New Albany, MS, July 4, 2019: Faulkner not forgotten in New Albany.
Twenty-eight years ago today, July 4, 1991, my wife, our then six-year-old daughter and I came through New Albany on our way to a family party in Memphis.
Although it had never then crossed my mind that New Albany would become my ultimate home town, the town and William Cuthbert Faulkner had been on my mind as we drove that morning from our home in central Mississippi.
I had been a Faulkner aficionado since I was in high school. I knew Faulkner was born in New Albany. I knew he had died on July 6, 1962. So the following day would have been the 29th anniversary of his death. He had died in Byhalia in a sanitarium, where had gone to recover from one of his infamous bouts with alcoholism.
With all that in mind, we drove around New Albany a little bit. We saw nothing — nothing — that indicated in any way that New Albany had ever heard of William Faulkner, much less cared a whit about him. That made me a little sad.
Finally, we stopped at the local McDonald’s, which was then located on the east side of Highway 30 in the building now occupied by Tokyo Sushi and Steakhouse. There we found a “permanent exhibit of black and white photographs that evoke Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha County. There were photos of Faulkner himself, handsome and distant. Photos of a seedy Rowan Oak, far less spruced up than its current incarnation as a shrine. Old photos of decadent plantation houses with bare ‘swept’ yards; mule teams in mismatched, patched harness; gaunt barefoot black people…”
That’s what I wrote a few days later — in 1991. Only the local McDonald’s in New Albany took any notice that we could see of the human being who was its best ever product.
Now, all of that has changed for the better, mainly because of the work of the Union County Heritage Museum. The museum has become the cultural jewel of Union County, likely the best small town museum anywhere in America.
William Faulkner is no longer forgotten in New Albany.
The thanks goes mainly to Jill Smith, the Union County Heritage Museum Director. As she has built the museum over the last two decades, Jill Smith has seen to it that William Faulkner is a prime focus. There is the Faulkner Literary Garden, an integral part of the museum, with its art and flora that commemorate Faulkner. Shere Owen, the curator of the garden, has worked with Jill Smith. They have made the Faulkner Literary Garden an essential stop for hundreds of visitors from all over the world who come to New Albany to honor Faulkner.
The museum has recently acquired the site of the Faulkner birthplace on Cleveland Street. It has seen to it that a street that borders the museum is named for Faulkner. The museum features exhibits about Faulkner and has built a library of books, some of them rare, by and about Faulkner.
Part of Highway 30 between New Albany and Oxford is named for Faulkner. His image is on New Albany’s new water tower on the east side of Highway 15. The work of naming Highway 30 for Faulkner and getting his picture on the water town was spearheaded by Sean Johnson, the former director of tourism for the city of New Albany. The museum supported Johnson in those efforts, creating the culture that helped it happen.
On July 4, 2019, William Faulkner is a celebrated figure in his birth town.
The thanks for that goes to Jill Smith and the board of directors of the Union County Heritage Museum: Vance Witt, Dry Creek Henson, Betsy Hamilton, Sam Mosely, Jack Dalton and others whose names do not come to me this early morning of Independence Day, 2019.
Thanks to these folks and others, Faulkner is not forgotten in New Albany, as he seemed to be on July 4, 1991, which, incidentally, was also a Thursday.
Faulkner Literary Fest: https://www.nanewsweb.com/literary-fest-friday-photos/
Union County Heritage Museum: http://ucheritagemuseum.com/