Thousands of students come to Oxford, Mississippi, to further their education at the University of Mississippi. On fall football Saturdays, thousands more people, of all ages, descend on the little city and pack Vaught Hemingway Stadium to watch Ole Miss play our region’s favorite game. But on the edge of a neighborhood, not far from Oxford’s famous downtown Square, another spot draws its fair share of attention and visitors too, the home of the godfather of Southern letters, William Faulkner’s Rowan Oak. The famed writer lived in the 1840’s Greek Revival house from 1930 until his death in 1962.
Now owned by the University of Mississippi, the house and surrounding property have been preserved as a shrine to the author, with personal belongings, letters, manuscripts, and more on display. It was here that Faulkner wrote several of his most notable works, including A Light in August, whose title came from the view of late summer sunlight from the patio of the house, and A Fable, the book that earned the Nobel Prize winner the Pulitzer and the National Book Award.
Roughly 25,000 visitors a year make their way to Rowan Oak, and thanks to a detailed brochure that executive director Bill Griffin hands out in the foyer, taking a self-guided tour of the house and its grounds is easy and enlightening. But Griffin is always available to answer questions like “What’s the most famous item?” “Everybody wants to see his typewriter,” he said. “There’s really so much to see though. My favorite spots are outside. It’s so peaceful out there.”
The twenty-nine acres of lawns, small gardens, and secluded woods feel a world away from the busy streets circling the property’s borders and offer a glimpse of what inspired Faulkner’s fictional Yoknapatawpha County, which was based on Oxford and surrounding areas. The tranquil quality also inspired Faulkner to give the home its name, based on the rowan tree, a symbol of security and peace.
Everyone who comes to Rowan Oak has his or her own reasons for the pilgrimage. In addition to just wanting to see the lovely home and get a look at how Faulkner lived, mine was rooted in my belief that, like memories, places hold onto energies, and that sometimes, if you’re receptive, you can feel them or in the case of creativity, absorb a bit of whatever magic and talent once floated along between the walls. Faulkner himself once wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” And I’m not the only writer motivated by these thoughts. According to Griffin, many successful and aspiring authors claim to sense a certain vibe during their visit.
But it’s more a wish than a belief, I guess, since I’m too practical to think it could really be true. And yet, during my time at Rowan Oak, I made sure I found a quiet spot for a few minutes of reflection, trying to imagine Faulkner walking under the muscadine arbor or leaning against a tree, hoping my concentration on the image might conjure the spirit I so wanted to soak up.
When strolling around in the shade and the silence broken only by chirping birds, it’s not hard to see the writer walking in the woods, dreaming up characters and stories. And maybe he still does. A few years ago, a newspaper photographer caught what looks like the shadow of a man near a bench in the side yard. “Is it Faulkner, still roaming around here?” Griffin said. “Who knows?”
Find hours and directions and learn more about Rowan Oak at www.rowanoak.com.
SEE MORE “IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF FAULKNER” PHOTOS HERE