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Oxford, Miss.: The center of William Faulkner's cosmos

From his childhood home to his burial spot is just a few short blocks, yet Faulkner somehow managed to encompass all of humanity from his 'little postage stamp of native soil.'

May 01, 2011|By David L. Ulin | Los Angeles Times Book Critic
  • A statue of William Faulkner overlooks downtown Oxford, Miss. Faulkner's childhood home and burial spot are just a few short blocks apart, yet he somehow managed to encompass all of humanity from this small Southern town.
A statue of William Faulkner overlooks downtown Oxford, Miss. Faulkner's… (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles…)

Reporting from Oxford, Miss. — "The past is never dead. It's not even past," William Faulkner wrote in 1951, two years after winning the Nobel Prize for literature. It's one of his best-known lines, but I don't think I ever truly understood it until I came to Oxford.

For more than three decades, since I first read "As I Lay Dying" as a high school senior, I regarded such a sentiment as a key to Faulkner's writing — which continues to resonate because it comes drenched in history, in the interplay of the past and present, the bitter weight of heritage, the understanding that we cannot be cut free of our roots — without quite realizing that it was also a key to his life.

Without quite realizing, in other words, the extent to which it has to do with Oxford, the college town 85 miles southeast of Memphis where Faulkner was raised and where he lived and died and where he is buried, and where, beginning with his third novel, "Sartoris" (1929), he told the Paris Review in 1956, "I discovered that my own little postage stamp of native soil was worth writing about and that I would never live long enough to exhaust it, and by sublimating the actual into apocryphal I would have complete liberty to use whatever talent I might have to its absolute top."

My own little postage stamp of native soil: Here we have another iconic riff, so much so that it has long since blurred into cliché. It refers to Faulkner's decision, in 15 novels and dozens of short stories, to reframe Oxford as the seat of the fictional Yoknapatawpha County, "a cosmos of my own," which he imagined as "a kind of keystone in the universe; that, small as that keystone is, if it were ever taken away the universe itself would collapse."

That's a great description, not just of his ambition but also of his aesthetic: the balance of myth and recollection, the desire to use this landscape as a template against which the human struggle might play out in epic terms. Still, spend a day (or two, as I did last month) or even an hour roaming Oxford and you begin to see how literal Faulkner's vision was.

Oxford may be cosmopolitan, with high-end shops and eateries, but Oxford also is a small town, if not provincial then contained. This is both the charm of the place and its challenge, this interplay of geography and memory.

In a dozen or so spots, green historical markers dot the landscape like some strange species of vegetation. At the corner of Mississippi 6 and Jackson Avenue, one reads: "Oxford. Chartered, 1837. Was on Chickasaw Trail of Tears. Home of the University of Mississippi and of Barnard, Hilgard, Thompson, and Lamar. Burned by Federal troops in 1864."

It's impossible to miss the defiance in such a sign, the sense that even now, the past is not only unforgotten but also bluntly, unapologetically alive. The same is true of the Civil War memorial in front of the Lafayette County Courthouse, in the square at the center of Oxford: a statue of a Confederate soldier on a pedestal, facing south into the heart of Dixie, as if, as Faulkner wrote in "Go Down, Moses," the "old times would cease to be old times and would become a part of the … present, not only as if they had happened yesterday but as if they were still happening, the men who walked through them actually walking in breath and air and casting an actual shadow on the earth they had not quitted."

And yet, for all that Oxford seems immersed in history, it's a nuanced immersion, or perhaps a nuanced idea of the past. The afternoon before I arrived, the Lyric Theatre — an old silent movie house where MGM's adaptation of "Intruder in the Dust" ("You can't film that novel," the trailer asserts, "… but we did!") premiered in 1949 — hosted a reading by the author's niece, Dean Faulkner Wells, from her newly released "Every Day by the Sun: A Memoir of the Faulkners of Mississippi."

Down the block at Square Books, the legendary independent bookstore across the street from the courthouse, Wells' book filled the window display. Inside, I picked up a program for the 18th Oxford Conference for the Book, featuring writers such as Mark Richard ("House of Prayer No. 2"), Téa Obreht ("The Tiger's Wife"), Karen Russell ("St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves") and Sven Birkerts ("The Gutenberg Elegies"), which would be held the following weekend at Ole Miss. Whatever else it is, Oxford has become literary territory, with roots that extend from Yoknapatawpha to the university.

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