Road Trip Travelers Meet Faulkner in Mississippi

The Great American Road Trip

Oxford, Mississippi - William Faulkner´s Rowan Oak

Destination: Mississippi

Author: William Faulkner


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

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.

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About Vera Marie Badertscher

A freelance writer who loves to travel. When she is not traveling she is reading about travel. When she is not reading or traveling, she is sharing with the readers of A Traveler's Library, or recreating her family's past at Ancestors In Aprons . She has written for Reel Life With Jane, Life is a Trip and other websites. Also co-author of a biography, Quincy Tahoma, The Life and Legacy of a Navajo Artist. Contact Vera Marie by e-mail.

17 thoughts on “Road Trip Travelers Meet Faulkner in Mississippi

  1. Like Alexandra, this post reminded me of my love of Faulkner. Ah, A Rose for Emily, I haven’t thought about that one in so long.

  2. How could I have passed this wonderfully talented author by? Time to get to the library and open some of his works. Thanks for an inspiring and interesting post!

  3. Thanks for this great post. I *tried to read Faulkner in my younger years but found him way too dense for me at the time. Or maybe it was me that was dense. 🙂

    At any rate, definitely time to revisit this great author. Thanks for the nudge.

  4. What an incredible guest post. It has such a great sense of place — and left me with the uneasy feeling I’ve read far too little of Faulkner. Thanks for prodding me.

  5. I love this – and it rings quite true. I think I may come from a place that has some similarities to where Faulker came from (though not in the deep South, simply a rural area), and so all this has been a theme throughout my life and strikes a chord. Thank you for these thoughts.

  6. I’m definitely going to look up some Faulkner. I am embarrassed to admit I’ve never read his work. Now I’m so curious. Isn’t it so funny though that the waitress was more impressed that he let her kids play and never yelled at them? That part made me giggle. I love reading posts like this–I’d love it more had I been at that table. 😉

  7. My kinfolk are from the Mississippi Delta and it is a world apart, both in good and bad ways. Anyone who has experienced the bizarre black humor of Faulkner should do so immediately. You’ll get a peek into that world.

  8. I love Faulkner’s writing. I don’t know what it is that capitvates me so much. Maybe it’s the “sounds” I hear when I read it. I feel very involved in the stories and love how he twists time by jumping around the chronology of the stories.

  9. My only travel connection to Faulkner is Pirate’s Alley in New Orleans!

    In 1925 Faulkner lived at the (now named) Faulkner House located at 624 Pirate’s Alley. He wrote “Sherwood Anderson and Other Famous Creoles” and the pieces that became “New Orleans Sketches” there. It is the location of Faulkner House Books (“America’s most charming bookstore”).

    The House is host to several events including The William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition, and Words & Music, a Literary Feast in New Orleans. For Faulkner fans, this is a necessary stop!

      1. Hah! Did not see that post! (Although my excuse was that I was out of town and missed my reading). Very nice! Thanks. -r

  10. What a great post! Really had me wanting to dust off some of my mom’s old Faulkner! I felt as if I were there along with your brother. Interviewing Mississippi neighbors of Faulkner’s was quite a clever idea.

    1. Alexandra: He (Paul) has a knack for talking to “real people” when he travels. Martha and Me and MJ, I’m glad you’ve been encouraged to go look up some Faulkner. And Kerry: Thanks for the additional info about Square Books.

  11. Professor Kaser mentions Square Books in Oxford. Library readers might be interested to know that the musician I’m letting you know about for Mississippi over at Music Road, Caroline Herring, often played at Square Books while she was studying at the University of Mississippi, and helped found Thacker Mountain Radio, a program which continues to broadcast a mix of readings and music from Off Square Books, an annex of the store.

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