Home Travelogues Local Travel Logs Tracking the genius in Faulkner Country

Tracking the genius in Faulkner Country

Rowan OakYou can't head into the heart of Faulkner Country without a little soul searching first. You have to ask yourself, is this a religious pilgrimage? Or are you hunting for bear?

If you want to simply pay your respects one of the greatest literary geniuses the world has ever produced, then it's probably best to start in Oxford at the shrines — Rowan Oak, of course, and the J.D. Williams Library, where Faulkner's Nobel enjoys pride of place wrapped in a swath of regal purple. If, however, you're foolhardy enough to think you can track the source of this great genius, run it to ground — if, in short, you're coming to hunt for bear — well, then, you already know that like all the very best Faulknerian quests, yours is doomed. It's appropriate then, that you start in a graveyard….

So, it begins…

Colonel Falkner statue"It ran in his knowledge before he ever saw it. It loomed and towered in his dreams before he even saw the unaxed woods where it left its crooked print, shaggy, tremendous, red-eyed, not malevolent but just big, too big for the dogs which tried to bite it, for the horses which tried to ride it down, for the men and the bullets they fired into it; too big for the very country which was its constricting scope." -- "The Bear"

The statue is eight feet of Italian Carrera marble, sitting on a base six feet wide and fourteen feet tall. The man it represents is the man who commissioned it, who envisioned it as a gift to the townspeople of Ripley, Mississippi; Ripley citizens would, he believed, place it in gratitude in the center of the town square. Yet ironically (and what would a story about Faulkner be without irony?) here it stands in the Ripley cemetery, marking the grave of Colonel William C. Falkner, planter, lawyer, railroad builder, successful politician, and, not insignificantly, a best-selling writer. Falkner's novel The White Rose of Memphis not only scandalized the public when it was published in 1881, but also helped finance the Colonel's other great creation, the Ripley Railroad.

Take a year for every foot of that statue, and that's how long Falkner was dead by the time his great-grandson William Cuthbert Falkner was born, in 1897, the first son of Maude Butler Falkner and Murry Falkner. Young William Falkner was born in nearby New Albany, but it was here in Ripley, one might argue, that the story really began, for as all good Faulknerians know, the past isn't past. A living legend is hard enough to wrestle, but a dead legend casts an impossibly long shadow that can't really be touched. To young Billy, William C. Falkner must have loomed every bit as large as this statue.

A dream dies hard….

Faulkner birthplaceIndeed, Colonel William C. Falkner lived a colorful life. It was rumored that he'd killed two men in self-defense and it is a fact that he earned his commission on the battlefield of Manassas, lost it for leading charges others considered foolhardy, then raised his own regiment to return to the War. And as vivid as his life seemed, his death was equally dramatic. Voted into the state legislature in 1889, on election night he was gunned down in the courthouse square by a disgruntled business partner, later acquitted of the crime.

Before you leave the Ripley cemetery, be sure to note the grave of William Herbert Falkner, the old Colonel's son, whose life was cut short by a jealous husband.

And if that's not enough drama, explore the rest of Ripley to see today's train tracks that run along the same tracks as the Ripley Railroad, which started here and went into Tennessee. The Colonel's son, W.T.C. Falkner, later called the "young colonel," became a lawyer and a banker, and spurned his father's achievement; although he inherited the railroad at his father's death, he would go on to sell it, to the bitter disappointment of his own son Murry who worked in various positions at the railroad and hoped one day to own and run it.

At the Ripley Public Library, you'll find first editions of the first Colonel Falkner's books, and over in New Albany at the Union County Heritage Museum, you'll find a scale model of Wlliam Faulkner's birthplace. (The actual birthplace in New Albany has been razed but is now noted with site marker.) The museum also has first editions, family photographs and Ripley Railroad artifacts. Be sure to stop and smell the verbena in the Faulkner Gardens, created with flowers and plants that made up the landscape of Faulkner's novels.

From New Albany, you may want to head toward Highway 7, and the rich bottomland that has held century upon century of history in its depths; you may also want to head north on this highway to Holly Springs to the train depot where William Faulkner's family welcomed him home from Toronto in December 1918. What did the family make of the young man sporting an RAF uniform, complete with overseas cap (even though he didn't make it past Canada), a swagger stick, and wings for his uniform that he had purchased in New York City? He also had an incipient limp from a mythical flight training crash, an equally mythical plate in his head, and possibly the extra "u" in his name, adopted, some have said, to increase his chances of being accepted into Britain's Air Service.

Now perhaps is the perfect time to turn the page to Oxford, for a flashback to young Billy Falkner.

The heart of the matter...

Oxford CourthouseStart at the Oxford Courthouse Square, which in its entirety has been designated a National Landmark. Built in 1840, destroyed by Union troops in 1864, rebuilt in 1872, and enlarged in 1952, this square, as you already know, has been immortalized several times over. Before he transmogrified it into fiction, Billy Falkner spent many a hot summer day wandering this square, eavesdropping on the old men who sat here swapping stories and lies.

His own grandfather sat here in his dotage, too deaf to hear much of anything. Billy's grandmother was responsible for the Confederate statue that sits in the square — the first one she convinced her husband to fund ended up in an inferior spot, she thought, in front of the Lyceum at Ole Miss, and so she insisted on this second one. You may note the echoes and the irony here, at how hard the Falkners tried to make their mark on the landscape, not realizing their greatest mark was to come. Or simply soak up the atmosphere as you explore. There's plenty to see here — and a great opportunity to imagine what was once there: Mentor Phil Stone's law office, the young colonel's bank office, and more.

There are many beautiful and beautifully preserved homes in the Oxford area, some of which have been home to various branches of Falkner (and Faulkner) family over the years. Those hunters who have come before you have already taken note of the resemblances between the Isom Place and the home in A Rose For Emily, and they have been particularly piqued by the Chandler House, where Billy's first grade teacher lived with her mentally-challenged younger brother.

Did that younger brother stimulate the imagination of the young student? Perhaps. Faulkner skipped second grade and announced he wanted to be writer.

The spark ignites...

Ventress HallIt is true that Faulkner was a high school dropout and a somewhat disengaged student for barely a semester at Ole Miss, but he did NOT flunk freshman English. What's more, the area in and around the university is really a prime hunting ground for you, the tracker of genius. But where to begin?

You could be a modernist and start with the final chapter first. At J.D. Williams Library, you can peruse the extraordinary repository where the Nobel rests along with first editions, oil paintings, photographs and more.

After the library, work your way backwards smack into Faulkner's early working life of odds jobs, as at Ventress Hall, where he roped himself to the belfry to paint the exterior of the building. (The other painters thought he was foolhardy for his stunt.) When you stand in front of the Pharmacy Building, which used to be the site of the Post Office where Faulkner was infamously employed, be sure to mutter Faulkner's famously unprintable vow after his forced retirement. At least I won't be at the beck and call of…

It was at the campus Alumni House, once the home of Murry Falkner, where William Faulkner finally began to write, at the urging of his friend and mentor Sherwood Anderson, who told him he really ought to commit his "little patch" of land to paper. Faulkner worked in a corner room, often with the creative stimulant of corn liquor, and his first effort, an experimental play that he wrote and illustrated, was called The Marionettes.

And now perhaps, you are ready for the shrine, the lair of this literary lion, the place where he created nearly two-dozen of his most famous works.

The climax nears….

Rowan Oak"Then he saw the bear. It did not emerge, appear: it was just there, immobile, fixed in the green and windless noon's hot dappling, not as big as he had dreamed it but as big as he had expected, bigger, dimensionless against the dappled obscurity, looking at him." -- "The Bear"

Its name was taken from the Celtic legend of the rowan tree, a guarantor of protection and safety, and now Rowan Oak is a legend all on its own.  Despite the origins and claims of its name, the house was not particularly safe when Faulkner, flush with proceeds of literary sales, bought the place in 1930. With its graceful curve and cedars standing guard, the driveway opened to an impressive view of a grand manse of Greek Revival design, built by a man named Shegog. The "Old Shegog Place" had a smokehouse and a barn, and an adjacent tract of land nearby that Faulkner optioned.

The house, however, had no electricity or plumbing, and rotted beams caused perilous sagging. Faulkner spent most of 1930, and much time and money afterwards, restoring the place, doing much of the work himself, designing the study and adding a stable. Today, Rowan Oak is a preserved masterpiece, very much as its owner left it, where in that study he built, in the heart of the heart of it all, you can still see that famous outline for A Fable, scrawled along the walls in graphite and red grease pencil.

And now you are here, now you have stalked this bear, this genius, and you are standing face to face with it, in the quiet of this room. What do you do? What do you do with the knowledge you now possess? The feelings you have? You do what any character in Faulkner would do: Finish it!

First, take a tour down Old Taylor Road, where Faulkner used to ride horses and hike; it was in the old town of Taylor that Temple Drake took the fateful train. Today, Taylor is a thriving artist's colony; stop for sustenance at the Old Taylor Grocery where hunters like you, many of them famous, have scrawled their names on the unfinished plank walls.

Faulkner GravesiteYou'll probably want to see College Hill Presbyterian Church, the oldest church in the county. Thomas Sutphen galloped here in fiction, and William and Estelle Faulkner were married here, when her minister in town refused to perform the marriage ceremony for a divorced woman. (Go on up a half-mile to the antebellum home, if you must, where some believe the couple was actually married, on the minister's lawn.)

And then, inevitably, your story returns to where it began: in a graveyard. This one called St. Peter's cemetery in Oxford. The Faulkner family is buried here; William Faulkner was laid to rest here after a fall from a horse on a summer's day in 1962.

There is an epilogue, of course: a trip back to town, to Square Books. It must be pointed out that this is not an anti-climax. Square Books is one of the finest independent booksellers in the nation, well worth a stop on any literary itinerary. Strolling through the shelves you will remember that it was here, in the pages of a book, where you first caught a glimpse of that bear — huge, thrilling and utterly unique.

The past is not past. The past is right here. Go forth now, you're done...

"Then it crossed the glade without haste, walking for an instant into the sun's full glare and out of it, and stopped again and looked back at him across one shoulder."  -- "The Bear"

...and yet, and yet, it will never be finished.


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