American Impressions, Chapter 34: Mississippi
It is an old property. The cedars are tall and weathered, their branches not quite their lush needly green anymore, but still thick enough to form a canopied alley against the harsh sun. An enormous magnolia tree rises from the center of a circular garden. It is taller (and probably older) than the monument to the Confederate soldier at the Courthouse Square a 10-minute walk away, although with a siege of woods for a boundary, nothing suggests the proximity of town here. And nothing keeps the visitor from loitering around the property’s four acres, or even walking up to the house itself, a Greek Revival, two-story sanctuary of white walls and white columns that might have passed for a mansion 40 years ago. Despite the elegant grounds, despite a lay-out that suggests a measure of wealth—a stable, a barn, a rose garden, a patio—the house looks run-down. You wouldn’t think it once belonged to the greatest American writer of the 20 th century.
Yet Rowan Oak, as William Faulkner called his home in Oxford, Miss., is in character. When he bought it in 1930, the house was almost 100 years old and looked, he remembered years later, “as if it was going to collapse with the next rainstorm or high wind.” He fixed it up, but it remained a modest home that maintained only the appearance of an aristocrat’s estate, because Faulkner liked to seem what he wasn’t. Inside, it was a writer’s retreat: simple, almost poor, minimalist by necessity. “The only environment the artist needs is whatever peace, whatever solitude, and whatever pleasure he can get at not too high a cost,” Faulkner told an interviewer. “My own experience has been that the tools that I need for my trade are paper, tobacco, food, and a little whisky.” No, not a little.
It was in the solitude of Rowan Oak, from his early 30s onward, that he wrote the masterpieces that came after “The Sound and the Fury” and “As I Lay Dying”—“Light in August,” “Absalom, Absalom!” “Intruder in the Dust,” “The Hamlet,” several other lesser novels and innumerable stories that eventually won him the Nobel Prize, in 1949, and fame.
But Faulkner never became rich. He drank too much, helped out too many people with money, and ran up too many debts even as he scurried to Hollywood to write quick scripts for quick cash. His marriage was a long war. In Oxford, his eccentricities and liberal views on race won him more scorn and indifference than recognition, and he barely lived there for the last 12 years of his life, after winning the Nobel.
Death has treated him better. Mississippi has not resolved its old conflicts over race and its own past’s tensions with the present, but it has at least realized that “accepting would take the place of knowing and believing,” as goes a line in “Light in August.” And it has not only accepted Faulkner, but embraced him as a cash cow, especially in Oxford. He would have despised the addition of an Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant ramp and a yellow fire hydrant in the middle of his lawn at Rowan Oak (“We done invented ourselves so many alphabets and rules and recipes that we can’t see anything else,” one of his characters says). But those are the results of his recent transformation, well past his death in 1962, into an icon. People want to touch.
Rowan Oak is the physical epicenter of the Faulkner world, but it is only one point on the compass. From it radiates Faulkner’s legacy, which says a few things about what we are becoming as a literary nation, and what we’re not. Oxford is a microcosm of that legacy. If the South was “almost as sterile, artistically, intellectually, culturally, as the Sahara desert” when H.L. Mencken wrote that line in 1917, its literary voices have long since become the rest of the nation’s equal. The North has had its Bellows, its Updikes, its Mailers, its Roths, but it has never had a Faulkner—a regionalist who took his “postage stamp of a native soil” and turned it into a world of universal truths that have overpowered readers on every continent.
”The burden,” Cynthia Shearer, a novelist and former curator at Rowan Oak, warned me as we sat in Faulkner’s dining room, “is people assuming there is no life after Faulkner,” as literary stargazers sometimes do. “The young men I see here—if all they know is William Faulkner, they’re in trouble.”
Seven-tenths of a mile north of Rowan Oak, on either side of the courthouse, two cardinal points in Oxford’s literary world prove there’s no trouble here.
Square Books, on the Courthouse Square, is located where Gathright-Reed’s drug store used to be. The drug store has moved a block down the street, but in its old location—before the town had a bookstore—Gathright-Reed was where Faulkner used to get his mail, stand by the paperback racks and devour the latest pulp. Like a miner digging for ore, he could read whole books at a time like that. He’d then put them back on the rack, having neither the money nor the need to buy them, and head for the benches around the courthouse for a different seam to mine. There, he would listen to men endlessly tell their stories and “look at the outdoors—the funerals, the passing, the people, the freedom, the sunlight, the free air” (as he described it in “Requiem for a Nun”).
Life on the Square these days is not what it was, of course. An errant man or a cat will take to a bench around the courthouse, but rarely. The most permanent bench-warmer is Faulkner himself, in a life-size sculpture by William Beckwith, sitting metallically with his pipe in front of City Hall, where the shade of a magnolia tree should have been, and eyeing the Square. The Square is cheek-to-jowl chic now, every square inch a gallery or a trendy outfitter or a bar whose urinals get featured in The New Yorker or a restaurant where a single meal would have bankrupted Faulkner for a month. Aside from the courthouse (“musing, brooding, symbolic and ponderable, tall as cloud, solid as rock, dominating all”), he would not recognize the place, even though its ritziness is of his unwitting—and of the chamber’s frenetic—making.
The storytellers have moved indoors.
Richard Howorth opened his bookstore 20 years ago “because there was none.” He’s turned it into a literary town square for the nation. Its walls are stacked from floor to ceiling with books—rare, literary, offbeat, best-selling, with room for an adequate amount of trash—or covered with the framed black-and-whites of authors who’ve dropped by for signings and reading, or just to visit. Square Books is on every New York publicist’s book-tour itinerary, but writers return long after the tour, just to be there, to visit with Howorth, to buy books in the sort of bookstore most of us miss in this age of megas.
No Border’s or Barnes & Noble could have the same effect. Books here are not productions but inventions, moments in time that have been wrapped in hardcovers. Many of the books are signed—the books by Richard Ford, for instance, because he’s a native son, or John Grisham, because he tries to be, or the late Willie Morris, because he couldn’t escape being it. Industrial-size bookstores, no matter how prettied up with literary pretensions and stenched up with lattes, cannot convey the intimacy of a book the way Square Books does. Howorth’s store is genuinely close to its writers and their purpose. It is a maker of the community.
”This store is the way it is because it’s evolved out of a time and a place in which you could not put one of those great big 40,000-square-foot chain stores here because there aren’t enough people and there isn’t enough disposable income around here to support it. It wouldn’t fit,” says Howorth, who is also president of the American Booksellers’ Association. But he recognizes that most other small communities couldn’t have a Square Books, either. The bookstore’s role in Oxford goes beyond commerce.
”This is a special place and a special community for a lot of different reasons, not the least of which having to do with our history of downtroddenness, you know, of poverty, and being in a poor state of the union,” Howorth says, “and being in a place that went through racial strife, where a French reporter was killed during the crisis of integration. That was an immensely embarrassing period, as was the defeat during the Civil War and everything we went through with Reconstruction, the Depression, civil rights. This is a place where people have struggled for 140 years now, and finally, things are looking up here, in Oxford, Mississippi.”
”This has always been a little bit of an intellectual community, and all the more so because people from the outside have been telling us for so long that we’re bigoted, ignorant, so forth and so on. We try a little harder . . . There are people like that in the community who understand that supporting the bookstore is a way of meeting that challenge.”
When we finish talking, Howorth invites me to “the show.” We walk a few doors down to the Square Books annex. Musicians are setting up on a stage, an emcee is rifling through his notes, a crowd is piling inside on every available chair and bit of floor space. They’re getting ready for the Thacker Mountain radio hour, a live, weekly show broadcast from the annex on WOXD-FM. “We pay them $100 for the hour,” Howorth says, “and they let us do whatever we want to do.”
The Sincere Ramblers, a local bluegrass group, had asked Howorth to use his store space two years ago for their show. He made a deal with them: they could do the music (and write the jingles to sponsors’ commercials) if they devoted half the show to readings by authors. Thacker Mountain has been a fixture since, with music by touring groups and readings by Martin Amis, George Plimpton and Susan Minot, among others. It is down-home globalism, or Faulkner in reverse: the world now comes to Oxford.
Marc Smirnoff was born and raised in California, went to work in bookstores after high school (college wasn’t his thing), and was attracted to Oxford largely because of his admiration for Faulkner. He worked at Square Books for five years, discovering the wealth of Southern literature, and the absence of an outlet dedicated to its distribution. In 1992, he quit Square Books, borrowed $12,000, and started a new quarterly magazine, The Oxford American. He convinced an all-star lineup to contribute: William F. Buckley Jr., Pauline Kael, Roy Blount Jr., John Grisham, Barry Hannah, Richard Ford, and John Updike, who contributed “The Beautiful Bowel Movement” (at the time the magazine was not exclusively devoted to the South). But Smirnoff fell short, managing to publish just four issues in two years, and facing what most start-up literary magazines that aren’t owned by Conde Nast or Disney or their conglomerate carbon-copies do: bankruptcy.
Not that Smirnoff, who’s 37, acknowledges the existence of the word, at least not in his world. “To me this magazine is indomitable—that favorite word of Faulkner’s,” he says. “When we were putting together that first issue, I didn’t know where the next dollars would come from, but I knew that someone would see it and carry it into its stable and allow it to live. Now, the magazine almost died. Four issues came out instead of eight in that time span, but the right person did see it.”
In 1994, John Grisham, who continues to dance with Faulkner’s ghosts—he built a mansion in Oxford in the late 1980s, then moved to Charlottsville, Va., recently, just as Faulkner had in the latter part of his life—called Smirnoff and wrote him a check. The magazine was relaunched as a bi-monthly glossy focusing exclusively on the culture of the South and building a national circulation of 30,000. Grisham became the Oxford American’s Medici, minus the interference. He bankrolls Smirnoff and lets him make all the editorial decisions. In return, Smirnoff has promised to break even within a few years.
The Oxford American also benefits from the consulting of Samir Husni, a Lebanese-American who holds a chair of journalism at the University of Mississippi and publishes the annual Samir Husni’s Guide to New Consumer Magazines. (In media circles, he is affectionately known as Mr. Magazine.) Considering that it took $50 million to launch Talk, the new Tina Brown-Miramax magazine, and $95 million before the first issue of ESPN Magazine was on the stands, Husni says, the miracle is that the Oxford American is still around, despite Grisham’s generosity—which doesn’t compare with Talk’s or ESPN’s.
”When it’s in your blood, it’s not about numbers,” Smirnoff says. He’s impatient with suggestions that the American reading public has gotten thinner, or less discriminating. “There are enough of us who have yet to be stamped out so that we carry on,” he says. “To me, the question is not, ‘Why do we not have more readers?’, the question is, ‘Why do we have so many?’ “ Smirnoff continues to score literary coups. Last year, the OA’s annual music issue won a top magazine award, beating out The New Yorker. It all happens with a small staff in a family house a couple of blocks off Courthouse Square, and in an “Art House” on the second floor of what used to be the Lyric Theater, where “Intruder in the Dust” premiered in 1949. An issue earlier this year ran stories by Walker Percy and Shelby Foote and an interview with Jimmy Carter. In 1995, the magazine published the “last great short story” by William Faulkner (actually, the Virginia Quarterly took that distinction away in its last issue).
But mostly it publishes the work of many young Southerners. That their names aren’t yet known—anymore than Faulkner’s was when he published “Mosquitoes”—doesn’t diminish their importance or the Oxford American’s role in giving them a forum. It is all about dissemination. Rowan Oak, less than a mile away, seems very distant from the magazine’s offices.
The week I was in Oxford, Square Books’ window display was all Faulkner. It’s easy: Faulkner is said to be the most-written about author in the English language other than Shakespeare. This being an era of academic navel-searching (for lack of more interesting searchers) everything is fair game—Faulkner’s repressed sexuality, Faulkner’s hidden racism, Faulkner’s misogyny, Faulkner the post-modern, Faulkner the whatever. At least his works also were there. Faulkner, period. The display might have seemed obsessively Oxfordian. But it was only temporary, in recognition of the annual Faulkner conference then taking place at the University of Mississippi, on the other side of town. The day the conference ended, the display was back to its usual varieties—Stephen Coonts’ “Cuba,” a Mississippi road atlas next to the “Tourist and Motorist Road Atlas of France,” “The Art of Indian Vegetarian Cooking,” a Velasquez coffee-table book, Ralph Ellison’s “Juneteenth,” Maggie Paley’s “The Book of the Penis.”
As I stood outside looking in, the statue of the Confederate soldier on the square was reflected in the window as crisply as the gloss on the book covers which—stepping an inch this way or that—winked in the sunlight. From his century-old perch above the square, the Confederate soldier would have seen it all. And it’s about time.
MISSISSIPPI IN BRIEF
Total area: 48,286 sq. miles (rank: 32)
Population (1997): 2,730,501 (rank: 31)
State capital: Jackson Economy: Warehousing, agriculture, wholesale and retail trade.
Nickname & Motto: Magnolia State; By valor and arm.
Entered union: Dec. 10, 1817 (20 th).
Notable facts: For all his greatness today, William Faulkner was not a “successful’’ writer until he won the Nobel Prize in 1949. By the mid-1940s, all 17 of his books, except “Sanctuary,’’ were out of print, and critics were not excited by new novels — until Malcolm Cowley edited “The Portable Faulkner’’ in 1946, declaring that “there is no other American writer who has been so consistently misrepresented by his critics, including myself.’’
Faulkner in quotes: “I decline to accept the end of man. It is easy enough to say that man is immortal simply because he will endure: that when the last ding-dong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, that even then there will still be one more sound: that of his puny inexhaustible voice, still talking. I refuse to accept this. I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things.’’—From the Nobel Address, Stockholm, Dec. 10, 1950. (The complete address can be accessed at www.mcsr.olemiss.edu/~egjbp/faulkner/nobel.html).
Vintage has just reissued all of William Faulkner’s works in handsome, affordable paperbacks, including his “Uncollected Stories.’’
Biographies and critical studies can stack up as high as Rowan Oak’s cedars. The best recent works include, above all, Joseph Blotner’s “Faulkner: A Biography’’ (the one-volume, Vintage edition).
Others include Joel Williamson’s “William Faulkner and Southern History’’ (Oxford University Press); Daniel Singal’s “William Faulkner: The Making of a Modernist’’ (Chapel Hill); and Irwing Howe’s “William Faulkner: A Critical Study’’ (Elephant Paperbacks).
All the books, and many more, are available at Square Books at 800-648-4001.
* William Faulkner resources at the University of Mississippi: www.mcsr.olemiss.edu/~egjbp/faulkner/faulkner.html
* Rowan Oak:
* Oxford: www.ci.oxford.ms.us