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Southern icon stirred sound, fury

William Faulkner once provoked anger in Oxford, Miss. Now he's cause for celebration.

September 19, 2004|Joshua Clark | Special to The Times

In 1930, having sold several stories after good reviews of "The Sound and the Fury," William Faulkner bought a rundown, two-story house in Oxford, Miss. He named it Rowan Oak, inspired by a Scottish legend about the protective powers of the Rowan tree.

Faulkner himself undertook the first restoration of the antebellum home in the '30s. A second, completed recently, marks the reopening of Rowan Oak to the public after 2 1/2 years. A marathon reading of his 1936 novel "Absalom, Absalom!" on Saturday, the 107th anniversary of Faulkner's birth, will be followed by a birthday celebration.

The future Nobel Laureate paid for Rowan Oak's first overhaul mostly with money earned from his 1931 bestseller, "Sanctuary," which told of the rape and kidnapping of a college student in fictional Yoknapatawpha County, loosely based on Oxford. His fellow residents were appalled at the novel's content and the infamy they thought it brought to the town. But now Faulkner's name is a source of pride as well as revenue, with the increasing popularity of "Yoknapatourism" with Rowan Oak as its hub.

Cedars line the path leading to the white clapboard Greek Revival house, which is framed by two-story pillars, creating an air of grandeur. Inside, bare floors and wooden furniture imbue the home with warmth. And it is just that: a home, not a theme park, in stark contrast to Graceland -- the relic of another Mississippian -- in nearby Memphis, Tenn.

"The one house rule was that when you heard the typewriter clicking you had to tiptoe," says Dean Faulkner Wells, the author's niece, whom he raised as a daughter.

The reclusive writer was not one for change, and until his death in 1962 he refused wife Estelle's request to redecorate in a manner more befitting an international celebrity. Left untouched by the recent work: Faulkner's plot outline for "A Fable," which he wrote in pencil directly onto the wall of his study. It took him 10 years to complete the novel, which garnered the Pulitzer Prize in 1955.

The reading of "Absalom, Absalom!" is from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. at Rowan Oak on Old Taylor Road. To reserve a reading time, call (662) 915-7439 or e-mail Free guided tours are available 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays and 1 to 4 p.m. Sundays. Call (662) 234-3284.

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