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.

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, 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.

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 songs. 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.

Faulkner and Welty for Children

What compels great writers 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 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 never that easy.

The Light from Olympus

Light in August is in many if not most ways Faulkner’s darkest work, dealing with madness, alienation, miscegenation, murder, and sexual mutilation.

The title has inspired a great deal of speculation. Some consider it simply a reference to the distinctly onerous nature of sunlight in a Mississippi August; others would have us understand that the title refers to the light cast by Joanna Burden’s burning house.

Then there are careful readers who point to Reverend Hightower’s observation of “how that fading copper light would seem almost audible, like a dying yellow fall of trumpets dying into an interval of silence and waiting” while scholars with a regional bent so note that the phrase “(to be) light in August” is a Southern slang term for pregnancy, concentrating on Lena Grove.

The story that would eventually become the novel, started by Faulkner in 1931, was originally titled “Dark House” and began with Hightower sitting at a dark window in his home. But after a casual remark by his wife Estelle on the quality of the light in August, Faulkner changed the title, and later affirmed this inspiration:

…in August in Mississippi there’s a few days somewhere about the middle of the month when suddenly there’s a foretaste of fall, it’s cool, there’s a lambence, a soft, a luminous quality to the light, as though it came not from just today but from back in the old classic times. It might have fauns and satyrs and the gods and—from Greece, from Olympus in it somewhere.

It lasts just for a day or two, then it’s gone…the title reminded me of that time, of a luminosity older than our Christian civilization.

Daddy’s Books

My dad had a soft touch for door-to-door salesmen. I can still see him laid back on the couch in his boxers listening to some guy spell out his hard-luck story. I doubt if any of them left without an order and a couple of dollars in their pocket. We had three sets of encyclopedias and all kinds of serials put out by national publication like Time/Life or the Reader’s Digest. Our home was full of books full of words and pictures, and I spent hours poring over them when as a boy.

It wasn’t until a decade after he died that I began to explore the other books, the old faded covers and the tattered paperbacks. There I found the father I didn’t know, a man beyond my comprehension as a child, and certainly beyond mine as an old man. Still the books set a mold of time, of place, and more so of my father, the contours set by such as a raggedly paperback edition of Greek poetry in English translation in which I found underlined the epigram of Simonides that Senator John F. Kennedy cited in his speech at the Syria Mosque in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in October, 1960: “Passerby: Tell Sparta we fell faithful to her service.”

Jess Jr. had a professional connection with the Kennedys, since in his capacity as District Attorney for Lafayette County in 1962 he had to juggle the political ramifications of a grand jury indictment against James J.P. McShane, who led the federal agents who escorted James Meredith, the first African American student at University of Mississippi. The indictment was eventually revoked.

He had a copy of C.H. Cramer’s Royal Bob: The Life of Robert Ingersoll. Ingersoll, an American lawyer, Civil War veteran, political leader and orator during the Golden Age of Free Thought (roughly from 1875 to 1914), was noted for his broad range of cultural activities and his defense of agnosticism. Another book relating to Jess Jr.’s political leanings on a more local level is Kirwan’s Revolt of the Rednecks: Mississippi Politics, 1876-1925, a solid nod to his political roots in the hills of north Mississippi.

One of the most puzzling yet astoundingly revealing works I found among my father’s books was Richard Brautigan’s first novel. A Confederate General from Big Sur, published in 1964. Jess Jr. was a student of the Civil War not only as a Southerner but as a politician since its ramifications were being felt with intensity in his lifetime.

In Brautigan’s novel, which takes place in 1957, a man named Mellon believes he is a descendant of a Confederate general from Big Sur, California. There is no proof of his existence, although Mellon meets a drifter who has also heard of this general. Mellon seeks the truth of his own modern-day struggle in the United States in light of the Confederacy’s past struggle with the Union. Most likely, my father picked this book up on the basis of its title alone, but I like to believe he read it in its entirety.

He had Faulkner’s A Fable and The Town, two very divergent works; Jess Jr. knew Faulkner’s attorney Phil Stone and might have met the writer, but I feel he read Faulkner’s works more out of a desire to understand how this man from Lafayette County came to win a Nobel Prize than for any other reason. His copy of Welty’s Golden Apples, I found puzzling, but then he kept his ear to the ground and would have heard of Welty’s rising star.

I like to believe he was just a man who liked to read, and words became a part of who he was, but Jess Jr. could well be considered a learned man. As such, he was quite different from his peers, who included the political lights of his day as well as an across-the-board array of businessmen and dignitaries.

With a handful of books for a thread, so he will always be a maze to the man I am, but not to the boy I was who loved him with every fiber of my being.

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 that many find has striking similarities to the trial Harper Lee wrote about in To Kill a Mockingbird nine years later.. 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.’

‘Faulkner: The Past Is Never Dead”: A Review

With this first feature-length documentary on William Faulkner, Michael Modak-Truran sets a very high bar indeed. This triumphant film is a rich, detailed portrait framed by a penetrating, entertaining narrative, a work that radiates talent and professionalism.

Faulkner: The Past Is Never Dead” is a many-paned portal for the discovery of Faulkner the man, his life and times, and his art. Modak-Truran calls his method a “hybrid documentary approach,” employing traditional interviews, archival media, animated sequences, and re-enacted scenes; the resulting quasi-stream-of-consciousness mélange seems intensely reflective of Faulkner’s own technique.

A select group of scholars examine themes such as race and feminism, consider Faulkner’s novels both in relationship to each other and their sequence in Faulkner’s career, and offer insights into how his characters and narratives relate to the man and his milieu. Archival photos, video, and documents provide buoyancy.

What Modak-Truran calls the “narrative arc” of the film is a series of beautifully re-enacted scenes derived from various sources, and this too reflects Faulkner’s own approach to narratives in works such as As I Lay Dying, The Sound and the Fury, and Absalom, Absalom!

“Faulkner: The Past Is Never Dead” establishes Modak-Truran as a director with a sure sense for the medium and a firm grasp on his material. The film also confirms Faulkner’s relevance and offers assurance that the power of his prose and insights into the human condition will indeed endure.

To the Ramparts of Infinity: A Review

With “Sartoris” (1929), William Faulkner began “sublimating the actual into apocryphal,” targeting his great-grandfather, William Clark Falkner, as inspiration for the Yoknapatawpha cosmos and prototype for Colonel John Sartoris.

While it’s the incandescence of William Faulkner that provides the impetus for critics and historians to piece together the life W.C. Falkner, Colonel Falkner was a prominent, if not towering figure in his own right, certainly in terms of the history of north Mississippi, and an archetype of the men who fashioned a nation out of the Southern frontier.

The Yoknapatawpha stories also led Jack Elliott to W.C. Falkner. Elliott first heard about “Old Colonel” Falkner at the initial Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha Conference at the University of Mississippi in 1974, and a field trip to Ripley brought young Elliott to the foot of the nineteen-foot Falkner monument that dominates the cemetery, the actual counterpart to the “apocryphal” monument in the Jefferson cemetery where the marble statue of John Sartoris [gazes] “to the blue, changeless hills beyond, and beyond that, the ramparts of infinity itself.”

In time, Elliott began formulating a work on the life of W.C. Falkner, and found that not only were the stories that circulated about Falkner during his lifetime “fantastic and exaggerated,” these stories themselves were “perpetuated and augmented by short, poorly researched historical pieces.” Elliott sets out to amend these shortcomings, which indeed he does superbly, with a seasoned scholar’s attention to detail and an ear for the written word.

Elliott’s account of Falkner’s early years and the progress of the Falkners and their Word relatives from the eastern seaboard is supported by comprehensive documentation. When the U.S. Congress declared war against Mexico in May 1846, Falkner was elected first lieutenant, which, Elliott confirms, “was certainly due to his popularity among his peers rather than his ability to command.” Elliott provides a thorough account of Falkner’s actions in Mexico, as well as the succeeding Civil War in which he was an officer (“brigadier general, then captain, then colonel and … captain again”) of the Magnolia Rifles, a company from Ripley.

Elliott doesn’t neglect Falkner’s education, stating that he “read law” under his uncles Thomas Jefferson (“Jeff”) Word and J.W. Thompson, and was admitted to the nascent Mississippi bar in 1850. Little else is known of his formal education, though Elliott says that Falkner himself alludes to studying Cicero and Julius Caesar.

Though Elliott’s biography doesn’t stint on a full account of Falkner’s extensive feuds with the Hindmans or with Thurmond, Elliot is determined to discredit earlier portrayals of W.C. Falkner that paint him as a pathological megalomaniac, stating that “The evidence for such a scenario is weak and the conclusion little more than a strained surmise that was bolstered by repetition.” Elliott points out that Falkner was “well-liked by most and even idolized by many,” and that earlier historians (particularly Duclos) “failed to see the feud [with R.J. Thurmond, his assassin] in terms of a conflict over differing visions for the railroad …”

Throughout the work, Elliot provides supporting evidence of Falkner’s character, including this from Thurmond’s great-nephew: “[Falkner] loved power and the trappings of power; he delighted in playing the Grand Seignor (sic), yet was a public-spirited citizen and at heart a kindly if hot-blooded man.”

Another falsehood Elliott seeks to dispel is that Falkner was not the prime architect of the Ripley Railroad, that Falkner managed to inveigle the public into believing that he was the driving force behind the project when in fact he was only one among many who contributed to the scheme. But, though the original charter for the Ripley Railroad Company was issued to W. C. Falkner, R. J. Thurmond, and thirty-five other incorporators in December 1871, the mountain of evidence Elliott presents is far more than enough to convince even a skeptical reader—who are at this late date likely to be few—that it was indeed Falkner “who brought the social, political, and financial elements together and made it happen.”

Elliott examines Falkner’s life in letters with marvelous detail. He gives, for example, an entertaining synopsis of Falkner’s famous melodrama, “The White Rose of Memphis” (1881), complete with contemporary reviews. Digging deeper, he examines Falkner’s less successful second novel, “The Little Brick Church” (1882), and his play, “The Lost Diamond” (1874). Earlier writings—including a sensationalist pamphlet, a narrative poem, and a short novel—also come under review.

Elliott offers insights into Falkner’s writing habits, and documents his familiarity not only with the Bible, but with Shakespeare, Scott, Byron, Homer, and Cervantes. In May 1883, Falkner toured Europe and published an account of his travels, “Rapid Ramblings in Europe” the following year.

What Elliott sets out to do is to “to inquire into the image of a man long dead, an image partly frozen into that of a marble statue.” Elliott’s biography of “Old Colonel” Falkner embraces far more than that life, that image. “As in much of local history, the memory of a place draws us to delve into the matrix of interconnected symbols, whether stories or documents or associated places.”

To that end, Elliott’s work on Falkner embraces not just the man, but the milieu, the town of Ripley and the society and culture—such as it was—of north Mississippi in his day. He includes a fascinating “Field Guide to Colonel Falkner’s Ripley,” a block-by-block examination of the town using the grid established by the surveyor “who in 1836 laid out the streets, blocks, and lots, and this geometry still frames the lives of residents and visitors today.” Filled with historic photos of homes, businesses, and downtown traffic (i.e., cotton wagons and railroad cars), this section of the book will undoubtedly find the greatest appeal among casual readers.

Elliott’s writing is lucid, orderly, and compelling. Perhaps Elliott didn’t consciously set out to write the “complete, sensitive, and discerning biography” of W.C. Falkner Thomas McHaney expressed a need for almost sixty years ago, but, in the end, he has.

Nannie Faulkner’s Beaten Biscuits

This image from A Cook’s Tour of Mississippi (The Clarion-Ledger: 1980) accompanied an article by Dean Faulkner Wells, “The biscuits Nannie and Callie baked for the boys.” Into 1 qt. sifted flour work well 1 tblespn each lard, butter and teaspn salt. After well worked moisten with 1/2 pt. (sweet) milk and make stiff dough. Beat by hand. Bake quickly.