Faulkner’s Rowan Oak

August 6, 2013 § Leave a comment

Sally Mann, Rowan Oak

Rowan Oak, from Southern Landscape

“Rowan Oak, the name of Faulkner’s home in Oxford, Mississippi, derives from The Golden Bough (1890), a study of myth and religion by the Scottish anthropologist Sir James George Frazer. Frazer describes the magical powers of the rowan-tree, which warded off the evil spells of witches and gave good luck to travelers. The Golden Bough was one of Faulkner’s favorite books, and when he bought the ‘Bailey Place,’ as it was called, in 1930, he renamed it, and ordered stationery engraved with the name Rowan Oak in gothic script. He allegedly planted a rowan-tree in his yard, but it died from the heat. Now, rows of old cedars line the walkway leading up to the front door, and there are also oaks, sweetgum, and a few catalpa scattered across the twenty-nine acres.

Artists have photographed Rowan Oak for decades, from Henri Cartier-Bresson in 1947, and Martin Dain in 1963, to William Eggleston in 1990. But in Rowan Oak Sally Mann has outdone them, for her photograph evokes the magical powers of the rowan-tree. The old cedar in the foreground glows as if from within. (Mann used a portrait lens, the better to capture light, detail, and the texture of her central subject.) The tree seems animistic, endowed with a personality and a soul. It unashamedly shows its scars, which look like they came from an axe.

What gives the image such dramatic brilliance, however, is the shadowy, slender branch that approaches the cedar, like a specter from the past. The branch forms a heart–or perhaps a shield, or a noose, or even a damaged old lens. It frames the out-of-focus tree in the background, suggesting an ambiguous pax de troix, a site of ancient passion, love, and strife.”

John Stauffer, from Southern Landscape

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