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
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
"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
"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. …