Walking in the footsteps of Faulkner

Words of wisdom from William Faulkner.

There is some instinct for survival in all living things, and they will make it if given half the chance.

It was good to walk the streets of Oxford, Mississippi, leave my footprints in the same dust where William Faulkner had left his, and talk to the man who knew the man who is considered by many of us as the greatest writer of all time.

Of course, that’s just my opinion.

But I have forever been fascinated by the way Faulkner was able to link his words together to create a mood and atmosphere that could be as suffocating as the decaying remnants of a Southern way of life that was trapped somewhere between the old and the new and did not want to say goodbye or depart the past.

Oxford was Faulkner’s town.

And these were his people.

Few realize it, but he did, for a time, serve as postmaster for the University of Mississippi, and there are some in town who will tell you that William, as the homefolks always called him, “got his education by reading other people’s mail.”

He finally left the job, he said, because he didn’t want to be at the beck and call of “every moron who had the price of a two-cent stamp.”

Judge Taylor McElroy had run these streets with William Faulkner when both boys were in school. He knew the famous writer well.

The judge said, “William was a shy, timid, almost a sissy boy when he was growing up, and nobody paid much attention to him. He missed most of the fun that other boys have, you know, like learning to drink and going to prom parties and thing like that. He was more of a mother’s boy, in a way, and I think when he grew up he kind of rebelled against that. He had heard all the old stories about his great-grandfather and he slaves, and he remembered them, and then he started associating with a bunch of bear hunters and fishermen and riverboat men who knew a lot of stories.

“Everybody around here knew the fellow that William called Popeye in his book. He was a real character and could tell you the most outrageous durn stories you ever heard. And Bill would get out there with them on coon hunts and drink a little liquor with them and get that danged fellow to telling those vulgar, nasty stories, and the first thing anybody knew, William had put it all in his book.

“William never wrote anything down. He just remembered it. You would see him standing in the courthouse square, two and three hours at a time, not saying anything, not speaking to anybody. He was just looking and listening, absorbing it all. I read every book he wrote, I guess, and I can recognize the places and a whole lot of the people he talked about.”

When you have a chance and are wandering loose through Mississippi, take the time to drop by Rowan Oak, Faulkner’s old home.

Not long before I was there during my sojourn through Faulkner in the 1970s, some graduate students from Ole Miss were inside the house spraying for termites when they uncovered a dark little cubbyhole that no one had seen in a long time.

Tucked away inside were a scattered collection of Faulkner manuscripts – handwritten first drafts, typed revisions, copies bearing editor’s queries and printer’s marks – of a number of his novels: Absalom, Absalom!, As I Lay Dying, The Unvanquished, and Pylon. For so long they had just been lying forgotten among some tennis rackets, tennis net, and a handful of golf balls.

Treasures caught amidst the trash.

Faulkner’s own personal inner sanctum was hidden away in a small room near the back of Rowan Oak.

His typewriter sits on a table.

It’s an old one.

Lord, it’s old.

On the wall beside the telephone, Faulkner had scrawled the phone numbers of friends he regularly called.

The calendar on the mantel remains unchanged since the day of his death on July 6, 1962.

And across the plaster walls of the small bare room – in Faulkner’s own handwriting, in graphite and red – he stood and wrote the complete day-by-day plot and chapter outline of his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, A Fable, an allegory of the Christ story told in terms of a soldier killed during World War I.

Faulkner’s life and his philosophy of mankind’s constant struggle was symbolized by a battered old pear tree that had been knocked down by a storm.

He walked outside to haul it away but noticed that a few roots still clung stubbornly to the good earth.

Faulkner told his yardman, “Get me a post. I’m going to give that tree a chance.”

He did.

He propped it up and, for the next fifteen years, the old pear tree continued to bloom and bear fruit.

Dr. James W. Webb was serving as chairman of the Ole Miss English Department, and he had spent a lifetime studying William Faulkner, the man and he writer.

He said that the ragged old tree, propped up and braced by a pole, symbolized what Faulkner was trying to say in his writings: there is some instinct for survival in all living things, and they will make it if given half the chance.

Faulkner always considered himself as a man that life had given half a chance, and it was more than he wanted and all that he needed to become a lifetime purveyor of well-chosen words.

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