Faulkner, Harris, & the Ghosts of Cooper-Young
“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” — William Faulkner, in Requiem for a Nun
photograph by Brandon Dill
Perched close to the northwest corner of the Cooper-Young intersection, and looming over its surrounds, is the reigning landmark of what has become (as this month’s cover story shows) one of the city’s liveliest and most idiosyncratic districts. This particular house is architecturally somewhat out of sync with the modish high life of Midtown, but this antique place has a history that fits it right in.
“This” is the Captain Harris House, a two-story clapboard mansion built in the Queen Anne style that dates from the turn of the previous century, that fin-de-siecle age which yielded the likes of Oscar Wilde across the water and the kind of raffish and rascally types in northern Mississippi that would give a sometime Memphis habitue named William Faulkner enough material for a Nobel Prize novelist’s career.
The patriarch of Yoknapatawpha County and the rest of Faulkner-land is one Colonel John Sartoris, the Mississippi grandee — a deceased legend in most of Faulkner’s stories and novels — who bears the same relation to the Faulknerian literary canon that, say, Abraham bears to the religion of the Old Testament. The Colonel is clearly based on Faulkner’s own great grandfather, one William Clark Falkner (sic), a swashbuckling sort who had commanded companies of men in both the Mexican War and the Civil War.
“The Old Colonel,” as Falkner was called, settled down afterwards to the practice of belles-lettres, which would yield a best-selling murder mystery, The White Rose of Memphis, that may have inspired his illustrious descendant’s choice of career, a couple of life-and-death duels (both of which he won), and to the co-ownership of a proposed railroad line that would be the proximate cause of his death.
Here is the point at which fact and apocrypha mix in a kind of historical miscegenation. Stories differ as to the details, but there is no doubting that Colonel Falkner and a man named R.J. “Dick” Thurmond, both of Ripley, Mississippi, a hundred miles or so southeast of Memphis, were partners in that railway venture, only to have a falling-out that resulted in Thurmond’s shooting Falkner dead on November 4, 1889, in the town square. The terrible event, assigned to one of Faulkner’s least forgettable characters, the unfortunate Colonel Sartoris, figures large in both Requiem for a Nun and The Unvanquished.
Captain C.L. Harris, after whom the current Cooper-Young landmark is named, had a military and biographical pedigree similar to Colonel Falkner’s; he was also a Ripley resident and the father-in-law of murderer Thurmond. In some accounts, Harris, too, had an interest in the aborted rail line, which would have linked Ripley to Memphis and other points. He certainly was instrumental in getting his son-in-law successfully defended by a silver-tongued lawyer named Zacharias M. Stephens, the F. Lee Bailey of the area in his day.
Thurmond was acquitted on a reduced charge of manslaughter, but hostile feelings against both him and Harris endured to the point that both of them, together with their households, found it convenient to abscond to Memphis, where, in the course of time, the family discovered and purchased the turreted manse from architect/owner Frank Trimble, and, succeeded by assorted offspring, inhabited it for several decades.
The Harris-Thurmond clan were there in fact until 1935, when the house was sold — all or part of it then being rented to one Charles Hillman Baker from New Albany, Mississippi, a neighbor town to Ripley and William Faulkner’s birthplace, and Mr. Baker’s new bride, Eva Ada Mills of Byhalia. Before taking possession, the Bakers, in fact, had their wedding ceremony in the sprawling downstairs portion of the house.
My parents, these two. I discovered their connection with the Captain Harris House only in 1982, after I myself had rented the upper floor from Chip Armstrong, then as now the owner of the house, and telephoned my mother, then living in Topeka, Kansas, to let her know about my new digs. The bedroom I was using, I learned, was the same one they had used. (And no, I was not conceived there; my older brother Don was, though.)
I lived in the Captain Harris until I took leave of it to go work for a spell in Washington. Zinnie’s East proprietor Perry Hall, Amy Gassner, ex- of the Klitz girl group, and rocker Tav Falco were among the others who, at one time or another inhabited those spaces. Chip’s son Lou lives there now, as I understand it.
The place has a lot of ghosts and a lot of history. May they all reign there forever.
Jackson Baker is the politics editor of the Memphis Flyer and a contributing editor of Memphis magazine.