Last week I finally learned how to pronounce Yoknapatawpha. A sculpture of the writer who often used this word sits on a bench in front of City Hall in Oxford, Mississippi. Its 1997 dedication reads, “We the citizens of Yoknapatawpha hereby acknowledge our debt to his genius and dedicate this statue to his memory.” But Yoknapatawpha doesn’t exist. It’s fictional. The writer is William Faulkner and the county he loved was actually Lafayette.
Faulkner’s home, Rowan Oak, is the main tourist attraction in Oxford, a sophisticated Southern town of 18,000+. He bought it in 1930 for $6,000 when it was already 82 years old and in a dilapidated state.
Although I was familiar with Faulkner’s novels, I didn’t know a lot about his often complicated, contradictory life until I visited his home. For example, he was known as “a man of a few words” despite his vast literary output. He called a writer demon-driven explaining, “He’s got to have to write, he don’t know why, and sometimes he will wish that he didn’t have to, but he does.” He rewrote Sanctuary, one of his 4 novels that became movies, to make it commercial so that he’d have enough money to buy Rowan Oak where he lived for 30 years.
I always thought of Faulkner as a successful, much honored, wealthy author. His 16 screenplays, after all, included To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep, and Mildred Pierce for which he received no screen credit. Some of his more than 2 dozen published works won awards–a Pulitzer Prize, a Nobel, the Legion d’Honneur, and 2 National Book Awards. But Rowan Oak’s furnishings, 90% of which belonged to the Faulkner family, are certainly respectable but surprisingly humble.
The Faulkner family was a bit unusual. He fell in love with a girl named Estelle in high school, but her parents disapproved of him because William wanted to be a writer. As a result, Estelle married Cornell and had two children, Victoria & Malcolm. But Estelle divorced Cornell and married William in 1929, and their daughter Jill was born in 1933.
From 1921 to 1924 Faulkner was postmaster at the University of Mississippi, the spark of Oxford’s rich, cultural life, but he was “neglectful of his duties” and left. Ironically, in 1987 a commemorative stamp bearing his image was issued, the only ex-postmaster so honored.
One Rowan Oak display contained several empty bottles and described Faulkner as “a notorious binge drinker”. I had heard that about him but didn’t know that he was a horse fancier who fell while riding, never recovered, and died from his injuries in 1962.
Now owned by the University of Mississippi, Rowan Oak is open for tours Tuesday-Saturday from 10 am until 4 pm and on Sunday from 1 to 4. if you’re a Faulkner fan like me, you’ll surely find it a 5 Compass experience. But go to Lafayette County, Mississippi, to find it, not Yock na pa taw’ fuh.