Photograph by Gary Bridgman. courtesy of wikimedia commons, licensed under CCO 2.5.
“That’s the one trouble with this country: everything, weather, all, hangs on too long,” William Faulkner wrote of his native Mississippi in his novel As I Lay Dying. “Like our rivers, our land: opaque, slow, violent; shaping and creating the life of man in its implacable and brooding image.” There came a day when, as a reader of Faulkner, I wanted to see what he was talking about. If the tendency of things in Mississippi was to hang on too long, as Faulkner claimed, maybe the populace and the landscape would be more or less the same as they’d been when he wrote those lines in 1930. The drive from Brooklyn to his house, Rowan Oak, in Oxford, Mississippi, was seventeen hours.
Five hours in, I made a pit stop at an abolitionist holy site: the federal armory at Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. John Brown’s raid on the armory, in October 1859, was one of the proximate causes of the Civil War. It enraged a plantation-owning class already frightened of northern agitators. “I want to free all the negroes in this state,” he said, referring to Virginia, where half a million people were enslaved. His plan was to seize guns and hand them out to men in the nearby fields, fomenting rebellion. With twenty-one followers, he stormed the armory and held parts of it for two days before U.S. marines flushed him out. All that’s left of the armory, mostly destroyed in the subsequent war, is the fire-engine house, which happened to be Brown’s final redoubt. He was captured there, and then taken to prison, tried, and hanged. I stood in the house; it’s the size of a two-car garage, dwarfed by the green, misty mountains that surround it. It drove home how tiny Brown’s force was, for it to have been able to fit inside such a small place—how inadequate to his stated task.
In Faulkner’s novella “The Bear,” John Brown appears without warning, in the middle of a stream of consciousness, and has a dialogue with God. He explains to Him that he, Brown, is unusual among men only in that he sees slavery for what it is, a “nightmare.” God asks, “Where are your Minutes, your Motions, your Parliamentary Procedures?” Brown responds, “I ain’t against them. They are all right I reckon for them that have the time.” Note that Faulkner makes God sound lame and officious, and gives Brown, an Ohioan, the locutions of a backwoods Mississippian. As a man of action, and as a person who acknowledges the true nature of things, Brown is a kind of honorary Southerner.
Faulkner called Lafayette County, his home, “the final blue and dying echo of the Appalachian mountains.” This is true. I followed the spine of the alpine chain southwest from the peaks of Harpers Ferry, where the weather was cool and pleasant, down through Tennessee, until the mountains dribbled away in the heat of northern Mississippi. Lafayette County was the last place where the hills were substantial. I drove an additional hour west to see the Delta, which was flat, consistent with its reputation. Then I turned around and drove to Oxford.
Rowan Oak, where Faulkner lived from the age of thirty-two until his death at sixty-five, stands just outside of downtown Oxford, but it’s surrounded by woods, invisible from the road. From the dirt parking lot, you walk through a hardwood forest of virgin timber until a clearing opens before you and you are in a secluded “postage stamp” world, to use Faulkner’s term, several acres of grass and gardens walled in on all sides by dense foliage. There is a long, broad footpath lined with fragrant red cedars, planted in the 1870s because they were thought to combat yellow fever. The footpath leads to a big white house. Most of Oxford looks like any American college town, block after block of modest Colonials on their little green lots. But at Rowan Oak, the manorial landscape perseveres.
The two-story clapboard house was built in 1844 by William Turner, the same Oxonian who built the nearby mansion that inspired “the Compson place,” the setting of The Sound and the Fury. Rowan Oak is not as grand as the Compson place, let alone the cotton-kingdom palaces in the environs of Natchez and Charleston. It looks like a crude drawing of a Greek Revival house; four Doric columns support an unadorned pediment. It’s plainer than Emily Dickinson’s house in Amherst, and about the same size. But Dickinson’s house faces the street and is visible to its neighbors, despite the poet’s famous reclusiveness. Rowan Oak, by contrast, is hidden from the surrounding village, set apart; it takes a bit of effort to get to or away from it. You’d think that Faulkner, famous for writing interlocking stories about a community where everybody was in everybody’s business (his invented Yoknapatawpha County) would have lived in a house situated as Dickinson’s was, on a thoroughfare, in the thick of things, and that Dickinson would have lived in a place like Rowan Oak. Circling the house counter-clockwise, I saw the wooden smokehouse Faulkner erected on the ruins of the quarters for enslaved people, the post oak barn he built for his cow, and the stable he built for his horses. He loved riding; he joined two foxhunting clubs while Writer-in-Residence at the University of Virginia, and a fall from horseback at Rowan Oak was a factor in his early death, because the pain from the injury made it harder for him to stay sober. On the right side of the house, there was the portico, where, standing in the shade one evening, Faulkner’s wife, Estelle, gave him the title for one of his novels, remarking that there was something unusual about the quality of light in August. She later threw the one extant manuscript of Light in August out the window of a moving car, forcing her adulterous, dipsomaniacal husband to pull over and gather the pages.
It was August when I was there, and I thought I saw what Estelle meant: the humidity was so intense that the sunbeams looked sticky, honeyed. But it was cool and dim in the foyer, where a graduate student stationed in an armchair collected my seven-dollar fee. There was nobody else around, so he showed me the library in the front of the house, where Faulkner had written Light in August and Absalom, Absalom! There were handsome bookshelves Faulkner had built himself, with special compartments for his shotgun shells. Naive art hung framed on the walls. This was the work of Faulkner’s mother, Maud. There was one portrait of Faulkner, and one of his great-grandfather in his Confederate uniform, both men wearing the same sad, gentle expression. I walked down the hall to the back study, where Faulkner wrote his late novels. The plot for A Fable was outlined in pencil and ink across two of the walls. There was something deeply Faulknerian about this: a screenwriter’s preoccupation with plot coupled with a modernist’s urge to transgress. Write a detailed outline, sure, but on the wall, like a convict scrawling on the wall of his cell.
I couldn’t proceed upstairs, to the Faulkners’ separate bedrooms, without hearing my professor, the great Southern writer Allan Gurganus, one of very few novelists who might with justice be named Faulkner’s successor, describe those bedrooms in his mellow drawl to a rapt classroom. “It was a house divided between two drinkers who despised each other. He drank whiskey, she drank wine. And let me tell you, boys and girls …” Here, Allan leaned forward and paused to look each one of us in the eye. “You can still taste the poison in the air.”
The only evidence of discord in the Faulkners’ bedrooms was the window AC unit in Estelle’s, installed the day after William’s funeral, because he hated air-conditioning so much he wouldn’t let her install it while he was alive. I didn’t know to what degree my feeling of immersion in an unwholesome miasma was Allan’s influence, and to what degree it was the persistence of marital toxins in the atmosphere, but I wanted to get outdoors. I walked down the hall onto the balcony, and it started to rain, first a patter, then a downpour. It released the smell of the curative cedars. I went downstairs and out into the rain, and when the rain stopped, steam rose from the grass and the circular garden, from the scuppernong arbor and the knot of wisteria.
This was a beautiful place. But when Faulkner and his family moved in, it was rustic in the extreme. The house was lit by oil lamps and heated by a cast-iron stove in the kitchen. His stepdaughter, Cho-Cho, recalled that it was “tumbled down, surrounded by brush, outdoor privy, snakes, no electricity, plumbing.” But Faulkner was an avid do-it-yourselfer (see Geoff Dyer’s study of D. H. Lawrence, Out of Sheer Rage, for more on modernist writers and the home improvement impulse). He added amenities throughout the thirties and forties, funding his projects with his work on Hollywood screenplays, like The Big Sleep and To Have and Have Not.
During Faulkner’s lifetime, nobody knew whether Rowan Oak was a place where people had been enslaved. It was well-documented that Robert Sheegog, the house’s original owner, had enslaved many people, but Sheegog owned multiple properties, and this one was not a labor camp out in the country but a home built for leisure, close to town. The past at Rowan Oak was both present and befogged in Faulkner’s day, a subject of speculation, like Joe Christmas’s parentage in Light in August or Charles Bon’s in Absalom, Absalom!
After I’d wandered the grounds, I spent the weekend in Oxford, a heady experience for a Northern fetishist of things Southern. I ate catfish and grits, drank whiskey in a bar on the outskirts of town where old men in hats played guitars. I visited Faulkner’s grave and his birthplace, drove around the Mississippi hill country, and ate okra with congenial strangers. I tried to understand why I felt drawn to this part of the world. To that end, I drank whiskey in a second bar, this one downtown, overlooking the statue of the Confederate soldier who gazed “with empty eyes,” in Faulkner’s phrase, at the square. I decided the reason was this. I grew up in Amherst, a mile down the road from Dickinson’s house, and Massachusetts is the Mississippi of the North, Mississippi the Massachusetts of the South. They’re on opposite sides of the American political spectrum, but they’re both places where the present is dwarfed and chastened by the past. In Massachusetts, a given location is known as the spot where the minutemen faced the redcoats on the green, or where Jonathan Edwards delivered his sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” or where the Mayflower landed, or where the whalers set sail, or where the tea was dumped in the harbor. In Mississippi, it’s the same: here’s where Grant’s army bivouacked; here’s where the formerly enslaved Union soldiers drove the Texans from the field; here’s where Elvis grew up; here’s where Emmett Till was murdered; here’s where the earliest blues music was performed. I’ve heard both Massachusetts and Mississippi maligned as boring, and I’ve tried to explain to the maligners: You need to stop living so much in the present.
Faulkner is, of course, the guy who said, “The past is never dead. It isn’t even past.” Rowan Oak preserves the physical evidence of his compulsion to live in a house that summoned bygone times, a need shared by the Compsons in The Sound and the Fury, Joanna Burden in Light in August, and Henry Sutpen in Absalom, Absalom! You can see the agrarian outbuildings he rebuilt, the air conditioner he forbade (truly astounding), his riding boots, and the encircling woods that make the hum of traffic disappear.
Benjamin Nugent is the author of Fraternity: Stories, and the recipient of The Paris Review’s 2019 Terry Southern Prize.
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