A literary lion, winner of the Nobel… A notorious big game hunter and photographer, who filmed the very first motion pictures of African wildlife… A courageous scholar and leader who stepped into a maelstrom and faced down a violent mob to claim equal rights for all. A legendary politician shot to death by his own business partner in the middle of town; another who gave a passionate and eloquent eulogy for a former enemy to lay to rest a generation of hatred and bitterness.
That's how people are here in Faulkner Country: bigger, braver, striding across the pages of fiction or straight into the annals of history, like Casey Jones barreling his train through here on his way to immortality.
No wonder this place has been turning out best sellers for more than a century. Writers flock here to write about it, artists are drawn to depict it, scholars come to study it. Yet while modern times have tamed the darker nature of this larger-than-life region, there's just no way it can ever be truly captured. Even Faulkner admitted he couldn't do it in a lifetime. There's that much to discover…
Tallahatchie, Yalobusha, Yacuna — the names betray the native origins of this "postage stamp of native soil." (According to some scholars, Yoknapatawpha is a variant spelling of Yacuna.) Whites began to settle here in the 1830s, and in 1841, the state's first university was founded here, its home city named Oxford in high hopes of what was to come. Unfortunately, what was to come was civil war. Grant camped in Oxford, Grierson rode through Ripley so fast he didn't even have time to scorch the earth, a company of young students, the University Greys, marched off to Gettysburg and perished, every single one. In 1864, Union soldiers set fire to Oxford's courthouse and town square. And while the conflict ended at Appomattox, the issues at stake were never really resolved until the Ole Miss riots at James Meredith's enrollment, what some have called "the last shots of the last battle of the Civil War."
In the meantime, there were myths to be made, local history to be mined for every glorious detail. And the man to do it was born at the "tale end" of the 19th century to a family well nigh as colorful as any that he would eventually commit to fiction. William Falkner (as his name was spelled then) had only to look around at his family and his neighbors to see real-life models both for his characters and for himself — railroad tycoons, best-selling novelists, big-game hunters, noble leaders and murderous scoundrels, all side-stepping along a racial chasm that stretched a dark maw just beneath the social landscape.
This is Faulkner Country, rich, rolling bottomland where tall tales and vivid stories take root and grow. Your own story begins in Water Valley, where one of the tallest tales of all just happened to be true.
Water Valley: Tracking legends.
On a late April night of 1900, rail engineer Casey Jones and his fireman Sim Webb left Memphis on a train with six cars, southbound for Canton, Mississippi. Nearly two hours behind schedule at departure, Jones was set to make a record run, traveling light at well past midnight. But up ahead in Vaughn, a jam of train cars made the track he was traveling impassable. Jones, for reasons unknown, did not respond to the signal until he and Webb saw a caboose looming ahead. Webb shouted and jumped, but Jones applied the emergency brake and stayed aboard. The rest is legend — legend that is explored at length and in depth at the Water Valley Casey Jones Railroad Museum at the restored Water Valley Depot.
The museum features documents and railroad artifacts, photographs and original documents, painstakingly collected by Water Valley resident Bruce Gurner, teacher, railroad man and Casey Jones aficionado.
Train wrecks of the human variety are the stuff of the blues, which happen to be the stuff of the local legends preserved over at the headquarters of Fat Possum Records, established in the early 1990s for the express purpose of recording Hills blues artists like R. L. Burnside, Mississippi Fred McDowell, and Junior Kimbrough. Hill Country blues, with its raw, raucous driving sound, has brought rock and roll royalty to the Mississippi Hills to pay court, from the Rolling Stones to U2 to Sonic Youth.
Naturally, literary pilgrims also make the trek to this area, and many of them make their mark over in the tiny town of Taylor.
Taylor: "Kilroy was here." (And so was Faulkner.)
Once a stagecoach stop, Taylor was also a favorite haunt of William Faulkner's — he liked to ride horses and hike up Old Taylor Road; its train depot figured in several of his novels. Today, the town has become a thriving artists colony, home to photographers, potters and sculptors like Bill Beckwith whose bronze of Faulkner stands in downtown Oxford. Writers like to visit here, too, and eat fried catfish at the Old Taylor Grocery, where the wide plank walls are scrawled with the messages and signatures of writers who have come before. Faulkner said art was man's way of "scribbling 'Kilroy was here' on the wall of the final and irrevocable oblivion through which he must someday pass."
If that sounds like a tall order, just leave your Kilroy on the walls of Taylor Grocery before you start north, heading straight for the heart of Faulkner Country.
Oxford: Central casting
When you see the bronze statue of the Confederate soldier standing guard in Oxford's Courthouse Square you know you've arrived in Faulkner Country, where the past is never past. And in this case, what that means is a beautifully preserved town, filled with charming historic structures and as thick with Faulknerian ambience as a Faulkner sentence is with words. You half expect one of the gang — Colonel Sartoris, Boon Hoggenbeck, Quentin Compson — to stroll up.
Instead, you'll want to take a stroll of your own through historic downtown and into Oxford's historic neighborhoods. Rebuilt in 1872, the Courthouse Square has been designated a National Historic District. Cafes, shops and galleries now occupy the carefully restored structures around the square where Faulkner's closest family and friends, like his grandfather and his mentor Phil Stone, once had offices. One special highlight is Square Books, one of the finest independent bookstores in the nation. When the world's greatest writers make their pilgrimage to Faulkner's home, they always stop here, too.
Beyond the Square, you'll find more echoes of Faulkner, as well as some lovely historic architecture. At St. Peter's Episcopal Church, one of Oxford's many historic churches, the minister refused to marry William and Estelle Faulkner because Estelle was a divorced woman; many scholars believe the Isom Home was the prototype for the house in A Rose for Emily, and the occupants of the Chandler House may have provided inspiration for The Sound and the Fury. And there are dozens of other historic homes with stories of their own, like Ammandale, Fiddler's Folly, and Cedar Oaks.
The L.Q.C. Lamar House, a National Historic Landmark and house museum, was once the residence of the noted Mississippi lawmaker and United States Supreme Court Justice. Although he drafted Mississippi's Ordinance of Secession, Lamar later gave a eulogy for abolitionist Charles Sumner so eloquent it earned a place in John F. Kennedy's Profiles in Courage. The quaint Carpenter Gothic style of the home of Theora Hamblett would seem to have suited the bold colorful strokes that characterized the works of this nationally renowned primitive painter, although the delicate Victorian simplicity of the Walton-Young House seems an unlikely starting point for writer Stark Young, whose lavish novel of the antebellum South, So Red the Rose, was a national sensation, and set the stage for the phenomenal success of Margaret Mitchell's epic only a few years later.
Today, the Walton-Young House is operated by the University of Mississippi Museum, a pavilion program that also includes five significant collections and one more famous residence. There's more history at the campus, too; probably the best place to start your tour is at the crossroads of history, where the Old South and the New South stand side by side, and venerable campus institution has preserved its wounds to mark its change.
Ole Miss: Learning curves, historic corners.
In ancient Athens, Aristotle taught at the lyceum, where the Greeks came to learn about art and beauty. The Ole Miss Lyceum, an elegant Greek Revival structure used for university administration, is where the Old South finally learned its much-needed lesson in humanity, a lesson that came at a high cost and that is today memorialized in the Civil Rights Monument. Now, standing nearby a statue of a Confederate soldier (donated by Faulkner's grandfather) is a statue of James Meredith, the scholar and leader who braved a violent mob to claim the simple right to be treated equally and decently. The bullet holes lodged in the fluted columns of the Lyceum during the 1962 Ole Miss riots have been carefully preserved. A sign of the times — then and now.
Today, Ole Miss is known for the inclusiveness not only of its enrollment but of its scholarly mission as well. The Center for Southern Culture, housed in the former Barnard Observatory, has become an internationally-renowned resource for all things Southern, from literature to music to food and more. Not surprisingly, the archives at the J.D. Williams Library are vast, with more than 300 manuscript collections, including the Faulkner collection and over 20,000 volumes of Mississippiana. You'll find B.B. King's musical papers housed in the Library's Blues Archive, the world's largest repository of blues recordings and other blues materials. The Library's archives also displays paintings, photographs and Faulkner's Nobel swathed in a purple.
The University Museum is another see-it-now: its five collections include the works of Theora Hamblett, as well as collections of Greek and Roman antiquities, American art, folk art, and scientific instruments. Once you've taken in these cultural treasures, take the path through Bailey's Woods to the cultural crown jewel: the lion's den, the place where Faulkner composed most of his great works, creating a world called Yoknapatawpha.
Rowan Oak: The Mansion, myth and reality.
When Faulkner bought his manse at the height of the Depression, Rowan Oak was something of a mess, albeit a grand mess, with its winding drive, overhung with cedars, and its four columns fronting the graceful portico. It was, in a word, Sartorian.
Inside, however, was a different story; no electricity or plumbing and the beams were rotted. The house literally sagged under the weight of neglect. Faulkner would spend the rest of his life repairing and adding — revising, one might say. He added stables and a study he designed himself, doing much of the construction and repairs with his own hands. Unlike his great literary productions, Rowan Oak was always something of a work in progress.
Today Rowan Oak is a preserved masterpiece precisely because it will never be finished; it will always remain just as it was the moment the artist left it. In the study you can see the outline for A Fable, scrawled across the walls in graphite and red grease pencil.
From Rowan Oak, you may want to explore other Faulkner sites on campus, like Ventress Hall, an elegant Victorian structure that Faulkner once helped to repaint, hung from the belfry on ropes, and that today contains a century of history. The Louis Tiffany stained glass window commemorates the University Greys, a young company of Ole Miss students who perished to a man at Gettysburg.
Before you leave Oxford, you may want to tour the city's several historic cemeteries, including St. Peter's where Faulkner and his family are buried. Then, head out of town, east, where Faulkner used to go for relaxation and refreshment, at Sardis Lake.
Landscapes of wonder.
Located on the Little Tallahatchie River, Sardis Lake spreads out at nearly 100,000 acres and stretches across three counties. After it became operational in 1940, it quickly became one of Faulkner's favored getaways. He and two of his friends built a houseboat they used on Sardis, and Faulkner later bought a sailboat he christened The Ring Dove; he and Eudora Welty once spent an afternoon on Sardis aboard it. Today, Sardis is better known for its bass and crappie fishing, but there are also plenty of other recreational choices, including hunting, camping, boating, skiing, swimming and picnicking.
As you head away from Sardis, toward New Albany, you'll cross Highway 7, where a little further north it crosses over the Tallahatchie River, where one notable ode to the Tallahatchie Bridge generated a hit song and a movie. The rivers, the woods, the great outdoors of this area are an abiding presence in Faulkner's fiction, but experiencing them in person is an altogether impressive experience. So impressive, in fact, that it snagged one of the most remarkable real-life characters in the early 20th century.
Big game hunter in Faulkner Country.
Paul Rainey was long dead by the time he made several cameo appearances in Faulkner's fiction — playing himself, by the way — but if he had been a fictional character, it would have taken Hemingway and Fitzgerald together to cook him up: think the Great Gatsby meets Hemingway's Great White Hunter. Rainey was born a millionaire (around $20 million, give or take) in 1877, in Ohio, and by the turn of the century, he'd made an international reputation as a sportsman and lady's man. His African safaris were legendary — he once shot 9 lions in 35 minutes, and he traveled all the way to the Artic with explorer Harry Whitney to return with Silver King, a polar bear he donated to the Bronx Zoo; today there is a zoo gate named in Rainey's honor. Rainey was as skilled with a camera as he was with a gun, and shot the very first motion pictures of an African safari.
But it was Rainey who was captive, as in captivated, when he visited the area around Cotton Plant, Mississippi. In 1905, he set up a 10,000 acre hunting preserve there, and began hosting the National Fox Club's annual foxhunt. He built a magnificent lodge, with an ice plant, steam heat, even a dog food oven for his hundreds of hounds; in his perfectly round polo barn, he kept a stable of fifty horses. His parties were fabled affairs, as the hoi polloi of continental society piled into his private rail cars and made the trek to Mississippi for lavish entertainments. Rainey had a luxury hotel built in downtown New Albany to insure his hospitality was truly world-class. Though he owned estates all over the world, most people agreed he loved his Mississippi paradise the best, and considered it his true home.
It was not to last, however; Rainey died on his 43rd birthday on his way with friends to his Nairobi estate. His preserve was dismantled, his hotel eventually burned, and today all that's left of his glamorous adventure in Mississippi are a few mentions in Faulkner, as in The Reivers when the narrator remembers the by-gone "Mr. Paul Rainey" and "the vast rambling hotel booming then, staffed and elegant, the very air itself suave and murmurous with money, littered with colored ribbons and cluttered with silver cups."
But don't feel too sorry for Paul Rainey, because you're out to bag your own big game ahead, as you hunt down Faulkner's outsized ancestry in New Albany and Ripley.
New Albany and Ripley: Where the story begins.
In New Albany, after you find a marker at Faulkner's birthplace, take some time to explore the Faulkner Gardens at the Union County Heritage Museum, the county's official repository of history and lore. The museum's showpiece exhibit is an interpretive timeline that takes visitors from fossils to Faulkner to the beginnings of the area's burgeoning furniture industry. As an affiliate of the Mississippi Museum of Art, the museum is also able to offer a year-round calendar of acclaimed arts exhibits.
You've got another treat waiting in Downtown New Albany, a National Historic District chockablock with quaint shops, galleries and cafes. The beautiful outdoors that captivated Paul Rainey are yours to enjoy in several spots around New Albany, along the Tallahatchie Trails and the Park Along the River. You don't have to be a millionaire or be friends with a millionaire to enjoy Hell Creek Wildlife Management Area — it's open to all. No foxhounds, but there are beagle and bird dog field trials, as well as hunting, fishing and hiking-servants and champagne glasses optional!
From New Albany, you're nearing the end of the trail where the Faulkner story first begins, in Ripley.
When you're planning a trip to Ripley, it's a great idea to go the weekend before the first Monday of the month, so you can get in on the action at First Monday Trade Days. By the time Faulkner was born in 1897, First Monday was already an established tradition; it is the oldest continuous flea market in the United States. In the days when Faulkner was a boy, farmers drove in on mule-drawn wagons for what was essentially a large swap meet — a tool for a goat, a shotgun for a treadle sewing machine (the height of fine technology in those days). Today, the items have changed, of course, but for those so inclined, the thrill of this hunt can be almost as exciting as Mr. Rainey's sporting adventures.
A small town — yes, a hamlet — Ripley is big on hospitality and charm and generosity. Blue Mountain College was founded five miles south of here just after the Civil War for the purpose of educating women; at the time, it was a fairly revolutionary thought, especially coming from an ex-Confederate Brigadier General, Mark Perrin Lowrey.
At the Tippah County Historical Museum, you'll find out more about M. P. Lowrey and other leading figures in Ripley history, like William Faulkner's great-grandfather, Colonel William C. Falkner. Planter, lawyer, railroad builder, successful politician, and, not insignificantly, a best-selling writer, the Colonel's legend played a pivotal role in the formation of young Billy Falkner's imagination. The Colonel's novel, The White Rose of Memphis, scandalized the public when it was published in 1881 and helped finance the Colonel's other great creation, the Ripley Railroad.
The Colonel had been dead eight years when Billy was born; on the night he was elected to the state legislature he was shot down by his former business partner, right on the street in downtown Ripley. The crime went unpunished; the partner was acquitted.
Today, you can walk down the same street where the shooting occurred, and you can see where the Colonel's original railroad tracks ran. You can also see where his body was laid to rest, although even in death, the man refuses to lie down. Instead, his statue, 8 feet tall, sitting on a 14-foot base, looms large over the cemetery, just as his legend surely hovered over the mind of his great grandson.
To understand the world, Faulkner once said, you must first understand a place like Mississippi.
Indeed there is no other place like it, and if it was going to take Faulkner more than a lifetime to explore this "little postage stamp of native soil" — well, then, you'd better get started!