them into the name of his mythical county: “Yoknapatawpha.” We cross the river at an old bridge, a likely source for the place where the Bundren family crossed the river in As I Lay Dying, as they proceeded on their long journey to bury their mother. We see the tree-lined landscape where Jimmy Faulkner’s great-grandmother Harkins hid her livestock from Yankee soldiers. Faulkner chronicles a similar story in his novel The Unvanquished.
A dogtrot house is also on our list of places to visit. Few structures of this kind remain in the county. The dogtrot house, a common dwelling in the nineteenth-century South, has two rooms separated by an open passageway—through which a dog could trot from the front yard straight to the back. Faulkner describes this style house in several novels:
It was dusk. He emerged from the bottom and looked up the slope of his meager and sorry corn and saw it—the paintless two room cabin with an open hallway between and a lean-to kitchen . . . which was just like the one he had been born in which had not belonged to his father either, and just like the one he would die in, if he died indoors. (The Hamlet)
At times, we have been privileged to meet townspeople with family names that Faulkner wrote about. Once we met a living Bundren—the name that appears in Faulkner’s novel As I Lay Dying. We talked to this forty-year-old man about his family home in the southeast part of the county and reveled in his pure accent and good stories. Another time, we met Motee Daniels, who was reputedly Faulkner’s bootlegger and who regaled us with tall tales about the author.
We travel next to the College Hill Presbyterian Church, where Faulkner married his childhood sweetheart, Estelle Oldham Franklin. Previously she was married to Cornell Franklin, with whom she had two children; she married Faulkner after her divorce. Faulkner depicts aspects of their wedding in his novel Absalom, Absalom! The church also bears clear evidence of slavery—the bricks were handmade by slave labor. We pay our respects, too, at both the white cemetery in the back of the church and the slave cemetery nearby with mostly unmarked graves, a residual reminder of a segregated past.
The town bookstore, Square Books, is the place to look for Faulkner editions and other Southern literature titles, and we spend time there admiring and sifting through books, including signed copies of famous works. We view Faulkner manuscripts in the archives of the University of Mississippi. Then the group dines on fried, broiled, or blackened catfish at a down-home country restaurant known as Taylor Grocery, a landmark steeped in lore with walls plastered with mementos of the past.
Much of what Faulkner knew of his surroundings is now deteriorated or almost gone. But through our class preparations, studied observations, examination of his home, and opportunities to hear relatives and townspeople tell their recollections of the great writer, Faulkner’s time and place breathe life once again.
Sally Wolff-King 79G 83PhD is assistant vice president and adjunct professor of English.