Why front porches matter with The Conference on the Front Porch organizer Campbell McCool and featured speaker Dr. Jay Watson.
The Conference on the Front Porch, returning for a second year to the Plein Air neighborhood in Taylor, Mississippi, is the brainchild of one of its residents. Campbell McCool describes his community as “a front porch neighborhood,” a place where knowing your neighbors is a big draw. There’s an aura of nostalgia surrounding the front porch in Southern consciousness, and McCool found himself fascinated. “You mention the front porch and people’s eyes light up,” he says. “Everybody has a front porch memory.”
However, the more he researched, the more it seemed like porches were a dying phenomenon—what with air conditioning, TV and other modern amenities drawing people indoors. McCool also lists the rapid expansion of the South’s urban centers as a factor. “As cities like Atlanta grew, they gave rise to suburbs and most of those houses don’t have porches,” he explains. “The central feature architecturally is the garage. It really changes the way neighbors interact.”
The Conference on the Front Porch exists to discuss not just the forces that led to the porch’s decline, but what made it special in the first place.
McCool describes this year’s theme as “Life on the Porch,” an expanded view of studying the impact the front porch has had on Southern culture through the mediums of food, the blues, literature and art. The keynote speaker for this year’s conference is John T. Edge, director of the Southern Foodways Alliance, an institute of the University of Mississippi’s Center for the Study of Southern Culture. In addition to his previous publications, he has recently published The Potlikker Papers: A Food History of the Modern South.
Other speakers include Mississippi native William Dunlap and Scott Baretta. The former is an artist whose paintings and sculptures appear in private and public galleries internationally, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Dunlap’s inspirations include his family home, the Starnes House, a two-story farmhouse that features prominently in his artwork, along with the Walker hounds his grandfather raised. Baretta is a professor of sociology and anthropology at the University of Mississippi and a leading expert on the history of blues music and culture.
A highly anticipated talk titled “The Front Porch in Southern Literature” will be given by Dr. Jay Watson, Howry Professor of Faulkner Studies at Ole Miss. Dr. Watson will examine classic scenes from Southern authors such as William Faulkner and Zora Neale Hurston to show ways in which the oft-idealized Southern porch is subverted in literature.
“There is a tendency,” he says, “or maybe just a desire, to celebrate Southern porches as spaces of community, leisure, and wellbeing … but in literature, anyway, this is not always how they operate.” He believes that many Southern writers used the front porch in their work as a motif for “the Southern way of life—gracious, sociable, unhurried—and that some of these writers didn’t think that reassuring image tells the whole story.”
One of the world’s foremost Faulkner scholars, Dr. Watson says that the porch features heavily in the author’s work, something he will be discussing in October. A Mississippi native, Faulkner purchased his Oxford home Rowan Oak in the 1930s and developed some of his most famous stories within (and sometimes on) its walls. Now owned and maintained by the University of Mississippi, a visit to the home is becoming a yearly tradition for attendees of the Conference on the Front Porch. As Dr. Watson explains, Faulkner “well understood the dynamics of the porch as a space for all kinds of encounters: social ones, familial ones, racial ones, sexual ones. And encounter is one important source of the conflict that drives all great fiction.”
The porch is an important space in Southern literature and culture because, as both Watson and McCool address, the front porch functions as “an in-between space, between private and public” and it is that inbetweenness that the conference endeavors to explore.
The Conference on the Front Porch will take place October 18 and 19 and returns to The Mill at Plein Air located in Taylor, Mississippi, just outside of Oxford. The $275 registration fee includes access to all lectures at the two-day conference as well as six meals, a presentation of John Maxwell’s play “Oh Mr. Faulkner do You Write?” and a concert by Tricia Walker.