One Matchless Time: A Life of William Faulkner - Jay Parini (2005)
Chapter 9. Seven Lean Years
Faulkner at War
Incidentally, I believe I have discovered the reason inherent in human nature why warfare will never be abolished: it’s the only condition under which a man who is not a scoundrel can escape for a while from his female kin.
—Faulkner to Harold Ober,
June 22, 1942
In late July 1942, one of the darkest years of the war, Faulkner arrived in Hollywood once again, eager to make some money. He carried with him a small notebook in which the names of his creditors, and the amounts he owed, were carefully recorded, and he intended to cross them out, one by one. It seemed that his financial woes threatened everything he cared about: his real estate, his car, his good name. The time had come to settle his debts once and for all, he explained to Estelle, who did not relish being left at home in Oxford. If making money meant that, for a period, he must let go of serious writing, he was prepared to make this sacrifice.
He had failed the previous spring at getting a commission as a navy pilot. The letters about this matter sound eerily like the letters he had written to his parents during the First World War. “I am going before a Navy board and Medical for a commission,” he bragged to Haas, even though he had yet to get such an offer. “I will go to the Bureau of Aeronautics, Washington, for a job. I am to get full Lieut. and 3200.00 per year, and I hope a pilot’s rating to wear the wings.”1 Estelle had tried to pour cold water on his enthusiasm about joining the war effort, but Faulkner had ignored her and flown to Washington. “I’ve long since given up trying to understand Bill,” she told one friend. It was with some relief, for her, that nothing came of her husband’s efforts.
The Hollywood deal that Bill Herndon had procured only paid three hundred dollars per week, which was hardly a windfall. (He posed, of course, a risk to the studio, given his drinking.) Faulkner would work for Warner Bros. in their fabled story department, which employed some of the finest writers in the business, including James Hilton, Dalton Trumbo, and Alvah Bessie. Among the famous actors in the Warner stable were Bette Davis, Dick Powell, Paul Muni, Kay Francis, Errol Flynn, Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney, and Edward G. Robinson. In most cases, a good deal of friction existed between the actors and the studio head, Jack Warner, with numerous lawsuits in progress at any given moment. The studio was run like a factory, with rigid attention to the cost of each project and the allocation of resources. Retakes were discouraged, and actors were paid the least amount that the Warners could get away with. Writers, too, were seriously undervalued and underpaid, though Faulkner didn’t much care. He needed money, and Hollywood paid better than almost anything else he could think to do.
He lived at the Highland Hotel, three miles from the studio in Burbank. It was a fairly cheap place to hang his hat, costing only fifteen dollars per week, and it had an inexpensive dining room where Faulkner had dinner most evenings. He saved money by riding the bus to Burbank each morning, often writing on the bus on a yellow notepad that he carried with him wherever he went. He was assigned to work with the producer Robert Buckner (an elegant Virginian with an M.D. and amazing good looks) on a film about the career of Gen. Charles de Gaulle, based on a book that he had written about his own military exploits. The idea was to make an inspiring film during wartime about a great American ally and hero of the Resistance.
Only a couple of days after Faulkner’s arrival in Hollywood, he got the good news that the Saturday Evening Post had accepted a new story, “Shingles for the Lord,” paying one thousand dollars. This is a peculiar tale about a man who burns down his own church by accident when a plot he has devised goes wrong, a story about a father’s fallibility and the perseverance of a community (including a community of faith). A minor piece, it would eventually be included in Faulkner’s Collected Stories, though at this point in his career it stands out as the last story he would publish in a major national magazine for another seven years, the start of a desperate period of artistic drought for a writer who had been on a majestic roll for more than a decade.
Faulkner would arrive at his office on the ground floor of the Writer’s Building at nine-thirty and stay till after five. On Saturdays, work would stop at one. Famously, Faulkner arrived with a flask of whiskey in his jacket, which he drank from steadily all morning while he worked “to lubricate his tonsils,” as he often said. He would join other writers for lunch in the studio dining hall or, on special occasions, at such places as Musso and Frank’s Grill, the famous watering hole on Hollywood Boulevard. He also spent time at bars closer to the studio, where he could get a few more drinks and a hamburger at lunchtime. He often slipped away from his office during the afternoon for a quick rum or whiskey. Two new friends at the studio were fellow writers Richard Aldington, the English poet, and Tom Job, a drama critic and former Yale professor who had written one highly popular play, The Trouble with Harry. They would sometimes join Faulkner as he wet his tonsils.
Not surprisingly, the de Gaulle script progressed slowly, and Buckner was not impressed by the contribution from Faulkner, who turned up every Friday with exactly twenty-five pages of more-or-less useful material in hand. Faulkner was lucky that in late September Howard Hawks came to the rescue, once again requesting his services. Hawks was working on a picture about the crew of the Flying Fortress. Hawks recalled that Faulkner had a gift for solving problems in a script, and he considered the long script he had in hand rather lame, especially toward the end. The story closed with the crew gathered around the deathbed of the captain for a scene that, even by Hollywood standards, was putrid. Faulkner added a touch of surrealism that worked, having the crew gather around the captain as before, but now he is hallucinating, imagining that he is taking off in the plane, heading into the sunset. This worked brilliantly, and Hawks was grateful to Faulkner for the revision, which made it into the shooting script. He also attended to other problematic scenes, improving the script—at least Hawks thought so. The film, called Air Force, went straight into production, although Faulkner (as usual) received no screen credit.
Faulkner’s social life soared in the company of Hawks, who knew a lot of well-connected, party-minded people. He was even invited along on several fishing trips with the Hawks family. But he had to show his value now and buckled down to the de Gaulle project. By the end of October he had completed a draft of a treatment, called Free France; from this juncture, he was given a green light to begin a draft of a script. Buckner seriously doubted Faulkner’s usefulness to the studio, but he enjoyed the presence of this famous writer who dressed impeccably and behaved with an old-fashioned courtliness, even when drunk. “He walked,” said Buckner, “on a cloud of his own making.”
Faulkner powered ahead with the script, completing it—153 pages in all—by mid-November. A curious document, it failed to resemble a script that anybody else might have presented to a studio. Buckner called it “a curious ms. and perhaps 20 years ahead of its time in technique, more by accident I suspect than prescient genius.” He noted that the “natural circumlocutious style and endless sentences were diametrically opposed to the stringent, telegraphic needs of picture.”2 Buckner compared Faulkner’s approach to film with that of Ingmar Bergman and Federico Fellini. “You always heard rumors about Faulkner in Hollywood,” said Anthony Quinn, the actor. “They said he was a brilliant writer but couldn’t make a script, that he was trying to make movies that looked like his novels, with so many stories running at the same time and long monologues. Nobody thought this would work, because a movie is moving pictures, not long dialogues. But Faulkner was respected. People were even afraid of him. He had a tremendous reputation as an intellectual, as a writer who was read around the world.”3
The de Gaulle picture never came to anything, partly because of politics. The French general himself ran afoul of Washington, and President Franklin Roosevelt, who had originally encouraged the Warners to make this film, went cold on the idea. Faulkner was put on hold at Warner Bros. and spent much of his time in “the writer’s block” (as it was punningly called) with Albert Bezzerides, a large man of Turkish descent whom his friends knew as Buzz. Bezzerides had written a fairly popular novel called The Long Haul, about truckers, which Warner Bros. had made into a film called They Drive by Night. He had been introduced to Faulkner in 1937 by Meta Rebner, and now was delighted to make friends with the famous writer. They often played dominoes together at the studio, huddled over a small table in the cement garden behind “the writer’s block.” Faulkner began to get rides to Burbank with Bezzerides in his beloved Willys, an old car that he kept running with an antiquarian fanaticism. In November, Faulkner shifted from project to project, never settling on one thing for very long. His mind was on Christmas and getting home to Oxford.
Meta had moved back to Hollywood, resuming her work as a script girl. Her marriage to Rebner had broken apart for good, and she hoped she might persuade Faulkner to leave Estelle, but this was never realistic. Faulkner occasionally took her to parties, and they met for dinner once or twice a week at various restaurants. She would talk about her studio work, and he would complain about his draconian contract, which featured many opportunities for Warner Bros. to fire him along the way. The relationship between Faulkner and Meta was fairly well understood, even by Estelle, and was not unusual in Hollywood. In essence, Meta was an occasional lover and good friend. Faulkner was unwilling to risk anything more, much to Meta’s annoyance and despair. He would spend a certain amount of time with her in the months to come, but there was never any possibility of marriage. Propinquity was all.
By now Faulkner had made enough contacts in Hollywood to ensure an active social life without Meta. He often visited Dorothy Parker, who had moved to the West Coast, and whose wit he relished. He spent weekends fishing and hunting, usually with Hawks and Clark Gable. He was a regular at LaRue’s, a restaurant where he was often seen with Jo Pagano, another writer who worked for Warner Bros. Anthony Quinn recalled that “Faulkner could be seen in the clubs and bars, a walking stick in his hand, wearing a Harris tweed jacket with elbow patches. Nobody dressed like that in Hollywood except Faulkner.” John Fante, another novelist who made a living by writing scripts, said that Faulkner would go to Musso & Frank’s every Friday night for the bouillabaisse, which he would eat while he drank Bushmill’s Irish whiskey.
In December, Malcolm wrote from Oxford that he had decided to enlist in the army, and Faulkner—as mentioned in the previous chapter—wrote back approvingly, with some interesting meditations on wartime Los Angeles:
There is meat, butter, etc. shortage here. I hear reports of rationing. No meat now on Tuesday; I watched a friend last night who had invited me to his home for supper, stop at seven grocery stores to find butter and found none. The street lamps are hooded from above here, wardens patrol the streets for cracks in window shades, etc. There are barrage balloons along the coast, and searchlights (and of course, A.A. batteries hidden) in all sorts of unexpected places through the city: in all the canyons, and now and then on the playgrounds of schools. They expect a bombing here. But nobody is afraid of it. Of course, people cant leave their homes, lives, businesses, just because they might be bombed. It may even be that sort of courage. I hope it is. But now and then I become concerned about these people here.
It was their casual attitude toward the war that annoyed Faulkner. They refused to believe that anything serious was going on, that the city could be bombed, that the rationing of gasoline would come. He spoke to Malcolm with derision about “the moving picture people, and the real estate agents and lawyers and merchants and all the other parasites who exist only because of motion picture salaries, including the fake doctors and faith-healers and swamis and blackmailing private detectives who live on the people who draw motion picture salaries.”
In a revealing passage in this letter, Faulkner muses on the nature of war and its relationship to masculinity, noting that “it’s strange how a man, no matter how intelligent, will cling to the public proof of his masculinity: his courage and endurance, his willingness to sacrifice himself for the land which shaped his ancestors.” He said he himself didn’t want to go to war, and that “No sane man likes war.” But he said that he would go, if he could. “We must see that the old Laodicean smell doesn’t rise again after this one,” he said, meaning that the stink of war mustn’t return, that this war must end all wars. “We will have to make the liberty sure first, in the field,” he added. “It will take the young men to do that. Then perhaps the time of the older men will come, the ones like me who are articulate in the national voice, who are too old to be soldiers, but are old enough and have been vocal long enough to be listened to, yet are not so old that we too have become another batch of decrepit old men looking stubbornly backward at a point 25 or 50 years in the past.”4
After an absence of five months, Faulkner made it home to Rowan Oak for Christmas, uncertain if Jack Warner would renew his option for another period. Plunging into the holiday festivities with gusto, he delighted in the company of Jill. Together, they walked over to the Bailey’s Woods to cut scrub cedars, which he patched together to make one whole Christmas tree. He produced a bottle of vintage wine (bought in Hollywood) for Christmas dinner with his wife’s parents. Faulkner also spent time roaming the countryside in search of bootleg whiskey, which he managed to find in remote corners of Lafayette County. With a love of ceremony, he attended services at St. Peter’s, the Episcopal church. Among the family, there was much talk of Jack Faulkner, whom Faulkner now referred to as “the Captain.” Jack, over forty, was currently in North Africa with the Allied invasion fleet, in a counterintelligence unit, steaming toward Tunisia. At the same time, Johncy had managed to get a commission in the navy’s aviation branch, perhaps inciting envy in his older brother, who had failed to do as much.
In early January, Jack Warner directed an associate to pick up Faulkner’s option for another period of four months at $350 per week. Royalties from his books in 1942 had amounted to less than three hundred dollars, so this Hollywood money was manna from heaven. By Saturday, January 16, the novelist was back in his room at the Highland Hotel, finishing up some changes to a script called Life and Death of a Bomber, another contribution to the war effort. He had entertained some hopes for getting his novel Absalom, Absalom! translated into film, and Warner Bros. had indeed commissioned a script, which Dudley Murphy had written with some input from Faulkner, but Bob Buckner had seen the results and wrote a note to Faulkner saying that it was impossibly bad and that no film could be made from such a poorly conceived script. This was deeply disappointing to the author, who had been hoping for a cash infusion.
Faulkner was assigned to another project, briefly, about a group of Nazi spies attempting to take over Detroit. This unlikely film, called Northern Pursuit and starring Errol Flynn, had defeated half a dozen writers already, and Faulkner was added to this list of victims. He also worked on Deep Valley, writing nearly forty pages of dialogue for this film about a group of convicts in a California labor camp. The storyline was vaguely reminiscent of “Old Man,” Faulkner’s tale about the flooded prison, so it made sense to ask for his help. As usual, his contributions mostly went into the dustbin. After a brief renewal of interest in the de Gaulle film, which meant that Faulkner was asked to rewrite a few passages, he was assigned to Country Lawyer, a film based on the reminiscences of Bellamy Partridge, a well-known figure in New York State in the decades immediately following the Civil War. Faulkner wrote a treatment that amounted to fifty-two pages in typescript, but the project was canned when the studio read it.
Faulkner himself wanted to work on a story by F. Scott Fitzgerald called “The Strange Case of Benjamin Button,” which had been published in Collier’s and collected in Tales of the Jazz Age. He tried to interest the studio in this project without luck and even tried to get his agent to secure an option for him. “I believe I can make a play from the story,” he told Harold Ober on March 15, 1943.5 He felt guilty about the fact that he drew a substantial salary from Warner Bros., yet seemed to have no luck in getting his scripts produced. “I think I am no good at movies, and will be fired as soon as the studio legally can,” he told Ober. He suggested as much to Estelle, saying he would probably return to Oxford soon.
Faulkner wished that Jack Warner would let him go, even though he needed the money desperately. He knew Warner considered all writers “schmucks with Underwoods” and this rubbed him the wrong way. But Warner understood only too well that Faulkner was a famous novelist and took a certain pride in having him around. As Warner Bros. was doing a brisk business by churning out propaganda films for the war, there was plenty of room for someone like Faulkner; in Hollywood terms, he was paid very little. Indeed, Faulkner had made a great deal more in the late thirties. Now he had to indenture himself to the studio for what amounted to base pay for a writer of scripts. So it was with mixed feelings that he agreed, in June, to work for another full year at Warner Bros. for four hundred dollars per week. He did so partly because Howard Hawks had talked of becoming an independent producer and buying out Faulkner’s Warner Bros. contract.
For the time being, Faulkner was assigned to Battle Cry, working under Hawks through much of the summer. But Hawks had such poor relations with Jack Warner that he could not continue as his employee and severed his ties with the studio in August. He could not, at that time, take Faulkner with him as he had no obvious means to produce a film by himself. Faulkner felt upset about this, refusing to go to work at Warner for nearly two weeks. He spent day after day in a bar on Hollywood Boulevard, returning to his hotel room at night in horrible shape, acquiring a black eye one evening when, apparently, he “walked into a street lamp that refused to get out of the way.”6Seeing that he was useless, the Warners gave him a three-month leave of absence to pull himself together, warning him that this might be the end of the road.
Before he left Hollywood, Faulkner had begun to talk with Henry Hathaway, the director, and William Bacher, the producer, about another World War I film. It would be based on a story about the Unknown Soldier. That it would not have anything to do with Warner Bros. pleased Faulkner immensely, giving him a sense that he could survive without the largesse of Jack Warner, whom he despised. With a mere glimmer of this project in his mind, Faulkner returned to Rowan Oak, where he quickly fell into his old routines. He even began a novel, which—more than a decade later, after anguished revision—would emerge as A Fable. But his spirits had been severely diminished by the Hollywood experience. In November he wrote to Ober outlining his various projects, but his enthusiasm for this work had faded. The war and Hollywood had taken their toll on him, and he was afraid that he would not recover the kind of strength, as a writer, that he had experienced in the thirties, when his imaginative engines seemed to hit on every cylinder.
Having finished a synopsis for his new novel, he returned to Hollywood in mid-February 1944, exchanging his lonely room at the Highland Hotel for a room with Buzz Bezzerides and his wife and son. They lived in a large, fairly new house in a middle-class suburb north of Santa Monica, and Buzz welcomed the idea of having his friend among them. The family atmosphere was perfect for Faulkner, who had hated to leave Jill behind in Oxford. He felt that he was missing out on his daughter’s childhood and longed for the routines of daily life. He and Buzz commuted to the studio in Burbank together after breakfast and returned home in the evenings in time for dinner. For the relatively brief period when Faulkner adhered to this routine, his drinking was under control, and he felt relatively buoyant.
The first important project that he worked on this time around was To Have and Have Not, based on the Hemingway book. Howard Hawks—no longer an employee of the Warners—had nonetheless managed to persuade Warner Bros. to finance this film, even though it would be made without their control. Faulkner and Jules Furthman were attached to the script. Though the studio supplied the funding, Hawks would stop work whenever Jack Warner put in an appearance, demonstrating his independence. Meta Rebner, now divorced, had a small role as an assistant to Hawks, which pleased Faulkner, who still enjoyed her company. The stars of the film were Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, and Hoagy Carmichael: an astonishing combination of talents. Faulkner and Furthman wrote the screenplay at high speed and shooting began in March, although the writers stayed only a few paces ahead of the camera crew. The final product came out remarkably well. By early May, Faulkner had completed his work on the project, which would indeed see the light of day. This was, in fact, the film where Bogart and Bacall met and fell in love, and their chemistry was such that the film became an instant classic of American cinema and the high point of Faulkner’s career in Hollywood.
Faulkner had liked staying with Buzz and his family, but he inevitably felt confined by the humdrum routine; he soon enough found a house to rent in Hollywood, within walking distance of Musso and Frank’s. He had acquired a preferred group of friends, all heavy drinkers, and he wanted to spend his nights at bars in their company. This rowdy cluster of writers and artists included Jo and Jean Pagano, Owen and Betty Francis, and Edmund Kohn. Faulkner entertained them with tales about the Snopeses and told them the sort of southern stories that he himself heard as a boy at his father’s livery stables. The problem was, he wasn’t working on any fiction.
Even the success of To Have and Have Not, which earned him respect at Warner Bros., meant very little to Faulkner, who had hoped in vain to work on A Fable while in Hollywood. A couple of boring film projects came his way, including The Damned Don’t Cry and The Adventures of Don Juan. He was brought into these by Jerry Wald, a high-octane writer and producer, but these projects never engaged his interest or much of his attention. He told Harold Ober that he had no idea when or if he would finish the novel begun in Oxford in the fall. One evening, quite by chance, he turned over a letter from the critic Malcolm Cowley that he had not even opened when it arrived three months before. Cowley wanted to interview Faulkner about his life and work before he sat down to write a long appreciation.
Faulkner was pleased by the prospect. “I would like very much to have the piece done,” he wrote on May 7. “I think (at 46) that I have worked too hard at my (elected or doomed, I dont know which) trade, with pride but I believe not vanity, with plenty of ego but with humility too (being a poet, of course I give no fart for glory) to leave no better mark on this our pointless chronicle than I seem to be about to leave.”7 He explained to Cowley that he was “at the salt mines” once again, meaning Hollywood. He explained that he was less excited by the “biography part” of Cowley’s intended project. Like many, if not most, writers, he wanted to be remembered for his work, not his life; furthermore, he had invented so many things over the years that he knew his life would not bear scrutiny of the sort Cowley envisioned. He made the usual argument that a writer’s life was only worth what he had written, not what he “has experienced.” Nevertheless, he was genuinely grateful for this attention to his work, encouraging Cowley to go ahead with this project.
Estelle sensed from afar that her husband was depressed, and decided to move with Jill to Los Angeles. Faulkner liked this idea (apparently Meta did not, even though their relationship had lost its romantic edge) and he rented a substantial apartment for himself and his family in East Hollywood. They were able to celebrate Jill’s eleventh birthday in the pink adobe building. Because Estelle had not mastered the use of a gas stove, Faulkner insisted that they eat dinners out most evenings, either at Musso and Frank’s or Trader Vic’s. The family felt reasonably well-off at the moment, as Faulkner’s income for 1943 had topped eighteen thousand dollars. Two or three days a week he would take Jill to stables in Glendale, near Griffith Park, where he had managed to acquire a small mare called Lady Go-lightly. In part to keep his daughter company, he began to ride again, and his spirits brightened considerably.
That summer in Hollywood, he lurched from project to project, working on Fog Over London, a remake of a popular film of 1938 called The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse, then Strangers in Our Midst and The Petrified Forest (based on a well-known play by Robert Sherwood). These were all respectable projects, with serious actors or directors attached to them. In each case, Faulkner had only a small part in the making of the film, usually writing a treatment or adding a scene or two. He often worked during the day with Buzz Bezzerides, and they would meet on weekends as well, getting their two families together for outings. Faulkner seemed remarkably happy through July, with Estelle and Jill around him and his financial problems temporarily solved. He still drank more than most people around him, but the habit was apparently under control. The main difficulty was that he had ceased to write fiction.
For many biographers and critics, Faulkner’s situation in the forties, having to retreat to Hollywood to make money, seems demeaning. Was this just another example of the way America treated its major writers and artists, forcing them into penury? There is certainly much evidence to support such a thesis, and there is unquestionably some truth to it. Blotner characterizes the situation well as an “ironic juxtaposition of mastery and unpaid bills.”8 One feels sorry for Faulkner, seeing him bow before Hollywood moguls, kowtowing to studio officials of no consequence. Yet this interpretation, as Karl F. Zender suggests, is “radically incomplete,” since Faulkner’s desperate need for money was grounded in “the really quite extraordinary level of social and material obligation he had imposed upon himself.9 Indeed, he admitted in a letter to Bob Haas that he had come to be “the sole, principal and partial support—food, shelter, heat, clothes, medicine, kotex, school fees, toilet paper, and picture shows—of [his] mother, an inept brother and his wife and two sons, another brother’s widow and child, a wife of [his] own and two step children, [and his] own child.”10 Needless to say, he took on all of this obligation willingly.
The real question now was whether he really had anything more to say as a novelist and writer of short stories. Or had the creative engines simply needed a period of cooling off after more than a decade and a half of intense activity? Faulkner often reflected in his later years on that “one matchless time” between the late twenties and the very early forties, when inspiration came (for the most part) easily, when he had found not simply his own voice but a teeming chorus of voices, each of them distinct, whole, and authentic. He had put these voices into contrapuntal or dialectical forms, playing one against another, creating a complex tonal fabric. Go Down, Mosesrepresented a kind of summing up, a pulling together of so much of the Yoknapatawpha vision. His style reached a height of rhetorical intensity and freshness in “The Bear” that rivals anything from the earlier books. But silence followed, a huge gap unlike anything else in his career.
Of course the war intervened, casting a gloom over the world that Faulkner must have felt. It was hard to write fiction when so much was happening every day, when the papers and radio programs daily blasted forth news of battles, of massive armies in collision. To call this “distracting” is to put it mildly. But even the war doesn’t explain this dry period in Faulkner’s writing life. It seems most likely that creative exhaustion had set in. He had written so hard, so well, for so long, that his mind could not continue to generate work on such a scale. His later works would, in fact, rarely match anything like the great masterpieces that began with The Sound and the Fury and continued through Go Down, Moses. Any reader of Faulkner has somehow to deal with the idea of a “lesser Faulkner.”
The later books are often amusing or thrilling, with many fascinating developments as Faulkner attempted to come to terms with changes in the South, the notion of his beloved region as “one irreconcilable fastness of stronghold” that had changed into “a faded (though still select) social club or caste.”11 This theme emerges in the later books, where Faulkner either becomes furious with the changes observed and the decline of the notion of region itself during the homogeneous modern age or nostalgic for a past that never quite existed, as in The Reivers. Needless to say, there are remarkable passages in every book he ever published, and advocates for these works—such as Karl F. Zender—will always be found among the critics. But the intensity of the earlier works was such that even a genius like Faulkner could not sustain that level of achievement over a lifetime. Though I personally like many of the later books a great deal, I concede their inferiority to The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, Light in August, Absalom, Absalom!, The Hamlet, and Go Down, Moses. These half dozen works remain the pinnacle of Faulkner, but—to continue the metaphor—mountain peaks seem to require some earth below them. In a sense, the masterworks stand on the lesser works, and the whole moves together, creating a massive range called Faulkner. Perhaps Pylonand A Fable can be put to one side here, and the two earliest novels; apart from that, everything works together, contributing to the complexity and detail of the Yoknapatawpha vision.
While producing this body of work, Faulkner kept himself together and funded the huge family over which he had assumed command and control by working in Hollywood, where, as Elia Kazan, the film director, observed, “he had found an uncomfortable place for himself. Everyone in the studios knew he was not able to write speakable dialogue. Then again, what novelist can? The work of novelists in Hollywood was usually incidental, beside the fact of their real achievements in fiction.”12
Faulkner was reassigned to a film called God Is My Co-Pilot in August, working for Bob Buckner once again. But the project was taken over by Hal Wallis, whom Faulkner had not liked during earlier encounters. Perhaps in defiance, he got terribly drunk before an important conference with Wallis, leading to a clash that left Faulkner once more depressed and alienated in Hollywood. Fortunately, he was soon working again with Hawks on The Big Sleep, which Hawks had acquired from Raymond Chandler. Jack Warner liked the idea of using Bogart and Bacall once again, and the old gang from To Have and Have Not was reunited. Faulkner’s cowriter this time, however, was a young woman named Leigh Brackett, who described Faulkner as “a small spare man, fiercely erect, with bristly iron-gray hair and mustache, a hawk nose, and a disconcertingly piecing way of looking at, and usually through, the person he was talking to—or rather, being talked at by.”13 He worked on this project through August, moving back with the Bezzerides family when Jill and Estelle returned to Oxford for the school year.
The Big Sleep continued to preoccupy Faulkner through November, when the script was complete. He then worked, briefly and without pleasure, on a James M. Cain story about a divorcée and her numerous lovers. It was called Mildred Pierce, and the script had already been drafted by Jerry Wald; it required only minor revisions. Faulkner found the director, Mike Curtiz, overbearing and pretentious, and their chafing set him off on a drinking binge that left him exhausted and barely able to function. He disappeared for an entire week, then collapsed in his apartment, unable to speak. Once again, friends came to the rescue, with Bezzerides and Pagano getting medical help for their self-destructive friend. For his part, Faulkner used these binges as a way to restore himself after an emotional confrontation that overloaded his psychic circuits. His recovery, as usual, was swift.
These binges were, in a sense, a way of taking a forced vacation—from the pressures of life, from the urgencies of the imagination. It might be said that Faulkner’s whole Hollywood period at this time was a binge, a retreat from the nerve-racking work of fiction, with its insistent demands, its emotional turmoil. A binge, like a retreat from fiction-making, represented downtime for the creative mind. Certainly the binges always, in Faulkner, seemed useful in some peculiar way. They cleared away cobwebs, reset the inner clock, allowed the unconscious, like a well, to slow fill. When he “woke up” from a binge, it was as if he’d had a long and pleasant sleep. He stepped out into the light of morning again, chipper and refreshed, eager to plunge back into the business of life or the life of writing.
The Mildred Pierce project was a painful ordeal, however, and Faulkner’s script never came off well; it was trashed as soon as the producers read it. Fortunately, he didn’t have to revise it; he was needed back on The Big Sleep again, and this allowed him to exit peacefully and without excessive shame from Mildred Pierce. As usual, he was allowed to return to Oxford for Christmas, taking the script with him and working on it during the long train ride to Memphis. He would work on the script at his own leisure over the holidays, although he found little peace at home. Estelle presented him with a terrifying stack of bills and demands from creditors, and Miss Maud seemed very unhappy about her son’s long absence. In the meanwhile, Faulkner was offered five thousand dollars by Doubleday to write a nonfiction book about the Mississippi River, though he turned it down, fearing the project would take him in directions away from his fiction and was therefore dangerous. He was having a difficult time retaining any grip on his fiction as it was.
Malcolm Cowley continued to write about Faulkner, attempting to provide the kind of sustained criticism that had never as yet been given to Faulkner’s work as a whole. The author responded gratefully in his letters, calling him “Cher Maitre” or “teacher.” In one important letter, he reflected on his craft:
As regards any specific book, I’m trying primarily to tell a story, in the most effective way I can think of, the most moving, the most exhaustive. But I think even that is incidental to what I am trying to do, taking my output (the course of it) as a whole. I am telling the same story over and over, which is myself and the world. Tom Wolfe was trying to say everything, the world plus “I” or filtered through “I” or the effort of “I” to embrace the world in which he was born and walked a little while and then lay down again, into one volume. I am trying to go a step further. This I think accounts for what people call the obscurity, the involved formless sentence, between one cap and one period. I’m still trying to put it all, if possible, on one pinhead. I don’t know how to do it. All I know to do is to keep on trying in a new way. I’m inclined to think that my material, the south, is not very important to me. I just happen to know it, and dont have time in one life to learn another one and write at the same time. Though the one I know is probably as good as another, life is a phenomenon but not a novelty, the same frantic steeplechase toward nothing everywhere and man stinks the same stink no matter where in time.14
This utterly remarkable, candid, and self-knowing letter shows the humility of the writer, his uncanny understanding of his own project in its totality, as in the effort not to write a single book but to create whole, a brilliant tapestry, a fabric of imagined lives-in-time. He understood that he was repeating the same story over and again, self-consciously; he was aware also that revision is the essence of vision and that in order to see life steadily and whole he had to return to the same psychic formations, the same relations between characters and class-types and racial types, in order to see his characters caught in, whirled around by, the cycles of history, which they mastered or—more commonly—which mastered them. Having tried to embody the reality he discovered before him in one way, he attempted another; the whole became the layered viewpoints, the contrasting attempts to evoke experience. The phenomenology of his fiction is just that: a patterned dance around the object, life itself, the ultimate phenomenon, which is “not a novelty” but something given, not made. But it—the world, the book—has to be imagined, and once imagined, “How quickly the fictive hero becomes the real.”15
A feeling of relief came as Faulkner settled into the routines of life at Rowan Oak. The holidays, as usual, provided a huge lift, and there was the prospect of remaining in Oxford for the next six months or so and returning to A Fableand his stories. Through the rainiest winter in a decade, sitting in his study, he worked slowly, very slowly, on the manuscript. When Harold Ober wrote to ask if he would ever be going back to work in Hollywood, he said he would: “Yes, I will go back to Warner about June 1st. I might try to beg off my word to an equal—a literary agent or a publisher—but not to an inferior like a moving picture corp.” He considered A Fable his “epic poem. Good story: the crucifixion and the resurrection.” He had whittled a large manuscript into a tiny one, having found his early attempts verbose and boring.
A substantial surge in Faulkner’s reputation came when, in April, Hal Smith, who edited the Saturday Review, ran another installment of Malcolm Cowley’s long essay. Cowley looked shrewdly at the whole of the author’s varied career, celebrating “a labor of imagination that has not been equaled in our time.” He attacked critics, such as Maxwell Geismar and Fred B. Millet, for consistently misunderstanding Faulkner. Although he admitted there were faults in the writing, lapses of taste, rhetoric, and style, he cited its “quality of being lived” and suggested that Faulkner resembled Hawthorne as a writer of dark truths. He praised the author’s intricate mythmaking, his invention of a South that, in his hands, became legendary and symbolic, standing in for American society as a whole and therefore moving beyond mere regionalism. He was a writer of “universal significance.”
Faulkner thanked Cowley profusely for his words and was able to dismiss some of the odder responses that flowed from this article, such as an attack by Phil Stone, who was drifting deeper into paranoia and madness. Stone wrote to Cowley (and told Faulkner that he had done so) saying that Faulkner’s later works were dreadful because he kept rewriting Sanctuary. This was a ridiculous assertion, of course, but—as Faulkner’s daughter, Jill, recalls—Stone was “half mad by now. He made no sense.” Faulkner, as was typical of him, took a lofty and benign view of Stone’s criticism, remembering how much he owed Stone from his early days, and refusing to show ill will. His code of behavior toward friends was, here as always, beyond criticism. He prized loyalty above other traits, in himself and others.
In early June, he returned to Hollywood reluctantly, taking the manuscript of A Fable with him, just in case he could somehow manage to divide his time between scripts and more serious work. He moved in with the Bezzerides clan once again: a conscious act of self-control. At Warner Bros., he was asked to adapt a novel by Stephen Longstreet called Stallion Road, a story about a rancher in California who acquires an addiction to gambling and sex. Faulkner disliked the project, but moved forward nonetheless, rapidly completing a treatment and then a script. His attitude toward this hack writing was evident when, a few years later, he ran into the young Gore Vidal. “I remember meeting Faulkner at the Algonquin one night,” says Vidal. “I had just adapted for television two of his stories, ‘Barn Burning’ and ‘Smoke,’ and I told him I was heading out to Hollywood to work on some films. Faulkner said in a very sweet way, ‘That’s okay, but don’t ever take it seriously. It’s not a serious business. Just have fun, take the money, and get out of there as soon as you can.’”16
Another project dumped into his lap that summer was The Southerner, based on a novel by George Sessions Perry called Hold Autumn in Your Hand. The French director Jean Renoir was attached to the film, and he thought it a wonderful idea that Faulkner should have input on the screenplay, which Nunnally Johnson had written. Apparently Faulkner took the script for only a few days, adding snatches of dialogue that, in the end, proved too heavy for an actor to speak. This was always, as noted, the problem with Faulkner’s dialogue: it could not be spoken. His real gift, as many collaborators acknowledged, lay in a capacity to think about structural issues, especially transitions. The star of this film was Zachary Scott, who found anything bearing the signature of Faulkner “way too difficult, wordy, convoluted, more like something you would read in a novel than in a script.” Nevertheless, “everyone was impressed by him, glad to have Faulkner attached in any way to the project.”17
The main work of the summer was Stallion Road, which Faulkner completed in draft by late July, amassing a script of 134 pages. He understood that the studio would return the script with endless suggestions for revision, and that he would, sooner or later, find himself supplanted by another writer; that a shooting script with only vestiges of his input would eventually make its way before the eyes of actors, and even then the actors would change the lines as they read them. The director, of course, might rearrange scenes, invent transitions, and edit out anything that didn’t seem right. Anthony Quinn noted: “It’s a massively collaborative project, any script. Nothing is sacred. The ideal script would have no words at all, would consist only of pictures that moved, or didn’t move. Writers never like Hollywood because they are, in the end, erased.” Faulkner certainly disliked everything about the process of making scripts except making money.
Toward the end of August came news that would, ultimately, prove crucial to the advancement of Faulkner’s fortunes as a novelist. Malcolm Cowley had suggested to Viking that he should edit a comprehensive anthology of Faulkner’s work, one that brought into focus the nature and scope of his achievement. “It’s gone through,” he wrote on May 9, 1945, “there will be a Viking Portable Faulkner, and it seems a very good piece of news to me.”18 The anthology would be part of their well-established series called the Viking Portable Library, and Cowley himself would provide a substantial introduction that, in the end, proved essential to establishing Faulkner as a classic American author. “It’s hard to imagine how Faulkner had by this time fallen out of favor,” recalled Malcolm Cowley’s son Robert. “My father did a magnificent job here, and showed the reading public what Faulkner had accomplished. He helped them to reconstruct Yoknapatawpha County, its history and shape. The book changed Faulkner’s profile dramatically. For the first time, you could really see what he had done, how he had evolved.”19
Flatteringly, Cowley let Faulkner know that in France Jean-Paul Sartre had said to him, “Pour les jeunes en France, Faulkner c’est un dieu.” Faulkner replied, “By all means let us make a Golden Book of my apocryphal county. I have thought of spending my old age doing something of that nature: an alphabetical, rambling genealogy of the people, father to son to son.” He objected, however, to Cowley’s notion that he should leave out anything from The Sound and the Fury because the book couldn’t be broken up. “What about taking the whole 3rd section of SOUND AND FURY? That Jason is the new South too. I mean, he is the one Compson and Sartoris who met Snopes on his own ground and in a fashion held his own. Jason would have chopped up a Georgian Manse and sold it off in shotgun bungalows as quick as any man. But then, this is not enough to waste that much space on, is it? The next best would be the last section, for the sake of the negroes, that woman Dilsey who ‘does the best I kin.’”20
Later in August, Cowley replied to Faulkner with further ideas for inclusions and exclusions. He fancied himself a go-between, telling Faulkner what Hemingway said about him via a conversation in Paris with Sartre. “Did I tell you about the story I heard from Sartre, about Hemingway drunk in Paris insisting that Faulkner was better than he was? Hemingway wrote me a long, rambling, lonely letter complaining that writing was a lonely trade and there was no one to talk to about it. He said about you, ‘Faulkner has the most talent of anybody but hard to depend on because he goes on writing after he is tired and seems as though he never threw away the worthless. I would have been happy just to have managed him.’” That Cowley would even tell Faulkner about Hemingway’s opinion seems passive aggressive. In any case, he suggested that Faulkner write to Hemingway in Cuba and provided his address at the Vinca Vigia, which Faulkner filed away in his bottom drawer.
For the most part, Faulkner preferred not to engage directly with his contemporaries, such as Hemingway or Steinbeck. “He seemed almost afraid of John,” said Elaine Steinbeck, “or maybe he was so shy he couldn’t speak in John’s presence. He was a very polite but intensely reserved man, and you never knew what he really thought about anything. He kept his cards glued to [his] chest. I tried to talk to him about other writers, but he just stared at me. He wanted to talk about horses, and he asked John about his experiences with horses in California.”21
Nevertheless, other writers sought him out, hoping for his encouragement or, better yet, an endorsement of their work. For instance, he received in the mail a copy of Black Boy, a memoir by Richard Wright, in mid-August. He wrote to Wright that he thought the book was good, but not as good as Native Son. He told the young author that what he said “needed to be said” but that it would move only those who already understood the situation of black people in a white world. He nevertheless praised Wright for accomplishing what he could in this form, autobiography, which he considered well below the novel as a genre. “I think you will agree that the good lasting stuff comes out of one individual’s imagination and sensitivity to and comprehension of the suffering of Everyman, Anyman, not out of the memory of his own grief,” he explained.22 What seems moving here is Faulkner’s passionate belief in, his defense of, the imagination; for him, a novelist answered the highest calling, entering a priesthood of sorts, and the work of the writer was to take on the suffering of humanity and transform this suffering into art. Like T. S. Eliot, he also believed in the impersonality of art and refused to write autobiographically: he drew on his own experience, of course, but his fiction was usually quite filtered; one simply can’t look at any published work of his and say, “There is Faulkner.” He remains like God: nowhere to be found, but everywhere in evidence.
As the summer drew to a close, Faulkner was fed up with Hollywood. He could no longer tolerate the system in which scripts were produced by many hands, with endless suggestions for revision, some of them quite pointless. “I feel bad, depressed, dreadful sense of wasting time,” he wrote to Ober. “I may be able to come back later, but I think I will finish this present job and return home. Feeling as I do, I am actually becoming afraid to stay here much longer. For some time I have expected, at a certain age, to reach that period (in the early fifties) which most artists seem to reach where they admit at last that there is no solution to life and that it is not, and perhaps never was, worth the living.”23 One day Faulkner walked into the office of Finlay McDermid, head of the writing department at Warner Bros., and demanded a leave of absence because a mare he owned was going to foal. He apparently wanted her to foal in Mississippi. McDermid, of course, could not simply agree to let Faulkner go. The studio had a contract, and a good deal of money hinged on its fulfillment. As it turned out, Faulkner didn’t wait for the studio to release him. He just left, on September 21, taking the mare with him in a trailer pulled by himself and a friend from the stables, Newt House, who was paid $350 for his time and the use of his Cadillac and trailer.
On the last night before his departure, he had a farewell dinner with Meta. This relationship had managed to bump along for years, without satisfying either party. Faulkner had been unwilling to give up everything for the sake of a second marriage that he could perhaps see would provide no more solace than his marriage to Estelle. He wanted to preserve the image of his early days with Meta in memory, much as Harry Wilbourne in The Wild Palmswanted only to keep his memory of Charlotte Rittenmeyer sacred, and to worship at that altar. The end of this affair was characteristically anticlimactic, with neither party expressing clear emotions, without a sense of closure. Meta considered it “a sad way to end” their intense, long-standing affair. She found him “preoccupied” and thought she would probably never see him again.
Faulkner did carry home with him his unresolved contractual issues with Warner Bros. In his mind, William Herndon had been bilking him for some time. He had signed an elaborate deal, forking over a hefty amount of money in commissions to his agent over the years, and owing a lot more. It was partly his fault, of course, as he had sought a long-term contract with the studio, but now he could no longer abide Warner Bros. His nerves were raw, and he wanted to return to the vast, unruly manuscript of A Fable and other fictional projects. Nothing would stop him. He knew that lawsuits might be forthcoming, but he didn’t care. He felt on the verge of a serious breakdown and didn’t want it to happen in Hollywood. In fact, he didn’t ever want to see Hollywood again.
I wonder whether the reviewers will really read you this time instead of judging by their preconceived ideas and their memories of what Clifton Fadiman said in the days when he was writing for the New Yorker.
—Malcolm Cowley to Faulkner,
November 10, 1945
Faulkner settled in quickly, putting Hollywood out of his head, leaving Harold Ober to pick up the pieces. His interest turned aggressively to Malcolm Cowley and the anthology. All of his books except Sanctuary were out of print, and his critical reputation had begun to sink as younger readers no longer found his work on the shelves of bookstores. This was, as he knew, death for an author. Justifying his return to Oxford to Jack Warner, he wrote as honestly as he could:
I feel that I have made a bust at moving picture writing and therefore have mis-spent and will continue to mis-spend time which at my age I cannot afford. During my three years (including leave-suspensions) at Warner’s, I did the best work I knew how on 5 or 6 scripts. Only two were made and I feel that I received credit on these not on the value of the work I did but partly through the friendship with Director Howard Hawks. So I have spent three years doing work (trying to do it) which was not my forte and which I was not equipped to do, and therefore I have mis-spent time which as a 47 year old novelist I could not afford to spend. And I dont dare mis-spend any more of it.24
To help Cowley, he prepared a genealogical and chronological chart of his characters from Yoknapatawpha County. He relished this task, letting his mind roam over the histories of the Compsons again, imagining the whole immense patchwork of families and stories. When Cowley pressed him for biographical information, he ducked the issue of his own war record, preferring to dwell on the past, explaining that his great-grandfather, “whose name I bear, was a considerable figure in his time and provincial milieu. He was prototype of John Sartoris: raised, organized, paid the expenses of and commanded the 2nd Mississippi Infantry, 1861-2, etc. Was a part of Stonewall Jackson’s left at 1st Manassas that afternoon; we have a citation in James Longstreet’s longhand as his corps commander after 2nd Manassas. He built the first railroad in our county, wrote a few books, made grand-European tour of his time, died in a duel and the county raised a marble effigy which still stands in Tippah county.”25
He quickly glided over persistent questions from Cowley about his heroics in World War I, of which there were none. He simply wrote that he “went to RAF” and left it there. Cowley refused to take the hint and wanted badly to put in something about Faulkner’s war, but Faulkner allowed only the barest of detail, providing a nearly blank canvas onto which readers might project anything they wished. So Cowley reported only the literal truth, that William Faulkner “was a member of the RAF in 1918,” leaving out anything that might show up Faulkner as a fraud. Exactly how Faulkner understood this business about the war seems uncertain. At this point, he had enough accomplishment under his belt to feel like a person of substance, and he didn’t need false stories about heroism at the front or aerial misadventures and their resulting injuries. It had been some years since he claimed to have a plate in his head or walked with a limp.
In a vivid letter to Cowley, Faulkner discussed the origins of his art, calling it “oratory in solitude.” He noted that “Confederate generals would hold up attacks while they made speeches to their troops.” He believed that “oratory was the first art,” although “they talked too much.” Robert Penn Warren similarly noted that “a great part of Faulkner’s writing was speech, oratorical in a very Southern way.”26 Yet Faulkner’s oratory, in its baroque magnificence, its oddness, was unique; one never heard oratory quite like that while sitting around a campfire in the Big Woods. Faulkner’s speech was the product of private meditation, a lonely voice gathering momentum in the author’s head. He agreed strongly with Cowley’s point that many of his lapses in style owed something to his solitude, to the fact that he wrote without even thinking that readers might pass their eyes over the text: “I think I have written a lot and sent it off to print before I actually realized strangers might read it.”27
As he waited for the publication of Cowley’s anthology, he scanned the horizon for new ways of making money. If nothing could be extracted from Random House, he would have to return to Hollywood, and he loathed this option. “I have only about $500 cash,” he complained to Ober in February. His spirits brightened, however, in March, when a Swedish journalist called Thorsten Jonsson called at Rowan Oak to meet him. He told Faulkner that the Swedish Academy had been thinking for some time about him as a possible winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. The most recent winner, in 1945, was Gabriela Mistral. Faulkner was impressed, aware that winning such an award would do wonders for his reputation and, of course, put a considerable sum in his bank account.
Faulkner felt a strong urge to get back to his fiction. The problem was that Jack Warner still had the rights to A Fable, and continued to have Faulkner under contract as a scriptwriter. A breakthrough came when Ober persuaded Bennett Cerf, a friend of Warner’s, to write to ask that his author to be liberated from his obligations. A Fable was obviously unfilmable, by every description, and Faulkner had no enthusiasm for writing scripts. He would obviously underperform if he returned to the coast. Warner, to everyone’s amazement, simply agreed to release Faulkner. Furthermore, Cerf told Faulkner that Random House really wanted A Fable as soon as possible. The publisher would give him a small advance and, subsequently, five hundred dollars a month until he finished the novel. Faulkner could hardly believe his luck: “I feel fine,” he wrote to Bob Haas, “am happy now, thanks to Harold and you.”28
The good news kept coming. In April, The Portable Faulkner arrived at Rowan Oak, elegantly bound. “The job is splendid,” he wrote to Cowley. “Damn you to hell anyway. But even if I had beat you to the idea, mine wouldn’t have been this good. By God, I didn’t know myself what I had tried to do, and how much I had succeeded.”29 This book precipitated a major revaluation of Faulkner by American critics, stirring interest in his work by publishers, who now proposed various projects, such as the reissue of The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying in the Modern Library series. That summer, Harold Ober managed to sell the rights to two of Faulkner’s stories, “Death Drag” and “Honor,” to RKO. Soon after, the rights to “Two Soldiers” were sold to Cagney Productions. In all, Faulkner pulled in nearly ten thousand dollars from these various projects, easing his finances considerably and releasing him from the need to return to Hollywood.
Faulkner continued through the summer to enjoy being in Oxford, spending two or three days a week at Greenfield Farm, where he loved to ride, often recklessly, through the nearby woods. He savored the atmosphere of the farm, taking his turn at the tractor, mending fences, and doing small jobs of carpentry. Johncy had come back from the war, and seemed newly appreciative of his brother.
Younger writers consistently sought his attention and endorsement. Robert Penn Warren’s editor at Harcourt, Lambert Davis, sent him an advance copy of All the King’s Men, which he dutifully read, replying to the editor with a frankness typical of him, suggesting that Warren’s brief story-within-a-story was superior to the main plot:
The Cass Mastern story is a beautiful and moving piece. That was his novel. The rest of it I would throw away. The Starke [sic] thing is good solid sound writing but for my money Starke and the rest of them are second rate. The others couldn’t be bigger than he, the hero, and he to me is second rate. I didn’t mind neither loving him nor hating him, but I did object to not being moved to pity. As I read him, he wanted neither power for the sake of his pride nor revenge for the sake of his vanity; he wanted neither to purify the earth by obliterating some of the population from it nor did he aim to give every hillbilly and redneck a pair of shoes. He was neither big enough nor bad enough. But maybe the Cass story made the rest of it look thinner than it is.30
Warren didn’t know of Faulkner’s response at the time. He continued to pay homage to the older writer, whose work he found immensely generative. Indeed, Warren published a lengthy reassessment of Faulkner in the New Republic on the occasion of Cowley’s anthology, and this helped to boost Faulkner’s reputation in the academic world, where Warren had begun to have considerable sway as a leading New Critic and coauthor, with Cleanth Brooks, of two widely used textbooks on reading literature. Soon enough, others in the New Critical vein would find something to write about in Faulkner, whose novels were ideal vehicles for this critical approach, which stressed close reading. Cleanth Brooks later recalled: “There was so much to do with each text by Faulkner, so much to unfold that had been carefully and ingeniously folded by the author. These books worked very well in classrooms as well, and so professors were attracted to them. They required a kind of active reading, and students could be taught how to do this.”31
Faulkner kept to his schedule through the summer, spending the morning in his study at Rowan Oak after walking into town after breakfast to get his mail, often stopping by the drugstore for a chat with Mac Reed, whom he had known since childhood. By the end of August, he was able to send nearly two hundred pages of A Fable in very rough draft to Bob Haas. The problem was that the novel had been written like a treatment or synopsis, and Faulkner had difficulty in making a concrete texture that included description and dialogue. He had difficulty getting away from the Hollywood approach, getting back into his novelist’s skin. The voice in the text seemed to lack resonance and pitch. Further progress on the novel ground to a halt in the fall, when he turned his attention to the harvest at Greenfield Farm. “I’m a farmer now,” he told his agent, and he was: hour after hour was spent in the seat of a tractor.
Faulkner’s brother Jack was also back from the war, living in New Orleans and working (as before the war) for the FBI. He had married a second time, to a French woman named Suzanne, whom Miss Maud detested. Tensions rose in the family around this issue. It seems that none of Miss Maud’s sons had married a suitable woman, and only Bill remained on affable terms with her, continuing to visit her virtually every day for a cup of coffee. He also dealt with her finances, sorting through her bills and making sure that she had whatever supplies she needed. This role as caretaker, and paterfamilias, continued to appeal to him immensely.
With good reviews of the Cowley book having revitalized interest in Faulkner’s work, an article on American fiction as seen through French eyes appeared in the August number of the Atlantic Monthly. The article was written by Jean-Paul Sartre, who was now at the peak of his fame as a philosopher, playwright, and novelist. He heralded Faulkner as a major writer, suggesting that the Mississippian was more appreciated in France than in his own country. He even suggested that “the reading of novels by Faulkner and Hemingway became for some a symbol of resistance” during the war. He pointed especially to Sanctuary as a work that had influenced French writers and moved French readers in the past decade.
In November, Faulkner spent long hours on horseback, hunting with an old friend, Bob Farley, who had recently returned to take a teaching job at Ole Miss. Farley was often frightened by the way Faulkner galloped crazily along deeply rutted roads, ducking under low branches, boyishly reckless. This is, perhaps, alcoholic 'font-size:10.0pt; font-family:"Times New Roman",serif;color:black'>32 He might well have been remembering his time with Meta and missing her.
Money continued to create problems for him during the last months of 1946, when he had to replace his tractor at Greenfield Farm, and when a number of expensive repairs at Rowan Oak had to be done quickly. He responded to a request from Hollywood to do a little script work, and this added a few thousand to his coffers, but the situation would not be resolved for another year, when serious money for film rights to his work would materialize. For the time being, he continued to scratch around for odd jobs that he could do from his desk in Oxford, while forging ahead slowly with A Fable, which had not unfolded with the ease of his earlier novels. By February, the manuscript had grown to nearly three hundred pages. He would let Ober and Haas see what he was doing, but he warned them that he was always revising what he sent and that a finished manuscript lay far in the future.
Jill, at fourteen, continued to provide Faulkner with an important focus. He loved hiding eggs for her at Easter, talking with her after school, and riding with her. He often spent time with her friends. “When I was at school,” she recalls, “some of the children had parents who wouldn’t let them associate with me because of Pappy’s books.” It was only in her teens that she became “aware that my father was something special. People would come to the house to interview him or take his picture. I think that’s what caught my attention.”
Jill found life at Rowan Oak less than easy. “My parents were unsuited to each other in so many ways,” she says. “I don’t think of them as a happy couple, but they were happier with each other than they would have been with anybody else.” She believes that her mother and father “were both actors. Everybody living with them would wonder what sort of characters they’d be next time dinner came. They played off each other much of the time, too. It was exhausting, but I survived it.” She fondly recalls that he would sometimes “read aloud from something he was writing or something he had come across and admired.”33
Faulkner agreed, at first reluctantly, to meet with classes at Ole Miss—a total of six sessions—for a fee of $250. He had been invited personally by Professor A. Wigfall Green, who appeared at Rowan Oak with a plea for him to accept this invitation. Faulkner was asked to talk about a range of topics, from Shakespeare through modern literature and creative writing—a departure for a man who had thus far managed to stay outside of the walls of academe. Unfortunately, some unhappy consequences followed from these sessions. He mentioned to one class that Hemingway “lacked courage”—although his remarks were not really meant to demean Hemingway. He was simply saying that Hemingway didn’t risk failure. He explained that he liked Thomas Wolfe better than Hemingway because Wolfe had tried so hard, failing magnificently. News of this remark made its way into an article published in the New York Herald Tribune. Much to his chagrin, Hemingway had been forwarded a copy in Cuba. As might be expected, he found the remark about his lack of courage distressing and asked his friend, Brig. Gen. C. T. Lanham, to write to Faulkner and tell him about his actual performance under fire during the war. Faulkner responded immediately, without taking back what he had said or clarifying the context of his remarks: “I’m sorry of [sic] this damn stupid thing,” he said. “I have believed for years that the human voice has caused all human ills and I thought I had broken myself of talking. Maybe this will be my valedictory lesson.”34 This painful episode for Faulkner suggests, wrongly, that Faulkner didn’t admire Hemingway. He did. It was just that Hemingway had not gone “out on a limb” as Faulkner had, risking “bad taste, over-writing, dullness.” That is how he explained it to General Lanham, adding that he felt genuinely vexed that his comments had caused Hemingway discomfort.
There was some relief in getting back to his long manuscript, writing a new section that became almost a separate piece of fiction. He had always had an interest in flashbacks, as in the long sequence about the early life of Joe Christmas in Light in August, but this new section began to acquire a life of its own as Faulkner worked through the hot and humid summer of 1947, developing this side story about “a white man and an old Negro preacher and the preacher’s 14-year-old grandson.” They steal a lame racehorse, help it to heal its broken leg, then spend a year on the run from police, shifting about from one country racetrack to another. This embedded tale brought Faulkner back into the province of Yoknapatawpha County, where he felt comfortable. The white man in the story has a connection to the larger narrative through having been a British soldier on the western front during the Great War. The horse story itself would be published separately in a limited edition by the Levee Press in 1951 under the title Notes on a Horsethief. It would later be folded into the larger manuscript of A Fable.
On August 25, Faulkner turned fifty, a milestone in any person’s life but especially for a man of his habits. He was not pleased with his situation in life, however. His finances worried him desperately, and he wrote to Haas to complain about this situation once again, afraid he would have to return to Hollywood in the New Year. He suggested that he might dump an unrevised manuscript of five hundred pages on Random House “for the cash.” It might, he said, be printed “as is.” Haas had no idea what Faulkner meant by this phrase, and certainly didn’t imagine that such a book would have prospects in the marketplace. “I seem to write so slowly now that it alarms me,” Faulkner confessed, wondering if he had lost his touch. His mind seemed to circle as he wrote, wandering notions flying off the rim of the wheel. He had gotten further and further from the center of his imagination.
Money is rarely just money. It is a metaphor. It stands in for self-worth, reifying certain abstract notions, even though it remains itself an abstraction. The obsession with money that seems to dog Faulkner throughout his life must, I think, be regarded as a measure of his waxing and waning feelings of stability, value, purchase on the world. There was often no tangible relationship between how Faulkner regarded his financial situation and how it really was. It was simply a barometer of his spirits, a way of attempting to control his fate in the world, a means of calculating his reputation, his power, his reality. At this point in his life, having written little of consequence in quite a while, feeling left out, alone, neglected (even if no literal reality corresponds to these feelings), he searched the horizon for cash. Hard cash was what he needed now to feel well, whole, important, successful.
The possibility had been raised by Harold Ober that the horse thief story might separately be sold to the Partisan Review for one thousand dollars. Cheered by this suggestion, Faulkner went off into the big woods of the Delta region on a hunting trip in November, eager to free himself from the long novel and its offspring. He got no buck that year, but spent a congenial week among old friends, drinking Old Crow and listening to stories like those he had heard for the past four decades on similar hunting expeditions. When he came back to Oxford, there was a disappointing letter saying that the story was rejected. This came as a blow, and Faulkner wrote to his agent to ask if the editors at the review might “give a reason for turning the piece down.” He wondered plaintively: “What is your opinion of this section in question? Dull? Too prolix? Diffuse?”35
In fact, Faulkner swung wildly between the poles of overconfidence and a feeling of failure. Needless to say, this crisis pushed him into a bout of heavy drinking, a binge that lasted for a week in December, which guaranteed a tense, unpleasant holiday. Faulkner could not simply shake off his sense of failure and rejection. Even the critical success of Cowley’s Portable Faulkner had not buoyed him sufficiently. That was all “past work, hardly remembered,” as he commented. He worried the best period of his career lay far behind him, that he might never quite catch fire again, as he had done in the late twenties and thirties.
As the new year began, he resolved to put the large manuscript and the novelette about the horse thief into a bottom drawer for the time being. He had an idea for a short novel about race, a subject that had preoccupied him in Go Down, Moses, as in so much of his Yoknapatawpha fiction. He wrote to Ober about the new work: “I may have told you the idea, which I have had for some time—a Negro in jail accused of murder and waiting for the white folks to drag him out and pour gasoline over him and set him on fire, is the detective, solves the crime because he goddamn has to keep from being lynched, by asking people to go somewhere and look at something and then come back and tell him what they found.”36 He began to write quickly, accumulating two thousand words each day—a huge relief after the long, slow work on A Fable.
He finished the rough draft by the end of February and began a concentrated process of revision. It felt good to return to material he knew well, that was central to his experience of racial relations in the South. He wrote, as usual, in the morning, often spending the afternoons at Greenfield Farm, where he had a running dispute with a Snopesian neighbor over some stray cows who had broken into his fields and eaten some corn. Faulkner also had a visit in early spring from Ben Wasson, who brought with him another old friend, Hodding Carter, who was about to launch a small publishing house, the Levee Press. Wasson asked if Faulkner had anything they could print, and he offered them the horse thief story, which they would produce in a limited, signed edition.
The revised manuscript of Intruder in the Dust went off to Bob Haas on April 21, 1948. Faulkner explained to his editor that it “started out to be a simple quick 150 page whodunit but jumped the traces, strikes me as being pretty good study of a 16 year old boy who overnight became a man.”37 Haas read it quickly and loved it, as did Harold Ober, who began to search for a magazine that might serialize the book. Bennett Cerf read the manuscript, too, and initiated some Hollywood inquiries, seeing at once the cinematic potential in the story. By the middle of May, Cerf wrote to Faulkner that he had interest from both Warner Bros. and Cagney Productions.
A number of old friends drifted back to Oxford after the war, and one of these was Hugh Evans. Faulkner had always found his company amusing. Evans held the rank of colonel and liked to tell war stories while he drank a glass of whiskey on the side porch at Rowan Oak. He had grown hoary-haired and paunchy, but none of the spark had been extinguished. Evans and Faulkner joined two other friends to build a houseboat, which they planned to use for fishing and lazy weekends on the Sardis Reservoir. Faulkner hurled himself into the project, spending weekends with his friends, hammering away. The boat was finished by June, a makeshift, three-ton monstrosity christened the M.S. Minmagery, a combination of the other three owners’ wives’ names. It was launched that summer, with supercilious pomp and ceremony that delighted Faulkner.
In July, just two weeks after Intruder in the Dust had been set in type, MGM bought the film rights to the novel for $50,000—a whopping sum. After commissions were paid, Faulkner would reap $40,000, the most he’d ever been paid for anything. The news livened Rowan Oak considerably. Indeed, a visitor arrived one night to find Bill and Estelle quite tipsy, barefooted, dancing in the front hall. Faulkner said to him, “Anybody who can sell a book to the movies for $50,000 has a right to get drunk and dance in his bare feet.” To minimize the tax bill, Faulkner decided to take the money in four yearly installments of $10,000, thus ensuring his livelihood for a decent stretch. In a very real sense, this sale to MGM signaled the end of financial woes for William Faulkner. From now on, he would rarely feel the pinch as he had done before, even though he went through regular bouts of panic about money that had nothing to do with the actual facts of his financial life. As with most of us, money for Faulkner was symbolic, and he watched his bank account for signs that might be interpreted as reassuring or distressing.
News of the Hollywood deal and the impending publication of Intruder in the Dust caused a stir in the press. Faulkner was approached by Robert Coughlan about an article in Life, and by his old friend Hamilton Basso, who wanted to profile him for the New Yorker. Faulkner did not jump at these opportunities for publicity, telling Basso to forget the profile and just come for a visit. He was perhaps tired of rehashing the lies about his heroism in the Great War and tired of providing fodder for reporters, who found Oxford quaint, if not odd, and who considered Faulkner good copy, with his manor house, black servants, and other affectations of southern gentility. Now Faulkner wanted nothing more than to return to his desk, perhaps to pull together a collection of stories. He felt some anxiety about the forthcoming reviews of the novel, as it had been nearly seven years since Go Down, Moses appeared.
In fact, he had nothing to worry about on that score. He was deeply respected in literary circles, and though virtually every reviewer expressed reservations about some aspect of his work, there was consistent praise for his innovative, often dazzling, approaches to fiction. A lengthy reconsideration of his career thus far appeared in the New Yorker on October 23, 1948, written by Edmund Wilson, the doyen of critics. This signaled the arrival of William Faulkner at the top of the literary heap. “The novel has the suspense and excitement that Faulkner can nearly always create and the disturbing emotional power that he can generate at his best,” Wilson wrote.38 He dismissed earlier critics who accused Faulkner of misanthropy and despair, suggesting that “one of the most striking features of his work, and one that sets it off from that of many of his American contemporaries, has been a kind of romantic morality that allows you the thrills of melodrama without making you ashamed, as a rule, of the values which have been invoked to produce them.” Like other reviewers, he also complained about the style, calling Intruder in the Dust “one of the more snarled-up of Faulkner’s books.” He believed the author had managed “about seventy per cent of the time” to get where he wanted to go, noting wryly that Faulkner relied on various idiosyncratic practices, such as inventing his own punctuation marks (a parenthesis within a parenthesis) and “stringing long sequences of clauses together with practically no syntax at all.” He put some of the problems of style down to “indolent taste and a negligent workmanship.” As for the novel’s treatment of race relations, he thought it struck “a new note from the South; and it may really represent something more than Faulkner’s own courageous and generous spirit, some new stirring of public conscience.”
Eudora Welty, writing in the Hudson Review, called the novel “marvelously funny,” praising it as a “double and delightful feat, because the mystery of the detective-story plot is being raveled out while the mystery of Faulkner’s prose is being spun and woven before our eyes.”39 While Edmund Wilson had regretted Faulkner’s provinciality, which he believed had tempted him into being slipshod, Horace Gregory, writing in the New York Herald Tribune, defended Faulkner’s self-imposed isolation from cosmopolitan centers. He called Lucas Beauchamp “one of the most convincing characters in American fiction” and considered the style “masterful.”40 The anonymous reviewer in Time went so far as to call the book “a second cousin to Huckleberry Finn.”41 In the New York Times Book Review, Harvey Breit praised the elegance of the novel’s construction. Doubters in the crowd remained few and far between, and even their criticism was balanced against the recognition of Faulkner’s importance.
Faulkner went to New York in mid-October for a round of interviews and parties, in part to promote the novel. As usual, he spent time with old friends, including Hal Smith and Jim Devine, but he also connected with Ruth Ford, the Hollywood actress he had known for decades, ever since as an undergraduate at Ole Miss she had dated Dean, his brother. On Faulkner’s most recent stint in Hollywood, he and Ruth had seen a good deal of each other, and Faulkner found her attractive, with her slight build, jet-black hair, and dark eyes. She had an openness and freshness that suggested innocence, and this compelled his attention. He bluntly offered to become her lover, saying they had been “just friends” for a long time. “Ain’t it time I was promoted?” he asked. She demurred: “Oh, Bill!” This rejection may have precipitated the drinking binge that followed, with Faulkner hanging out for three days and nights in bars or gulping whiskey by the quart in his room at the Algonquin.
The binge led, as usual, to a breakdown. Faulkner was carted away to the Fieldstone Sanitarium at 250th Street by Malcolm Cowley and Bob Haas, who found him incoherent and barely able to stand when they got the manager of the hotel to let them into his room. Ruth Ford and Harvey Breit came to visit him the next day, and he pleaded with them, “You’ve got to get me out of here.” They sympathized, and an arrangement was made for Faulkner to spend a few days of recuperation with Malcolm Cowley in Sherman, Connecticut. “My father brought him home in a horrible, horrible shape. He was quite literally raving,” remembers Robert Cowley. “He could hardly speak, he was so far gone. He seemed shrunken, small, disoriented. When my mother put him to bed, he called out to her over and again in a high-pitched, trembling voice, ‘Please, Ma’am, would you give me a drink! Please, Ma’am!’ He was desperate. He had somehow lost most of clothes on this particular binge, and had to wear my trousers rolled up—I was a lot taller than he was. What was remarkable was his recovery. In a few days, he was back to normal, like a new penny.”42
The New York visit ended with a quiet dinner party given by Ruth Ford, as well as a meeting at the new Random House building on Fiftieth Street with Saxe Commins, Bob Haas, and Albert Erskine, who were making plans with him for a volume of mystery stories based on the character of Gavin Stevens, which he would call Knight’s Gambit. They also began to discuss the publication of a volume of Collected Stories by Faulkner, drawn from out-of-print books and magazines. It was obvious to everyone that his reputation now warranted such a book.
Having purchased a brown corduroy jacket for riding from Abercrombie & Fitch in Manhattan as well as a pair of elegant leather gloves, Faulkner boarded a plane for Memphis. At about the same time he arrived in Oxford, on November 1, a bouquet of twelve long-stemmed roses appeared at Muriel Cowley’s doorstep in Sherman, Connecticut. Faulkner had wired them from the hotel before he checked out, grateful that the Cowleys had nursed him back to health in their home. He was glad to be home again, in one piece, having survived his more self-destructive impulses once again.
Intruder in the Dust
What goes on here? Grave digging. Diggin’ and undiggin.’ What’s in the grave? One body or maybe another, maybe nothing at all—except human shame, something we’ve done to ourselves. Who digs? Who but the innocent, the young—and the old and female, their burning-up energy generating a radiance over Yoknapatawpha County and its concerns?
—EUDORA WELTY in the Hudson Review
Intruder in the Dust sold well, over fifteen thousand copies within a year, making it Faulkner’s bestselling book since Sanctuary. The commercial success of the novel—hardly one of Faulkner’s best—owed something to the fact that he relied for narrative compulsion on the most standard form available to a writer of fiction: the murder mystery. In this case, the corpse belongs to Vinson Gowrie, a white man from the hill country. Gowrie has, in fact, been murdered by his brother, Crawford, who had been stealing lumber from him. Crawford managed to pin the rap on Lucas Beauchamp, a man of mixed racial heritage whom Faulkner’s readers had met before, in Go Down, Moses.
Beauchamp, now in his sixties, is a strong character, an inscrutable man of “stern and inflexible pride” who traces his roots back to the planter and slaveholder Lucius Quintus Carothers McCaslin. Beauchamp must clear his name before he is strung up—indeed, a black man accused of killing a white man had, in Oxford itself, been strung up only a decade or so before by a frenzied vigilante mob, so Faulkner was writing about something deeply familiar. In a flashback at the opening of the novel, we see Beauchamp saving Charles (Chick) Mallison when he tumbled into a cold stream. Lucas (who becomes a kind of symbolic father) drags him from the icy water, dries him, puts his own cloak on him, feeds him, then takes him home. (Lucas and Chick exchange presents after Chick makes the faux pas of trying to offer Lucas cash for his assistance.) Now Chick, with the help of his black friend, Aleck Sander, son of the Mallisons’ cook, Paralee, becomes a sleuth, helping Lucas clear his name just in time.
The boys also acquire help from “a practical woman,” a spinster in her seventies named Miss Habersham. She explains to them that the best way to get a dead body out of the grave was “to go out to the grave and dig it up.” This trio, two boys (one black, one white) and an elderly woman, recalls the situation in The Unvanquished, where Bayard Sartoris and Ringo Strother team up with Granny Rosa Millard to hoodwink the Yankee soldiers who had invaded northern Mississippi. When Chick and Aleck dig up the grave of the dead man, they expose the fact that it’s not actually the body of Vinson Gowrie buried there. Considerable intrigue follows as the freshly discovered body disappears, is eventually found, and then hastily reburied; soon Vinson’s corpse is discovered in quicksand under a nearby bridge. The real killer is revealed, and so forth. It remains a simple tale, for Faulkner.
Gavin Stevens, the attorney who is also Chick’s uncle, plays a central role in the story—as in many novels to come. He visits Lucas in the prison and recommends that he plead guilty, by which ploy he can be whisked away to the federal prison before a lynch mob slips a rope around his neck or burns him alive. Stevens is a voluble man, a shambling representative of liberal white culture. Weinstein regards Stevens as a father figure for Chick, a character who stands in clear opposition to Lucas Beauchamp: “Gavin tells Chick; Lucas shows him. Lucas’s enactment of dignity counters Gavin’s talk of dignity, and this split is suggestive. It is as though the social realm itself—the space of law, education, culture, politics—were becoming for Faulkner increasingly garrulous and unreal at the same time.”43 Certainly this novel treats a theme familiar to readers, what Irving Howe has called “a controlling preoccupation of Faulkner’s work: the relationship of the sensitive Southerner to his native myth, as it comforts and corrodes, inspires and repels.”44 As the archetype of this Southerner, with whom Faulkner may partially have identified, Stevens appears shamefully impotent. He occupies a limbo space between the black community and the racist white community, committed to solving the problem of race without intrusion from the North. He believes, as did Faulkner, that the South must solve its own problems.
Lucas Beauchamp presents a dignified, intractable challenge to racist white attitudes. He is the intruder into the dusty space of the South, the man whose very existence, because of miscegenation, confounds the almost theological insistence on the separation of the races that for generations had been the unwritten law (but never a fact) of the region. In any earlier draft of the novel, Faulkner himself noted that racism must be eliminated not because of the past but because of the present, that “the white man of the South owes a responsibility to the Negro, not because of his past since a man or a race if it be any good can survive his past without having to escape from it (and the fact that the Negro has survived his in the way he has is his proof) but because of his present condition, whether the Negro wishes it or not.”45
Some critics have disparaged the attitudes to race in this novel, but one cannot easily assume that Stevens speaks for Faulkner in any direct way.46 The opinions of the lawyer’s nephew, Chick Mallison, differ markedly from those of his uncle and point the way toward a future in which the white Southerner is not overwhelmed by guilt about slavery. Indeed, Faulkner carefully tracks the progress of Chick’s attitudes toward racial matters as he confronts the darker sides of adult life. His feelings about Lucas Beauchamp, for example, shift as he matures. At first, he inwardly chides Lucas for not acting like “a nigger first.” Like other members of the white community, he finds Lucas’s attitudes challenging, even upsetting. By the end of the novel, he has put himself in the role of aiding and abetting Lucas, becoming almost a son. As he becomes a man, he begins to understand the brutalizing effects of racism and determines to act differently from those around him, to define himself against the “vast teeming anonymous solidarity of the world.”47
This is a novel of detection on many levels, and Faulkner had an abiding interest in the genre, which he played with in original ways, as John T. Irwin has shown quite brilliantly. “Like the machine gun, the detective story is an American invention,” he writes, assigning the origin of the form to Edgar Allan Poe’s 1841 tale “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” Irwin even suggests that “Faulkner is a major inheritor of Poe in this genre, and I would even go so far as to maintain that Absalom, Absalom!, with its two young narrators puzzling over the facts of a very old murder trying to understand the motive, represents in some sense the culmination of the gothic detective form.”48 In any case, Intruder in the Dust represents one of Faulkner’s most obvious and conventional forays into the genre, although he uses the form as a way of generating tension while exploring the tragedy of race in the South. Rather typically of Faulkner, there is also a resistance in this novel to the usual conventions of detective fiction, as Judith Bryant Wittenberg has observed. She sees that Faulkner inverts the usual conventions of detective fiction by depending not on the usual ratiocination that one expects of detectives out to solve a crime but on their “antirationalism,” a willingness to act while putting the work of reason to one side.49
Hardly in contention as one of Faulkner’s major accomplishments, this hastily composed novel remains a fascinating piece of fiction, laced with scenes that shimmer with the peculiar intensity that Faulkner could generate. That it succeeded as a piece of commercial fiction is not surprising, given its narrative momentum and obvious topicality.