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Guest blog by Bebe Gish Shaw: Magical Mississippi Tour

There are magical moments in teaching which remind us that we do not teach to live but rather live to teach, and Saturday, April 19, 2008, was one of those halcyon days of academic heaven in which one goes into third person, watching himself watching the wonderment sparkle in students’ eyes.

It was a pristine spring day, the azaleas and dogwood in bloom, and Athens State University English professors, Dr. Al Elmore, Dr. Kevin Dupre, and I, took two 15 seater rental vans full of Sigma Tau Delta English Honor Society members to a “novel town,” Oxford, Mississippi, our destination being the home of William Faulkner, recreated in his fiction as the county seat of his mythical Yoknapatawpha County. Incidentally, also in Oxford at the same time in the University of Mississippi Museum, was an exhibit of especial interest, “Handling History,” which allowed students actually to touch original and historic texts and documents.

We arrived in Oxford at lunchtime and dined in quaint restaurants around the city’s typically southern square, complete with an elm encircled, majestic 1873 courthouse with a clock-faced cupola and an unvanquished Confederate soldier monument. The square was dotted here and there with cool bookstores where in nooks one could find a bevy of Eudora Welty novels or even an audio CD recording of Faulkner reading his own works, if he were only looking.

After a leisurely lunch and some shopping, it was on to The University of Mississippi Museum. The curator literally unlocked the glass cases and allowed us to handle—with kid gloves—such works as Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, Frederick Douglass’ My Bondage and My Freedom, a 1350 copy of the 1215 Magna Carta, Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense,” Mary Wollstonecraft’s (mother of Mary Shelley, of Frankenstein fame) feminist tract “Vindication of the Rights of Women,” among others. Not only were these collected works priceless antiques that smelled of moldy parchment, but also these collected words had changed the course of human history, granting rights to the common man, the enslaved, the woman, the colony.

While it was all we could do to pull ourselves away from this bibliophile bliss, we nonetheless eagerly anticipated the mecca of southern literature, Rowan Oak, the home of Nobel Prize winning novelist, William Faulkner (1897-1962). The circa 1844 Greek Revival style house was purchased by Faulkner in 1930 for $6,000 with his income from having published both The Sound and the Fury and Sartoris in 1929, though it took him $75 a month for over six years to do so. He named the home Rowan Oak, neither tree in evidence on the property, after having read Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough. The rowan tree, native of Scotland, purportedly wards off evil spirits, and the mighty oak, sacred toZeus himself, is a symbol of strength and security.

With its cedar-lined (thought to protect from yellow fever) herringbone brick approach to the impressive, antebellum façade, the house bespeaks of the greatness of its most famous tenant, who at only five foot six was a giant among men. In his works he faced the truth about the south’s past, breaking with the sentimental, nostalgic “Plantation Tradition” with its myth of the happy slave. He embraced the south’s historical burden, its racial sin and guilt. And for this, together with Thomas Wolfe for Look Homeward, Angel, he ushered in the “Southern Literary Renaissance” and was duly awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1949.

After touring the home and grounds, planted by Faulkner himself with dogwood, magnolia, camellia, boxwood, and English tea roses, our pilgrimage—by this time having taken on an almost religious tone—proceeded to the picturesque, shaded, and hilly St. Peter’s Cemetery.

We went to pay our respects at the gravesite of this author who in Stockholm, Sweden, on December 10, 1950, in a speech that custom obliged him deliver, stated the following: “I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.”

I knew as we experienced this day that it was a memory in the making. We had such a delightful time learning together that we have decided to make a springtime literary pilgrimage an annual event. Next year we intend to tour the F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald Museum in Montgomery, where we also hope to catch a matinee at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival. I can’t wait.

---Dr. Bebe Gish Shaw, Athens State University

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