Celebrating the Faulkner, Pascagoula connection

January 12, 2014 

I’m not a scholar on the writings of William Faulkner. Let’s get that out of the way right off the bat. Trying to read “As I Lay Dying” nearly killed me.

But like any native of the South who is a lover of the written word, I’ve come to appreciate Faulkner’s works. Regarded by many as the greatest American writer, Faulkner gained worldwide respect and mass appeal with his novels and short stories, most of which centered around the fictional Yoknapatawpha County and its colorful inhabitants.

And so it’s apropos Pascagoula celebrates its connection to the beloved Mississippi writer with the Faulkner On The Coast festival.

The settings and themes Faulkner depicted in his writings are commonplace to southerners. Poverty. Race relations. A man working hard in the dirt all his life only to eke out a living. A young woman so afraid of the social stigma of an indiscretion she’d do just about anything to keep her secret.

There is nothing commonplace, however, about how he depicted that world. Faulkner has no peer in his imagery of a certain time and place, with the arguable exception of Mark Twain.

Faulkner first came to Pascagoula in 1925 and stayed at Jack Stone’s cottage on beachfront property owned by city businessman Frank Lewis. Jack Stone was the brother of Faulkner’s mentor, Oxford attorney Phil Stone, according to the Jackson County Historical and Genealogical Society. A photo shows Faulkner writing under a big oak tree that can still be seen on Beach Boulevard.

Faulkner spent summers on the Pascagoula coast in 1925-1927. He wrote “Mosquitoes,” his second novel, here, said Chris Wiggins, president of the Historical and Genealogical Society, which is co-hosting Faulkner On The Coast with the city and the Pascagoula Public Library.

“He fell in love with a local girl who was supposed to be the love of his life. He wrote her a bunch of love poems,” Wiggins said.

It’s not known how much his time spent on the Mississippi Coast affected Faulkner’s writings, though his romance with the girl, Helen Baird, inspired the collection, “Helen: A Courtship and Mississippi Poems.”

Faulkner told the Paris Review in a 1956 interview the only environment the artist needs is “whatever peace, whatever solitude, and whatever pleasure he can get at not too high a cost … My own experience has been that the tools I need for my trade are paper, tobacco, food, and a little whiskey.”

Biographers say that Faulkner also worked on his first novel, “Soldiers’ Pay,” in Pascagoula in 1925. He worked on at least one other book in Pascagoula, though biographers differ on whether it was “Sartoris” or “The Wild Palms.”

Baird turned down his marriage proposal. The book “Count No ‘Count: Flashbacks to Faulkner” gives a nice anecdote about their courtship, however: “When one of Helen Baird’s relatives, a very young girl in 1925 at Pascagoula, asked what she and ‘Bill’ did out on the pier when they were there so long in the summer nights, Helen replied, ‘he tells me fairy stories.’”

While his romance with Baird didn’t last, his connection to the city did. Faulkner and his wife, Estelle, honeymooned in Pascagoula in 1929. According to a biographer, he returned to the city in 1955 with Jean Stein, the young woman who interviewed him for that Paris Review article.

Faulkner on the Coast events:

- "Faulkner's World: Photographs of Martin J. Dain” is on view at the Pascagoula Public Library from 1 to 4 p.m. daily through Jan. 31. A docent-guided tour is available 9 to 11 a.m. Mondays through Fridays by calling 769-3078. The narrated tour is recommended for school and special interest groups.

- A Readers Theater Night, 6:30 p.m. Friday at Magnolia Ballroom in Pascagoula. Admission is $10 per adult, $5 student.

- Feature Presentation Night, 6:30 p.m. Saturday at Magnolia Ballroom in Pascagoula, featuring Faulkner impersonator John Maxwell. Dress is black-tie optional or Faulkner-era costume. Refreshments will be provided. Admission is $25 per person. Seating is limited, so RSVP is recommended. Email pggen1@jgrls.org and indicate RSVP in subject line. Details: Chris Wiggins 355-2846, or cewmd1@cableone.net.

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