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It’s Not Even Past: William Faulkner In Present-Day Oxford

By Tyler Malone

I was racing against time. Specifically, the clock. I had hours of sunlight left, but not much time before Rowan Oak would close for the day. Rowan Oak is the house in which writer William Faulkner lived in Oxford, Mississippi, from 1930 until his death in 1962. Now owned and operated by the University of Mississippi, the house museum closes at 4:00 PM.

I had stopped at Elvis Presley’s birthplace in nearby Tupelo on my drive toward Oxford, and that had slowed me down considerably. 4:00 PM was only a little over an hour away. The clock read 2:39, then 2:40, then 2:41, etc. I kept thinking of the oft-quoted line of Quentin Compson’s from The Sound and the Fury: “Clocks slay time…time is dead as long as it is being clicked off by little wheels; only when the clock stops does time come to life.”

Hitting one of those mysterious pockets of traffic that seem to have no origin and no end, I watched my car’s timeslayer click away the minutes. 2:47, 2:48…2:51. My heart was racing; I was cursing. That day was the only day I’d be able to explore Mississippi’s Faulkner sites, and I had gone that specific route with the express purpose of visiting them. I continued cursing at no one in particular. But then, just as mysteriously, and even more spontaneously, the traffic dissipated; I made it to Oxford, MS, just a few minutes after 3:00.

I parked in the small lot provided, and began the short trek up to the house, walking through the grounds in the direction of an alley of cedars which line the path that ushers visitors toward the front door. As I approached, a trio of young drunks exiting the museum smiled at me. There was a quick exchange of salutations, a tipping of the hat, a word or two. On the breath of one of those young men, I could smell from a few feet away, was the mustard gas of a day of drinking.

The Greek revival house, now known as Rowan Oak, was originally built by Colonel Robert Sheegog in 1844. When Faulkner bought it in 1930, it was called the Bailey Place. It was he who renamed the estate Rowan Oak, after the myth that the wood of the legendary rowan tree would ward off evil spirits and bring good luck. Whether it was luck or pure skill, landmark novels such as Light in August and Absalom, Absalom! were written here. The outline for one of his Pulitzer Prize winning novels, A Fable, is actually still present on the walls of his study.

As I entered the house, a young woman greeted me, handed me a map of the grounds, and gave me a brief history of the place. She was a student at Ole Miss, just helping out at Rowan Oak for the season. She didn’t know much about Faulkner, but she was nice, happy to help with anything, and willing to answer any question she could. I wandered through the house, which seemed to have been preserved exactly as he left it (or at least curated to look that way). It felt entirely of that past. I had been transported back to 1962.

Yet, simultaneously, it felt lived in, and thus, of the present. Perhaps this was because William Griffith, the curator of Rowan Oak, was upstairs in the house working on a computer. Every once in a while he would shout things down to the girl to the point where random snippets of their conversation feel as much a part of my memories of my experience of the environs as do the actual objects in the house. Weaving their way into the experience, their words seemed to mirror the stream of consciousness style Faulkner often enlisted in his texts.

The past and the present intertwined. If William Faulkner had wandered out of one room, walked down the hall, and entered another, it wouldn’t have surprised me one bit, nor would it have felt at all incongruous with William Griffith and his computer. Instead of Faulkner himself, a Faulkner quote wandered out of one room, walked down the hall, and entered my brain in the same stream that had earlier thrown in some of the curator’s sentences: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

Downstairs, the first room that drew my attention was the living room, where books Faulkner owned lined the bookshelves along the walls of that inviting space. Across from the living room lay the parlor, where an old piano sat waiting for someone to play it. I remembered another line of Faulkner’s, one from his first novel Soldier’s Pay: “A piano had not been opened in years, and opened would probably sound like the faces looked.”

The crown jewel of the museum though is certainly Faulkner’s study which, as mentioned earlier, contains an outline of Faulkner’s A Fable written on the walls. It also contains the actual typewriter on which Faulkner banged out his masterpieces. It was in that small room that American literature took more than a few giant leaps forward, Faulkner keeping pace with his European counterparts.

The kitchen, the upstairs bedrooms and the objects on view in the hallway offered further glimpses into the life of the author.

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Not far from Rowan Oak is the Thompson-Chandler house–another must-visit Faulkner site in his “postage stamp world” of Lafayette County, MS (which he fictionalized as Yoknapatawpha County throughout his oeuvre). Built in 1838, the Thompson-Chandler house was the model for the house the Compsons live in in The Sound and the Fury. I had read somewhere online that it is currently vacant, but there was a car at the side of the house when I made my visit, so perhaps the status has changed. Either way, visitors aren’t allowed inside, seeing that it is privately owned, but it’s nice to be able to stop by and get a better visual image of the geographical space that inspired one of my favorite novels.

St. Peter’s Cemetery is the other important Faulkner site in the area. It is there where the master novelist is buried. When I arrived at the gravesite, I found the young drunks I had seen earlier at Rowan Oak, now doing exactly what one expects young drunks to be doing: imbibing spirits. As I approached, they welcomed me into their Faulkner posse by asking me if I’d like some Jack Daniels. One suggested that regardless of whether or not I took any for myself, I should certainly take the bottle and pour out a little liquor for the writer. I poured out some libations to the writing gods, as I had been directed to do, and then took a swig myself. I stayed and chatted with these guys for a bit: they were students at some small college in Arkansas who had always loved Faulkner and had long wanted to make the pilgrimage down to Oxford.

While drinking spirits, one of them began talking of spirits. He said something about feeling Faulkner present with us. As a man with no spiritual bone in his body, I had trouble agreeing, but I did my best to nod in solidarity so as not to offend. I couldn’t fathom the existence of spirits, but I did feel like time itself was disjointed. I couldn’t permit that Faulkner’s ghost might be haunting us, but the real Faulkner, living and breathing, could have very well walked on by. The moment suffused the past with the present, reality with fiction, and memory with imagination. Only later, when looking at a picture I had these students take of me at the grave, did I realize I was wearing a t-shirt with the original cover of Slaughterhouse-Five emblazoned on the chest. Slaughterhouse-Five is, of course, the Kurt Vonnegut novel in which Billy Pilgrim becomes unstuck in time. It seems strangely fitting now. Had I myself come unstuck in reality?

I didn’t stay long with the students. I took a few more swigs of their whiskey, thanked them for their generosity, wished them luck in their travels, and was on my way. After all, the clock was ticking away the minutes, and I needed to get on the road. Google guesstimated another four hours or so before I’d be in Little Rock, AR, where I planned on resting my head that night. As I drove along, I envisioned Quentin Compson in my passenger seat. He was blathering on about clocks, as usual, things his father had told him, Caddy, etc. My mind wandered and I suddenly remembered hearing somewhere that there really is a memorial or historical marker or whatever on that bridge near Harvard where he threw himself off on June 2nd, 1910. A marker on an actual site to commemorate a fictional moment. Much like the one on the house at 52 Upper Clanbrassil in Dublin to commemorate one Mr. Leopold Bloom. Who’s to say what’s real and what’s fiction? What’s present and what’s past? Aren’t we all unstuck in time and reality? Never dead? Not even past? Come to life?

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