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Faulkner’s Front Porch

Talking about the cultural importance of the front porch with Conference on the Front Porch featured speakers Claude Stephens and Jay Watson.

“Communities with porches are different than communities without them, especially so if people inhabit the porches,” says Claude Stephens, president and founder of the Professional Porch Sitters Union. Along with University of Mississippi professor Jay Watson, Stephens will be speaking Oct. 20-21 at the inaugural Conference on the Front Porch in Taylor, Mississippi. Stephens founded the Porch Sitters Union with no rules and only one suggestion: sit down a spell, that can wait.

He believes life is fundamentally better with a porch and that people are starting to rebel against all the things that took them inside their houses after World War II, like air conditioning, television and computers. “I don’t have data sufficient to say whether or not the porch is making a comeback, but if it is, I expect it is because the porch is antidote for an ill,” he adds.

In William Faulkner’s day,  the front porch was “a domestic space where the nuances of Jim Crow-era interracial encounters can sometimes be negotiated so as to leave all parties their dignity,” says Watson, who is also in charge of of the annual Faulkner & Yoknapatawpha conference. He says Faulkner used the porch as a site where people could talk to each other, whether it be father and son or an African American tenant farmer and his white landlord.

“It’s kind of a threshold, a complex space in which the disadvantaged can find some room to maneuver,” he explains. Watson uses the example of poor, white sharecropper Abner Snopes tracking horse manure across the porch and into the foyer of Major de Spain’s plantation house in the story “Barn Burning.” This is Ab’s way of “signaling his resentment of the planter class and the exploitive labor arrangements behind Southern sharecropping.”

Faulkner did have his own small front porch at Rowan Oak in Oxford—where today visitors step up to enter the house—but Watson says the writer preferred the privacy of his side porch. “He’d type up manuscript material there, or have an evening cocktail with his wife, Estelle,” he says.

faulknerporchIt was actually on this side porch that Estelle gave Faulkner the idea for the title of his novel Light in August, Watson reveals. In August of 1931, she remarked to him that there was “something about the light,” the quality of the evening sky, during August in Mississippi. Before then, Faulkner’s working title for his new novel had been Dark House, but after Estelle’s remark, he went into the house, took up his manuscript, crossed out the working title and wrote “Light in August” on the cover page instead.

It’s tales like these that make porches such storied places, but Stephens makes the point that the concept of a “porch” is much more than just architecture. “I think it’s more a philosophy, a gestalt,” he says. “When you divorce ‘porch’ from the need to be architecture, you no longer need something made of boards, bricks and concrete to derive benefit from a porch. I do believe that it requires being outside of the walled-off private part of your dwelling and at some level available to your community and neighbors. A stoop would do that.”

Stephens grew up with a porch that has been the site of family gatherings for seven generations in Louisville, Kentucky. He believes porches are meant for people and “moments of unscripted and unscheduled time to share” with them. “The fact that I have comfortable chairs, a swing made by an artist, funky art, potted plants, eclectic furnishings … all that is only interesting to a point,” he says. “I can assure you it is not at all interesting until a little bourbon gets poured and the stories start flowing.”

The Conference on the Front Porch will take place October 20 and 21 at at The Mill at Plein Air in Taylor, Mississippi. The cost is $225 and includes all lectures, conferences, panels and discussions, along with a porch concert, porch play of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” and meals. Watson and Stephens will both be speaking on Friday. 

Feature photo by Cathy Tarleton from Flickr Creative Commons; Rowan Oak side porch by Deep South.

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Rebecca Wells Comes