The mule tracks leading into William Faulkner's town are asphalt now, and fast-food places litter the approaches, and the 2,500 people who used to make up the population have become 13,000: farmers, university scholars, workers in the oven factory and the pressed-wood plant and other new enterprises.
There is even a William Faulkner industry. Already they've made two movies here from his novels, and two more are in the works. And the scholars keep coming. A few days ago a special convocation of Faulkner experts from all over the world was held in Oxford, and the streets were full of foreign faces.
It seems a long way back to the 1940s, when Oxford was a sleepy hill town with verbena, magnolias, oaks, wooden frame houses and mule-drawn wagons shoulder to shoulder with the cars and pickup trucks in the courthouse square on Saturdays.
Howard Duvall Jr. grew up here in the 1940s. He remembers best the stillness of the summer night: "The only thing I could hear," he says, "was the thump-thump-thump of the motor at the ice plant" down the hill behind the cotton gin. Children invented their own games then and looked forward to Saturday matinees at the Lyric Theater.
Today, it's as if the cotton gins never were, though the warehouse has been turned into a successful, atmospheric restaurant decorated with objects from its agricultural past. The Lyric, which in its heyday brought live movie stars such as Gene Autry to town, is agutted brick shell bearing a "For Sale" sign.
There were other things to do in town on Saturdays if you were in Jill Faulkner's circle of friends. You might go to a matinee, but you would be more likely to attend a tea party. Thegrown-ups, led by Jill's father, the novelist, chaperoned these formal parties at her grandmother Marian Oldham's elegant old house on South Lamar Avenue, where the telephone company is now. eAt that, the tea parties were a holdover from a bygone era. Dean Faulkner Wells, the writer's niece, recalls one party when she was in the fourth grade. wShe wore a handme-down from her cousin,a dress with a black velvet bodice and a plaid anklelength skirt. Chairs lined the walls of the parlor. Mary Jenkins, Mrs. Oldham's nurse, poured tea from a softly shining tea service at one end of a massive oak table. Faulkner passed the white dance cards.
"The first time I realized I had tomake a social decision came during this tea party," Wells says. As she sits on the porch of Rowan Oak, the antebellum house at the edge of Bailey's Woods that her uncle bought in 1930, she thinks about the summers and weekends she spent as a guest there.
"Miss Jenkins said to me, lemon or cream?' Not wanting to say the wrong thing, I finally replied 'both. She glanced at me, but went ahead and poured. Pappy was behind me in line. That's what the children called Faulkner. When Miss Jenkins asked him which he preferred, he said, 'both,' as calmly as you please. Neither of them smiled. I felt an immense relief. Pappy sat down beside me and we stared at the mess in our delicate china cups and tried to drink some of it.
Across town, an old, skinny man in a battered hat and a softly wrinkled gray suit coat and baggy trousers leans on his walking cane and squints through the rusted wire fence encirclingthe Lafayette County courthouse in the middle of the Oxford town square. Three green benches are stacked under a pile of tree limb and building materials from the renovation of the courthouse that was originally built to replace the one Yankee Gen. Whiskey Smith burned in 1863. The renovation has restricted the man and his friends, who liked to sit on the benches and spittobacco juice, talk, read the newspaper, play checkers and watch the cars.
The county government is spending $1.2 million to gloss over the courthouse's infirmities. In the spring, when the work is complete, a movie company from California will come for six weeks to film William Faulkner's "Light in August." In 1978 "Barn Burning" was filmed here, and the next year "The Bear" was made, and someone is talking about filming "A Rose for Emily." Townspeople are beginningto feel that the town is the only suitable location for filming Faulkner's work.
Last week a group of scholars and visitors sat in metallic blue chairs on the Rowan Oak lawn where Faulkner once played croquet with the girls. Dorothy Lee Crosby, a New Orleans philanthropist, was being honored for giving $300,000 to renovate the place, now a museum.
The walls are now cream-colored, but townspeople, those who dared venture onto the grounds when Faulkner was alive, remember the house as being stark white with green shutters. Today, the shutters look almost too green, with that lavish exterior.
Through the sweltering afternoon, those who had come here for the special Faulkner program heard yet more words about the Nobel prize-winning author. They came from all over the country and as far away as Japan, where Faulkner is very strong.
Wells has written a book, a nostalgicrendering of her happy times at Rowan Oak. It recounts Pappy's ghost stories, told to the children on the porch of the house in the dark. It will be plublished this fall by Yolnapatawpha Press, an Oxford-based company owned by Lawrence Wells, who has been married to Dean since 1972.
"Jill was three years older than me. Victoria Black was a year younger. She was Pappy's stepdaughter's child, and she stayed at Rowan Oak a lot when we were growing up.
"Pappy would have costume parties in the summer for Jill and hay rides in the fall and Vicki and I got to go along despite the fact we were younger and such nuisances. Pappy made her take usto movies with her on Saturday afternoons, too.
"Pappy gave Jill a horse-drawn cart and we rode all over town in it, then when we'd come to a little hill Jill would make us get out so the load wouldn't be so heavy for Pat the horse.She was getting revenge for having to take us everywhere with her. She also got even by scaring us to death, telling ghost stories."
Just a few blocks from where the scholarly lawn party was held, Lillie Hutton, sitting on the front porch of her white frame house on South 11th Street, powders her face to get ready for her 90th birthday party. Hutton has lived in the house since she and herlate husband built it in 1923.
Hutton's birthday was really July 17, but she put the party off so that more people, including her granddaughter, actress-model Lauren Hutton, could come. She also knew some of her children would want to attend the University High School reunion. Hutton is gray-haired but feisty and alert.She is a country woman, born in a community near Oxford called Fudgetown.
"No," she says, sharply. "I never met the man. People had told me William Faulkner simply would not speak to you. I decided to test that one day when I was walking down South 11thStreet, and he was walking toward me. I said hello but he did't speak. It was just like I had been told. It looked like he just bit down on that pipe of his and just kept right on walking."