When I was in Oxford, Mississippi a short time ago, I was not surprised to be reminded of William Faulkner. The square in Oxford is the square in Jefferson, the town central to many of Faulkner’s novels; Lafayette County, where Oxford is located, is the basis of Yoknapatawpha County. Standing on the square in Oxford and looking at the Courthouse automatically triggers memories of the final scene of The Sound and the Fury. Nonetheless, I was surprised when visiting BTC Grocery in Water Valley, Mississippi, to come across a hummingbird cake made by Cora Ray of Mississippi Mudd. BTC (Be The Change) Grocery has been featured in the New York Times, and Cora Ray of Mississippi Mudd makes a most-excellent cake, but what the name Cora brought to mind was one of the narrators—Cora Tull—in As I Lay Dying—a woman who has come with several other women to keep Addie Bundren company as she is dying and who talks about how she made cakes (not hummingbird cakes, probably) for a rich woman who then decided not to buy them.
Addie Bundren has made her husband, Anse, promise to take her from where they live and to bury her in Jefferson, where her people are. One fun question about As I Lay Dying is whether this request and Anse’s subsequent fulfillment of it is Addie’s great revenge on Anse or his great revenge on her. Or—since their children have to accompany the corpse to Jefferson—is it both of their acts of vengeance on their children, who, candidly, don’t have much of a chance against these parents?
Indeed, the entire family is full of delightful dynamics, including one son who is a carpenter and who makes his mother’s coffin as his final gift to her, but does so where she can both hear him at work and—occasionally—see his work when he holds it up at the window to show her. To get to Jefferson, Anse and the children must travel by a wagon pulled by mules. The journey is long enough that the putrefying body attracts buzzards who circle overhead, which is the least of the fun in this novel.
But enough of that—during my visit to Oxford, I was most struck by the way in which Faulkner has been incorporated into the town. Given his subject matter, and especially his treatment of the devastating and continuing impact of the Civil War and the relationship between whites and blacks, incorporating Faulkner required some “navigation,” a word useful for describing how people handle the anxiety resulting from a subject that cannot he ignored, a subject that has some degree of attractiveness, and yet a subject that must be carefully walked by, through, or around. While the University of Mississippi hosts the annual Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha Conference, connecting him with the popular world may be a challenge. .
Faulkner is buried in Oxford, and his home, Rowan Oak, located about a mile or so south and west of the Square, is well-maintained and is a lovely place to visit. Downtown on the Square, Faulkner sits on a bench in a small park-like area next to the City Hall. Enclosed by a fence and flowers, it, too, is a lovely, yet somehow inaccessible area. I could not imagine sitting on the bench with him, feeling that he is both present and yet distanced from this spot that for his readers echoes with the moaning of Benjy and the rage of Benjy’s brother, Jason.
The University Museum is exhibiting Estelle Faulkner’s paintings. During her life, Estelle Faulkner said that she was reluctant to seek to show her work because she could not tell if people wanted her work or were simply responding to the fact she was married to William Faulkner. Candidly, she is not fortunate in how the paintings are exhibited. And it is impossible to approach her paintings other than as the work of the wife of an overwhelmingly powerful literary artist. They are being shown in a “lecture hall,” which does not lend itself to exhibiting paintings. Fascinating, too, is that the exhibition does not touch on what was a stormy relationship between Faulkner and Estelle, whom he believed regarded his writing as a hobby. Her own side of the marriage emerges from her letters. I do not speculate—not being a Faulkner scholar—on how this marriage colors the romance of the family portrayed in As I Lay Dying.
At the opposite end of the Museum, John Shorb has an exhibition of work that reflects upon Absalom, Absalom! I am not certain how much sense the works make to someone who has not read the novel, but I fear the works only made me wish to re-read the novel—again that massive presence of Faulkner overwhelms, unless enclosed in a fence and flowers. Indeed, so overwhelming is Faulkner’s presence that the only competing voice I could hear was Eudora Welty’s.