The Past is Never Dead (It Isn’t Even the Past)


By Susan Jordan

Locating home, as well as finding a home, has always been difficult.

Born in New York, I was raised in Florida and educated in Georgia and Virginia. I can claim almost a dozen years in Maryland, the majority spent in Baltimore, which is neither North nor South.

At seven, I was rebuked by my father for saying in school that I must be a Yankee. I had asked where I was born, which he said was St. Albans, New York, in the borough of Queens. My logic infuriated him as he was born in Brentwood, Tennessee, son of a once-wealthy antebellum family. They lost it all after the War Between the States. I could not be a Yankee.

In college, I further infuriated my father by a romantic decision: going with a young man who, while not a match in many ways – was well read, listened to me and knew more about music than anyone I’d gone to high school with. He wrote very well, had lived in Europe with his military family and was a Southerner, the kind whose ancestors had worked the fields for free instead of owning the plantation.

William Faulkner
William Faulkner

As an undergraduate at Emory University in Atlanta, my displaced sensibility found a home in the works of William Faulkner [1897-1962.] One of my teachers, the Faulkner scholar Floyd Watkins, was renowned for his annual class trips to Faulkner’s Oxford, Mississippi, home.

Floyd Watkins liked to sit at the front of class, his white stocking feet stretched out comfortably. He taught his senior seminar on William Faulkner like a savvy Southern dictator, considering non-Southerners at an extreme disadvantage in understanding the 1950 Nobel laureate.

Floyd could be biting when he heard a pretentious undergraduate prattle on about some arcane literary theory or enthusiastic when a student, in his strongly held opinion, got it right.

Our class read The Sound and the Fury, Absalom, Absalom, As I Lay Dying, Go Down Moses, Light in August, Sartoris, The Hamlet, and Sanctuary, wrote two papers, and – piling into a couple of cars with Floyd – drove 350 miles due west from Atlanta to Mississippi one hot spring day.

On the road from Atlanta to Oxford, I wondered how I might fit in to the South, whether I would be accepted in the Deep South because of my relationship with a black man. I understood the emotional basis of Faulkner, who – though completely of the place he was born and loved – transcended it, but never left.

I wanted that sense of home, never finding it. And I worried that Floyd was right: I was not a Southerner. [He didn’t consider even Atlanta the true South, it was too commercial.] I had no connections anywhere. Faulkner’s mythical Yoknapatawpha County was more real to me than any place I had known.

In the seminar, I wrote one paper which Floyd read aloud to the class, a second which he eviscerated on paper, and broke up with Dave, a classmate on the Oxford trip. Though his forebears – African-American, Native American, French and Jewish – came from Mississippi, he was on edge during our drive through Georgia, Alabama, and the back roads of the Magnolia State.

In the American South of the 1970s, his voluminous Afro hair set him apart in our otherwise white class even though his skin was as light as mine. We traveled in separate cars but I knew he was in pain.

Floyd seemed happy to be out of the classroom and on the road. He spoke with warmth about the shotgun houses we passed, with their open central passageways and rooms on either side, their sensible structure allowing for a cool breeze to flow through. He shook his head at the sterile business parks off the Interstate, suggestive of the New South, perhaps.

After we arrived at the Ole Miss campus, we settled into dormitory rooms to clean up for dinner. In the hall, I saw that Dave had charmed a couple of women from the class. Initially relieved that some tension between us might dissipate, I sighed to myself when I noticed him making sure that I had clocked his company. This trip might be tricky. Perhaps Faulkner would be a distraction.

200px-AbsalomAbsalomThe next morning, another hot Mississippi day, we set off to see a Greek Revival house –Shadowlawn – a likely inspiration for Faulkner’s short story “A Rose for Emily.”

The house was in Oxford, not far from the cast-iron fenced home where Faulkner imagined that mentally-retarded Benjy from The Sound and the Fury wailed for Caddie. And later, when the mansion grounds became a golf course, wailed when he heard someone say “caddy.”

This stately, white-columned home was the Thompson-Chandler House, which Faulkner combined into Compson as the family name for his Yoknapatawpha take on the House of Atreus in Greek mythology. The Confederate statue in the center of town caused Benjy Compson to wail again when he was driven in a carriage the wrong way around the square.

Jimmy Faulkner, the author’s nephew, met us at Rowan Oak, Faulkner’s Calvert Vaux home. As handsome as Clark Gable, Jimmy seemed much taller than his uncle’s 5 feet 6 inches. He referred to his uncle as “Brother Bill,” with deep respect and love in his voice.

I don’t remember if we met Motee Daniels, a dear and unlettered bootlegger friend of the Nobel laureate’s or store owner Pearle Galloway – both mentioned in Talking About William Faulkner[LSU Press, 1996] by Floyd Watkins and Sally Wolff. The book is based on transcripts of recordings with Jimmy Faulkner made during class visits to Oxford from the early 1970s and 1980s.

Jimmy showed our class around Rowan Oak and its grounds, pointing out the plot outline of A Fable scribbled on his library wall by Faulkner while writing the novel.

As we drove down dusty, unpaved roads, we (in particular, the non-Southerners) were thrilled to see scattered signs of Faulkner’s South which we had mostly had only read about.

Farmers on tractors raised their hands in greeting as we rode toward the bridge over the Yocona River which the Bundren family would have crossed on their way to bury their mother in As I Lay Dying.

Not far from there, we saw a weathered, never-painted plantation house which Floyd said was similar to Thomas Sutpen’s in Absalom, Absalom.

William Faulker's Oxford, Miss., home. Image by Carlos Almendarez via Flickr.
William Faulker’s Oxford, Miss., home. Image by Carlos Almendarez via Flickr.

Further out in the country was a tiny general store with barrels full of grains and unfamiliar brands on shelves which looked to have been there since the 1930’s, the decade of Faulkner’s greatest production.

More country lore, more Faulkner anecdotes amplifying what we had read. We saw fallen plantation houses, cabins that once held slaves and met what seemed like everyone still alive with a tangential relation to William Faulkner.

The 1949 MGM film Intruder in the Dust, based on a Faulkner novel, was screened for us, with an introduction about the novel, the film, and its 1949 premiere at the Lyric Theater in Oxford. The building was once a livery stable owned by the author’s family and converted to a stage theater and the area’s first silent movie house. Faulkner walked to the Intruder premier from Rowan Oak.

I also have a vague memory of seeing the Oxford jail, a key location in Light in August, or perhaps it was just the old law offices of Phil Stone, a real-life model for Gavin Stephens from the same novel. I imagined seeing Joe Christmas escaping from the jail and running down a path behind Stephens’ offices.

Our next to last stop was at Faulkner’s 320-acre farm, Greenfields, which he’d bought with Hollywood scriptwriting money.

Jimmy’s father and Faulkner’s brother, John, managed the farm which Faulkner often visited. There we met more characters who’d never read a word of Faulkner, yet still had stories to share 16 years after the author’s death.

A few mules gazed our way and I recalled Faulkner’s love of them, both as animals and powerful symbols of endurance and tenacity.  Jimmy talked about the cost of maintaining the farm, more out of sentiment than as a money-making enterprise.

I picked up an old brick from a pile which Jimmy said were slave-made, and slipped it into my handbag when no one was looking.

From there it was on to a catfish shack called Taylor’s Grocery near a spot Faulkner liked to fish on his boat, the Ring Dove, named for a reference in a Conrad novel. We were ready to sit down to a good meal and digest it all.

The proprietor told us about drinking whiskey with Mr. Bill as we picked out the bones from our fish. Then we heard of a party near the Ole Miss campus to be hosted by Jimmy’s sons, Rusty and Buddy.

I was completely absorbed with Faulkner imagery and sentiment connected to every barn, house, person and animal we encountered that it was hardly a surprise when Rusty and Buddy turned out to be twins, a recurring Faulkner motif.

One of the boys was a hard-drinking undergraduate, the other, equally hard-drinking, told a story about a recent head-on collision which resulted in his arrest for drinking while intoxicated. I remember his dead-drunk fatalistic eyes. He knew of his great uncle’s fame, but said he’d never read a word of the books. And probably never would, though he seemed to have stepped directly from a page of Sartoris.

I’m pretty sure he offered to drive us back to Ole Miss. Though it wasn’t that far away, we declined. Dave, having had a few drinks himself, told me that his not-so-nice female friends had deserted him for some frat boys at a party.

I thought of Temple Drake from Sanctuary and kept my distance. Drake was a dangerously good looking young woman who got mixed up with a bootlegger at an Ole Miss frat party – where she was most likely raped – and wound up working as a Memphis whore. The least “literary” of Faulkner’s work, the author disparaged the 1931 novel it as a “pot-boiler” banged out for quick cash, echoing the book’s theme of prostitution.

Wrote Faulkner in a 1932 introduction to the Modern Library edition: “To me it is a cheap idea because it was deliberately conceived to make money….I took a little time out, and speculated what a person in Mississippi would believe to be current trends, chose what I thought would be the right answer and invented the most horrific tale I could imagine…”

The next morning, before we took the Interstate back to Emory, our caravan stopping at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church cemetery – Jefferson at North 16th street – where Faulkner and his wife, Estelle, are buried.

Pathetic fallacy? Clouds drifted over to block the sun as we left the graveyard and I made away with the heavy, slave-made brick. The theft was probably a misdemeanor. Over 500 slave-made bricks from Tennessee were for sale on eBay for $550 recently.

Years after the Oxford trip, I visited the ruins of Westview, a plantation house in Triune, Tennessee, where my grandmother was born. After a fire in 1927 – the year Faulkner published “Mosquitoes” [Boni & Liveright] – only the brick foundation remained. I took a loose brick from there as well, no doubt slave-made as well.

After countless moves – from here to there, Baltimore to Ireland and perhaps back again – the two bricks are no longer distinguishable: I have merged a bit of Faulkner with my ancestors.

Image of William Faulkner’s grave by Melissa Bridgman via Flickr.