This is an excerpt from Bitterweeds: Life with William Faulkner at Rowan Oak, written by his step-son Malcolm Franklin and published in an exclusive edition by The Society for the Study of Traditional Culture in 1977. Franklin is a capable story-teller himself.
One of the most frequent questions that people ask me about Faulkner is about his writing routine and writing habits. Pappy really had no set routine. He worked in an apparently erratic manner. I do know one very important fact. He never carried a notebook or made any notes. He did not at any time carry a pencil or paper. He seemed to work largely from memory and observation.
He had a small portable typewriter that was presented to him by an old sailing friend, Jim Devine, whom he had known in New York in the late twenties. To this very day it remains in what is now known as Pappy’s Office at Rowan Oak. I always associate it with Pappy’s noisy periods, the ones that let us all know Pappy was at work. During what we referred to as his silent days, he used pen and ink. On such days you could not be sure whether he was writing or not. It was all very quiet. No telephone, no radio and no doorbell! These were forbidden items. All you could hear were the sounds from the woods beyond the formal gardens and the barnyard. The dogs would bark. A rooster who had lost the time of day might unexpectedly crow. Cows would occasionally let out a low moo reminding those in charge that milking time was near. Otherwise, only silence; for we were too far from the road and out of the way for the sounds of traffic to interfere.
Then there would be the times I would see Pappy walking along the driveway, perhaps headed for a walk down Old Taylor Road, in the direction of Thacker’s Mountain, some six miles away. It was not out of the ordinary for Pappy to cover the distance between Thacker’s Mountain and back in one afternoon. Quite often I would go along, riding the small quarter horse that Pappy had given me, Dan Patch. Pappy, of course, walked through the woods, and by the time I reached Thacker’s Mountain by the road, there would be Pappy sitting on top of one of the large boulders, perfectly still, not saying a word. I would ask, “Pappy, would you like to ride Dan Patch back and let me walk?” “No,” he would always answer, preferring to go through the woods rather than by the road. Upon returning to Rowan Oak he would not say a word. Instead he would go straight to the library, or to his bedroom, where he had a small writing table. And then you would know he was writing. Even in the silence.
Another trait of his which took him outdoors but was still connected with his writing was squirrel hunting. Every fall, on Saturday and Sunday mornings, and often on weekday afternoons, too, Pappy and I would hunt squirrels—always at least one mile from Rowan Oak. The squirrel we were after in particular was the fox squirrel. Unlike the ordinary gray squirrel, who carelessly slits about, the fox squirrel demands great patience from the hunter, for he will sit perched motionless on a limb for long intervals at a time. The hunter must outsit the fox squirrel. If he waits long enough, in absolute silence, the squirrel will show himself in a vulnerable position. It was during these long periods of utter silence that I believe Pappy did a great deal of his thinking about the plots and characters he was writing about. He never said anything about it. However, many times when we arrived back at Rowan Oak he would say to me, “Buddy, would you dress out my squirrels? Or have Broadus dress them out for me?” I would reply, “Certainly, Pappy,” and then he would disappear, and I would hear the typewriter going for the rest of the morning. Other times he would come on back and dress out the squirrels with me.
We would never have more than two or three each at the most. Pappy brought me up never to kill more than we would need. Further, to make our stay in the woods longer and more of a sport, Pappy and I had a pact where we would only shoot for the head. We kept an old tin tobacco box with a slit in the top. Either of us who hit a squirrel anywhere but the head had to put a quarter in the tobacco box. When it was full, we bought a bottle of bourbon with it. Preferably Jack Daniel’s. Despite the fact that there have been many stories told about Faulkner’s drinking habits, including the statement, in many cases, that he was an alcoholic, he was not. It is a fact that he was a hard drinker. But only on occasion. And during a period of twenty-five or more years of close association, I never observed Faulkner’s drinking heavily while he was actively writing.
Faulkner gave a well-deserved reply to columnist Betty Beale of The Washington Star, whose society gossip column was widely read. She asked for the largest number of words he had penned on one day. His answer, printed in the June 14, 1954 column, clearly showed his attitude when he was asked a stupid question He gave an absurd answer: That he had climbed to the crib of the barn one morning with his paper, pencil and a quart of whiskey, and pulled the ladder up behind him; when daylight began to fail, he realized he had torn off five thousand words. In our barn at Rowan Oak there was no crib overhead—only a hay loft with no retractable ladder.
When he had completed a particularly long and involved piece of writing he would take a Sabbatical, indulging heavily in his favorite bourbon. Perhaps it might last a month or six weeks. Quite often the last week of his binge I would spend driving him around Lafayette, Marshall, Yalobusha and Panola Counties. In the summertime we would drive in my jeep. In the wintertime the excursions would take place in a closed car. He would sit there in the front seat, viewing the countryside. But sometimes he would carry on a very animated conversation with me in which he showed his love for and knowledge of that section of North Mississippi. He would point out places he had drawn on for certain incidents in his books or stories. Thus, I know exactly the location of As I Lay Dying, which is southeast of Oxford on the south side of the Yocona River. The location of one of his best stories, “The Hound”, is northeast of Oxford in the Tallahatchie River bottom, in a locality known as Riverside. On one long drive we made together in my jeep, he said, “This is where ‘The Bear’ took place.” We were passing through the old Stone place, between the Sunflower and Tallahatchie Rivers, some seventeen miles southwest of the old river town known as Panola, situated a few miles north of Batesville in Panola County. It was in the late fall, I believe, and we had been hunting at Mr. Bob Carrier’s plantation, where Pappy took Clark Gable to hunt once in the late 1930s.
On our return trip to Rowan Oak that evening, we travelled along an old, dusty road. Cotton stood on either side of the road, but much shorter and scrawnier than that we had passed earlier, around Batesville and Clarksdale in the Delta country. Pappy had noted there that some of the cotton had been picked by hand, some by machine—this was one of the earliest occasions, if not the earliest, that we had seen machine-picked cotton fields. Now from the road we could glimpse the tops of the trees in the river bottom beyond the fields—just a faint outline against the fast fading evening. From Pappy’s silence I realized, as we had rolled along this country road, that he was headed towards his typewriter again, and that soon I would be hearing once more the tap-tap sounds that so often penetrated the quiet darkness of Rowan Oak at odd hours during the night.
My buddy Bobby is one of those rare individuals who live in perfect accord with the natural world. He used to describe himself as a “naturist” until I pointed out that he is not a naturist because he does not shuck down and cavort in the Great Outdoors with his butt to the breeze, which he said is a damn silly thing to do in Mississippi any time of the year, since some kid with a BB gun is sure to take a bead on your nads.
Though he only had one biology course in his two years of college, Bobby is still keen on the subject and keeps up with the latest developments. Last week I ran into him in the dollar aisle at the local supermarket (where we both spend a lot of time), and he was excited about the new classification of birds. “They’re LIZARDS!” he said, shaking a jar of Louisiana Supreme pepper vinegar under my nose for emphasis. “Well, not lizards so much as dinosaurs! They’ve decided that all birds, even those that fly, and not just those that can’t like penguins are in this new classification. And guess what else is in that group?”
“No!” he said. “ALLIGATORS! So what it all boils down to is that an alligator really ain’t nothing more than one big, bad-ass bird!” I had to agree that alligators were definitely bad-ass, bird or not, but I took Bobby Lynn for his word, which was as usual reliable. It seems that birds and “crocodilians”, which includes crocodiles and one mean-looking lizard called a caiman as well as our beloved Alligator mississippiensis, the American alligator. Both alligators and birds developed from dinosaurs in the Jurassic period.
Once hunted to the point of extinction for their hides, the alligator is making a big comeback in the South. Just last year the world’s biggest gator, which measured 15 feet and 9 inches long and weighed 1,011.5 pounds, was captured last August by five members of the Stokes family in Mill Creek, Alabama. Mississippi’s 2016 alligator season opens on August 26. Of course alligators are edible, and over 35 years ago no less an authority than Howard Mitcham predicted that “the day will come when fillet of alligator will be served with pride in first-class gourmet restaurants, and frozen alligator meat will be available in the supermarket.” Well, if not in your supermarket then certainly online, where you can find gator meat from a number of sources in our Great Sister State of Louisiana. Here’s Howard’s marinade recipe for barbecued alligator steak. Marinate steaks for at least four hours, turning the pieces occasionally. Grill on a low heat for about an hour or until tender.
1/3 cup lemon juice
1/2 cup soy sauce
2 tbsp. chopped parsley
1 1/3 cups salad oil
8 drops Tabasco
1/4 tsp. salt (optional)
1 tbsp. garlic salt
1/4 tsp. black pepper
Toss fresh berries, drupes or pomes (in this case, peaches and cherries) with granulated sugar and macerate overnight in the refrigerator. Make a crust by mixing one and a quarter cup of plain flour, two tablespoons of sugar, a teaspoon of salt, cutting in a stick of butter very finely and adding enough very cold water and additional flour to make a stiff dough. Form into a ball and refrigerate for perhaps an hour, then roll out to form a 12” circle. (It doesn’t have to be perfect.) Drain syrup from fruit and mound in the center of the dough, leaving a 2” edge. Fold the crust over the fruit, brush the dough with a mixture of melted butter mixed with a little dark brown sugar or molasses and place in an oven at 375 until crust is browned and fruit is bubbling. Cool, slice and serve with thick sweetened cream. Serves 4-6. In formal culinary parlance, this would be a type of galette.
In one of her wonderful Arly Hanks novels mystery writer Joan Hesse has the police chief of Maggody, Arkansas declare that, “Only a Yankee would desecrate a bacon and tomato sandwich with lettuce”. Well, if not a Yankee then anyone with no reverence for the blessed combination of tomato and fried pork with a slathering of mayonnaise itself. What infidel would put watery lettuce in such a perfect union of flora and fauna? Let the words go forth: “BLT, hold the ‘L’”.
It’s been just hot as hell here lately, but we’ve still had to get out in the garden, mostly for the weeds, but the tomatoes have been making like I’ve never seen. Hugh says it’s because you gave us those hose to tie up the plants. He said they’re flexible and they don’t cut into the stem like string would. He’s been keeping them in a bottom drawer in the spare bedroom so we can use them in the garden. I just wanted you to see how well they’re doing.
Your devoted sister,
Tilmon Henry Smith, son of Tilmon Holley and Fannie Hawkins Smith, was born in 1883 in Water Valley, Mississippi, and received his M.D. from the University of Tennessee in 1915. He began practicing medicine in Banner, Mississippi in 1915. He moved to New London, Ohio in 1922 where he remained until his death in 1969. His memoir, Home to the Flowers was published privately in 1964.
When Smith was six, the family moved to Pittsboro, where his father was postmaster before becoming pastor of a church in Ellzey, where they built a home he remembers his mother surrounded with flowers, particularly roses. Young Smith attended the school there, which was established by brothers W.T. and B.G. Lowery and T.C. Lowery, who later founded Blue Mountain College. When still a boy, he and his brother started a brick manufacturing business and built the J.D. Richards store in Vardaman, which is still standing. Smith moved to Vardaman in 1901 after his father’s death. He was still in the brick business, but he also worked on Mississippi river barges and as a logger in Yazoo County to help support the family. He attended Meridian Medical College, and graduated from the University of Tennessee Medical School after a short stint in the Chicago School of Medicine. He served as the health inspector for Calhoun County throughout World War I and beyond His book recounts the struggles of the people of Calhoun in the early decades of the 20th century against typhoid and the devastating influenza epidemic of 1918.
One must realize the primitiveness of our existence to understand. These people had no indoor water supply or toilet facilities. Water was secured from a well in the yard, or a spring or a creed–often a quarter of a mile away. Toilet facilities were at best an outdoor privy in the back yard. Many times during this period, my first duty upon arriving arriving at the patient’s home was to bring buckets of water from the spring and remove the offal from another bucket beside the bed.
This time of trial and ordeal gave me an abiding faith in people. They exhibited gallantry far beyond the call of duty. Some people had a mysterious resistance to the flue germ. A dozen people would be stricken down around them and they would nurse and care for them all. When this group was reasonably comfortable and cared for, they would walk to miles to minister to other friends or relatives who had no well person to look after them. Some people cut and ran. They used all sorts of low excuses, but it cane down to the fact that they were overwhelmed by the solid fear of death. I was continuously amazed by those who really had the sand, as well as those who did not. There were so many heroes and heroines in this terrible tragedy that all cannot possibly be mentioned, but some of my expected friends let me and themselves down, as well as their dependents. I do not remember this with bitterness or condemnation, but with pity.
During the epidemic the community drunk, faced with adversity, found himself and became one of the noblest men of my acquaintance. He sobered up for the first time in years and walked the roads giving help to all in need. It was not unusual to find him carrying wter to the sick in one community, and a day later he would be ten miles away cutting wood to warm another family, both of which had probably ignored him in the past. It was just as astounding to find a logging camp “lady of the evening” bending over the sickbed, tending the sick with all the tenderness of a Florence Nightingale. My dear old mother always referred to her in a disdainful manner as a “scarlet woman”. I thanked God for this scarlet woman, and learned again that nobility of the soul is sometimes lodged in strange places.
The most evocative personal memoir to come out of Calhoun County, Mississippi, Home to the Flowers is described as an “anecdotal history” in Lives of Mississippi Authors, 1817-1967, and it is certainly filled with folksy anecdotes, some of them quite earthy, but Smith’s account of his life in Calhoun County during the first two decades of the 20th century is also at times lyrical, by turns poignant and filled with the sorts of details of life in a quasi-frontier setting that a man of acumen and education such as Smith could provide.