Oxford, Miss. A rare auction of signed William Faulkner books and personal items has drawn international interest, but few on the town square of the author’s hometown were aware of the bidding set for Tuesday at Christie’s in New York.
It’s not as if Oxford’s famous son is forgotten at home. Inside Off Square Books, a poster of the fiercely private writer hangs on an entrance wall. Down the street is the home where Faulkner’s mother lived, and nearby is Rowan Oak, the author’s Greek Revival house owned and operated as a museum by the University of Mississippi. Rowan Oak draws about 26,000 visitors each year.
Bill Griffith, Rowan Oak’s curator, is among those who would love to own Faulkner’s Canadian Royal Air Force Uniform or signed, first editions of some his works. Griffith, however, says tight finances won’t allow him to place a bid.
“We’re hopeful it goes well for folks in Mississippi who are interested. Most of this stuff is first class. It’s what we would love to curate,” Griffith says.
The auction could be the last chance to acquire such a large collection of the Nobel Prize-winning author’s work, says Louis Daniel Brodsky, a poet and Faulkner scholar, who lives in St. Louis.
Brodsky, who donated his own private collection to the Center for Faulkner Studies at Southeast Missouri State University, says he once owned the extremely rare copy of Faulkner’s first novel, “Soldier’s Pay,” in a dust jacket that’s part of the lot up for auction.
“There are five of those known,” he says.
Also included in the collection are signed copies of “The Wild Palms” and “Absalom, Absalom!” In keeping with common auction house practice, Christie’s didn’t identify the owner, but says he was an American.
A few items offer a glimpse into the personal side of the author, whose stream of consciousness writings explored the complicated social system of the South.
Ironically, Faulkner likely would have cringed to know his personal items are to be part of a public bidding war, Griffith says.
“I think he would be shocked that a telegram to his daughter is going up for auction for $2,000,” Griffith says. “When I first took over as curator, I thought his privacy thing was a little coy, but he was serious about it. He wanted to be left alone.”
In his 1936 Western Union telegram to his 3-year-old daughter, Faulkner wished her “plenty of ghosts, goblins, witches and cats and owls on Halloween.”
In a 1951 copy of “Sartoris,” Faulkner scribbled, “For Joan, it was all for her, even while she was asleep.” The author was referring to novelist Joan Williams, with whom he had an affair.
With a 1954 Mississippi hunting and fishing license, Faulkner issued a warning for hunters not to shoot other sportsmen or squirrels on an accompanying, typed document.
Christie’s says the lot is a nearly complete representation of Faulkner’s work. The estimated values range from $1,200 for a British first edition of “Sanctuary” to $120,000 for a presentation copy of “The Marble Faun” that Faulkner inscribed to his mother and father. The book also was dedicated to his mother.
The lot of 90 items is expected to bring more than $1 million.
“Some of the most exciting books in this collection are the ones that were inscribed to Faulkner’s mother. These actually came out of the mother’s house many years ago in Oxford,” Brodsky says.
There are also letters from Faulkner to his mother that he signed from “Billy.”
“For absolute certainty in my judgment, nothing like this can come behind it,” Brodsky says. “No book dealer is going to have this. There is not going to be anything else on the market.”
Christie’s has been fielding inquiries from potential bidders from around the world, says Tom Lecky, head of the auction house’s department of books and manuscripts. He attributes the interest to the fine quality of the material.
“He’s not merely an American author. He’s an international author,” Lecky says.
Others items are links to his time spent working on Hollywood screenplays in the 1940s and early 1950s.
Lecky says there are two letters Faulkner wrote to his mother when he was on a film set in Egypt, and a copy of “Intruder In the Dust,” signed by Faulkner and the cast and crew of the film to his aunt.
John Shaw, a Memphis, Tenn., resident who stopped in Oxford this week, says it’s too bad the University of Mississippi cannot acquire the materials.
“It seems a shame that it’s in private hands and the public can’t access it,” Shaw says.