Sunday, July 21, 2024

Trip to Yoknapatawpha – The Hindu

Rowan Oak, Faulkner’s house.

Rowan Oak, Faulkner’s house.
| Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

A person who had not even graduated from high school. When in school, he managed a D grade in English. Yet, he bagged the Nobel Prize for Literature, two Pulitzer Prizes and the National Book Awards twice. This was William Faulkner (1897-1962), described as the most significant American writer of all time. He himself describes his literary achievements: “What an amazing gift I had, uneducated in every formal sense, without even very literate, let alone literary companions, yet to have made the things I made.” He was a prodigious writer with 19 novels, 20 screenplays, six collections of poetry, more than 125 short stories and many essays. He donated part of his Nobel Prize money to establish a fund to nurture and support budding writers, which later became the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. Faulkner used the stream of consciousness technique in his narratives, influencing the great Latin American writers like Mario Vargas Llosa and Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

“To understand the world, you must first understand a place like Mississippi,” wrote Faulkner. For me, visiting Oxford, Mississippi was a dream come true.

My daughter-in-law, Diana, spent her childhood summers in Oxford, a beautiful small town, the “Cultural Mecca of the South”. Diana’s family was close with William Faulkner. Faulkner had once traded homes with John Brown, great grandfather of Diana’s stepmother, Tricia Lee Brown. During my last visit to the U.S., we were privileged to visit Oxford, La Fayette County seat in Mississippi, the fictional Yoknapatawpha, Faulkner’s “apocryphal county”. Tricia Lee helped organize an elaborate visit to all Oxford locations associated with Faulkner.

Faulkner elevated the place, which he called the “postage stamp of his native soil”. It was a town where artists, thinkers, tradesmen and farmers coexisted. After Faulkner’s death, the creative community grew in Oxford and became the literary capital of southern literature. Our visit started with a visit to his grave in St. Peter’s cemetery, on a hill a few blocks from Oxford’s courthouse. A couple of cedar trees identify the grave, marked by “the creator of Yoknapatawpha County, whose stories about his people won him the Nobel Prize”. On the grave we found many coins and little whisky bottles strewn to honour the writer, who famously had a weakness for alcohol. Every part of Oxford reminds one of the great writer and we spent hours at his house, Rowan Oak. Faulkner lived and wrote at Rowan Oak and it is now a landmark. Faulkner named it for the rowan tree, a symbol of security and peace.

The beautifully kept home and surroundings, is maintained by the University of Mississippi. We spent hours in the serene atmosphere basking in Faulkner’s creative aura. Annually 30,000 persons visit Rowan Oak. The heavily wooded 33-acre estate includes the home, a barn, a garden, a stable, a kitchen, a smoke house and a sunken patio. Every article associated with Faulkner is intact, including furniture, his typewriter, used whisky bottles and handwritten notes.

Oxford honoured the writer by dedicating a statue of his as a tribute, “We the citizens of Yoknapatawpha acknowledge our debt to his genius,” on September 25, 1997. I was choked to tears while touching the statue of Faulkner.

Opposite the City Court, adjacent to the Faulkner alley is the iconic bookshop, Square Books, with an exclusive Faulkner corner. University of Mississippi, has a huge section in the library devoted to Faulkner. It was in the University campus that Faulkner worked as a postal worker and was reportedly fired for reading books during work! University of Mississippi also conducts an annual Faulkner Conference in July.

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