I’ve always wanted to make my way, to make a pilgrimage if you please, to Oxford, Mississippi, to worship at a shrine there.
It’s not your ordinary saint’s tomb nor is it a grand cathedral bathed in a kaleidoscope of light when early morning sunlight blazes through stained glass. No, I journeyed many miles just to stroll through William Faulkner‘s Rowan Oak, the place where the famous author created the mythical world of Yoknapatawpha County. This Greek Revival masterpiece sits on twenty-nine acres smack in the middle of Oxford, Mississippi, abutting up to Ole Miss through Bailey Woods. The day I visited this venerable sanctuary, the afternoon sun bore its way through the dozen cedar trees lining the walkway, their lacy foliage casting shadows on the uneven red-brick path. A handwritten note taped to the front door announced “We’re open today! Come on in.”
My reading of William Faulkner’s work never went any further than “The Bear” and As I Lay Dying. But his life, his devotion to his art, his obvious love of Mississippi hung over my subconscious every time I heard his name or read a mention of The Oxford American, a quarterly literary magazine wrestling with all the questions Americans must ask themselves these days.
A young docent with a swinging blond ponytail met me on the other side of the door, the handle a bit loose, the white paint flaking. I scrambled around in my wallet for a five-dollar bill and placed it in her slim hand. She smiled, then thrust an odd-shaped, elongated and folded pamphlet at me, delineating a detailed self-guided tour of the house, grounds, and outbuildings of Rowan Oak.
At that moment, I moved into Faulkner’s physical world.
On his office wall, he’d scribbled the plot of A Fable, a story about Holy Week set during World War I that won both a Pulitzer and a National Book Award. Those words still embellish the wall’s whiteness.
And what of the food or the kitchen or the dining room?
Accessible only by peering through a smudged glass door from the outside, the kitchen epitomized a 1950s kitchen, or even an earlier style.
Faulkner employed a cook three days a week, but he liked to wield a frying pan himself and could turn out salmon croquettes with the best of them, according to Rowan Oak curator, Bill Griffith.
Speaking of food and dining rooms and recipes, before I stepped foot in Faulkner’s house, I’d just finished reading British author Richard Grant’s Dispatches from Pluto: Lost and Found in the Mississippi Delta, a hilarious and engaging paean to his foolhardy purchase of a stunning Southern antebellum-style house in Pluto, Mississippi. But the most interesting thing about Pluto, Mississippi, at least for the cook in me, lay with the connection of Grant’s house to the awarding-winning cookbook author, Martha Hall Foose.
As many of you know, if someone even breathes the word “cookbook,” I salivate like Pavlov’s dog and don’t rest easy until I hold said book or books in my hands.
With a twist of my wrist and a click of my mouse, I ordered one of Martha Hall Foose’s cookbooks: Screen Doors and Sweet Tea; Recipes and Tales from a Southern Cook, a James Beard award winner for American Cooking.
Page after page of this lavishly photographed cookbook caught me wanting to leap off my chair and head into the kitchen. The recipes sound SO scrumptious. I imagine William Faulkner would find common ground with Chef Foose, only he’d use Coca-Cola instead of the root beer she recommends for baked ham. Check out a few of Foose’s recipes HERE, including the ham.
Mississippi might not be high on your list of places to visit, but Rowan Oak in Oxford is worth a detour. Mississippi is the kind of place where you might go looking for magnolias and sweet tea and young women twirling in crinolines, expecting relics of the Lost Cause to spring out of dim morning fog as you coast along narrow two-lane roads with nothing but forests and amber-red dirt to stare at. Mississippi is soul-shivering history, too, embodied in such horrors as slavery – Natchez possessed one of the largest slave markets in the United States – and the Ku Klux Klan-led violence of Jim Crow and the Civil Rights movement.
But for writers, William Faulkner’s terroir counts as a pilgrimage every bit as much as the long road to Santiago de Compostela.
PS: There’s a wonderful, old-style bookstore in Oxford, too. Square Books, right on the Square, of course. And, of course, I bought one of Faulkner’s books, Light in August. Ironically, Faulkner bequeathed his papers to the University of Virginia and not to Ole Miss.
For more about Faulkner:
Carll Rollyson, The Life of William Faulkner: The Past is Never Dead, 1897-1934 (vol. 1) and The Life of William Faulkner: This Alarming Paradox: 1935-1962 (vol. 2)
© Cynthia D. Bertelsen, 2022