I learned surprising things at Rowan Oak and in Oxford. How William Faulkner planned the story arc of A Fable. How at home Eastern Fence Lizards are on the Faulkner property. How at nearby Ole Miss, the University of Mississippi, female undergrads all wear the same thing, and for a good reason.
First was a visit to the Oxford town square for photos with the great man himself. Faulkner graciously consented to shot after shot, never once showing a hint of impatience. But he was quiet to a fault, forcing us to do all the talking. Sara went on and on. We tried luring her away with promises of old, independent bookstore delights to come, then a friendly cat on the sidewalk ahead (a known weakness of hers). When these didn’t work, we resorted to the magic words “handmade jewelry” and were soon on our way. It wasn’t to Rowan Oak. Taking in Oxford’s charming downtown square and side streets, and their many shops with interesting stuff we didn’t need but felt the traveler’s urge to buy, left us tuckered out.
(Long ago, the noun form of “tucker” meant lace or linen worn in or around the top of a bodice or as an insert at the front of a low-cut dress, an historical tidbit I knew you’d want to know ever since I discovered it [moments ago].)
Late the next morning, we went to Rowan Oak, a grand home with all the characteristics one would associate with a great Southern writer. Tree-lined approach. White clapboard siding. Stacked front porches with tall columns. And a variety of dependencies. (That’s Southern for “outbuildings.”) From all appearances, Rowan Oak is virtually unchanged from Faulkner’s time. Not surprising, really; no one’s lived in the place for decades. As such, Rowan Oak is both museum-like and a tad depressing. Maybe two tads.
But even so, here was the front parlor where William Faulkner wrote such novels as Absalom, Absalom!, Go Down, Moses, and Intruder in the Dust; the black rotary phone in a dining room-to-kitchen passageway where he received the news that he’d won The Nobel Prize for Literature 1949; the writing room he had added to the house when (and because) his wife was traveling in Hawaii; the living room where he laid in state.
Faulkner’s writing room held the most interest for me. He wrote at a small desk, a simple desk lamp his only illumination. (At least when the lamp wasn’t broken as it is now.) On three walls was a handwritten, day-to-day timeline of A Fable, the novel that won both the Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award in 1954. Faulkner also used a metal plant stand for a desk when he wrote outside. Where was it? In the attic, the guide said.
Where had Anna gone? I found her outside leaning over a fence, looking down at a rotten stump, transfixed. The stump’s center, collapsed in, was teeming with termites. Hopping in and out of this woody caldera was one small lizard after another gorging itself on the all-you-can-eat termite buffet. “Just how do you know these are Eastern Fence Lizards?” I said to the family biologist. Anna held up her iPhone, proving that the insane amount of money we pay Verizon each month was worth it for on-the-spot field research.
As for those Ole Miss female students, Sara and Anna noticed how all of them had on the same attire: short gym shorts so short that an oversized T-shirt drew into question their presence. We stopped a student and asked her why. “It gets pretty hot here in Mississippi,” she said.