During a recent book signing trip, my wife and I had the opportunity to visit the homes of two famous Southerners, Elvis Presley and William Faulkner. Elvis, of course, was the king of rock and roll, and as almost everyone knows, his Memphis home is called Graceland. William Faulkner was the king of Southern fiction, and his residence—located just south of Memphis in Oxford, Mississippi—has the pastoral name of Rowan Oak.
So, here we have two Southern boys who made it good. Among other things, they both gave their houses names, they both left this world before their time, and they both recorded You Ain’t Nothin’ but a Hound Dog. Ok, Faulkner didn’t record Hound Dog, but I have it on good authority that he hummed it a lot, and I think he went to school with one of the Jordanaires.
Although the two men were quite different, they were like identical twins when contrasted with how well their houses compare. We should go ahead and get the big stuff out of the way first. At Graceland, there is not one, but two jets parked out in the yard. How Elvis got them landed out there is beyond me, but I guess they didn’t call him the King for nothing. There are no aircraft at Rowan Oak. Not even a kite.
When we went to Graceland, it looked like we had wandered into a Cadillac dealership. There were several of the classic luxury vehicles, including a purple one, a white one, and a pink one. But there were no vehicles at all at Rowan Oak except for the Toyota we drove up in. I guess the guy working there walked in that day.
At Graceland, there were literally hundreds of gold records, platinum albums, and other glittering memorabilia mounted upon the walls. The glare from these made the wearing of genuine Elvis sunglasses almost a necessity in some parts of the mansion.
At Rowan Oak, neither Faulkner’s Pulitzer Prize nor his Nobel were nailed up anywhere. And there wasn’t a single gold or platinum novel in sight. It was really quite a disappointment. I thought there might at least be one of those big belt buckles displayed, like the ones that wrestlers and boxers get.
Both of the historic estates had outbuildings, but only Graceland had one that had been turned into a shooting gallery. Both houses had plenty of rooms, but only Graceland had a Jungle Room. And both properties had yards, but only one of those yards had an Elvis buried in it.
When it came to souvenirs, Graceland won hands down. The gift shop was more like a gift mall. There were Elvis t-shirts, Elvis CD’s, Elvis posters, Elvis sunglasses, Elvis statues, Elvis cutlery, Elvis books, Elvis toys, Elvis pajamas, Elvis bumper stickers, Elvis bobble heads, Elvis magnets, Elvis post cards, and Elvis bric-a-brac. There were full-size, sequined, leather jumpsuits with capes. And there were 47 different Elvis shot glasses, which I found ironic, since I’ve heard he didn’t drink.
The souvenir situation was entirely different at Rowan Oak.
“Where is the gift shop?” I asked the curator, a nice man who seemed to be extremely knowledgeable about William Faulkner even though he didn’t have a clue about what tourists really want.
“We don’t actually have one,” he admitted. “But we do have these nice scholarly tracts about William Faulkner for sale.”
“Great,” I said. “Scholarly tracts. But what about some shot glasses?”
“No shot glasses,” the man said. He seemed a bit sheepish.
“Absalom, Absalom action figures?”
“I’m afraid not.”
“Well, do you at least have a life-size cut-out of Faulkner that I can stand beside, so my wife can get a picture?”
“No, sorry. Just these tracts.” I bought some of them out of a sense of mutual embarrassment, but I have to tell you that they just don’t display as well as shot glasses would have.
In all honesty, about the only category in which Rowan Oak excelled was price. The cost of admission there was five dollars, period. And I had the impression that they’d spot you a buck or two if you had been down on your luck. It was quite a different story at Graceland. A complete tour, including a visit to the Jumpsuit Collection, the Jungle Room, and all nine gift shops cost $68.00 per person. Since I am a cheapskate at heart, I went discount fishing when I heard the price.
“How much with our AARP?” I asked.
“How about with a student discount?”
“Children under 12?”
“Actual Confederate veteran wounded at Gettysburg?”
“$68.00.” As I handed over the price of admission, I swear I heard these familiar words wafting on the gentle Memphis breeze: Uh, thankya. Thankya verra much.