One Matchless Time William Faulkner
by Jay Parini
The Ding-Dong of Doom
A review by Christopher Benfey
Postage stamps, those quaint and colorful vestiges of a vanishing twentieth-century
mode of communication, figure conspicuously in the strange career of William Faulkner.
If a whaling ship, as Herman Melville famously claimed, was Melville's Yale College
and his Harvard, Faulkner's Ivy League was the tiny post office at the University
of Mississippi, in his hometown of Oxford, population 2,250 in 1921, the year
Faulkner was named university postmaster. There, in a job he cynically treated
as a sinecure for a man of leisure, Faulkner sat for days at a time reading issues,
borrowed from faculty mailboxes and haphazardly returned, of The Atlantic Monthly,
The Dial, and The New Republic --
"a vast hoard of material," as Jay Parini remarks in his sturdy and well-researched
new biography of Faulkner, "where he would have found much of the best in contemporary
writing and thinking."
A high school dropout whose foppish and idle ways about town earned him the nickname "Count No 'Count," Faulkner held the post office job for nearly three years -- steeping himself in Swinburne, Mencken, and the French Symbolist poets -- before being fired, in the fall of 1924, when he was nearly twenty-six. The letter of dismissal -- perhaps a forgery, as Parini notes, perpetrated by Faulkner -- was curt and to the point: "Neglects official duties; indifferent to interests of patrons; mistreatment of mail." Faulkner made it sound as though the decision was his own: "I reckon I'll be at the beck and call of folks with money all my life, but thank God I won't ever again have to be at the beck and call of every son-of-a-bitch who's got two cents to buy a stamp."
Faulkner later tried to minimize his reliance on all that he had learned during those years at the post office at Ole Miss, insisting instead that his truly formative education was intensely local, a matter of conversations overheard rather than magazines read. According to his own myth of himself as a backwoods Balzac -- a myth aided and abetted by a generation of southern critics and northern biographers -- Faulkner had summoned his vision from his "little postage stamp of native soil" in Mississippi. This claim, too, was a forgery, of course, though Parini firmly subscribes to it. "A sense of place was everything to William Faulkner," he writes, "and more than any other American novelist in the twentieth century, he understood how to mine the details of place, including its human history, for literary effects. His novels, from the outset, are obsessed with what T.S. Eliot once referred to as 'significant soil.'" Parini repeatedly compares Faulkner to the Greek mythological hero Antaeus, who needed to touch the ground to regain his powers: "Like Antaeus, Faulkner derived his strength through contact with the soil, a particular and 'significant soil,' evoked in his fiction with a fierce particularity."
This man-of-the-soil fantasy had enormous appeal for Faulkner, since -- as Parini's opening chapters make clear -- he was something of a deracinated drifter himself. He was born William Cuthbert Falkner, on September 25, 1897. (He later added the "u," just as Hathorne added a "w" and Melvill a final "e," to make the name seem more aristocratic.) A steady declension in fortune and status from generation to generation had left him with little "soil" to call his own. His great-grandfather William Clark Falkner, a legendary figure known as the "Old Colonel," had fought bravely but recklessly at the first Battle of Bull Run; he returned to Mississippi to oversee a plantation worked by slaves, eventually becoming, as Parini awkwardly puts it, a "writer-railroad entrepreneur-lawyer-Civil War hero." His son, J. W. T. Falkner, the "Young Colonel," was an attorney and small-time politician, a University of Mississippi trustee, and a drunk -- "the loneliest man I've ever known," in the words of one of his grandsons. The Young Colonel's son, Murry, William Faulkner's father, was a feckless depressive -- "a dull man," according to Faulkner -- who was happiest when drunk or on a hunting party or both. Faulkner was much closer to his mother, Maud, who had artistic tastes, liked books, and encouraged her son's slowly evolving literary aspirations.
As Murry downshifted from one absurd job to another -- running a livery stable as automobiles were supplanting horses, then a gaslight business as electric lighting was coming into vogue -- the family's fortunes declined and their lodgings shrank. William Faulkner's ambition was to write books that would earn enough money for him to restore the Faulkner fortunes and reclaim the Faulkner land; and this ambition seems less rooted in "significant soil" than in a fantasy of recovered status. Parini is surely right that a crucial scene in Absalom, Absalom!, when the young and shoeless Thomas Sutpen is scornfully redirected by a black servant to the back door of a Tidewater plantation big house, "had some primal meaning for Faulkner." Sutpen's first instinct, to shoot the plantation owner and his kin, is supplanted by an epiphany of acquisition:
It was like that, he said, like an explosion -- a bright glare that vanished and left nothing, no ashes nor refuse: just a limitless flat plain with the severe shape of his intact innocence rising from it like a monument; that innocence instructing him as calm as the others had ever spoken.... So to combat them you have got to have what they have that made them do what he [the servant] did. You got to have land and niggers and a fine house to combat them with. You see?
Faulkner's miserable marriage to his high school sweetheart, Estelle Oldham -- "pretty as a little partridge," according to his younger brother Jack -- was a restoration as well. She had first turned him down to marry a successful lawyer, and Faulkner was more than willing to wait his turn. She celebrated her marriage to Faulkner, in 1929, by trying to drown herself on their honeymoon. Still, the Faulkners eventually lived in a fine house in Oxford on a large tract of land with black (unpaid) servants. You see?
The view of William Faulkner as the authentic voice of the southern soil has, for a long time, been the "orthodox" version of his life and literary career. It has its origins in the southern intellectual movement of the 1920s and 1930s known as the Agrarians or, for the journal they founded, the Fugitives -- a movement, it should be said, from which Faulkner kept his distance. Poets and intellectuals such as John Crowe Ransom and Allen Tate argued that the Agrarian South should resist the deracinating effects of northern industrialism, supposedly perpetrated on an unwilling South by the victorious Yankees during Reconstruction. In arguing for their own intimacy with "the land," theirs by right of inheritance and care, they implied, and sometimes stated explicitly, that their connection to landed property ran deeper than could be claimed by late arrivals such as carpetbaggers, blacks, and Jews. Ransom, in his contribution to the Agrarian manifesto I'll Take My Stand in 1930, invoked "the love of the tiller for the soil." The white southern farmer, he maintained, "identifies himself with a spot of ground, and this ground carries a good deal of meaning."
Parini is drawing water from the same befouled well when he refers to Oxford, Mississippi -- home to a university that refused to admit black students until it was forced to in 1962 -- as an "organic community" and identifies Faulkner's "great subject" as "the loss of fidelity to the land and the subsequent decline of coherence in society." Parini seems aware of the reactionary impulse in these intellectual currents, and he tries halfheartedly to give an environmental spin to Faulkner's relations to the sacred land. "The threat of modernity, as represented by the automobile, loomed eerily," he remarks, "but Faulkner's attachment to horses -- he rode with the hounds into the last year of his life -- speaks to his innate conservatism, his wish to cling to a fading vision and way of life that could not withstand the onslaught of highways and suburbs, gas stations, and everything brought into being by the invention of the internal combustion engine."
The conviction that Faulkner is a sort of unofficial mouthpiece of the New South has led critics to persist in asking questions about his work peripheral to his major achievements. During the racial unrest of the 1950s and 1960s, Edmund Wilson and Irving Howe understandably looked to Faulkner, a liberal and a humanist, for insight into race relations in the South. Faulkner's contradictory public statements about race -- he fancied himself a sort of Robert E. Lee, firmly opposed to the mistreatment of blacks but loyal nonetheless to the state of Mississippi -- have made him an easy target for later critics who imagine that they are making a trenchant intervention by "interrogating" Faulkner for the thousandth time on the matter of race. But James Baldwin had the final word on this matter, I think, in his powerful diatribe "Faulkner and Desegregation" in 1956. Ridiculing Faulkner's plea for moderation, Baldwin wrote: "Why -- and how -- does one move from the middle of the road where one was aiding Negroes into the streets -- to shoot them?"
Parini makes much of the discovery, by the scholar Joel Williamson, that the Old Colonel may have fathered a mulatto child, as though this factoid might be the source of Faulkner's recurring fascination with miscegenation, on display in two of his greatest novels, Absalom, Absalom! and Light in August. Perhaps so, but Faulkner's main concern in those novels is more generally with human alienation. His racially divided characters, the exotic New Orleanian Charles Bon and the Christ-figure Joe Christmas, are stand-ins for his own identification with the uprooted of society.
An irony of literary biography is that the documented facts of a great writer's life too often seem pale and two-dimensional, while the author's writings seem fully realized. "A book is a writer's secret life, the dark twin of a man: you can't reconcile them," Faulkner observed. Faulkner's life, a poor shadow compared with his novels, was not entirely without incident, in the South and elsewhere. He hung around college campuses -- first Mississippi and then, tagging along with a literary friend, Yale -- picking up fashionable ideas and a smattering of foreign languages. (Faulkner's first real publication was an adaptation of Mallarmé's "L'Après-Midi d'un Faune," in The New Republic of August 6, 1919.) During World War I, after being turned down by the U.S. Army as too short, he enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force instead, hoping to learn to fly planes, an abiding fascination. He returned to Mississippi pumped up with an English accent, some invented war stories (he had neither seen military action nor boarded a plane), and an affected limp.
His first novel, Soldier's Pay, which appeared in 1926, is a rickety fantasy of a wounded soldier coming home to romantic betrayal and death. After graduating, so to speak, from the Ole Miss post office, Faulkner spent some lively months in New Orleans amid a clutch of aspiring artists and writers, including his mentor, Sherwood Anderson, who generously believed Faulkner's story about a plane crash during the war. ("Both legs were broken, one of them in three places," Anderson reported in his charming and gullible narrative "A Meeting South," "the scalp was badly torn and some of the bones of the face had been splintered.") Faulkner wrote another -- better -- novel, Mosquitoes, in 1927, about bohemian life in and around New Orleans.
And then, like some act of God along the Mississippi, the floodgates of genius burst. Between 1928 and 1942 -- the period Faulkner called "one matchless time" -- he wrote a stunning succession of masterpieces, almost one a year: The Sound and the Fury (1929), As I Lay Dying (1930), Sanctuary (1931), and Light in August (1932). Then came a fallow interlude of a couple of years, during which he bought an airplane and finally learned to fly, wasted some time working for good pay in Hollywood on mediocre film scripts, and wasted more time on an affair with the secretary of his sometime boss Howard Hawks. (Parini pardons the affair, the first of several, on the grounds that Estelle, who had lost one daughter in infancy and gave birth to another, Jill, in 1933, refused to have sex with her husband thereafter.) Faulkner then resumed the scarcely credible run of invention with Pylon (1935), his underrated novel about barnstorming pilots aloft and in love; Absalom, Absalom! (1936); The Wild Palms (1939); The Hamlet (1940); and Go Down, Moses (1942), in addition to assorted short stories, essays, and oddities in between.
What most needs explaining is neither the quality (extraordinary) nor the quantity (miraculous) of Faulkner's novels. The larger mystery is the sheer audacity of his imagination. And here the South, with its supposed "tradition" (as Robert Penn Warren told Parini) of "men gathering around a campfire, drinking and smoking, remembering old times" -- cannot help us much. What the South gave Faulkner was, above all else, distance: an empowering and encouraging distance from publishers, critics, and especially other writers. He knew from his years of reading in the post office what the competition was. He knew what Joyce had done and what Mallarmé had done and what Anderson and Hemingway were doing. He knew that literary rules of decorum were made to be broken. He knew the risks (incomprehension and ridicule) and he knew the rewards (greatness). He had witnessed and sometimes experienced, in New Orleans and Hollywood, the sheer degradation and momentary exaltation that people could reach together and alone. He knew the extremities of human and literary behavior. He knew what he needed to know. Oxford, Mississippi was quiet at night. When his courage waned, he drank. Sometimes, with the drinking, he recovered his courage, and sometimes, with the drinking, he passed out or had himself checked into an even quieter hospital to dry out. And then he returned to his desk and resumed writing.
"It says a great deal about William Faulkner's character," Parini says, "that
he continued to write, and with renewed intensity, in the face of this criticism."
That is putting it mildly. Faulkner did not just continue to write; he wrote
a book with even less of a "story to tell," with even less "character development,"
and where it can truly be said -- in praise of the novel -- that "the story
really doesn't get anywhere and has a thousand loose ends."
Consider The Sound and the Fury, his first and perhaps most lasting masterpiece. There is nothing like it in American or any other literature. Faulkner wrote it at a low point in his fortunes. He had made no money from his first two books and had received a scathing response from his editor, Horace Liveright, concerning a third -- a manuscript of a historical novel that Faulkner called "Flags in the Dust" (eventually published in 1929, in truncated form, as Sartoris). Liveright told Faulkner that he was "frankly very much disappointed by it." He specified the disappointments, rubbing in the criticism:
It is diffuse and non-integral with neither very much plot development nor character development. We think it lacks plot, dimension and projection. The story really doesn't get anywhere and has a thousand loose ends. If the book had plot and structure, we might suggest shortening and revisions but it is so diffuse that I don't think this would be any use. My chief objection is that you don't seem to have any story to tell and I contend that a novel should tell a story and tell it well.
"It says a great deal about William Faulkner's character," Parini says, "that he continued to write, and with renewed intensity, in the face of this criticism." That is putting it mildly. Faulkner did not just continue to write; he wrote a book with even less of a "story to tell," with even less "character development," and where it can truly be said -- in praise of the novel -- that "the story really doesn't get anywhere and has a thousand loose ends." As Sartre declared in his classic analysis, published during the summer of 1939: "In The Sound and the Fury everything has already happened."
Like Sartre and many other critics, Parini prefers the second of the four sections of The Sound and the Fury, the one devoted to Quentin Compson on the day he wanders around Cambridge, Massachusetts, skipping his Harvard classes, plucking the hands from his pocket watch, and preparing to commit suicide. The section has undeniable appeal. Quentin is an intellectual narrator like Stephen Dedalus, or Binx Bolling in Walker Percy's The Moviegoer; Percy, another Quentin enthusiast, once said that all his own novels were devoted to the task of "keeping Quentin Compson alive." All the stuff in the Quentin section about the nature of time is so beguiling that you might think (as Sartre did) that the whole novel was some rougher American version of Proust.
When the shadow of the sash appeared on the curtains it was between seven and eight oclock and then I was in time again, hearing the watch. It was Grandfather's and when Father gave it to me he said I give you the mausoleum of all hope and desire; it's rather excruciating-ly apt that you will use it to gain the reducto absurdum of all human experience which can fit your individual needs no better than it fitted his or his father's. I give it to you not that you may remember time, but that you might forget it now and then for a moment and not spend all your breath trying to conquer it. Because no battle is ever won he said. They are not even fought. The field only reveals to man his own folly and despair, and victory is an illusion of philosophers and fools.
This is grandly orchestrated and full of "big themes"; but it can hardly compare with the heartbreaking opening section, spoken or thought by Quentin's retarded brother, Benjy, or the "Once a bitch always a bitch" screed of the sadistic and bigoted third brother, Jason, later in the book. The whole Benjy chapter has an aching sense of loss, conveyed at the outset in the internal counterpoint of fence and flower. Benjy, attended by a black servant, Luster, is watching men playing golf on the pasture that used to be his but was sold to send Quentin to Harvard; he confuses the word "caddie" with his beloved sister Caddy, now lost to him:
Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting. They were coming toward where the flag was and I went along the fence. Luster was hunting in the grass by the flower tree. They took the flag out, and they were hitting. Then they put the flag back and they went to the table, and he hit and the other hit. Then they went on, and I went along the fence. Luster came away from the flower tree and we went along the fence and they stopped and we stopped and I looked through the fence while Luster was hunting in the grass.
"Here, caddie." He hit. They went away across the pasture. I held to the fence and watched them going away.
"Listen at you, now." Luster said. "Aint you something, thirty three years old, going on that way."
Fence and flower are symbols, of course, but not in any mechanical way. The fence is Benjy's boundary, prefiguring his later confinement in an institution for the insane, but it also provides comfort: "I held to the fence and watched them going away." The fence is perhaps the traditionally masculine principle, clarifying and unyielding, and linked to Jason, who will have Benjy castrated and put away. The flowers are Caddy and life itself, the ache of the lost sister and the lost pasture; Benjy later keeps a couple of flowers as a symbolic "graveyard" for his dead mother and Caddy. Faulkner's boldness lies in his decision to put the Benjy section first, his tale told by an idiot, as though Joyce had opened Ulysses with Molly Bloom's monologue.
Faulkner's later novels exhibit a similar -- though never repetitive -- willingness to take risks. There are the fragmentary monologues of As I Lay Dying, belonging to the fragmented family that has banded together, as though in fulfillment of some impossible biblical prophecy, to get their dead mother carried in her coffin across rough country and properly buried. Again there is an inadvertently articulate retarded child: "My mother is a fish." Another child, Cash, hides his pain by methodically carpentering the coffin:
I made it on the bevel.
1. There is more surface for the nails to grip.
2. There is twice the grippingsurface to each seam.
3. The water will have to seep into it on a slant. Water moves easiest up and down or straight across.
4. In a house people are upright two thirds of the time. So the seams and joints are made up-and-down. Because the stress is up-and-down.
5. In a bed where people lie down all the time, the joints and seams are made sideways, because the stress is sideways.
7. A body is not square like a crosstie.
And so on, up to number 13: "It makes a neater job." I once heard Seamus Heaney interrupt a poetry-writing workshop to draw attention to this extraordinary piece of writing, a poem in itself.
Faulkner was an innovative builder of literary structures -- on the bevel, so to speak -- and these he bequeathed to later writers. There is the double helix of intertwined narratives of flight -- an adulterous couple looking for a new life and two convicts escaping from the penitentiary -- in The Wild Palms. (This concoction proved too audacious for Malcolm Cowley, who extracted one of the strands for The Portable Faulkner.) There are the brilliantly linked stories, including the most famous one, "The Bear," in Go Down, Moses, a form reprised in Eudora Welty's The Golden Apples, her best and most bewitching book. And there is the sheer baroque intensity of Absalom, Absalom!, a great river of churning verbiage, homoerotic yearning, and miscegenation, tracing the rise and fall of the Sutpen family in the heat of a "long still hot weary dead September afternoon."
Parini lingers on some of Faulkner's most horrific scenes -- the notorious corn-cob rape of the socialite Temple Drake in Sanctuary and the ghastly castration of Joe Christmas in Light in August -- as though these were somehow the heart of Faulkner's art, grim reminders of a violent and unregenerate South. Actually, they are reminders of something else: that literary naturalism is the successor not of realism but of aestheticism. Such fantasy-laden scenes smack more of Swinburne and Aubrey Beardsley than of Dreiser. As Borges wisely said of Faulkner, "His brutality is of the hallucinatory sort -- the infernal, not the terrestrial sort of brutality."
The audacity and the brutality decreased during the long second half of Faulkner's career, the decades that succeeded the "matchless time" and ended with his death in 1962. The book that inaugurated this autumnal phase of his writing was his most traditional, The Hamlet, which he belatedly graced with two inferior sequels, The Town (1957) and The Mansion (1959), to make up the Snopes trilogy. Balzac was his model now, as he traced the picaresque fortunes of a poor white family on the rise, by hook and by crook, in the Mississippi hamlet of Frenchman's Bend. A meeting in the summer of 1937 with his French translator, a Princeton professor named Maurice Coindreau, seems to have confirmed the Balzac parallel. According to Parini, Faulkner told Coindreau that "the Vendée peasants of France, so movingly evoked by Balzac, had much in common with the poor white farmers of the South and that their attitudes toward life were similar, grounded in agricultural rhythms." The best defense of these uneven novels that I know is by the Japanese writer Kenzaburo Oe, who found in them a characteristic pattern, on display in The Sound and the Fury and The Wild Palms as well, of female passion paired with male innocence. "Faulkner and Dostoevsky," Oe concluded, "have created in most of their works the female archetype who is capable of sustaining a writer's maximum imagination and the 'innocent' male character who works as a medium through which his passions are realized on the page."
Coindreau's place in Faulkner's career proved far more important than providing a sounding board for half-baked notions of southern peasantry and their deep ties to the land. Coindreau's translations of As I Lay Dying and The Sound and the Fury introduced Faulkner to his most important international readers: Sartre, Camus, de Beauvoir, and Malraux. "It was the prominence of Faulkner's reputation in Europe that would finally make his Nobel Prize possible," Parini notes, "and this can be traced back directly to Coindreau's translations."
Faulkner's acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1949 is often quoted for its magnificent existentialist rhetoric about mankind resisting nuclear catastrophe, his rejection of the view that "when the last ding-dong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, that even then there will be one more sound: that of his puny inexhaustible voice, still talking. I refuse to accept this," wrote Faulkner. "I believe that man will not merely endure. He will prevail." But it was a quieter claim in the same speech that more securely gives voice to the sustained labor of this writer at his desk in Oxford, tirelessly inventing imaginative structures of human pain and defeat and momentary triumph. "I feel that this award was not made to me as a man," Faulkner wrote, "but to my work, a life's work in the agony and sweat of the human spirit, not for glory and least of all for profit, but to create out of the materials of the human spirit something which did not exist before."
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