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What Do William Faulkner’s Nobel Prize and Farmland Have in Common? Auctions


William Faulkner at Delta Council in Cleveland on the campus of Delta State.

William Faulkner at Delta Council in Cleveland on the campus of Delta State. Photo courtesy of Delta State University

By Debra Ferguson

Last week, I blogged about a farmland auction in the Mississippi Delta. This week, I find myself writing about an auction of a different kind. There is still a connection to the land, just not in the way you might expect.

In 1950, when Mississippi author William Faulkner received a call telling him that he had won the Nobel Prize for Literature, he answered, “I won’t be able to come to receive the prize myself. It’s too far away. I am a farmer down here and I can’t get away.”

I’m not sure how much actual farming Faulkner did, but he certainly absorbed the lifeblood of the land and its people. No one before or since has given such a strong voice to rural southerns of the early 20th century. Most of his stories are interlaced with farming and its heritage of hand wringing over the weather, the planting, the harvest, and how to feed the family.

I guess we Mississippians always feel that we own a little bit of Faulkner even if we’ve never read or listened to his books, or made the pilgrimage to his home in Oxford, Mississippi. We hear his name and perk up just a bit. But, it wasn’t always like that. He may have been writing about our people but not everyone wanted to hear the good, the bad and the ugly. And, if you know Faulkner, you know he doesn’t dress up our heritage.

When Faulkner received the Nobel Prize Award, Mississippians learned that he wasn’t just talking about “us.” The Nobel committee deemed his characters and their words so universal that it chose him over Winston Churchill that year. Faulkner might have commented that he was moving in “high cotton.”

But times have changed and I guess if we live long enough, everything but our memories has a price – family farmland, homes, mementos, and yes, even Nobel Peace Prizes.

In March, descendents of Faulkner by way of his daughter, Jill Summers, claimed his Nobel medal and his French Legion of Honor medal, which have been on “loan” to the University of Mississippi (Ole Miss) for 50 years. The University was very gracious about it, but it is a major loss, and what does one pick to display after you’ve lost the Nobel medal?

The family and Sotheby’s auction house, have put together a massive William Faulkner collection that will be auctioned on June 11. Both medals will be included, plus letters, postcards, leather bound copies of his work, and even original manuscripts. The Nobel Prize, accompanied by a hand-edited draft of his acceptance speech, is expected to sell for $500,000 to $1 million.

It’s ironic that Faulkner struggled with money issues for most of his working life, and now his family stands to make more money than, I’m guessing, he made in a lifetime. But, Faulkner was a man of great wit, and I like to think he would find the auction somewhat humorous, based on the anecdote below. Reminds me of some farmer stories I’ve heard over the years.

From Ole Miss – William Faulkner Anecdotes and Trivia:

Faulkner was unwilling to buy a new suit to wear when he received the Nobel Prize, so he rented one. Afterwards, he told his publisher, Bennett Cerf, that he wanted to keep the suit. When asked what he would do with it, Faulkner said, “Well, I might stuff it and put it in the living room and charge people to come in and see it, or I might rent it out, but I want that suit.” Random House bought the suit for him.


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About Ross Reily

Ross Reily is editor of the Mississippi Business Journal. He is a husband to an amazing wife, dad to 3 crazy kids and 2 dogs. He is also a fan of the Delta State Fighting Okra and the Boston Red Sox.

One comment

  1. Not the Peace prize, The Nobel for Literature.

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