Author Museum Interviews: William Faulkner's Rowan Oak in Oxford, Mississippi

Thinking of Home: A Conversation with William Griffith of Rowan Oak in Oxford, MS

“How often have I lain beneath rain on a strange roof, thinking of home,’ says Darl Bundren in William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. ‘Thinking of home’ is an action important to many writers–and is crucial to my series here at Tottenville, where I interview the directors and curators of various Authors’ homes and museums.

Faulkner is certainly one of those writers whose thoughts of home colored his entire oeuvre. Most of the writer’s novels and stories take place in the fictional Yoknapatawpha County. He was known to call the place ‘my apocryphal county’–and yet this creation of the author’s is a simulacrum of the county in which he grew up and lived the majority of his life: Lafayette County.

Oxford, the county seat of Lafayette County–which corresponds to Jefferson, the county seat of Yoknapatawpha County, in Faulkner’s fiction–is now the epicenter of all things Faulkner. While visiting, the Faulkner-obsessed traveler will find plenty to see: Faulkner’s grave in local St. Peter’s Cemetery, a statue of Faulkner on a bench in the town square, the house that served as the basis for the Compson home, Faulkner’s own childhood home. Curious visitors are encouraged to go to the Oxford Visitor’s Center where they will be provided with a Faulkner brochure with a map that lists all the sites in Oxford and its environs that relate to the writer.

Of all the Faulkner sites in Oxford though, the one that makes the trip worth it is Rowan Oak–Faulkner’s home from 1930 until his death in 1962. As you walk from the parking lot (which is really just a small clearing surrounded by trees), you see an alley of cedars which usher you toward the front of the Greek revival house originally built in 1844 by Colonel Robert Sheegog. When Faulkner bought it in 1930, it was called the Old Bailey Place; it was he who renamed the estate Rowan Oak, after the myth that the legendary rowan tree would ward off evil spirits and bring good luck. Whether it was luck or pure skill, landmark novels such as Light in August and Absalom, Absalom! were written here. The outline for one of his Pulitzer Prize winning novels, A Fable, is actually still present on the walls of his study. Also on a wall, elsewhere in the home, in a back room beyond where most visitors are allowed to wander, a cluster of written phone numbers create a chaotic almost-pattern not unlike some weird wallpaper nobody would ever dream of putting up. I sat next to these numbers, wondering who they may have belonged to, not far from where Faulkner must have sat when answering phone calls from some of these mystery people, and I spoke with William Griffith, the curator of Rowan Oak.”

—Tyler Malone

INTERVIEWER

Tell me about the history of Rowan Oak and how Faulkner ended up here.

WILLIAM GRIFFITH

It was built around 1844 by a man named Colonel Robert Sheegog. He was from Hickman County, Tennessee. He owned a plantation over near Batesville, Mississippi, as well. It looks like this place was completed around 1848. The Colonel and his wife and children lived here til 1872. It was then sold to Miss Ellen Bailey Bryant, who lived here til until 1923. The house stood vacant for seven years until William Faulkner bought it in 1930. He had a private arrangement with the owner of the property, Miss Bailey’s nephew, John Bryant: $6,000, $75 a month, two years to pay it off. So Faulkner rewrote one of his novels as a bestseller, called Sanctuary, in order to pay for the property. He was able to get Sanctuary to a bestseller, which was his goal, which he did. Then he sold it to Hollywood for $25,000–which allowed him to pay off the house and do the necessary renovations to modernize the place (including plumbing, electricity, central heat, all the modern conveniences that the house lacked). He lived here until 1962, when he passed away.

 

INTERVIEWER

What was Faulkner’s time here like? And which of his works did he write while here at the house?

 

WILLIAM GRIFFITH

He got a job in Hollywood in 1933, but from Sanctuary on he would do at least some of the work out here. Sanctuary was the first book he wrote here, but the first book that was published while he lived here was As I Lay Dying. They wouldn’t publish Sanctuary unless he made some drastic changes to it. His publisher said to Faulkner, “My God, if I publish this, we’ll both go to jail!” So he wrote As I Lay Dying in only six and a half weeks in order to make up for Sanctuary. They finally published Sanctuary a year later in 1931. Faulkner said he knew that Sanctuary would become a bestseller because he put the worst things in his mind down on paper and made it easy to read. So everything from 1930 to 1962 was either completely conceived and written here at Rowan Oak or partially conceived and written here at Rowan Oak.

 

INTERVIEWER

Obviously, it’s the blueprint for his fictional Yoknapatawpha County, but what would you say this county, Lafayette County, meant to him?

 

WILLIAM GRIFFITH

He was born in New Albany, which isn’t far from here, but is actually in Union County. But he moved here when he was five, so all his childhood memories are here in Lafayette County. An interesting fact, though: it wasn’t actually his idea to write about his county. It was Sherwood Anderson’s idea. Sherwood Anderson and he were friends in New Orleans. Anderson had read Faulkner’s early novels and suggested Faulkner go home and write about something he knew. Regionalism was a big deal in the thirties. People were making it okay to write about where you were from, but no one was doing it in the South yet. Faulkner was really the first. That’s why he is remembered: for his unique writing style, of course, and also because he was the first author to write about his South, not the South. Just as Sherwood Anderson didn’t write about the Ohio, but about his Ohio–Winesburg, Ohio.

 

Faulkner came home from New Orleans and wrote about what he knew: he knew his hometown and he knew his home county. He knew the places and the people and the things on their minds. He made it okay for all these other Southerners to write about their South. Who knew that in a few short years the least written about part of the country would become the most written about part of the country? He inspired a lot of great Southern writers to write about where they came from: Erskine Caldwell, Eudora Welty, etc.

 

INTERVIEWER

What’s the story behind the name Rowan Oak?

 

WILLIAM GRIFFITH

Well, he named the place Rowan Oak after Sanctuary was published. He named it after the rowan tree of Scotland. Faulkner’s early reading career had to do a lot with folklore and folktales, especially those from England, Ireland, and Scotland. The rowan trees were supposed to have various magical properties; their berries were supposed to ward off evil spirits. Faulkner once said he invoked the rowan tree because he needed protection from evil spirits like reporters and the tax man. The oak tree was a symbol of strength and solitude. So you had the rowan tree for safety and protection and the oak tree for strength and solitude. Neither tree are on the property, ironically. He was also kind of making a joke by naming the property. It was no longer necessary to name properties because they had street addresses. So it was partially a joke, and partially a way to make it his own, because before he purchased it, it was called the Old Bailey Place.

 

INTERVIEWER

How did it transfer into the hands of the University of Mississippi?

 

WILLIAM GRIFFITH

When Faulkner died in 1962, his wife said she was going to get rid of everything that kept them poor. He had a lot of things that kept them poor: horses, sailboats, airplanes, a farm eighteen miles east of here, and this house. There’s always something that needed to be done in these old antebellum homes. They weren’t heated well, so you’d use a lot of heat to keep it warm. She wanted to move to Virginia, and that’s what she did. She spent the last ten years of her life mostly in Virginia. She rented this house to the University of Mississippi for $25 a month. In addition to the rent, they had to worry about upkeep. So it was only a tiny bit of income, the $25 dollars, but the big expense was gone because she didn’t have to keep it up anymore. Her sister was the first curator and it was open by appointment only through the library. Then when she passed away in 1972, their daughter Jill decided to sell it. So Ole Miss bought it in 1972.

faulkner2011

INTERVIEWER

What do you think are some of the benefits of turning an author’s old home into a museum?

 

WILLIAM GRIFFITH

I have a pretty strong opinion on that because I think if you’re going to do it, you have to do it early. When done well, an author’s home can be a great addition to your experience of an author’s work. But we don’t only get people who have read Faulkner. I’ve noticed I get about a 60-40 split of people who are big fans of Faulkner and people who have never read Faulkner. But I know we’ve done our job well if those people who haven’t read him yet ask before they leave: “Well, what do you recommend I read?”

 

I think the purpose of author museums is the same as any history museum: we’re always looking for ways to involve ourselves in history. People want to walk the same places that Faulkner walked, to roam the same halls. You get to see here the tools he used to write Nobel Prize winning novels–those aren’t the kind of things you get to see every day. In general, I think it just adds to your experience of reading and thinking and wondering about these people.

 

There are some other great author house museums out there: the Mount is a great one, the Pearl Buck house is a good one. Faulkner called her Old Gladhands. That’s a terrible thing, but I don’t think he really meant it. I think he was angry when he said it. But she has a beautiful site. There are a couple Mark Twain sites: one is more traditional, and one is more commercial. The one in Connecticut is the one that’s run like Rowan Oak. Great houses just put a great face on the literature. It’s a phenomenal way to deepen your experience of an author.

 

INTERVIEWER

One of Faulkner’s most famous quotes is “The past isn’t dead; it’s not even past.” How does a line like that relate to what you are doing here?

 

WILLIAM GRIFFITH

I think of that quote a lot actually. You’ll hear people say things like, “My Aunt Jenny used to do things that little Suzy is doing now.” The decisions that people make, even the decisions that big governments make–you can apply that quote to anything. The human experience carries on. Coming to a museum like this is a way to experience that first hand. You could go on the internet and probably pull up some pictures and do a tour of Rowan Oak like that in a few seconds, but really in order to experience the past and make sure places like this don’t die, you have to visit these places first hand.

 

INTERVIEWER

One of the coolest things to experience first hand here is seeing that outline of A Fable on the walls of his writing room. Could you tell me a little about that?f2

 

WILLIAM GRIFFITH

That’s an interesting story. He was writing his “big book,” as he called it. It’s the first book he wrote after winning the Nobel Prize. He actually started that book much earlier, but he just couldn’t get through it. He moved on to Intruder in the Dust because he couldn’t figure A Fable out. Then he won the Nobel Prize, and went back to work on it. First he taped the outline on the wall, but the tape wouldn’t stick, so inevitably he wrote it up there. And there it remains to this day. At the time he was writing the book, the typewriter was directly underneath the outline. Today the typewriter sits by a window because right before he died they moved a bed down stairs because he had trouble getting up and down the stairs due to a particularly nasty horse fall. He also said he couldn’t compete with the open window anymore.

 

INTERVIEWER

Besides the outline on the wall, what are some of the most treasured items you have here?

 

WILLIAM GRIFFITH

The alley of cedar trees is very important to us, and the garden opposite the house, even though it’s in a ruined state. We try to keep it like he did. Those are very valuable to us. The whole outside experience is something that is special and shouldn’t be missed. I wish we could do more interpretation, but we don’t want to litter the house or the grounds with tacky museum signage. Inside we have Faulkner’s typewriter and typewriter table. Those are obviously very important to us and to a lot of our visitors.

 

INTERVIEWER

How did you become the curator at Rowan Oak?

 

WILLIAM GRIFFITH

Terrible story. I was the curator of collections over at the museum at Ole Miss, and I was on the search committee that was trying to find a curator for Rowan Oak. No one wanted the job. Ole Miss for years had the house administered through the English department. They had a difficult job curating the home because they weren’t trained in historic house management or museum studies. They’re great at teaching English, but curating homes is not English. It’s tough stuff. The house was in such a state–it was too much for them to handle. And to be honest, I don’t know an English department in the country that would really want a 150 year old house on their books, no matter who lived in it. They didn’t want to be responsible for what went on here because it isn’t advancing English literature or theory. Our goal is not to do that, but instead to advance Faulkner’s legacy. That’s what our mission statement is now.

 

So I was on the search committee to find someone with museum experience and historic house management experience, but we couldn’t find anyone. Finally, after two rounds of this, and with no prospects, they hinted around that maybe I should take it. I didn’t know if I really wanted to. Then they doubled the salary, and I said, “Well, look no further. You found your man.” So yes, I pulled a Dick Cheney. I was very interested in the site and I wanted it to succeed, but for some reason I didn’t see myself doing it until I realized that everyone else could see me doing it. Then I realized, “You know what? I could do this.” It had a lot of things going for it, it just needed a big push. It was such a great opportunity for me because the house really needed some help–it needed someone who knew how to run it like a historical house museum.

 

And that’s what we do, we run it like a historic house museum. I run it the same way I would run a house museum that was dedicated to you or Pee-Wee Herman or Frank Zappa or anybody. I do the same thing. I’m just lucky that it’s William Faulkner. I’m lucky that he lived an interesting, full life in the middle of this small town with a great university. One of the goals we have here is to make the interesting things about Rowan Oak, the important things. That is to make what is interesting, important to visitors.

 

 

INTERVIEWER

What are your favorite works by Faulkner? And who are some of your other favorite writers besides Faulkner?

 

WILLIAM GRIFFITH

My favorite is Light in August. I can’t help it, it’s my favorite. It’s Oprah Winfrey’s favorite too. A lot of people who didn’t burden their lives with an English degree tend to go towards that novel. It’s the height of his lyrical prose. The other novels–the ones I’m probably supposed to say are my favorites–are great too. But, honestly, most people can’t get everything you need to get out of Absalom, Absalom by reading it by themselves. Can’t do it. It’s gotta be done in class or with some guidance. Bare minimum you should probably read it with a reader’s guide. The Sound and the Fury is kind of the same way. Light in August is simpler, but just as beautifully written. I also like “The Bear,” I like the Big Woods stories, I like If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem aka Wild Palms.

 

I have so many favorite writers besides Faulkner–it’s tough. And actually, originally, Faulkner was not one of my favorite writers. Funny story, actually. In high school, I was given As I Lay Dying for an assignment from my teacher. The paper I wrote on it was called “As I Die Reading.” I just didn’t get it. It’s heavy for a fifteen year old. I grew up in Illinois; I didn’t grow up in the South. My teacher was a huge Faulkner fan–no, not a fan a nut–she was a huge Faulkner nut. So she assigned me that book, and I was too stupid know she was trying to be nice to me, to give me something she thought was really great. I hurt her feelings. She gave me a zero and made me read another Faulkner book. I was ticked off because my friends got The Red Pony and The Old Man and the Sea, and there I was with As I Lay Dying. I couldn’t make heads or tails of it. I remember saying to her: “I’m never gonna go to Mississippi. I can guarantee you I will never go to Mississippi.” And then I ended up here, and not only ended up here, but I’m curating Faulkner’s house. That’s how literature works, man. That’s how karma works.

 

As far as other writers, I love John McPhee. I love Tim Winton from Australia–what a writer! He came here. I hope I didn’t slobber over him too much. There’s an old saying, “If you read ‘em, don’t meet ‘em.” And he’s one of the exceptions to that. He was just great. I read Tom Franklin, who wrote Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter–a great book.

 

INTERVIEWER

Lastly, for visitors thinking of coming to visit, what other points of interest would you recommend in and around Oxford, MS?

 

WILLIAM GRIFFITH

There’s lots to see and do. The Visitor Center in town just off the Square has a great brochure called Faulkner Country. It highlights all the Faulkner-related sites in Ripley, New Albany, and Oxford. A lot of the sites, besides our museum here, are private residences so you can’t really go in them and experience them, but you can certainly go look at them and get a sense of them. There are also other museums in town. L. Q. C. Lamar was a figure during the Civil War; he is highlighted in John F. Kennedy’s book Profiles in Courage. His home is open for visitation. There’s a great thing called the Belfry, and it’s really cool too. The University Museum is a good museum, and they always have interesting exhibits. The library over at Ole Miss has a Faulkner exhibit on right now that’s going on until January. All of his first editions, every one of them, are on display. It’s very much worth seeing. You should definitely come and spend the day. You shouldn’t just come to Rowan Oak and move along; you should really stay around and get a sense of the place. You have to go to the Square. It’s worth exploring. There’s a lot to see in the area.

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