“The Past Is Never Dead:“ A Return to Rowan Oak and Faulkner’s Life Revealed in Documentary
by Trish Foxwell
Few American authors can stand alongside William Faulkner in terms of literary greatness. The Sound & the Fury, As I Lay Dying and Absalom, Absalom are just a few of his literary masterpieces. Oxford, Mississippi, two hours south of Memphis, is Faulkner country. Everywhere you turn in this lovely hamlet, you are met with the memories of “Mr. Bill”—the affectionate nickname given to him by the locals.
Faulkner’s memory is never forgotten here with landmarks found throughout the region. In fact, you half expect to see the pipe-smoking, tweed-attired writer strolling around Oxford. Faulkner grew up here, married here and spent the majority of his life in the Southern hamlet. He loved the Southerness of Oxford and yearned for it when he traveled to Hollywood to work as a screenwriter and Charlottesville, Virginia, where he was the first writer-in-residence. Oxford was always in his heart and thoughts.
This corner of Mississippi became the canvas for Faulkner’s novels and stories, which he named the fictional Yoknapatawpha County. “I discovered,” he remarked in one interview, “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 that by sublimating the actual into the apocryphal I would have complete liberty to use whatever talent I might have to its absolute top. It opened up a gold mine of other people, so I created a cosmos of my own.”
Rowan Oak, found off Old Taylor Road, about a mile from town, proves to be an irresistible journey into his life. An archway of cedar trees greets you to the hallowed literary shrine that continues to feel as the writer has just left for an afternoon walk or horseback ride. The house is much the way he left it. He lived in the secluded sanctuary from 1930 until his death in 1962 with many of his belongings remaining intact and on view. The house continues to capture his spirit where pencil writing outlines the plot for A Fable in the downstairs alcove with his typewriter and smoking pipe nearby.
Released this year and presented at the Virginia Film Festival on October 29, with more screenings planned throughout the South, is a documentary titled “Faulkner – The Past is Never Dead,” produced by Coffee House Films and Yoknapatawpha Productions. The film was in the works for over seven years and a labor of love for its producer Anastasia Lampton Triplett and Jeremy Culver alongside executive producers Peter Broderick and Anita Modak-Truran.
Filmed entirely in Oxford, the film goes into depth about Faulkner’s themes in his stories and sheds new light on the writer who is ranked as one of the nation’s literary greats and adds another dimension to Faulkner by giving a closeup view of his Southern world and all its complexities.
Actor Eric Roberts, born and raised in Mississippi, artfully portrays Faulkner in the film and captures his Southern way of life and philosophy beautifully. “I was approached several years ago about being a part of the film and playing what I believe to be one of the most provocative characters of all time,” he says. “Controversial characters are the consummate challenge for any actor.”
Roberts continues, “I was drawn to the project by several Faulkner aficionados, particularly the writer and director of the documentary Michael Modak-Truran. Faulkner was a liberal, shunned by his community for trying to understand the racial divide … He was a source of great art and literature, but do we erase people like him from history or try to learn from their work?”
Rowan Oak was the location for Faulkner’s funeral on July 6, 1962, from complications from a riding accident. The entire town paid respects to him by closing shops and businesses as his funeral procession passed through town. Some important landmarks in addition to Rowan Oak with a Faulkner connection include St. Peter’s Cemetery, where he and his family are interred and his gravesite is inscribed with the words, “Belov’d, Go with God.” Faulkner’s description of a funeral in “Go Down Moses” in fact closely matched his own. “Into the square,” he wrote of the funeral procession, “crossing it, circling the Confederate monument and the courthouse while the merchants and clerks and barbers and professional men … watched quietly from the doors of upstairs windows.”
Other landmarks not to bypass include a bronze sculpture of him sitting on a bench outside Oxford City Hall and the Lafayette County Courthouse where a bronze plaque is inscribed with words from, “Requiem for a Nun.” The J.D. Williams Library is another must-stop, it houses an extensive Faulkner Collection as well as his Nobel Prize for Literature.
“Faulkner – The Past is Never Dead” premieres Sunday, October 29, at 4:45 p.m. at Violet Crown 5 Theater in Charlottesville, Virginia. A discussion with Executive Producer Anita Modak-Truran moderated by Stephen Railton will accompany the film.
Trish Foxwell is a career journalist and has written two travel books. She is a graduate of the University of Louisiana college system and also studied at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.