[Note: This post was originally published on another platform on April 6, 2011)
William Faulkner and Elvis Presley, two sons of the South born 15 miles apart in Mississippi, were mama’s boys, barely high school graduates, champion substance abusers and of course artists at the pinnacle of their fields. They were also property owners, each purchasing large estates as soon as they could scrape the money together.
I recently visited both Graceland, in the Memphis suburbs and Faulkner’s lesser-known home, Rowan Oak, about 90-minutes south in Oxford, Mississippi. It was impossible to approach these places – especially Graceland – with an open mind, but that turned out for the best, because the contrast between what I was expecting and what I saw actually intensified the experience.
First consider the fact that they even have names. You would expect a nouveau riche rock-and-roll star to give his new home a fancy title, but you wouldn’t really think that the greatest American novelist – a true artistic soul – would be so pretentious. In fact it’s worse; Graceland is named after Grace Toof, the aunt of the original owner, so Elvis had no part in choosing that metaphorically apt name. In contrast, Faulkner himself came up with “Rowan Oak,” which is also the name of magical tree in Celtic mythology. Faulkner gets points for originality and romanticism, but still, it’s the kind of affectation you’d expect from the plantation owners in Gone With The Wind, not a Nobel Prize-winning writer.
What I did not expect was that Graceland and Rowan Oak would be about the same size. Graceland is really not that big. A classic Colonial built in 1941, it’s a comfortable home, but it’s smaller than about a dozen houses within a ten-minute walk of where I live. Probably considered a mansion in its day, by today’s standards it’s only a lower-upper-class home. The rooms are nicely proportioned, but there aren’t that many of them. And the kitchen? Well, let’s just say that this would be the first thing to go in any HGTV makeover.
Rowan Oak living room
Rowan Oak, a Greek Revival home built in the 1840’s, is almost as big as Graceland, with large spacious rooms and a gentile atmosphere. (To be fair, Graceland is definitely larger if you count the subterranean space – it has a huge cellar with numerous game and trophy rooms). Faulkner bought the property in 1930, when he was only 32 and barely supporting himself with his writing; he struggled for years to pay for the upkeep and repairs, at one point even taking a job as a maintenance man at the local power plant. In other words, he wanted to be true to his Muse, writing novels that were barely comprehensible to a popular audience; but he also wanted to live the life of a country squire even if that meant diverting time from those novels to churn out semi-trashy short stories for popular magazines like The Saturday Evening Post and spending years writing Hollywood screenplays.
Rowan Oak entrance
What’s most striking and unexpected about Graceland and Rowan Oak is their handsome grounds. Both are 15- to 20- acre estates set in average middle class neighborhoods where the other houses sit on half- and quarter-acre lots. They have beautiful sweeping lawns with paddocks and riding areas. They are both fantasies of how landed gentry would live. One of them even has a “meditation garden” – and it’s not Rowan Oak.
What makes them different is their overall ambiance and how they reflect on their owners. Each is decorated to appear as they did when Elvis and Faulkner lived there and this has not been a benefit to Elvis’ overall image. As a poor boy who suddenly found himself rich, he spurned antiques and other classic decor as “old,” insisting instead that all his furnishings be new. Unfortunately, he had the bad luck to die in the 1970s, a decade that now appears to be a bad joke all the way around. I doubt that many of us would emerge with enhanced reputations if our 70’s interior decorating were exposed to the rest of the world. To be fair to Elvis, though, much of the house, especially the living room and dining room, is actually quite tasteful (although I bet that, as in many homes of that period, these formal rooms were rarely used). The famous Jungle Room is certainly over the top, but kind of fun and the TV and game rooms in the cellar are not that different from the game rooms of my youth.
In contrast to Graceland, which is frozen at the moment of Elvis’s death, Rowan Oak hearkens back to a period before Faulkner was famous. Faulkner died in 1962 but it is clear that no fifties or sixties decorators ever set foot there. I wonder if this is really the furniture that was left there in 1962 or if an attempt was made to recreate the years (in the 30’s and 40’s) when Faulkner was writing his masterpieces? The furnishings aren’t the high-end antiques that Elvis scorned; these are just old tables, chairs and couches that were probably in the family for generations. The house does have a lived-in feeling (lived in by the Waltons maybe) but there’s nothing to suggest anyone lived there after World War II. The most revered item in the house is Faulkner’s Underwood manual typewriter, which could have come off the set of The Front Page. The two concessions to modernity are a radio from the last 1940s in his daughter’s room and an air conditioning unit installed in his wife’s room the day after his funeral.
Elvis gets a bad rap for tastelessness and trying to rise above his station – kind of like the Beverly Hillbillies – but I think people should cut him a break. Graceland is a little garish but not as bizarre as I’d heard; what critics really object to is the 70’s itself and the refusal of Elvis’ fans to treat it as a joke. Maybe some of that cynicism should be directed Faulkner’s way. He too aspired to rise above his station but he worked harder than Elvis did at creating his own myth. Or maybe we ask too much of our artists. In the end they are human too, with the usual delusions, dreams and ambitions. It’s one of the reasons we go to see where they live: to remind ourselves not just that they are people, but to hope that a little bit of the immortality they created will rub off on us.