Missing Rowan Oak

I just knew that I would enjoy reading Every Day By the Sun: A Memoir of the Faulkners of Mississippi by Dean Faulkner Wells.  And I did.  The book was fun, but it left me with a slight feeling of sadness.  It is like reading about a party or a gathering that you missed.  It has the sense of something real that was experienced, but is gone and never to be found.

For Dean Faulkner Wells, the Nobel Prize winning Mississippi author was “Pappy.”  He was actually her uncle.  Her own father, Dean, died in an airplane crash.  Faulkner, who loved airplanes, felt somewhat guilty that his pilot-brother had died before his daughter was born.  Being the gentleman he was, he played a major role in raising his brother Dean’s namesake and daughter, Dean.

There is lots of Faulkner and Butler family background in this story.  The Butler family was “Nannie’s” folks, and Nannie was Maud Faulkner, William’s mother.  Dean spent much of her life near her uncle and with her uncle and his wife, Estelle.  Faulkner watched over his niece, provided for her and her mother, sent her to college, and stood in for his late brother in every way he could.

Faulkner was a gentleman, a man of honor, a man who, to use his phrase, honored the “old verities,” the old truths.  He was a gracious host, a teller of ghost stories, an indulgent father and uncle, and a protector of those he loved.  He also battled his own demons.  One was alcohol.  His drinking bouts were spaced out.  Contrary to myth, he didn’t drink while writing.  Hard liquor was prone to best him.  As Dean said, he would reach the point where he would have to go to a clinic and get dried out.  Soon she would see him back home, working in his yard.  Estelle, Mrs. William Faulkner, had her own battles with alcohol.  Although the marriage of William and Estelle lasted until death parted them, the marriage was fraught with sins and errors.  Faulkner was an unfaithful husband.  Estelle knew, but tolerated his infidelities.

This book brought out the human, everyday, ordinary, humorous, sometimes cantankerous sides of Faulkner.  He never allowed a television in his house, but he would go visit a professor friend and watch the inanely goofy sitcom “Car Fifty-four, Where Are You?”  He didn’t answer the phone, and some of his callers were quite prominent.  For much of his life, he seemed quite content to live an isolated life away from the fame that his writings earned him.  I could not get over how real and common Faulkner came across in this story.  The chapter near the end that told of his death and funeral shocked me as though it had just happened.

The writings did earn fame, but for a long time, they did not earn him much money.  Faulkner sensed his own writing accomplishments even when the public didn’t.  On one occasion, his banker demanded his signature on a check.  Faulkner wrote him a letter and told him that his signature on that letter would be worth more in the long run than a check that would be cashed and spent.  The banker wisely kept and framed the letter.

I have been to Faulkner’s house three times.  I went two times during the past several years.  Once was on a Monday where we discovered that the house was closed.  We did get to walk around it and peek in the windows.  About 3 years ago, we did get to take the house tour.  My whole family enjoyed it, but I am not sure they had the same type of experience I did.  I could have stayed and stayed and stayed.

The first time I went to Rowan Oak was in the mid-1970s.  My parents and I went to Oxford, Mississippi on a summer trip.  I was thinking about going to the University of Mississippi for my last two years of college.  It was Faulkner that drew me there, however.  Rowan Oak was not open to the public at the time.  We drove up to where the gate and fence was, got out, crawled through the fence, and happened upon someone from the University who was giving a tour of the house.  It was amazing that we were not kicked out, but we weren’t.

Reading Every Day by the Sun has me wanting to make a fourth pilgrimage to the place where America’s greatest writer lived.

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