Past the independent gas stations where you only put as much gas as you absolutely need; past the winding Natchez Trace Parkway where there are no gas stations at all; past the "Indian mounds" with signs written in 1950s non-PC language; past a Chickasaw site with the outline of a fort like the one they defended against the French on my birthday centuries ago; past the alternating ranches and mansions and farms on a highway that never ends; is the hometown of William Faulkner.
In Oxford, Mississippi, trees lead to destinations. Crepe myrtles with full white blooms like bouquets of grapes flank the entrance to Ole Miss, where football reigns king with the stadium for a crown, and nice Southern boys open the door for you. Deeper, the Grove of shade-trees offers a respite from the cruel Mississippi heat and provides a pathway to the center of campus, where the old Lyceum of 1848 faces an obelisk commemorating fallen Confederate soldiers. Behind the Lyceum, a bronze James Meredith walks towards intellectual columns, re-enacting his tumultuous entrance into the university as its first black student just months after Faulkner died. Past the largest catalpa tree in the state, more trees that are the homes of conversing katy-dids lead away from campus to the churches, and further on, to the Square.
Today the SUVs are part of the view from the balcony of Bouré Restaurant, where students lingering for the summer and gray-haired locals make sure to see and be seen in their pastels and white-against-tan outfits as the sun goes down and jazz begins to be played across the way. Square Books displays John Grisham’s novels proudly alongside Faulkner’s. But what was the Oxford that Faulkner knew? Who were the well-dressed frequenters of restaurants and bars, the churchgoers, the students? Modern-day Oxford offers us a glimpse, but to better understand this creator of Yoknapatawpha County, we must go amongst the trees again.
A little outside the main part of town, majestic cedars line the path leading to Faulkner’s Rowan Oak. There the respectable furnishings, the horse paddock, and the removed tranquility of the grounds reveal him to be a Southern Gentleman—of a most absurdly normal kind. Faulkner did not write about Oxford, Mississippi (AKA the town of Jefferson in Yoknapatawpha County) as an outside observer (at least not entirely). In many ways he was part and parcel of it, raising a family, being an outdoorsman, knowing everyone’s business. And yet his eccentricities show through in the house: on the walls of his study is written the outline of his novel A Fable. MONDAY TUESDAY WEDNESDAY—all the days of a memorable Holy Week in France—organize bullet-pointed occurrences, complete with scratchings-out. It is as if his mind lived in a different element from his immediate surroundings, and yet fed off them and could not create without them and sometimes seeped into them. Even the jittery hipster waiter at the Bottletree Bakery right off the Square sees this man as an odd, odd, fellow, and many a Mississippi grandmother would rather re-read Pride and Prejudice than make sense of As I Lay Dying. But Faulkner kept coming back to this place, physically and mentally, kneading it and baking it until he got a Nobel Prize and a Pulitzer out of it.
He did, of course, leave. Yes, there was Paris, as there was for Hemingway and Fitzgerald and Breton and Dalí and Carpentier. But there was also New Orleans, the city of calliopes played at twilight on the Mississippi—steam organs puffing chipper ragtime and kick-dancing tunes over Jackson Square; the city of nonstop jazz and Spanish guitars on the streets; the city of beignets that make you not care that you’re getting powdered sugar all over your black skirt; the city with a street with a city name that is actually a person’s name commemorating the man who, incidentally, fought the Chickasaw (Bienville); the city where Faulkner spent ten months in an apartment in Pirate’s Alley by the cathedral.
The trees are elsewhere in the Crescent City; they are in the Garden District where houses are dressed up like schoolgirls in their Sunday best. Water, instead, leads to the French Quarter, where our oddball lived. A muddy industrial river and a lake like an ocean hem in the old high ground. The water brings with it another element—the element of alligator and gumbo and shrimps so big they must be prawns. The element of travel, of changeability, of danger.
Certainly the waters of New Orleans stayed with Faulkner as he returned to his Lafayette County, his Yoknapatawpha. Certainly the outside perspective made him see his cedars with their bee hives a little differently. Perhaps it was with watery thoughts that he decided to put a garden of concentric circles in front of his house. But he came back and he stayed.
As a lover of travel and dwelling elsewhere (wherever that happens to be), I find it difficult to understand why a person would keep coming back and back and back to the tiny place where he grew up. But Faulkner understood that Lafayette County contained a whole universe, and he needed to make it his own and people it with the characters of his imagination. To peer into the rooms where he lived and wrote, to leaf through books in the bookstore that was once his apartment in New Orleans, to look up at the clock tower in Oxford Square and imagine Faulkner doing the same—these are ways I have tried to enter this man’s mind a little. By reading his work, I can get to know him. But his eccentric mind will always be a little beyond grasp. Nonetheless, we must keep searching.
I found him somewhere between cedars and crepe myrtles and steamboats. He found himself in Yoknapatawpha, but we could find him anywhere.
|Faulkner and I in Oxford, Mississippi. |