My father’s family came to Webster and Chickasaw Counties, Mississippi in 1838— the area Bobbie Gentry sang about in “Ode to Billie Joe”—and most of them are still there. Although I do not get back there often, when I do it is always a special journey.
It is not far from Oxford where Faulkner lived, wrote, and died, after creating a fictional world that mirrored the Mississippi surrounding him, both past and present. In visiting his home, Rowan Oak, now run by University of Mississippi and open to the public, I got a glimpse of his life there. It was interesting to compare it to the life of a writer now, and it made me realize the toll the fragmented lifestyle of today can take on us writers.
In the first place, Rowan Oak is very quiet. It is said Faulkner named his home—set in acres of woods—after the rowan tree’s quality of peace and security. It was built around 1840 and seems timeless, as there have been few updates.
It seems suspended, enveloped in a hushed moment—the entire place is a ‘thin place’ where the present, past, and eternity slide back and forth into each other. Faulkner said, “The past is never gone, it’s not even past”, and looking into his library, with the portrait of his great grandfather “The Old Confederate Colonel” staring down, I could see why he would feel that. He wrote in this room with the Old Colonel looking over his shoulder, creating and transforming his Lafayette County into Yoknapatawpha County, a self-contained fictional land. But it was rooted in all the tales he had grown up with—Indian stories, and gossip, old spinsters, slave narratives, and Civil War relics.
The Southerner is able to take ordinary happenings and turn them into stories, stories with a plot and an ending, even when, in real life, it isn’t there. A missed direction becomes an adventure; an offhanded action becomes an important clue to a man’s character. They are still doing it, and it is what makes being there a bit of a fantasy and larger than life.
After Faulkner built himself a writing room he deserted the library and the Old Colonel and took his typewriter there. On good days he took it outside to write. He used the walls of his office to write plot sequences; one from A Fable is still there.
I was struck by the bareness and simplicity of the house, and the calmness of his writing environment. It was uncluttered in a way we never see today. He did not even have framed covers of his books on the wall! No photos of himself and luminaries. No knickknacks. It is simplistic to say there were no TVs, no iPods and no internet then, because we all know that. But the absence of the outside media made a space for the human imagination to fill in. He had only his own thoughts standing between him and utter boredom, which gave him a big incentive to get busy amusing himself by making up stories.
I got started writing, as a child, in just such an environment, telling myself stories. In order for that to happen, there has to be stillness, there has to be blankness, there has to be privacy and an absence of outside noise. That doesn’t happen in my life much anymore. Faulkner’s environment was—dare I say it?—rather Zen.
Faulkner also did not hang out with other writers. His local friends were not literary at all. He seemed to keep his imaginative life separate from his everyday life, as if one helped him take a break from the other. I thought how restorative that would be to one’s art, and how today, the constant pressure to be a Writer 24/7—speaking, writing blogs, visiting book clubs, punditing, mentoring, marketing, book tours, reviewing—kills the creative spirit as dead as Raid kills cockroaches. The creative process withers away under such relentless bright exposure. It becomes just another job, which is the last thing it should be.
Some of my family married into the Falkners (the original spelling) way back, but then everyone down there is kin. In the family graveyard I found an interesting tombstone that I imagine has quite a tale behind it.
The name, Absalom, shows that when Faulkner wrote Absalom, Absalom! he was just using a Biblical name common in the area.
I came away rested, my creative batteries recharged, and determined to keep a bit of Rowan Oak tranquility in my life hereafter.