Monday, November 26, 2012
Memphis, TN – Oxford, MS
Even if we are not or never were big fans of Elvis Presley, we have to acknowledge that he occupies a unique place in American Culture. More than Marilyn, James, or Humphrey, whose legends grow and whose images continue to surround us (Yes, even in Turkey), Elvis is revered in a special way. It’s almost like he never really died and only left the Earth and went to another place where his presence can still be felt. (Have you seen the film True Romance?)
I don’t want to make too much of Elvis’s demigod status, and yet, becoming conscious of just how many people in this country and abroad venerate him, I’ve wondered how and how come the apotheosis of Presley took place.
For my part, it was to answer this question that I wanted to visit Graceland, the home of Elvis Presley. Kay, on the other hand, began today with great skepticism about the value of spending more than $60.00 to see the house of a performer she was only marginally attracted to.
Great popular success is often the result if timing. In the mid-fifties our country was ready for Elvis. He was a talented, frightfully good-looking white boy singing what had formally been scorned as “race music” by the white middle class. His was a crossover success.
As kids, we followed Elvis’s career: his two years in the U.S. Army, his marriage, and his purchase of Graceland. I began to lose interest in him during his Hollywood years.
The movies didn’t appeal to what I then thought of as my more refined tastes. Then, Elvis reinvented himself as a gospel singer and later as a Las Vegas entertainer. I forgot about him. For the next generation of youth, enthralled by the Beatles, the Stones, and the other music of the 60s, Elvis was a has-been. And yet, for millions of the world’s listeners, he wasn’t. I remember traveling to Finland in 1964 to meet relatives and being surprised when I met my young Finish cousin Paula. The walls of her room were covered with pictures of Elvis Presley.
These were some of the memories that went through my mind as Kay and I stood in line with a crowd of other pilgrims waiting on this rainy Monday morning after Thanksgiving to board a shuttle bus to carry us a few hundred yards across the busy highway to the front door of the pretty stone manor house known as Graceland.
How small the house looked as we approached! That impression was deceiving. When 22-year-old Elvis bought the property in the mid-50s for $100,000, it included thirteen acres of land. During the years of his tenancy, Elvis improved the property adding other buildings behind the house as well as a swimming pool and a Meditation Garden.
It is in the Meditation Garden that Elvis is buried next to his beloved parents and one of his grandmothers. Everything – the garden, the grounds, the house, and the other buildings – are in splendid condition, and touring them with our individual audio guides was a surprisingly rewarding experience.
Touring the house itself was like stepping back into an eccentric past. Its décor is frozen in time, the time of Elvis’s premature death in 1977. We remember the popularity of shag carpeting in the 1970s, so the green shag on the floor of one room was no surprise. That it also covered the ceiling seemed odd until we realized that its purpose was to deaden the room acoustically for better listening.
Graceland’s 1960s electronics look quaint, of course. One room has three matched television screens mounted in a wall. Our audio guides told us that Elvis was inspired to install them after hearing that President Lyndon Johnson would watch three news broadcasts simultaneously.
The impression of Elvis we took away from Graceland is of a straightforward man, of humble origins, who worked all his life to maintain a simple dignity. He seemed to be not unduly affected by the adulation and the money that he received as a superstar. He also seemed generous to a fault. We saw a plaque presented to him by the City of Memphis listing at least fifty organizations and charities he gave to annually. He also privately gave money to individuals in need.
By the time we left the museum that is Graceland, we were in need of rest and sustenance. We sought these at Memphis’ Peabody, another of America’s graceful old hotels that have retained their class and glamor.
The food in the Peabody’s Café Capriccio could have been better, but our time spent looking around the hotel’s lobby with its complement of tasteful shops and historical mementos was very satisfying. We watched the ducks swimming in the lobby’s fountain and learned the source of that tradition.
I had been particularly interested in visiting the Peabody because it is the setting for James Jones’ novel Whistle, the third of his trilogy dealing with WW II.
We left Memphis in the pouring rain for Oxford, Mississippi. Oxford is a tidy, small town, the home of the University of Mississippi known as Ole Miss, and a place of sophisticated shopping, drinking, and dining. Tonight, after exploring the quiet streets around the Square, we ate oysters and shrimp before returning to our room for hours of very necessary rest.
Tuesday, November 27, 2012
Feeling rested after a late breakfast in the inn’s dining room, Kay and I set off on foot for Rowan Oak, William Faulkner’s home from the early 1930s until his death in 1962.
The Greek Revival house was already very old and in disrepair when Faulkner bought it in 1930. Shortly after his death, his daughter Jill sold it to the University of Mississippi to be kept as a place for people to learn about her father and his work.
Rowan Oak’s docent on duty today was a voluble chap with great enthusiasm and knowledge of Faulkner. He explained that the author didn’t write to be read easily; he hoped and expected his novels to be studied and argued over.
Rowan Oak has a number of rooms, all with their original furnishings. Each room is identified with explanations of how it was used by Faulkner, his wife and daughter. In addition, the house has large information panels that give details about the writer’s life and work. I listened with interest as the docent, the students’ teacher, and another Faulkner cognoscente discussed their favorite Faulkner novels. For one it was Absalom, Absalom!, for another, Light in August, etc.
This was a rewarding visit. We’ve learned a lot about William Faulkner and how he lived. We’ve seen his writing room and his bedroom with a display of his riding boots.
We’ve learned which tobacco he smoked and which brands of bourbon he preferred.
We even heard a recorded portion of the acceptance speech he gave in 1950 when he was honored with the Nobel Prize for Literature. William Faulkner, virtually unknown to us before, has now become real. Our visit has whetted our appetite to read his work.
Leaving Rowan Oak, we waked a short distance to the University of Mississippi’s small but very attractive museum. Besides a small permanent collection of paintings, Roman and Greek antiquities, and antique scientific instruments, we took in a temporary exhibit of photographs taken on the Parchman Prison Farm in the 1930s by a nurse who worked there. These showed groups of trustees and prisoners lined up with hoes about to go into the cotton fields. A couple of the most interesting photos were of corn and cotton fields devastated by plagues of locusts. The Parchman Farm is interesting to us because of it connection to the music of the Blues, especially so now, as our next stop on this trip will be to the Mississippi Delta that more than any other region in the country gave birth to that music.
Among the museum’s small collection of American paintings were several by Marsden Hartley and several others by J.P. Donleavy. We had known Donleavy only as a writer and were surprised to learn that he painted as well.
Since we were already on the Ole Miss Campus and it was past lunchtime, we opted to find the university’s Student Union and eat there. The experience was so different from our student days. The eating area in the Union was set up like the food court in a shopping mall with different stalls offering different choices from Pizza to burgers, to salads. While we ate we observed the make-up of the student population, very integrated today, a far cry from what it would have looked like in the 1960s.
We spent the late afternoon and early evening in our hotel room doing something most unusual on this trip: We rested.