Nobel-prize winning author William Faulkner becomes more than just a name to the thousands of people each year who visit the secluded 33-acre Faulkner estate on the University of Mississippi campus.
Much of the credit for this goes to curator Bill Griffith, who will be on hand July 18-22 to offer guided tours during the 37th annual Faulkner & Yoknapatawpha Conference. Some 200 Faulkner scholars and others are expected to participate.
“Rowan Oak is important to research because people can come and get a true feeling of what Faulkner felt when he lived here,” said Griffith collections manager at the University of Mississippi Museum. “The town has changed so much, but the property, at least physically, pretty much looks the same. You can still capture the spirit, the quaintness of the place.”
Donald Kartiganer, UM professor emeritus of English and longtime director of the conference, said walking on the same grounds and breathing the same air as Faulkner, in a sense, has brought him closer to one of the most influential writers of the 20th century.
“Seeing the house where Faulkner worked, getting a sense of how he worked, it fleshes out the man,” Kartiganer said. “Certain aspects of Faulkner are clearer. I’ve developed a better sense of the author, and it’s had an impact on how I read him.”
Faulkner resided at Rowan Oak for 32 years before he died in 1962. But visitors could imagine that the Faulkners have merely gone out for the afternoon when they see the rooms, furnishings and personal items much as they were then: the author’s signature pipe and tobacco beside his black-rimmed reading glasses on a table in the sitting room, along with his boots under the bed in his bedroom.
Owned and maintained by UM, Rowan Oak is considered a jewel in the crown of historic buildings at the university. Under Griffith’s leadership, the primitive Greek Revival home was completely restored in 2005, and the $1.5 million renovation appears to be paying off for the National Historic Landmark.
“When the property opened to the public in 1973, only 1,000 people visited the home that first year,” Griffith said. “Now we have two to three times that number of visitors each month.”
Griffith plays an important role in maintaining the property’s appearance and feel, said William Andrews, director of University Museum and Historic Houses.
“As far as keeping up the house and grounds is concerned, he has essentially been able to get inside Faulkner’s head and makes decisions regarding the interpretation of the spirit and place of Rowan Oak in accordance,” Andrews said. “In other words, he maintains the place as Faulkner himself would have with care and concern but with an essential pragmatism.”
Kartiganer has toured the prestigious home with several noted authors, and he specifically recalls the awe revealed by Salman Rushdie when he sat at Faulkner’s desk with his hands poised over, not touching, Faulkner’s typewriter.
“Salman looked around at the outline of ‘A Fable’ on the wall, then asked, pointing, ‘Is that his desk?'” Kartiganer recalled. “Then he just sat down, and passed his camera to Bill (Griffith).”
Griffith, who has managed the estate for nearly 10 years, continuously strives to acquire memorabilia for Rowan Oak. His relationship with Faulkner family members enabled him to secure two family Bibles, including the author’s personal one, which visitors to Rowan Oak can see.
Leading guided tours is a highlight of Griffith’s job, and tourists occasionally surprise him with gifts. Among them is Nancy Norris-Kniffin, a Faulkner scholar from Johns Hopkins University. After talking to Griffith, she gave the typewriter Faulkner used to bang out his Hollywood scripts to Rowan Oak, rather than leaving it to her alma mater.
The university’s Archives and Special Collections also hold Faulkner memorabilia, including the Rowan Oak Papers. Found underneath a stairwell at the home, the papers consist of several thousand sheets of Faulkner’s handwritten and typescript drafts of poems, short stories, film scripts and novels. Other archived items include 48 pages of early Faulkner poetry, an 18-page untitled play he wrote as an Ole Miss undergraduate, numerous correspondence and images, and even his Nobel Prize.
As awareness of Faulkner’s works expands across the globe, the general public, scholars and noted authors continue to visit Rowan Oak. Upon their arrival, they discover Griffith’s charm.
“Bill is often complimented for giving an interesting, lively tour,” said Richard Howorth, owner of Oxford’s famed independent Square Books. “His personality comes through and adds a lot to what otherwise is the house of a dead person. He does a great job.”
Griffith also uses encounters at the house as opportunities to enhance the experience for future visitors, Andrews said.
“Having spent so much time at Rowan Oak, Bill has encountered the extremely privileged opportunities that not many people enjoy – to hear an abundant wealth of firsthand accounts and many secondhand Faulkner-related stories,” he said. “Because of this, he provides an unparalleled experience for visitors to Rowan Oak, and is an undisputedly insightful authority on Faulkner’s life and times.”
From France to Japan, Faulkner’s work – highly regarded for its inventiveness, creativity and sense of danger – continues to ensure that Rowan Oak is one of the most visited homes in America.
“Faulkner’s stature as a writer is increasing,” Kartiganer said. “He’s an internationally known and respected author with universal appeal. It’s quite strange to think that Mississippi has so much relevance to the rest of the world.”
Griffith and others close to Rowan Oak recently followed with great interest the turn of events when a rare collection of signed William Faulkner books and personal items sold at a Christie’s auction for more than $833,000. It was a bittersweet moment for him.
“Every one of the items auctioned are significant to everyday interpretation of Faulkner’s life here at Rowan Oak,” said Griffith,. “Had we been able to purchase them, they would all be put to good use immediately. Unfortunately, we don’t have an acquisitions budget, but this auction does help provide a better fair market value of our collection for insurance purposes.
“We are certainly interested in anything Faulkner-related,” Griffith said.