From Faulkner's home, Rowan Oak, to his grave, Oxford is the ultimate literary destination to get a glimpse into the life of a Southern icon.
Every year, about 25,000 literary pilgrims come from around the world to visit Oxford, Mississippi, the heart of the “postage stamp of native soil” that was the model for William Faulkner’s world. The fictional setting for most of his stories, Yoknapatawpha County is “one of the most convincing ever conceived by a writer,” wrote the late Willie Morris in a 1989 National Geographic cover story. “A microcosm not only of the South but also of the human race,” Willie observed, Faulkner’s fictitious county and the real one—Lafayette—“are the most tangibly, palpably connected to one writer’s soul of any locale in America.”
But above all, the courthouse: the center, the focus, the hub; sitting looming in the center of the county’s circumference
like a single cloud in its ring of horizon…
When you drive into Oxford, the courthouse is the first literary landmark you see, the centerpiece of Oxford Square, where a bronze plaque bears that passage from Requiem for a Nun. The statue in front, a Confederate soldier, has made cameos in various stories: Soldiers Pay, Requiem for a Nun, and most famously The Sound and the Fury:
They approached the square, where the Confederate soldier gazed with empty eyes beneath his marble hand in wind and weather.
A block south on Lamar sits the home of Dean Faulkner Wells, her Nannie’s house, built in 1931 for William’s mother Maud. Inside, it has the look and creak of a house inhabited by generations of Faulkners. Outside, it is marked by an engraved sign that notes its place on the National Register of Historic Places, albeit a privately occupied one. That doesn’t stop people from knocking on her door, asking whether the house is open. “It’s never open,” she tells them. They look surprised. She points them toward Faulkner’s other house. “Down the street and take a right.”
Rowan Oak, the antebellum house that Faulkner bought when still struggling to make a living with words, is now a museum. It
is owned by the University of Mississippi, which on the eve of the 148th anniversary of the Civil War finally changed its
mascot from the politically loaded Rebel to the Rebel Black Bear, a nod to one of Faulkner’s most critically acclaimed stories,
The Bear, which appeared in full form as a chapter in Go Down, Moses.
Inside Rowan Oak, you can peer into the private world that William Faulkner guarded so fiercely. You can see his portable
Underwood, the painting of a mule that watched over him from the mantle, the detailed outline of A Fable that he penciled directly onto the plaster walls of his study. You can imagine Pappy, as he was known to his daughter and
niece, standing before the stately fireplace where he gave the same toast every New Year’s Eve, allowing the young adults
in his charge a single glass of Champagne. “Here’s to the younger generation,” he’d say. “May you profit from the mistakes
of your elders.”
Now owned by the University of Mississippi, Rowan Oak is open 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday and 1-4 p.m. Sunday. The grounds are open from dawn to dusk daily. Call 662/234-3284 to schedule a visit.
The Thompson-Chandler house was the conspicuous model for the Compson family home in Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury, one of the more experimental novels, which takes you inside the mind of a severely mentally handicapped boy named Benjy.
In Faulkner’s youth, the real boy’s name was Edwin Chandler. Edwin would pace the fence, shadowing passersby, just like Benjy.
The iron fence is gone now, moved to a house in Vickburg, but you can still stand in front of the vacant house and imagine.
Perhaps the most decorous homage a Faulknerphile can pay is a visit to his grave, where the standard rite is to drink a swig
of bourbon and leave the bottle as a gift. On our visit, we find the last third of a fifth of Maker’s Mark and an empty pint
of Jack Daniel’s, Faulkner’s whiskey of choice. His marker is modest by any means but particularly compared to the 30-foot
Italian obelisk that towers over his mother’s grave in the family plot up the hill. And while he wrote an elegiac inscription
for his brother's headstone, his own bears simply his name and dates, and a generic phrase with—perfectly—an errant apostrophe:
Go with God
The William Faulkner Society, a group of literary scholars based at the University of Mississippi at Oxford, is dedicated to fostering the study of the
author and his works. Membership costs $10 and is open to the public. In addition to publishing The Faulkner Journal, the group hosts the annual Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha Conference, which celebrates its 37th year with the July 17-21, 2011, gathering in Oxford.