That Fabled Voice of William Faulkner He Was Born 100 Years Ago This Week

By Hillel Italie Of The | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), September 24, 1997 | Go to article overview

That Fabled Voice of William Faulkner He Was Born 100 Years Ago This Week


Hillel Italie Of The, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


WILLIAM FAULKNER was here.

He rode his horse through Bailey's Woods and walked the roads to the courthouse square. He squirmed in the pews of St. Peter's church and sat bored in the classrooms of Ole Miss.

He lived in the white, columned house he named Rowan Oak, where the front walk is lined by lonely cedars and the small, tattered barn looks untouched since the Nobel laureate died 35 years ago. Like Civil War battle sites, Faulkner landmarks are everywhere. That red-shuttered mansion near the square, experts will tell you, was the model for the Compson home in "The Sound and the Fury." A grassy ditch became a hiding spot for Joe Christmas in "Light in August." A gray frame house turned up in the great short story "A Rose for Emily." But this is not the place Faulkner knew and wrote about. Once a rural, segregated community, Oxford is now a modern college town, where students, black and white, use ATM machines on campus and drink cappuccino on the square. "It's a lot easier to talk about what's changed than what's stayed the same," Oxford-based writer Barry Hannah says as he drives along a well-paved highway. "The small farmer that's talked about all the time has just about vanished. You couldn't have `As I Lay Dying,' a country family bringing back their mother in a wooden box to bury her in her own city. That just wouldn't happen." William Faulkner was born 100 years ago this week, and in some ways he never wanted to leave that time. Every store that changed hands, every advance in technology, made him mourn the world in which he grew up. One wonders what he'd say about Rowan Oak, now an air-conditioned museum where a Xerox machine sits atop the old kerosene stove. But just as he wanted Oxford to stay the same, he wanted it to be di fferent. He'd be glad the schools have been integrated. He'd be gratified to see his works displayed in large cabinets at the county library, if only because they once were thought unfit for his fellow Mississippians. All in all, it's hard to say what he would think of Oxford and it's hard to say what Oxford thinks of Faulkner. University of Mississippi football is a much bigger draw than Rowan Oak, and you'll find a lot more people who have heard of Faulkner than have lately picked up one of his books. Hang out on the square and you'll hear the stories - like the time he turned down a White House dinner because he wouldn't travel to eat with strangers. And you'll see Faulkner relatives - a nephew or a grandniece, men with Faulkner's downturned mustache, and men and women with his small, still eyes. But the more you learn about Faulkner the more complicated he becomes. If you put together everything he said and was said about him you'd have ahumble-boastful-traditional-progressive-gentleman-drunk-worldly- cou ntry boy. "If you asked me to describe William Faulkner I couldn't do it," says the Rev. Duncan Gray, pastor at Faulkner's church the last few years of his life. "I've heard and I've read so many anecdotes and so many things written about that gentleman, mutually contradictory, I would put very little stock in any of them. The best way to find out where William Faulkner was, philosophically, or theologically, is to read his books. "Of course, those, too, are contradictory and mutually exclusive in many ways." It's easy to fall in love with Oxford, with its doubled-porched buildings and oceanic front lawns, the spicy-lemon smell of the magnolias and the courthouse clocks that rarely work because no one knows how to fix them. But when clouds gather, something happens to this town. The trees turn dark and moody and the wind hisses like a coven of angry crickets. A pleasant walk on a country back road can suddenly turn gray with fear. There are spirits in the South and Faulkner summoned them. He wanted to show the difference between how his people seemed to be and how they really were, if only to say they were unknowable.

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