It’s 1958 and Dean Faulkner, 22 at the time, is about to walk down the aisle as she weds for the first time. William Faulkner, known by all as a literary legend, but to her as her dear Pappy, is about to give her away for marriage. Dean is on the cusp of adulthood and is leaving childhood things behind, yet one question still haunts her.
“Ghost stories were a family tradition, they grew up knowing and expecting them, it didn’t matter if they were told over and over again,” said Dr. Larry Wells, owner of Yoknapatawpha literary press in Oxford, and the second husband of deceased Dean Faulkner, William Faulkner’s niece.
Dr. Wells, who graduated from Ole Miss with a PhD in English, recently visited a library book club who read Dean’s book, The Ghosts of Rowan Oak. The book collects the ghost stories told to her as a child by Pappy that haunted Rowan Oak which he lived at for 32 years from 1930 to 1962 . More than 30,000 people visit Rowan Oak each year and according to Wells, thousands of people think these ghost stories are true because of Dean’s book. The book was published in 1980 by Yoknapatawpha Press and sold 15,000 copies. The book grew with editions in Italian, French, Japanese, Spanish, and even became a school edition ebook available on Kindle that is taught in Mississippi schools.
“If she didn’t do it, the stories would be lost,” Wells said.
Dean published three ghost stories for the book. These stories were told to Dean as a child on the steps of Rowan Oak in the dark of night with only candlelight or on hayrides down Old Taylor Road with her Pappy and cousins who loved to be terrified. Among the three tales one story seems to be their favorite: The story of Judith Scheegog, daughter of the builder of Rowan Oak.
“Everyone thinks their version of the story is right but since Dean wrote it down, that’s the one people are most familiar with, ” said William D. Griffith, curator of Rowan Oak University Museum and Historic Houses.
The story goes that Judith had fallen in love with a Yankee soldier when Oxford was occupied by Ulysses S. Grant’s army. Their forbidden love and his failure to ever show up again lead her to commit suicide by launching herself over the balcony of Rowan Oak and breaking her neck.
“They loved to be frightened at Rowan Oak, they really liked it,” Wells said.
Dean and her cousins were known to throw their rag dolls over the balcony style house to compete to see which rag doll looked the most like Judith and believed if a candle went out it was Judith who blew it out.
“Judith became part of the family, she was even toasted at New Years,” Griffith said.
Faulkner is famous for his belief that the past is never dead. His famous words rang very true during a recent tour of Rowan Oak’s historic grounds. Wells was telling the Judith story as he often does to visitors who tour the historic grounds. This time Wells told the story of Judith as they stood by the piano in the house. Wells explained how Dean and her cousins woke up in the middle of night because of a mysterious waltz tune coming from the paino. They shoot up out of bed and whispered to each other “Judith” because that’s who they thought was playing the waltz.
“Which waltz was it? Hum it for me,’ asked the visitor.
With no absolute answer to give them, Wells researched the past to help understand the present question. He contacted his friend, Ron Vernon, who was the symphony director at Ole Miss and asked what a music teacher in Oxford during 1940s would teach. After some research, Wells and Vernon agreed that Chopin’s Waltz in A minor would have been appropriate and fitting for the time and context. Wells reached out to Bill Griffith at Rowan Oak and they thought it sounded right and believed they had the sheet music for that specific waltz in the collection of things they found at Rowan Oak. If the sheet music is found, Wells was told it would be put on the piano forever.
Just like that and with one question, Judith’s story becomes more real.
“They learned the magic of storytelling from him, and I think that was his gift to them,” Wells said, “It made such a difference in their lives.”
The gift of storytelling that Faulkner passed has truly kept on giving to generation after generation. Many generations of children in Mississippi have grown up reading and being taught in school The Ghosts of Rowan Oak, making the stories legends and the fright a part of the Oxford heritage.
“Whoever tells the story whenever the school children go to Rowan Oak has done an excellent job. My grand daughter around Halloween will say ‘Oh yeah, Judith’ ” said Jane Waits, a book club member, who said she enjoyed every single page.
Wells recalls Dean hoping her Pappy would approve of The Ghosts of Rowan Oak and with its great success and ability to transcend generations and still spark questions today, it’s easy to think Faulkner would be very proud. Dean’s authentic ability to capture Faulkner’s love and talent for storytelling in her own words is what makes this book so unique. Just like Judith was so real to Dean it is no surprise that Judith’s story has become so real to so many. Walking off the steps of Rowan Oak headed to the car that would take her to St. Peter’s church with Pappy by her side, Dean finally got her answer.
“Dean, I made her up for you and the girls, but I believe in her don’t you,” Faulkner said.