Rowan Oak

I’ve always assumed Faulkner was drunk when he named his house because there is no such tree as a rowan oak. There is a rowan tree, also called a mountain ash, and sometimes it’s referred to as rowan ash, but that’s as close as we get. It’s a bushy tree of northern climes with red or white berries, and in some myths its reputed to ward off malevolent spirits, and maybe that’s what appealed to Faulkner. Or maybe he called it Rowan Oak simply because it sounds better than Rowan Ash, that stressed syllable of a hard “k” a more stolid and resolute finish than the slide into the half-heartedness of a “sh” sound, the difference between a high five after something successful or a friendly rub of the shoulder. Whatever the reason, I bet he was sloshed when he named it and, once sober, saw his mistake but, like most drunks, flatly refused to admit it or change the name.

It’s a gorgeous Greek revival home just a few blocks west of the town square in Oxford, Mississippi, surely one of the country’s prettiest towns. It stands at the end of a quiet block of other old and elegant homes, wooden and colorful, and it is surrounded by a few acres of woodland, making it feel as if you are somewhere deeply rural and not a couple blocks from an active main street. In my late teens and twenties, I made a pilgrimage to Rowan Oak at least once a year, and all those trips now blend and mingle like old friends in the reunion of my memory.

One year I got a neurotically early start and was in Arkansas soon after the sun had risen. Wanting some coffee, I pulled into a small-town gas station just as it opened, and while I waited for it to finish brewing, I looked down at the day’s headline about the surprise wedding between Michael Jackson and Lisa Marie Presley.

“What do you think of that?” asked the young woman behind the counter, boney and long-haired, the only other person in the store, her southern accent slight.

“Well,” I said, “sure seems like an odd couple, but maybe they’re nuts about each other.” We had no proof, but like many I thought Michael was gay, and so his marriage to any woman was going to strike me as odd. That said, this was decades before gay marriage and being gay was so widely accepted, so I also thought maybe they were great friends and she was doing him a favor to ward off the gossip and speculation.

But for the young woman, gayness wasn’t the issue. “I think her daddy is not pleased,” she said, arms crossed, staring at me so intently, just daring me to defy her. General consensus at the time was that Elvis had been dead for about fifteen years. “Oh, he’s alive,” she said. “He’s been in hiding for years, but this marriage is the thing that’ll bring him out. You watch. He. Is. Not. Pleased.”

I nodded in agreement, got my coffee and wished her a good day. And Elvis never came out of hiding, although maybe he knew the marriage wasn’t going to last long. I have long wondered what on earth made that woman so emotionally invested and angry over the marriage between Michael and Lisa Marie, and I’ve used my imagination to arrive somewhere other than the obvious place, but there really is no other explanation beyond the hatred of a black man having sex with a white woman, the most crazed and feral of rages as alive and healthy today as it’s always been; it must kill these racists to see so many mixed-race couples on TV commercials these days but then people don’t have sex in commercials, they just sell things. Of course, a great number of lynchings, including the most notorious of them all, Emmet Till’s, were borne of this crazed and fearful rage, but most of the time that was just an excuse to kill a black man and assert power. The fear has never been based in reality, but a fear whose fruit is racism or hate never is. When Teddy Roosevelt hosted Booker T. Washington in the White House for dinner, South Carolina’s Senator Ben Tillman said the South would “have to kill a thousand niggers before they will learn their place again.” To atone for his mistake, TR was quick to abet the past and coming deaths by saying in his annual message to Congress, “The greatest existing cause of lynching is the perpetration, especially by black men, of the hideous crime of rape.” Numerous writers and filmmakers over the decades have created and crafted stories around this paranoia of black men on white women, but I still think nobody’s done it better than Faulkner in his short story, “Dry September.” It reads as urgent and fresh as if written last night to stop a crime planned for later this afternoon.

The best view of his house is from the front, those stringy-barked trees sentried along both sides of the brick sidewalk leading to the columned white house, the front door and balcony above. Even before you reach the sidewalk there’s a massive old tree with limbs as thick as full-grown men and a sign asking you not to climb. One famous story has Faulkner running out of the house naked and climbing to sit in the tree in celebration of a fine day of writing. Perhaps it was the day he finished The Sound and the Fury, a family saga unlike any other whose genesis, he claimed, was his seeing a little girl with muddy underwear climbing high in a tree. Despite the sign not to, I climbed that tree out front, but fully clothed. I was pretty sure they asked folks not to climb for insurance reasons; those tree limbs were really too thick to be damaged by even thousands of climbers. Normally I am an inveterate rule follower, but this house was my shrine, and there was nobody there to tell on me. Pretty much every time I’ve been, the only other person present was the attendant inside, usually a college kid from Ole Miss.

One year I broke a rule inside the house, too. Faulkner had two bedrooms separate from his wife’s, one upstairs and one down. The one upstairs had a plexiglass barrier in the doorway about four feet high to keep tourists out, and I reached up and used the door sash to hoist myself over so that I could go lie on the bed where he once slept. I lay on my back and rubbed around and was sure to straighten the blankets when I got up.

The bedroom downstairs, just off of the kitchen, was actually his study, but he kept a bed in there. On the wall in that room, up near the ceiling, he painted the outline for his book A Fable, which takes place over seven days. In larger, red letters he painted the day of the week, and below, in black, he scrawled an outline of the action. It’s a hot mess of a book, quite possibly his worst, so of course it won the Pulitzer. By then he’d already been awarded the Nobel with nary an American award to his name, so the nitwits had to scramble to give him something so that they wouldn’t look so derelict. Since writing is not a competitive sport, I discourage myself from taking writing awards too seriously, but it is almost profound how consistently inept the Pulitzer committee is in its choices, both in what wins and what doesn’t. How on earth did it miss Blood Meridian and Song of Solomon by Cormac McCarthy and Toni Morrison, respectively, two of Faulkner’s literary descendants?

In the lush back yard is a barn and a smokehouse where Faulkner smoked his meats, the kind of hobby that would endear me to even the worst among us. One year, as I sat on a garden bench back there during one “pinewhiney afternoon,” two men strolled near, one tall and dressed in jeans, the other short and in slacks and tie. I immediately identified the tall one as a Faulkner. He was older, in his sixties, a mustache and the same eyes as William. I approached and introduced myself as a fan and said to the tall one, “You look like a relative.”

“I’m his nephew. Jimmy.” The other man introduced himself, a lawyer for the estate down from New York or something official and legalist like that.

I was a bit tongue-tied. This was as close as I was going to get to America’s greatest writer, a guy whose work haunted and baffled and thrilled me and so often made me wonder how a human being managed to see and think like that. It was natural that I went straight for the work.

“I’m guessing you’ve read your uncle’s books,” I said.

“Read ‘em all.”

“What’s your favorite?”

“‘The Bear.’ It’s about the great hunt.”

“You a hunter?” I asked. He nodded. “How good of a hunter was your uncle?”

“The best. He taught me everything I know.” I thanked him for talking, we shook hands, and I wondered why it wasn’t his father who’d taught him everything he knew about hunting.

“The Bear” is great, but it’s about more than just the great hunt. It’s also about the environment, the woods, and about how our hacking away at nature for development will be our undoing if we don’t stop. And as with almost everything he wrote, it’s also about slavery and racism and how delusional and inhumane you must be to think you ever really can own a person. Or land. Faulkner’s sentences are unlike anything else in English and so every page he wrote takes you somewhere impossible for any other human mind ever to fathom, but the opening three paragraphs of “The Bear” could well be the height of American prose fiction.

One year I sat on the side porch and read those opening paragraphs. I read them aloud because it was late in the afternoon so the house was closed but the grounds weren’t and no one else was around. Cliched as it was, I even had some Wild Turkey because, “There was always a bottle present, so that it would seem to him that those fine fierce instants of heart and brain and courage and wiliness and speed were concentrated and distilled into that brown liquor which not women, not boys and children, but only hunters drank, drinking not of the blood they spilled but some condensation of the wild immortal spirit, drinking it moderately, humbly even, not with the pagan’s base and baseless hope of acquiring thereby the virtues of cunning and strength and speed but in salute to them.”

That side porch was where Faulkner got the title for my own favorite novel of his, Light in August, a complex tale of racism and race centered around two wanderers who happen upon the town of Jefferson, Mississippi at the same time but never meet, Lena Grove, an unmarried teen from Alabama running away from home because she’s in the family way, and Joe Christmas, a haunted and angry man raised in an orphanage and never quite sure if he is white or black. Faulkner’s working title for the book was Closet of Darkness, but one evening late in summer as he and his wife sat on that porch for cocktails, she said, “The light in August always seems sadder,” and he said, “That’s it.”

If you come to town and are looking for your own copy of a Faulkner book, Square Books is one of the best bookstores in the country. Oxford has been home to an inordinately large number of writers, including John Grisham, Jesmyn Ward, Larry Brown, Donna Tartt, Barry Hannah and Willie Morris, author of The Courting of Marcus Dupree, to my mind the finest book on football ever written—it covers high school athletics, college athletics, the unsavory world of recruiting, and race relations in the small Mississippi town, Philadelphia, where the three Civil Rights workers—James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner—were murdered and where Marcus Dupree played his high school ball. It is right on the corner of the town square, which has an array of interesting restaurants and boutique shops.

One restaurant you won’t find there is Smitty’s Diner, where I always used to eat but which has now closed. While it’s pretty difficult to screw up breakfast, Smitty’s really did it better than almost everyone—the grits, the biscuits, the dozen or so available gravies listed on the back of the menu. Pictures of Faulkner hung in the place, and one year I sat in the booth under a photo of him in his later years, a profile head shot of him thoughtful in a crisp Oxford shirt. My waitress was in her sixties, so when she poured me coffee, I asked, gesturing to the picture, “Did you know him?”

She set down the pitcher of coffee and looked around, not wanting to be overheard. She leaned closer. “He was weird,” she said. “He’d come in here and sit over there with his pen and papers and write all morning, not talking to anyone. Then he’d leave, and sometimes he paid his bill, sometimes he didn’t, and we’d have to call poor Stella to come down and pay for him. Oh, I know he was supposed to be a great writer and all, and I can’t say, I haven’t read his books, but he was weird. Now what can I get you for breakfast?” Alas, Smitty’s is gone.

My quickest trip came one year when I was living in North Carolina and needed to be back home in Southern Illinois for a wedding. I decided to swing the six or so hours out of my way to complete my annual haj and arrived in town in the evening, just in time for dinner at Smitty’s. Afterward, I went to the house long enough to touch the front porch, kiss the door, and thank Faulkner for all the work he did there. I got back in my van and drove north on I-55, so wonderfully flanked in those parts by all those straight pines. My van was a ’63 VW bus, light blue, looking very much like the one to the left of Bob Dylan on the cover of his Freewheelin’ album. In back was a bed with curtains for all the windows, and by the middle of the night I was too tired to continue so pulled into a rest stop in Missouri to sleep. Around seven in the morning, I heard a knock on my van door and was worried it must be some kind of emergency. I scrambled to open it. It was a Jehovah’s Witness. Seven a.m. At a rest stop. Nobody knew better than Faulkner never to underestimate how bizarre and improbable the world could be.

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