I’ve been to Oxford, MS many times yet I must confess; I have never visited Rowan Oak, the home of legendary author William Faulkner. I mean I have not physically been there. My dreams have taken me there on multiple occasions. In a post for Garden & Gun, writer and Oxford resident Nic Brown brings Faulker’s homestead to life.
Fifty years after the writer’s death, Rowan Oak continues to inspire
Every day I cross the street from my house and enter an alley of towering red cedars. Through their shade I pass into an antebellum maze garden. The bricks that once hemmed in the pristine hedges here are now crumbling. Huge magnolia volunteers grow straight through their intricate rows. My daughter plays with the fairies that populate this overgrown ruin, but my dog is more interested in the old mansion just beside it. She climbs the porch and whines at the door, as if the ghost of William Faulkner might someday let her in.
She’s out of luck, of course. But though Faulkner is long gone, this place—Rowan Oak, his historic home and the thirty-three acres around it—still stands just off the main drag in Oxford, Mississippi, where it’s maintained by the University of Mississippi as a literary landmark, museum, and nature preserve.
“I know people would love to get their hands on that garden, but I’m not going to let them,” says William Griffith, Rowan Oak’s curator, who for the past fourteen years has been committed to keeping the place as close to the way Faulkner left it as possible. And for those in the know, Griffith—a whiz-bam storyteller with charisma to spare—is almost as much of an attraction as the house itself. It is a lesson I learned the first day I moved into town. My new house was across the street, and I’d barely unpacked my car before I set off for Rowan Oak. Within minutes Griffith was giving me a personal tour, even sneaking me into Faulkner’s pantry, a closed room where the walls are covered in phone numbers written directly onto the plaster by Faulkner himself.
“We even get celebrities here,” Griffith says, reeling off the names of illustrious visitors while seated beneath a photo of Morgan Freeman on the porch, “and we treat them just like anyone else.” But considering how he’s welcomed me since the day I arrived, I guess he means that everyone—famous or not—gets the VIP treatment.
Built in 1844, the two-story house was in such a state of disrepair when Faulkner purchased it in 1930 that his stepson said “a strong wind would blow it over.” And although Faulkner greatly improved the structure over the thirty-two years he spent in it, the grounds received different care. The former owner had let its antebellum gardens go to seed, and when Faulkner’s wife, Estelle, expressed her desire to restore them, Faulkner said, “Only new money would ruin a garden like that.” And so they were left in their state of natural ruin, and that’s pretty much how you’ll find them today.
For five dollars, visitors can tour the home, but free and open to the public every day of the year, the grounds and gardens are the real attraction for me. Here vines twist up anything vertical. Craggy Osage orange trees are covered with flourishing ferns. Wild turkey, deer, and foxes roam through sprawling hedges. The grass is spotty, overtaken by the same phosphorescent moss that also glows on the damp bark of the trees, and when the afternoon light (perhaps that of August?) hits the thick canopy of leaves, the air seems to radiate, as if whipped into some vernal froth. All of this, which makes Rowan Oak so much more than just another historic house, seems also to describe Faulkner’s fiction: dense, thorny, complicated by the intersection of nature and man, and lovely.
“It’s the Central Park of Oxford,” Griffith says, and though more than twenty thousand people a year visit, most often I find myself there alone. At sunset, I’ll sit on the porch of the servants’ quarters and throw a stick to my dog. Sometimes, if the night is clear, I’ll walk across the pasture in the moonlight. Faulkner said he relied on this, his own “postage stamp of native soil,” for inspiration, and I’ve come to understand why. Rowan Oak holds within it the same mysterious pleasures of a maze: It’s where I go when I want to get lost and not be found.
An enlightening story in Garden & Gun, I finally brought myself to watch the entire movie last month. It’s just touch to get past the Ned Beatty scene, but hey, he was only acting – right?
Forty-five years after the publication of James Dickey’s acclaimed novel, an oral history of one of the most unforgettable Southern movies of all time
James Dickey was the kind of man who made Ernest Hemingway look like a florist from the Midwest, says his former student the writer Pat Conroy. And forty-five years ago this summer, Dickey’s book Deliverance was one of the hottest things on the stands, a literary triumph. The novel tells the story of four Atlanta suburbanites and “the weekend they didn’t play golf,” as one of the movie posters later said. Instead, they decide on an excursion into the North Georgia wilderness that changes their lives. A canoe trip down the white waters of the fictional Cahulawassee River puts them smack-dab in the middle of backwoods hell. They have to fight their way out, but not before one of them is raped and another dies. When Hollywood released the movie version in 1972, for which Dickey also wrote the screenplay, it became one of the signature—and most shocking—films of the decade.
Author James Dickey at work in his study. Courtesy of Dickey papers, Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library, Emory University
Dickey’s poetry made him famous, the nation’s poet laureate. But Deliverance catapulted him into the stratosphere, where he was toasted all the way from The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson in Hollywood to the presidential inauguration in 1977. For decades, the themes of the story had haunted the native Georgian. It started with canoe and hunting trips in the 1950s. “I love the woods and I love wild nature,” he said in a short studio documentary produced to accompany the film’s release. He envisioned a battle between man and nature in which man summons within himself courage he never knew he had.
During the summer of 1971, Deliverance came to life just a little more than a hundred miles northeast of Atlanta. There in Rabun County, an adventurous director and cast plunged into the rapids of the Chattooga River to capture Dickey’s masterwork. But our story begins in 1961, when Dickey was working at the Atlanta advertising agency Burke Dowling Adams. When he wasn’t writing, he was at the Bitsy Grant Tennis Center.
Read the remainder of this interview here.
This blog post is by Alex Hendrickson and appeared in StyleBlueprint on Monday. Having been to most of these stores, I cannot recommend Joel & Carol Tomlin’s Landmark Booksellers enough. Like Square Books in Oxford, just walking in the place takes you back in time. Plus, if you’re looking to purchase books by the box ask Joel to see his warehouse behind the store. Only go when you have a couple of hours to spend. It’s worth the trip.
“Books are everywhere; and always the same sense of adventure fills us. Second-hand books are wild books, homeless books; they have come together in vast flocks of variegated feather, and have a charm which the domesticated volumes of the library lack. Besides, in this random miscellaneous company we may rub against some complete stranger who will, with luck, turn into the best friend we have in the world.” ― Virginia Woolf, Street Haunting
Like many of you, we appreciate a story when read from paper pages — even more so when those pages have smudges from past readers, folds on saved pages and even an occasional underlined sentence or verse that spoke to the previous owner. There is something commandingly intimate about getting lost in a secondhand book, and a few dedicated souls in town allow us to indulge in the pleasure of picking up a book with a history of its own. If you are on the hunt for a good, gently loved book, or just have the desire to spend all day sifting through great literature, head to one of these locally owned used bookstores for one-of-a-kind collections.
114 E. Main St., Franklin • (615) 791-6400
Hours: Monday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Housed in The Old Factory Store (built in 1826), Landmark Booksellers elicits feelings of visiting an old friend’s home. Cocktail hour begins at 4 p.m., meaning you can find Joel Tomlin, who owns Landmark with his wife, Carol, sipping a bourbon on the comfortable leather couches enveloped by 60,000 new and hard-to-find rare books, including more than 1,500 signed first editions. The atmosphere is welcoming and the selection is diverse.
The original inventory that helped open the bookstore — a 50,000-plus collection — came from Dad’s Old Bookstore, which was located in Green Hills and closed 11 years ago. The Tomlilns, in an attempt to find something to do together, opened Landmark Booksellers with that collection in July 2005, and the selection of books has only grown over the years. Joel’s passion lies in Tennessee and Southern literature, culture and history, but that is not all you will find in this two-story shop. Books on all subjects are conveniently arranged, making looking and exploring even more fun. While you are hunting for the perfect book, allow any kiddos you have in tow to be entertained in the children’s reading room. (Insider tip: if you cannot find something you are looking for, Landmark Booksellers has a one-day wait on new books. So let them order it for you!)
The building, which was once home to a jewelry store, is the oldest commercial building in Franklin. Its history and architecture attracted the couple to open their business and continues to attract tourists today. While they have a solid foundation of loyal, local customers, they also have the benefit of incoming tourists. Two books that have brought a lot of folks in? The Widow of the South, by Robert Hicks, and The Bridge, by Karen Kingsbury (loosely based on the bookstore).
Read the rest of the blog here.
This column appears in The Bitter Southerner, a neat website devoted to educating Northerners (a.k.a. Yankees) on the wonder of the South. Like this site but do disagreement slightly on the comment regarding “states rights” in the About section.
The cold months are for the hard books, the ones that reward — sometimes even magically — a reader’s persistence.
By Chuck Reece
The winter reading season summons both guilt and opportunity for the dedicated fan of the book. Guilt, because that curl-up-under-a-quilt reading time, which winter offers, calls upon us to attack at long last the most challenging volumes. Opportunity, because if you attack a challenging one, it can — given a little patience and persistence on your part — open its wonders to you.
Take Old Bill’s greatest masterpiece, for instance. The first time I attempted Faulkner’s daunting “Absalom, Absalom!” my reaction was something along the lines of “My god, what have I done?” The first sentence was hard enough.
“From a little after two o’clock until almost sundown of the long still hot weary dead September afternoon they sat in what Miss Coldfield still called the office because her father had called it that – a dim hot airless room with the blinds all closed and fastened for forty-three summers because when she was a girl someone had believed that light and moving air carried heat and that dark was always cooler, and which (as the sun shone fuller and fuller on that side of the house) became latticed with yellow slashes full of dust motes which Quentin thought of as being flecks of the dead old dried paint itself borne inward from the scaling blinds as wind might have blown them.”
That’s 123 words, filled with long, comma-less strings of adjectives. And that sentence is only about a 10th the length of the longest in the book.
I persisted only because I was on a Southern Lit-class forced march. Unread, ungraded. Couldn’t have that. Then, about 150 pages in, something happened. It finally dawned on me that what I was reading was like the voices in my head — chattering endlessly, always modifying and questioning. I realized Old Bill had somehow managed to translate internal conversation not only into language, but also into an epic tale of three families — and the greatest meditation ever written on why we love and hate our region simultaneously. Now, I find new rewards in “Absalom” with every repeated reading.
Certain books still taunt me; their codes seem uncrackable to me. James Joyce still eludes me, and I wonder how many times I’ll have to pick up “Infinite Jest” before I finally finish it. If ever.
So today, let’s talk about The Bitter Southerner Family’s winter reading habits. Do you use the winter to take on the difficult books? Which ones have finally revealed themselves to you? Which ones do you just have to put down, winter after winter? Tell us of your successes and failures, preferably with your own photographs of the dog-eared copies of the books in question.