Though I’ve known and admired Jack Hodgin‘s work for ages, we actually hadn’t met til we ended up on the same judges’ panel for a literary award three years ago. Usually, these things are tense affairs, but Jack, our third panelist, the novelist Joan Barfoot, and I had such an agreeable time together we became internet friends, a tiny community of three sending group emails back and forth. Joan lives in London, Ontario, and Jack lives far, far away on Vancouver Island. He has been known to complain ruefully, upon finding a sequence of emails from Joan and me, that everything happens in the rest of the world before he even wakes up in the morning.
Jack has been a huge and beneficent presence on the Canadian literary scene for a couple of generations now. You can find all this for yourself by exploring his website (which, incidentally, contains a generous amount of writing advice). I love the list of prizes he’s won; it’s almost as long as the number of books he’s published. I am also fascinated by his real life relationship with the fictional character Dr. Jack Hodgins in the TV series “Bones.”
This little essay is just a taste. I like it because it reminds me of all the friends who have made the pilgrimage to Oxford–so many of us loved Faulkner and yet had to fight our way out from under his stylistic shadow.
Jack has a new novel coming out in May. It’s called The Master of Happy Endings. This is what Alice Munro says about it: “From one of Canada’s master storytellers comes a powerful new novel about memory, belonging, helping others, and the vagaries of the human heart. It is also a compelling story about how a man in his later seventies manages to conjure one more great adventure for himself.” Buy the book.
FAULKNER MISSISSIPPI: April 1982
Walking up the pathway towards the front steps and white pillars of the house known as Rowan Oak, I was aware of a chill that lifted the hairs at the back of my neck. William Faulkner had lived here, had written most of his novels here, had walked up this pathway, perhaps had even laid this herringbone brickwork in the pathway himself. The man would not be inside, of course – he had been dead for several years – but the house was open to visitors, with a resident guide from the nearby university. Still, I was about to reach the destination in what was really a sort of pilgrimage.
We had spent a few sunny April days in New Orleans before driving the little rented car north, pausing only briefly in Baton Rouge before passing into Mississippi. We’d visited the ante-bellum houses in Natchez and toured the 16 miles of Vicksburg battleground before driving on up the highway through pine forests in the direction of Oxford.
In the direction, that is, of the town where once lived the man whose books had thrilled and inspired me, and whose powerful voice and vision had so invaded me as to destroy all my earliest attempts at writing – two bad novels and several stories, all rejected and abandoned — before I’d eventually found my own place and my own voice. Still, though I may have shaken off much of the power I’d once allowed him to have, I had not abandoned my admiration for the man and his work.
Of course the first indication we were entering Faulkner country was the little signpost naming the Yocana River, which was just a narrow yellow creek barely moving at the bottom of a muddy ditch. It was not easy to imagine this “Yoknapatawpha” in anything like flood, or to believe in the difficulties it gave the Bundren family when they crossed it with the mother’s coffin, heading, as we were, for the town where “Pa” would get a new set of teeth, bury his wife, and find himself a new one. I hoped this was not a hint of more disappointments ahead.
At the south end of town we checked into a motel with a quotation from Faulkner’s Nobel speech on the outer wall, declining to accept the end of man, then drove up the main road and turned left onto the appropriate side street in search of William Faulkner’s house, which was now in the care of “Ole Miss” University, and open, I knew, to the public.
But not open today. A sign attached to the screen door began with the word “WARNING” and went on to announce that the building was closed for the summer months and would not be open again until September. The doors were locked. The inside lights were not on. I felt as I might have felt if a door had been slammed in my face. No one cared that I admired this man’s work … that I loved his work. I could simply come back in September.
But in September I would be half a continent away.
At least no one prevented a visit to the town square, with its white courthouse at the centre, and the statue of the Confederate soldier, the lounging men on benches, and the rows of shops facing in from the four sides. Square Books was on the second floor of a corner building, with lacy ironwork at the tops of the posts and a balcony off the second storey. Perhaps I could find some Faulkner book I hadn’t known about, or a clerk with whom I could share my disappointment. There might be someone inside who remembered the great man, even some ancient crony smoking a pipe by the stove.
Upstairs, I could see at a glance that I was surrounded by shelves and shelves of Southern writing I knew I would have to get my hands on. But first, I must express my dismay to the manager. We had come from the west coast of Canada, I said, and had hoped to visit Faulkner’s house, only to find it closed. I was an admirer of the great man’s work, and a writer myself, come to pay my respects, and had hoped to visit the interior of Rowan Oak, where I understood things had been left just as they’d been during the owner’s lifetime.
There was no shortage of hospitality here. By the time I had found and paid for a large shopping bag full of irresistible books, the manager had phoned someone at the university and arranged for the house to be open for me in the morning.
The slender, long-limbed, bespectacled gentleman who met me outside the front door to the Faulkner home was a professor at the University of Mississippi, perhaps in his late thirties or early forties, wearing a long-sleeved white shirt and brown dress pants. He was a little shy perhaps, as he introduced himself. Far from expressing understandable impatience with this extra demand on his time, he was obviously pleased to be showing off the house. It was part of his job description as a professor, he explained, to spend four hours a day in the house to keep it in working order – that is, to switch lights off and on, to flush the toilet, to air out the rooms, and to welcome guests during the academic months.
From the outside it appeared to be stately house in the Southern tradition, white and tall, with a small balcony above the front door. Inside, it was a fairly simple house — simply furnished, upstairs and down. A portrait of the writer hung over the library fireplace. Books lined the shelves. To one side of the main floor the doorway to Faulkner’s writing room was roped off in the manner of historical museums everywhere. From behind the rope I could see the ancient typewriter on a small table the size of a student’s school room desk. Against one wall was a cot, where presumably he lay to think, or to nap, or to recover from a drunk. Just as I’d known to expect, the chapter headings for A Fable were printed in large red letters across two of the white walls. SUNDAY IX “The streets now in darkness. Allied warnings and attack …..”
Had my guide removed the rope and left me alone for a few moments to explore the room on my own, or have I only imagined that I touched the typewriter keys and ran a hand over the little desk? I don’t know. I had (and have) no difficulty imagining Faulkner at the keyboard, furiously rewriting an old short story into a new version as part of a novel with a different narrative voice, dropping the pages from the stack on his right into the waste paper basket to his left — a short story disappearing into a novel while crossing his desk.
After thanking the professor for his hospitality, it occurred to me to ask if spending time here had inspired him to write. He looked uncomfortable for a moment, then admitted that he had done a little writing but certainly didn’t call himself a writer. “This town has too many people already who like to think of themselves as writers, but should not.”
We were now freed to become tourists again, and of course went on to look up Faulkner’s grave in the cemetery, to visit his Nobel medal in the university library, to find the county jail where the “negro murderer” in the original version of Sanctuary had every evening sung spirituals from the window. Then drove far out into the country past general stores and decaying shacks with rusted tin roofs and crumbling mansions that might have been right out of the “Frenchman’s Bend.” We passed one after another cabin with folks sitting out on the verandas, chickens clucking in the yard, automobiles up on blocks and baking in the sun. Here, at a crossroads, we stopped to talk to an elderly gentleman named Quincy Beard, sitting on his junk-filled porch across from an abandoned cotton mill. He was waiting, he said, for the doctor to find the time to take off his head and fix something that had gone wrong inside.
Many years later, and on the far side of the continent, while skimming through my latest copy of The New York Times Book Review, I read of a new novel set during the American Civil War that sounded like something I might enjoy. Only when I decided to order it from a local bookstore did I realize that I should have recognized the author’s name. This was the man who had disrupted his April morning to show me Faulkner’s house. The reviewed book was his second novel, apparently, a sort of sequel to an earlier one, also set in Mississippi during the War Between the States. Of course I ordered them both.
Knowing how my own love of Faulkner’s work had had such a damaging effect upon my earliest attempts at fiction – upon voice, style, vision, and just about everything else — I wondered how a man who not only lived in Oxford, Mississippi but spent part of his every working day in William Faulkner’s house – dusting his typewriter, flushing his toilet, switching his lights on and off — had succeeded in finding his own genuine voice for his own genuine stories. His struggle – if it was a struggle – may have been even harder than mine. And yet, it seemed to me, had been entirely successful.
We might have spoken of this, and of many other things, that day in April, if he hadn’t modestly suggested there were already too many people claiming to be writers in Oxford, Mississippi.
Thank you — and now I’ll have to make the trip myself some time, though this should provide a good stand-in until then.
I’m curious how a Canadian saw Faulkner. I grew up in suburban North Carolina, and Faulkner provided me with a fuller, a gutsier, and more problematic view of the South than I got elsewhere. He also blew me away with his experiments, his verbal amplitude, his stylistic leaps. My first novel was Sound and the Fury, which I attempted to read in high school. Writing, like life, did not have to be a pedestrian affair.