In this foreword to her son Malcolm Franklin’s Bitterweeds: Life with William Faulkner at Rowan Oak, Estelle Oldham (Franklin) Faulkner recounts her life before and wedding to her second husband, written at least five years before the publication of the book in 1977, the year of Franklin’s death.
For those who may be interested in Malcolm’s story of his close association of William Faulkner, I, his mother, feel compelled to write an unsolicited, explanatory forward. My son has written his own preface, as well as the text with follows—I use the word “text” advisedly, because fiction—imagination and literary embellishments—is completely foreign to his factual way of thinking.
Malcolm was born in Shanghai, the son of my first husband, Judge Cornell Franklin. We also had a daughter, Victoria (called Cho-Cho by her Japanese nurse-maid, and eventually by everyone but her father), a few years older than Malcolm. We were living in Hawaii when she was born, and she was still quite a mall child when Judge Franklin decided to move to China and go into the private practice of law in this flourishing international city of the Orient. A few years later Cornell and I agreed on an amicable divorce, and I brought the two children back to Mississippi.
It is not my intention to write a biography, but I feel the necessity of establishing the fact that our divorce did in no way alienate the deep affection of my former husband’s family in Columbus bestowed upon me. Visits by both families between Columbus and Oxford became frequent, mainly, perhaps, on account of the children. The train trip from Oxford to Columbus was particularly irksome—a change, and a long wait in a town called Winona. This is how Judge Franklin’s family met, and got to know, William Faulkner so well, for Bill would often drive us over, and he was very reluctant to forgo their hospitality. Their welcome was all too sincere. “Gran” (Victoria’s and Malcolm’s Franklin-side grandmother) was a charming and admittedly romantic woman, and it was she who approved and applauded my marriage to Bill. She also unhesitatingly upbraided my father for coldly insisting that I’d married a wastrel.
All this brings me to what I’ll wager was the strangest of honeymoons—one even a novelist would hesitate to invent: the groom a bachelor, the bride a divorcee with two children, and all of us having a gay, carefree time in a tumble-down old house on the Gulf of Mexico, with a colored cook loaned to us by my first husband’s mother.
It was late afternoon, the twentieth of June, 1929. My sister, Dorothy, had gone with us to College Hill, a village several miles from Oxford where there was a beautiful old Presbyterian church and an elderly minister whom we all knew, and who gladly performed the simple ceremony. At times I’ve wondered if Dr. Hedleston welcomed us to the church and married us out of pure Godly love and understanding, or was he thumbing his nose at the Pharisaical laws imposed upon divorce by the Episcopal Church? I’ll never know the answer.
Bill and I had talked over our plans for the honey-moon at some length. A friend of his had turned over a big old beach house for our use—unrentable, because at that time Pascagoula wasn’t a fashionable Gulf resort. Victoria was in Columbus with Gan, so Bill insisted that Malcolm be picked up with all our luggage, and dropped in Columbus till we’d gotten settle in our borrowed summer home. How simple it all sounded! I had left a note with Mama about taking Malcolm with us, so I thought that all we had to do was to take Dot home, gather Mac (Malcolm, jly) and the luggage, and take off for Gran’s. She was expecting us.
Mac was still such a baby that I had a nurse for him. Ethel Ruth was a fine playmate, but couldn’t read or write, or even tell the time by a clock with Roman numerals. So when Bill steered the car into our drive way, we found the child dirty, grass-stained and generally unkempt. Bill laughed, thrust Malcolm in the car, stowed our many bags, said good-bye to Dot and headed east toward Columbus.
By then it was late afternoon. We drove as far as Tupelo, and got rooms in the only hotel. I bathed Mac and gave him supper while Bill telephoned Gan that it would be impossible to travel further that night—to expect us for dinner the next day.
This recipe comes from the Harvest Café in Oxford. We always served it with a dollop of sour cream, sides of (brown) rice, and a dense crusty bread we got from some stoner in Abbeville.
It was a substantial dish. The tomatoes were optional depending who was cooking and how hungover, but were always added after the beans were cooked. This is crucial: if you add tomatoes or salt to dried beans, they will toughen and sour.
1 lb. black beans 2 medium white onions finely chopped 5 cloves garlic, minced 1 4 oz. can chopped green chilies 4 poblanos diced 1 can diced tomatoes, drained (optional) 2 tablespoons ground cumin 2 tablespoons paprika 2 tablespoons chili powder 1 teaspoon black pepper corn oil Salt
Sort and rinse beans, place in a heavy metal pot with six cups water (or vegetable stock), and bring to a rolling boil for fifteen minutes. Reduce heat, add onions, garlic and chilies. Simmer covered until beans are soft, adding liquid as needed.
Add mixed seasonings and keep on low heat. This is when you should add tomatoes. Blend in a slash of corn oil for consistency. Salt to taste. When serving, provide pico de gallo or a pepper sauce, and toppings such as diced avocado, chopped cilantro, minced onion and peppers.
Snapper en Mornay was one of the most popular dishes at the old Warehouse in Oxford. We broiled snapper fillets with a rich in-house sauce, and served them with a dusting of paprika, a sprinkling of sliced almonds, and our house bread.
Make a thick Béchamel. Add grated Swiss or Provolone cheese, chopped green onions, picked lump crab meat, and a splash of sherry. Season with Lowrey’s, mix well, and chill. You’ll need about a cup of sauce for eight ounces of fish; if not snapper, use flounder or another lean white fish.
Score fillets on both sides, place on a buttered pan, cover with sauce, and broil until fish flakes.
According to Fred Smith, appraiser for Mississippi State University’s archives and former proprietor of Choctaw Books in Jackson, “When it comes to the ‘Holy Grail’ of Mississippi book collecting, Faulkner’s The Marble Faun is it.”
“For one thing, he’s the most important literary figure this state has ever produced, and this book of poems is his first work,” Smith explained. “Faulkner thought he wanted to be a poet, and Phil Stone had it printed or helped him to get it printed. Stone bought many of the unsold copies and stored them in the attic at his home in Oxford, but they were destroyed when the house burned. I’ve only had one copy in my 31 years in business, and it wasn’t in good shape; the spine was really fragile, and the binding had come off. Whatever the print run was, and I’m sure it wasn’t big, a lot of the original copies didn’t survive.”
“Signed copies are worth tens of thousands of dollars,” Smith said. “The absolute best copy came up for sale at Christie’s, a copy he had inscribed to his mother and father. Ole Miss has a couple of copies, and someone donated one to Mississippi College a few years ago. But that book is one thing that I’ve kept searching for all these years. I did buy one from a lady in Oxford some twenty years ago, but because of its poor condition it wasn’t worth a lot then. I think I sold it for $750, but if I had one to resell now, it would bring ten times that much, probably up to ten thousand, because there just aren’t any around.”
The Christie’s first edition of Faulkner’s The Marble Faun (Four Seas Press: Boston, 1924) sold for $95,600 in October, 2002. In the lot description, Christie’s adds:
“Four Seas agreed to issue Faulkner’s collection of poems in 1923, provided he pay for the manufacturing costs (their standard arrangement). They offered him a royalty arrangement, but Faulkner declined to proceed, at the time not having enough money to carry the costs. Within six months, though, he’d received the encouragement and financial support of Phil Stone and the twenty-seven year old Faulkner contracted for the printing of 500 copies of The Marble Faun. The book sold poorly and quickly was remaindered. No records survive detailing the number of copies Four Seas actually sold prior to disposing the stock on the remainder market, but an early estimate suggested 100 copies. William Boozer, in William Faulkner’s First Book: The Marble Faun (Memphis, 1975), specifically located 56 copies. Boozer considered the existence of other floating copies for a total of near 70, and has since found more, but his total is still short of the 100 copies initially assumed.”
If memory serves me correctly, the expedition to locate and raise Mr. Faulkner’s sailboat took place in the spring of 1953. For some reason Mr. Bill had left the boat at anchor at Cole’s Camp on the Sardis Reservoir during the winter months; and in the early spring, it was discovered to have drifted out into the cove and sunk in about eighteen feet of water. The recovery of the boat would not have presented any great problem had Mr. Faulkner called Memphis for a professional diver and rig; however, this would have been too conventional and commercial for his adventuresome mind. Therefore, he chose to make use of local talent, which I’m sure he felt would provide for a much more interesting day on Sardis Lake.
On the appointed morning Billy Ross Brown, a neighbor and close friend of the Faulkners, and I reported for salvage duty at Mr. Bill’s home. Also along was the Browns’ houseboy, Isom Cillum, who would act as all-round handyman for the project, as we were sure that we were in for some heavy work ahead. Upon arriving, we were surprised to find that a new member had been added to the party. His name was V. P. Ferguson; he was a student at Ole Miss, and I think it would be safe to say the “Veep,” as he was locally known, was something of a character. Billy Ross and I were quite familiar with the kimono-wearing, Koran-reading orchestra leader from the University, but we were admittedly quite surprised to see him here primed for the occasion. We were later to learn that V. P., upon hearing of the sinking of the sailboat, had called Mr. Faulkner and offered his services in recovering it. He explained to Mr. Bill that he was preparing for a summer excursion to the Caribbean to dive for black pearls, and that the Sardis outing would be good experience. I’m sure Mr. Bill discounted much of this story, but I’m also sure that he saw possibilities for an interesting day on the lake, and so invited him along. (Whoever says Faulkner had no sense of humor should have been along that day.)
The chief preparation for the outing seemed to have been the securing of enough food to satisfy the appetites of the would be salvage crew. Miss Estelle was in charge of this department and she had already sent Norfleet, the Faulkners’ Negro houseboy, out into the side yard with a large picnic basket of food. With the picnic basket safely secured in the Faulkner family station wagon, the five of us set forth to the Sardis Dam to begin salvage operations, To look over the crew-a Nobel Prize-winning author, two young college friends, a would-be pearl diver, and the faithful Negro houseboy—one could wonder about the prospects for the success of the mission. The route carried us through the University campus out Highway 6 West some eighteen miles, and then about seven miles up a gravel road to Sardis Dam. Our plan was to board the houseboat anchored at the dam and then to travel up the reservoir about five miles to Cole’s Camp, where the sailboat, as has been previously mentioned, lay some eighteen feet below the surface.
I think it would be well to pause here to say a few words about the houseboat which would be our base of operations for the day. Contrary to the general principle of shipbuilding (or in this case, boatbuilding), this vessel was built in the side yard of Colonel Hugh Evans of Oxford, many miles from any body of water. Being a neighbor and friend of Colonel Evans, Mr. Bill became inter ested in the boat and soon was a full-time partner in its construction. Two other families were involved in this venture, namely the Ross Browns and the Ashford Littles. After the completion of the boat came the problem of getting the rather large craft through the narrow streets of Oxford and out the main highway to Sardis Lake without tying up traffic for hours. It was decided to hire a professional mover from Memphis to undertake the task, and at the appointed time the boat was transferred by night to the lake. That morning the owners, their families and interested friends gathered at Sardis to watch her slide down the ways, and down she went, only to bob like a cork on a fishing line. It was quite evident that the boat was riding much too high in the water. The propeller screw did not reach the proper depth. Mr. Bill and his friends put their heads together and the solution was soon reached: put concrete in the bottom of the boat. Concrete was then placed in the hold, and the Minmagary set forth on her maiden voyage to reign as queen of the Sardis Reservoir for many years.
Mr. Bill was indeed master of his ship as we pulled out of the inlet onto the main body of water. After estimating the time of arrival at about an hour, and with Mr. Bill at the wheel, Billy Ross and I settled back in the deck chairs to enjoy the spring morning, I think we were doubly enjoying it because we were cutting classes at the University in order to make the trip. I know, too, that Mr. Bill was relaxed in his khaki pants and military-style khaki shirt, sitting at the wheel and smoking his favorite briar. In sailing and boating on Sardis, he seemed to find the peace and privacy that was more and more of a struggle to obtain after receiving the Nobel Prize.
V. P., always the nervous type, soon tired of watching the shore line go by and asked Mr. Bill if he could take over the wheel. Offering no objection, Mr. Bill let him have it and then joined us on the back deck to relax and discuss the problems of getting to the sailboat. Presently we were interrupted by the clanging of the deck bell and sharp commands being issued by the “Veep” sitting hard by the wheel.
“Full steam ahead; we are approaching the salvage area. We must have more steam,” he shouted into an imaginary tube that led to an equally imaginary engine room. The only person available to heed his commands was Isom, our houseboy turned cabin boy for the occasion, and he was thoroughly mystified by the whole proceeding. I’m quite certain that Isom thought Mr. Ferguson was “tetched in the head,” for he came back to me and said, “Mr. Howard, you know we don’t have no engine room down there, only that 75 marine engine and there sho ain’t nobody down there to hear him.”
It seems that V. P. had just finished some popular novel of the day concerning the rescue of a British submarine down in the South China Sea with all hands aboard, and through his imagination we were the crew pushing full steam ahead to make the res. cue. I believe Mr. Bill thoroughly enjoyed the fantasies of the “Veep” and he was soon resting again in his deck chair, probably assuring himself that he had made the right decision in bringing along Mr. Ferguson.
As we approached the entrance to the cove that led to Cole’s Camp, Mr. Bill took over the wheel again and steered us into position near the sunken boat. There was no real problem in finding the boat because of a safety line that was still attached from the sunken hull to a tree on shore. The plan of action was for us to take down a steel cable attached to a winch on the bow of the houseboat and hook it through an iron ring in the bow of the sail boat. After securing the hook, the idea was to crank the winch, thus pulling the boat to the surface. When this was accomplished, Mr. Bill planned to move the houseboat with the sailboat in tow to a nearby boat ramp, where we could wade in to maneuver the sailboat onto a boat trailer which would be backed into the water, The station wagon would be used to pull boat and trailer out and to Mr. Bill’s backyard drydock for repairs and overhaul.
All of this seemed relatively simple except for the fact that V. P. began complicating things from the start. For example, after his first dive he came up on deck, bowed in true Arabian Night style before Mr. Bill and exclaimed, “Oh, Captain Ahab, there is an octopus down below guarding the boat. Do you happen to have a machete aboard that might afford me some protection?”
Much to our surprise, Mr. Bill, with his usual composure, dis appeared below deck, came up with a machete and gave it to Ferguson, who immediately dived over the side with the weapon and disappeared below the surface while Isom stood by in wide-eyed wonder.
Just before noon, the hook was finally secured to the sailboat, but “Captain Ahab” decided to wait until after lunch to bring it to the surface. Isom broke out the picnic basket and began serving the food, keeping one eye, I’m sure, over the side for any sign of the octopus. Snakes were no problem for Isom, but an octopus was something else!
About halfway through lunch we heard the sound of someone on the other side of the lake trying to get our attention, and before any of us could answer, V. P. jumped upon the top deck and began wigwagging signals with a couple of towels. Before anyone knew what was going on, we observed an appreciable number of slightly disreputable looking fellows approaching, and within a short time the houseboat was boarded by what turned out to be the entire membership of V. P.’s dance band. It seems that V. P. had made slight mention of the expedition to his colleagues, and had in fact invited them to join him for lunch. They made short work of the contents of the picnic basket, and then they spread out all over the boat for an afternoon of sunbathing. I must say, at this point, that for a man who enjoyed his privacy, Mr. Bill seemed to take the whole affair in a very calm and understanding manner. The taciturn Nobel Prize-winner, in quiet and sly fashion, maintained his aplomb while V. P. all but took command of the situation.
The rest of the afternoon went by somewhat uneventfully with only the routine of securing the sailboat to the side of the houseboat and loading it on the trailer as described earlier. At dusk the sailboat was placed on the trailer and towed to its drydock in Faulkner’s backyard.
Some several days later Mr. Faulkner invited the group down to his house for a lawn supper, and I remember that the highlight of the evening was Mr. Bill’s dancing the soft shoe with Paul Pittman, one of the Ole Miss students.
William Faulkner spent many hours of sheer pleasure in the little sailboat that went to the bottom off Cole’s Landing and that was raised to sail again by Faulkner and a group of college students on that happy and carefree day. He usually referred to it as “the sloop.”
One afternoon while he, Miss Estelle, Hunter Little, and I were cruising, dark clouds appeared in the northwest and it was soon obvious that a squall was imminent. Fishermen, we observed, were scurrying shoreward. Faulkner calmly dismissed the idea of a squall and was maneuvering the sloop down the lake when a gust hit the craft and almost upset it. Life preservers were passed around. Faulkner declined his. Another gust took his hat, and Hunter went overboard to retrieve it and was almost drowned. After he was pulled aboard and matters were as much in hand as circumstances allowed, Faulkner called to me, “Howard, hand me a preserver. I am getting a bit chilly.”
In looking back over the years to the event just related, it becomes more apparent that the people who knew Faulkner best, outside of his own family, were the young people who grew up around the Faulkner home, as children playing with Jill, his daughter, later dancing and eating at her parties, and sharing many carefree moments with the man we all knew as Mr. Bill.
In this excerpt from her (somewhat fictionalized) Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady (1985), self-confessed misanthrope Florence King—celebrated by conservatives and liberals alike for her arsenical wit—renders a breezy, catty account of her brief career as a graduate student at the University of Mississippi in 1958.
King wrote Confessions in graduate school, which she never finished after embarking on a career as a writing putative first-person stories for pulp magazines like Uncensored Confessions. (Her first: “My God! I’m Too Passionate for My Own Good!”) Many might find her impressions of Ole Miss in the late ‘50s of interest, and fans will like the way King lays the overwhelmingly Southern-ness of Oxford on with a trowel. This selection also describes the beginnings of her affair with a young woman who was killed in a car accident shortly afterwards.
My South was a region of narrow red brick Federalist houses and vast rolling acres of cobblestones. I had never seen naked children playing with a dead snake, nor a four-year-old standing up to nurse at the breast of a mother seated on a porch, but these riveting sights were mine from the window of the Memphis-Oxford bus.
Oxford itself was a pretty town with a courthouse on the square and a Confederate statue in front of it. It was almost dark when the bus pulled into the depot. As I got off, a taxi driver spotted me for a student and jumped forward, tipping his cap.
“Carry you up to campus, l’il lady?”
His idiom for “drive” was another first; for a moment I visualized myself arriving in a swoon in his skinny arms. He loaded my luggage and I gave him the name of the dorm the dean had assigned me to.
“That’s Miz Arvella’s dorm,” he said, referring to the housemother the dean had mentioned. “A fine woman.”
Proctors had to arrive two days earlier than the other students, so the campus was empty and unlighted when he pulled up before a dimly outlined rectangular house set in a copse of dark overhanging trees. In the tradition of Gothic paperback covers, one light burned in the house. The driver shone his headlights on the walk so I could see and I mounted the porch and rang the bell. I heard footsteps and then the door opened.
“Hey, Miz Arvella!” the driver cried happily.
“Hey, Mistuh Reece! How you doin’? How you been? You have a good summuh?” She turned to me. “You must be Flarnz. Are you Flarnz? Are you the proctuh named Flarnz? They said you wuh comin’ tonight. The Dean said to me this mornin’, she said, ‘Flarnz is comin’ tonight.’ Did you get heah awright? How you doin’?”
Everybody started talking at once; the driver answering his questions, I answering mine, and Miz Arvella asking more. It made walking through the door difficult: other people enter houses but Southerners surge in on wings of speech. Miz Arvella was the same age and shape as every other old lady I had ever known, but there was nonetheless something un-Daughterly about her. The word “askew” came to mind. I was used to rigidly glued gray fingerwaves and personalities to match, but Miz Arvella looked as if she had been cut out of her own speech pattern.
I reminded myself that I was getting a free private room out of this. Miz Arvella took me upstairs and showed it to me as the driver followed behind with my bags. It was huge and attractively furnished and sans Granny-my first room-of-one’s own. I paid the driver and he left me alone with the fine woman.
“Come on down aftuh you wash up. We’ll have us some coffee and Ah’ll explain your duties,” she said, and waddled out.
I washed up and looked out the window but could see nothing except an amber patch made by my own light; beyond it lay the wet black velvet of a Southern night. It was as still as death, yet there was something pervasively alive about it, a sense of things unseen moving among the trees on soundless wings. No wonder so many of the early settlers had gone mad. (“One Nathaniel Upton was floggèd for shewing himself in publick unclothed.”)
I went downstairs to join Miz Arvella. She led me to a little room with a wall board that contained buzzers and corresponding room numbers. Next to the board was the proctor’s desk and a table containing the sign-out book. According to the dean’s letter, I was to alternate odd and even nights with Miz Arvella, each of us having every other weekend off. There was very little to do and I could study at the desk once the girls were out on their dates. I had to check them in, keep track of late records and grace periods, chase any boys out of the lounge when the witching hour struck, and lock the doors.
As a woman of legal age, I had no curfew. I could go out after I locked the magnolia blossoms in, and stay out all night if I wished. My job entitled me to a key to the dorm, which Miz Arvella issued me now.
Next she explained the buzzer system. This is what she said:
“When a guhl has a phone call, you know what Ah mean, when the telephone rings, when somebody is callin’ huh up. When a guhl has a phone call, you press huh bell once. When she has a calluh, when a boy comes in to get huh, you know what Ah’m tryin’ to say, when they’ve got a date that night and he picks huh up, when he comes in and asks for huh in puhson ‘stead of callin’ on the phone, you unnerstand what Ah mean? When she has a calluh, then you press huh bell twice. That way, she knows whethuh she’s got a phone call or a calluh. ‘Cause see, if she has a calluh and you press huh bell once ‘stead of twice, she’ll think it’s a call ‘stead of a calluh. She’d come downstairs in huh dressin’ gown with huh hair up in cullahs, and there stands huh calluh, just standin’ there right in front of huh just as big as life. She’d just die of embarrassment, you know what Ah mean, she’d just fall down dead is what Ah’m sayin’, she’d just perish!”
She invited me to dinner in her apartment but I pleaded travel fatigue and escaped to my room. I poured myself a drink from Herb’s Prohibition flask, which he had filled with Scotch and given me for a going-away present. I heard the phone ring in Miz Arvella’s bedroom. A call, not a calluh. I put my hair up in cullahs, had another drink-you know what I mean, I poured some more whiskey out of the flask and drank it is what I’m saying—and fell into bed.
I slept twelve hours and awoke to the kind of morning that can turn night people into morning people. The warm sunny air was so fresh and sweet that I actually stuck my head out the window and inhaled. Ole Miss had a bona fide campusy look that my city college had striven for and missed. It was enough to make a graduate student feel like a co-ed at last, instead of the strangely haunted, secret-drinking proctor of Miz Arvella.
No sooner did this thought pass through my mind than I heard a tap at my door.
“Flarnz? You there, Flarnz? Come on down and have breakfast. Miz Zaviola’s heah. She’s one of the othuh housemothuhs and she’s just dyin’ to meet you.”
I was starving to death, so with two of us in extremis there was no reason to try and get out of it. I dressed and went downstairs, sniffing appreciatively at the aroma of Miz Arvella’s home-baked biscuits.
The other housemother looked more like my kind of old lady but she sounded exactly like Miz Arvella. This is what she said over breakfast:
“When Ah heard they wuh lettin’ the freshmen guhls stay out till midnight on Saddy, Ah saw the handwritin’ on the wall. Ah said to myself Ah said Ah can just see the handwritin’ on the wall if they let those guhls stay out till midnight on Saddy. Ah said the same thing to one of the mothuhs that called me. She asked me what did Ah think about them lettin’ the freshmen guhls stay out till midnight on Saddy and Ah said to huh Ah said Ah can just see the handwritin’ on the wall.”
My stomach was shaking. I was sorry because I had always enjoyed old ladies and I wanted to enjoy these, but I had to escape the echo chamber. As soon as I could politely do so, I excused myself and went for a walk around the campus. It was nearly deserted without the students but I had an imaginary companion. As we strolled through the grove in front of the white-columned Lyceum, Somerset Maugham whispered in my ear: “It requires the feminine temperament to repeat the same thing three times with equal zest.”
Maybe. Probably. But there was something a little too sweeping about Willie’s theory. The most feminine temperament I had ever encountered belonged to Evelyn Cunningham, but though she was a chatterbox, she was not a repeating rifle. No matter how much she talked she always moved forward, usually too fast; her needle never got stuck. Compared to Miz Arvella and Miz Zaviola, Evelyn was taciturn.
I stayed out as long as I could, but with the campus closed and no car to take me into town I was thrown back on the dorm. That meant having my meals with Miz Arvella because I want to emphasize this-she was what the South calls “a good soul.” She would give you half of anything she had to eat and three of everything she had to say.
As long as I had to endure her echolalia, I decided to analyze it. Perhaps she had been the youngest in a large family and had trouble getting people to listen to her. When she told me she was the oldest of seven and had raised her siblings after their mother’s untimely death, I decided that her thrice-told tales sprang from saying “No, no, no” to children while she herself was still a child. When both housemothers told me their late husbands had been farmers, I blamed isolation in the country with laconic men. This did not explain the absence of echolalia in farmwives in other parts of America, especially New England, but by then I was in no condition to pick a fight with myself.
All of my theories collapsed on the first day of school when the dorm was invaded by girls and mothers from every part of Mississippi, representing every social background and sibling rank, who all said everything at least three times.
“Well, lemme tell you, Ah’ve been on the horns of a dilemma evva since we got up this mornin’ to drive Tulaplee up heah from Jaspah City. Ah’ve nevva seen a fuhst day like this one. Ah tole Jimmy Lee while we wuh drivin’ up heah, Ah said Jimmy Lee Ah said, Ah’m on the horns of a dilemma, that’s what Ah tole him. When we got to Clarksdale, Tulaplee remembuhed that she forgot huh opal necklace and we had to tuhn right around and go back home and get it. By the time we got stahted again, Ah was on the horns of a dilemma the likes of which you have nevva seen.”
“Mary Lou’s upstairs just cryin’ huh eyes out ’cause it’s the fuhst time she’s evva been away from home. But Ah tole huh, Ah said Mary Lou Ah said, there’s no point cryin’ your eyes out ’cause there comes a time when the Mama bird pushes the babies out of the nest. You know what Ah mean, Ah said Mary Lou Ah said, Nature tells the Mama bird to push the babies out of the nest, so you hadn’t ought to cry your eyes out like that, ’cause the time has come for you to leave the nest, that’s what Ah tole huh. But she kept cryin’ huh eyes out, so I went and got huh Daddy and Ah tole him Ah said T.J. Ah said, you make that chile unnerstand that she’s just got to leave the nest. So T.J. talked to huh a long time, a right good while, and finally she dried huh eyes and she said to me, Mama, she said, you’re right. Ah’ve just got to fly.”
The front door burst open, crashed against the wall, and shuddered on its hinges as an embattled mother and daughter surged through the foyer and stormed upstairs. This time it was the daughter doing the talking.
“Ah got sick and tard of listenin’ to all that ole hoorah so Ah tole him Ah said Purvis Lee Thornton Ah said, Ah don’t want to heah another word out of you, so you just hush your mouth right this minute, that’s what Ah tole him. And he said to me he said Jackie Sue he said, Ah know good ‘n’ well you been datin’ Lamar Creighton on the sly, and Ah said now listen heah Ah said, that’s the biggest bunch of hoorah Ah evva heard! Ah said you just take that up the road and dump it, Ah said, ’cause you’re just as full of hoorah as you can be, that’s what Ah tole him.”
Thus vanished my slim hope of blaming it on the menopause. I took four aspirin, helped Miz Arvella get everybody squared away, and then escaped to the allmale world of the History Department to sign up for my classes. I took Ancient Greece, Ancient Rome, the Age of Reason, Historiography and Historical Research, and Thesis I. After I registered, I had an interview with my thesis advisor.
“I see from your transcripts that you’ve had six years of French,” he said. “I assume you’re planning a topic from French history, since you can do the research in the original. How about Syndicalism?”
Ralph had warned me about professor-generated topics. (“You can bet he’s writing a book on it and wants a free research assistant.”)
“Labor movements don’t interest me,” I replied, “and besides, it’s too recent. I like the distant past.”
Having blurted these sentiments to the only liberal at Ole Miss, I was smoothly but quickly transferred to another advisor, but he too pounced on the French, albeit with much more chronological empathy.
“How about Pippin the Short?”
“I’ll think about it,” I lied.
I wanted to write on the historical Bérénice, but I hesitated to say so for two reasons. First, very little was known about her and I was afraid there would not be enough to make a whole thesis. Second, I did not want to suggest a female topic after two men had suggested meaty male topics. I knew what History Departments thought of “hen scholars poring over Godey’s Lady’s Book.” I decided to see if I could solve both of these problems by fleshing out Bérénice with Titus and her father and grandfather, Herod Agrippa and Herod the Great. The latter’s policy on watery moles was bound to be an inspiration.
Next I went to the library to get my carrel assignment. The study nooks for graduate students, smaller versions of Herb’s first alcove at Park Road, were on the top floor of the library. The room was blessedly quiet and deserted. My carrel was next to a half-moon partitioned window that faced east and got the cool morning light. The desk was a Formica slab bolted to the wall, which made me think of the stationary desks bolted to the floor in high school. I gazed around the partitioned little space and smiled. It seemed more like my first private room than the one I had in the dorm. I ran my hand along the bookshelf above the desk. I was going to like studying here.
I heard a chair scrape and turned around. A woman stood in one of the cubicles in the back of the room with her arm draped over the top of her partition. The sleeve of her white shirtwaist was rolled up to the elbow in a businesslike way but the arm was languidly, almost bonelessly Southern. Just then she moved, seeming to push herself off the partition with a conscious effort, and started up the aisle toward me. She looked slender even though she wore a gathered skirt, so the body under it must have been thin. Her hair was dark and wavy and twisted carelessly up on the crown of her head in a chignon from which a few strands escaped and straggled down. She was taller than I, and as she came closer I saw that she was older. She looked about twenty-seven.
It seemed to take her forever to get from her carrel to mine. Southerner she undoubtedly was but a repeating rifle, never. Her smile was slow and lazy, too, but her undernourished air did not extend to her teeth. They were strong, perfectly aligned, and as white as her cotton blouse.
“Hey,” she said.
It meant “Hi.” Her eyes were dark grayish-green with golden flecks. I wondered what she put down when she filled out an application. She wore no makeup at all.
“Saw you get in a cab last night. I was going to carry you up to campus but you got away.”
I was still not used to “carry” for “drive” but her voice was as soft as velvet. I introduced myself and she responded with something that sounded like “breast.”
She gave a resigned smile as though she had been through this many times before.
“B-R-E-S. Rhymes with dress. My mother’s maiden name was Le Brès. Huguenot. We’re from the Gulf.”
“Are you a graduate student?” I asked.
“Graduate assistant. Classics. I got my master’s last year. I’m doing independent reading this year.”
“You mean Latin and Greek?” She nodded. “But Latin’s my specialty.”
It explained her oddly un-Southern, elliptical way of speaking. The military precision of Latin would necessarily eliminate the Mississippi daisy chain. I was terrifically impressed. As I tried to think of something ungulpy to say, she looked at her watch.
“Want to go get some coffee?” The jukebox was playing “Tom Dooley” when we entered the snack bar. It would continue to play all that year and become the song I afterwards associated with her, incongruous as it and she were. Several people gave her a quick glance and then looked speculatively at me. She continued on through the main part of the shop and led me to a smaller annex around a corner. I put my books down beside hers on the table she chose and we went to get our coffee.
“That’s our section,” she said, jerking her head back toward the annex. “It’s known as the Poet’s Corner. The campus cuties and the meatheads always sit in the main section. It’s called segregation,” she added with light irony.
I decided to test her. “I call campus cuties malkins.”
She knew what it meant. “Yes, they are that, but campus cutie is a proper noun around here. Capitalized. An official title. An award.”
“No. The student newspaper picks a Campus Cutie of the Week. Black.”
“What?” “No, I mean the coffee.”
We returned to the table and I told her about my idea for a thesis on Bérénice. Once again she picked up the intellectual ball and ran with it-much farther than I could.
“Hmm. Not much to go on. Tacitus mainly. ‘Titus reginam Berenicem, cui etiam nuptias pollicitus ferebatur, statim ab Urbe dimisit invitus invitam,’” she quoted rapidly. Something that was pure joy went through me. “There’s a little more in Deo Cassius,” she continued. “And the New Testament. Saint Paul met her. Bet that was an interesting occasion.”
Two co-eds at a table at the end of the main section were peering around the bend and staring at us. When I looked at them, one smirked and jabbed the other with troopers looking for cars with low trunks. I heard about the bootlegger who ran “Johnny’s Grocery” who became so undone by hypocrisy that he eventually came to believe he really was a grocer and started attending meetings of the Retail Food Merchants Association.
The strangest story they told me was about the local option situation over in the next county. Anyone with a powerful thirst could drive thirty miles to Batesville where there was a tavern that sold perfectly legal malt liquor. Not beer, malt liquor.
“Why malt liquor?” I asked.
Nobody knew. “That’s just the way it is,” Lucius said with a shrug.
It was an example of those recumbent QED’s that so infuriate Northern liberals. Another is: “It’s always been that way.”
Suddenly I found myself dying for a drink. I was not much of a drinker at this time, and it was only mid-afternoon, but going to live in Mississippi was like being transported back to the 1920s: I wanted it because it was against the law to have it. The others evidently felt the same way; all had a parched, panting look. I was about to suggest a drive to Batesville when Augustus spoke up.
“Hey, I’ve got a jug of Thunderbird wine in my room. How about if we take it down to Bres’s apartment and drink it?”
I had never drunk Thunderbird but like all city people, I was familiar with the vintage, having seen empty bottles bearing the label scattered in alleys. Bres agreed to the suggestion and we left the coffeeshop.
First, we had to stop by Augustus’s dorm and stand watch while he brought out the jug in his laundry bag, surrounded, for authenticity’s sake, by a bundle of his underwear. I expected to hear sirens closing in on us. It was a heartrending example of the sanctity of states’ rights.
The six of us walked down to the well-named Faculty Shacks, tiny frame houses like beach cottages whose peeling exteriors evoked the old saying, “Too poor to paint, too proud to whitewash.” Each little house was a separate apartment with its own driveway; Bres’s contained a 1954 Ford with Pearl River County tags. She opened the door of the house and we trooped in.
The uncarpeted living room was like an oven. While she was in the kitchen getting ice, I looked around. The furniture consisted of two mattress-on-a-door couches facing each other and separated by a cable spool coffee table; the lamps had been made out of green wine jugs weighted with pebbles, and the bookcases from planks of lumber and cinder blocks. All in all, bohemian done to a turn.
She was fairly neat but not shockingly so; her slut’s wool was coming along nicely and her window ledges contained that undisturbed layer of aristocracy to which I was accustomed. There were books everywhere, in and out of the bookcases, and an enormous collection of grant literature: prospecti and brochures on Fulbright-this and Guggenheim-that. Lucius noted my interest in them.
“If you want to know how to live on grants forever, ask ole Bres. Freighters to Europe, too. She’s got the schedules memorized.”
It was exactly what I did want to know. I imagined the two of us living in Paris, studying at the Sorbonne and sharing a Left Bank garret. It was an easy dream to realize in the fifties; grant money fell like rain and Arthur Frommer was the Vagabond King.
Bres brought in the ice and we started drinking the awful wine. I could barely swallow it but everyone else lapped it up. Still thinking about the Southern-ness of classical studies, I ventured my opinion and asked the others what they thought.
Bres shook her head. “That was true once but today’s Mississippians wouldn’t buy it. One way or another, Latin makes them mad.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Three reasons.” She shot a long index finger out of the relaxed curve of her fist. “Primo, it’s Catholic, so the Baptists hate it. Secundo, it’s the symbol of scholarship, so the anti-intellectuals hate it. Tertio, the campus cuties hate it because it has a reputation for being hard to learn, and that makes it unfeminine.”
She turned to me with the barest inquisitive glance. I had difficulty swallowing, but this time it had nothing to do with the wine.
“Actually, they’re right for once,” she went on. “It is unfeminine. It’s ideal for writing military reports, which is what Caesar’s Gallic War is. The g’s and c’s are hard. The Church has ruined the real Roman pronunciation, you know?-and then there’s that marvelous brevity. Southern women like to put things in, but Latin takes things out. Like “Where is the mirror?’ Ubi speculum est? You don’t need ‘the.”
Once again she looked at me. Her glance was wry at first, but as I held it her eyes widened with unmistakable meaning. Suddenly she put down her wineglass and raised graceful arms to her hair and began to reorder it in that half-abstracted, half-automatic way of women who wear their hair up, swiping at the nape of her neck to catch loose strands and tucking them into the chignon at the crown. As I continued to watch her, she removed a bobby pin and opened it with her teeth. There is no gesture more womanly, yet it has all the carelessness of a little girl who loses her sweaters and breaks her Thermos jars. Something melted inside of me, a hard tight ball in whose center lay a tenderness I had never acknowledged or expressed. I wanted to hug her, to pull her into my lap and rock her. When she smiled shyly up at me from under the bow of her bent arms, it was all I could do not to cry.
The ghastly wine was nearly gone. I had drunk only one glass but my tongue tasted like a Croatian army sock. I shuddered as the others drained their glasses in one gulp and smacked their lips appreciatively; evidently Mississippians would drink anything. Sorella suggested that we turn our afternoon into a night of serious drinking, and the Grope started discussing a gas station near Water Valley where, it was rumored, you could buy a pint of applejack. Not whiskey, applejack; not gin, applejack. It being impossible to telephone ahead and ask point blank if the gas station sold illegal hooch, they were willing to drive all the way down to Water Valley on the strength of this uncertain gossip.
Reluctantly, I looked at my watch. “I’m on the desk tonight.”
“We’ll make a hooch run when Florence can go with us,” Bres ruled, and the argument subsided at once.
We all went to the cafeteria instead. I should have been hungry but I could barely finish a hamburger. I had fallen in love at last.
When I was a little kid, I’d write stories and my mother would type them up on her Royal Standard typewriter. Writing those stories, I never supposed I’d become serious. I used to use a manual typewriter, my own 1953 Royal standard, a beautiful machine that I loved dearly. Then I got a computer, and I use that now. The thing about the computer is that it makes it so easy to revise. Stepping off into the blank page is scary, and it’s much easier to go back and revise what you’ve already written than to make up something new, so I have to watch myself with that. I only work at night; drink beer, smoke my pipe and try to write a couple of pages. It’s kind of a ritual.
When I first became really interested in writing, when I was working on the railroad, my friend Frank Smith introduced me to William Faulkner. I’d heard of Faulkner, but I had never read him. Frank and I were talking about writing, thinking, sort of coming out of ourselves and finding out things. When he gave me some Faulkner books to read, I became just totally involved in Faulkner’s world. It was a world I thought I would have loved to have lived in; the 1890s, the turn of the century, the South of the 1920s. I was fascinated by his style, so I began to unconsciously imitate it. If I had any of my early writings, you would see that I was a very poor copier of William Faulkner, but an imitator nevertheless. Parenthetically, Shelby Foote did the same thing, you read Foote’s early novels and they are a poor imitation of Faulkner’s style. Then I read Joseph Conrad, and I began to imitate him, his cadences, then I read Scott Fitzgerald and I tried to imitate his beautiful, musical lines. Every person I read, I would imitate. Many years later, when I read Lonesome Dove, that book put echoes in my head. Out of all that came my own style.
That’s how I learned to write, by reading other writers, imitating and finding my own voice, and that’s what I recommend for any writer, to not be afraid to imitate a number of writers, because eventually you’ll find your own style. That’s what Faulkner himself did; he imitated A.E. Housman, a number of stylists until he came up with his own. By the time I came to Rowan Oak as a caretaker, I was sick and tired of William Faulkner, I was sick of his baroque sentences, he had begun to annoy me with his coy, almost willful obscurity, so I lost interest in his writing for that reason. Oddly enough, the presence of William Faulkner at Rowan Oak was very small. The boys who worked with me there I think would agree. We all wrote stories and wrote things in the house, but there was no inspiration or magical breath that came down the stairs. It was like writing in a hotel room. Although we talked about him, kept the house as he and his family had, the house really had a life of its own. To us, it was always the house that was more alive to us than Faulkner. Wherever Mr. Faulkner’s ghost is, it is at rest.
I never go to a lecture unless I’m giving it. I say that kind of tongue-in-cheek, but there’s also some truth in it, too. I go to a writers’ conference to speak or read, and I look out over the auditorium and they’ve all got their pads and their pencils are poised to write down The Secret as if there must be some secret to this. They would be better off spending that time reading other writers and writing for themselves. Edgar Allen Poe never went to a writers’ conference; William Faulkner never attended classes at Bread Loaf. The great writers learn to write by reading and imitating and by working their asses off day and night. You’ve always got to be working on something, whether it’s going to amount to anything or not. You can ask any writer if he is working on anything now, and he will say yes. He may be staring at the blank page, but he’s still working.
Don’t preach. You want to write a story. Faulkner said, and I think he’s quite right, that a writer should not have an agenda, that he should not preach; his business is to tell the story of the human heart, to tell it well in all of its lights and shadows, and out of that telling, if you do it true enough and honest enough, if you don’t make fun of your characters and create a real world that your reader can move around in, if you do all that and tell the story, then the meaning, the preaching, whatever you’re trying to say will come out. The Black Flower is not about North versus South; it’s not about the Yankees and the Rebels; it’s about how horrible and unspeakable war is. That’s what it preaches about, not through the voice of the author but through the actions and reactions of the characters and the things they see in the world around them. The reader gets the message without being button-holed. What is wrong with preaching is that you begin to move away from the story, away from the work, and into the writer. And the writer doesn’t matter. If the writer has a message, it needs to come out in the work.
I think that my course has run as a writer. I don’t think that I’ll be publishing any more books. I think that the time has come for me to be a teacher of writing. But having said that, I still write all the time, I’m still paying attention. The literary world is a landscape that I don’t recognize any more, I don’t understand it; I don’t know what’s going on. I don’t think anyone would be interested in publishing anything else I write, but if I ever finish something, I’ll send it in, see what happens.
My family’s New Year’s celebrations always included fireworks and black-eyed peas. Many of the fireworks were left over from my father’s superb Christmas collection, which contained the usual array of bottle rockets, Roman candles and firecrackers, but he always had a few fire fountains and a sparkling rocket or four put away for the last night in December. The peas, which we had on the table year-round, assumed an incandescence all their own that night as signatures of memory and rapport.
Our freedom of worship brought many people to this country. Among the earliest were Jews who had endured centuries of barely tolerable hardships. Many Sephardic Jews settled in South Carolina, Georgia, and Maryland well before the Civil War, and they brought with them their tradition of eating black-eyed peas at Rosh Hashana.
In time, this custom spread to their New World neighbors who were already familiar with the bean (yes, a black-eyed pea is a bean) but doubtless confused as to why the Jews celebrated New Year so early and didn’t use a ham bone in their peas like everyone else did. Still, the tradition caught on and endures as evidence of the South’s many-layered and multifaceted culinary heritage.
This is another recipe I made at the Harvest Cafe in Oxford, a vegetarian restaurant on the corner of Jackson and South 10th. On the brunch shift, I’d make soup specials, which was always a challenge, because the black bean chili was outstanding and one of the most popular dishes.
Under duress, I rose to the occasion and in a memorable effort made a gumbo using black-eyed peas. This combination of peas and okra in a thickened, richly-seasoned stock with aromatic vegetables and tomatoes seemed a good combination for our clientele; most people who ordered soup wanted something warm and filling around Sunday lunch time, and this recipe seemed a good alternative to the favorite chili.
My idea received a guarded reservations; when my boss, John Anderson, asked me what he needed to put on the blackboard as the soup of the day, I said “black-eyed pea gumbo.” He blinked his eyes behind those big glasses he wears, slowly nodded his head and said, “Okay”, which in my experience with this gentle man I recognized skepticism of a profound and imponderable nature.
Jennie Lee, my co-worker, asked me if I’d lost my mind, but she’s from Charleston, was more perloo than gumbo. She also didn’t sign my paychecks.
Besides, the dish was well underway. I’d made a good brown roux with vegetable oil and our lightest flour, added minced garlic, chopped onions, celery and bell pepper. This primordial goo I combined with a good base made with vegetable stock and seasoned with basil, thyme, oregano and bay. Not only that, but I’d been soaking the peas since happy hour the day before, and they were simmering on a back eye. I also had two packages of organic okra stashed in a refrigerator in the back; these were expensive contraband (imagine the price of a frozen package of organic okra in 1995 Mississippi), but essential to my enterprise.
The okra I rinsed under warm water before adding it to the pot to relieve it of ropy-ness. The peas I drained but kept the liquid. After adding the peas and okra to the pot, I started adding the liquid to achieve a good consistency (I like it thickish, but with a good juice) then added two small drained cans of diced tomatoes that I’d smuggled in from James’ Food Store. Once that was done, I began adjusting the seasonings, and finally put the gumbo in a serving pan on the line.
Of course, John ordered the first bowl. His critique was just as laconic as his first, but delivered with a smile, which I took as a positive sign. This interpretation was confirmed when the orders started coming in, many for the gumbo. This earned me a grateful nod from my co-workers, since pouring something in a bowl and sending it out the window is one of the less stressful acts you can perform in a busy kitchen.
Before the end of the shift, John came into the kitchen and said, “They loved your gumbo. How did you make it?”
Coming to Mississippi, enigmatic to others and even more so to us who live here, is objective enough for writers seeking an exotic locale within the United States (as such Theroux joins the ranks of V.S. Naipaul, Bill Bryson and Richard Grant), and without exception they each have paid homage to the one strong and often strident–if not always distinct–clarion that sounds from the center of Lafayette County across the world.
Theroux reserves a passage for “The Paradoxes of Faulkner”, in which he provides a thorough analysis of the man and his works as well as observations on peripheral matters such as Blotner’s biography. The paradox of his title refers to Faulkner’s writing itself, which Theroux describes as either falling or flying, a critical encapsulation that might well describe any major writer with a significant volume of work, and Faulkner’s oeuvre spans generations.
Theroux is a thorough writer, meaning he is considerate to detail, often to excess, as is evident throughout Deep South: Four Seasons on Back Roads, which includes much that we should be grateful to have on record from a writer with an exceptional eye. It’s good to read the words others write about us, and it’s important that we read what others have to say about Faulkner’s twisted, frayed, and, yes, fallen South, however better perceptible by far in his own assessment than by any others’.
Southerners share an acute awareness that most of our fellow countrymen view us with disdain. This knowledge of ill regard is something we learn from an early age, and the message is amplified and compounded by a steady stream of negativity from every imaginable source: books, movies, television and other media, not to mention personal experiences garnered by traveling outside our lands and meeting that contempt face-to-face.
As powerful as this imprint is, still it can come as a shock, particularly for a Mississippian, who even among their fellows from other Southern states are pissed upon as if from a great height, to find that a person you admire for talent, wisdom, and at least an ostensible generosity of mind can be vehemently bigoted towards a region and people never visited. Such was my reaction to Bill Bryson’s account of a visit to Mississippi in The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America, in which Bryson chronicles a 13,978 mile trip around the United States in the autumn of 1987 and spring 1988.
When I was a graduate student studying English as a language, Bryson’s The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way (1990) captivated me. Witty, informative and occasionally dazzlingly well-written,–he hangs 10 all through Middle English–Bryson came across as the bluff, jovial professor of the sort one should hope to have in a subject that can be stupefying.
Many years later, when I came across Bryson’s account of his journey through Mississippi in The Lost Continent, I was stunned to discover him, a native Iowan now living in Britain, as full of bile as most American writers who venture south and dismayed to find his account packed with the usual shopworn stereotypes, clichés, and overt contempt. Here’s some of what he wrote.
Just south of Grand Junction, Tennessee, I passed over the state line into Mississippi. A sign beside the highway said, WELCOME TO MISSISSIPPI. WE SHOOT TO KILL. (my emphasis, jly) It didn’t really. I just made that up. This was only the second time I had ever been to the Deep South and I entered it with a sense of foreboding. It is surely no coincidence that all those films you have ever seen about the South – Easy Rider, In the Heat of the Night, Cool Hand Luke, Brubaker, Deliverance – depict Southerners as murderous, incestuous, shitty-shoed rednecks. It really is another country. … I followed Highway 7 south towards Oxford. It took me along the western edge of the Holly Springs National Forest which seemed to be mostly swamp and scrub land. I was disappointed. I had half expected that as soon as I crossed into Mississippi there would be Spanish mosses (sic) hanging from the trees and women in billowy dresses twirling parasols and white-haired colonels with handlebar mustaches drinking mint juleps on the lawn while armies of slaves gathered the cotton and sang sweet hymns. But this landscape was just scrubby and hot and nondescript. Occasionally there would be a shack set up on bricks, with an old black man in a rocking chair on the porch, but precious little sign of life or movement elsewhere.
At the town of Holly Springs stood a sign for Senatobia, and I got briefly excited. Senatobia!What a great name for a Mississippi town! All that the old South stood for seemed to be encapsulated in those five golden syllables. Maybe things were picking up. Maybe now I would see chain gangs toiling in the sun and a prisoner in heavy irons legging it across fields and sloshing through creeks while pursued by bloodhounds, and lynch mobs roaming the streets and crosses burning on lawns. The prospect enlivened me, but I had to calm down because a state trooper pulled up alongside me at a traffic light and began looking me over with that sort of casual disdain you often get when you give a dangerously stupid person a gun and a squad car. He was sweaty and overweightand sat low in his seat. I assume he was descended from the apes like all the rest of us, but clearly in his case it had been a fairly gentle slope. I stared straight ahead with a look that I hoped conveyed seriousness of purpose mingled with a warm heart and innocent demeanor. I could feel him looking at me. At the very least I expected him to gob a wad of tobacco juice down the side of my head. Instead, he said, “How yew doin’?” This so surprised me that I answered, in a cracking voice, “Pardon?” “I said, how yew doin’?” “I’m fine,” I said. And then added, having lived some years in England, “Thank you.” “Y’on vacation?” “Yup” “Hah doo lack Miss Hippy?” I was quietly distressed. The man was armed and Southern and I couldn’t understand a word he was saying to me. “I’m sorry,” I said, “I’m kind of slow, and I don’t understand what you’re saying.” “I say” – and he repeated it more carefully – “how doo yew lack Mississippi?” It dawned on me. “Oh! I like it fine! I like it heaps! I think it’s wonderful. The people are so friendly and helpful.” I wanted to add that I had been there for an hour and hadn’t been shot at once, but the light changed and he was gone, and I signed and thought, “Thank you, Jesus.” I drove on to Oxford, home of the University of Mississippi, or Ole Miss as it’s known. The people named the town after Oxford in England in the hope that this would persuade the state to build the university there, and the state did. This tells you most of what you need to know about the workings of the Southern mind.Oxford appeared to be an agreeable town. It was built around a square, in the middle of which stood the Lafayette County Courthouse, with a tall clock tower and Doric columns, basking grandly in the Indian-summer. Around the perimeter of the square were attractive stores and a tourist information office. I went into the tourist information office to get directions to Rowan Oak, William Faulkner’s home. …
Behind the desk sat a large, exceptionally well-dressed black woman. This surprised me a little, this being Mississippi. She wore a dark two-piece suit, which must have been awfully warm in the Mississippi heat. I asked her the way to Rowan Oak. “You parked on the square?” she said. Actually she said, “You pocked on the skwaya?” “Yes.” “Okay, honey, you git in yo’ car and makes the skwaya. You goes out the other end, twoads the university, goes three blocks, turns rat at the traffic lats, goes down the hill and you there, un’stan?” “No.” She sighed and started again. “You git in yo’ car and makes the skwaya–” “What, I drive around the square?” “That’s rat, honey. You makes the skwaya.” She was talking to me the way I would talk to a French person. She gave me the rest of the instructions and I pretended to understand, though they meant nothing to me. All I kept thinking was what funny sounds they were to be emerging from such an elegant-looking woman. As I went out the door she called out, “Hit doan really matter anyhow cust hit be’s closed now.” She really said hit; she really said be’s. I said, “Pardon?” “Hit be’s closed now. You kin look around the grounz if you woan, but you cain’t go insod.” I wint outsod thinking that Miss Hippy was goan be hard work.
There’s more; some worse, some better. Bryson visited Tupelo and Columbus as well, but in the final analysis. he left Mississippi with pronounced relief, and his impressions of the state were, I’m disappointed to say, rather much what we have come to expect of most people who visit with preconceived prejudices and with no desire to do anything more than capitalize upon the surety that their condescension would be well received by the world at large.
Then again, perhaps something akin to sour grapes may involved. Bryson never got around to finishing that screenplay of Absalom, Absalom!, likely because his diminuating, dismissive assessment of the Southern mind rendered him incapable of encompassing–much less fathoming–Faulkner’s world.