Tuesday, April 14, 1987

Sanctuary: A Great Writer's Hometown

I visited Mississippi in January 1987, so I must've written this soon afterward. Travel & Leisure didn't publish it until September 1989, with atmospheric black-and-white photographs by Alen MacWeeney, who was not there at the same time as I was. (This delay is normal in magazines.)

William Faulkner spent most of his life in the small university town of Oxford, Mississippi, which became the center of his imaginative life and the seat of his many-storied Yoknapatawpha County.  It fed Faulkner as London fed Dickens and as India nourished Kipling.  Intimate with local families in which ruin, pride and at times violence flourished, he saw in this remote corner of the South all the material he needed to create, in fiction, a personal territory and language.  And despite changes in the town since Faulkner’s death in 1962 (when it had already embarked on the decharacterizing route of much of the South), Oxford still carries the atmosphere of the author and his work.

The countryside has not changed much.  All the backgrounds of Faulkner’s land-rooted fiction are here:  the thick woods, the fields punctuated by worn shacks, the Delta and the river.  Oxford, like many small Southern towns, is governed by a courthouse square from which wide avenues and their tributary streets emanate.  The square is still the heart of the town, of the commerce of daily life: low buildings that in Faulkner’s day had balconies and a central tiny park.  Faulkner described it memorably in Requiem for a Nun:

“...a Square, the courthouse in its grove the center; quadrangular around it, the stores...school and church and tavern and bank and jail each in its ordered place....  But above all, the courthouse: the center, the focus, the hub; sitting looming in the center of the county’s circumference...musing, brooding, symbolic and ponderable, tall as cloud, solid as rock, dominating all....”

Founded in 1837 in Chickasaw Indian territory, Oxford was soon incorporated as the county seat.  The name was chosen to encourage the state legislature to establish the University of Mississippi there, and Ole Miss went on to become famous for its belles and its football team.  The Union Army burned the town totally in 1864.  Up until the war it had been a boomtown in cotton country, which accounts for its sense of grace, order, and prosperity.

It is impossible to account for Faulkner.  Born in New Albany, Mississippi, in 1897, he began school at eight in Oxford and left high school to work odd jobs (in one stint as bookkeeper at his grandfather’s bank).  During World War I he joined Canada’s Royal Flying Corps, then returned to study briefly at Ole Miss.  His writing, with its idiosyncratic punctuation, was blessed by being entirely self-taught and unformed by academic staleness.

A succession of jobs followed, until Sherwood Anderson, in New Orleans, promised to help get Faulkner’s first novel published if the young man would promise not to make him read it.  Back in Oxford, Faulkner kept at the odd jobs:  he was a house painter, the university’s post-master, deckhand on a shrimp trawler, boiler fireman and, for most of his life, a farmer.  By the time he was forty, he had written Sartoris (1929), The Sound and the Fury (1929), As I Lay Dying (1930), Light in August (1932), and Absalom, Absalom! (1936).

From the 1930s to mid-1950s he visited Hollywood annually, writing such screenplays as To Have and Have Not and The Big Sleep, and hurrying back to Oxford as soon as he’d made enough to keep the farm running.  It is often forgotten that he wrote the script, for example, of Land of the Pharaohs  (with Joan Collins, 1955) five years after he won the Nobel Prize.  Hollywood worsened Faulkner’s depressive moods and bouts of heavy drinking; the heart attack that killed him in 1962 came at a Mississippi sanatorium where he’d gone to dry out.

Oxford’s mayor, John Leslie, knew Faulkner from the 1940s.  Since politicians, especially local ones, are usually shrewd judges of character, even from afar, I asked what sort of fellow Faulkner had seemed.

“He was often in a kind of daze,” said Leslie.  “His post-office box was near mine, so we’d run into each other when the mail came.  I kept to a rule that if he spoke first I’d talk to him.  Sometimes he’d walk past without noticing.  You could generally see there was something going on in his mind.  He wasn’t a large man; he was very graceful the way a moderate or slightly small man can be.

“I don’t know how many times I saw him in the square, leaning back against a building, propped up on one leg, just listening to people’s conversation.  He could spend hours that way.  In those days you saw horses and wagons filling the square.  He liked particularly to listen to—or talk with—blacks.  He was fascinated by their conversation; he had a look when you could tell he was following several conversations at once.  I never saw him taking notes, though.  I guess he remembered all he needed.”

“How did you meet him?”  I asked.

“It really was through my brother,” Leslie explained.  “This would’ve been in the 1940s.  At that time Intruder in the Dust had just been published.  My brother, who studied at Duke—the first American university where you read Faulkner’s books—knew his work and admired it greatly.  That was during a lull in his reputation, so my brother was a bit of a rarity.  I thought I’d try to get Faulkner to autograph a copy of Intruder so I could give it as a present.  I was a student here at Ole Miss at the time.

“Sure enough, there was Faulkner leaning up against the department store, one foot on the wall.  (To be truthful, sometimes I wasn’t too sure it was Bill and not his brother, who looked an awful lot like him.)  But I went up to him with my copy of the book and I explained what I wanted.  Faulkner looked me over and said, ‘Well, I’ve got an agreement with the publisher that I sign a number of books for him and that’s all.’  I guess he thought the value of his signed books would go up if he didn’t sign too many.  Or maybe he couldn’t be bothered.

“Anyway, I thanked him and turned away, a little disappointed, and he gave a little laugh and said, ‘Come on, of course I’ll sign that book for you.’  And he did, and put the date right there, in his tiny hen-scratch handwriting.

“He was a funny man.  I don’t know whether you’ve noticed, but Mississippians are among the craziest people you can find anywhere.  They’ll shoot at anything that moves.  Faulkner had trouble with people in his woods—he had more than thirty acres there.  Full of squirrels and people trying to shoot them.  One of the funniest things that Bill ever wrote was that notice in the Oxford Eagle.”

This was the paid advertisement, published October 15, 1959, which reads:


       The posted woods on my property inside the city limits of Oxford contain
       several tame squirrels.  Any hunter who feels himself too lacking in woodcraft
       and marksmanship to approach a dangerous wild squirrel might feel safe with
       these.  These woods are a part of the pasture used by my horses and milk cow; also,
       the late arrival will find them already full of other hunters.  He is kindly
       requested not to shoot either of these.  
                                                              William Faulkner

“Another time,” Leslie went on, “there was all sorts of trouble with a minister in Memphis who was trying to keep people from drinking beer and seeing films like The Outlaw, which had Jane Russell in it.  This kind of thing—censorship of any kind, I suppose—made Faulkner hopping mad.  He had a whole hilarious pamphlet printed up defending the right to drink beer.  And in the novels Sanctuary and The Reivers, his last book, he gave the minister’s name to the head of a Memphis bordello.  So Faulkner had the last laugh.

“I think Faulkner had real money problems nearly all the time.  Once he had a bill at a local store and he sent the owner a handwritten letter that said essentially, ‘One day this piece of paper will be worth much more than I owe you.’  He had to take out an ad in the Eagle saying he wasn’t responsible for charges incurred at local stores by his wife.  I believe he had as many as nineteen people living off him at one time or another, and he had to go out to Hollywood periodically and write films to pay his debts.”

My next stop, just off the square, was the former office of Phil Stone, the lawyer who had befriended Faulkner, lending him books and encouraging his writing.  Most of Faulkner’s first half-dozen books were typed and retyped by Stone’s secretary until they filled half a filing cabinet.  (The Snopes trilogy is dedicated to Stone.)

I was welcomed into the modest shaded brick building by Tom Freeland, a young lawyer who was a fund of stories about Faulkner and Stone and the people who come in search of a writer’s mystique.  “Shoney’s, the burger place out on the highway, produces these stories all the time.  I had a lady from New York come  in the other day to look at Phil Stone’s office, and she said her waitress had never met Faulkner.  She said, 'A writer?  Does he live around here?'  So he’s not as famous as all that, maybe.”

He also told me about a visit from Gabriel García Márquez, who'd gone unrecognized.

At the Ole Miss library, I wandered through an exhibit of Faulkneriania—first and foreign editions of his books, many awards, including the Nobel Prize—enough to make you conclude that Faulkner’s time of relative obscurity in this country wasn’t, as obscurity goes, all that considerable: even if most of his work wasn’t in print here at this low ebb; around World War II, his books were still being published.  But America is hard on its originals, and one looks at the size of the achievement and wonders:  How many more books if he hadn’t had to go to Hollywood?

On the way out to Rowan Oak, the Faulkner home (a ten-minute walk along South Lamar Boulevard from the square), I slipped in a detour to the enormous house on Buchanan Avenue at 13th Street that was the model for the Compson place in The Sound and the Fury.  Understandably,  it gives an overwhelming sense of déjà vu, for no writer bettered Faulkner at conveying a sense of place, once he’d realized that his “little postage stamp of native soil” was worth writing about.

On Old Taylor Road I walked down a path to the great house, aloof at the end of a colonnade of cedar trees, magisterial with its white columns and classic antebellum grace.  When Faulkner bought the house it was in great disrepair; he added brick galleries and a stable.  Inside, Rowan Oak has a comfortable pipe-smoke feel to it, like the home of a country doctor with an interest in riding and reading.  The rooms have fireplaces, and there is a modest library, which contains mostly Great Books, Cervantes and Shakespeare and such.

The downstairs office, which Faulkner built in 1950, remains as it was:  the old Underwood portable typewriter sitting in its case on a small table by the room’s only window, which looks out on a stable and back lawn and woods—a good empty view for a writer.  On one side of the typewriter a lamp, on the other an ashtray.  Here is a day bed, a  half-filled bookcase, and pencilled carefully across the walls, day by day, the plan for A Fable (1956 Pulitzer Prize).

With characteristic independence, he approached each novel as if it were a technical problem no one had ever solved before, and found experimental solutions on which two later generations of writers have fed.  No one can read his books without feeling that the mansion of the novel form is having its wall pushed outward and several extravagant wings added by a master carpenter, while a number of resisting old doors are being firmly kicked in.

He wrote unsentimentally about blacks, and time has made his achievement in this regard even greater.  Faulkner was among the very first to use blacks as characters rather than caricatures.  Though Faulkner’s experimentalism is always cited as the reason he was more popular abroad than at home, the reason might be more a social than a literary judgment.

Most delightful of all is his humor—to which no essay can ever do justice—in “Spotted Horses,” say, or The Reivers.  His best books tend to be the most widely read, which is all any writer can hope from posterity.  They are so persuasive that they constitute a serious problem for the novelist who wishes to write about the South—an act that no one wants to follow.  As Flannery O’Connor put it, “Nobody wants his mule and wagon stalled on the same track the Dixie Limited is roaring down.”

Whatever occasional reservations one may have about Faulkner’s writing, his books are difficult to forget, and they have a grip, an imaginative pressure in the mind, that only the greatest writers achieve.  And—such is the force of Faulkner’s personality—in his books the rough spots can come to seem less like faults than like the mark of a lovingly handmade thing.  In an age of minimalist dandies whose sentences regard themselves endlessly in a succession of mirrors, Faulkner’s writing, even at its moments of metaphysical groping, carries enormous force and sober poetry.  Like the country that produced him, it is always vivid, eccentric and full of beautiful contrarieties.  Like Faulkner, it goes quite contentedly its own way.

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