Purchased in 1930 following the release of The Sound and the Fury (1929), William Faulkner would write his foremost novels and raise his family within this Oxford, MS, primitive Greek revival house. Formerly known as “The Bailey House,” owned by the Irish immigrant and Tennessean, Colonel Robert Sheegog, Faulkner renamed it Rowan Oak in 1931. Named after the rowan tree, a symbol of security and peace, it would remain as the Faulkner’s family home up until 1962, the year of William Faulkner’s death.
Now owned by the University of Mississippi, sold by Jill Faulkner Summers in 1972 as a means of historical preservation, the property remains a reminder of the imaginative, private world of William Faulkner. Placed back from the entry road, secured between acres of cedar and hardwood, Faulkner’s home emanates a thematic importance for those that have embraced the vivid world of Yoknapatawpha County and the characters that inhabited it: readers are finally allowed to witness his property with their own eyes, beyond the page, and experience his world as he both saw it and imagined it.
It’s quite breathtaking to venture around this estate. A self-described fanboy of Faulkner’s works, it was difficult to not become overwhelmed while walking around the property. I was tracing the same dirt as this prolific writer – peering into the life and land that was his own – and it was quite easy to feel the world and its folklore that he created across his lifetime.
The property was calm and reserved, displaced from the road and maintaining a respectful, solemn atmosphere. To enter the property you had to traverse a small set of cedar and other hardwood trees, moving along the dirt paths until his gardens and home came into view. For the Gothic nature of gardens filled with sweet shrubs, privet hedges, wisteria, roses, and scuppernong vines, Faulkner’s love for his natural landscape was well preserved and still emanating the life its planter had imbued it.
Besides its surrounding natural environment and half-century old gardens, the property was equally lined with outbuildings – a detached kitchen, post oak barn, servants’ quarters, and stable. Many of these were built with the original construction of the property, serving a separate purpose in a different age, but Faulkner re-purposed most for personal use. The detached kitchen, originally serving as the primary kitchen of the property, was rarely used following the construction of an in-home kitchen in the early 1900s. In the 1930s, Faulkner would convert the building for another cooking use, turning it into a smokehouse wherein he would smoke and store hams across the year.
The post oak barn, used as a log cabin in the 19th century, became Faulkner’s tool shed and housing unit for the family’s milk cow. The servant’s quarters were converted by Faulkner from an original 1840s structure of the property, utilized as the quarters for the family caretaker Caroline Barr (“Mammy Callie”). She lived in the house, working for the Faulkner’s, from 1930 to 1940, when she died at the age of 100.
The stable, which Faulkner built himself in 1957, was the home to the Faulkner’s horses as well as the horse’s feed and a horse trailer. Faulkner, he grew an affinity for horse-riding, especially with his favorite horse, Tempy, was seriously injured by horse-riding accidents in both 1959 and 1962. Unfortunately, the 1962-fall would lead to a case of thrombosis which ultimately resulted in his death on July 6, 1962.
The innards of the home are quite similar to the property it rests upon – picturesque and classically Southern Gothic. While the home is lit similar to how it was years ago, it doesn’t make for the best photographs; however, the sights are certainly vivid and dense.
Entering the home, you are met with a cascading, banister-lined set of stairs and two rooms – the home’s library and parlor. The library, which was Faulkner’s former writing room, is lined by exquisitely portraits of the Faulkner men – Wm. Faulkner, his father (Murry), his grandfather (J.W.T.), and his great-grandfather (Col. Wm. C.) – and Preacher Green Liggin as painted by Faulkner’s mother, Maud Butler Faulkner. The bookshelves, also built by Faulkner, are lined from top to bottom with a variety of texts – whether fiction, non-fiction, religious texts, etc.
The parlor, the primary sitting room of the home, features a distinct, oil-painted portrait of Faulkner in his riding gear, and was the site of both Mammy Callie’s 1940 funeral and Faulkner’s funeral in 1962.
The rest of the house features the separate bedrooms of Faulkner, his wife, his children, and his grandchildren, as well as a number of glass cases filled with memorabilia of Faulkner – from his favored liquor, tobacco container and pipe, books and transcripts, bibles, and maps of his ingenious Yoknapatawpha County. The other primary stop within the home is Faulkner’s office/writing room that he had built in 1950.
The room is a decent size, lined with bookcases and chairs, featuring a bed pushed into the rear-wall (where Faulkner could nap if he felt so inclined to do), and his primary typewriter, which rests upon a small table that was gifted to Faulkner by his mother (the primary desk he utilized for writing virtually all of the years in which he lived at Rowan Oak). To suddenly enter the den, to imagine him sitting, possibly hunched over, shoulders twisted over the chest while pounding away at his typewriter, likely drunk on Four Roses bourbon and puffing away at sweet, Southern tobacco, is a an imagined sight that appears so clearly among the dim-lit room.
The one image that stands out most prominently from the room is its far corner walls, in which there are the liner notes of Faulkner’s A Fable written on the wall in graphite pencil and red grease pencil. The story goes that he had originally taped the outline-pages of the novel’s manuscript on the walls of the writing room, but after the midday swaths of wind had continued to unhinge the tape from the wall, blowing the papers towards the ground, Faulkner had grown irate. For that reason, he picked up those pencils and scribbled his outline into the wall, depicting the daily events of a story about the Holy Week set during World War I. It’s unlikely that he had intended for his response to a spark of annoyance to leave this indefinite, historical mark on his home, but it surely feels that way – a parting gift into his mind for whoever visits.
My adventure through Rowan Oak and it’s collective property – the grounds and Bailey’s Woods – made for a unique, emotional experience. Whether you are someone that cares deeply for the works of Faulkner, utterly despise them, or have yet to unleash the bindings of one, entering into his world is an encounter that is worthwhile.
If not for the love of his literature, it is a means of stepping of back in time, walking into a Southern Gothic landscape rich with visual history. While some authors exist and live on solely through their works, it’s nice to know that such eclectic property is maintained to this day.
While “out of the way” in regards to my path across the United States – what some my refer to as a detour – this was one of the dearest locations I stopped at along the way. One can only hope that they might leave such a mark for others to explore even when they are gone.
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