Miss. hometown marks half century post-Faulkner

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Mississippi Arts Commission director Malcolm White compares Faulkner’s posthumous fame to that of another north Mississippi native.

“He’s like Elvis,” White said. “He’s never been bigger than he is today.”

English professor Jay Watson, Kartiganer’s successor as Faulkner specialist, politely disagrees with White’s assessment. Even during Faulkner’s lifetime, he was recognized as one of the most important literary figures of the 20th Century. But, Watson concedes Faulkner is more appreciated in Oxford these days.

“Oxford didn’t start coming around to him until after he won the Nobel Prize” in 1949, Watson said. “Before then, most people in Oxford just thought he was somebody who was making Oxford look bad. But after he won the Nobel, all the sudden, he was kind of making Oxford look good, because he was this small-town native son who won the most distinguished award in literature.”

Locals saw Faulkner as an oddball who’d be so wrapped up in his own thoughts that he’d often walk past people he knew without exchanging pleasantries. Faulkner went to Canada and trained as a Royal Air Force aviator, but never saw combat because World War I ended before he completed training. Nonetheless, Watson said, Faulkner would walk around Oxford in a flight officer’s uniform, complete with a cane and sometimes with a limp, and tell people he’d been wounded in a plane crash, which wasn’t true. Because he acted like a dandy, locals nicknamed him “Count No-Count.”

The local newspaper, The Oxford Eagle, is publishing essays this year from people who remember Faulkner. In one, J.W. “Jay” Mitchell, who grew up in Oxford, recalled being on the square with friends and making fun of the writer.

“I remember one day, 1952 or `53, me and a few friends decided to walk by Mr. Faulkner, one at a time, and holler, `Good morning, Mr. Faulkner,’ or ‘How are you?,’ knowing that he would not answer,” Mitchell wrote. “After we passed him, we would circle around and get in front and repeat our taunting again. He acted as if we were not even there.

“There he was _ head held high, with a swagger stick under his arm, wearing his English riding pants, knee-high leather boots and tweed jacket.

“Move forward over 50 years and ask me if I feel proud of this,” Mitchell wrote. “People, some of us didn’t know what we had in our midst. (I will take this opportunity to apologize.)”

Griffith said he came into the curator’s job with a respect for Faulkner’s prose but not as a “super fan.” When he was growing up in Illinois, an English teacher assigned him to read “As I Lay Dying,” and he protested with an essay called, “As I Die Reading.”

“I remember arguing, telling her that I’d never thought about Mississippi and I’m quite sure I’ll never go to Mississippi,” said Griffith, who has since re-read the book several times.

Griffith said when the teacher heard he’d been hired at Rowan Oak, she told one of his relatives: “`I hope he knows karma is a real thing.’”

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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