Christmas at Rowan Oak

This is an excerpt from Malcolm Franklin’s Bitterweeds:  Life with William Faulkner at Rowan Oak (1977) Born in Shanghai in 1923, Franklin was the son of Cornell and Lida Estelle Franklin. After what’s most often described as a “cordial” divorce, Estelle married William Faulkner in 1929, and he began living in Oxford, Mississippi. Franklin served as a medic during World War II, studied medicine and herpetology. He died in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1977.

Of all the holidays at Rowan Oak, Christmas was the most festive. An air of great excitement prevailed everywhere, even in Chrissie’s and Andrew’s little cabin.

I recall one cold, crisp December mid-afternoon, when the various members of the family gathered in the library in preparation for the expedition to get the Christmas Tree. This was the very beginning of Christmas, when the tree was found and cut.

Each was bundled up against the cold. This year there was Jill, Pappy, Victoria’s husband Bill Fielden, myself, Mama, and Andrew bearing the axe. It was Pappy who chose the tree-a cedar that had less of a chance to become a large tree. In making his choice he was also careful to thin out the woods properly, leaving extra growing space for the ones not cut, for our Christmas Tree always came from Bailey’s woods on Rowan Oak’s grounds.

After the tree was felled, Andrew and Pappy spread the khaki-colored tarp smoothly on the ground. Then the tree was carefully wrapped in the tarp, leaving an area at the base free so that Pappy and Andrew and all of us could take turns pulling it through the woods to Rowan Oak. This was done to protect the branches as the tree was pulled along, for it was far too heavy to carry.

The tedious chore of getting the tree up and ready for trimming was then completed. By then it was late afternoon and a cold sharp light came in through the living room windows. The trimming was left to the ladies with the men offering a suggestion now and then. Boxes of ornaments lay open on the floor. Tinsel lay heaped on the parlor table. When the decorations had found their way onto the delicate outer branches and the tinsel, sparkling and clear, reached to the very top ornament, the tree was a beautiful sight to behold. Across the hall the library door stood open. A roaring fire crackled in the fireplace. A bourbon bottle stood open on a silver tray. Cut glass waiting to be filled caught the reflection of the fire. (Christmas was preceded by trips for Christmas cheer to Memphis, seventy-odd miles away, the nearest place offering a wide selection of bourbon, wine, and of course champagne for the New Year.)

There were other trips to the woods for greens and decorations, all to be gathered before Christmas Eve. The gathering of the holly and mistletoe was quite a task. We had to drive almost eight miles out into the country to the place where it grew. This was an old Chickasaw Indian Boundary line, where the holly trees were used to mark the line running east and west. In the trees high above these hollies grew the mistletoe. So high up were they, that it was necessary to shoot the mistletoe out with a .22 rifle. Only a few berries were lost as the branches fell.

It was Christmas Eve morning. Pappy had taken Mama to Oxford in the old touring car to do last minute shopping. She had left instructions with Chrissie that if any packages or boxes should arrive while she was out, to just have them left in the house or on the verandah. Where I was at the time no one was sure. After all, it was Christmas Eve.

Toward the middle of the afternoon Chrissie was summoned by a sharp rap on the front door. It was the driver of the Railway Express van, with several large boxes for Mr. Franklin. Upon Chrissie’s instructions he and his crew neatly lined up three boxes on the verandah and drove off.

As the afternoon became colder and a grey sky brought early darkness, Mama and Pappy turned into the driveway, headed for the open fire and a drink. When Mama reached the top step on the verandah and saw those long boxes, all three of them, she was astounded. “Billy,” she called out, “What on earth do you suppose Malcolm’s receiving in these boxes?” As Faulkner reached the verandah he took one look at the boxes and called out loudly for me. **Buddy,” he said, “What on earth are these things? Come here!”

I had just come in by the back door and had not seen the boxes. I hurried through to the front verandah, took one quick look and knew. Dear God! They had sent out to me three cadavers meant for the Anatomy Department of the University!

When Mama found out what they were she took off for the library saying “Get rid of them! Get rid of them!”

I turned to Faulkner and explained. “Pappy,” I said, “I told Dr. Hogg that if anything was sent to the Anatomy Department during the holidays, the Express Company could call me and I would go over to the Department and let them in! I didn’t tell them to deliver cadavers here!”

“Well,” said Pappy. “We cannot have an array of cadavers gracing the verandah on Christmas Eve! You’d better phone Railway Express to pick these up immediately.”

Heading towards the telephone, shaken by the array of cadavers, I called back to Pappy. Please pour me a stiff drink while I make the call!

As the number was ringing the thought flashed through my mind that, as it was late Christmas Eve afternoon, there just might not be anyone there. But We had barely finished our drinks when the Railway Express van drove up again to the front Verandah. Faulkner then volunteered to drive me to the science building where I unlocked the door and made room for the Railway Expressmen to deliver the cadavers. As they emerged from the building Faulkner pulled from his pocket a pint bottle and passed it to each man.

When we arrived back, Rowan Oak was brightly lighted, and the glitter of the tree could be seen as the car came down the driveway and pulled up under the porte-cochere. Entering the library we headed toward the fire to warm up again. The aroma of various hot dishes drifted into the foyer from the dining room, where a buffet was being placed on the table. Norfleet appeared carrying a water pitcher. He bowed to Faulkner as he set the pitcher in place on the tray next to the bourbon decanter and glasses. For many friends would find their way up the cedar-lined driveway of Rowan Oak on Christmas Eve, leaving gifts or stopping by to say “Merry Christmas,” and perhaps sampling one of the hot dishes on the way to replenish a glass. This evening there were Dr. and Mrs. John Cully, Colonel and Mrs. Evans of ‘Minmagary” fame, Colonel Baker and his charmingly vivacious wife Kate, and many, many more.

The hour was a little past eleven, and younger members of the family were preparing to leave for the midnight service at St. Peter’s. A great flurry of activity could be glimpsed beyond the parlor door as coats were being held, gloves pulled on, and scarves flung across shoulders with an occasional impatient “Hurry or we’ll be late.” Older guests also began to disperse, leaving Pappy and Mama to go upstairs, where the stockings lay waiting in Mama’s room to be filled. Christmas Eve had suddenly become very quiet as Rowan Oak waited for the arrival of Santa. Even the dogs seemed somewhat subdued.

Daylight had hardly crept across the east lawn and touched the great cedars before young couples were astir in Rowan Oak. Jill’s and her young cousin Vicky’s were the first voices to be heard. Then there would be Pappy’s voice, trying to subdue the exuberant chatter as the girls headed for Mama’s room where the Christmas stockings hung waiting. Chrissie had already brought “Miss Estelle’s coffee tray up, and was peeping from behind the door and saying “Christmas Gif,” and flashing her brilliant, warm smile. She caught Pappy on the stairs, tipping down to fix his own breakfast. Chrissie knew that Mr. Bill would be the only one to eat a proper breakfast: eggs, bacon, and grits covered with melted butter, topped off with hot coffee.

On Christmas Faulkner was always a fastidious dresser. To start the stocking-opening ritual in Mama’s room, he wore an elegant and ornate silk Chinese robe. In this he would have his breakfast. Even for the early part of the ceremony of the tree he would be so dressed, for by nine-thirty the young people were there beside the tree in the parlor. It was at this time that Mama would make her appearance wearing a lovely Chinese wrapper in soft, muted pastel shades.

The younger members of the family, including the colored servants, Broadus, Norfleet, Estelle, and others, gathered around the tree. Pappy in his colorful dressing gown officiated. He offered a prayer first. Then he picked up a package and called a name. That person stepped forward and received it. This continued until all the packages were passed out, amid a flurry of paper and ribbon the boxes were opened.

The time had now come for Faulkner to receive his gifts. These consisted of little bundles of pipe cleaners, some in assorted colors, others snow-white. There were all kinds of pipe cleaners in various bundles clinging precariously to the branches of the tree, each with its little tag. There was one package of Dill pipe cleaners, which Faulkner liked particularly. The tag on this read: “To Pappy, Love Buddy.” The next, a gaily colored mixture, said “To Pappy, Love Jill.”

For Faulkner would accept only pipe cleaners from the family with the exception of an occasional handkerchief from Mama. If he received any other gift, he would carefully take it to his office and there it would remain unopened.

Colored members of the family went merrily off to the kitchen to open their gifts. There were pints of bourbon for our colored friends: Henry Jones, Wade Ward, and Wallace, who hunted with Faulkner, and of course Andrew.

The dining room table had been made ready early that morning. The Christmas punch bowl glistened ruby red, the flowers were gracefully arranged. Punch cups were placed about the ornate lace table cover. The bowl could be glimpsed by members of the family as they made their way upstairs to dress for the day. This was a Christmas punch created by Faulkner for the holidays. It consisted of apples, bourbon, dry burgundy and soda water, chilled by a generous portion of ice chunks.

During the morning and through the day frequent knocks at the kitchen door were followed by shouts of “Christmas Gif!” and various folks that had worked for us during the year received in return a Christmas drink and cheerful word. This was the custom in Oxford and throughout Mississippi. Wallace, at the request of Faulkner, stood ready with a wagon to drive to their homes those who could no longer navigate.

During the early afternoon members of my mother’s family began to arrive. There was my mother’s sister Aunt Dot, and my grandmother Oldham, this time without my grandfather. He had passed away during the war. Then there was Mary Jenkins, Dr. John Cully’s surgical nurse, who lived at the Oldhams’, and had for years been almost a member of the family. She had on numerous occasions taken care of Faulkner during serious drinking bouts.

Miss Maud, Faulkner’s mother, never went out on Christmas, or attended dinner at the homes of any of her children. She preferred to have her sons and grandchildren drop in and visit her. After her husband, Mr. Murry, passed away in the early 1930’s Miss Maud never had a Christmas Tree. Instead, there were bouquets of holly, Christmas greens, and a holly wreath at the front door. About mid-afternoon Faulkner would leave for a visit with Miss Maud, usually staying an hour. Then he would return to dress for dinner.

The afternoon grew late. Faulkner, who had returned to Rowan Oak and dressed in the white tie and tails which he considered appropriate for the occasion, made his appearance in the parlor, suggesting as he did so that drinks were in order. He then headed for the library fire and a bourbon, soon to be followed by members of the family. Conversations over drinks rose and fell with merry outbursts of laughter. Ice clicked against chilled glasses as new toasts came up. Mama came gaily into the library, saying, “Billy, will you do the honors?” Those who were seated before the fire arose, and we all placed empty glasses on the tray as we passed the library table on the way to the dining room.

Faulkner was already standing at the head of the table as the members of the family reached the dining room. The long table was draped with its elegant linen cloth, and the lighted candelabra cast uneven shadows on the polished silver. Holly and Christmas greens in a low cut-glass vase formed the centerpiece. Silver goblets with crisp white linen napkins marked each place.

There were two small tables placed at graceful angles near the dining table. These were for the younger members of the family, for there were too many to be seated at one table. Small gumdrop trees were placed in the centers of these tables. Their dainty linen and lace tablecloths swept close to the floor.

Chairs were held for the ladies as Faulkner graciously designated where each was to be seated. Norfleet’s white coat flicked through the pantry as he made a smiling entrance carrying the huge serving platter and turkey. After Pappy said the blessing, the turkey was carved. Each plate was bountifully served as Norfleet held it for Faulkner. Boojack re-set Faulkner’s place as Norfleet removed the well-carved turkey, placing it on the long narrow serving table on Faulkner’s left just in front of the fireplace.

Faulkner, lifting a crystal wine glass, poured a small portion in the glass and tasted it. Then each glass was filled by Faulkner as he walked around the table. When every glass was filled, Fau toast appropriate to the occasion. Boojack entered carrying a heaping dish of rice. Just behind, Broadus appeared bearing a large bowl of giblet gravy. There was always a tremendous amount of giblet gravy prepared, for it was a favorite with rice on Christmas. Then came the broccoli with a cheese sauce, followed by a shallow dish of sliced buttered sweet potatoes. The ham was passed, and a final platter of broiled quail. The long serving table had very little room left as the dishes were placed on it.

It was Boojack who, sometime later, swung open the door carrying a large empty tray. She, with the help of Broadus, removed the dinner plates and placed the dessert plates beside Mama.

Norfleet appeared almost immediately bearing a large cut glass bowl of ambrosia, which he placed in front of Mama. Seeing the ambrosia reminded Faulkner of a story a good friend had told him. Faulkner repeated the story as the ambrosia was passed. This friend had a cook, and when she was asked if she would like to go to heaven when she died, she stood silent for a few minutes. Then, smiling broadly, she replied: “No Sir, I don’t believe I wants to go to heaven, cause all I’d be doing up there every day for Eternity is grittin’ up coconut for the white folks’ ambrosia.”

Boojack returned carrying fruitcake and a silver urn of after-dinner coffee and the cups. Norfleet placed in front of Faulkner a bottle of cognac and delicately patterned small brandy glasses. By the time the last refill of cognac had been offered and conversation become somewhat scattered it was time to leave the table. The sky was a deep black and night had come. Christmas was over.

A Certain Justice: Faulkner, Mitford and McGee

Best known for her work The American Way of Death, Jessica Mitford was a British aristocrat, writer and political activist who came to Mississippi in 1951 to publicize the unjust execution of Willie McGee, a black man from Laurel who was sentenced to death in 1945 for the rape of Willette Hawkins, a white housewife. McGee’s legal case became a cause célèbre. William Faulkner wrote a letter insisting the case against McGee was unproven, and Mitford sought him out in her effort to rally support against a travesty of justice that many find has striking similarities to the trial Harper Lee wrote about in To Kill a Mockingbird nine years later. This excerpt is from Mitford’s memoir A Fine Old Conflict.

‘We had already overstayed our time in Mississippi. The four weeks allotted for the trip stretched into five, as we did not wish it to appear we had been chased out by the Jackson Daily News. But we decided we could not leave the state without attempting to see Mississippi’s most (indeed its only) illustrious resident, William Faulkner. The reserves having drifted back to their respective homes, it was the original four of us who drove down to Oxford. We asked a gangling, snaggle-toothed white boy for directions to Faulkner’s house. “Down the road a piece, past the weepin’ willa tree,” was his response, which I took as augury of our arrival in authentic Faulkner country. We turned through a cast-iron gate into a long avenue of desiccated trees leading to a large, run-down plantation-style house, its antebellum pillars covered with grayish moss. Through the window we saw Faulkner, a small man in a brown velvet smoking jacket, pacing up and down, apparently dictating to a secretary. We gingerly approached and rang the front doorbell. Faulkner himself came to the door, and when we explained the reason for our visit, greeted us most cordially, invited us in, and held forth on the McGee case for a good two hours. Faulkner spoke much as he wrote, in convoluted paragraphs with a sort of murky eloquence. I was desperately trying to take down everything he said in my notebook, and frequently got lost as he expatiated on his favorite themes: sex, race, and violence.

The Willie McGee case, compounded of all three, was a subject he seemed to savor with much relish; it could have been the central episode in one of his short stories. Later it was my job to edit down his rambling monologue as a brief press release to be issued by our national office. He said the McGee case was an outrage and it was good we had come. He cautioned us that many people down here don’t pay much attention to law and justice, don’t go by the facts. He said in this case they are giving obeisance to a fetish of long standing. He expressed fear for McGee’s safety in jail. When we left he wished us good luck. William Patterson was jubilant when I telephoned to tell him of our interview with Faulkner. It was a major break- through, he said. The release would certainly be picked up by the wire services and flashed around the world! But he insisted we show it to Faulkner and ask him to initial it, for fear that pressure from his Mississippi compatriots might later induce him to repudiate it. This time I drove alone past the weepin’ willa tree to find Faulkner in dungarees and hip boots, up to his knees in dank manure, working alongside one of his black farmhands. I showed him the release and explained why I had come: “Mr. Patterson thought I should ask you to sign this, for fear you might later repudiate it.” He read it through, initialed it, and as he handed it back murmured softly, as though speaking to himself, “I think McGee and the woman should both be destroyed.” “Oh don’t let’s put that in,” said I, and clutching the precious document made a dash for my car. One can only conclude that Faulkner gave expression, in his own distinctive voice, to the deep-seated schizophrenia then endemic among white liberals and racial moderates of the region.’

The Sartoris Thanksgiving

In a his article “Cooked Books” (The New Yorker, April 9, 2007), Adam Gopnik points out that there are four kinds of food in books: “Food that is served by an author to characters who are not expected to taste it; food that is served by an author to characters in order to show who they are; food that an author cooks for characters in order to eat it with them; and, last (and most recent), food that an author cooks for characters but actually serves to the reader.”

Faulkner falls solidly into the second category, a writer who uses food to show who his characters are, as does (unsurprisingly) a French writer who influenced the Mississippian very much, Marcel Proust.  “Proust seems so full of food—crushed strawberries and madeleines, tisanes and champagne—that entire recipe books have been extracted from his texts,” Gopnik says. “Proust will say that someone is eating a meal of gigot with sauce béarnaise, but he seldom says that the character had a delicious meal of gigot with sauce béarnaise—although he will extend his adjectives to the weather, or the view. He uses food as a sign of something else.”

This is precisely what Faulkner does with the Thanksgiving meal at the Sartoris home in Flags in the Dust, his first novel to be set in Yoknapatawpha County (called “Yocona”). Written in 1927, the novel was rejected by his publisher, but it was released in a drastically edited version as Sartoris in 1929. The full manuscript was finally restored and published under the editorial direction of Douglas Day in 1973. The novel is set just after World War I and focuses on the once-powerful, aristocratic Sartoris in decline, clinging to the vestiges of affluence. Here Faulkner describes their Thanksgiving table:

. . . Simon appeared again, with Isom in procession now, and for the next five minutes they moved steadily between kitchen and dining room with a roast turkey and a cured ham and a dish of quail and another of squirrel, and a baked ‘possum in a bed of sweet potatoes; and Irish potatoes and sweet potatoes, and squash and pickled beets and rice and hominy, and hot biscuits and beaten biscuits and long thin sticks of cornbread and strawberry and pear preserves, and quince and apple jelly, and blackberry jam and stewed cranberries. Then they ceased talking for a while and really ate, glancing now and then across the table at one another in a rosy glow of amicability and steamy odors. From time to time Isom entered with hot bread . . . and then Simon brought in pies of three kinds, and a small, deadly plum pudding, and a cake baked cunningly with whiskey and nuts and fruit and treacherous and fatal as sin; and at last, with an air sibylline and gravely profound, a bottle of port.” (Flags in the Dust, Random House, 1973, p. 281)

The meal is lorded over by the family patriarch, Bayard Sartoris II, who is soon to die as well as his son, Bayard III, leaving the few remaining members of the once proud and powerful Sartoris family destitute. Old Bayard’s attempts to maintain the family’s traditional high standards are exemplified by this meal, which is indeed a groaning board with plentiful meats and game, vegetables and breads, sweets and condiments. The inclusion of stewed cranberries, somewhat of a luxury item at the time, stands out. Towards the end, adjectives begin to cluster as they tend to do in Faulkner, and the final, “sibylline and gravely profound” presentation of port lends a dark, ceremonial  coda.

Mississippi’s Greatest Chef

A writer, a scholar and an artist as well as the first and foremost chef of note from Mississippi, Howard Mitcham was a brilliant, stone-deaf, hard-drinking bohemian, raconteur and bon vivant who knew and corresponded with the great and near-great but who himself remains shadowed today. A name chef during what Anthony Bourdain called “the early happy days before the glamorization of chefs”, a historian and an artist as well, we should remember Mitcham with gusto, with horns, drums and strings. His Creole Gumbo and All That Jazz stands loud, proud and without a smidgen of pretension alongside any cookbook written in the past century, a robust ragout of recipes, music, art and lore. His Provincetown Seafood Cookbook, written with the same gregarious spirit, surely sates my fellow countrymen in Massachusetts as fully, but as his fellow Mississippian, Creole Gumbo strikes much closer to my heart.

Mitcham nurtured, cultivated and matured his sprawling genius in the rich enclaves of Provincetown and New Orleans. For decades he was a spectacular bird of passage, summering on Cape Cod, wintering in the French Quarter and coming home to Montgomery County, Mississippi at times. His books trumpet a passion for seafood; his eloquence on oysters and clams, shrimp and fish seems to pant with restraint. Mitcham wants you to partake of everything he knows and loves with the same gusto he does in hearty sentences that growl with gruff humor and wry authority. “People think I’m sort of coo-coo to publish my trade secrets and recipes,” he wrote, “but to me good food is like love, it should be given as wide a distribution as possible.”

James Howard Mitcham, Jr. was born in Winona, Mississippi on June 11, 1917. His father, a house painter, died when he was a year old. His mother moved to Vicksburg to find work, leaving the infant Howard with her parents on their watermelon farm on Sawmill Road. At sixteen Mitcham became deaf from nerve damage resulting from spinal meningitis. For the rest of his life, Mitcham spoke with a thick, booming Southern accent, but used sign language and notes to abet his frequent incoherence. He grew up loving jazz, a love silence didn’t kill. “The last song he ever heard was Billie Holiday’s ‘Am I Blue?’”, his daughter Sabina said. “Whenever he’d sing it, it would just break my heart. At his birthdays he would place his hand on the bell of a sax to get the beat.”

Mitcham attended Greenville High School with lifelong friend Shelby Foote as well as Walker Percy. A May 30, 1934 clipping from “The Pica”, the GHS school newspaper, includes a column by Mitcham (“Rigmarole”) and three poems by Foote. A news article in the same issue notes: “Walker Percy, freshman at the University of North Carolina and member of last year’s graduating class, will journey to Germany for a three months’ tour of that country,” adding that “the tour will be made on foot and on bycicles (sic)”. After graduating high school, Mitcham moved to Vicksburg to live with his mother and began attending Louisiana State University. As an art student at LSU in 1940, Mitcham came to the attention of the Baton Rouge Advocate for befriending a Negro janitor on campus, Felton Coleman, who according to the newspaper article Mitcham “forced” to paint. Reading the account of this incident is almost painful, since it is most likely from our perspective that little coercion was involved at all. Instead, Coleman probably expressed an interest in painting while he was sweeping a studio, and Mitcham, far from ordering him to paint, instead gave Coleman a canvas and paint to take home to his “cabin”, where he soon “spent his evenings . . . painting by the light of a kerosene lamp, intent neighbors (crowding) at his elbows.” A year later, one of Coleman’s paintings, the “brilliantly-colored and strongly composed ‘Baptism’, appeared by invitation at the annual exhibition of Louisiana artists at the capitol.” (The painting is now on permanent exhibit at LSU.) “Coleman can be the greatest artist of his race, at least in the South,” Mitcham is quoted as saying. “It’s a pity that the opportunities to learn are not in the reach of more of his people. They all have talent. Painting gives them a way to express themselves, and they’ve got a great deal to say.” It’s worth noting that to advocate more education for blacks in the South in the 40s was progressive, if not radical.

At some point in the late 1940s, Mitcham moved to Greenwich Village in New York City, where he ran an art gallery. During this time, he became the model for “the stone deaf man” in Marguerite Young’s epic work, Miss MacIntosh, My Darling. Sabina said that during Mitcham’s days in New York, Walker Percy would come to stay with him, often sleeping on the floor in Mitcham’s tiny apartment in the Village.

A little over a decade later, Mitcham’s support for civil rights was confirmed in another medium. Among the papers of Dr. James Silver at the University of Mississippi is a letter from Mitcham to Silver dated 1956 written in a strong articulate script thanking him for a letter and clipping from “the Jackson, Tenn. newspaper” and his vigorous support of Silver’s stance against a closed society. “You have certainly flung down the gauntlet in a manner that was badly needed,” Mitcham wrote. “I only hope you don’t get a potsherd in the urn with your name on it. To defend freedom of thought and expression in Mississippi these days is almost suicidal, they’re more afraid of truth than any other one thing, just can’t afford to face it, or the house of cards will fall down.” The year before, Howard received a letter from Faulkner thanking him for a painting.

Dear Mitcham,
    The picture is here. It was all right, not bent but arch-ed a little but the paint did not crack. I flattened it with careful pressure, am trying to get a frame, something solid behind it. I will let the Buie people hang it for a while if they wish.
    I like it. I have it propped in a chair at eyelevel across the room from my typewriter where I can look up at now and then.
    I don’t know where rumor of illness came from. It’s not mine though. I had measles and such as a child but nothing since. Thank you for condolence though, and many thanks for the painting. I like plenty of dense color.
                                             Yours sincerely
                                             Faulkner

It’s not known if the painting ever did hang in the Buie Museum, but it is still at Rowan Oak. Fred Smith, owner of Choctaw Books in Jackson, pointing out the date as well as the elements of the painting (a Tokyo newspaper, a bottle of Tabasco sauce and a pipe) said, “Mitcham probably painted this to mark the publication of Faulkner’s New Orleans Sketches by Hokuseido Press in Japan on April 1. Faulkner also traveled to Japan that August on a goodwill tour.”

Mitcham’s first book, Fishing on the Gulf Coast, was published by Hermit Crab Press in 1959. “I don’t know much about fishing,” Mitcham confesses in his preface, but that doesn’t stop him from offering instructions on how to catch dozens of fresh and salt water species using methods anyone on the Gulf would use now. But Fishing on the Gulf Coast, in the final analysis, is a cookbook, Mitcham’s first, and it establishes his life-long love for seafood. Fishing includes many recipes you’ll find in later works (bouillabaisse, court bouillon, pompano en papillote and, of course a gumbo, in this instance from Antoine’s, no less). While the recipes are elaborate (and nowadays quite expensive to make), they’re easy to follow; they make perfect sense to anyone from south of I-10, with procedures for such things as smoking mullet (much beer-drinking seems to be involved) and incredibly detailed maps of the Gulf Coast along Louisiana, Texas, Mississippi and the Florida Panhandle.

What makes Fishing on the Gulf Coast even more of a treasure are Mitcham’s beautiful woodcut prints of fish and marine life. Art (along with a passion for antique clocks and clockworks) provided Mitcham with a fruitful outlet for his talents throughout his life. The 1963 summer and winter issues of The Carolina Quarterly featured two portfolios with six of his woodcuts prints. Like his fellow Mississippi artist Walter Anderson, who also made woodcut prints, much of Mitcham’s work reflects a strong interest in classical mythology. This is nowhere more evident than in his Four Tales from Byzantium (Wattle Grove Press: 1964). Incredulously enough, Wattle Grove Press was a small publishing house founded in Launceston,Tasmania by Professor Rolf Hennequel in 1958. According to a pamphlet issued by the Queen Victoria Museum & Art Gallery in Launceston, Hennequel stated that the purpose of the press was “. . . for printing unusual literature, which could not possibly be launched commercially. This was—and is—our only purpose, which also includes the desire to help young writers.” How Mitcham connected with this small, progressive press in a part of the world that could be considered almost the antipodes of Mississippi is an as-yet unfathomable mystery. Somewhat later, the book was re-issued by Hermit Crab Press in New Orleans.

The quirk of fate or fortune that first took Mitcham from his home in the Deep South to the distant shores of Cape Cod is a matter rich for speculation, but he claims to have made his first visit there as early as 1948. Thereafter for most of his life, Mitcham divided his years between New Orleans and Provincetown. An editor of The Provincetown Advocate described Mitcham as “Artist, block print maker, chef par excellence, pro-beatnik, draughtsman and one of the most talented ‘nuts’ ever to come into Provincetown.” Mitcham maintained an art gallery on the Cape, painted signs and repaired clocks (one correspondent claims he published an article on antique clocks in Gentleman’s Quarterly). In the 1960s, Mitcham wrote a column in the Advocate called the “The Cape Tip Gourmet” and another called “The Cape Curmudgeon”. He wrote that the first place he headed when he first arrived in Provincetown, and most likely from then on, was Town Wharf. “It made my heart jump to see the enormous hauls of herring that the trap boats were bringing in,” Mitcham said. “But my gourmet’s heart was broken when I found out that this wonderful fish was being knocked down for two bucks and fifty cents a barrel and shipped off to the cat food factory.”

His abounding love for Provincetown bore prodigious fruit in 1976 with the publication of The Provincetown Seafood Cookbook, an unsurpassed ode to a food, a place and a people. Bourdain, who worked in Provincetown during the mid-1970s when he was attending (of all places) Vassar, knew Mitcham and in his Kitchen Confidential writes that “Howard was the sole ‘name chef’ in town.”

“To us, Howard was a juju man, an oracle who spoke in tongues,” Bourdain wrote. “He could be seen most nights after work, holding up the fishermen’s bars or lurching about town, shouting incomprehensibly (he liked to sing as well). Though drunk most of the time and difficult to understand, Howard was a revered elder statesman of Cape cod cookery, a respected chef of a very busy restaurant and the author of two very highly regarded cookbooks: The Provincetown Seafood Cookbook and Creole Gumbo and All That Jazz—two volumes I still refer to, and which were hugely influential for me and my budding culinary peers of the time. He had wild, unruly white hair, a gin-blossomed face, a boozer’s gut and he wore the short-sleeved-snap-button shirt of a dishwasher. Totally without pretension, both he and his books were fascinating depositories of recipes, recollections, history, folklore and illustrations, drawing on his abiding love for the humble, working-class ethnic food of the area. His signature dish was haddock amandine, and people would drive for hours from Boston to sample it.”

“We might not have understood Howard, but we understood his books, and while it was hard to reconcile his public behavior with the wry, musical and lovingly informative tone of his writings, we knew enough to respect the man for what he knew and for what he could do. We saw someone who loved food, not just the life of the cook. Howard showed us how to cook for ourselves, for the pure pleasure of eating, not just for the tourist hordes. Howard showed us that there was hope for us as cooks. That food could be a calling. That the stuff itself was something we could actually be proud of, a reason to live.”

In Provincetown, Mitcham bonded strongly with the local Portuguese community, where he made many deep and lasting friendships and his love for them shines from his works. In Fishing on the Gulf Coast, Mitcham claims he contacted the Portuguese Embassy to obtain a recipe, and The Provincetown Seafood Cookbook contains many, many more. “Transplanting the Azores Islanders to Provincetown was a great step forward because they brought with them their beautifully rambunctious cookery, and this husky, euphoric cuisine has quietly worked its way into Cape Cod and New England cookery in general,” he wrote. “I have been observing Portuguese cooks for twenty-five years, and I find that they have the following relative units of measurement: (1) a little, (2) some, (3) a bit more, (4) a lot, (5) plenty, (6) enough.”

Mitcham’s best-known work in my part of the world is Creole Gumbo and All That Jazz (1978), arguably the most embracive and best-written book about the food and people of southern Louisiana. The exuberance of this work needs many readings to encompass. In Creole Gumbo, Mitcham celebrates his love for the kaleidoscopic, carefree world of the Crescent City: its food, its history and, astoundingly, its music. Reading Creole Gumbo, you discover Mitcham the bohemian, a Falstaff in the French Quarter, ebullient in his adoration for life and the bounty of the waters.  Creole Gumbo could well serve as a textbook for New Orleans cuisine, since it not only includes the most recognized dishes of the city with authoritative recipes usually garnered from reliable sources but more so, it places the foods of the city within the demographics that shaped them. Like any knowledgeable writer on the subject — Paul Prudhomme, for instance — Mitcham takes great pains to distinguish between Creole and Cajun, two distinct populations often erroneously lumped together by less astute writers and epicures. He also describes other people that combined in the great cauldron: the native Choctaws, the immigrant French, Spanish, Albanian, Sicilian, Chinese and Filipino. Mitcham also offers a “Short Biography of a Creole Building”, that being the Skyscraper on the corner of Royal and St. Peter Streets, where he lived with his friends, artists Johnny Donnels and Maggi Hartnett, noting that the building was also home to Sherwood Anderson and William Faulkner during the 1920s and the site of jam sessions by legendary jazz artists like Kid Thomas, George Lewis, Percy Humphries and Lewis Nelson. Mitcham had an apartment in the 600 block of St. Peter Street in the French Quarter. His longtime friend, photographer Johnny Donnels, lived on the floor below, and on the efficiency stove in Donnels’ apartment was where Mitcham tested his recipes. “If it didn’t kill anybody or make anybody sick,” Donnels said, “we put it in the book.”

mitcham_creole_remoulade_whIn her Sept. 12, 1979 article in The New York Times, “A Library of Creole-Cajun Cooking”, Mimi Sheraton said that Creole Gumbo is “a delightful book with excellent recipes for the gumbo, jambalaya, crab, shrimp, crawfish and other seafood dishes that distinguish both the Creole and Cajun kitchens.” She praises Mitcham’s “beautifully simple recipe for the pungent barbecued shrimp of the type made at Pascal’s Manale restaurant and some unusual folklore dishes such as the Chimney Sweep’s shrimp boil that Mitcham and his Guild of Chimney Sweepers (named in honor of a dinner that Charles Lamb hosted for the London sweeps) hosted yearly for French Quarter bohemians during the 1950s and 1960s.”

“At our last big party we boiled 400 pounds of shrimp and 400 fat crabs for 200 guests and we drank eight thirty-gallon kegs of beer,” Mitcham said. “For music we had Kid Thomas and his Algiers Stompers, the famous old gut-bucket jazz group from Preservation Hall, and the Olympia Funeral Marching Band”.

Sheraton notes that Creole Gumbo, like its predecessor The Provincetown Seafood Cookbook, deals (almost) exclusively with seafood, for which Mitcham had an avowed and lifelong passion, but it’s worth pointing out that with few exceptions (bananas Foster springs to mind) the recipes we associate most with New Orleans are seafood-based: trout amandine meuniere, oysters Rockefeller, seafood gumbo, pompano en papillote, the aforementioned barbecued shrimp (which, it must be said, resembles no other type of Southern barbecue) and many others. This emphasis on seafood provides a convenient point for a brief comparison with The Provincetown Seafood Cookbook. Two points must be emphasized: first, that one city sits on the edge of the North Atlantic, the other at the mouth of the Mississippi River; secondly, the ethnic make-up of places, New Orleans a hodge-podge of race and nationalities, Provincetown a New England enclave with an important Portuguese community. Geography plays an important role in the types of seafood used. Recipes for clams of all sorts and the fish of the North Atlantic (cod, haddock, bluefish, etc.) dominate the Provincetown Seafood Cookbook, while the emphasis in Creole Gumbo is on oysters, shrimp and such fish that thrive in the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico (redfish, snapper, speckled trout, etc.) as well as the denizens of the fresh and brackish water environments along the Gulf: alligators, snapping turtles and catfish.

In 1981, The Hermit Crab Press published Maya O Maya! Rambunctious Fables of Yucatan. According to a synopsis by Creighton University, which owns one of the 500 published copies, the book is “a collection of humorous parodies of ancient lore about gods, statues, and rites. The first, ‘The World’s Strongest Cocktail,’ presents Ixnib, the god who invented the drink balche. The woodcut figures are reminiscent of Mayan statues in museums.”

Mitcham’s final, and in many ways his most personal book, is Clams, Mussels, Oysters, Scallops, and Snails: A Cookbook and a Memoir (1990). Were we to judge by this book alone we might well concur that Mitcham’s favorite food among all the denizens of the sea is the clam, since well over half the book is a paean to this bivalve mollusk, it’s biology, its history as a foodstuff (particularly in New England) and recipes from all over the world. Mitcham delves into the American “Chowder War” (New York/Long Island tomatoes vs “Yankee”—New England—cream) and of course offers several Portuguese recipes. In addition, somewhat surprisingly to me because the idea of Mitcham as riveted to a New Orleans/Provincetown axis, he reveals himself as a far-ranging traveler, journeying not only to Portugal itself, but to southern Spain, the Pacific Northwest, Philadelphia and Chicago. He also introduces a cadre of chefs who were very much his fellow celebrities in the culinary world of his day: Joseph Poon, Louis Szathmary and Jeff Smith, among others. Many of his recipes for oysters are repeated from Creole Gumbo, which given their excellence is quite excusable, and he covers scallops, periwinkles and moon snails deftly and with expertise. As always, Mitcham’s style is light, breezy and wry, a delight to read. It’s in this book we also come to know many of the people who make up his world, an off-beat collection of people who clustered around Howard as the cynosure of a starry sky.

Mitcham shared his days  between New Orleans and Provincetown, where he worked in local restaurants. He also became very much a fixture in the town; Jan Kelly, who wrote a food column for The Provincetown Advocate with Mitcham for years, described him as “brilliant, a great art lover and so well-read that there wasn’t a literary or mythical reference that he didn’t know. He was an absolute genius, terribly complicated at times, but never boring.” Mitcham died at the age of 79 on August 22, 1996, at Cape Cod Hospital. Mitcham once told Donnels he’d like to be buried in a Truro, Mass., cemetery beside an old clam digger friend of his, but at another time Donnels said, “We were sitting in Pat O’Brien’s, and he said if ever he died, he would like to be cremated and have his ashes scattered through the ventilating fan of the ladies room there.” Mitcham’s ashes were spread over the ocean off Cape Cod.

(My profound and affectionate thanks to Sabina Mitcham Donnamario for her friendship and help in writing this article. Thank you, Sabina.)

Faulkner at Churchill Downs

That Faulkner wrote about the Kentucky Derby for Sports Illustrated should come as no surprise, nor that his essay “Kentucky: May: Saturday” is not only about what happened on May 7, 1955, but a masterly  examination of the Derby as a quintessential American event and of the sport of kings itself.

The assignment was his second from the fledgling Sports Illustrated (founded by Henry Luce the previous August), his first being an exercise in dissonant apposition. That January Faulkner attended his first hockey game, one between the Montreal Canadiens and the New York Rangers, and in “An Innocent at Rinkside” wrote: “It was filled with motion, speed. … discorded and inconsequent, bizarre and paradoxical, like the frantic darting of the weightless bugs which run on the surface of stagnant pools”. The poetry of hockey eluded the Mississippian.

James Street, the Mississippi minister-turned-journalist-turned novelist, was given the original 1955 Derby assignment, but Street died the September before the race. Sports Illustrated offered Faulkner $2000 plus a week’s expenses, including a $100-a-day chauffeured limousine; the kicker was a $500 bonus if the piece turned out to be as exceptional as they hoped from the Southern Nobelist. No fool he, Faulkner accepted immediately and after a trip to New York in April and the first days of May, he left the city for Louisville, where his publisher Don Klopfer sent him a note to the Brown Hotel informing him that he had won the Pulitzer Prize for A Fable. “It’s an easy 500 bucks for you,” Klopfer write, “and we’re all mighty pleased, although I don’t suppose you give a damn.” On the contrary, Faulkner, who considered A Fable his masterpiece, was quite pleased and those visiting the handsome, nattily-attired writer in his suite found him puffing on a briarwood pipe, smiling.

Far from rinkside in Madison Gardens, at Churchill Downs Faulkner was in his element; his father Murry had been a livery-stable owner in Oxford, he enjoyed riding as well as fox hunting and he had a fine eye for horseflesh. In an interview with The Courier-Journal, Faulkner reflected, “It’s interesting that you have tried to train blood and flesh to the perfection of a machine but that it’s still blood and flesh.” During his stay in Louisville Faulkner was accompanied by SI’s turf writer Whiney Tower, who was instructed “to try to see that our guest did not become so preoccupied with the available whiskey that he neglected his assignment.” To ensure against that seemingly likely possibility, Faulkner was to turn over 300 words each evening of their weeklong stay in Louisville for Tower to wire via Western Union to New York.

Tower, a legend in his own right and the nephew of Lexington horse-farm owner C.V. Whitney, found Faulkner to be “thoroughly professional”. “His knowledge of horses and their bloodlines went way back,” Tower wrote, “and I think the best part of his week may have been the day we skipped away from Louisville to visit farms in Lexington. At Claiborne Farm, he was very much taken with Nasrullah, later to become one of the all-time great stallions, and sire of, among others, Bold Ruler, another champion sire. But no horse he saw in Lexington that long day entranced Faulkner nearly so much as a beautiful gray, Mahmoud, an Epsom Derby winner, then 22 years old and galloping effortlessly in his paddock at the C.V. Whitney farm. On the way back to Louisville, Faulkner napped, but near Frankfort, he awoke suddenly, nostrils twitching above his mustache. “He sat straight up, rolled down his window and inhaled deeply,” Tower wrote. “‘I thought so!’ he exclaimed. ‘I don’t mistake that smell. There’s a distillery damn close to here.’”

As race day approached, Faulkner became more fascinated by the activity at Churchill Downs. Before his first trip to the press box, Tower wrote, Faulkner “asked in an excited schoolboyish way” whether he might meet acclaimed sportswriter Red Smith. The two proceeded to handicap the day’s races. Tower noted that Smith “relied mostly on past performance” in determining his bets, while Faulkner favored the conformation of each horse.

“Kentucky: May: Saturday” ran in the May 16, 1955 issue of Sports Illustrated. Written in five parts to accentuate the build-up of tension and excitement that exploded in the two-minute race that had drawn over a hundred thousand people from all over the world, the essay was not so much about the race itself as a—somewhat rambling; it is Faulkner, after all—meditation on what the Derby means, a piece so subjective that Faulkner didn’t even mention how “Swaps”, ridden by Bill Shoemaker, had held the lead from the start and won despite a thrilling challenge from “Nashua”.

“THREE DAYS BEFORE”, framed the event in historical perspective: “This saw Boone: the bluegrass, the virgin land rolling westward wave by dense wave from the Allegheny gaps, unmarked then, teeming with deer and buffalo about the salt licks and the limestone springs whose water in time would make the fine bourbon whiskey; and the wild men too — the red men and the white ones too who had to be a little wild also to endure and survive and so mark the wilderness with the proofs of their tough survival — Boonesborough, Owenstown, Harrod’s and Harbuck’s Stations; Kentucky: the dark and bloody ground.” He linked this past history with his own present: “And knew Stephen Foster and the brick mansion of his song; no longer the dark and bloody ground of memory now, but already my old Kentucky:​ home.”

“TWO DAYS BEFORE”, he turned to the race: “Even from just passing the stables, you carry with you the smell of liniment and ammonia and straw — the strong quiet aroma of horses. And even before we reach the track we can hear horses — the light hard rapid thud of hooves mounting into crescendo and already fading rapidly on. And now in the gray early light we can see them, in couples and groups at canter or hand-gallop under the exercise boys. Then one alone, at once furious and solitary, going full out, breezed, the rider hunched forward, excrescent and precarious, not of the horse but simply (for the instant) with it, in the conventional posture of speed — and who knows, perhaps the two of them, man and horse both: the animal dreaming, hoping that for that moment at least it looked like Whirlaway or Citation, the boy for that moment at least that he was indistinguishable from Arcaro or Earl Sande, perhaps feeling already across his knees the scented sweep of the victorious garland.”

“ONE DAY BEFORE” looked back to former races: “It rained last night; the gray air is still moist and filled with a kind of luminousness, lambence, as if each droplet held in airy suspension still its molecule of light, so that the statue which dominated the scene at all times anyway now seems to hold dominion over the air itself like a dim sun, until, looming and gigantic over us, it looks like gold — the golden effigy of the golden horse, ‘Big Red’ to the Negro groom who loved him and did not outlive him very long, Big Red’s effigy of course, looking out with the calm pride of the old manly warrior kings, over the land where his get still gambol as infants, until the Saturday afternoon moment when they too will wear the mat of roses in the flash and glare of magnesium; not just his own effigy, but symbol too of all the long recorded line from Aristides through the Whirlaways and Count Fleets and Gallant Foxes and Citations: epiphany and apotheosis of the horse.”

“THE DAY” began ruminating about the horse, which once moved man’s body and goods, but now moved only his money. Food-supplying animals would, he prophesied, eventually become obsolete, but not horses, since they provide mankind with “something deep and profound in his emotional nature and need, a sublimation, a transference: man with his admiration for speed and strength, physical power far beyond what he himself is capable of, projects his own desire for physical supremacy, victory, onto the agent—the baseball or football team, the prize fighter. Only the horse race is more universal…”

“4:29 P.M.” is emotionally drained, an analytic response to spent anticipation: “We who watched have seen too much… we must turn away now for a little time, even if only to assimilate, get used to living with, what we have seen and experienced.” He focused on the dispersal of the crowds and the disgruntlement of the losing backers. “And so on. So it is not the Day after all, it is only the eighty-first one.”

Captain Ahab and the Sloop

A nautical memory by Howard Duvall, Jr.

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.

 

Gay Faulkner: A Review

I wrote a high school junior class paper on Absalom, Absalom!, and one day I pointed out to the teacher the passage describing Charles Bon lounging in an effeminate silk robe before the cloddish Henry Sutpen. “Does this mean they were homosexuals?” I asked. She replied that Mr. Faulkner “would never write about something like that.” Years later, as a more literate scholar, I found that William Faulkner did indeed write about “things like that”; he wrote about humanity from every angle, including sexuality and homosexuality. Furthermore, I found my assessment of Charles Bon and Henry Sutpen’s relationship supported by others.

Between 1929 and 1939, Faulkner puslished The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, Sanctuary, Light in August, and Absalom, Absalom! as well as dozens of short stories. These works have been thoroughly studied and analyzed, and it’s not surprising that scholars and critics have identified homosexual themes in them. Absalom, Absalom! has been the focus of much interest in homosexual matters, and as early as 1955, Ilse Dusoir Lind commented upon the “affection, mildly homosexual in basis” between Shreve and Quentin.

The first essay devoted to the question of homosexuality in Faulkner’s works was published by Don Merrick Liles in 1983. Absalom, Absalom! and “A Rose for Emily” spurred discussion about homosexuality in Faulkner’s works. The 1980s saw Queer Theory evolve from the increasing visibility of sexual minorities. These critical analyses resulted in a multiplicity of approaches that in turn became dialogues about homosexuality in the Faulkner canon.

These exchanges allow us to see Faulkner’s work differently and over time come to new understandings. With Gay Faulkner: Uncovering a Homosexual Presence in Yoknapatawpha and Beyond, Phillip Gordon broadens our concepts of Faulkner and his works by examining his immersion in gay subcultures throughout his life, especially during the 1920s, and his strong and meaningful relationships with specific gay men, particularly his lifelong friend and sometime editor Ben Wasson. Gordon’s study focuses on male homosexuality simply because that is the most revealing perspective. He also concentrates his study on As I Lay Dying and the Snopes trilogy—with particular emphasis on Darl Bundren and V.K. Ratliff—rather than the major novels of the 1930s in order “to turn a light on other works to bring into focus themes that have not yet been deeply explored.”

Gordon states flatly that the question at the heart of his study is not if Faulkner was gay, but, “Is there a gay Faulkner?” Gordon seeks to reveal a gay presence not only in Faulkner’s work, but also in his life as well, establishing Faulkner’s awareness of homosexuality and homosexuals, and his acceptance and participation in gay culture. Gay Faulkner is a solid academic work; the notes are as absorbing as the text, and the bibliography constitutes a summation of Queer Faulkner studies. Gordon also offers insight, information, and even entertainment for the general reader.

Gordon’s documentation of Faulkner’s stay in New Orleans explores the bohemian atmosphere as well as the writers’ community of the Vieux Carré. Central to this section of the book is Gordon’s account of Faulkner’s relationship with his longtime friend and roommate, the gay artist William Spratling, including an intriguing account of a trip to Italy with Spratling, a journey that resulted in Faulkner’s most openly gay story, “A Divorce in Naples.” This period of Faulkner’s life, as well as the literary and artistic scene in the city at the time, is the subject of an essay by Gary Richards, “The Artful and Crafty Ones of the French Quarter: Male Homosexuality and Faulkner’s Early Prose Writings.” According to Richards, Spratling, not the literary lion Sherwood Anderson, stood at the center of the New Orleans artists and writers. He also points out that Faulkner’s early sketches for the Times-Picayune and the literary magazine, Double Dealer, as well as some of the characters and scenes in Mosquitoes (1927), are strongly homoerotic. Richards’s paper was presented at the 34th Faulkner Conference in 2007; Annette Trafzer states that conference’s subject, “Faulkner’s Sexualities,” is an “intentionally ambiguous” subject that “blurs the line between the author’s body and the body of his work .…” (Trefzer). This conference as well as “Faulkner and Women” (1985) and “Faulkner and Gender” (1994), featured other studies on Faulkner and homosexuality.

With Ben Wasson and the New Orleans-born gay writer, Lyle Saxon in New York City after the publication of Sanctuary (1931), Faulkner interacted with the Algonquin Round Table and met Alexander Woollcott. Faulkner toured Harlem’s gay clubs and cabarets with Carl Van Vetchen, where he attended a show by the famous drag “king” Gladys Bentley. This encounter was recounted by Wasson in the Blotner Papers at Southeastern Missouri State University, a rich source for scholarship that Gordon calls “fascinating, complex, and, for lack of a better word, beautiful.” Despite his earlier disclaimer concerning Faulkner’s personal proclivities, Gordon also avers that “there is evidence in the Blotner papers that suggest our understanding of Faulkner’s sexuality might not be what we have generally assumed.”

Gordon frames Faulkner within the literary milieu of early 20th century Mississippi–by any standards a cutting edge of the Southern Renaissance in American literature–and includes several prominent gay writers. The queer planter, poet, and memoirist William Alexander Percy of Greenville nurtured a clutch of writers, including Hodding Carter, Walker Percy, Shelby Foote, and Wasson. Gordon also illuminates Oxford’s fascinating and cosmopolitan Stark Young as well as the undeservedly obscure poet and scholar Hubert Creekmore of Water Valley.

Gordon and other queer critics focus on the meaning and nuances of a text, and amplify its implications. Some readers may think Gordon is reaching to make a point, but in the end, the words and their meanings are there for any to understand. Gay Faulkner has a great deal to recommend it; it’s interesting, educational, and entertaining. The book is also an excellent introduction to current and ongoing studies that seek to explore new avenues in Faulkner’s work.

Faulkner and Welty for Children

What compels writers of great works for adults to write for children? For whatever reason, many do, and some titles are familiar: C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series, Tolkien’s The Hobbit, E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web, and T.S. Eliot wrote a series of whimsical poems published under the title Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, a childhood favorite of composer Andrew Lloyd Webber.

More obscure are Joyce’s, The Cat and the Devil, Twain’s, Advice to Little Girls, Woolf’s, The Widow and the Parrot, Mary Shelley’s The Fisher’s Cot, and then we have these little-known children’s books by two of Mississippi’s brightest literary lights; Welty’s The Shoe Bird and Faulkner’s The Wishing Tree.

In 1927, Faulkner gave the story that was to become The Wishing Tree to Victoria “Cho-Cho” Franklin, the daughter of his childhood sweetheart, Estelle Oldham. Faulkner was still infatuated with Estelle and had hopes of her leaving her current husband and marrying him, which she did in 1929. Faulkner typed the book on colored paper, bound it himself and included a lyrical dedication:

          To Victoria

     ‘. . . . . . . I have seen music, heard
Grave and windless bells; mine air
     Hath verities of vernal leaf and bird.

     Ah, let this fade: it doth and must; nor grieve,
   Dream ever, though; she ever young and fair.’

But Faulkner made copies for three other children as well and when Victoria tried to publish the book decades later, copyright had to be worked out between the four. In 1964, Faulkner’s granddaughter Victoria, Cho-Cho’s daughter, got Random House to publish a limited edition of 500 numbered copies, featuring black-and-white illustrations by artist Don Bolognese.

The Wishing Tree is a grimly whimsical morality tale, somewhere between Alice In Wonderland and To Kill a Mockingbird. Dulcie, a young girl, wakes on her birthday to find a mysterious red-haired boy in her room who whisks her, the other children, the maid Alice, and a 92-year old man through a “soft wisteria scented mist” to find the Wishing Tree. They wish, and they unwish, and at the end they meet St. Francis who gives them each a bird–a little winged thought.  The Wishing Tree is about the importance of choosing one’s wishes with consideration. “If you are kind to helpless things, you don’t need a Wishing Tree to make things come true.”

On April 8, 1967, a version of the story appeared in The Saturday Evening Post. Three days later, Random House released a regular edition, which went through three printings that year alone and no more. The book is now regarded as a literary curio from the man who put an Ole Miss coed in a cathouse in Memphis.

Eudora Welty finished what was to become The Shoe Bird in 1963 under the working title Pepe to fulfill a contractual obligation to Harcourt Brace—and to put a new roof on her house. She sent the final draft to Diarmund Russell in March, and he was enthusiastic: “totally charming—something all ages can read.” Eudora readied what was now entitled The Shoe Bird for publication in early 1964 with illustrations by Beth Krush, dedicating it to Bill and Emmy Maxwell’s daughters, Kate and Brookie.

The Shoe Bird is Arturo, a parrot who works in The Friendly Shoe Store “in a shopping center in the middle of the U.S.A.,” helping Mr. Friendly greet customers and bringing him a match for his end-of-the-day pipe. Arturo’s motto is: If you hear it, tell it. One day, a little boy who was leaving the store said, “Shoes are for the birds!” and after the store had closed Arturo, true to his motto, repeats the phrase and all the birds in the world—including a dodo and a phoenix—gather at the shoe store to be fitted for shoes. The Shoe Bird is a nice little story with lots of puns, but it’s heavy-handed with the moral of speaking for oneself instead of just repeating what others say.

Reviews in adult publications were “cordial but restrained,” while reception among children’s literature commentators was either negative or—as in the case of the influential Horn Book, nonexistent. Kirkus Reviews described the novel as uneventful and concludes: “the overly wordy result is so obscure that readers are likely to want to leave dictionaries as well as shoes to the birds.” An orchestral ballet was composed by Welty’s friend Lehman Engel and performed by the Jackson Ballet Guild in 1968. A 2002 choral piece was also commissioned by the Mississippi Boy Choir and composed by Samuel Jones.

As to what compels a writer to write for children, can it ever be as simple as to win over a childhood sweetheart, or to roof a house? It’s never that simple, and it’s not that easy.

Keepers of the House

In the summer of 1855, Miss Anna Sheegog died upstairs in the house in which I write. No token of hers remains, not even a hair ribbon; the grief at her passing was eased and forgotten long ago. Yet she is still fooling around up there, after al this time, and no wonder—she was only 16 and not ready to be done with life.

Something is always stirring in old houses, for they murmur in their sleep as people do. So much happens, and none of it wants to leave; it is laid up in the walls, left to leak out now and then when someone is listening. Ghosts, we call it, though it is really only memory. I have listened here—in all weathers, in the bright noon and deep watches of the night—longer than Miss Anna was alive, and I know something of the memory of houses.

This one is called Rowan Oak, for Mr. William Faulkner called it that, and he lived here longer than anybody. Because he lived here it is a literary shrine of sorts; for 20-odd years pilgrims have been coming up the walk to see what lies in the white house.

I, too, was a pilgrim once, come by a long road begun in a railroad yard. One night a switchman, Frank Smith, pressed on me a book, of all things, a paperback, greasy and bent to the shape of his blue jeans pocket. “Read this,” he said. In the yard office after the train was gone, I opened it and began to read, and the world was never the same again.

Years later, when I was curator of Mr. William Faulkner’s house, I happened on a page of manuscript behind a drawer in the library. I knew right away what it was; lines from The Hamlet, written in this very house. It was no small thing to meet, and as the morning light fell through the tall library windows, I remembered another light; the glow of Frank Smith’s lantern on that vanished summer night, when he put his copy of The Hamlet in my hand.

Ghosts again, and, always, time. In Mr. Faulkner’s house, time is the sum of all senses. It is in the light, in all seasons softened to twilight by the trees. Time lies in the creak of a shutter, rain in the downspouts, in a step half-heard in the empty rooms above. It is in the very smell of the place, which is the smell of all grandmother’s houses, made of dust and mildew, old books and years of fried chicken—and that almost palpable memory that will not go away. It is the smell of time.

No wonder pilgrims sometimes speak in whispers here. No wonder children often cling shyly to their parents’ legs, flirting with something only they can see. Time conjures them all, as it conjures us, who are stewards of time.

There have not been many of us. Dr. James Webb, the first and best curator, will always be chief. In the early years Dr. George Street was here, and Bev Smith. I have worked with Danny Toma, Terrell Lewis, Keith Fudge. Winfred Ragland was the first groundskeeper, and then Isiah McGuirt, whom I watched rake the leaves of 15 autumns.

These were all Southern men who knew not just Mr. Faulkner and his work, but also what it means to love an old house and earth whence it came. They were all pilgrims, come here by their own long roads, each to find his own doorway to the past.

Once, on one of those days when the sky is deep blue and every leaf sharp and clear and shadows haunt the fence corners—once, on such a day, Isaiah walked out in the north pasture to work his turnips and Dany went along to swap lies. I wandered out by myself by and by and leaned on the fence and watched them. On the whole place there were only three of us. Their voices drifted to me across the morning. Now and then, an acorn rattled on the tin roof of the cookhouse, the loft door creaked, the house drowsed white and solid in the sun.

I should not have been surprised to find Mr. Faulkner at my elbow, leaning on the fence with his pipe, nor to see Miss Anna in the kitchen door—for the streams of time had come together once more, the old proper rhythms of life were in cadence, and all that ever happened on this place narrowed to an old man and a boy in the pasture, talking quietly under the autumn sky.

Occasionally, folks ask me what it is like to work at Rowan Oak. I do not know how to tell them about Frank Smith or Dr. Webb or Danny or the day Isiah went out to hoe his greens, but sometimes I try, and they are almost always satisfied. It is a good thing for pilgrims to carry away into the world waiting for them beyond the gate, for in that world ghosts are silly and magic is only for children. I don’t believe so myself, and neither does Miss Anna—but then, she is only 16, after all.

Novelist and scholar Howard Bahr lives in Jackson, Mississippi