Future of Faulkner estate-owned collection in doubt

DJR_08042013By Errol Castens
Daily Journal

OXFORD – Some University of Mississippi officials say they are confident that most of the estate-owned collection of William Faulkner’s personal belongings will remain on exhibit in Oxford, but not everyone is at ease about their future.

The writer’s estate reclaimed his Nobel Prize for Literature and Legion of Honor from the university in March. The Nobel Prize and drafts of Faulkner’s acceptance speech, which have been housed at the university for six decades, were put up for auction but were not sold after the package attracted less-than-expected price offers.

The Wall Street Journal termed the attempted sale and prospects of further marketing by the Faulkner estate a “full frontal assault to capitalize on the legendary writer’s works.”

Jennifer Ford, head of Archives and Special Collections at the J.D. Williams Library, downplays the idea of a pending crisis.

“The only things that have been removed from our collections are the Nobel Prize and the Legion of Honor,” she said. “We are just very honored that the Summers and Faulkner families entrusted them to us for several years.”

The university owns Faulkner’s home, Rowan Oak, but not the many pieces of furniture, photos and other personal items on long-term loan from the writer’s estate.

Among them are his typewriter, a favorite gun, whiskey and wine bottles, hand-drawn maps, a Bible and many more.
Donald Kartiganer, who retired as the Howry Chair of Faulkner Studies at Ole Miss, said the loss of Faulkner’s belongings would be devastating both to scholars and casual visitors who wish to learn about Faulkner the man.

“You lose a very large element in Faulkner’s life, which is the fact that unlike almost all of his contemporary writers in America, he was the one who actually stayed in his little hometown for virtually all of his writing life,” Kartiganer said. “That adds to his legacy as an American writer.”

Kartiganer said he’s concerned that without the personal effects, Rowan Oak will lose many of the 20,000-plus visitors who see it each year.

“People will not be coming to Oxford to see an empty house, and that means (they will miss) not just the house but the layout of Oxford itself as a town, in which obviously important scenes in Faulkner’s work occurred,” he said.

Kartiganer said he hopes the current increase in Faulkner’s popularity – several movies and a TV series based on his works are in production or planning – will make preservation of the collection even more attractive to the author’s heirs.

“At this stage we should be talking about the issue of the selling rather than the buying,” Kartiganer said. He added that finding deep-pocket benefactors might be a last resort to save the collection.

Rowan Oak Curator Bill Griffith is perhaps less alarmed than Kartiganer about the chances of losing parts of Faulkner’s tangible legacy but expresses more concern than Ford.

“We’re certainly aware of the article that came out,” he said of the Wall Street Journal report. “We are taking appropriate steps to make sure our exhibits stay intact.”

Griffith said it is natural that Faulkner’s heirs wish to manage his estate carefully during the next two decades, while copyrights are still viable.

“It’s a very complicated issue, but we’re on good terms with the family,” he said.

Adapting the most famous line from Faulkner’s Nobel acceptance speech, Griffith added, “We will endure and prevail.”

errol.castens@journalinc.com