I discovered that my own little postage stamp of native soil was worth writing about and that I would never live long enough to exhaust it… –William Faulkner
Faulkner’s little postage stamp was his hometown of Oxford, Mississippi, immortalized as Jefferson, located in Yoknapatawpha County. Yoknapatawpha, from the Chickasaw yocona petopha, meaning water runs slow through flat land, is Faulkner’s mythical world, which intertwines almost all of his novels. Greater than the sum of his greatest works, it is his artistic triumph.
It is ironic that Faulkner used the postage stamp metaphor, since he is considered the worst postmaster in American history. From 1921 to 1924, he held the position of postmaster for the University of Mississippi. Instead of sorting the mail or waiting on customers, he spent the time writing or reading undelivered magazines, or drinking coffee and playing bridge with friends. It is alleged that customers had to root around in the trash to find their mail. After a postal inspector came to investigate, Faulkner resigned, saying, “I will be damned if I propose to be at the beck and call of every itinerant scoundrel who has two cents to invest in a postage stamp.”
In his excellent biography One Matchless Time: A Life of William Faulkner, Jay Parini argues that some of the story is myth and that Faulkner may have engineered his own dismissal to get out of a job sapping his creativity. Note the subtitle of Parini’s biography: “A History,” so not one Faulkner, but many, and hard to pin down. But in the end, it is only the work that counts. Faulkner himself said his ideal epitaph would be “He made his books and he died.”
More on this shape shifter later.
In June of this year, my friend Claudia Fedarko and I visited Oxford. I wanted to inhale the air Faulkner had breathed, track his footsteps around town, and soak up his genius from the land that begot him. Maybe, just maybe, a little genius would stick to my skin. We had the best tour guides we could have asked for, Jerry and Julie Walton. Jerry (Dr. Gerald W. Walton) is the Provost Emeritus of Ole Miss. Our first stop: Faulkner’s home, Rowan Oak. As we walked along the cedar-lined path leading to the house, I could see why Faulkner regarded it as his sanctuary. Built in 1844 in the primitive Greek Revival style (plantation plain of the sand hills of north Mississippi), the old Bailey Place stood abandoned and used to store hay when Faulkner bought it in 1930 and began restoring it, doing much of the renovations himself. Faulkner named it Rowan Oak after the Welsh legend that said if you take a branch of a rowan oak and put it over a dwelling, it will keep out witches. Jerry told us that Faulkner would dig a ditch across the road to deter strangers. Yet another story has it that, once, when he was dressed in work clothes, Faulkner turned away tourists who asked him if William Faulkner were home.
After 1950, Faulkner built an addition to the back of the house. It includes Rowan Oak’s best known room, his office. Jerry let us step past the partition to walk all the way inside. There, on two walls, are the famous storyboards plotting the day-by-day events of A Fable. This Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, a parable of Christ’s life but set during WWI, grew out of a project Faulkner began in the 40s while working as a screenwriter. His years in Hollywood, considered largely unsuccessful except in providing a weekly paycheck, followed him back home to affect his novel writing. A Fable gave him no end of headaches, stretching out to 10 years of drafting and revision. His early versions read more like a movie treatment or synopsis than a fully realized narrative.
On a typical day, after a morning of writing, Faulkner would walk to town, first to see his mother, Maud Falkner, who lived two blocks from the square and whose front porch allowed her to view with satisfaction the handsome Confederate monument, erected in 1907 by the UDC, which stands guard in front of the courthouse. The square is the dramatic setting concluding Faulkner’s first masterpiece, The Sound and the Fury. Luster, the young servant in charge of Benjy Compson, the “idiot” son of the fallen aristocratic Compson family, takes Benjy for a surrey ride around the square. This is to quiet his bellowing and sobbing after Luster tormented him by whispering, “Caddy! Caddy!” (Benjy’s long vanished sister). But Luster turns left, not right. Going the wrong direction upsets Benjy’s routine, leading to more hysterics. Routine is the only thing grounding Benjy’s fractured world in which time slips back and forth, as it does for the family as a whole. Their present lives are ghostly reflections of their former days, illustrating a theme Faulkner voiced in Requiem for a Nun: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
Jesus said, “no prophet is accepted in his own country.” And Faulkner, who never graduated from high school and who, as a special student, dropped out of Ole Miss after three semesters and a D in English, was mocked as Count No ‘Count for his dandyish ways. He changed the spelling of his name, sometimes spoke with a British accent, affected a limp that required a stylish cane, and claimed to have been a member of the RAF. Perhaps these myth-making indiscretions contributed to his later aversion to biography. However, during the 30s, “one matchless time,” he produced The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, Light in August, and Absalom, Absalom, which regularly make the top 100 lists of the greatest books of the 20th century. Oxford barely noticed. The books were just too strange, too hard to read, and their treatment of black people too sympathetic. Only when some of the lesser novels, such as Intruder in the Dust, were made into movies—and employed locals as extras—did Oxford pay attention. And then there was that little matter of the Nobel Prize.
By 1946, Faulkner was out of print. Critic and editor Malcolm Cowley rescued him with The Portable Faulkner, published by Viking Press. In a letter dated August 9, 1945, he writes, “Instead of trying to collect the ‘best of Faulkner’ in 600 pages, I thought of selecting the short and long stories, and passages from novels that are really separate stories, that form your Mississippi series—so that the reader would have a picture of your Yocknapatawpha [sic] County from Indian days down to World War II.” For the first time, American readers would see the brilliant interconnectedness of Faulkner’s world. Europe had long understood and appreciated Faulkner, as Cowley notes in his conclusion: “Did I tell you what Jean-Paul Sartre said about your work? … ‘Pour les jeunes en France, Faulkner c’est un dieu.’ Roll that over on your tongue.”
Faulkner’s Nobel acceptance speech is surely one of the most famous of all time. Consider the time period—the end of WWII and the paralyzing fear of the Cold War. Here is a portion in which Faulkner addresses the writer’s place in the world:
I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.
Today, in Oxford, Faulkner is everywhere. The town that nicknamed him Count No ‘Count honors him with the Faulkner Conference for the Book. It has marked Faulkner Alley, which he would cut through on his way to check his post office box or go to the drugstore (now Square Books) to package a manuscript for his publisher. There he is, bronzed from the Mississippi sun, sitting on a bench facing the square, observing the town, perhaps taking notes to use in his next book.
On Thursday, I will conclude with Beyond Yoknapatawpha, a brief discussion of other reasons Oxford is worth a visit.
Biographer Jay Parini says, One doesn’t read Faulkner as much as re-read him. Do you re-read books, and if so, what do you discover about them?