American Sabbatical 95: 4/16/97

Faulkner Country

4/16.. Faulkner Country.

The slamming of dumpsters and the grinding of garbage trucks in the alley brought us back to reality in Memphis. Downstairs the air outside the hotel was redolent with ripe compost in warm sunshine. We couldn’t get out of town fast enough.

The Owlers had one more site to wink at in the Kingdom, though. Chucalissa. Yet another Mississippian Culture site, on the southern fringe of metro Memphis. Would it be in as hard a shape as the mounds under the Old Bridge? Engulfed by blight like Graceland? Renewed beyond recognition like Beale Street? With trepidation we followed gigantic wheelers jake braking down a steep grade through a lowrent burb, and into deep woods. Jungled woods. Solid undergrowth, tanglevines, the lushness down by a sump.

Brown signs angled us out of the industrial chute, and into a backwater museum lot. We faced a low, undistinguished cement building nestled into a hillside. Another well lived-in vehicle swung into the lot behind us, and the driver got out with keys in his hand, apologizing for being late to open shop. We were gracious, and said we were going to concoct a breakfast before doing the tour.

“ Isn’t it nice to be intimidating?” Peggy whispered. I AM getting rather shaggy, but intimidating? Another museum laborer drove up and his wolf-dog began howling at me. But his tail was wagging. A splendidly beautiful beast, with the palest of gray eyes. I started feeling like an Alpha dog here in a Mississippian woods with a hot sun sidling down.

(Memo #90)

April 15 Chucalissa

Who? Mississippian people, the “mound-builders”

What? reconstructed Mississippian village and small museum

When? village occupied between A.D.1000 - A.D. 1500

Where? in a park on the southern edge of Memphis on Choctaw Bluff

How? a good question, funding for this dandy museum is at risk

Topics: prehistoric Native Americans, mound builders

Questions: How do you make prehistoric people real? What makes a good museum? What was a Mississippian village like?


We have visited a number of preColumbian sites in our travels: Cahokia (memo #13), Ocmulgee (#82), Etowah (#83). Each has added to our knowledge of the Mississippian culture, the “mound builders”. We’ve gotten a sense of the natural world they lived in and the extraordinary mountains (hardly “mounds”) they constructed of earth, basket load by basket load. Chucalissa, a reconstructed village in a park on the southern edge of Memphis, finally made the culture and the PEOPLE come alive.

Chucalissa (a Choctaw word for “abandoned house”) is a magic spot . The archeologists have reconstructed a Mississippian village with a chief’s house on a small mound, houses around a central plaza, a raised granary. Life sized mannequins dressed in the feathers and clothing and jewelry of the Mississippian people are posed in tableaux in the thatched huts with appropriate furnishings and objects and tools and weapons. There are no modern buildings in sight, just woods and sky and a creek below the bluff.

Chief's House

Even more extraordinary is the WAY you enter the village. First you tour a small museum. Each exhibit (of tools or pottery) shows people making and using the items. This hardly seems radical but is a real change from the earlier museums (and approach to Archaeology) in which the objects in and of themselves became more important than the behavior that shaped them or the people that used them. It makes a real difference to see a hand around an atlatl or the whole animals next to the burned bone fragments that were found on the site. So the museum itself is great, then you go through a passageway with Chucalissa designs in bright colors on the walls and you enter.. a trench. You literally walk through an archaeological excavation seeing the different colors of earth in the difference layers of habitation (orangey and yellow and tan) rising straight up on either side of you.. There are excellent labels explaining what you are seeing (what a “burned” house structure” looks like as a black layer) and how archaeologists interpret remains. Then you are at a low doorway. You duck down as you climb up and you are in the sunlit plaza, having entered through a hut doorway as though from a native house!

“The first house outside the Entrance Trench has been furnished as it might have been while in use. The mother works on her weaving while the grandmother watches the baby and prepares a meal of freshwater mussels. The Father attaches a stone point to an arrow , and the younger children play nearby. A cane fish trap is stored on the overhead rack. Bear skins serve as blankets on the bench beds along the walls. The furs hanging overhead would be used in trade with other towns and by local dignitaries.” (from A Visitors’ Guide to Chucalissa).

The Chucalissa huts are extraordinary. The huts (perhaps fifteen feet square) have steep thatched roofs with eaves that come within four feet of the ground. The walls are mud over matting, the whole structure is framed with large posts. There are wooden “platform”s or “benches” along the sides, a fire in the middle of the floor, a variety of artifacts hung from beams or on the ground. They have also constructed a low mound with a large chief’s house on it. The front side of the mound giving on the plaza is plastered with “mud” and has steps leading up. Inside a tableaux shows figures paying tribute to the chief (a woman) who sits cross legged on a wooden platform.


Effigy Bowl


We found, yet again, how neat it is to be alone in an historical site. We arrived before the museum opened and were alone for an hour tour of the reconstructed village. Unfortunately, the two Choctaw interpretive guides who are on staff were not there the day we visited. Also unfortunately this superb recreation is not mobbed everyday! We saw far more visitors at Etowah.

Ideally we would create a tour that takes people to a number of Mississippian sites - Ocmulgee and Etowah in Georgia, and Chucalissa in Tennessee (all of these small towns), and finally Cahokia in Illinois (the incredible city of perhaps 20,000). We could add the Spiro Mounds (Oklahoma), Pinson Mounds in Tennessee, Moundville in Alabama. I would call the tour “North American Towns and Cities BEFORE Columbus”!

and another

How is it that Americans know of the preColumbian Aztec and Inca and Mayan cities and not those in Illinois and Alabama?? One cynical answer is that we couldn’t admit that North American Indians had “civilizations” and “cities” without admitting that our treatment of them was straight conquest and genocide. We justified many actions on the frontier by the notion that we were “civilizing” and “Christianizing” the savages.
I taught on the Hopi reservation in the 1960’s and even then a BIA teacher told me we were “raising the Indians to be right civilized folks!”

Chucalissa village makes the preColumbian Mississippi culture vivid and appealing.

4/16.. Cont.

Entering Chucalissa through the below-grade dig was strong magic. Passing from incandescent interior modern into stratified earthwalls of archeological time, then scooching out a low doorway into an Indian village. POW. The high-peaked chiefs’ lodge sitting atop the great mound, with clay steps leading up. The exotic houses all around the 2 acre square, with their steep-pitched thatched roofs. The sense of being in a world apart was as gripping as great theater, or sculpture.

We came away stilled once more. Even the insinuating haze of agro-industrial chemicals couldn’t stifle the meditative mood. Driving out, a pileated woodpecker swooped within a foot of my open window. A big bird up close. And the face tattoos and bold colors of the Indian costumes were alive in today’s woods. I'd spent twenty minutes copying a copper image of a dancing bird-woman from a thousand years ago. Here was another, plummeting, past.

Bird Woman

Round a corner and it was Thunder Road, then Elvis Presley Boulevard. Graceland is only about half a mile from Chucalissa, and the juxtaposition was too much. Mounds for a ancient kingdom, and a pile for The King. We plugged ELVIS LIVES back in the box as we rolled past the American Dream memorial.

Into Mizsippi. Except for a brief hiatus of striving burbs, with white brick and wrought iron detailing, the wasteland of South Memphis merges into worn agriculpability with hardly a gasp. Beat trailers and parts cars on fallow fields or between plowed acres, with the wind picking up a yellow dust. Where the blues was born. You sure have to look inward to find the music in these alluvial bottoms. Tellum, Lucille.

We had considered seeking the balcony where Martin was shot in Memphis, but decided the city was dark enough without the memory of gunfire. Now we were in environs where his dream of judging people by the content of their character seemed especially apt. We’ve seen a lot of Black middle class in the South. Here was some downhome poverty.. a classic stereotype of “shiftlessness”, if you were to use the old labels. But we’ve climbed a long hill from that Memphis. These scenes remind us that the big issue in Capitalist America isn’t race. It’s class.

The wornout lands come and go in Northern Mississippi, though. One minute soul-dead vistas, the next undulating woods and pastures, and back again. The leaves are almost all out here, and the patterns of vegetation are clumpier, foliage mushrooming like cumulonimbus before a squall. Scattered crossroads with low-eaved gas stations and convenience stores. Then we hooked onto a sideroad at Sardis and wiggled into the tall timber near the lake. Sardis Lake, made of the dammed headwaters of the Tallahatchie, 25 miles long, east-west.

Mississippi Flowers
Everywhere we’ve been in the South different wildflowers have graced the shoulders of the road. Here foot-tall crimson clover paints the roadsides in Harvard red, for miles. We stop to use the facilities down a yellow stone road that winds through windy pine woods, then skirt the blustered lake, and make tracks for Oxford town, around the bend.

Oxford town. Maybe the most charming county seat in the South. Another of those high-flung cupola capped courthouses with a four-square Greek facade, but surrounded this time with live businesses.. bookstores, bakeries, cafes.. in restored brick storefronts, behind balconied overhangs decked in ornamental iron or classical pillars. It’s a college town, of course. Ole Miss. Oxford town.

Our roadfood guide scores again. The cornbread and bean special in the recommended cafe is just fine, but the blackberry and peach cobblers are to sigh for. We perambulated round and about the square until our joy settled. Then went to check out Ole Miss, and find Faulkner’s house.

The former looks just like a big state U. with the usual excess of cardiovascular exercising and self-consciousness. Massive formal architecture, intercut with venerable giants in the forestry department. Hardwoods in full habit cooling the air and shading the sunsplashed lawns. The echoes of Dylan’s music, or the jackboots that gave him the beat, have faded into silence in this polychrome enclave. At least we couldn’t hear them.

We could hardly find Faulkner’s house. There are no brown signs and the maps are (intentionally?) vague. But Southern hospitality won’t leave you lost for long, and we parked the Owl in Bill’s home grove. The Saddest Southerner lived up a winding yellow gravel drive between lines of 150 year-old-cedars. Between the gloomy boles, beds of irises edge the path, now raising their purple flags to salute the wind. Drawing another classic Southern house didn’t do it for me, so I sat among the irises and tried to render Faulkner’s road in line and color, while Peggy did the tour.

Faulkner's Drive

(Memo #91)

Rowan Oak
Apr 16 Faulkner’s Rowan Oak

Who? William Faulkner, Nobel Peace Prize author

What? his longterm home

When? house he bought in 1930 and owned until death in 1962

Where? Oxford, Mississippi

How? renovated little by little

Topics: American literature, Southern literature

Questions: What were Faulkner’s inner and outer worlds like? How does a home-museum work best?

Faulkner, it seems, is more studied abroad than any other English-language author except Shakespeare. In college I took a phenomenal comparative literature course called “Dostoevsky, Camus, and Faulkner”. Of the three, Faulkner is the author who has stayed with me. I feel the many layers of time that Faulkner caught so well, a phrase calling up a moment ten years ago echoed in an older family history incident, the weight in the present of a decision made by a great grandparent, a word having many personal allusions past and present (like Benjy’s “caddy”).

Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpa is so real and vivid that it colored my preconceptions of the South. Doom, family destiny played out over decades, time linking tragedies through centuries, the weight of the past. At some level I expected to find a “dark” region, brooding presences, yet the South has been bright and beautiful, the people uniformly friendly. Occasionally we see the wreck of a grand house in the brush that calls up the Sutpen house. As we drove into Mississippi I wondered if the Snopeses and Sutpens are real, if Clytemnestra and Judith and Henry and Quentin were based on real people in Oxford Mississippi. Did Faulkner convey a place in true geography?

Rowan Oak (the Faulkner home in Oxford) is down a side road a mile from the classic courthoused town square. The few markers are unobtrusive. As you walk the path through the 150 year old cedars to the large white house, you sense a paradox. Faulkner lived in a lovely, large house full of sunlight and comfortable nooks and crannies. It is roomy and has the requisite white columns and fireplaces, but it feels comfortable and loved and there are lovely views from all the windows. The couches look comfortable, the armchairs and rockers good for reading. There is a beautiful garden, lawns stretching to woods, and paddocks. Irises line the drive. Faulkner took time and care renovating and enlarging the house and lived here for thirty years with his wife Estelle, two stepchildren, and a daughter Jill. Most of his books were written here. He was a man living in a “sunny” place who had a dark interior landscape. Incredible cognitive dissonance. And this is part of what Faulkner captured in his writing: the ability of people to live in hellish personal landscapes while their bodies inhabit even sunny and beautiful worlds. Rosa “living” the dark history of the Sutpens.

The young man who opened the house is an Ole Miss English professor who answered my questions. Yes, Faulkner had a dark inner world. Faulkner was a binge drinker (often after he finished a book) who would regularly go to a sanitarium to dry out. His publisher once convinced him to see a New York psychiatrist who reported that Faulkner had the greatest capacity for sorrow of any man he had met.

Faulkner's Weapons

The house was built by a colorful Colonel Shegog in the late 1840’s who owned many farms in Tennessee and used this one mainly to count his money. This old colonel had elements of Sutpen. Other local and house stories gave Faulkner bits of plots. He told his children of Judith Shegog who died climbing down from the front balcony to run off with a union soldier (Judith Sutpen? Quentin?). Faulkner’s own family, the professor says, is played out in the recurrent theme of a legendary greatgrandfather with a father who is a failure (Faulkner’s own ggf owned a railroad which was sold before the gf and father could run it).

When Faulkner bought the house it had been partly used as a stable and had no plumbing or electricity. His wife fainted when she first saw it. It took them many years to renovate. Faulkner would regularly go to Hollywood (which he hated) for a script writing job to earn the money.

After we went to Monroeville, Alabama, and never really found the world of Harper Lee, I convinced myself that it’s the product (the books) that matter, not the author’s home. In Faulkner’s case, the home adds a great deal. First as a paradox. A key seems to be the WAY a house is preserved, how consciously and formally scripted the tourist experience is, how much has been changed. A young man opened up Rowan Oak and then said, “ Look around, it’s a self tour.” So we did. The rooms have been left as they were in 1962. Bill’s muddy boots are by his bed, books are piled by and on tables. There are family pictures and oil portraits on the wall (one of Faulkner in hunt clothes). Faulkner loved riding and fox hunting and, in his last years, spent more and more time with his daughter’s family in Charlottesville, Virginia, where he was lionized. Apparently, Oxfordians never really fawned over Bill, who had been known as “Count No Account” when he was at the college. The town knew Faulkner’s family too well. There are no tape recorded guides or plastic rug coverings to direct our steps. I could wander, go back, take pictures, ask questions. In his office, Faulkner had put the plot outline of A Fable on the wall. It’s still there.

Interior View
The young professor said the university’s aim in preserving the house was to spark discussion of Faulkner’s works and there is a conference held each year. The focus is not on the possessions, so the house does not have the self-consciousness of many house museums where the guides lovingly directs your attention to the grain of a particular china cabinet and the hidden drawer. The details on rugs and china and silverware sometimes obscure the people. Faulkner himself does not seem to have been very “invested” in possessions (except for horses). Maybe he never lusted for or attained “success”. Elvis did and the Graceland tour caught that too. Again it’s a question of the personality being captured in the house.

Perhaps Faulkner’s lovely home and family provided him with a safe haven from which he could journey into the dark with a chance of surviving.

4/16.. cont.

I was all for staying in Oxford, idling in the square, drawing a live town, finding a bed. But Peggy was bubbling with enthusiasm. Energized. And had a case of the hurryons. It was a bright warm afternoon, and we even contemplated camping. Leaving Homer asleep in his knapsack. Besides, the prices at advertised hostelries around Oxford were academically inflated, like college tuitions.

Back into the rolling terrain of North Central Mississippi. The navigator soliloquizing, the pilot trying to keep his eyes open. Southeast of Oxford we were back in the timber factory, big rigs woofing by, single trailers piled high with long pine poles, tandems full of fatbutted hardwoods. “WELCOME TO BRUCE: Where money grows in trees.” A lot of this country could be Maine in June. The log trucks were lined up at the Weyerhauser entrance. Another colonial empire. Clearcuts and cattle pastures. Rich rank woods and fallow lands all bronze with old hay. Bright yellow mustard run amok.

We were slanting southeast to pick up the Natchez Trace again, hoping it would be as glorious as it had been in Tennessee. And keeping an eye out for Yoknapatawpa. But that must be an interior landscape, or a world by night. Having spent seven years in Washington County, the eastern end of Maine, and the poorest county in New England, we have pretty good antennae for Snopses. Down in the valley of the big river it’s dark enough for Faulkner, and he’d have been at home in Jonesport, but in Calhoun and Webster Counties there was too much sunshine today. Even in that transitional state of near fatigue I didn’t get intuitions of despair along highway 9 to Eupora.

Then we were back on the Trace. It IS a spectacular corridor through time and nature. Turns out the whole road is a federal park, from Nashville to Natchez (some 250 miles), with a right-of-way a football field wide. Like the beauty strips in Maine, it may pass through clearcuts and agri-mining (a ranger told me it does), but you’d never know it. The only through traffic is the occasional highway tortoise with grandpa at the wheel. Down here in Mizsippi the foliage is denser with undergrowth and the full leaves are losing their pastels. The ghostly dogwoods in the receding gloom are gone, or have cast their blossoms, but the shoulders are filmed with lavender-blue flowers (heal-all), uncanny in the low-angle light.

Trace Flowers

The Trace descends into drowned bottoms, and waterloving trees engloom the road. Cypress, tupelo, the gums. We stop and follow a nature trail in a loop up onto higher ground where the large pines and hickory dominate, then back down to skirt the slough. No serious bugs at this evening hour. A good omen for camping.

But the campground was full of Winebagos and snowbirds moving north. Their jawing might have been convivial, but we weren’t up for cheek-to-jowling in the crammed sites. Federal standards, remember. So Peggy found a chain flop a few miles farther along the Trace, in Kosciusko, and phoned in a res. After this journey she could have a new career as a travel agent. She’s even talking about the Mississippian Culture Tour. Mounds I Have Known. We dossed down for the night in Kosciusko, without a z. We added the zs.

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