Years ago, I visited Rowan Oak—William Faulkner‘s home in Oxford, Mississippi. Rowan Oak is more than just a Pulitzer-prize winning author’s home. It’s an example of Greek Revival architecture, and it was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1968. I figured my visit might make a good article, and so I brought my camera with me.
I arrived just in time to catch the sunset. When I walked up to the house, students from the university were scattered around the grounds and the porches, each with a drawing pad, sketching. I didn’t start taking pictures until I’d walked all the way around the property and realized that the dying afternoon light lit the house perfectly.
Rather than worrying about disturbing the students, I set up my tripod.
The light was especially nice on the peeling clapboards when I returned to the front of the house. The sky was filled with thick, purple and white clouds. The sun broke through them almost like an Arizona fall afternoon, but the Mississippi air was thick, not just humid. Walking in it was like wearing an extra t-shirt—over my head. Soon all the students left and I had the entire grounds to myself, or so I thought.
I was surprised to find it so deserted and empty, no foreign tourists, just two cats.
Faulkner and his Famous Home
I was even more surprised by the simplicity of the home, and the condition of the woodwork (which you can see a bit of in the photo below, of the entry roof). The home hasn’t been abused. In fact, there’s isn’t one piece of broken window glass. But it has been neglected. Being a sentimental carpenter, I took offense on Faulkner’s behalf.
Once you’ve seen someone’s home, you start to see them differently. No, it’s not important to know everything about an author in order to enjoy their work, but I have read many times how Faulkner bought the house because he wanted to be a southern gentlemen. Seeing his home, I had more of a feeling that he wanted to be respected. A wreck at the time he purchased it, the home needed plumbing, electrical, roofing, foundation—every type of work imaginable. I’m sure it was more home than he could afford.
The entry (The distortion is from my camera lens.)
An original chinked hewn-log cabin, used by Faulkner as a barn for his cow.
Walking the grounds, I couldn’t help but notice how the forest—the growth—must be forever creeping in toward the home and the outbuildings; containing the trees, the underbrush, and the vines as they take back the fields and pastures an inch at a time, or maybe a foot at a time, must be a constant battle. The thick, moist air provides an accelerated, mutated kind of growth—Faulkner’s own words made sense to me: “the moist fecund earth.”
Seeing the fencing and the posts, and the work on the outbuildings, I’m reminded of the many times Faulkner talked about working on the house and the grounds, and about how writing a novel was “like building a chicken coop.” Much of the carpentry was Faulkner’s own handiwork. It’s fortunate that he was able to earn at least a “miserable” living as a novelist.
The stables reminded me of the many photos I’ve seen of him in English riding attire. Although it’s a little difficult to see it in the picture, this old horse trailer, which I think was constructed from a Model T, helps to date the last presence of horses in these pastures.
The gates seem just as he might have left them, swung wide open, barely hanging on their hinges, as if no one dared touch anything after he was gone.
On the morning of my second day in Oxford, I met the curator of the home at the front gate. Faulkner’s home was being restored during my visit, so it was closed to the public. I was allowed in to photograph the mantelpieces. This is in the front parlor, which Faulkner used as a study while writing Sanctuary, Light in August, and Requiem for a Nun, among other novels:
None of the mantels are original to the home. The house was built in 1848, but abandoned and in near ruins when Faulkner bought it in 1930. He was an early preservationist—the style of the mantelpieces fits the home perfectly, reflecting an early Victorian combination of Neo-Classic and Gothic influences.
The parlor still holds bookshelves which Faulkner built himself. The shelves are dadoed into the vertical divider supports and pinned with toe-driven finish nails. The joinery is rough, but not crude. His hand is evident everywhere.
This is a second mantel, similar to the one in the front parlor, with a horizontal panel in the frieze. But rather than a Gothic diamond shape, this one has a single flute; you can see that the pilasters are paneled with the same fluting.
After he won the Nobel Prize, Faulkner moved his study to the rear bedroom.
On the walls are the story-board outlines for A Fable, written in Faulkner’s own hand—a small, tight script, with many sentences crossed out. The text looks exactly like the manuscript folio for The Sound and the Fury.
The entry stair is extremely simple for a Victorian home. Perhaps Faulkner rebuilt or replaced the original balustrade and newel posts. But on further thought, I think the home, its woodwork, and the homes in the city and surrounding countryside, reflect the economy of Mississippi: there is a difference between Victorian styles in the depressed south as compared to homes in eastern port cities, where merchants created a more affluent architecture.
Upstairs, where Faulkner added on a new wing with bedrooms and a bathroom, I noticed that the extension of the balustrade was done with admirable care—it matches the newel posts very closely, using the same simple and rectangular balusters.
His grave at the Oxford cemetery had been recently vandalized before my visit.
The irony didn’t escape me. He has written about funerals and caskets in several of his novels. For example, in Sanctuary, a casket falls and the contents spill out.
But I was struck more on the trip by how hard Faulkner struggled to earn the respect of his townspeople, who always thought of him as a strange, eccentric “count-no-count.” One of the visitors I met at Rowan Oak, who I also ran into at the downtown courthouse, reminded me of how Faulkner used to walk through the town wearing his RAF uniform. Even now, it’s odd how small the sign is at Rowan Oak, and how difficult it was to find his grave site.
The Setting of Oxford, MS
This photograph is of the Lafayette County Courthouse. You can see the statue of a Confederate soldier in front of the building. The flag pole on the southeast side waves both an American and a Confederate flag. Also on that southeast side is a plaque to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, listing all men lost in each specific war; “Negroes” are listed separately and not by specific wars. Faulkner used this courthouse in some of his novels, referring to it as the “Jefferson County Courthouse.” It is perhaps best known as the site of Benjy’s final bellowing in The Sound and the Fury, as Luster drives the buggy into town and turns the wrong way around the courthouse. It could be that the traffic pattern was already developed in those early horse-and-buggy days. If so, Faulkner never made it clear in the novel that the courthouse isn’t so much a square as a roundabout, a hub, with one-way traffic circling. If Luster turned the wrong way, Benjy probably had good reason to bellow.
The staircase inside the courthouse is less than one would expect of a Victorian era building in the north, especially one that dates back to the early 1800s. But the sign on the front of the building describes how the Union arm burned the original courthouse in 1864. This stair exemplifies the economic ruin faced by the deep south; it lacks the rich embellishments that were typical of the time, when craftsman carved balusters and newel posts like a diamond cutter shapes stone.
Most of the architecture in the city dates to after the Civil War, as many homes were destroyed by the Union soldiers.
Several of the homes personify the mid-Victorian era, like this Italianate, identified by the single story bay on the west side, the arched topped windows, heavy modilliondentil brackets at the cornice, and the coupled colonettes supporting both porches.
This was a large Victorian estate within walking distance of downtown. It was undergoing renovation, but it appeared like the gates had been thrown open for years (much like the pasture gates at Rowan Oak).
This is the First Presbyterian Church, yet another downtown building that demonstrates Oxford’s impressive architecture. It’s a Second Empire tower flanked by twin Gothic spires.
In addition to many examples of historical architecture, Oxford is also home to Ole Miss—better known as the The University of Mississippi—which holds many of Faulkner’s papers in its collection (you can just make out an Ole Miss bumper sticker on the Jeep in this photo).
I was a California resident at the time of my visit to Oxford, and California had just elected an actor for governor. At the time, I found it interesting that Mississippi continues a rich political tradition. You can see campaign advertisements for Governor Haley Barbour on the wall in this photo. “Haley” is the name of a main character in the book I was reading on this trip, a Donna Tartt novel set in the south. And a woman named “Lamar” was running for State Senate when I visited—Oxford’s main street is Lamar Street.
On a side street near the downtown area, I found a Greek Revival home on a large and raised central lot. At one time, the estate had an attractive fence surrounding it, but now the fence is gone and these steps, settling into the clay soil, lead nowhere.
I walked closer to the house, through a circular drive which surrounded a tall pine tree that blocked the front of the house from direct view. This side view reveals its colossal columns, the cantilevered front porch, a plain pediment, and the Georgian shape of the home.
Faulkner’s home is in the same style, here lit only by the front porch light—a bare bulb hung from the ceiling. The house has remained empty since shortly after Estelle’s death (his wife) in the early 1970s, when his daughter sold the home to the university. Even before Estelle’s death, the university maintained the home. Mississippi remains the poorest state in America. At night, the sound of the woods closes in on the home. I could hear crickets and nightbirds eager for the sun to set, and fireflies flickering in the heavy dense air.