ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
The past is never dead. It's not even past. William Faulkner wrote that now-famous line in his novel "Requiem For A Nun," and that quotation provides a fitting theme for our colleague Melissa Block, who has been traveling through Faulkner's home state of Mississippi for her series Our Land. She's exploring how place and history shape a community's identity, and today she brings us this postcard from Oxford, Miss.
MELISSA BLOCK, BYLINE: Well, we're heading to the Mississippi Delta, but before we do that, we couldn't resist stopping here in Oxford, Miss., at the home of William Faulkner. It's called Rowan Oak - beautiful, stately, white antebellum mansion with pillars and green shutters and a row of towering cedar trees that lead right up to the front door.
WILLIAM GRIFFITH: They're beautiful, aren't they? They're huge, too, aren't they?
GRIFFITH: They're huge, and...
BLOCK: That's the curator of Faulkner's home, William Griffith, greeting us on the front porch of the Greek revival house. Faulkner bought Rowan Oak for $6,000 back in 1930. He had just published "The Sound And The Fury."
All right, we've got to go inside.
GRIFFITH: We do. Come on. We're in - right now in the front foyer of Rowan Oak.
BLOCK: Tell me about the name Rowan Oak.
GRIFFITH: Rowan Oak after two trees - the rowan tree of Scotland, which is supposed to keep out evil spirits like reporters and the tax man, William Faulkner said. And then the oak tree was for strength and solitude, the big, live oak. Neither tree are on the property. It's just named after the spirit of those two trees.
BLOCK: First we peek into the library.
GRIFFITH: Those are William Faulkner's glasses right there. He wrote inside, outside, on trains, on airplanes and cars. Nothing stood in his way.
BLOCK: We head back toward the kitchen, past a telephone in the hallway.
GRIFFITH: This is where he got the call he had won the Nobel Prize for Literature.
BLOCK: And we stopped to talk for a while in the writing office Faulkner added on after he won that Nobel Prize. Filtered sunlight casts a glow around his portable Underwood typewriter.
GRIFFITH: Major themes of his work were a South in conflict with itself, still dedicated and devoted to those old ways but knowing that things have to change and they need to change. And Faulkner thought that his generation was the ones to restore the South. He didn't want it to change overnight. You know, he always often talked about the slow change.
BLOCK: What do you think that tells us about Mississippi today, the South today?
GRIFFITH: Geez, it has changed. Mississippi has changed for the better, and there's no doubt about it. We still have work to do. That's one reason Faulkner's literature is still relevant today - is 'cause he wrote about those things that we'll never really solve. You know, we'll never ever solve all of the problems that Mississippi face, and but the important thing is, like Faulkner - to keep working at it, to be aware of these issues and keep working at it.
BLOCK: There's a quote that is attributed to William Faulkner about Mississippi. To understand the world, you must first understand a place like Mississippi.
GRIFFITH: That's right.
BLOCK: But it wasn't him, right?
GRIFFITH: No, it wasn't him.
BLOCK: (Laughter) Everybody said that's a Faulkner quote.
GRIFFITH: Everyone attributed - exactly. Everybody's attributed William Faulkner. That's why I didn't use it. It's a great quote. I bet he wished he would have said that. Faulkner said that writers were thieves. They were all magpies. They'll steal from anybody, even an old lady.
BLOCK: (Laughter) What's it like for you, Bill, when you walk through the door of this house every day?
GRIFFITH: I realize how fortunate it is and how unusual - what an unusual job it is. It's tough. I'm going to be honest with you. William Faulkner would hate this. He would hate every bit of it. He was a very private man. I really feel badly that I'm doing something he would have hated.
BLOCK: I mean he would hate us standing write here in his writing room.
GRIFFITH: He would've hated talking about him on the radio. We really try not to tell any family secrets, and we try to make the important things the most interesting things. And that's literature-driven and the habits of this property.
BLOCK: No gift shop, no bobblehead dolls...
GRIFFITH: No gift shop, no China paintings, no T-shirts, no anything like that.
BLOCK: Bill Griffith, thanks so much for showing us around Rowan Oak.
GRIFFITH: It is my pleasure. Come back anytime.
SIEGEL: That's Bill Griffith speaking with NPR's Melissa Block in Faulkner territory, Oxford, Miss.
(SOUNDBITE OF BIBIO SONG, "LOVERS' CARVINGS")
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