The Pelvis & The Pen
On our way to Memphis, Tennessee, there were two important stops we wanted to make. Both were in Mississippi, and both paid homage to two of America’s greatest icons. The first was Tupelo, to visit Elvis Presley’s birthplace. The second, Rowan Oak, William Faulkner’s home in Oxford.
When you first consider Elvis and Faulkner together, they seem like an unlikely duo. Elvis was the King of Rock ‘n Roll, the Hillbilly Cat, Elvis the Pelvis. Faulkner was the recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature, two Pulitzers, and two National Book Awards. Even though the disparities might seem as wide as the Mississippi River, these two Southern boys did share some similarities.
First, they were born within miles of each other in small north Mississippi towns. Elvis in Tupelo, Faulkner in New Albany. Second, from those small-town beginnings, they both grew to worldwide fame. It could even be said that they had more influence in their respective fields than any other artists of the 20th century. Yet, for all of their money, talent, and fame, their love of the South kept them deeply rooted there throughout their lives. They traveled the world, but home to both of them, was always the South. As someone who has moved from state to state a few times, I was looking forward to seeing the homes where those strong roots took hold.
In The Ghetto
Graceland is the home most often associated with Elvis Presley. It’s in Memphis, about 100 miles away from Tupelo, and it’s where he lived most of his life, but it’s not where his story began.
His story began on January 8, 1935, when he was born in a two-room shotgun shack at 306 Elvis Presley Drive. Of course, it wasn’t Elvis Presley Drive back then. It was Saltillo Road, and it was on the outskirts of town, a wrong-side-of-the-tracks kind of place where poor sharecroppers and laborers lived nearly destitute. Elvis’ birth into such poverty reminded me of the lyrics from his song “In the Ghetto.”
As the snow flies
On a cold and gray Chicago mornin’
A poor little baby child is born
In the ghetto
And his mama cries
Cause if there’s one thing that she don’t need
It’s another hungry mouth to feed
In the ghetto
Saltillo Road was a ghetto of flimsy shacks and cabins. The Presley home was no different, except that it’s the only one that still stands today, and it’s the main attraction of the 15-acre Elvis Presley Birthplace Park preserved in honor of Tupelo’s most famous resident.
Maybe it was naïve, but I didn’t realize there was an entire park built around Elvis’ birthplace. Over the years, the area surrounding the tiny shack has been embellished and it now includes a museum, a church, a walking tour, statues and monuments, and the obligatory gift shop, which at 1,300 square feet is more than four times bigger than the house.
Since I didn’t know about all the additions, my only interest was the house itself. Before we could go in, though, we had to stop at the gift shop to buy tickets. It’s free to walk around most of the park, but if you want to see the inside of the house, it’s $4, the museum is $8, and the church is $6. To see them all, you can get the combo for $12. The next day, we were going to visit Graceland where we’d see all things Elvis, so we decided to skip the museum and church and just visit the birthplace of the King.
The house is still in the same location, the paint could use a touch up and the grass is a bit overgrown and patchy. I don’t think the group that oversees the park is neglecting the house because the areas surrounding it are pristine. It seems more likely that they want to give an accurate representation of what it looked like in 1935.
They do a good job of it, too. After we climbed the front porch steps and went into the house, it felt like we went back in time. We walked into a small bedroom, the very room where Elvis was born, shortly after his identical twin Jesse Garon was stillborn. It was a little bit humbling to stand there and see how small and sparse the home really is.
The room is lit with one bare light bulb and furnished with a bed, dresser, chair and nightstand. The rest of the space was taken up by us and the tour guide, a sweet old lady who looked remarkably like the sweet old lady who sold us our tickets in the gift shop. After the tour guide took our tickets, she took a breath and began her well-worn routine. I’m sure she’s repeated the story thousands of times, yet despite the slow, droning delivery, it was fascinating to hear the history while standing in that room.
She started out by telling us that the Presley’s were very “per” people. It took me a moment to realize that was her Tupelo way of saying “poor” people. She went on to tell us that Vernon Presley, Elvis’ daddy, borrowed $180 from his employer Mr. Bean, and built the house with help from his father, Jesse, and brother, Vester.
The house is decorated to represent the style of the times, although the furniture isn’t original. One difference is that walls are now covered in a floral wallpaper, which I thought was very cheerful and seemed a bit upscale considering the Presley’s poverty. Our tour guide told us that the walls were originally covered in newspaper because that’s all the family could afford on Papa Presley’s meager sharecropper wage. They couldn’t afford indoor plumbing or electricity, either, so even though it was available, they never hooked it up. The tiny kitchen is just as simple as the bedroom and has just enough space to hold the basics, including a wood-burning stove and an icebox.
To walk the length of the house takes about ten steps. You enter through the bedroom at the front and exit through the kitchen in the back. That’s it. What it lacks in size, though, it makes up for in history. The tour could have taken 2-3 minutes, but we stuck around a bit longer, looking at everything. It felt like we didn’t want to leave the house while we were there, and thinking about it now, I think we wanted to give the tiny house the time and respect it deserved for ushering in a phenomenon like Elvis Presley.
As our tour guide told us, the Presleys were very “per” people, so per, they couldn’t keep up on payments, and Mr. Bean repossessed the house when Elvis was 3. The family stayed in Tupelo for ten more years, moving from place to place until they finally moved to Memphis for good in 1948.
Nine years later, a world-famous Elvis came back to his hometown for a benefit concert. When he saw his birthplace and the land around it was for sale, he asked that funds from his show be used to buy the house and property and turn it into a park for neighborhood children. The house and the land were purchased, but little was done with it until 1971, when the East Heights Garden Club started to make improvements. The park is now part of the Mississippi Hills National Heritage Area.
The Elvis Presley Birthplace Park will never attract the thousands of visitors that Graceland does, but it’s that modesty that makes it feel like such a special place. While I stood in those ramshackle rooms, I felt a growing sense of admiration for The King and everything he accomplished.
Faulkner’s Private World
in Oxford, Mississippi
From Tupelo, it took us about an hour to get to Oxford, Mississippi, where we were going to visit William Faulkner’s home Rowan Oak. We arrived in Oxford just before noon and decided to walk around town and have lunch before visiting the house.
Oxford feels very different from Tupelo, which works hard to capitalize on its every Elvis connection. There’s Elvis Presley Pool, Elvis Presley Campground, Elvis Presley Cleaners & Laundry, and, of course, the Blue Suede Shoe Store, and Hound Dogs pet service.
In comparison, Oxford doesn’t shout about its landmarks, such as Rowan Oak or the University of Mississippi. In fact, it barely even talks about them. When it was time for us to figure out how to get to Rowan Oak, we had to enlist the help of our waiter who was nice enough to draw up a map on one of our napkins.
Oxford isn’t just a city of hidden charms, though. Some of it appeal is front and center at “The Square,” a hub of shops, museums, and restaurants that surrounds the historic Lafayette County courthouse. The Square draws a crowd from Ole Miss, but the old Southern ladies who lunch from are very much in attendance, too. We found that out when we walked into the Downtown Grill for our lunch.
It’s a fairly casual looking restaurant from the outside, but once we were inside it felt like we were thrown back into another era. Old Southern matriarchs dressed in their luncheon suits were seated at beautifully set tables. It was a lovely setting, very refined and elegant, but at that point, Hon and I had been on the road for nine days, and we looked it. As soon as we walked in, it seemed like conversation stopped and all eyes were on us. I know we looked like a couple of road warriors, but, wow, did I feel out of place! We stood for just a moment until I whispered, “Hon, I don’t think we’re dressed for this.” He agreed and we quietly turned around and walked out.
We tried Ajax Diner next. It was just a few doors down and we blended right into the mix of tattooed students, chino’d professors and suited-up business folks. The food was pretty good, too. We opted for some salads, but that was an exercise in dietary restraint because the menu offered a mouth-watering mix of Southern classics like Southern Fried Catfish, Country Fried Steak, and Chicken & Dumplings. The salads were fresh and filling, but it was hard not to covet the dishes that were being delivered to other tables. Everything smelled wonderful and was piled so high it looked like it would last clear through ‘til dinner. When we finished lunch, our waiter sent us off with his hand drawn map, and we went in search of Rowan Oak.
Without our crude little map, I’m not sure we would have found it. It’s in a quiet neighborhood and just a small historical marker notes its location. Our map took us in through a side entrance, marked with an even smaller sign that simply said Rowan Oak. We weaved our way down the driveway trying to avoid the deep potholes and ancient trees until we found a spot to park. I wasn’t sure we were at the right place. The parking area seemed more suited to a remote campground than the parking lot of a literary treasure.
To get to the house we walked through Bailey Woods on an unmarked trail. Even though we were in a residential area, it felt like we were far removed from everyone. The landscape is thick and lush green and it hums with insects and birds. It was easy to understand how Faulkner could draw such inspiration from his property and why he called it his private world.
We came up to the house from the side, so it was obscured by huge old cedar trees that shadowed the lawn. As the trees thinned, we could see the white house up ahead. Rowan Oak is called a primitive Greek revival house. At the entrance, four square columns support the second floor balcony and a portico above the door.
Faulkner bought Rowan Oak in 1930, after it had been sitting empty for seven years. He did all the repair and renovation work himself, and he lived there for the rest of his life. It’s a dignified house, but it’s plain, not at all showy. The simplicity continues inside where the rooms are minimally decorated, and mostly contain the stuff of the Faulkners’ lives. This was a family’s home, not a showplace.
As a writer, being able to see where Faulkner lived and worked was both inspiring and instructional. His office, which he added on to the house after he won the Nobel Prize in 1949, is sparse and unassuming. It is kept just as he left it when he died. His portable Underwood typewriter sits on a small table in front of a window, along with his straight-back chair. Nearby is a fan (Faulkner refused to have air conditioning in the house), another chair, and a bookshelf.
There was a lot I liked about this writing room, but my favorite thing was that bookshelf. Mostly it held books, of course, but what stood out to me most were the personal things he had on top of the shelf: a big glass cookie jar, an old brown jug, a tall, beautifully shaped green and blue glass container. The container caught my attention immediately because of its color and shape. I love colorful glass art, and I could imagine keeping that piece on my bookshelf. Then I noticed the cookie jar. I have the same one at home. I’ve kept it with me through four major moves, and I love it. Because of those two things, I felt connected to Faulkner in some strange way. I felt like being able to see his things brought him to life for me and made him a real human, not just an untouchable literary giant.
His writing room was special for another reason, too. In the corner opposite his desk, Faulkner wrote his outline for A Fable directly on the wall. His wife, Estelle, was so angry about it, she had the wall painted after he finished the book. When Faulkner found out, he was even angrier. Using photos as a guide, he rewrote the entire outline and then shellacked it so it would be preserved forever. How’s that for human?
Marital annoyances show up in other areas of the house, too. For starters, Faulkner and his wife had separate bedrooms. Since Faulkner didn’t allow air conditioning, Estelle had a window unit installed in her bedroom the day after his funeral. (Go, Estelle!) In the hallway area leading to Faulkner’s office, there is no decoration at all. The tour guide told us that Estelle was away when Faulkner built the addition, and he didn’t consult with her about it. When she returned, she refused to decorate it, and it remains that way today.
Walking the Grounds
After our walk inside the house, we went outside to see the rest of the property. When Faulkner bought the house in 1930, he purchased it with just four acres, but he optioned the surrounding Bailey’s Woods to protect himself from the development he saw all over Oxford. He bought the additional property in 1938, and began renovating the existing buildings and constructing others.
It’s a beautiful property to wander around. Aside from the outbuildings, there’s so much to look at. I tried to identify some of the trees and shrubs, but could only name cypress, magnolia and wisteria. The grounds are clean and well-maintained, but it is not manicured, everything seems to be growing naturally and unimpeded
The long path leading to the front doors is called the Cedar Walkway, and it’s a classic example of Southern decorum. Ancient cedar trees line the walkway and invite you up to the front door. At the other end of the Cedar Walkway is the Concentric Circle Garden, a maze garden that was original to the house. It was abandoned and overgrown long before Faulkner took over, but he loved the haunted feel of the garden. He told visitors that the wife of the previous owner threatened to haunt him if he “messed” with her garden, so he left it that way.
Faulkner named his home Rowan Oak in honor of the mythical Rowan tree that had powers of safety and protection. He had a deep love of his home and of the South, but that love isn’t easily evident in his writing. Yoknapatawpha County, the setting of many of Faulkner’s novels, is his mythical recreation of the South. It’s a parallel universe filled with the darkest examples of the human condition: murder, rape, racism, lynching. Many Southerners were deeply offended by Faulkner’s depiction and became his harshest critics. Faulkner did love the South, though, he just didn’t love it blindly. He saw its flaws and he wrote honestly about them.
Faulkner had his own demons, too. He battled alcoholism, had multiple affairs, and came across as cold and arrogant, but for all of the darkness that he wrote and lived, Faulkner had faith in mankind. Here from his Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech:
I decline to accept the end of man. It is easy enough to say that man is immortal simply because he will endure: that when the last dingdong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, that even then there will still be one more sound: that of his puny inexhaustible voice, still talking. I refuse to accept this. 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.
© Olivia Tejeda and Away with Words, 2009.
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