William Faulkner walked his niece, Dean Faulkner Wells, down the aisle at her wedding at Rowan Oak. Her father, William's youngest brother, was killed in a plane crash four months before Dean's birth. Faulkner vowed to raise his unborn niece as his own.
Photo: Robbie Caponetto
Dean is the keeper of this living museum, where she goes about her business among artifacts, like the silver tea set her great-grandfather won in an 1848 poker game. Literati past and present have tossed tales across her kitchen table. George Plimpton. Pat Conroy. Ellen Gilchrist. Barry Hannah. The late Willie Morris, an award-winning Mississippi writer and former editor of Harper’s magazine, held court here so often he claimed his own chair. Leaning on this storied table, Dean wrote her book in pencil on a legal pad. She thought it might take about six months to put her past on paper. It took her two and a half years.
In her dining room, Jimmy Buffett finished his manuscript of Tales from Margaritaville on the Absalom table. That’s what Dean and Larry call the table where Pappy finished, under considerable duress, Absalom, Absalom! William completed this landmark of experimental fiction while camped out at his mother’s table, sleeping on a folding cot in the dining room, rising at any hour to bring a glass of warm milk to his brother’s widow, who was five months pregnant with Dean.
The couple still entertains a circle of young authors like Tom Franklin, Beth Ann Fennelly, Ace Atkins, and Neil White. They come for supper or to season the table with more whiskey-spiked tales. Writers are drawn to Dean like flies to butter, which seems fitting in a town that, the local joke goes, has more writers than readers. “I’m an oddity because I’m a link to somebody they all wish they knew,” Dean says. “And I know that.”
Outside of her inner circle, Dean is fully aware of the mixed feelings Oxford has had for its most famous—and most misunderstood—native son. Until I read her book, I didn’t know that Faulkner struggled for years to pay the bills and win the respect of a hometown that largely ignored him and occasionally mocked him. “There’s a black sheep in everybody’s family, and Billy’s ours,” said his own uncle, a judge. “Not worth a cent.” It wasn’t until MGM came to town to film Intruder in the Dust, a 1949 movie based on his book, that the neighbors began to take him seriously.
Though she’d never admit it, Dean probably endures a little bit of the same snubbery from a town that alternately reveres Faulkner and tires of hearing about him. I wonder aloud what it must be like to be the last living Faulkner in a place like Oxford.
“Oh, people around here don’t give a rat’s ass,” she says. “Which is kind of nice. They really don’t care.”
Luckily, Dean has a sense of humor. In college, she made a midnight graveyard run to place a beer in the hand of “The Old Colonel,” an 8-foot-tall statue towering over the grave of her great-great-grandfather, Col. William Falkner. She judged a “faux Faulkner” contest and published the best essays in a book called The Best of Bad Faulkner. Humor is her way of handling a sense of duty for a task that, shy of a solid funny bone, might have been incapacitating. “It is a responsibility that made me sit down at the kitchen table and try to tell the truth.”
So much has been written portraying Faulkner as a recluse, a contrite and sometimes cruel drunk. (While on a bender, he once told Jill “Nobody remembers Shakespeare’s child.”) But Dean’s Pappy is endearingly tender, funny and tragic, flawed in such a way that you can’t help but relate to, respect, and even feel a little sorry for the guy.