John or Bill

July 19th, 2012

A bit absent-minded, cold, detached, who doesn’t pay anyone much mind and doesn’t much pay his bills. A bit of a dandy who changes the spelling of his last name and the details of his military record for effect.

And more than a bit disliked by folks in town.

A genius considered by many who consider these things to be the greatest Southern writer, if not the greatest American writer, if not the greatest writer period, of the 20th century.

And the winner of two Pulitzers for fiction. And the Nobel laureate for literature in 1949.

The very same and the very different.

As published in The Daily News, July 20, 2012, and in The Memphis News, July 21-27, 2012

Faulkner Sepia


If William Faulkner looked out the window on this cloudy day he would see the still and always green magnolia leaves still and always sad still and always there still and always reminding remanding back still and always back in the sunless indolent superheated moment between a dark brooding now the even darker starker truth of then and the oppressive promise hanging in the coming storm of repeating the moment still and always the same.

The rest of us would just see a cloudy day.

A friend recently sent me a link to an excellent New York Times essay on Faulkner’s “Absalom, Absalom!,” that almost impenetrable, impossibly rich seminal Southern stew of a novel. Then, I saw a local piece on Faulkner’s relationship with his own town and, in a larger sense, his own people, his own South. So then I was reminded of my own Faulkner story illustrating that point – Memphians and English majors of a certain age are required to have both an Elvis story and a Faulkner story.

Shortly after Faulkner died, my big brother, Frank, came home for a visit from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. A fan of all things Yoknapatawpha, he decided that he should make a memorial pilgrimage to see Faulkner’s house. His little brother tagged along. When we got to Oxford, we stopped for a bite at a meat-and-three on the square. When we walked in, we became the object of one collective, concentrated stare and everything stopped except the ceiling fans. Conversation, coffee pouring, even chewing – spoons and forks suspended. This is where I point out that Frank had a full beard. This was freedom-riding 1963, a particularly inopportune time to show up in Mississippi from somewhere north, even slightly north, with a beard. Since it didn’t seem like a good time to ask anybody for directions, a hamburger, or anything else, we left.

As we rode around town searching for some sign, if not an actual sign, of just where Faulkner’s house, Rowan Oak, would be – searching for a beacon, if not an actual shining light, marking the spot where Southern literature changed, where the eccentric Nobel laureate wrote the words on a wall, actually on a wall – I thought of our grandmother. A former president of the Tennessee Pen Women, she had what she considered to be an objective, well-reasoned opinion of Faulkner – a trashy, wordy, pretentious blowhard, crazy as an outhouse rat, who should never be forgiven because of what he wrote about “us.” Didn’t care for the man.

We pulled up next to a parked pickup truck, the driver dozing over the wheel.  “Excuse me,” I said, “can you tell me where Faulkner’s house is?” He looked at me, then at Frank, spit something expertly between the truck and our car, and responded.

“John or Bill?”

There is a difference, but you have to see things differently. There, just there, among the oh-so-ordinary hides the truly extraordinary. Look for it.

I’m a Memphian, and we have plenty to see.


gene katz: In 1992, I took our Republic of Georgia visitor, Tsira Khamaladze who told us Faulkner was her favorite author, to Rowen Oak. As we stood in the entrance hall looking over the barrier into "his" room, tears trickled down her cheeks. She said,"I never would have never believed that I would see with my own eyes where all those wonderful words were written".

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