Standing at the entrance of Rowan Oak’s balcony, I looked down at the red-brick pathway leading up to the entrance. Tall Eastern red cedar trees lined the walkway, offering shade from the autumn sunshine. I wondered about the footsteps that had walked there and waited for literary greatness to zap me.
Meanwhile, my friend and fellow outdoor writer Ken Perrotte of Virginia wondered how a young woman flung herself and plunged to her death from that spot. She was the daughter of the mansion’s builder and this tragedy happened sometime during the mid-1800s. At least, that’s what a sign inside the antebellum home stated. We both agreed, it was not a great distance to fall and cause a fatal injury. I surmised it was lore spun from the home’s famous owner. Rowan Oak in Oxford, Miss., is the home of Nobel Prize-winning author William Faulkner. He lived there with his family between 1930 and until his death in 1962 at age 64.
Built in the 1840s, Faulkner purchased the home and its four acres, then called “The Bailey Place,” in 1930. The author changed the name to Rowan Oak in 1931 after the rowan tree, which is a symbol representing protection. Soon after, he acquired surrounding land and today the Rowan Oak estate is more than 29 acres including a wooded area called Bailey’s Woods.
Faulkner was famous for writing in a stream-of-consciousness method and safeguarding his privacy. He loved the property and it was his “little postage stamp of soil,” a phrase he frequently used to describe Oxford. Rowan Oak was Faulkner’s home, sanctuary, and writing location. Oxford, Southern culture, and his upbringing in the South served as inspiration for books such as “Intruder in the Dust” and “A Fable,” for which he won the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction in 1955. The Pulitzer Prize was awarded posthumously in 1963 for his 1962 novel “The Reivers.” Prior to both awards, he received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1950.
Penning award-winning novels was not (and today, is still not) as financially profitable as he liked so he worked on Hollywood scripts. Some of his motion picture screenwriting credits include “To Have and Have Not” and “The Big Sleep,” both starring Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart.
Jill Faulkner Summers, the author’s daughter, sold the house to the University of Mississippi in 1972 so visitors may learn about Faulkner and his writings. The grounds include the house, detached kitchen/smokehouse, barn, servants’ quarters, stable, remnants of a concentric circle garden, and the sunken patio built for his daughter Jill’s wedding.
OUTLINE FOR ‘A FABLE’
During a tour of the estate, look in Faulkner’s study. Using graphite and red grease pencils, the author wrote on two walls the outline for “A Fable.” He apparently taped pages of the outline to the wall but a fan blew the pages away. To prevent that from happening again, he wrote on the walls. Estelle, his wife, was not happy with her husband’s choice in wall décor so she had the walls repainted. Faulkner had the final say and rewrote the outline then shellacked the walls where they remain today.
Walk the grounds in front of the home to see remnants of the concentric circle garden. Bricks protrude from the ground and some are being swallowed by magnolia tree roots. If you are up for a leisurely stroll, follow the Bailey’s Woods Trail to University of Mississippi. Faulkner regularly walked the 3/5-mile trail to the Ole Miss campus.
Rowan Oak was named a National Historic Landmark in 1977. In October 2019, it received a marker solidifying its official spot in the first chapter of the new Mississippi Writers Trail.
Launched the summer of 2018, the Mississippi Writers Trail is a statewide initiative celebrating Mississippi’s place in the literary world. Building on the success of the state’s other cultural heritage trails as the Blues, Country Music, and Freedom Trails, the Writers Trail guides visitors to spots where influential writers lived, were inspired, and worked. Honorees are selected by an advisory committee with recommendations by literary scholars.
OTHER RECOGNIZED AUTHORS
At publication time, there are seven markers in the Mississippi Writers Trail. In addition to William Faulkner and Rowan Oak, visit the haunts of Eudora Welty and Margaret Walker in Jackson, Shelby Foote and Walker Percy in Greenville, Elizabeth Spencer in Carrollton, and Tennessee Williams in Clarksdale. Additional markers across the state will be added in coming years.
As a writer, I’m tickled the Magnolia State is curating the Writers Trail. The visit to Rowan Oak and Oxford refueled my literary spark and imagine it will inspire others to write their story. Although I do not have plans for writing the outline of a book on my office walls, I’ll heed a bit of William Faulkner’s advice.
“Get it down. Take chances. It may be bad, but it’s the only way you can do anything good.”
Jennifer Huber is the founder and voice behind the award-winning blog SoloTravelGirl.com where she celebrates traveling alone, not lonely.