In front of a small crowd of about 20, Saturday Sept. 29, Gloria Burgess visited the Burns-Belfry Muesuem where she hosted a book signing for her book, “Pass It On.” The Book takes place in Oxford and details the story of William Faulkner paying for her father, Earnest McEwen Jr, to go to college.
“My father always had two dreams, to go to college and to own a house with running water,” Gloria Burgess said . “A dream Mr. Faulkner help propel my dad towards when he offered to pay for my father’s college.”
In her remarks before the actual signing Ms. Burgess stressed the importance her father’s education played in helping him and his future generations to escape poverty.
“With education, my father was able to move his family out of Mississippi to Michgan,” Burgess said. ” Growing up, there was never a discussion about whether we were going to go to school or not but where we were going to school because our father knew college was on the road to success.”
Similar to the influence he had on the lives of the McEwans, Mr. Falkner’s life and fame had a lasting effect on his hometown. Here in Oxford, the community is all too familiar with Mr. Faulkner and his legacy which was often discounted in his early life.
“As a young man, Faulkner was viewed by the locals as a bit of a deadbeat,”Howry Professor of Faulkner Studies Jay Watson said. “He was the eldest son in a prominent north Mississippi family, yet instead of wanting to be a banker or lawyer or businessman, as convention would have dictated, he wanted to be an artist, to live a life of the mind. That made him a bit of an odd duck from the point of view of the community. When he was in his early twenties, attending classes at the University, they called him “Count No ‘Count.” ‘Count’ because he dressed nattily, like he fancied himself an aristocrat; and “No ‘Count” because everyone thought he would never amount to anything.”
It was only in the late 1940s and early 1950s that his local reputation began to change and Oxford began to embrace him. Through his work, he was able to make Oxford known nationally.
“Faulkner put Oxford on the map as a kind of small-town window onto the South, and that reputation survives today,” Watson said. “When national and international news outlets want to get a “bead” on the South, to explore its culture or politics, they often send reporters to Oxford to take the pulse of the town and the local scene here. Every year thousands of visitors come to Oxford to see Rowan Oak and explore the local environment that fired Faulkner’s imagination.”
Annually the Department of English and the Center for the Study of Southern Culture and coordinated by the Office of Outreach and Continuing Education host the Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha conference in his honor. The William Faulkner Society also uses Faulkner’s name. Through his work Faulkner became somewhat of a namesake for Oxford.
“William Faulkner is by far the most famous author to come out of Oxford, Mississippi,” Professor of English Dr. Jaime Harker said. “When I moved here from Pittsburg, Pennsylvania there were better writers coming to Oxford, Mississippi than were coming to Pittsburg because they would skip that but nobody wanted to skip coming to Oxford.”
After Mr and Mrs Faulkner passed their house was sold to the University of Mississippi which now uses it as a Museum. The building and furnishings have largely been kept the same as when Faulkner lived there including writing on the wall drawing tourist from around the world.
“The community benefits from this international interest, and the university benefits from it as well,” Watson said. “Scholars come to Oxford to research Faulkner’s life, writings, and world, and to share their scholarship at the annual Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha conference. Undergraduate and graduate students in the English department come here to study Faulkner and write about him. And at least since the 1980s, when Willie Morris and Barry Hannah joined the university faculty as writers in residence, poets and fiction writers have gravitated to Oxford and found it a hospitable environment for their work. John Grisham called that “the Faulkner thing,” and it’s real. It’s a big part of why there are so many successful writers living and working among us in this little town, and thus a big part of why the university was able to attract top faculty members for our creative writing programs.”