Birney Imes: A visit to Rowan Oak

May 25, 2013 9:47:19 PM

Birney Imes - [email protected]


"All my life I had been reading Faulkner, and you mature along with your reading and discover this man has said and known everything that's worth knowing and saying in your entire life." 


--Martin Dain 




So much has gone, so much has changed, so much has stayed the same. The time goes by so fast. You turn around and your children are grown, your parents old. The cycle keeps being completed. 


--Larry Brown in his introduction to "Faulkner's World" 




When I saw the lizard sunning himself at the top of the door jam, it occurred to me I was standing where Martin Dain had stood just over 50 years earlier with his Leica as William Faulkner closed the door below where the lizard now sat unblinking. 


Dain had photographed the writer leading a horse into this small barn made of hand-hewn timbers. In the photograph that appeared in my mind's eye, Faulkner is sideways to the camera closing the barn door. I use the present tense because that is what a photograph is, a frozen moment in time -- an "is" not a "was." Faulkner is wearing a tattered Harris Tweed sport coat, khakis with holes in the knees and a pair of brogans, muddy and scarred. 


It was Friday morning, just before 9 o'clock and other than the lizard and the birds in the trees, not much was stirring on the grounds of Rowan Oak, Faulkner's home. Suddenly a pair walkers appear, two women. The younger one, in a coral windbreaker, is talking on an iPhone. 


The house looks the same as it always has for as long as I can remember, stark and unadorned, yet beautiful in its simplicity. I peek in a window and there's the typewriter and the outline of "The Fable" on the wall.  


The walkways are lined with ancient cedars. There are oaks, magnolias, sweetgum, and a catalpa or two scattered about the grounds. A few antique roses are growing among the privet hedges. 


Faulkner purchased the house in 1930 -- it was built in 1840 by Robert Sheegog, an Irish immigrant planter from Tennessee. The writer renovated it himself and named it Rowan Oak for the mythical tree said to ward off malicious spirits and provide refuge for travelers. The house sits on four landscaped acres among 29 acres of forest known as Bailey's Woods. 


Owned by the University of Mississippi and now a National Historic Landmark, Rowan Oak has for years been a destination for literary pilgrims. They come, as I have, to be with the spirit of who many believe to be America's greatest writer, if that can be said about any one writer.  


Martin Dain was a successful commercial photographer based in New York. The son of a Russian Jew and a native of Massachusetts, he first encountered Faulkner at a lecture in the mid-1950s in Paris where he was studying and working in a photography lab. 


In the years that followed Dain became a passionate reader of Faulkner, and in 1961 he made the first of about half a dozen trips to Mississippi to photograph Faulkner's world. He came with trepidation. Mississippi was in the throes of its civil rights cataclysm; Northerners with cameras were treated with suspicion, often hostility. 


With the help of two sympathetic locals, Dain achieved the access he needed. Ed Meek, then a student and later a journalism professor, served as a guide and James Silver, an Ole Miss history professor and a friend of Faulkner's, served as a conduit to the writer. (Silver's book, "Mississippi: the Closed Society," and friendship with James Meredith led to him being largely ostracized in Oxford.).  


Silver arranged the photo session with Faulkner at Rowan Oak. Faulkner was initially cooperative but abruptly called a halt to the shoot. Later Faulkner insisted in a note to Silver that none of Dain's pictures of him or those taken on his property be published. 


Dain's photographs (including those taken at Rowan Oak) were published in 1964 in "Faulkner's Country: Yoknapatawpha." The pictures were reedited and reprinted for a new edition with a forward by Larry Brown and essay by Tom Rankin in 1997, the centenary of Faulkner's birth. A selection of Dain's photographs was exhibited last year at the Columbus Public Library. 


As for Dain's pictures taken in what would be the last year of the writer's life, fortunate for us they exist, the objections of their subject not withstanding. 


Before leaving the barn I took out my point-and-shoot and edged toward the doorway. Surely a man who made up ghost stories for the children in his life wouldn't begrudge my taking a picture of a lizard for those in mine. 




Birney Imes III is the immediate past publisher of The Dispatch.