I’ve always loved visiting the South, whether as a newlywed driving with Hubby D on two-lane roads leading to Florida or those many return trips we later took with our growing family. Some routes we selected as most expedient—the Interstates we watched being constructed. Others followed A1A along the Atlantic Coast. Ah-h, I can still smell the ocean air. Longer routes included side trips to New Orleans and along the Gulf through Mississippi and Alabama before reaching our Florida destinations.
One of my favorite stopovers as empty nesters was via Savannah, Georgia. Clint Eastwood filmed Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil there, a movie based on the non-fiction book by John Berendt, who’d enthralled me earlier at his author signing in St. Louis. Such fun, driving past all those Savannah sites I’d seen on film or read in the book, and strolling through Bonaventure Cemetery where some of the people Berendt wrote about are now buried.
On another southern trip we traveled down to the Florida Keys, ending up in Key West, where Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961) had lived off and on with three of his four wives, in a Spanish Colonial house with wide eaves hanging over a wrap-around second-floor wrought iron balcony and arched green shutters mounted to the sides of arched windows. His was the first swimming pool constructed in Key West, a monumental task costing twenty thousand dollars, at the time a small fortune. As for the well-fed cats who were making their home on the Hemingway estate, I stopped counting at fifty during our visit. Not sure if the felines we saw were descendants of Hemingway’s; but they were obviously comfortable in their surroundings.
What I recall most fondly about Hemingway’s Key West home was his writing retreat located on the second floor of a separate structure accessible by a bridge from the main house. There on a small table, long before the age of the IBM Selectric or today’s Apple or PC devices, sat Hemingway’s writing apparatus, a manual typewriter from which flowed a wealth of memorable words that eventually garnered him the 1964 Nobel Prize in Literature. He also won the Pulitzer Prize for Old Man and the Sea. As for me, I consider my favorite Hemingway novels to be The Sun Also Rises, For Whom the Bells Toll, and A Farewell to Arms.
Although Hemingway started life in my home state of Illinois and later traveled the world
as an international writer, William Faulkner (1897-1962), epitomizes the true Southern writer in every sense, and was every bit as prolific as Hemingway had been, their work ranging from poetry to short stories and full-length novels. And like Hemingway, Faulkner received the Nobel Prize in Literature; his in 1949, and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1955 for A Fable and posthumously in 1964 for The Reivers, neither of which I’ve read. My favorites would have to be The Sound and the Fury, and three of his short stories that eventually comprised The Long, Hot Summer.
Faulkner lived with his wife and daughter in Oxford, Mississippi, home to the University of Mississippi. Recently, D and I accompanied Offspring #4, and his lovely wife J, for a two-day visit with their daughter P, a sophomore at Ole Miss. Talk about Southern Charm, Oxford fairly reeks of it—all in a good way, from ultra-polite students (such as our P) and local residents to the picturesque university campus; and within walking distance, the town square surrounded by southern architecture, as are the nearby residential areas. Did I mention the food? Don’t get me started. It’s Southern to the core and all delish.
While P hit the books for a few hours, we four mid-westerners took a self-guided tour of Rowan Oak, William Faulkner’s residence, a museum that now belongs to Ole Miss. Like everything else in Oxford, Rowan Oaks spoke of pure South, from its towering red cedars and English garden to the Greek revival house that Faulkner enlarged in the 1930s, plus multiple outbuildings, including a stable and a summer kitchen that he repurposed. Faulkner lived in Rowan Oak around the same period of time that Hemingway lived in Key West. Whereas Hemingway fished, at least while in Florida, Faulkner hunted and lived off the land in Mississippi. And other than the manual typewriters they both used—Faulkner in his writing office or while sitting outdoors—their lifestyles were as different as their writing styles. Hemingway’s modern showplace reflected sophistication and sported that pricey swimming pool. Faulkner’s reflected a subtle dignity, its furnishings from an earlier era, many of them not particularly well made or with comfort in mind.
I found the most intriguing part of Faulkner’s house to be the old-fashioned kitchen that came about during the 1930s addition. The kitchen consisted of a cast iron porcelain sink, no built-in cabinetry, and two chest freezers taking up considerable space. The fridge, a monstrous thing for its time, had been relegated to the walk-through pantry, which also contained a minimal amount of cabinets on one side and a ledge for the telephone on the other. On the wall beside the phone, visitors can still view assorted telephone numbers Faulkner must’ve written, preserved in ink or pencil these many years after his death.
Faulkner did not allow television in his home, but at his wife’s insistence their daughter did listen to the only radio in the privacy of her bedroom. Certainly nothing as modern air conditioning was tolerated; that is, until Mrs. Faulkner had a window unit installed the day after her husband’s funeral, an event that took place in the parlor of Rowan Oak.
To each his own. Two renowned twentieth century authors from the same era, so different in their approach and lifestyle yet each dedicated to his work. Incidentally, one of my all-time favorite authors, whose novels I never tire of reading, still lives part-time on the outskirts of Oxford. No, I did not track down John Grisham; but who knows, we may’ve brushed past each other while strolling around the town square. Both of us would’ve apologized, in keeping with the Southern way.
What about you? Any glimpses into the lives of authors past and present you’d like to share?