Oxford Bound

Last month I set off with my father to drive from his home in Indiana down to Oxford, Mississippi, where the great writer William Faulkner had lived. I had been reading Faulkner for more than a decade in the remoteness of Asia, but I had never been to the South and had no idea what it looked like. When I read about the thick dust, flying up around someone's heels in one of the novels, I was picturing the dust in Taiwan or China. As we embarked on our pilgrimage, my mind was full of other distorted images. Faulkner's South, above all, was a place of darkness. It was a place where individuals seemed to be driven by forces outside themselves. The most one could hope for, in that hell-blown landscape, was to muse on the futility and finality of the tragedy unfolding around you.

The landscape of the novels was equally bleak. Forests and owls and bears did not repose or breathe or sleep peacefully, as they did in the works of the romantic poets Faulkner loved. In his writings, they surged, swooped, roared, materialized suddenly, vanished and were never quite at rest, even after death. It was a place where "niggers" named Jesus lurked with razor blades at twilight, where inebriated eyes flowed like the syrupy whites of eggs and where women screamed soundlessly, their mouths like charcoal holes. I expected to find something of this quality, preserved and intact, something that had survived the decades, perhaps only in the expressions of people.

When we finally coasted into the center of Oxford, I looked for some sort of dusty town square, the kind of place where teenagers plastered on home-stilled liquor blatted the horns of their cars. Instead, we found an ornate collection of brick boutiques with glass windows and upscale restaurants aimed at tourists. At the apex of the square, in a place of honor, was a bronze statue of the writer, hatted, suited, a pipe issuing from his mouth. There was a tourist center with his typewriter and other paraphernalia, T shirts and a guided tour to his grave and other points of interest.

Why were things so different? At least a small part of the change came from Faulkner himself. During his lifetime, after he won the Nobel Prize, people would make pilgrimages (as I had done) to see him. He urinated off his front porch to scare them away. But the town had kept him as a draw--especially after he was dead. He had become its greatest tourist attraction. The place had become pseudo-Faulkner. During my reading of him, I had salivated over ham cooking on campfires, or trout or bear smoked in the forest. But the only local food I could find was thinly sliced strips of catfish, nestled in a bed of sprouts and greens, served over a crisp white tablecloth. The restaurant called it "Nouvelle South."

This was the New South, all right. It was a South that Faulkner had partly predicted. Not only did he write, like Thomas Mann, of the gradual decay and destruction of the old "aristocratic" families, replaced by pop culture, the spread of the automobile and television. He also wrote about the increasing migratory patterns that would mark our country during this century. Many of his most famous characters are parvenus, outsiders, usurpers who came to the South and seized land or social status. His own people, he wrote, had wrested it from the Indians. Like Conrad, whom he deeply admired, he seemed to believe that the history of humanity was a process of people taking land away from other people who had slightly different accents or physiognomies.

But Faulkner also appreciated, with his wry sardonic humor, how outsiders were shaped by the locale they invaded. We were given a taste of this truth the next day when we drove to Rowan Oak, the antebellum mansion where the great man had lived and toiled. The curator, coincidentally also named Bill, took us around the house. It was dingy and sad. But Bill seemed like the real item. His accent seemed pure South. "I'm not a writer," he said, "but I feel their pain." His assistant, a tall, graceful woman named Amanda, seemed even more authentic: not only did she have the same accent, but she fluttered her eyelashes coyly.

"So, you both from Oxford?" I asked. No. Bill was from Indiana; Amanda from Ohio. They had lived in Oxford a few years, but rapidly picked up the manner of speaking. We signed the guest register and left.

My last hope was the barbershop. In one story, "Dry September," the early action was based in a barbershop. I could picture it vividly, and eagerly set off for a barber that I was told "had been there for ages." When I arrived, all seemed authentic. There were the stuffed game on the walls, the mounted fish, the gun magazines, the row of local football players waiting for buzz cuts. But when my turn came, I noticed the barbers themselves: one of them was a woman. That would never have happened in a Faulkner novel.