Festival toasts multiple milestones at annual gathering themed ‘Anniversaries’

In 1974, a group of William Faulkner enthusiasts decided that the perfect place for a conference celebrating the work of the lauded author was his hometown. Fifty years later, the Oxford-based event is bigger and broader than ever.

The 2024 Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha Conference is set for July 21-25 at the University of Mississippi. It will draw speakers, panelists and Faulkner aficionados from as far away as France, Japan and Kazakhstan.

The conference will also include tours of Oxford, the Mississippi Delta and African American Heritage sites in Lafayette County. Register for the event here.

“This is the longest continually running conference devoted to an American writer,” said Jay Watson, conference director and Howry Professor of Faulkner Studies. “We want to create new excitement or renewed excitement about Faulkner’s work and the thrill and challenge of reading it.

“We’re getting down in the weeds with his style and technique, but we’re also talking about larger cultural and historical perspectives of his work, and we’re talking about his influence on other writers.”

Themed “Anniversaries,” this year’s festival has other milestones to celebrate. This year is:

  • The 100th anniversary of Faulkner’s first printed book, “The Marble Faun”
  • The 75th anniversary of his collection of mysteries, “Knight’s Gambit”
  • The 50th anniversary of the authorized biography of Faulkner.

Unlike previous conferences – which each had a central theme or perspective through which to view Faulkner’s work – this year’s event is more open and wide-ranging in topics, Watson said.

“That allows lots of different scholars to talk about Faulkner in many different ways,” he said. “Our program will be the largest in the history of the conference by a factor of two – that’s 100% bigger than usual.”

Ann Abadie, associate director emerita of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture, coordinated the conference from its inception in 1974 to 2011. When she and her colleagues created the conference, they never imagined it would become such a staple, Abadie said.

“Faulkner has been attracting people ever since his books were published,” she said. “But by the time he died, people were coming from around the world to see Oxford.”

The idea for the conference came from James Webb, chair of the Department of English when the university purchased Faulkner’s home, Rowan Oak, in 1972, said Abadie, who was working for the Ole Miss continuing education division and teaching an introductory English class. Webb became curator of the property.

“He said, ‘Instead of having people come all the time, why don’t we have one big conference and answer their questions and take them on tours and so on?'” she said.

“I called The New York Times book review section and the only ad we could afford was one little column about an inch and a half across – just a little tiny thing. It came out and the phones started ringing off the hook from across the country and Paris and Japan and everywhere. Not Paris, Mississippi; the other Paris.”

That first conference was so successful that organizers had to extend it for a second week to accommodate everyone who wanted to attend.

“So that happened, and then people said, ‘Well, what are you doing next year?'” Abadie said. “This was supposed to be a one-time event. We had no idea then, but people just loved it.”

After 50 years of study, Faulkner continues to draw in new readers and scholars, as evidenced by the record number of speakers for this year’s program, Watson said.

“Other modern writers gave the city their literary due, but Faulkner wrote about smaller, more close-knit worlds like the American South,” he said.

“There was a French literary critic that made a very powerful argument that in some ways Faulkner may have been the most important contemporary author in teaching that world how to write about itself, in giving its authors the permission to talk about place itself.”

Written by Clara Turnage