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Travels in Fictional Mississippi

Discovering Faulkner's World

By Tom Rankin | HUMANITIES, September/October 1997 | Volume 18, Number 5

"I can't remember a time when I didn't read Faulkner," recalls photographer Martin J. Dain. "... you discover that this man has said and known everything that's worth knowing and saying in your entire life."

Dain, who lived and worked in New York, became enamored with William Faulkner's mythical Yoknapatawpha county and eventually traveled to Mississippi to photograph the writer's world. "I asked various people," Dain recalled. "If I go to Mississippi, am I going to be able to show this country? Will I be able to find things that will evoke a great author? Evoke Is the key word. Don't take the pictures literally. Evoke." To him, Faulkner was "undoubtedly to me the greatest author in this country and maybe the world. There was no subject," Dain added, "that he didn't somehow touch."

Not a Mississippian, not a Southerner, not much of a student, Martin Dain seemed an unlikely Faulkner enthusiast. Born in Boston in 1924, he was the son of a Russian Jewish immigrant who ran a pharmacy in Cambridge near Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

"My father's hobby was photography," Dain recounts. He has some wonderful small portraits showing his father as a young man in Russia. "In '36 he got his first Rolleicord, I think. It may have been his last one. Had only one camera. But we always, the family, had a camera of some sort."

Martin Dain served in World War II. Afterward, he went to the University of Miami on the GI Bill, where he studied history and government, then left Miami for Paris to continue his studies.

The time in Paris was important to Dain. It was there he decided to make photography his life's work. It was to prove a highly successful commercial career, with photographs published in Fortune, Argosy, Seventeen, Esquire, Life, and Time. He produced essays on a number of subjects: on contemporary composers and musicians, on the tranquilizer gun, on the United States equestrian team, and, of course, on William Faulkner and his county.

Dain's first trip to Faulkner's hometown of Oxford, Mississippi, was in August 1961. The early photographs were like most first impressions: fresh, insightful -- and from the sidelines. Dain did not have many contacts, but he persisted. He ventured into Mac Reed's drugstore in Oxford; Reed directed him to Jim Silver, a poker-playing pal of Faulkner's. At the same time Dain was following these leads, he spent time wandering around the town square, not far from his room at the Henry Hotel. In real- world Lafayette County, Dain found the heart and soul of the mythical Yoknapatawpha County. He photographed all around the main square: from balconies, from under the broad, cool, shade trees in front of the courthouse, from the sidewalks. He ventured into stores and photographed the proprietors. He made pictures of the old jail. He talked to the produce salesmen parked on the square and photographed them. He wandered into the Cofield Studio and made pictures of Colonel J. R. Cofield, who, with his son Jack, was the primary portrait photographer of Faulkner. In that first week in Oxford, Dain found his project more than feasible.

Dain went back four or five times over the next several years. The work would ultimately result in Faulkner's County: Yoknapatawpha, published by Random House in 1964, consisting of more than two hundred black-and-white photographs accompanied by excerpts from Faulkner's writing. In the book's explanatory notes, Dain wrote: "The personality of William Faulkner will remain an enigma, but the country around him, our world, is as clear as one is willing to see. On the preceding pages I have tried to evoke some of this world. It is by no means all."

Dain's images emphasize the older, more traditional look of the community. When he came to Mississippi, he brought along his own vision of Yoknapatawpha, one that derived from his personal understanding of Faulkner's work. "I read everything. Multiple times. Four or five times. With the exception of A Fable, which I just couldn't get through because I'm ignorant about biblical things. I don't like too much reference to God because it makes me feel guilty."

When Dain went to Mississippi in 1961 he was self-conscious about being from the North. He was concerned about how hill country Mississippi would view his Jewish background, and worried whether the locals would be hostile to him because of his political opinions. He had supported Henry Wallace for president and favored voting rights for blacks. "I told everybody what I wanted to do," he said, "because I didn't want them to think I wanted to photograph blacks being mistreated." He feared being taken for a civil rights worker. Ed Meek, who was a student at the University of Mississippi at the time, remembers Dain saying that he needed help in being accepted. Meek agreed to serve as a liaison and accompanied Dain around Lafayette County, introducing him.

A number of people told Dain he should get in touch with Jim Silver. The two quickly became friends. Dain felt that he shared Silver's political perspective, and certainly the two could discuss feeling like outsiders in Oxford in the early 1960s. Silver jokingly called Dain "Yankee peddler," a nickname he would use for years to come, and told him jokingly: "Don't think there isn't some son of a bitch in the bushes with a rifle pointed at you, 'cause there is." Years later Dain remarked, "Silver was wrong. It was pointed at him."

Dain's enthusiasm for Faulkner's books was so contagious that Silver, a friend of Faulkner's, began reading them, too. Silver wrote to Linton Massey in January 1962 that "Dain has a real schol- arly interest in a man he considers a great writer. He got me so interested that I have just completed my fourth Faulkner book since his arrival." Silver acknowledged his newfound interest to Dain as well: "Since you prodded me to it with your `he's part of your heritage' cracks, I've read most of his work. And I agree with you now that it is a style which might lend itself brilliantly to photographs."

Most important in their friendship was Silver's relationship to Faulkner: It was Silver who got Dain access to Faulkner himself. In late 1961 or early 1962, Jim Silver took Dain to Rowan Oak. The Faulkners were out of town, and Silver encouraged Dain to photograph the house and grounds.

Silver guided Dain around the place and through the house, and took him around back to photograph Andrew Price, Faulkner's gardener and handyman. Soon after, in a letter to Silver, Dain expressed his reluctance to photograph in William Faulkner's absence: "Until I can learn something more of Faulkner's attitude toward photos I don't wish to antagonize him."

By March of 1962, several photographers had requested sessions with William Faulkner. As biographer Joseph Blotner reports, Faulkner declined Vogue's request to send Henri Cartier- Bresson back for another photo session. Cartier-Bresson had made a widely published portrait in 1947 of Faulkner at Rowan Oak with two of his dogs. Faulkner's response to Vogue was succinct: "I don't want to be photographed by anybody anywhere." It was Faulkner's notorious desire for privacy, particularly regarding photographs, that challenged Dain. He had to get the writer's portrait, he felt, but he wanted to do it in a way that would not anger the man.

He was counting on Jim Silver. Dain reflected on the chain of events that eventually led to Faulkner: "I had a telephone message from Silver while I was in New York saying, `If you want to see the man you better get down here. He's going to Virginia.' I don't remember what that meant, whether it was just for the summer or for the school year or whatever it was. So I did go down on the chance that he would be amenable to me, that he knew what I was doing, and wouldn't bitch a lot. If you look at those pictures I took of Faulkner it shows his paranoia, his desire for privacy, because he's always looking down and away. Very rarely into the camera or at the photographer. And so I chanced it."

Dain had seldom laid eyes on the writer during previous trips to Oxford. He remembers seeing Faulkner and his wife Estelle eating at the Mansion restaurant, and he believes he may have seen him on the square: "I saw him once squatting on the south side of the square. I don't know if I saw him or if someone described him to me, but it had to be that this is how he got every damn detail in that square. He studied."

Through the good offices of Silver, Dain got his chance to photograph Faulkner at Rowan Oak. Dain photographed the horses, the barn, and the paddock area. The photographs show Faulkner in well-worn attire, providing an intimate look at the man. Faulkner eventually tired of the visit and of Dain's request that he pose. But Dain remembers Faulkner being accommodating, even to the point of holding his camera bag. While this may have been just a gentlemanly gesture, Dain points to it as evidence of cooperation. Then something changed, and Faulkner ended the session abruptly. He wrote Silver on April 4, with a specific message for Dain: "We are leaving this afternoon so I probably wont see you or Mr. Dane (Dain?) either before that. So will you please get word to him to please dont make any more photographs on my property while we are gone, and also that I will not authorise the reprinting or publishing or disseminating of the ones he has made here (I mean on my property, of me and my animals and servants) in any form. Please impress upon him that I dont want photographs of myself and home and animals etc. in newspapers or magazines or books or in the possession of strangers."

From the start, Dain had been concerned about invading Faulkner's privacy, but he also knew that the enterprise required him to push hard. "I was apprehensive," reflected Dain. "I knew how much Faulkner hated photographers and things. But it's your job. Even if you make an enemy, you've got to do it." And while Dain's pictures of Faulkner were to show an honest and natural portrayal of the writer and his place, Faulkner could not have known that. William Faulkner simply wanted his privacy, something that was increasingly hard to secure.

Dain, on the other hand, had made some compelling images, and he knew it. Within hours after the photography session at Rowan Oak, Dain sent a telegram reporting his success to Scope Associates, his agency. On his return to New York, Dain wrote Sil- ver that potential publishers had "been waiting to see if he could get to the old man." His letter continued, "Let me assure you that I think I have enough of Faulkner around the fields with horses and dogs . . . to take me over the hump."

Dain was not finished, however. When William Faulkner died in July of 1962, Dain made hasty plans to go to Mississippi for the funeral. He recalled the day: "I went down there. It was the day of the funeral. And I knew from somebody that there was a meeting at Rowan Oak. And somehow I was afraid of that. If you're going to have a meeting it means somebody is going to say, `Don't do this, don't do that.' And I'd rather not know about it. Maybe I talked to another photographer. I did not get close to the cemetery. I could tell who was who in the distance, I don't know how far away I was, seventy-five feet. But I stood by a tree and stepped on a twig, which sounded like a firecracker and drew attention to me. I do remember that. When you look at the pictures I think you will see Chooky Faulkner looking at me. He was the guardian of the grave site."

At the time of Faulkner's death, Dain felt that he needed to make additional shots to round out Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha county. He photographed hog butchering, sorghum-molasses making, and a deer hunt -- things he had read about in Faulkner and which he thought were representative of the Mississippi hill country. Though it was contrary to his normal procedure, he set up several scenes. The sorghum making, for example, was reenacted out of season to accommodate the publishing schedule. There was more. In a letter to Silver in October of 1962, Dain explained his needs: "The time is becoming so critical so I would like to ask the following question. Apparently hog killing is dependent on the weather and the proximity of holidays, so about when would you expect that someone kill some hogs? Would you be able to find someone in a picturesque atmosphere who is going to do that? Would it be in October?

"The man with the sorghum mill is Mr. J. H. Moody whose phone number used to [be] 480-R-4. He said that he would grind stuff and that he would have to first fix his mill and that might cost money. I am prepared to assist with that."

Dain also felt he had to have images from a hunting camp, specifically a deer hunt, and arranged to go with a group of Faulkner's old hunting buddies in November 1962. It was his least favorite experience. "We drove to the Delta for a hunt," he said. "And they started talking about skinning a Yankee. They were all drunk. They killed a doe, cut it to mask the evidence. The only people who weren't drunk were me and the black cook."

Now, more than thirty years after Dain took the pictures, they provide a reminder of what once was. The faces, the facades, the country landscapes -- though changed in some aspects over time -- still evoke the world of William Faulkner, and introduce us to particular places and to real people, many of whom are here no longer.

About the Author

Tom Rankin is associate professor of art and southern studies at the Center for Southern Culture of the University of Mississippi.

Funding Information

Faulkner's World: The Photographs of Martin J. Dain is supported by the Mississippi Humanities Council. The exhibition is at the University Museums in Oxford, Mississippi, until September 28, when it will begin a two-year tour across the state. This article is adapted from the exhibition catalog and reprinted with the permission of the University of Mississippi Press.