HAYS, Kan. - After seeing the pictures on their walls and talking to each individual, I was not surprised that Brad Will and Brenda Craven should team up to chaperon an English department trip. Students in Will's course Faulkner and the Literary South traveled to Oxford, Mississippi, during the fall 2009 semester. Both Will and Craven are lively and engaging members of the Fort Hays State University faculty. Will is clearly a Star Wars enthusiast, based on the adventurous posters in his office -- in fact, he edits Star Wars manuals. I first met Craven when I was welcomed into her office, and my eyes were captured by the enormous canvas that engulfed her plain-white wall with bright ranges of reds and oranges, much like her vivid personality.
Craven, who had already been to Oxford a handful of times to visit her son at Ole Miss (the University of Mississippi), had no problem arranging the trip. To save on expenses, the Fort Hays group stayed in humble accommodations that actually worked well for integrating the group into the history-rich part of town. They were able to walk from their motel to some of the great eateries and to the cemetery where Estelle and Faulkner were buried. Craven was comfortable with their decision, saying, "We would have been on the outskirts where everything's no older than 20 years old. To stay in the more affordable part of town provided great ambiance."
The group members had been anticipating their arranged glimpse into the personal life of William Faulkner, mainly his home and archives, since their arrival to Oxford. The timing of their trip to Faulkner's home was odd enough, a rainy Sunday at noon, but being inside the home wasn't odd; it was profound. Will stated, "I like literature, but I don't get gushy-starry-eyed about authors. Being there in Faulkner's home, however, was a profound experience." Will recalled a point of excitement during the tour involving the curator: "He said at one point, 'Ok, well, I've got a special treat for you.' He shoved a Plexiglas door to the side and said, 'Come back here,' so we went back." The group filed through the hallway and saw where Faulkner had penciled numbers and contacts on the wall by his phone. From there they went to the kitchen, where Will later found himself alone listening to the rain spatter against the roof, the same sound Faulkner must have heard while writing in his kitchen.
Justin Brown was one of the students who participated in the trip. Brown is currently an English graduate student and works as a graduate teaching assistant in the English department. This was Brown's second trip with the department. He had previously gone on a trip to Louisville, Kentucky, for a Sigma Tau Delta English Honor Society conference. Brown remembers the Southern cuisine during the Oxford trip. "We went to a small town, Taylor, south of Oxford, to a restaurant that has been featured on the Food Network." Both Craven and Will also recall the delicious, but strange, Southern food; among Will's favorites was an oyster sandwich. However, they weren't there solely for the Southern hospitality and ethnic dining -- the highlight of the trip was, unquestionably, Faulkner's home.
Oxford's history easily spans across an entire century -- from the Civil War to the Riots at Ole Miss, where racism and integration each put up a fight, as depicted by the dents and bullet holes in the school's buildings. Brown remembers visiting Ole Miss: "We saw several presentations. One of these presentations was over the Faulkner archives, where we got to see several Faulkner items, including manuscripts and even his Nobel Prize." They visited many historical sites -- the Blues Museum, the Museum of Natural History, and William Faulkner's home -- but meeting the people who ran them was the cherry on top. Directors and curators often go unnoticed for their hard work, but the people whom Craven had arranged for the group to meet were not of the unnoticeable type. Students and faculty alike enjoyed "meet and greets" with the Director of Southern Cultural Studies, the Director of the Blues Archive, and the Curator of Faulkner's home.
All were reluctant to leave Oxford, but as the saying goes, "there's no place like home," a reality that made for mixed emotions. Now settled back into Kansas, they're eager to return someday.