Monday, August 12, 2013

Rowan Oak

I had long wanted to do a contrast-and-compare visit to the home of that other literary giant who managed to not get along very well with Key West's icon...

Compared to Hemingway's home on Whitehead Street Rowan Oak is statuesque and austere and very restrained. There are no cats, no tour guides, no painters cluttering the entrance with their daubs.
William Faulkner bought the place with 20 acres of woods and he lived a quiet life here with his wife Estelle and their daughter. There are no bars within easy distance of the house and it needs no wall to keep out the crowds.
The street which runs past the entrance is a quiet suburban road lined with expensive homes surrounded by greenery.
We only found the place thanks to the skill of my wife's iPhone navigator.
This home does not announce itself.
We drove cautiously down a woodland trail lined with parked cars, as though a Lovers' Lane until we dead ended into a turn around where we parked alongside a Texas SUV.
Leaving Cheyenne to snooze in the car in the shade of an overcast day we walked through the woods and came onto a lawn area in front of the house. I felt like a trespassing schoolboy lost in the grounds of a mansion. My wife is made of sterner stuff and she found an unmarked door and walked through it. Inside, Faulkner's home was remarkable in its air of normality. A young docent from Ole Miss took our ten dollar entrance fee for the pair of us and I signed the guest book. We were in. The living room with a youthful portrait of the author painted by his mother:
This statue came from Faulkner's visit to Japan in 1955:

This photograph was captioned as the only one taken of the author smiling (more or less) at his nephew's wedding.
There were two young students in the building keeping an eye on it, and us. I enjoyed chatting with him about Hemingway and Faulkner. He told the story where Faulkner was interviewed and the great man from Mississippi made the comment that Hemingway was not very brave in his writing, ie: that he didn't put much of himself into his books and apparently Hemingway took the bravery comment as a personal affront and they were no longer friends.
He also told us Faulkner's daughter had two stipulations when she sold the property, house and twenty acres of Bailey's Woods, to the University of Mississippi. She said no gift shoppe and no signs, hence the secret hidden nature of Oxford's most famous house. There are no tours of the house, you get a handout and you are on your own, free to wander and look, read and think. It's glorious and I had grand time.
The Great Man's writing room as he left it, much like Hemingway's except in this case he wrote sitting down.
In that very Adirondack chair.
It is well known supposedly that Faulkner wrote out his plots on the walls. This was his last effort:
His mother painted his portrait and his wife painted watercolors. She ended up with her own bedroom which finally got air conditioning the story goes, the afternoon of her husband's funeral. Faulkner did not approve of unnatural cool air.
Estelle's room with easel.
It doesn't seem like a bad job being a docent/guardian at the house.
The house has a very sober, unremarkable air. It's a nice house with a fireplace in every room, dark colors, thick carpets and bourgeois comfort at very turn. I think of Hemingway's place in Key West, still littered with all those souvenirs of travels, of life lived large. What a contrast.
Outside the grounds were perfectly kept, trees, shrubs, lawns , paths and ....a fire hydrant? Unlike the stereotype my dog didn't pee on it. Maybe because she's a girl. I really like how Cheyenne feels no compunction to mark her turf.
The docent said she was welcome to hang out outside so I retrieved her from the car and, as placidly as ever she wandered the grounds checking this and that.
Apparently Faulkner was quite the handy man and he had a smokehouse...
...and he also indulged in carpentry...
...and had a nanny who lived in her own home on the grounds.
Faulkner may not have approved of air conditioning but nowadays there is a tank-sized unit on the grounds pumping air. Cheyenne could have used some!
The cow barn was rebuilt using original woods and Faulkner used to get his milk from the animal.
My wife spotted this "Faulkner cat" on the grounds, as she called it.
The horse stable and paddock. Apparently Faulkner loved to ride, too bad it was quadrupeds and not motorcycles, but there we are.
Part of Faulkner's purchase was these woods next to his house. Nowadays they constitute a rather pleasant woodland park for public use.
Cheyenne followed me reluctantly, tired as she was she refused to get in the car and wait with my wife, but her torture was cut off early by the heavy wet sounds of raindrops crashing on the leaves above us.
I recommend a visit of course, as it was great fun to see the papers, articles, photos and movie posters from his Hollywood period, all displayed in a serene and laid back environment. I checked the visitor counter on the desk and saw 59 displayed, possibly the number of visitors. More than I expected less than would be in Hemingway's house. Faulkner was no prize fighter, bull runner or womanizer but he wrote like a man possessed. Too bad his home is hardly sign posted at all.
From Oxford to Tupelo, a name to conjure with, the town where Elvis was born and where they make and sell delicious bread and chocolates, and where we drank tea.

Sunday, August 11, 2013


I had wanted to drive across southern Tennessee, a piece of country previously visited decades ago on a cross country trip by motorcycle and remembered as exceptionally beautiful and pastoral. Instead the lure of Chattanooga held us too long and we ended up crossing the state in five freeway hours in a hurry to make a dinner date in Memphis with some friends who had driven from California to make a meeting in Indiana. We met in Memphis for dinner and we had a brief encounter in what was for us all an unlikely city. We have known Kim and Joe for twenty years.

After dinner we walked Main Street to Beale where the noise and the crowds were off putting enough, but fortunately Cheyenne saved us as dogs aren't allowed on the famous thoroughfare. That was fine by me as I hadn't driven to the mighty Mississippi only to find myself back among the drunks of Duval Street.  

We didn't find the core of Memphis on this trip, and because Cheyenne's vaccination papers were at home we couldn't leave with a dog day care center, even had we wanted to, while we toured Graceland so that plan was scrapped too and we turned back towards home leaving this city unseen, causing us some vaguely  guilty feelings for failing to figure it all out.

The good news was the roads between Memphis, Tennessee and Oxford Mississippi were quite splendid, curving through lush farmland...
 ...causing me to miss my Bonneville...
 ...and remind me at every curve that I was seeing this world through the windscreen...
...of a cage.

But one mustn't grumble; the company was good and the air conditioning most welcome.
 And eventually we arrived in Oxford, a city built and named to attract the state's university.
 The University of Mississippi was actually located here and though not as august as it's English namesake does boast one alumnus of some note, William Faulkner. Out of curiosity I checked online to discover the University of California system as 120 people affiliated with it who have won Nobel prizes, while the University of California Berkeley campus alone has 51. Ole Miss, has just the one and here is his likeness in bronze:
The familiar British phone boxes are being torn up across the Old Country but here in Oxford Mississippi the enduring symbol was still on line:

 The Lafayette County Courthouse boasted a monument to a Confederate soldier out front and the state flag still incorporates the Confederate Battle Flag, but getting with the modern program has never been Mississippi's preoccupation even as it's  schools languish in last place nationally and its roads are true boneshakers. The architecture is stern classical and lovely.
And while the food may be appalling calorically speaking...
...the taste is delicious. My wife had the catfish, mac and cheese fried okra and jalapeno corn bread...
...while I went for chicken and dumplings, fried eggplant and rice with gravy. All in, with a margarita for my wife and  a coke for me we spent less than thirty bucks with tip and taxes.
 The Ajax diner is a popular spot.
I was amused to notice the servers were attractive young white women while the busboys and cooks were black men.  
Oxford seemed unexceptional, just rather crowded for a small southern town. Parking was at  a premium, and the square was lined with interesting small local stores. I bought myself a book by Jeff Shaara on the Siege of Vicksburg. He is actually a Florida author who teaches at the University of Florida Tallahassee. I like his books a great deal.
 Cans only, but the habit is forming everywhere to recycle in public.
 I was the driving force behind the direction of this road trip as I had long wanted to explore Chattanooga and I also had designs on Oxford, a city of which I had read but never seen. It used to be home to author John  Grisham, and before him the far less readable but far more revered William Faulkner.
He bought a house in the leafy suburbs away from the heart of Oxford, so using our trusty GPS we found our way to what appeared to be the front gate. Along the way we passed modern well to do suburban homes by the dozen, like this, not very well photographed:

The signage for Rowan Oak wasn't obvious at all.
 But we found out there was a reason for that.