The Great American Road Trip
Author: William Faulkner
THE CORN SHUCKER’S COUNTRY
A Guest Post by Paul William Kaser
To understand the world you must first understand a place like Mississippi. William Faulkner
Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha (the name is borrowed from a real stream in Layfette County, Mississippi), is a fictional county that may be more real to millions of readers than any place they have actually visited.
Yankee travelers hoping to rediscover, or redeem, William Faulkner’s South may miss the whole point if they look only at his handwriting on the wall of Rowan Oak house, or the Nobel Prize enshrined in the J. D. Williams Library at Ol’ Miss, or the Sartoris-like statue of Great- grandpa William C. Falkner (sic) in Ripley Cemetery, or the fine collection of Square Books in Oxford. Though they can learn much in these places, the essential truth of the Faulkner’s eloquent creation must be heard in the living voices of Faulkner’s neighbors.
Everything comes; the people, the place, the story, and you just act like the fella feeding the corn shucker. — Ltr to Stephen Longstreet
Since I was a Yankee devourer of Faulkner’s tales, like the macabre A Rose for Emily, the brutal As I Lay Dying and Barn Burning, the hilarious Spotted Horses and many others, when I first visited Oxford and Old Miss three decades ago, my mind was haunted by those rambling, elegant sentences that rolled along like caravans of cotton wagons on meandering Southern roads. I thought I had the rhythm and full understanding of the place, but I didn’t get close to the truth until I went there and listened to the subdued voices of the people who had personally known the writer or had grown up with those who did.
He was a quiet hunter. an Oxford neighbor
Faulkner knew deeply that it little matters whether a foreign government decides to give you the greatest literary prize in the world, presented by the King no less, if you are not respected by the folks back in your own Yoknapatawpha County. He knew who he was because he knew so intimately the place from which he had emerged and which could never really leave.
When a friend was asked about his memories of the world-famed writer, he answered, “He was a quiet hunter.” That is what mattered in that time and place, and it must have mattered greatly to Faulkner to be remembered in that way.
My wife and I took our boys, then five and seven years and appropriately restless with all the chatter about the past, to a local restaurant owned by a woman who had been acquainted with the writer. She told us, “I thought he was okay. Lived up there with some freeloading relatives and wrote a lot.”
“What did you think when he won the Nobel Prize?” I asked.
“Then we guessed he was probably a pretty fair writer. Anyway I think he was okay as a neighbor. He let my kids play around the old house [Rowan Oak], and he never yelled at them.” With an understanding smile, she glanced at our kids, who were trying to help themselves to the offerings of the pie case.
What finally counts, then, as Faulkner revealed in so many of his stories, is not gaining the adoration of the greater world but winning the simple respect of your neighbors.
Nevertheless, “Bill” Faulkner, who both loved and chided the South, chided especially in regards to its racial history, did not always win the unqualified praise of his fellow Southerners. Despite this, he once said that in a war between the U.S. and his state, he would, like his ancestors, fight for his state. I told a student-guide from Ole Miss at Rowan Oak house that this was hard for a lot of people to understand. “It wouldn’t be hard to understand if you were born and raised in Mississippi,” he answered unapologetically –perhaps a little scornfully.
I don’t think anyone did more for this particular region. He showed us how to make literature from these materials. Robert Penn Warren
But did William Faulkner make Yoknapatawpha County or did it make him? The answer lies in the living voices of memory from Mississippi today. It’s worth a listen.
Paul Kaser lectures about literature and film (or movies to his less pretension audiences) after retiring from a long and distinguished career as a college teacher in California. Not a little of his love of Faulkner shows in his novel How Jerem Came Home, which is well worth looking up at an on-line used-book store. It pays tribute to a county in Ohio. Although he tries to disguise it as West Virginia, everybody from Killbuck knows the truth.
If you have any questions about Faulkner, you’ll have to address them to Paul, since I gave up wrestling with Bill Faulkner long ago. It was swell of Paul to drop by and raise the standards of writing here a A Traveler’s Library, and I am very grateful.
And don’t forget to check Music Road to see what travelin’ music Kerry Dexter has on tap for our road trip to Mississippi.