Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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William Faulkner, His Life and Work by David Minter. The Johns Hopkins University Press, 325 pp., $16.95.
The publication in 1974 of Joseph Blotner’s Faulkner: A Biography was a literary event by default. The man whom many consider to have been America’s greatest writer of prose fiction was the most private of individuals, who distorted and obscured most of the facts of his life; his biography had been awaited with much anticipation. Blotner’s book fell on the literary world with all the grace of the wreck of the Hindenburg. A gigantic work — the boxed two-volume edition ran to 1846 pages — it contained a staggering amount of information, but treated its subject in a dully chronological way and with the most pedestrian of styles. Faulkner fans were ambivalent, delighted to have the new information, but sorry it couldn’t have been embodied in a more distinguished form. It was also apparent that, because he had been authorized by Mrs. Faulkner, Blotner had treaded lightly around certain areas of Faulkner’s life, around a marriage, for instance, that began with the bride making a serious attempt at suicide on the wedding trip. When, two years after Blotner’s work, Meta Carpenter Wilder published A Loving Gentleman about her long and passionate affair with Faulkner, she was quick to point out that there had been scant reference to her in the Blotner book, and that Mrs. Faulkner, apparently out of malice, had failed to identify her in one of the book’s photographs. More damningly, though, the reader of A Loving Gentleman couldn’t help feeling — despite its banal title, its very ordinary writing and its occasional embarrassing attempts at flowery metaphor — that it contained more of the spirit of Faulkner than all of Blotner’s 1800 pages.
David Minter’s book is another thing altogether. It is a slender volume, 251 closely written pages of text. Published by a university press, it lacks frills: it contains no photographs, and does not include long accounts of events that are interesting but inessential (Faulkner’s Nobel Prize is dispatched in three paragraphs). It gives full credit to its predecessors; Minter even, in his notes to each chapter, tells which pages in Blotner cover the same material. But it is at least an attempt at the book many people have really been awaiting, one which tries to relate the life Faulkner led to the work he produced and which tries to explain what is finally inexplicable — how America’s greatest novelist could emerge from a backward provincial town in Mississippi.
Like many another Southerner, Faulkner was obsessed by the past, which in his case was embodied in the life of a single man, his great-grandfather, William Clark Falkner. The Old Colonel was legendary even in his own family, who in gathering told stories of him by the hour. Wandering to Mississippi from Missouri as a young man, he became a hero and commander in the War Between the States, built a railroad, wrote novels, was elected to the legislature, and even died a violent death, shot in the streets of Ripley, Mississippi, by a business partner. An eight-foot marble statue of him marked his grave, and his life stood as a judgment to succeeding generations of Faulkner men; no one else could match its glory and grandeur. Faulkner’s father was a man somewhat cowed by his own father; he drifted dutifully from one job to another without ever making a success of any of them, eventually lapsed into alcoholism and bitterness. Faulkner’s mother was a fiercely independent woman with cultural leanings, who expected much from her sons and had little sympathy for the failures and weaknesses of her husband. She was close to her sons, while their father was distant.
Born into this situation that sounds almost typical of the South of his time, Faulkner was a strange young man by any standards. He was a small slender boy, self-conscious about his size, and though he was a fine athlete and fierce competitor the image that he left in people’s minds was of a boy who was silent, still, and withdrawn. He liked to listen to stories told by the men of his town, enjoyed working on art projects with his mother and grandmother, and even at an early age read widely in quality literature, but he stubbornly ignored work that was assigned to him at school, never even graduating from high school, and he refused to work around the house or to stick with any of the jobs his family found for him. Around town he was thought to be odd, queer, of no account. It was as if, confronted by the achievements of his family’s past and its failures in the present, he had decided he could not find success in conventional pursuits but only in remembering the glory of the past. As Minter points out, Faulkner was not only ignoring several generations of the family, but was neatly limiting his great-grandfather’s achievement, when he said, as he often did, “I want to be a writer like my great-granddaddy.”
He did not begin, though, as a novelist, spent a long apprenticeship as a poet and graphic artist under the tutelage of a local man named Phil Stone. As a young poet Faulkner in many ways rejected his local heritage; if Mississippi wanted to see him as strange and queer he would be just that, a dandy and an aesthete, and the poetry he wrote was largely derivative of late nineteenth century decadent verse. His actions were also derivative; he pursued women in a romantic way, no doubt aware that, in Mississippi, he was considered at least by parents as an unsatisfactory suitor. It is just possible that in courting, for instance, Estelle Oldham (who some years later, after her first marriage ended in divorce, was to become his wife) Faulkner wanted to be the spurned lover who wrote poems about his rejection. He did see an opportunity for real heroism in World War I, and wanted desperately to be a fighter pilot — even a small man could fly a plane — but was in the midst of training in the R.A.F. when the war ended; he was later much to distort his wartime experience. Minter’s analysis of Faulkner’s early writing — that Faulkner was too imitative a poet and in the tradition of poetry could not give free reign to his imagination and to the depths of his unconscious — seems sound; in any case Faulkner wrote more and more prose, came under the influence of Sherwood Anderson and a number of other writers who had congregated in New Orleans, and published two competent apprentice novels as he neared the age of thirty.
It was Faulkner’s next novel, which he called Flags in the Dust but which was later abridged into Sartoris, which was a turning point in his career. With that book he made himself whole, rediscovered the side of himself that in his early career he had been neglecting, the boy who had listened to and loved the stories of his grandfather and of the old South; with that single step he found a mass of story and history and legend that was to occupy him for the rest of his life. But the book was also a turning point in another way. His publisher found Flags in the Dust shapeless and diffuse, and rejected it. Faulkner had wanted worldly success as a writer, but with the bitter disappointment of that rejection turned his back on it and discovered a deeper part of his artistic self. In Flags in the Dust he had told the story of several generations, but had, significantly, skipped over his parents’ generation. Now he sat down to tell the story of a failed Southern family, one with several sons and a weak alcoholic father, but he added a sister to the family, making her the focus of the book (“It began with a picture. . . . The picture was of a muddy seat of a little girl’s drawers in a pear tree where she could see through a window where her grandmother’s funeral was taking place and report what was happening to her brothers on the ground below”), and he very much changed the brothers; he also chose, no doubt partly out of his rejection of hopes for success, a wildly experimental method of narration. The book he had begun was The Sound and the Fury.
What followed the rejection of Flags in the Dust was one of the most remarkable periods of productivity in the history of literature. Opinion varies as to what Faulkner’s great books are, but between 1927 and 1942, working with enormous intensity, he produced a series of titles that must be the match of any produced in a similar period. As remarkable as the quality is the variety: the stunning experiments in voice of The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying; the savage sordid mock-mystery, Sanctuary; the triumph of rhetoric in Absalom, Absalom!; the almost whimsical interposition of two stories in The Wild Palms; the pastoral vision of Light in August; the high comedy and social satire of The Hamlet; to say nothing of The Unvanquished, Go Down, Moses, a crazy book like Pylon (what do you call that one?) and a number of short stories. In those same years Faulkner married, lost one daughter in infancy and raised another, bought and restored an antebellum mansion, wrote screenplays in Hollywood, lost a brother in a flying accident, and suffered through repeated financial difficulties, but the real drama of his life took place as he entered the almost monastic study of his mansion — when he closed the door, he took the doorknob with him — and wrote with a creative fury that few other artists can even imagine. Even he was so busy as to hardly notice what he was doing, but in brief moments of repose he was aware of it. In a letter that he typed to his editor in 1939 concerning a number of technical difficulties with a manuscript, he wrote a single brief line in pen at the bottom: “I am the best in America, by God.”
Minter’s suggested reason for Faulkner’s subsequent decline is one that at least I had not heard before: he feels that first World War II, and then the civil rights struggle, troubled Faulkner deeply and made him feel the need to make a more public statement as a writer. In A Fable, which he struggled over for years, he was writing a work that was essentially didactic, more an allegory with an overt meaning than the kind of symbolic story, essentially mysterious, that he had produced in earlier years. He did continue to write, and showed flashes of his old power; among my own favorites in his oeuvre is the nostalgic comedy he produced at the end of his life, The Reivers. Among the larger distortions produced by Blotner’s long book was the general impression that Faulkner spent his later years as a kind of elder statesman of letters, traveling for the state department, doing stints as a writer in residence at the University of Virginia, granting more and more interviews, posing as a writer in his tweeds and with his pipe. Minter’s book portrays a more troubled time, when Faulkner was struggling with his work, seeking alliances with young women, having more and more frequent bouts of alcoholism, and driving himself into dangerous pastimes. The man who, two weeks before his death at the age of sixty-four, was still jumping horses, suffering serious falls and remounting, was no benign elder statesman. “There is something about jumping a horse over a fence. . . . Perhaps it’s the risk, the gamble. In any event it’s something I need.” The man who in his artistic life saw as his greatest virtue a willingness to take risks was not able even in his old age to give them up.