Back To Oxford, With Apologies To Mr. Faulkner
December 9, 2019
My good friend Steve Nesbit pointed out to me that I had not given William Faulkner is appropriate due in my lengthy post on Oxford, Mississippi. I regret my oversight. I was aware of Mr. Faulkner's connection to Oxford, Charlottesville and when in Pascagoula, I learned of his ties to that Gulf Coast community. As I read more about his life, I also found out he went to Paris, too!
With that, and borrowing completely from summary of his life prepared by the University of Mississippi, here is a biography of Faulkner (I'll note that at the end I added some information not included in the Ole Miss piece that I learned of when I was in Pascagoula.
The man himself never stood taller than five feet, six inches tall, but in the realm of American literature, William Faulkner is a giant. More than simply a renowned Mississippi writer, the Nobel Prize-winning novelist and short story writer is acclaimed throughout the world as one of the twentieth century’s greatest writers, one who transformed his “postage stamp” of native soil into an apocryphal setting in which he explored, articulated, and challenged “the old verities and truths of the heart.” During what is generally considered his period of greatest artistic achievement, from The Sound and the Fury in 1929 to Go Down, Moses in 1942, Faulkner accomplished in a little over a decade more artistically than most writers accomplish over a lifetime of writing. It is one of the more remarkable feats of American literature, how a young man who never graduated from high school, never received a college degree, living in a small town in the poorest state in the nation, all the while balancing a growing family of dependents and impending financial ruin, could during the Great Depression write a series of novels all set in the same small Southern county — novels that include As I Lay Dying, Light in August, and above all, Absalom, Absalom! — that would one day be recognized as among the greatest novels ever written by an American.
William Cuthbert Falkner (as his name was then spelled) was born on September 25, 1897, in New Albany, Mississippi, the first of four sons born to Murry and Maud Butler Falkner. He was named after his great-grandfather, William Clark Falkner, the “Old Colonel,” who had been killed eight years earlier in a duel with his former business partner in the streets of Ripley, Mississippi. A lawyer, politician, planter, businessman, Civil War colonel, railroad financier, and finally a best-selling writer (of the novel The White Rose of Memphis), the Old Colonel, even in death, loomed as a larger-than-life model of personal and professional success for his male descendants.
A few days before William’s fifth birthday, the Falkners moved to Oxford, Mississippi, at the urging of Murry’s father, John Wesley Thompson Falkner. Called the “Young Colonel” out of homage to his father rather than to actual military service, the younger Falkner had abruptly decided to sell the railroad begun by his father. Disappointed that he would not inherit the railroad, Murry took a series of jobs in Oxford, most of them with the help of his father. The elder Falkner, meanwhile, founded the First National Bank of Oxford in 1910 with $30,000 in capital.
William demonstrated artistic talent at a young age, drawing and writing poetry, but around the sixth grade he began to grow increasingly bored with his studies. His earliest literary efforts were romantic, conscientiously modeled on English poets such as Burns, Thomson, Housman, and Swinburne. While still in his youth, he also made the acquaintance of two individuals who would play an important role in his future: a childhood sweetheart, Estelle Oldham, and a literary mentor, Phil Stone.
Estelle was a popular, vivacious girl in Oxford with an active social life that included dances and parties. Despite her romance with William, she dated other boys, one of whom was Cornell Franklin, an Ole Miss law student who proposed marriage. She lightheartedly accepted, apparently believing his request insincere since he was going to Hawaii to establish a law practice. When he sent her an engagement ring several months later, however, her parents thought Franklin would be a fine husband for their daughter, and she found herself unable to escape the circumstances. She and Franklin were married in Oxford on April 18, 1918.
William’s other close acquaintance from this period arose from their mutual interest in poetry. When Stone read the young poet’s work, he immediately recognized William’s talent and set out to give Faulkner encouragement, advice, and models for study.
Like Franklin, Stone was a lawyer, schooled at Ole Miss and Yale. Following Estelle’s marriage, he invited Faulkner to stay with him in New Haven, where Faulkner first took a job with the Winchester Repeating Arms Company (where, for the first time, his name was spelled “Faulkner” in employee records, possibly the result of a typing error). But his job did not last long, for in June he accepted an invitation to become a cadet in training in the Royal Air Force in Canada.
Earlier, Faulkner had tried to join the U.S. Army Air Force, but he had been turned down because of his height. In his RAF application, he lied about numerous facts, including his birthdate and birthplace, in an attempt to pass himself as British. He also spelled his name “Faulkner,” believing it looked more British, and in meeting with RAF officials he affected a British accent.
He began training in Toronto, but before he finished training, the war ended. He received an honorable discharge and bought an officer’s dress uniform and a set of wings for the breast pocket, even though he had probably never flown solo.
Though he had seen no combat in his wartime military service, upon returning to Oxford in December 1918, he allowed others to believe he had. He told many stories of his adventures in the RAF, most of which were highly exaggerated or patently untrue, including injuries that had left him in constant pain and with a silver plate in his head. His brief service in the RAF would also serve him in his written fiction, particularly in his first published novel, Soldiers’ Pay, in 1926.
Back in Oxford, he first engaged in a footloose life, basking in the temporary glory of a war veteran. In 1919, he enrolled at the University of Mississippi in Oxford under a special provision for war veterans, even though he had never graduated from high school. In August, his first published poem, “L’Apres-Midi d’un Faune” [sic], appeared in The New Republic. While a student at Ole Miss, he published poems and short stories in the campus newspaper, the Mississippian, and submitted artwork for the university yearbook. In the fall of 1920, Faulkner helped found a dramatic club on campus called “The Marionettes,” for which he wrote a one-act play titled The Marionettes but which was never staged. After three semesters of study at Ole Miss, he dropped out in November 1920.
Over the next few years, Faulkner wrote reviews, poems, and prose pieces for The Mississippian and worked several odd jobs. At the recommendation of Stark Young, a novelist in Oxford, in 1921 he took a job in New York City as an assistant in a bookstore managed by Elizabeth Prall, who would later be the wife of writer Sherwood Anderson. His most notorious job during this period was his stint as postmaster in the university post office from the spring of 1922 to October 31, 1924. By all accounts, he was a terrible postmaster, spending much of his time reading or playing cards with friends, misplacing or losing mail, and failing to serve customers. When a postal inspector came to investigate, he agreed to resign. During this period, he also served as a scoutmaster for the Oxford Boy Scout troop, but he was asked to resign for “moral reasons” (probably drinking).
In 1924, his friend Phil Stone secured the publication of a volume of Faulkner’s poetry, The Marble Faun, by the Four Seas Company. It was published in December 1924 in an edition of 1,000 copies, dedicated to his mother and with a preface by Stone.
In January 1925, Faulkner moved to New Orleans and fell in with a literary crowd which included Sherwood Anderson (author of Winesburg, Ohio) and centered around The Double Dealer, a literary magazine whose credits include the first published works of Hart Crane, Ernest Hemingway, Robert Penn Warren, and Edmund Wilson. Faulkner published several essays and sketches in The Double Dealer and in the New Orleans Times-Picayune; the latter would later be collected under the title New Orleans Sketches. He wrote his first novel, Soldiers’ Pay, and on Anderson’s advice sent it to the publisher Horace Liveright.
After Liveright accepted the novel, Faulkner sailed from New Orleans to Europe, arriving in Italy on August 2. His principal residence during the next several months was near Paris, France, just around the corner from the Luxembourg Gardens, where he spent much of his time; his written description of the gardens would later be revised for the closing of his novel Sanctuary. While in France, he would sometimes go to the cafe that James Joyce would frequent, but the interminably shy Faulkner never mustered the nerve to speak to him. After visiting England, he returned to the United States in December.
In February 1926, Soldiers’ Pay was published by Boni and Liveright in an edition of 2,500 copies. Again in New Orleans, he began working on his second novel, Mosquitoes, a satirical novel with characters based closely upon his literary milieu in New Orleans; set aboard a yacht in Lake Pontchartrain, the novel is today considered one of Faulkner’s weakest. For his third novel, however, Faulkner considered some advice Anderson had given him, that he should write about his native region. In doing so, he drew upon both regional geography and family history (particularly his great-grandfather’s Civil War and post-war exploits) to create “Yocona” County, later renamed “Yoknapatawpha.”
In a 1956 interview, Faulkner described the liberating effect the creation of his fictional county had for him as an artist: “Beginning with Sartoris I discovered that my own little postage stamp of native soil was worth writing about and that I would never live long enough to exhaust it, and by sublimating the actual into apocryphal I would have complete liberty to use whatever talent I might have to its absolute top” (Lion in the Garden 255).
Faulkner may have been excited by his latest achievement, but his publisher was less thrilled: Liveright refused to publish the novel, which Faulkner had titled Flags in the Dust. Dejected, he began to shop the novel around to other publishers, with similar results. In the meantime, believing his career as a writer all but over, he began to write a novel strictly for pleasure, with no regard, he said, for its eventual publication. As for the earlier novel, Faulkner solicited the help of his friend Ben Wasson, a literary agent in New York, who convinced Harcourt, Brace to publish the novel, but only with extensive cuts from the manuscript. The purged novel, trimmed by about a third, was published in January 1929 under the title Sartoris. (A restored version of the original Flags in the Dust would be published in 1973, more than ten years after Faulkner’s death.)
Contrary to his earlier opinion, the novel Faulkner had written strictly for pleasure was publishable, though he did have to convince his new publisher, Jonathan Cape and Harrison Smith (formerly of Harcourt, Brace) not to interfere with his manuscript. A revolutionary novel in style and content, it was divided into four discrete sections, the first three of which are told by brothers in a single family. The first section is told by an idiot with no concept of time — his narrative slips easily back and forth in time with no warning to the reader except for a usual brief shift to italic typeface. Individually, each section is revealing both stylistically and as an exploration of character; together, however, the four parts operate to reveal the slow demise of a once-prominent southern family, which is demonstrated most explicitly in the gradual decline and disappearance of the brothers’ sister, Caddy Compson. Taking his title from a soliloquy in Shakespeare’s Macbeth which refers to life as “a tale told by an idiot,” Faulkner called the novel The Sound and the Fury.
After The Sound and the Fury was published in October 1929, Faulkner had to turn his attention to making money. Earlier that year, he had written Sanctuary, a novel which Faulkner later claimed in an introduction he conceived “deliberately to make money.” Because of its sordid subject the novel was immediately turned down by the publisher. Faulkner’s need for income stemmed largely from his growing family. In April, Estelle Oldham had divorced Cornell Franklin, and in June she and Faulkner were married at or near College Hill Presbyterian Church, just north of Oxford. Estelle brought to the marriage two children, Malcolm and Victoria, and after a honeymoon in Pascagoula, on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, they lived at Miss Elma Meek’s house in Oxford. Faulkner, now working nights at a power plant, wrote As I Lay Dying, later claiming it was a “tour de force” and that he had written it “in six weeks, without changing a word.”
Though his hyperbolic claims about the novel were not entirely true, As I Lay Dying is nevertheless a masterfully written successor to The Sound and the Fury. As with the earlier work, the novel focuses on a family and is told stream-of-conscious style by different narrators, but rather than an aristocratic family, the focus here is on lower-class farm laborers from southern Yoknapatawpha County, the Bundrens, whose matriarch, Addie, has died and had asked to be buried in Jefferson, “a day’s hard ride away” to the north. The journey to Jefferson is fraught with perils of fire and flood (from the rain-swollen Yoknapatawpha River) as well as the family members’ inner feelings of grief and loss. The novel would be published in October 1930.
The year 1930 was significant to Faulkner for two other reasons as well, both of which took place in April. First, he bought a decrepit antebellum house in Oxford, which plunged him further into debt but in which he would find comfort and pleasure for the rest of his life. Built originally in 1844 by a Robert Shegogg, Faulkner named the house “Rowan Oak,” after a Scottish legend alluding to the protective powers of wood from the rowan tree. Also in April, Faulkner saw the first national publication of a short story he had written, “A Rose for Emily,” in Forum magazine. It would be followed that year by “Honor” in American Mercury, “Thrift,” and “Red Leaves,” both in the Saturday Evening Post. Over the coming years, as sales of his novels sagged, he would write numerous short stories for publication, especially in the Saturday Evening Post, as a principal means of financial support.
That same year, his publisher had a change of heart about publishing Sanctuary and sent galley proofs to Faulkner for proofreading, but Faulkner decided, at considerable personal expense, to drastically revise the novel. The novel, which features the rape and kidnapping of an Ole Miss coed, Temple Drake, by a sinister bootlegger named Popeye, shocked and horrified readers, particularly in Oxford; published in February 1931, Sanctuary would be Faulkner’s best-selling novel until The Wild Palms was published in 1939.
In January 1931, Estelle gave birth to a daughter, Alabama. The child, born prematurely, would live only a few days. Faulkner’s first collection of short stories, These 13, would be published in September and dedicated to “Estelle and Alabama.”
Soon after Alabama’s death, Faulkner began writing a novel tentatively titled Dark House, which would feature a man of uncertain racial lineage who, as an orphaned child, was named Joe Christmas. In this, Faulkner’s first major exploration of race, he examines the lives of outcasts in Yoknapatawpha County, including Joanna Burden, the granddaughter and sister of civil rights activists gunned down in the town square; the Rev. Gail Hightower, so caught up in family pride and heritage that he ignores his own wife’s decline into infidelity and eventual suicide; and Lena Grove, a (literally) barefoot and pregnant girl from Alabama whose journey to find the father of her child both opens and closes the novel. At the center of the novel is the orphan, the enigmatic Joe Christmas, who defies easy categorization into either race, white or black. The novel would be published as Light in August in October 1932 by his new publisher of Harrison Smith and Robert Haas.
The year 1932 would mark the beginning of a new sometime profession for Faulkner, as screenwriter in Hollywood. During an extended trip to New York City the previous year, he had made a number of important contacts in Hollywood, including actress Tallulah Bankhead. In April 1932, Faulkner signed a six-week contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, and in May Faulkner initiated what would be the first of many stints as screenwriter in Hollywood. In July, Faulkner met director Howard Hawks, with whom he shared a common passion for flying and hunting. Of the six screenplays for which Faulkner would receive on-screen credit, five would be for films directed by Hawks, the first of which was Today We Live (1933), based on Faulkner’s short story “Turn About.”
Faulkner returned to Oxford in August after the sudden death of his father. With the addition of his mother to his growing number of dependents, Faulkner needed money. He returned to Hollywood in October with his mother and younger brother Dean, and sold Paramount the rights to film Sanctuary. The film, retitled The Story of Temple Drake, opened in May 1933, one month after the Memphis premiere of Today We Live which Faulkner attended. That spring also saw the publication of A Green Bough, Faulkner’s second and last collection of poetry.
Faulkner’s MGM contract expired in May 1933, and with his temporary windfall he purchased a Waco-210 monoplane. In June, Estelle gave birth to Faulkner’s only surviving daughter, Jill. The following winter, Faulkner wrote to his publisher that he was working on a new novel whose working title, like Light in August before, was “Dark House.” “Roughly,” he wrote, “the theme is a man who outraged the land, and the land then turned and destroyed the man’s family. Quentin Compson, of the Sound & Fury, tells it, or ties it together; he is the protagonist so that it is not complete apocrypha.”
In April 1934, Faulkner published a second collection of stories, Doctor Martino and Other Stories. That spring, he began a series of Civil War stories to be sold to The Saturday Evening Post. Faulkner would later revise and collect them together to form the novel The Unvanquished (1938). In March 1935, he published the non-Yoknapatawpha novel Pylon, which was inspired apparently by the death of Captain Merle Nelson during an air show on February 14, 1934, at the inauguration of an airport in New Orleans. A few months later, in November, his brother Dean was killed in a crash of the Waco which Faulkner had given him. Married only a month before to Louise Hale, Dean would be survived by a daughter (to be born in March 1936), who would be named Dean after her father. Faulkner would take complete responsibility for the education of his niece.
In December, Faulkner began another “tour of duty” in Hollywood working with Hawks, this time at 20th Century-Fox, where he met Meta Carpenter, Hawks’ secretary and script girl, with whom Faulkner would have an affair. Late that month, Faulkner and collaborator Joel Sayre completed a screenplay for the film The Road to Glory, which would premiere in June 1936.
Back in Oxford in January 1936, Faulkner spent what would be the first of many stays at Wright’s Sanatarium, a nursing home facility in Byhalia, Mississippi, where Faulkner would go to recover from his drinking binges. Not an alcoholic in a clinical sense, Faulkner nevertheless would sometimes go on extended drinking binges, oftentimes at the conclusion of a writing project; on occasion, he would even plan when to begin and end such binges.
The January binge came on as he finished the manuscript of what he had first called “Dark House.” At the center of the novel is the character of Thomas Sutpen, a mysterious figure who in 1833 had come to Yoknapatawpha County, bought a hundred square miles of virgin timberland, and set out to create a vast “design” of wealth, power, and progeny in the form of white, male heirs. Set in the present day of 1909-1910, the novel’s historical past is largely narrated by four characters: Rosa Coldfield, Sutpen’s sister-in-law, who regarded him as demonic; Jason Compson, a nihilist and fatalist and alcoholic father of Quentin; Quentin Compson, formerly of The Sound and the Fury, and his Harvard roommate, Shreve McCannon, who together try to piece together the discordant fabric of the story of Thomas Sutpen, who had been killed more than forty years earlier. In addition to its focus on family, race, and history, the novel’s narrative structure also confronts the key issue of reading itself, how readers interpret evidence and construct narratives from it. The novel would be published in October 1936 by the new publisher Random House, which had bought out Smith and Haas. Faulkner’s new title for the book, alluding to King David’s lament over his dead son in the Old Testament, was Absalom, Absalom!
Faulkner spent much of 1936 and the first eight months of 1937 in Hollywood, again working for 20th Century-Fox, receiving on-screen writing credit for Slave Ship (1937) and contributing to the story for Gunga Din (1939). In April, his mistress, Meta Carpenter, married Wolfgang Rebner and went with him to Germany. Back at Rowan Oak in September, Faulkner began working on a new novel, which would consist of two short novellas with two completely separate casts of characters appearing alternately throughout the book. Faulkner’s title for the book was If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem, consisting of the novellas “The Wild Palms” and “Old Man.”
In the winter of 1937-1938, Faulkner bought “Bailey’s Woods,” a wooded area adjacent to Rowan Oak, and Greenfield Farm, located seventeen miles from Oxford, which he would turn over to his brother John to manage. In February 1938, Random House published The Unvanquished, a novel consisting of seven stories, six of which had originally appeared in an earlier form in The Saturday Evening Post. A kind of “prequel” to Faulkner’s first Yoknapatawpha novel, The Unvanquished tells the earlier history of the Sartoris family during and immediately after the Civil War, focusing especially on Bayard Sartoris, son of the legendary Colonel John Sartoris who, like Faulkner’s real-life great-grandfather, was gunned down in the street by a former business partner.
While in New York in the fall of 1938, Faulkner began writing a short story, “Barn Burning,” which would be published in Harper’s the following year. But Faulkner was not finished with the story. He had in mind a trilogy about the Snopes family, a lower-class rural laboring white family who, unlike the Compsons and Sartorises of other Faulkner novels, had little regard for southern tradition, heritage, or lineage. The Snopes, often regarded as Faulkner’s metaphor for the rising “redneck” middle class in the South, more interested in avaricious commercial gain than honor or pride, were to be led in the trilogy by the enterprising Flem Snopes, who in the original story “Barn Burning” had appeared only briefly as the eldest son of Ab Snopes.
In January 1939, Faulkner was elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters. That same month, If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem was published under the title The Wild Palms. In April 1940, the first book of the Snopes trilogy, The Hamlet, was published by Random House. Featuring a reworked version of “Barn Burning” and other stories Faulkner had published, including “Spotted Horses,” the novel follows Flem Snopes from being the poor son of a barn-burning sharecropper to his securing a storekeeper’s job, as “fire insurance,” in the hamlet of Frenchman’s Bend (in southeastern Yoknapatawpha County). As Flem rises in stature and responsibility, and all the while bringing more and more Snopeses into the community, thus further elevating himself personally and financially, he eventually agrees to marry the store owner’s daughter, Eula Varner, who is pregnant by another man.
Throughout 1941, Faulkner spent much of his time writing and reworking stories into an episodic novel about the McCaslin family, several members of whom had appeared briefly in The Unvanquished. Though several stories that would comprise Go Down, Moses had been published separately, Faulkner revised extensively the parts that would comprise the novel, which spans more than 100 years in the history of Yoknapatawpha County. At the physical and psychological center of the book is “The Bear,” a hunting story that encompasses both the fading wilderness, Native American issues of land ownership and environmental stewardship, and the problems of miscegenation compounded by incest. The book was published in May 1942 as Go Down, Moses and Other Stories, but in subsequent editions, Faulkner had the phrase “and other stories” omitted, insisting to his publisher that the book was a novel.
Sale of his novels, meanwhile, had slumped, so he returned to California in July 1942 to begin another stint at screen writing, this time for Warner Brothers, who insisted he sign for seven years, which he was told was “only a formality.” His salary was less than what he had earned as a novice at MGM ten years earlier. The following year, he began to work intermittently on A Fable, a novel whose plot would revolve around a reincarnation of Christ during the First World War. It would take him more than ten years to complete it. Also in 1943, he was assigned to write the screenplay for Hemingway’s novel To Have and Have Not, but because of an extended vacation, he did not begin work on it until February 1944. The movie, the first film to feature Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall together on screen, would premiere in January 1945. In August 1944, Faulkner began writing a screenplay adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s detective novel The Big Sleep. It would premiere, also starring Bogart and Bacall, in August 1946. During this period, Faulkner also collaborated with Jean Renoir on his film The Southerner, but with no screen credit since it would violate his Warner Brothers contract. It would premiere in August 1945. The three films together would represent the pinnacle of Faulkner’s screen writing career.
In 1944, Faulkner began a correspondence with Malcolm Cowley, who at the time was editing The Portable Hemingway for Viking Press. Cowley had in mind a similar collection for Faulkner, whose novels by this time were effectively out of print. Though Faulkner’s reputation remained high in Europe, especially in France, where Jean-Paul Sartre allegedly said, “For the young people in France, Faulkner is a god,” in America the public had largely ceased to read his work. Cowley’s collection begins with an introductory biographical and critical essay, in which Faulkner had to correct for the first time some of the misconceptions of his war record. The collection itself consists of stories and novel passages that relate, in roughly chronological order, the “saga” of Yoknapatawpha County. For the book, Faulkner contributed a new “Appendix” to The Sound and the Fury, in which he examined both the distant past and the near future of the Compson family as told in the novel. Published in April 1946, The Portable Faulkner would mark the beginning of the resurgence in popular and critical interest in Faulkner’s work. In December, the Modern Library would publish a one-volume edition of The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying, preceded by Faulkner’s “Compson Appendix.” Over the coming years, the Modern Library would continue to re-issue Faulkner’s novels, a practice that continues to this day.
In March 1947, while continuing to work on his Christ fable, he wrote letters to the Oxford newspaper to support the preservation of the old courthouse on the town square, which some townspeople had proposed demolishing to build a larger one. In April, he agreed to meet in question-and-answer sessions with English classes at the University of Mississippi, but he invited controversy when his candid statement about Hemingway — “he has no courage, has never climbed out on a limb ... has never used a word where the reader might check his usage by a dictionary” — was included in a press release about the sessions. When Hemingway read the remarks, he was hurt, moved even to write a letter answering the charge that he lacked “courage,” but when it grew too long, he asked a friend, Brigadier General C.T. Lanham to write and tell Faulkner only what he knew about Hemingway’s heroism as a war correspondent. Almost immediately, Faulkner replied, apologizing for the misunderstanding and pain caused by his remarks, explaining that it was a garbled, incomplete version of what he had said, but he defended his comment by saying that it referred only to Hemingway’s craftsmanship as a writer and told how he was judging the quality of writing on its degree of failures, that Hemingway was next to last because he didn’t have the courage to risk “bad taste, over-writing, dullness, etc.” He wrote Hemingway also, including a copy of the letter to Lanham, again apologizing and saying, “I hope it wont matter a damn to you. But if or whe[ne]ver it does, please accept another squirm from yours truly.”
In January 1948, Faulkner put aside A Fable to write a novel he considered a detective story. The central character is Lucas Beauchamp, who had appeared as a key descendant of old Lucius Quintus Carothers McCaslin in Go Down, Moses, upon whose name his own was based. In the novel Beauchamp is accused of murdering a white man and must rely upon the wits of a teenage boy, Chick Mallison, to clear his name before the lynch mob arrives to do its job. In July, MGM purchased the film rights to the novel, and in October, Intruder in the Dust was published. In the spring of 1949, director Clarence Brown and a film crew descended upon Oxford, Mississippi, to film the novel on location, and while the townspeople eagerly welcomed the filmmakers, even playing a number of extra and minor roles in the film, Faulkner was very reluctant to participate, though he may have helped to rework the final scene. In October 1949, the world premiere of Brown’s Intruder in the Dust took place at the Lyric Theatre in Oxford. Faulkner attended at the insistence of his Aunt Alabama McLean.
In November, Faulkner published Knight’s Gambit, a collection of detective stories including “Tomorrow,” “Smoke,” and the title novella. That same month, in Stockholm, fifteen of the eighteen members of the Swedish Academy voted to award the Nobel Prize for literature to Faulkner, but since a unanimous vote was required, the awarding of the prize was delayed by a year.
In the summer of 1949, Faulkner had met Joan Williams, a young student and author of a prize-winning story. In 1950, he began a collaboration with her on Requiem for a Nun, a part-prose, part-play sequel to Sanctuary in which nursemaid Nancy Mannigoe is sentenced to hang for the murder of Temple Drake’s infant daughter. Temple, now married to Gowan Stevens, tries to convince her husband’s uncle, lawyer Gavin Stevens, to save Nancy from execution. In narrative prose sections preceding each of the play’s three acts, Faulkner details some of the early history of Jefferson, Yoknapatawpha County, and the state of Mississippi. His collaboration with Williams would eventually grow into a love affair.
In June 1950, Faulkner was awarded the Howells Medal for distinguished work in American fiction. In August, he published Collected Stories, the third and last collection of stories published by Faulkner. It includes forty-two of the forty-six stories published in magazines since 1930, excluding those which he had published or incorporated into The Unvanquished, The Hamlet, Go Down, Moses, and Knight’s Gambit. Two months later, Faulkner received word that the Swedish Academy had voted to award him and Bertrand Russell as co-recipients of the Nobel Prize for literature, Russell for 1950 and Faulkner for the previous year. At first he refused to go to Stockholm to receive the award, but pressured by the U.S. State Department, the Swedish Ambassador to the United States, and finally by his own family, he agreed to go.
On December 10, he delivered his acceptance speech to the academy in a voice so low and rapid that few could make out what he was saying, but when his words were published in the newspaper the following day, it was recognized for its brilliance; in later years, Faulkner’s speech would be lauded as the best speech ever given at a Nobel ceremony. In it, Faulkner alluded to the impending Cold War and the constant fear, “a general and universal physical fear,” whose consequence was to make “the young man or woman writing today [forget] the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.” The artist, Faulkner said, must re-learn “the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed — love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice.” He concludes on an optimistic note: “I decline to accept the end of man.... I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s duty is to write about these things.... The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.”
At Howard Hawks’ request, Faulkner returned to Hollywood one last time in February 1951 to rework a script titled “The Left Hand of God” for 20th Century-Fox. The following month, he was awarded the National Book Award for Collected Stories, and in May, shortly after having delivered the commencement address at his daughter’s high school graduation ceremony, French President Vincent Auriol bestowed the award of Legion of Honor upon Faulkner. As he completed the writing and revision of Requiem for a Nun, he received several offers to stage the play, both in the United States and in France, but problems of financing prevented any full productions. The book was published in September 1951.
In April 1952, Faulkner attended the ninetieth anniversary of the Battle of Shiloh with fellow Mississippian Shelby Foote, whom Faulkner had met in 1941 when Foote had accompanied Faulkner’s agent, Ben Wasson, on a visit to Rowan Oak. In May he accepted an invitation to attend the Festival “Oeuvres du XXe Siècle” in France; while abroad, he also visited England and Norway. Back at home in June, he resumed his relationship with Joan Williams and continued working on A Fable with more and more difficulty. When the intricate plot became too complex for him to keep track of, he wrote outlines of key events in the story’s seven days on the walls of his office at Rowan Oak. Suffering from acute back pain, Faulkner was hospitalized twice, in September and October. In November, Faulkner agreed to participate in a short documentary film financed by the Ford Foundation. Essentially re-enacting his own life, Faulkner is depicted at his farm, talking with townspeople on the streets of Oxford, and being cajoled into an interview by Oxford Eagle editor Phil Mullen at Rowan Oak, during which Faulkner says (on camera), “Okay, but no pictures.” The film was broadcast on CBS-TV’s program Omnibus.
While in New York in January 1953, he adapted his story “The Brooch” for television while also working on A Fable and suffering bouts of back pain and alcoholism that required hospitalization. In March he was again hospitalized. The following month, Estelle suffered a hemorrhage and heart attack, so Faulkner returned to Oxford. He returned to New York in May, where he met Dylan Thomas and e.e. cummings. In June, he delivered an address to Jill’s graduating class at Pine Manor Junior College. Following another hospitalization in September, Faulkner was horrified to find his sacrosanct privacy invaded by the publication of a two-part biographical article by Robert Coughlan in September and October’s issues of Life magazine.
In November, Albert Camus’ agent wrote Faulkner requesting permission to adapt Requiem for a Nun for the stage, to which Faulkner agreed. At the end of the month, he traveled to Egypt to assist Howard Hawks in the filming of Land of the Pharaohs, their last collaboration. For the next several months, he traveled throughout Europe. He met Jean Stein in St. Moritz, Switzerland, on December 25, and after visits to England and Paris joined Hawks, Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in Rome on January 19. In March, he received a letter from Jill, who wrote that she had met Paul D. Summers, a lieutenant at West Point, whom she would like to marry, and asked Faulkner to come home. He returned to Oxford at the end of April 1954, after a six-month absence. That same month saw the publication of “Mississippi,” a mostly nonfiction article mingling history, his childhood, and his own work against the backdrop of his native state, in Holiday magazine; and The Faulkner Reader, an anthology which includes the complete text of The Sound and the Fury, three additional long stories (or “novellas”) — “The Bear” from Go Down, Moses, “Old Man” from The Wild Palms, and “Spotted Horses” from The Hamlet — as well as several other stories and novel excerpts. The three novellas would in 1958 be published together under the title Three Famous Short Novels. In August, after more than ten years of work, Faulkner finally published A Fable, dedicating it to Jill and Estelle. Later that month, Jill and Paul Summers were married in Oxford.
At the end of June 1954, Faulkner had accepted an invitation from the U.S. State Department to attend an international writers conference in São Paulo in August. Now an internationally known public figure, Faulkner no longer refused to appear in public in his own nation, and he usually accepted the increasing requests by the State Department to attend cultural events abroad. In addition, he also began to take a public stand as a moderate, if not liberal, southerner in the growing debate over school integration.
Though A Fable is generally considered one of Faulkner’s weaker novels, in January 1955, it earned the National Book Award for Fiction and in May a Pulitzer Prize in fiction. In August, Faulkner began a three-month, seven-nation goodwill tour at the request of the State Department, traveling first to Japan, where at Nagano he participated in a seminar whose proceedings, along with two speeches he had delivered, were published as Faulkner at Nagano. He left Japan for Manila and then Italy, where from Rome he wrote a dispatch condemning the murder of Emmett Till, a black teenager from Chicago who had been killed in Mississippi. From Italy he went to Munich, where Requiem for a Nun was playing, and then to Paris for two weeks. In October, he left for London and then for Reykjavik, Iceland, where once again he attended a program of conferences and interviews. Finally he returned to the United States in October, during which month Random House published Big Woods: The Hunting Stories, a collection of four previously published stories about hunting with five “interchapters” at the beginning and end of the book and between chapters to set or change the mood. He dedicated the book to his editor at Random House, Saxe Commins.
In November, Faulkner condemned segregation in an address before the Southern Historical Association in the Peabody Hotel in Memphis, where because of segregation much effort was needed for blacks to be admitted. The speech was published in the Memphis Commercial Appeal under the headline “A mixed audience hears Faulkner condemn the ‘shame’ of segregation.” Though Faulkner opposed segregation, however, he opposed federal involvement in the issue, which resulted in his being understood by neither southern conservatives nor northern liberals. Faulkner’s increasingly vocal stand on the issues of race drew fire from his fellow southerners, including anonymous threats and rejection by his own brother, John. Misunderstanding over Faulkner’s views increased when in a February 1956 interview with a London Sunday Times correspondent he was quoted as saying that he would “fight for Mississippi against the United States, even if it meant going out into the street and shooting Negroes.” Faulkner tried to correct the absurd statement in letters to three national magazines that had repeated the initial assertion, but the statement’s harm could not easily be undone. Two weeks after Life published Faulkner’s “A Letter to the North,” in which he pleaded for moderation, warning that one should not expect too much of the South, he had to be hospitalized for nine days after vomiting blood and collapsing into unconsciousness. While he was in the hospital, Faulkner’s first grandchild, Paul, was born in Charlottesville, Virginia. Soon after, Faulkner would agree to become writer-in-residence at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville for a period of eight to ten weeks every year.
In April 1956, black civil rights legend W.E.B. Du Bois challenged Faulkner to a debate on integration on the steps of the courthouse in Sumner, Mississippi, where the accused in the Emmett Till murder trial had been acquitted by an all-white jury. Faulkner declined in a telegram, stating “I do not believe there is a debatable point between us. We both agree in advance that the position you will take is right morally, legally, and ethically. If it is not evident to you that the position I take in asking for moderation and patience is right practically then we will both waste our breath in debate.”
In September, Camus’ adaptation of Requiem for a Nun premiered at the Théâtre des Mathurins. That same month, Faulkner became involved in the Eisenhower administration’s “People-to-People Program,” the aim of which was to promote American culture behind the Iron Curtain. At the end of September a steering committee consisting of Faulkner, John Steinbeck, and Donald Hall drew up several “resolutions,” including one supporting the liberation of Ezra Pound, but Faulkner would withdraw from the committee three months later.
From February to June 1957, Faulkner was writer-in-residence at the University of Virginia and agreed to a number of question-and-answer sessions with the students, faculty, and faculty spouses. Highlights of the taped sessions would be published in 1959 by Professors Joseph Blotner and Frederick Gwynn under the title Faulkner in the University. In March, while visiting Greece during a leave of absence from Virginia, he received the Silver Medal of the Athens Academy “as one chosen by the Greek Academy to represent the principle that man shall be free.” Back in Charlottesville, in April he signed a contract with producer Jerry Wald for an option on The Hamlet. The film, made by Martin Ritt and starring Orson Welles, Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward (their first on-screen pairing), would be released in 1958 under the title The Long Hot Summer.
In May 1957 Faulkner published The Town, the second volume of the “Snopes” trilogy. Picking up where The Hamlet left off, it depicts Flem Snopes’ ruthless struggle to take over the town of Jefferson. Now dividing his time between Oxford and Charlottesville, from February to May 1958 he fulfilled his second term as writer-in-residence at Virginia. Also while living in Virginia, he began to relish fox-hunting, and he was invited to join the Farmington Hunt Club, an achievement he displayed proudly by posing for photographs and portraits in his pink membership coat. In December, Jill’s second son, William, was born, and the following month saw the premiere of Requiem for a Nun on stage at the John Golden Theater in New York, making the United States the thirteenth nation in which the play had been produced.
In March 1959, Faulkner broke his collarbone in a fall from a horse at Farmington, a kind of accident that would continue to plague Faulkner for the remaining years of his life. In June, he transferred his manuscripts and typescripts from the Princeton University Library to the Alderman Library at the University of Virginia. That month, the New York Times reported he had bought a house in Charlottesville, though he would continue to live part of the year in Oxford. In November, The Mansion, the third and final volume of the “Snopes” trilogy, was published.
Throughout 1960, Faulkner continued to divide his time between Oxford and Charlottesville. On October 16, Faulkner’s mother, Maud Butler Falkner, died at the age of 88. A talented painter who had completed nearly 600 paintings after 1941, she had remained close to her eldest son throughout her life.
In January 1961, Faulkner willed all his manuscripts to the William Faulkner Foundation at the University of Virginia. In February, he accepted an invitation from General William Westmoreland to visit the military academy at West Point. In April, Faulkner went on a final trip abroad for the State Department, this time to Venezuela, where he was the guest of President Rómulo Betancourt. He spent the summer in Oxford, where in August he completed the manuscript for his nineteenth and final novel. Titled The Reivers, an archaic Scottish spelling of an old term for “thieves,” the novel is a light-hearted romp set at the turn of the century in which Boon Hogganbeck takes eleven-year-old Lucius “Loosh” Priest and a stowaway, Ned McCaslin, the Priest family’s black coachman, on a joyride to a Memphis brothel in Loosh’s grandfather’s Winton Flyer automobile while “Boss” Priest is away at a funeral. Amid the picaresque novel’s ludicrous and uproarious antics, which include Ned’s trading Boss Priest’s automobile for a racehorse named “Lightning,” are the serious issues of a child’s initiation into moral adulthood and his realization of evil and injustice. Beginning the novel, subtitled “A Reminiscence,” with the phrase “Grandfather said,” Faulkner dedicated the novel to “Victoria, Mark, Paul, William, Burks,” his grandchildren by his two step-children and biological daughter. The novel, published in June 1962, would posthumously earn for Faulkner his second Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
In January of that year, Faulkner suffered another fall from a horse, forcing yet another hospital stay. In April, he again visited West Point with his wife, daughter, and son-in-law, and the following month in New York, fellow Mississippi writer Eudora Welty presented Faulkner with the Gold Medal for Fiction awarded by the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
On June 17, Faulkner was again injured by a fall from a horse. In constant pain now, he signaled something was wrong when he asked on July 5 to be taken to Wright’s Sanatarium in Byhalia. Though he had been a patient there many times, he had always been taken there before against his will. His nephew, Jimmy, and Estelle accompanied him on the 65-mile trip to Byhalia, where he was admitted at 6 p.m. Less than eight hours later, at about 1:30 a.m. on July 6, 1962 — the Old Colonel’s birthday — his heart stopped, and though the doctor on duty applied external heart massage for forty-five minutes, he could not resuscitate him. William Faulkner was dead of a heart attack at the age of 64.
He was buried on July 7 at St. Peter’s Cemetery in Oxford. As calls of condolence came upon the family from around the world and the press — including novelist William Styron, who covered the funeral for Life magazine — clamored for answers to their questions from family members, a family representative relayed to them a message from the family: “Until he’s buried he belongs to the family. After that, he belongs to the world.”
While beautifully written, this account of Faulkner’s life leaves out a part that I learned of when I visited Pascagoula, Mississippi earlier in my walkabout. It is a story of an unrequited love that lasted, in Faulkner's case, the rest of his life. Again, I plagiarized this section.
Faulkner is traditionally associated with northern Mississippi. For much of his life, Oxford was his home. What is not so well known is that he spent time in Pascagoula and penned novels there.
Phil Stone was one of the first to note Faulkner's talent and took on the role of his mentor. One of Stone's in-laws was Frank Lewis, a Pascagoula businessman, community leader, and developer of the Jackson County pecan industry.
The Lewis family owned a beachfront cottage in Pascagoula, which was offered to Faulkner as a writer's getaway. Here the writer summered in 1925-26 producing his second novel, "Mosquitoes," and started on his third, "The Wild Palms."
While in Pascagoula, Faulkner fell in love with a local belle, Helen Baird. Faulkner subsequently dedicated both "Mosquitoes" and "Wild Palms" to Helen. But their marriage was not to be, and she rejected his proposal of marriage. Their lifestyles were too different -- she Southern aristocrat, he more Bohemian. However, scholars say the character in "Wild Palms" was modeled from her.
His association with Pascagoula did continue. When Helen Baird married another in 1927, Faulkner presented her a handwritten book of love poems, "Helen: A Courtship and Mississippi Poems," which was later published.
In turn when Faulkner married in 1929, he came to Pascagoula for his honeymoon. Faulkner returned to visit Pascagoula one more time in 1955. It is said that while strolling the beach he encountered Helen Baird, and they talked for a while. What passed between them after so many years is only for conjecture.