One Matchless Time: A Life of William Faulkner - Jay Parini (2005)

Chapter 10. The World’s Eye

Voided from History?

It is my ambition to be, as a private individual, abolished and voided from history, leaving it markless, no refuse save the printed books.

—Faulkner to Malcolm Cowley,
February 11, 1949

Faulkner wrote to Malcolm Cowley on November 1, 1948, to say that he had had a “slow uneventful trip” on the flight to Memphis and that he had spent his time thinking about the volume of collected stories that had been proposed. He explained that “the more I think about it, the better I like.”1 He provided a rough outline of the book, dividing the stories into six sections: the Country, the Village, the Wilderness, the Wasteland, the Middle Ground, and Beyond. These categories were convenient as markers, and he used them to rethink his fictional world, especially as it had been caught in the form of short fiction. Cowley had offered to write an introduction, but Faulkner wanted to reserve it for himself. He probably thought Cowley had already had his say in The Portable Faulkner. He also explained how unimportant prefaces were, saying he only remembered one, by the Polish writer Henryk Sienkiewicz, who had said of his career thus far: “Here ends this series of books, written in the course of several years and with no little labor, for the strengthening of men’s hearts.”2

Deer hunting camp opened in the third week of November, as usual; because two of the senior members of the camp had died in the previous year, Faulkner inherited the responsibility of acquiring the horses and dogs, the cooks, the tents, and other necessary items. Sitting around in camp, he began to reconsider the idea of a Collected Stories, thinking he might rather postpone such a book and turn his hand to a new volume of stories centered on the figure of Gavin Stevens. Intruder in the Dust had been such a popular book, he perhaps thought he might capitalize on that success. When he got back to Rowan Oak, he set to work on the stories again (many of them were in draft already and had been published in magazines). He would write for four hours after breakfast, then head to the farm or the Sardis Reservoir for an afternoon on the Minmagery. He and Estelle had settled into a way of life that worked “for both of them, who led rather separate lives in the same house, the same town,” as their daughter said.

When Faulkner stayed in Connecticut with the Cowleys, Malcolm had proposed a profile for Life, which had already assigned a profile of Hemingway in Cuba. A companion piece made sense, and Cowley knew Faulkner’s life and work as well as any critic or journalist. Faulkner, feeling gratitude to Cowley for rescuing him from the sanitarium, agreed to cooperate. Now Cowley began to press him on the topic, and Faulkner wrote back in January 1949 saying that he would still allow the profile to go forward but he wanted to keep the personal details out of it. “I imagine this wont go down with LIFE,” he acknowledged.3 But he couldn’t stand the exposure of “my past, my family, my house.” He said he must reserve the right to edit anything Cowley wrote. Once again, he may have feared exposure as a fraud in relation to his war record. He doubtless had a trunkful of additional stories, yarns, half-truths, and necessary fictions that would not withstand the light of day. He lived in the imaginative workshop where he toiled daily, making his fiction; he didn’t expect anyone to examine the life as well as the work, even though both were complex and artful fabulations.

While Faulkner tinkered with the Gavin Stevens stories, which became Knight’s Gambit, he also pulled A Fable from the drawer, adding pages whenever inspiration struck. Meanwhile, his reputation expanded. The film of Intruder in the Dust would soon be shot, reaching a wide audience, and a ballet had been created around As I Lay Dying by Valerie Bettis. Fresh editions of that novel and Light in August were selling reasonably well in bookstores, and there was continuing interest in his books in Europe, where translations proliferated. In January, Robert Haas had written that the original plates from Go Down, Moses, The Hamlet, and The Wild Palms remained intact, and Random House would happily bring them back into print. “The market seems ripe for these,” Haas told him.4

When the article on Hemingway appeared, Faulkner wrote to Cowley that he could not allow the profile of him to go forward. He hoped it would profit Hemingway to be treated in this manner, but he didn’t want it for himself. In an astonishing phrase, he said he wished to be “abolished and voided from history,” leaving behind nothing but the books. He even wished he’d never signed the books. Indeed, he craved anonymity. “He made the books and he died,” he proposed as the ideal epitaph.5 Faulkner wished to erase himself because he did not like what he saw, did not trust what he saw; he understood only too well the nature of the fictive process in which his life had been caught and spun. There was also a genuine desire here to let his reputation ride on the merit of the work: an admirable wish, and one unfamiliar in most literary circles, where self-promotion has tended (in the modern era) to run rampant—in part because of Hemingway’s egregious example. Indeed, Faulkner often referred fondly to the “old Elizabethans,” who were willing to publish their work anonymously and circulate their work in manuscript form. Faulkner may also have rejected the idea of another profile in part because he hated the inevitable comparison with Hemingway.

Clarence Brown, who would direct Intruder in the Dust for MGM, landed in Oxford with a company of technicians in late winter to survey for locations. This created a stir in town, and Faulkner’s stock began to rise in Lafayette County, where his name had often been scorned. Hollywood invariably cast its spell, and Faulkner wrote to Jim Devine with bemused regret that he was too old to take advantage of the young local girls “who are ready and eager to glide into camera focus on their backs.”6 He had not been hired to write the script, but in conversations with Brown (who dropped by Rowan Oak several times for drinks) he agreed to read the script and offer suggestions. He eventually revised much of the 113-page script (informally, not under contract), making changes that played against the sentimentality of the adaptation. That his name would never appear in the credits didn’t worry him: he had been well paid already for rights to the novel, and he was not at liberty to work for any studio but Warner Bros.

In March 1949, more than fifty actors and assorted technicians arrived in town, ready to begin filming. Locals were hired as bit actors, as were Ole Miss students, who eagerly took any part they could get. One English professor, Harry M. Campbell, accepted a bit part just for amusement’s sake; he and a colleague, Ruel E. Foster, had been working together on a book about Faulkner’s fiction for some time: the first full-length academic study of his work. Faulkner himself remained detached, refusing to visit the set until Miss Maud persuaded him to accompany her to the site, where they sat in canvas chairs beside the director to watch. “I told you it was boring,” Faulkner told his mother as they observed endless retakes of the same, brief scene.

Solitary afternoons on the Minmagery were fine, but Faulkner liked to play host as well. One Sunday, for example, forty-two friends and acquaintances came aboard, bearing two cases of whiskey. There was poker and craps, lots of rowdy conversation, and “one fight,” as he told a friend. A huge barbecue on the deck added to the excitement, though it was bitterly cold. The whiskey apparently kept everyone quite warm, “bottle after bottle.” “Don’t let the weather bluff you,” Faulkner announced, dressed in long underwear and a sailor’s cap, “bluff the weather.”

It was around this time that Faulkner bought the Ring Dove, a nineteen-foot sailboat, from a friend who taught at Ole Miss. It was in fairly poor condition, but this appealed to the author, who delighted in caulking, scraping, painting, and waxing the hull. He had acquired considerable skills as a boatbuilder while helping with the Minmagery, so he liked putting these to use again. In due course, the little sailboat proved a welcome escape from the intensity of public life in Oxford, which didn’t seem to wane even after the movie people departed. For example, a conference on southern literature was held in Oxford, with John Crowe Ransom, Stark Young, and Elizabeth Spencer traveling considerable distances to attend. Faulkner didn’t appear at the meetings, but he did host a party for the writers on the Minmagery, explaining that he could not spare the time, as he was trying to complete a book of stories. He also dropped hints about a “big book” that still needed a lot of revision.

In mid-May, he reported to Saxe Commins that he was almost finished, with half a dozen stories nearly in their final form, and that he expected to send a manuscript soon. True to his word, the book arrived in late May. Barely a week later, Commins would write back: “I have just this minute finished with great excitement my reading of Knight’s Gambit. You must know without my telling you how deeply affected I am by its layer upon layer of implication and throbbing narrative power. My hat is off to you, Sir.”7 The book went straight into production, with few changes.

That summer, Faulkner relaxed on the sailboat with his daughter, Jill, now sixteen, and sometimes with his stepdaughter and her husband, who came for a long visit in July. “He liked that sailboat and was a good sailor,” his daughter recalled, “even though it was often windless on the reservoir, and he would sit for a long time, unworried about not moving. There was no good sailing in Mississippi, but he didn’t care. He spent quite a bit of spare time working on the boat.”8 Faulkner actually delighted in the sudden squalls that were part of the weather system in his part of the world. It was often very hot, too, the thermometer soaring to 105 degrees Fahrenheit on many occasions, but Faulkner remained impervious to varying conditions, however extreme. Such volatility perhaps mirrored the condition of his soul.

In August, Faulkner renewed an acquaintance with John Reed Holley, who returned to Oxford after the war. He was married to Regina Williams, whose cousin, Joan, had grown up in Memphis in a middle-class family with a father who drank heavily. A girl of twenty-one with green eyes, red hair, and freckles, she wanted to become a writer, and eagerly visited Faulkner at Rowan Oak with her sister’s husband. Joan was a junior at Bard College, in upstate New York, and had already won a writing contest at Mademoiselle that included the publication of a story. At first, Faulkner had refused to see her, as he intended to go sailing on the day she would be in town. But the weather conspired to keep him at home, and when Holley drove by Rowan Oak, he saw Faulkner in the garden and parked in the drive. He asked if he would simply be willing to meet the girl briefly, and Faulkner agreed in a pleasant enough fashion, though he said he was tired of people coming to see whether or not he had two heads.

Their first meeting ended within minutes and was, for Joan, frustrating. She went back to Memphis and wrote to Faulkner saying she had wished to see him because of his work, which she admired, not to see if he really had two heads. Without pretension, she revealed her own ambitions as an artist. Faulkner responded well to this letter, telling her she could definitely see him again, as she had requested. Soon this relationship would blossom into a genuine friendship, with Joan Williams taking the place of Meta Carpenter in his affections. The pattern had been established and would recur: the famous, aging author who befriends the admiring younger woman of considerable intelligence and beauty. As his marriage had ceased (probably) to provide much in the way of erotic stimulation, it isn’t difficult to see why Faulkner craved a closer relationship with someone like Joan. He wanted, of course, to sleep with her, while Joan seems to have wanted a fatherly mentor, at least initially.

In 1971, Joan published a lyrical novel about her affair with Faulkner called The Wintering, a fairly explicit roman à clef in which an older southern gentleman and writer named Jeffrey Almoner falls in love with the much younger Amy Howard. “It was one of those books that hung somewhere between fact and fiction, but it gives an impression of what happened, a fair impression,” Williams recalls.9 She describes the town, obviously modeled on Oxford, as being incommensurate with “Almoner’s greatness.” She “stared about it in disappointment. All the little stores, with flat roofs, seemed squashed together and faced a railroad station in the center of town. The tracks, from a distance, seemed to end at a crumbly red brick Court House with white pillars.” The benches were filled with black men and women, and the train blew through town with a fury, leaving behind a silence that “lay vastly heavy on the countryside.” Almoner himself was “neither as tall as she had imagined nor as elderly.” Amy writes to the author, as Joan had done, to explain that she had come “because I like your work so much.”10 Almoner even tells young Amy that their relationship is “a kind of incest.”

The correspondence flourished when Joan got back to Bard. “I don’t know what questions I wrote him from college,” she said. “But he replied that they were the wrong ones; that a woman must ask these questions of a man when they are lying in bed together, at peace. I was a little shocked, and also apprehensive. And I might not find answers, as most people didn’t, he said.”11 Faulkner clearly enjoyed the role of mentor and was titillated by this correspondence, which he regarded as foreplay. He told Joan that she must read A. E. Housman’s poetry, which for him remained an emotional touchstone: erotic but in a subdued, idealized, mannered way.

The film of Intruder in the Dust, released in early October, generated commotion in Faulkner’s life. A preview in Memphis was followed by the official world premiere in Oxford, which thrilled the local population, many of whom had been extras in the large crowd scenes. Elsewhere in the South, considerable outrage surfaced as once again southerners were portrayed as lynching rednecks who chewed tobacco and spat in the dirt. The two main newspapers in Jackson, racist to the core, attacked Faulkner repeatedly as being in the clutches of northern liberals. Yet Faulkner himself liked the film, which had simplified his plot (there is only one dead body in the picture), but generally kept to the novel, making it the most literal film of a Faulkner novel, with many haunting scenes. In fact, a fair portion of the dialogue comes straight from the novel: an ironic turn, given that so much of Faulkner’s dialogue had been cut from Hollywood scripts in the past few years.

Aunt ’Bama came down from Memphis for the premiere, and she expected Faulkner to escort her. He resisted at first, dreading the attention, but finally relented. This was, after all, “someone who had meant a great deal to him over a lifetime.”12 Downing a few stiff drinks, Faulkner proceeded into town as floodlights played across the sky in Hollywood fashion and two dozen reporters hurled questions as he approached the Lyric Theatre. The Ole Miss band, in red and blue uniforms, boomed their “incongruously martial tunes,” as he later remarked. Entering the building, he was acknowledged with huge applause by his fellow Oxfordians, who jammed the eight hundred seats in the auditorium and appeared to forgive all. Afterward, he escaped into the dark as soon as possible, refusing further adulation. His shyness and reluctance to present himself in public are complex matters, not easily explained away as an attempt to cultivate an image, as Frederick R. Karl suggests.13 There was in this behavior a deep reluctance to let any “real” life mingle with the fictive life. Faulkner could almost not bear the idea of linking the image of himself as a human being who ate, drank, farmed, made love, and paid his taxes with the final printed words, which for him acquired an almost holy objectivity once they had found their way onto his bookshelf.

The intrusion of Hollywood into his life in Oxford had stirred troubling memories of his time on the West Coast and of Meta. He had never stopped writing her occasional notes, and now he wrote to her passionately. Meta recalled: “I hid from my husband’s chance scrutiny a declaration of love written during the week in which MGM’s screen version of his Intruder in the Dust was given its world premiere in Oxford. He wanted me to know that he dreamed of me often, even too often, but that now it was so ‘grievesome.’”14

November brought the publication of Knight’s Gambit, which the author hoped (in vain) might equal Intruder in the Dust in sales. Reviewers, having wildly praised his last novel—in excess of its value—seemed in no mood for another Faulkner, especially one as slight as this. They agreed almost to a critic that this was minor Faulkner, unevenly written, more conventional than anything he had ever done. The best review came from Edmund Wilson in the New Yorker, who admitted that it was an unimportant addition to the Faulkner canon but admired the way the writing could awaken a feeling of “anxious suspense” in the reader.

Faulkner ignored the reviews, turning his attention to an upcoming trip to New York, where he would have a clandestine rendezvous with Joan Williams, who planned to come down from Bard to see her new friend and correspondent. In an odd move, he had already called on her family in Memphis and borrowed a copy of the Mademoiselle issue (August 1949) that contained “Rain Later,” her award-winning story. He wrote to her: “I read the piece in Mlle. It’s all right. You remember? ‘to make something passionate and moving and true’? It is, moving and true, made me want to cry a little for all the sad frustration of solitude, isolation, aloneness in which every human being lives, who for all the blood kinship and everything else, cant really communicate, touch. It’s all right, moving and true; the force, the passion, the controlled heat, will come in time.”15 He referred to the writing life as “the suffering and the work, most of all the working.” It was of course the work that had sustained him over the years, seeing him through a difficult marriage, a fierce addiction to alcohol, bouts of self-doubt and despair, and a growing sense of his own mortality.

Knight’s Gambit

The genuine detective story—need I say it?—rejects with equal contempt physical risks and distributive justice.

—JORGE LUIS BORGES, “Chesterton and
the Labyrinths of the Detective Story”

The six stories of this slight collection had all been published before except for the eponymous novella, which had been rejected by Harper’s in 1942 but much revised over the past seven years. This work demonstrates the author’s abiding interest in the “who-done-it,” a phrase he often used to describe a story of detection. The character of Gavin Stevens, the attorney, unites all of these tales, which play over a broad canvas in Yoknapatawpha County. In texture, the stories have a good deal in common with Intruder in the Dust, looking at the ordinary people of the county: the half-shaven, tobacco-chewing, sweaty, fairly poor but respectable, often hardworking people who lived in and around Jefferson.

Many of the same techniques that can produce reader fatigue in the more difficult novels are put to good use here. There is, for example, the same brooding sense of familial history mingling with the history of the region. The first story, “Smoke,” opens: “Anselm Holland came to Jefferson many years ago. Where from, no one knew. But he was young then and a man of parts, or of presence at least, because within three years he had married the only daughter of a man who owned two thousand acres of some of the best land in the county, and he went to live in his father-in-law’s house, where two years later his wife bore him twin sons and where a few years later still the father-in-law died and left Holland in full possession of the property, which was now in his wife’s name.”16 A perfect opening for a mystery, and reminiscent of so many Faulkner tales, wherein a mysterious or brash outsider enters the community, succeeds with gumption and charm, and sets himself up for future conflicts with those who accepted him, partly against their will. (This is essentially the plot of the Snopes trilogy.)

Whereas in the great novels this setup would lead to complex musings on history and time, fate and presumption, here the engines of plot begin to whir in a few pages without a sense of a major destination. So Old Anse is murdered, his foot dangling from the stirrup of his horse: an obvious ploy by the murderer to make the death seem accidental. As often happens in Faulkner, the town suspects one of the family, and Anse of course has those twin sons: a mythic pattern, perhaps, that will lead to parricide? The real murderer, a creep named Granby Dodge, a cousin, has apparently been torn apart by envy of the property, the Holland farm. He contracts a Memphis hood to murder a suspicious judge, and Stevens eventually tracks the crime back to Granby by following a trail of smoke, finding a “city cigarette,” which opens the case for him. But the smoke is, as it were, smoke, and Faulkner delights in the irony of evidence that is so obviously evanescent, insubstantial.

“Monk” follows—the story of a man called Stonewall Jackson Odelthrop, whose name belies a feeble mind that gets him doubly into trouble. He is falsely accused of murder, then sent to prison, where he does actually kill someone, the prison warden (having been duped into this crime by another prisoner). Faulkner reveals an almost Dickensian passion for reforming the prison system in Mississippi in this story, which ultimately seems too slight for the meaning Faulkner would have it bear.

Elevated to the rank of county attorney, Stevens pursues the killer of Lonnie Grinnup in “Hand Upon the Waters,” a diffuse but often ingenious story about the murder of this man whose ancestors were among the first to settle in Yoknapatawpha County. The murderer turns out to have banal (but conventional) reasons for killing Lonnie: to collect on an insurance policy. The story is nevertheless written with gusto, filled with remarkable passages of imagistic landscape painting. Faulkner drew here on his love of the water, describing the river and the “dense wall of cypress and cane and gum and briar” that borders it with the same energetic eye and busy intelligence found in “Old Man.”

“Tomorrow” brings us back to Frenchman’s Bend, where a farmer named Bookwright may have murdered Buck Thorpe, a young stud, for seducing his teenage daughter. This slight tale, never quite realized, turns on a single member of the hung jury who had given a home to Buck in his youth, when the boy was orphaned, and who has a more knowledgeable understanding of his character. The situation gives the loquacious, moralizing Stevens an occasion for rhetoric as he speaks to his nephew about “the lowly and invincible of the earth” who must “endure and endure and then endure, tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.” This moralizing tendency was the least attractive part of Stevens, and his presentation, in Intruder in the Dust.

“An Error in Chemistry” features a scoundrel and former illusionist and escape artist called Joel Flint, who kills his wife and father-in-law, is arrested and convicted, then jailed, only to escape and disappear. He might simply have vanished for good, but greed does him in. He foolishly tries to impersonate his father-in-law (whose body had never been found) and sell his property. Stevens finds him out, and justice prevails, although Faulkner never really develops any of the characters in this tale sufficiently. The story suffers from two flaws, as John J. Irwin has observed. First of all, the idea of making the killer a trickster by profession seems itself rather a trick. Second, the manner in which Stevens solves the murder, coming upon Flint by chance instead of by using his skills in detection, is too easy. “All of which leads me to suggest that as a writer of detective fiction Faulkner is most successful when he takes the conventions of the genre and shapes them to his own materials,” said Irwin, “his own obsessive concerns, rather than when he competes with the genre’s originator on terms that are almost wholly Poe’s.”17 I would simply add to Irwin’s objections that the story is, at times, working against itself in that the language of the story opens areas of characterization that Faulkner never closes; it is as though he were writing a precis for a longer work, with many digressions, but failed even to complete the digressions.

Faulkner allows himself more fictive space in the title story, which he had time to meditate and complicate, bringing various story lines together in a tale about a murder that Stevens prevents from happening. One of the most affecting plotlines involves the middle-aged attorney’s reunion with an old girlfriend, Melisandre, who is the widow of a bootlegger (and quite wealthy as a result). The main plot involves Max Harriss, who wants to frighten away the swarthy suitor of his sister, Sebastian Gualdres, an Argentine cavalry officer with dark intentions. Captain Gualdres is the knight on the chessboard. Perhaps Faulkner had in mind The Big Sleep here, Raymond Chandler’s classic novel of detection, which he had adapted for the screen in 1944 with Leigh Brackett and Jules Furthman. Philip Marlowe, the detective one associates with Chandler, liked to rethink his cases in terms of chess and kept a board in his apartment for this purpose.

Captain Gauldres, the knight of the story, can move this way or that, even toward Max’s mother, Mrs. Harriss. “I do not intend that a fortune-hunting Spick shall marry my mother,” Max says at the beginning to Stevens, having sought him out for help. Max cannot scare away this man, as might be expected, and plots to kill him—with an unlikely weapon, a stallion. As the story draws to a nicely shaped conclusion, the murder has not happened, owing to Stevens, who also marries Mrs. Harriss, his old sweetheart. The Argentine captain marries Max’s sister after all. The complex symbology of the chessboard, with its inherent parricidal or oedipal moves (one essentially kills the king or father, checking the possible “mate” of one’s mother), might be seen in the attempted murder of the potential stepfather (Gauldres) by Max; father-son competition also unfolds, in a more benign fashion, in the relationship between Stevens and his nephew, Chick, whom he has brought along through childhood and adolescence into maturity.

These stories center on characters driven by greed or despair, feebleness of imagination or ruthless pride, to ruin their own lives and sometimes to take the lives of others. Faulkner employs many of the familiar tropes of detective fiction: hidden bodies, near misses, false clues. But he seems incapable of letting the conventions rule; he reinvents the form itself, adding many long (occasionally vivid) passages of description. Needless to say, Gavin Stevens, the Sherlock Holmes of these stories, remains an unlikely detective, being overly talkative, less than virile, even slightly ridiculous at times. The collection as a whole, though periodically engaging, lacks the febrile intensity of major Faulkner.

“A Battered Middle-Aged Writer”

I still contend that art is a little stronger than any human passion for thwarting it.

—Faulkner to Joan Williams,
August 4, 1950

When Joan Williams wrote to Faulkner after their first meeting and proposed another visit, he replied anxiously: “I don’t know about your coming here again, because we are strangers and possibly (probably) will remain so. And I wont fob you off because your letter deserves better than that. Something charming came out of it, like something remembered out of youth: a smell, a scent, a flower, not as in a garden but in the woods maybe, stumbled on by chance, with no past and no particular odor.”18 Her presence had wakened a special feeling in him, rekindled emotions, stirred dull roots. He referred to himself in this letter as “a battered middle-aged writer” and that was clearly how he felt, even though the world tumbled at his feet these days.

A few days after Christmas, 1949, he sat at his desk in Rowan Oak, thinking about Joan. “I want to see you,” he wrote. “But I dont think here. It would be unsatisfactory, it would in truth be nothing, or, with repercussions, a bad taste in the mouth. So we would have to meet somewhere, which idea to you may already be a bad taste in the mouth. So you will know to think about it, or maybe better, forget it.”19 She could hardly have missed the erotic implications of his musing. He wanted a full-blown affair, and this note might be read as a warning: understand what I want, or let’s forget about this relationship altogether. He simply refused to remain aloof or on some platonic level, and he made that clear.

Their first clandestine meeting occurred on the Minmagery. On December 31, he had written to propose this place of rendezvous: “The landing is muddy, we ferry out by skiff. I suggest stout shoes or a change, pants if you like, or a wool skirt. The boat has butane heat, a galley. I’ll get food.”20 One can sense the excitement Faulkner felt here, his tension, the quiet thrill of concealment. The meeting apparently went well, since Joan agreed to meet Faulkner in New York in February.

He booked into the Algonquin, as usual, arriving on February 2. Before leaving Oxford, he had written to a young professor who had sent an article called “William Faulkner and the Social Conscience” that appeared in College English in December. The view of his work as centering on “the destruction of the old order in the South and the further corruption of the descendants of that order by a ruthless and competitive industrial society” pleased him.21 This was further proof that he was being understood by readers, that he was worthy of scholarly consideration. The author of that article, Dayton Kohler, alludes to Faulkner’s wartime experience in his opening paragraph, and Faulkner—for the first time dropping all pretense—told him that he “had no combat service or wound” and had only been associated “obscurely” with the RAF. In his fifties, he no longer needed to bolster his image, to create an aura of heroism around himself. His work had done that for him. From now on, whenever they arose, he tried to squash the stories about his war experience. He no longer walked with a limp or needed a cane as a prop. His old uniform was retired to a trunk in the attic of Rowan Oak.

Faulkner was thinking about writing a play now, a sequel to Sanctuary. He mentioned this to Joan Williams, who came down from Bard with two friends. Frustrated by her entourage, Faulkner went back to Bard with her on the pretense of looking over the school as a place where Jill might go. He invited her to come back to New York in a few days for a party on February 7 at the apartment of Bob and Merle Haas. The dinner was lively, with Ruth Ford—another early flame, and someone whom Faulkner continued to court—present, as well as Hal Smith, Albert Erskine, Saxe Commins, and other editors who played a role in Faulkner’s career. Someone quoted a fairly obscure sonnet by Shakespeare, and Faulkner identified the poem and went on to recite reams of Shakespearean sonnets from memory. A new world opened for Joan.

Ruth Ford made sure that Faulkner was invited to other parties while he was in town, and he went to them with relish, meeting several younger writers, including Gore Vidal, Truman Capote, and Anthony West. He also attended a magnificent show of Rembrandt paintings and, inspired by what he saw, bought some watercolors and sable brushes. He intended to return to the world of painting—or at least drawing. The encounter with Joan Williams had been revivifying, taking him back to his youthful interests. For the first time in many years, a visit to New York had not led to a drinking binge and subsequent collapse. He returned to Oxford in mid-February in better shape than when he had left.

He didn’t, however, actually take up painting or drawing. Perhaps he didn’t want to compete with his mother or Johncy, both of whom had been painting for some time. Instead, he returned to the play, yet another way of avoiding A Fable, which remained unfinished, perhaps unfinishable. Faulkner had managed to scratch out a rough draft of the first act on the way home and sent this to Joan at Bard, allowing her the illusion that he and she might collaborate. The play opens in court with Nancy Mannigoe, who had been hired by Temple Drake as nanny to her children, replying to the judge that she is guilty. Her attorney, Gavin Stevens, urges her to change her plea. She is a black woman with a very poor record, a drug user, a drunk, and a whore. She apparently went through a period of reform, at which point she got hired by Temple and her husband, Gowan Stevens. Nancy has murdered one of the children, a baby girl. Stevens suspects that Nancy is innocent, but she is not helpful to him. Her attitude is dismissive, surly, impossible. At the end of Act One, everyone has taken against Nancy, even her lawyer.

These characters were mostly resurrected from Sanctuary, but Nancy Mannigoe—or someone like her—appeared in “That Evening Sun,” a short story of 1931. She was a black prostitute and cocaine addict in that tale, and Faulkner simply used his authorial prerogative to resurrect her, however transmogrified. If a character was his, he felt at ease in remaking him or her as needed, regarding them as horses in his stable; he had the right to run them whenever he chose. Faulkner had left Temple Drake sitting in the Luxembourg Gardens at the end of Sanctuary, and she had never left his mind. He wondered what could become of her, wedded to a man who married her out of duty rather than love. His fiction became an ongoing, evolving dream.

He was inspired to write this play in part because of the success of Intruder in the Dust and his new relationship with the director, Clarence Brown, who had been enthusiastic about shooting that film on location in Oxford. Brown and Faulkner got along well, and it seemed likely that Brown would shoot another Faulkner story on the same location. Knight’s Gambit had not really worked, and Faulkner knew it; he needed another vehicle for Hollywood, and Sanctuary had always been dear to him as his first commercial success. Yet it was unlikely that he would make a success of a stage play: his work was just not dramatic in that way, although—with the help of a good script—it could translate to film.

Joan Williams had her senior thesis and postcollege career to worry about, and she must have found it odd—to say the least—that the most revered writer in America should want her encouragement and collaboration on a project. It couldn’t be just the sex. She wrote to him at the end of February and asked if the rumors about a Nobel Prize were true, and he wrote back to say he’d been hearing rumors for “about three years” but didn’t have any real knowledge about the attitude of the committee in Stockholm. In fact, the next big award that Faulkner received was not the Nobel but the William Dean Howells Medal of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, given every five years to a novelist of distinction. Faulkner was informed of the honor by Mark Van Doren, a well-known critic and poet, and asked to appear at a ceremony in New York on May 25. Faulkner refused to come but thanked Van Doren politely: “I am a farmer this time of year; up until he sells crops, no Mississippi farmer has the time or money either to travel anywhere on. Also, I doubt if I know anything worth talking two minutes about.”22 This was obviously disingenuous, a sly posing; Faulkner nevertheless did have his priorities right and saw there was no point in traveling to New York for a brief public event and a medal that he didn’t care about.

Faulkner’s letters to Joan reveal the extent to which he had struggled to define himself in Oxford, with his family—and southern history as well—so present. “You can see now how it is almost impossible for a middle class southerner to be anything else but a middle class southerner; how you have to fight your family for every inch of art you ever gain and at the very time when the whole tribe of them are hanging like so many buzzards over every penny you earn by it. Queer business.”23 He still had Miss Maud to visit every day, his brother to supervise on the farm, and his immediate family making demands, with Jill in high school and needing his attention. That spring, she acted in a play, delighting her father with an energetic portrayal of Cornelia Otis Skinner in Our Hearts Were Young and Gay, a musical about two young women who seek adventure in Europe in the 1920s.

It had been a “slow, late, wet spring,” as Faulkner told Joan. He had been working on the play consistently, avoiding A Fable, farming, and sailing his boat. He slowly found himself sinking into a gloomy state, missing Joan, drinking too much, and unconvinced about the direction of the play. “You know, there were a lot of days when I sat and looked out this window and knew I was workin’,” he told Jim Devine, who came up from Louisiana for a couple of days of sailing. “Now I sit and look out this window and know I ain’t workin’.”24 There are nice photographs of him at this time, trim in appearance, with a dark mustache, often wearing his captain’s hat as he sits at the tiller of the Ring Dove. He spent a good deal of time on his boat, sulking, avoiding contact with the world.

Estelle was drinking heavily now, and the marriage turned even more raucous. Faulkner had not managed—or even tried—to conceal his feelings about Joan, and Estelle grew jealous and combative. In June, he wrote to complain to Joan about his wife, recalling a recent night when she “went on a riot” and accused him of hiding things from her. “She got tight the next day, and then it began. I was in an intrigue, and she was going to stop it by telephoning your mother, or better, your father, telling them what kind of (her words) old goat I am.” She had gone on a tear, Faulkner said, explaining that “in her harangue it turned out she had been to the beauty parlor, when a neighbor, Mrs. Smallwood, told her you and I had been seen in a juke joint in Memphis.” He told her to remain calm about all of this. “She will of course get drunk again, it seems to follow her old menstrual periods, every month. She seems quite crazy except for an inability to do anything successfully—co-ordinate, rationalize—is really capable of anything that will make enough people unhappy.”25 In July, he told Joan: “Estelle has no judgment, no discretion,” and he was utterly miserable. He wondered if he could “really go on like this for much longer.”

In the letter of June 17, he announced that a “complete first draft of the play” had been accomplished, and he planned to rewrite it as a novel “containing a story told in seven play scenes.” He suggested that she could take the scenes and rewrite them into a playable drama. Doubtless he saw right away that it was a pipe dream that he and Joan could succeed in making a script for the stage that would actually work in theatrical terms. The story began to feel more and more like a novel to him, and Joan could be of no help there. He actually suggested that she write a piece of fiction very much along the lines of The Wintering. It would be about a “young woman, senior at school, a man of fifty, famous—could be artist, soldier, whatever seems best. He has come up to spend the day with her. She does not know why, until after he has gone.”26 This may, indeed, have been his way of reflecting on his brief visit to her at Bard in February.

In September, he reported to Joan that things were “no better.” He added: “I dont think they ever will be. I dont think you ever will be safe with her [Estelle], certainly not until she forgets you, finds another object to project her insanity on.”27 Estelle had found out that Joan was writing to Faulkner at his post office box in Oxford and became “insane, furious, even for her.” Faulkner told Joan to write to him in care of Quentin Compson, General Delivery, Oxford. This little joke amused him greatly. It would certainly have fooled nobody at the post office.

The summer was spent in transforming the play into a novel, sailing and drinking, arguing with Estelle, and corresponding clandestinely with Joan. He began most days in July and August by getting up with the sun, without waking his wife or daughter, dressing, then walking across the dew-drenched paddock to the barn, where he would saddle one of the horses and ride off, usually taking a route along the Old Taylor Road. He went deep into the countryside, taking a high trot or running. As always, he loved the sweet smell of honeysuckle and the velvet green of the fields. Returning to his desk for a solid few hours of work, he would then drive to Greenfield Farm or go sailing on the Ring Dove. His financial situation continued to worry him, and he borrowed five thousand dollars in July from Random House to buy a new tractor for the farm, in anticipation of harvest season.

Faulkner took pleasure in his daily routines, but he also struggled against depression, drinking heavily as a form of self-medication. Estelle would often match him drink for drink in the evenings. This incompatible couple often ended the night with an argument, especially now that Estelle tried by every conceivable means to interfere in the relationship between her husband and Joan Williams, whom she (for good reason) saw as a dangerous rival. As she once told an interviewer who asked about Faulkner’s view of women: “When someone asked me why he disliked them so, I said that I wasn’t aware that he did. I was scared he liked women a little too much.”28

The deteriorating state of the Faulkner marriage mirrored the state of the world, especially in Faulkner’s view: a true agrarian, he watched the effects of industrialism around Oxford with dismay, hating transformations in the community he had loved so dearly for so long. Supermarkets, concrete parking lots, macadam highways, factories: Oxford changed before his eyes in unsettling ways. Moreover, the international scene had darkened as well, with the Soviets helping the North Koreans to invade South Korea in late June. That July, American troops began to swarm into the field, taking sides in a war that would never really end. Fear of proliferating war combined with anxiety about the atomic bomb and many Americans began to think about building bomb shelters on their property. There was high anxiety everywhere.

In August, Collected Stories of William Faulkner appeared and laudatory reviews followed immediately for these stories that had so often been rejected by editors in the late twenties and thirties. The author’s “enormous gifts” were praised in the New York Times Book Review. Horace Gregory similarly marked the achievement: “He is more distinctly the master of a style than any writer of fiction living in America today.”29 In Time, the anonymous reviewer said that Faulkner had often misused his prodigious talent, but that “his book has the excitement that comes from never knowing when, amidst pages of failure, there will come a masterpiece.” The Saturday Reviewstraightforwardly called Faulkner the “most considerable twentieth-century American writer of short fiction.” Given the presence of Hemingway on the scene as writer of short stories, this was immense praise. Indeed, Faulkner has remained, at least in a handful of stories, one of the most widely admired practitioners of the genre, on a par with Poe, Cather, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Flannery O’Connor.

Collected Stories

Don’t you see? This whole land, the whole south is cursed, and all of us who derive from it, whom it ever suckled, white and black both, lie under the curse?

—FAULKNER, “Red Leaves”

Over several decades of steady writing, Faulkner produced more than sixty stories. Nearly twenty of them appeared in the Saturday Evening Post, the premier outlet for short fiction during this period. Paradoxically, his greatest novels—The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, Light in August, Absalom, Absalom!—attracted relatively few readers in comparison with the stories, which reached a mass audience. “Probably more people knew about him as a writer of stories,” says Cleanth Brooks, “even though his achievement in this genre was never consistent. He seemed, as an artist, to prefer the longer form or, often, a form of narrative that links shorter tales.”30

What must strike any reader of the Collected Stories is their unevenness. Many of the tales appear familiar because they were dry runs for longer works, sketchy and often hastily written. Only a few of them—“Barn Burning,” “A Rose for Emily,” “Red Leaves”—seem like classic examples of the genre, complete in themselves, on a par with the novels as self-sufficient works of art, although vivid writing occurs on most pages of this capacious volume. Among the better stories are “Shingles for the Lord,” “The Tall Men,” “Mule in the Yard,” “Ad Astra,” “Turnabout,” “All the Dead Pilots,” “Dr. Martino,” “The Leg,” “Mountain Victory,” and “Carcassonne,” each of which seems like a tone poem, a piece of idiosyncratic music.

The Collected Stories includes most of the stories from These Thirteen and Dr. Martino, two earlier volumes, but doesn’t include any of the stories from Go Down, Moses, The Unvanquished, or Knight’s Gambit, which are collections of related short stories. Many stories of considerable interest were left out, to be collected by Joseph Blotner in the Uncollected Stories of William Faulkner in 1979, which would bring into print again a number of stories that found their way into novels in revised form as well as several fine stories that never surfaced anywhere. Among the memorable stories of that volume, “Ambuscade,” “Lizards in Jamshyd’s Courtyard,” “Spotted Horses,” and “The Bear” were dramatically revised and absorbed into larger texts, but they work quite well in their earlier forms. Among the better uncollected stories from magazines were “Frankie and Johnny,” “Miss Zilphia Gant,” and “Afternoon of a Cow.” Even some of the unpublished stories, such as “Moonlight,” “A Return,” and “Snow,” lay some claim to the serious reader’s attention.

Leslie Fiedler once actually suggested that “Faulkner is essentially a short story writer” and that “he has no special talent for sustained narrative, though twice he has brought off a tour de force in long fiction.”31 He observes that even in the longer form, Faulkner moves in short breaths, creating small fires of narrative interest, often stringing them together. This line of reasoning has its origins in Malcolm Cowley’s readings of Faulkner, which emphasize his dependence on the short narrative burst. This approach to fiction was, in fact, deliberate on Faulkner’s part, reflecting his modernist sensibility; he used narrative fragmentation as a way to embody fragmented minds and conflicting subjectivities. Eudora Welty notes this in her excellent review in the Hudson Review, where she observes that “in all Faulkner’s work, the separate scenes leap up on their own, we progress as if by bonfires lighted on the way, and the essence of each scene takes form before the eyes, a shape in the fires.”32

Certainly The Hamlet is a sequence of anecdotes and narrative fire-bursts, more or less connected. The Wild Palms intertwines two separate tales of some length. Light in August and Sanctuary proceed in discrete narrative thrusts. One could even read The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying as a sequence of linked stories, although there is so much linking that the notion loses argumentative force rather quickly. Only Absalom, Absalom! could be called a long and complex narrative that doesn’t acquire novelistic fullness by integrating subjective viewpoints to accumulate a kind of cubist aggregate.

Fiedler also suggests that Faulkner is a sentimentalist, like Dickens: “not a writer with the occasional vice of sentimentality, but one whose basic mode of experience is sentimental, in an age when the serious ‘alienated’ writer emblazons anti-sentimentality on his coat of arms.”33 Fiedler also argues that “when the bloody corncobs are brushed aside, we can see there is a large area of popular commitment which Faulkner shares with the author of Gone With the Wind.” There is a little bit of truth in this: Faulkner certainly shared many narrative strategies with popular writers and could tip his stories in the direction of melodrama; there is, obviously, a good deal of violence in his stories: more so than in many popular writers. He was certainly, like Dickens, a lover of the grotesque, and shared with Dickens an almost demonic gift for naming characters—Quilp/Popeye, Miss Havisham/Mrs. Habersham, Snipe/Snopes. In Dickens, of course, the grotesqueries usually tended to be comic.

In Faulkner, the grotesque typically emerges in terms of the horrific. He presents a wide array of twisted old spinsters, compulsive sadists, eccentric lovers of beasts, incestuous brothers and fathers, unfeeling mothers, and toothless wonders who revel in the base forms of human behavior. There are plenty of fools, dupes, and mental incompetents sprinkled about his pages. Even the great heroic figures, like Sutpen or Sartoris, appear monolithic, one-dimensional, driven by ego. The stories, such as “Barn Burning,” often center on one of these grotesques; in that horrifying tale, Ab Snopes behaves in his most Snopesian way, nervously watched by his son, whose horror mounts with the reader’s awe and repulsion.

The modernist novel featured the alienated, artistic hero and was often autobiographical, as in the work of Joyce, Hemingway, and Mann. By contrast, Faulkner rarely includes an artist among his characters, and alienation seems not to apply in the usual sense. He was certainly not an autobiographical writer in any useful sense of that term. Alienation in his work comes from a feeling that the land itself has been rejected or devoured and that industrial and commercial life crowd out the more natural forms, as in “Delta Autumn.” Intellectual life is, for the most part, sidelined in his work. Only family matters and family history, and—in the most clichéd sense of that term—character, demonstrated by persistence and singleness of vision. Shows of brain power are reserved for the detective, who alone among his peers can deduce the truth from a wilderness of signs. So it was not for nothing that the detective story became a template for the Faulknerian plot.

Fiedler argues (in my view, wrongly) that ever since the Romantic era, the province of the sentimental has been the nostalgic. Faulkner, like Twain and others, sometimes plays into the American obsession with boyhood: The Reivers, his last novel, is a prime example of this. But when writing about war, Faulkner seems far less sentimental than, say, Hemingway, for whom war became a test of manhood. Antiwar sentiment permeates Faulkner’s work, from Soldiers’ Pay through the stories. A Fable has, with some justice, been seen as a vividly antiwar tract. There is nothing sentimental there about the loss of lives on the western front.

Faulkner is hardly a modernist at all in his short stories, where experimentation often goes by the wayside (as slick magazines would never have published experimental fiction). The layering effect of subject viewpoints, commonly found in the novels, has no obvious place in the stories. The stylistic exaggerations of his novels, with their piling of clauses and deferred grammatical satisfactions, rarely occur in the shorter form, where the writing often moves in the direction of poetic simplicity, the texts studded with memorable images and phrasings. Faulkner describes action with succinctness and vigor, as in “Mountain Victory,” where he writes of Maj. Saucier Weddel, a Confederate officer on his way home after the war who is ambushed by a young mountain man who cannot bear his sister’s infatuation with Weddel. His face was “a thick grimace of exasperation and anger almost like smiling” as he falls from his horse:

It was still on his dead face when he struck the earth, his foot still fast in the stirrup. The sorrel leaped at the sound and dragged Weddel to the path side and halted and whirled and snorted once, and began to graze. The Thoroughbred however rushed on past the curve and whirled and rushed back, the blanket twisted under its belly and its eyes rolling, springing over the boy’s body where it lay in the path, the face wrenched sideways against a stone, the arms backsprawled, openpalmed, like a woman with lifted skirts springing across a puddle. Then it whirled and stood above Weddel’s body, whinnying, with tossing head, watching the laurel copse and the fading gout of black powder smoke as it faded away.34

This magnificent passage occurs in a story that has attracted little attention, but that holds the reader in a narrative vise, as do many stories in Collected Stories. That some of them lean toward the sentimental does not detract from their integrity and radiance. They explore the curse of the South in their different ways. If only a few of them achieve singularity as works of art, as a body of writing they acquire a strange magnificence. Less interesting in many ways than the major novels or story sequences, they cannot be ignored by anyone who wishes to understand the whole of Faulkner’s achievement.

Nobel Laureate

I think people need it—trouble…. I think people need trouble, fret, a little frustration, to sharpen the spirit or toughen it. Artists do; I dont mean you have to live in a rathole or gutter, but they have to learn fortitude, endurance; only vegetables are happy.

—Faulkner to Joan Williams,
November 3, 1950

The Nobel Prize for Literature was the ultimate plum, although Faulkner showed as little interest in this accolade as in others. He regarded prizes as foolish attempts to draw attention to the wrong writers. Even the Nobel Prize, he told Joan Williams, had picked the wrong American writers, giving it to Sinclair Lewis in 1930, Eugene O’Neill in 1936, and Pearl S. Buck in 1938. Of these, Faulkner only liked O’Neill. He noted that Sherwood Anderson and Theodore Dreiser had been unaccountably passed over for the prize. When he received the prize in November 1950 (the prize was for 1949, in fact) his main rivals had been figures as lofty as Winston Churchill, Camus, François Mauriac, Boris Pasternak, Steinbeck, and Hemingway.

On November 11, a call came from a Swedish reporter in New York informing him that he had won the Nobel Prize the day before in Stockholm for his “powerful and independent artistic contribution in America’s new literature of the novel,” as the citation read. Faulkner told the reporter he was pleased and impressed, but said he was a farmer and couldn’t get away to receive the award in person. He would nevertheless accept the prize and cash, which amounted to over thirty thousand dollars. As usual, the money would come in handy at Greenfield Farm and elsewhere.

Apparently Faulkner told nobody about the award that morning. He went about his daily business, taking Jill to school, stopping for his mail, taking a walk. He didn’t even tell Estelle, who (in his view) had never been a great supporter of his work. Faulkner had created a wall of isolation around his artistic self, and he needed no interference. He dreaded the publicity that, he well knew, would soon avalanche on his head. In fact, he allowed Estelle to deal with most of the reporters and well-wishers while he retreated to the woods, going to his hunting camp as he usually did in mid-November, though not before he had submitted to many interviews and continued to insist that he would not attend the ceremony in Stockholm.

The Oxford Eagle led the applause with hearty congratulations, delighted that one of their own had been honored in this extremely public way. Newspapers across the country followed suit, with numerous dissenters, such as the Jackson Daily News, a right-wing paper that called Faulkner a “propagandist of degradation.” This paper had been on Faulkner’s case for years and never missed an opportunity to hurl abuse in his direction. Old friends stepped forward to offer kind recollections, including Ike Roberts, his crony from the hunting camp, and Phil Stone, who despite his growing madness graciously said that Faulkner was “even greater as a man than he is as a writer.” He described Faulkner as someone you could always rely upon for help in any situation, doubtless remembering how his friend had helped him through a deep financial crisis only a few years before.

While there remained some skepticism of Faulkner’s accomplishment in the United States, there was widespread admiration for him abroad, as was obviously reflected in the awarding of the Nobel Prize. In the thirties, the great Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges had called Faulkner “the leading novelist of our time” and reviewed many of his books. “There are some books that touch us physically like the nearness of the sea or the morning,” Borges said. “Faulkner does not attempt to explain his characters. He shows us what they feel, how they act. The events are extraordinary, but his narration of them is so vivid we cannot imagine them any other way.”35 A similar opinion of Faulkner was shared by many. His work inspired many writers associated with the so-called boom in Latin American writing. “I think we all read him very carefully,” said Mario Vargas Llosa. “The technical accomplishments of his work showed us a way to comprehend our own countries, to write from where we lived.”36 Likewise, in France, Faulkner had attracted the attention of most of the major intellectuals and writers, including Simone de Beauvoir and Sartre, who took turns reading aloud to each other from his novels. In Italy, says Alberto Moravia, “everyone read Faulkner eagerly, passionately. He showed us so many things, opened our eyes to the possibilities of fiction.”37 It took a while for this enthusiasm to spread in North America, but it did, especially in the universities, where Faulkner increasingly became a literary icon, the major representative of the American novel in the twentieth century. As Cleanth Brooks noted: “He was being taught, and there was much to teach. His work explained so much about the working of fiction. It was perfect for the classroom, and inspired a generation of critics, who learned how to read closely by reading Faulkner.”38

Faulkner tried to resist the numerous attempts to get him to Stockholm, including an urgent request from Erik Boheman, the Swedish ambassador to the United States; he finally relented, having come back from the hunting expedition in bad shape from excessive drinking that had doubtless been precipitated by the Nobel Prize. It was Estelle’s insistance that Jill would benefit from the trip to Sweden that persuaded him. The problem was, Faulkner’s latest binge had left him wasted. It was the sort of binge that usually required a carefully orchestrated program of drying out, with drinks spaced carefully over time and with attention to nutrition and rest. Estelle, recovering from her own problems with alcohol, briefly turned herself into a nurse, supervising a quick recovery. It was decided that Faulkner would not drink on the trip, and his last drink would be taken on December 4. After two dry days, he would depart with Jill (not Estelle, who didn’t want to go) on December 6. Faulkner himself lay in bed for several days, working on his acceptance speech, which has become the most famous speech by any American writer to receive the Nobel. As he lay in bed on the day before his departure, he also managed to write a note to Joan Williams: “I don’t know when I will see you, but you are the one I never stop thinking about. You are the girl’s body I lie in bed beside before I go to sleep. I know every sweet red hair and sweet curve on it. Don’t forget me. I love you.”39

Jill and her father flew to New York, checking into the Algonquin, where he essentially put himself in the care of Bob and Merle Haas. He looked awful, having acquired a sore throat and cough, and was given Aureomycin, a strong antibiotic, by Merle, who told him not to drink while he took it. He went to dinner the next night with Jill, Hal Smith, Bennett Cerf and his wife, Maurice Coindreau, and Malcolm Cowley and—of course—he drank. Cowley noticed he was “polite but abstracted” that evening: “I thought he had the look to be found on the faces of British Tommies at Ypres, in photographs taken at the moment before they went over the top. His eyes lighted only when he looked at Jill, who, shyly polite and self-possessed, was radiating the pleased excitement that her father might have been expected to feel.”40 Indeed, Faulkner did resemble a man about to go over the top.

He suffered through the flight to Stockholm, drinking intermittently, and was grim-faced and distracted at the various receptions, dinner parties, formal gatherings, and interviews that afflict all winners of the Nobel Prize. Due to a mix-up in timing, Faulkner received the 1949 prize on the same day that Bertrand Russell got the 1950 prize. Russell later recalled that Faulkner seemed ill-at-ease, out of place among the royalty at the banquet for the honorees. When Faulkner stepped forward to give his speech, in formal attire, he looked dreadful up close, and his high-pitched southern voice was unintelligible to most in the room, including those who knew English. He read quickly and slurred his words. He was probably not sober. “It was the rumor of Faulkner’s drinking in Stockholm,” says Elaine Steinbeck, “that persuaded John, a decade later, to abstain from alcohol the whole while he was in Sweden. He didn’t want to make a fool of himself.”41 Faulkner did not, in fact, make a fool of himself. When his speech was printed in the newspapers the next day, people realized what an impressive statement Faulkner had made, with its almost Churchillian rhetoric about the endurance of humanity and the fact “that when the last ding-dong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, that even then there will still be one more sound: that of his puny inexhaustible voice, still talking. I refuse to accept this. I believe that man will not merely endure. He will prevail.” He went on to describe the writer’s task in terms reminiscent of Samuel Johnson: “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.”42

In an early draft of the speech, Faulkner paid homage to Sherwood Anderson, citing his influence on a generation of writers, including Hemingway, Dos Passos, Wolfe, and Caldwell. For some reason, he chose to drop this gesture of gratitude from the final version. He did, however, reach beyond himself: “I feel that this award was not made to me as a man, but to my work, a life’s work in the agony and sweat of the human spirit, not for glory and least of all for profit, but to create out of the materials of the human spirit something which did not exist before.”43 One cannot avoid feeling that Faulkner addressed himself to many of his critics, the ones who had bashed him over the years, who had seen him as prurient and idiosyncratic, prone to exaggerate the vileness of humanity. Faulkner was resetting the clock, imagining himself with a purity that nobody who reads the work carefully would consider an accurate portrayal of his work. Every form of human vice occurs in his fiction, often in grotesque form; Faulkner explores the dark places of the human heart as ruthlessly as, say, Joseph Conrad, an early and abiding influence. There is little about his work that can, in any conventional sense, be regarded as uplifting. He was uplifting only on occasion. But he did describe “the human heart in conflict with itself”—a lovely phrase of his—and he made this conflict palpable.

Faulkner was also proud of the behavior of his daughter throughout the visit to Sweden. She stood beside him at many interviews and cocktail parties, sat with him at dinners, and often parried the questions of interviewers. When she was asked, for example, if she was allowed to read her father’s work, she responded with a sparkle of innocence: “He wouldn’t refuse me permission to read any of them but he wouldn’t urge me to either. It’s not an author-reader relationship. Sometimes I read the books, sometimes I don’t.” Jill later recalled that her father seemed eager to have the whole thing over: “Pappy could tolerate but didn’t like the attention,” she said. Nevertheless, the Nobel experience was impressive for a teenage girl “who hadn’t been out of the country before this.” It was interesting for her “to see her father in this light. In Oxford, one hardly knew he was famous. To my friends, he was just another father, but an amusing one who liked to entertain us with stories, who liked our company.”44

Faulkner left Sweden with the check for $30,171 in his pocket, feeling better than when he arrived. His bad cold, the sore throat and cough, had subsided, and he had not drunk excessively during the seventy-two hours of their stay in Sweden. Indeed, he had made a good impression on everyone, as reported by the American embassy: “Critics who met him were enthusiastic over his personality, and the press in general was pleased with his simplicity and modesty and apparently surprised by his courtly and gracious manners…. Miss Faulkner was also an asset, observers commenting approvingly on her charm and devotion to her father.”45 Father and daughter proceeded to Paris for five days, where Faulkner took Jill to the Luxembourg Gardens, which had so impressed him as a young man and which had found their way into Sanctuary. Ellen Adler, who met him at a party thrown by Faulkner’s French publisher, Gaston Gallimard, remembers Faulkner at this time, “arriving with his daughter in Paris, so handsome and trim. His daughter seemed thoroughly self-contained, polite, astute. Faulkner himself was treated like a rock star by everyone. Sartre, de Beauvoir, Camus—they loved him, and fought for his company.”46 Jill, unfortunately, became ill with the flu, dampening the visit to Paris and their brief stops in London and Ireland. She was still unwell when they finally returned to Oxford, where a high school band awaited their arrival, greeting them with a Sousa march and signs welcoming them home.

The fame of the Nobel, of course, brought tourists to Oxford, many of whom made their way to Rowan Oak, where they did their best to get a look at the great man, often waiting in his driveway with cameras. Once, a small gaggle of tourists arrived just as Faulkner had gone out to sweep the driveway with a broom. He was wearing a straw hat and overalls—not an uncommon choice of attire on a normal working day. “Have you seen Mr. Faulkner,” one of the tourists asked. “Nope. Ain’t seen ’im. Been here sweepin’ all day an’ I ain’t seen ’im a-tall,” he said, and continued to sweep the broom from side to side.47

Faulkner dismissed these obvious, outward signs of fame, retreating soon after his return from Sweden to his study, where he sank into a leather chair with a book, a glass of whiskey, and his pipe. The whole Nobel experience, with its countless interviews and public occasions, was something to put out of his mind. He had to get back to Requiem for a Nun and, as ever, A Fable, which lay on the desk unfinished, snarled up, hard to imagine as a finished book. He had met a lovely widow, Else Jonsson, a quick-witted woman with a lithe, remarkably trim body, short wavy hair, and deep-set eyes, while in Sweden, and they may have had a brief fling.48 In any case, his mind turned now to both Joan and Meta. “When he returned from Sweden,” Meta recalled, “Bill wrote that we must contrive to see each other. Did I realize how long it had been? Couldn’t I find an assignment with a movie company that would be on location in the South so that we could meet somewhere for a few days?”49

Nothing Else but Writing

Being a writer is having the worst vocation. You’re demon-run, under compulsion, always being driven. It’s a lonely frustrating work which is never as good as you want it to be. You have to keep on trying, but still it’s not good enough. It’s never good enough. What the reward is for a writer, I don’t know.

—FAULKNER, Lion in the Garden

Faulkner told Joan that Estelle had been “drunk and miserable” during the Christmas holidays, making everyone at Rowan Oak unhappy as well. She had gone on a rampage about Joan, once again threatening to denounce her to her parents in Memphis; Faulkner had put the phone “out of commission so she couldn’t [make a call] till she got sober.”50 He had not recovered from the illness that had plagued him since he got back from the hunting camp in late November and felt generally exhausted and worried about his future writing. The Nobel Prize had snuffed out more than one author in the past, and Faulkner had no intention of being so extinguished.

Joan wrote that she felt as though she would never write anything of value, and Faulkner wrote back wisely: “You will write, some day. Maybe now you haven’t anything to say. You have to have something burning your entrails to be said, you don’t have that yet…. Writing is important only when you want to do it, and nothing nothing nothing else but writing will suffice, give you peace.” He told her he would be going to Hollywood again, at the behest of Howard Hawks, his old patron. The script that needed fixing was The Left Hand of God by William E. Barrett, a story about a veteran who stayed in China after the war and had fallen into the grips of a tyranical warlord. He had to disguise himself to get away safely and chose the disguise of a priest, which carried with it some unexpected obligations. Faulkner didn’t especially care for the story, but the price was right: two thousand dollars per week. There was no way he could turn down such money, and by February 1 he was back in Hollywood.

Before leaving Oxford, he added a codicil to his will that established a William Faulkner Memorial Fund of twenty-five thousand dollars that would provide scholarships for needy students. In the wake of the Nobel, he believed that his financial situation was permanently secure, and it was—especially with Hollywood at his command. Faulkner was met at the airport by Buzz Bezzerides, but he saw little of his old friend on this visit to the coast. His new address reflected a change in status: the Beverly-Carlton on Olympia Avenue, a “light-filled place,” as he wrote to Joan. He spent most of his time there, in his room, working day and night, although he did manage a rendezvous with Meta. She came to his room, eager to see him, and they made love—probably for the last time. Meta remembered: “He looked like the photographs that had been taken in Sweden—august, bonier and more severe of mien, somewhat professorial—but layers under; the face of the man I had loved broke through in the set of his mouth, the crinkling of his eyes. He was five years older than when he had last made love to me, a man in his mid-fifties, and now there was no longer the unbridled passion that I remembered from the years before, but a grave and sweet ardor, and afterward an unwillingness through the night to let me move out of his arms for even a moment.”51

Faulkner had not lost the iron-willed discipline that had been so characteristic of his working habits and turned furiously to the task at hand, completing the revision in one month. He seems to have put Meta out of his mind and life now, abruptly, after having had one good night with her. With fourteen thousand dollars in his pocket this time, he left town quietly. Being in Hollywood had given him a good excuse not to attend the awards banquet for the National Book Award, the award for fiction having been bestowed on his Collected Stories. Faulkner understood that once you get one major award, others follow, and he felt despair about the endless ritual banquets he would have to endure in the coming years. He wanted to return to the “big book,” as he called it, and to finish Requiem soon. He told Bob Haas that he hoped to get back to France as soon as possible, as a way of stimulating himself to finish A Fable; in particular, he wanted to see Verdun, which figured importantly in the novel. The brief stop in Paris with Jill had whetted his appetite for travel abroad, and he could afford it now. Haas took the hint, and he began to make arrangements for an April trip abroad for Faulkner.

Mississippi was a good place to leave at this time. A case in which a black man had been accused of raping a white woman dominated headlines and back porch conversations. Willie McGee would be executed soon in Laurel, and liberal activists from the North had descended on the state. In early March, a cadre of women from the Civil Rights Congress came to see Faulkner at Rowan Oak, hoping for his endorsement. He gave away little, though he confessed to opposing the execution; this opinion was reported widely in the press, causing a stir. Moon Mullen advised him to make a statement, rather than let rumors fly about what he had actually told the women. With unease, he composed one, saying he didn’t want McGee executed because it would turn him into a martyr and “create a long lasting stink in my native state.” No proof had been offered that McGee had forced himself on the woman, and death seemed a bit harsh as punishment. This led to further accusations, including a public letter by a clergyman accusing Faulkner of opposing Mississippi law and the U.S. Supreme Court, which had refused to consider the case. Faulkner just shrugged his shoulders, standing firm. He talked to several reporters about the lack of evidence that McGee had actually forced himself upon the woman.

Eagerly, he departed for Europe on April 15 on a BOAC flight to London, where he spent a few days in the oak-paneled comfort of Brown’s Hotel, a quiet spot that had been a favorite of Rudyard Kipling. He was entertained splendidly by Harold Raymond, his editor at Chatto and Windus. Raymond, a former major in the British army, appealed to Faulkner, and they had several good meals together. His publisher in France, Gallimard, assigned a young woman named Monique Salomon to look after him when he visited Paris; she brought along her husband, Jean-Jacques, a student at the Sorbonne. Faulkner took to them warmly, and the trio became good friends, moving together about the countryside in Salomon’s car. She later recalled that one day Faulkner drank twenty-three martinis, although this must be an exaggeration. That much drink would kill anyone, even William Faulkner. He also managed to contrive a rendezvous with Else Jonsson at the Hotel Lutetia, further complicating his emotional life.52 Tossing emotional balls in the air and juggling them had become a familiar activity, though it never brought satisfaction. The visit to France went so well, nevertheless, that Faulkner postponed his departure and remained until the end of the month.

Arriving in New York, he paid a brief visit to Joan at Bard, where she now worked in the admissions office; he returned home with a detour to Lexington for the Kentucky Derby on May 5. Upon returning to Rowan Oak, he was asked to deliver an address at Jill’s high school graduation. As Jill wanted him to do this, he could not easily refuse. She was dear to him, and he tried to accommodate her wishes whenever possible. He was also, as always, compelled by a sense of family obligation; having a task to perform, such as this one, felt comfortable, even reassuring. Invited to speak for forty-five minutes, he instead spoke for five. It was a fairly conventional speech, full of exhortations to speak out as individuals, to stand up to criticism. Faulkner strongly opposed “the tyrants” who put themselves “in the way of human freedom” and urged Jill and her classmates upon graduation to help eradicate them. Courage and fortitude were the virtues he singled out.

He plunged back into writing within a few days, taking up the third act of Requiem for a Nun. He knew he must bring his characters to life on the page and worried that they might be somewhat static. The book had become by now much more than a play—it had become a hybrid work, incorporating large prose sections as well as dialogue in play form. Working as many as six hours a day throughout the month of May, he wrote to Else Jonsson on June 4, 1951: “The mss. is about finished. I’ll be glad. I am tired of ink and paper. I have been at it steadily now since New Year’s, look forward to spending the summer planting dirt, raising crops and cattle and training horses; have a perfectly beautiful new foal, a filly (mare), born last week, out of Jill’s gaited saddle mare, Peavine’s Jewel, and a stallion of a friend, named Ridgefield Rex. The baby’s name is Ridgefield’s Temptress.”53 (Names worthy of Dickens or Faulkner!) He wrote Jonsson again only five days later to say it was finished. He was thoroughly exhausted by writing, “the agony and sweat of it,” but said he would probably never quit until he died.

Faulkner was glad to return to farming that summer. Many on the outside thought of his claim to be a farmer as an affectation; it was not. Three generations of Falkners before him had owned farms, expending a good bit of their time and resources in running them. Faulkner was foremost a writer, but he farmed seriously; it was serious play, like the play of children. He went through periods when he would come to Greenfield Farm nearly every afternoon. This summer, for example, he rarely missed a visit to the farm and immersed himself in the mowing of hay, the caring for horses and other animals, the mending of fences and machines. More importantly, he masterminded the farm, deciding what should be planted where and when, controlling financial resources, buying new equipment as necessary, raising cash as well as corn. He especially enjoyed drawing a raking machine behind an old Jeep—with five men trailing with forks to put the grass into the baling machine—often in temperatures and humidity that would have killed most writers.

Even though Faulkner increasingly suffered from depression exacerbated by alcohol and age, the summer of 1951 counted as a fairly quiet and pleasant season, except for a visit from an intrusive photographer from Life, who insisted on getting pictures of Faulkner and his friends. Malcolm Cowley had gone forward with his articles, assuring Faulkner that he would focus on the work, not the man. But Life was not a literary magazine and without some big, glossy pictures to run beside the commentary on the fiction, it was unlikely that they would publish anything on Faulkner.

In September, Bill and Estelle took Jill to Pine Manor, a college near Wellesley, in Massachusetts. Estelle had not wanted Jill to go to a strict, paternalistic college like Mary Baldwin, where she had been a student. She wanted her daughter to escape from the South. Jill, too, wished to get away. Home life at Rowan Oak had been no picnic, with parents who drank heavily and quarreled; with meals taken in silence at a large, polished table; with her father’s quite unpredictable moods. Because Faulkner was so deeply attached to Jill, he found the idea of her absence galling, but he steeled himself for the inevitable. Perhaps the prospect of being alone in the house with Estelle struck him as particularly unpleasant, even terrifying. He told Joan that he planned to get away from home as often as possible.

After Wellesley, the Faulkners drove to New York City via rural New Jersey, where they spent a night with Don and Pat Klopfer (Don worked at Random House) at their farm in Lebanon. After a brief visit, they went into the city, where Faulkner had meetings with Ruth Ford and others about getting his Requiem made into a proper stage play. Albert Marre, a dark-haired, intense young man from the Harvard Veterans’ Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts, agreed to work with the author in October. In his office at Random House, Bob Haas handed Faulkner a few of the early reviews of Requiem for a Nun. They were fairly mixed, although nobody could write about Faulkner now without acknowledging his greatness. Perhaps the best review came from Harvey Breit in the Atlantic Monthly, where he placed Faulkner on a par with Melville and James as a “prose virtuoso.” In Time, the reviewer praised Faulkner’s commitment to the theme of redemption in contrast to “the big no of American writing.” Anthony West, however, after bowing to Faulkner’s “genius” in the New Yorker, felt that Yoknapatawpha County had lost some of its charm and that in this book it was filled with “brutishly and incredibly entangled” characters. Even Faulkner’s close friend, Hal Smith, could not help but wonder in the Saturday Review if Nancy Mannigoe were really a three-dimensional character. Smith felt that the prose sections worked far better than the play and wished Faulkner had stuck to his proper medium. Hesitation marked many of the reviews, and there was much talk about Faulkner having peaked as a writer, though his impulse to experiment with form impressed some. In the New York Times, Robert Penn Warren found Nancy “shocking and implausible.” He was, nevertheless, impressed by the suspense that the author had managed to generate. In the New York Herald Tribune, Malcolm Cowley saw a reformed man who stood up in this work for the human spirit, but was not sure that he didn’t prefer “the old unregenerate and scampish Faulkner.”54

Requiem for a Nun

I would like to see that title in lights, myself. It’s one of my best, I think: Requiem for a Nun.

—Faulkner to Ruth Ford, June 18, 1951

This strange book evolved in complex ways, as Noel Polk has shown in Faulkner’s Requiem for a Nun: A Critical Study.55 The planned collaboration with Joan Williams had failed, but Faulkner pursued the project with his usual vengeance, having long felt the need to follow upon what he had written in Sanctuary two decades before. Evil in that novel had seemed absolute, an uncontrollable force that overwhelms everyone, including a seventeen-year-old college girl like Temple Drake. Unwittingly, she had been the cause of numerous tragedies, but, not unwittingly, she had committed perjury in the trial of Lee Goodwin, saying he had raped her and murdered Tommy. Goodwin was then burned to death by a mob. In Requiem, she finds herself on the hot seat again, feeling that she must tell the truth to save the former nanny of her young children, Nancy Mannigoe, from hanging.

Requiem is—or wants to be—a story of atonement. Faulkner had long been interested in contrasting the “natural man,” who doesn’t really think about life, with the “social man,” who contemplates his actions and suffers from the ambiguities that arise.56 The natural man accepts what is given; the social man is something of an existentialist, searching to define himself against his time, against the social fabric, which is perhaps why Camus was so attracted to the book, going so far as to adapt it for the Parisian stage in 1956. There is surprising tension throughout this book between two views of existence, the one being that of characters like Dilsey, who merely accept their fate, and those like Temple Drake, who wrestle with life and want answers but must suffer disappointment in this regard. No such answers exist, Faulkner seems to argue. It is better, or so Nancy tells Temple, to “believe,” presumably in God or fate. But Nancy cannot, just as Faulkner could not. God’s ways do not make sense, and all attempts to justify them are doomed.

Faulkner’s play within the novel is peculiarly undramatic. While the dialogue does actually work quite well, the character of Nancy remains one-dimensional. Faulkner has not troubled to dramatize her. There is, indeed, not much drama to be had at this point in the story. Nancy has killed Temple’s six-month-old daughter for her own (weird but perhaps believable) reasons, hoping to keep Temple from running off with the fierce but alluring Pete, the younger brother of Alabama Red, who enthralled her in Sanctuary. As it happens, Pete owns some letters that Temple wrote to Red before his murder, and he attempted to blackmail her with them, which is how they came into contact. Temple Drake, being a “fallen woman,” can’t resist him, it would seem.

However absurd Temple’s sexual drive seems in retrospect, one must keep reminding oneself that Faulkner never tried to write realistic fiction. His characters are broadly symbolic, and this was never more true than in Requiem for a Nun. The drama of ideas replaces any human drama as the problem of evil plays itself out in various ways, without conclusion. Faulkner realized that he needed more, and gave more: each dramatic act is preceded by a prose narrative that, while not especially good as Faulkner, does provide a thoughtful context for each act as Faulkner offers a comprehensive survey of Yoknapatawpha County, going back to its founding before the Civil War and reaching into the future. No drama in Faulkner can exist without the long hand of the past rising up, strangling his characters or shaking a fist at them, sometimes lifting them up.

Each of the three narratives centers on a symbolic building: the courthouse in Jefferson, the statehouse in Jackson, and the jailhouse in Jefferson. These institutional structures represent civilization as defined by Freud, which exists when human freedom is limited so that the social order can be maintained. The courthouse is magnificent here: “the center, the focus, the hub; sitting looming in the center of the county’s circumference like a single cloud in its ring of horizon; musing, brooding, symbolic and ponderable, tall as cloud, solid as rock, dominating all: protector of the weak, judiciate and curb of the passions and lusts, repository and guardian of the aspirations and the hopes; rising course by brick course during that first summer.”57 The dome of the statehouse, completed in Jackson in 1903, similarly represents order and justice: “the golden dome, the knob, the gleamy crumb, the gilded pustule longer than the miasma and the gigantic ephemeral saurians, more durable than the ice and the pre-night cold, soaring, hanging as one blinding spheroid above the center of the Commonwealth, incapable of being either looked full or evaded, peremptory, irrefragible, and reassuring.”58 The jail, too, represents an attempts to restrain evil impulses, although its history is less noble, its attempts less than perfectly executed: “not a new jail of course but the old one veneered over with brick, into two storeys, with white trim and iron-barred windows: only its face lifted, because behind the veneer were still the old ineradicable bones, the old ineradicable remembering: the old logs immured intact and lightless between the tiered symmetric bricks and the whitewashed plaster.”59

Zender finds an “elegaic note” in the “elaborate array of images” that mark the prose sections of Requiem. “The descent into a debiliating and destructive modernity,” he writes, “is depicted in all three prose sections as a fall out of an original Edenic condition. This fall has several starting points, so that at various times we are shown the destruction of the South as the fall of the wilderness into civilization, as the fall of the settlement into the town, as the fall of the pre-Civil War world into the post-Civil War world, and as the fall of the nineteenth into the twentieth century.” A contrast also emerges in the dramatic sections, as seen in Nancy’s rather unschooled language and Temple “educated” way of talking, the difference between “an unfallen and a fallen language.”60

In the prose sections, Faulkner himself never tires of his rhetoric, piling up jerry-rigged phrases, pulling unlikely words (“saurians,” “irregrabible [sic]”) from a mysterious dictionary, arranging clauses like boxcars on a train headed in several directions at once. But one finds lots of humor here and a considerable allotment of biblical lore, going back to the Garden of Eden and original sin. So why do people sin? “You aint got to. You cant help it,” Nancy explains to Temple. This feels contradictory, and it is. We are free, as human beings, to do as we like; the problem is, God determines everything. John Milton couldn’t “justify the ways of God to man” in Paradise Lost, nor could Faulkner in Requiem for a Nun. Fortunately, Faulkner knows that he can’t.

In brief, Nancy has been forced into homicide by a situation beyond her comprehension. She is culpable in legal terms, and wholly responsible for the child’s death, but Temple (now married to Gowan) is, or feels herself to be, responsible. She flees to California with her son, but returns just before Nancy’s execution to make a full confession before the governor in Jackson, hoping to win a pardon for Nancy. He can do nothing, of course. Her confession is purely (and badly) designed to ease her conscience, which it cannot do. In the final scene, she enters into an intense dialogue with Nancy that reads more like a platonic dialogue than any real exchange of human feelings. It remains, for me, a compelling dialogue on a very important subject, but it fails to ignite as fiction or drama.

Once again, the attorney is Gavin Stevens, the talkative, ruminating, liberal, kindhearted lawyer who represented Lee Goodwin in Sanctuary. He has reappeared in countless stories and novels and seems part of the natural furniture of Faulkner’s fiction. He never really comes to life in this book, but for readers of Faulkner he needs no further reification. We remember him well. The problem is, if you have not been reading a lot of Faulkner, Stevens’s portrayal in this novel will seem thin. On the other hand, Faulkner has added a fierceness, even an unpleasantness, to Gavin Stevens that was largely absent from earlier portrayals.

Indeed, Faulkner goes to some trouble here to change the general view of both Temple and Stevens, as Michael Millgate notes when he says that “recent criticism of Requiem, following Noel Polk, has tended to the view that it is Temple who emerges the more sympathetically precisely because she does not, like Stevens, brood obsessively on the past but makes a genuine attempt—late and desperate though it may be, and possibly doomed—to escape from that burden and make for herself and those close to her the best life she can.”61 Obviously some two decades had elapsed since Faulkner wrote Sanctuary and first pictured Temple Drake. Much had changed, in her life and his; it should not be surprising that he revisits her character here, making her a fairly mature woman in comparison with the younger Temple. Gavin Stevens, taking up a role given to Horace Benbow in the earlier work, seems no improvement, however; he is stuck within a fixed moral code, fastened to what Millgate calls a “self-defeating rigidity.”

Gowan Stevens bears considerable responsibility in Sanctuary for the fate of Temple Drake, but Faulkner adds little to his portrayal here. He seems vaporous, helpless. Until he heard his wife’s confession in the governor’s office in Jackson, he was apparently unaware of the depths of the situation and his own moral culpability. He regards himself as magnanimous for marrying Temple Drake after she stayed in that Memphis whorehouse of her own volition. She could have escaped by sliding down a drainpipe, but gave herself in lust to Alabama Red. Gowan forgives her for this, expecting endless gratitude in return. His attitude seems partly responsible for the dissolution of the marriage. Temple could not live in this context without feeling the secret scorn of her husband. A woman of conscience and intelligence, she cannot find peace. Guilt overwhelms her, now as before.

Stevens, as attorney and pseudo-philosopher, tries to understand Temple, but he can’t. (This might be considered a failed “scene of instruction,” in which nothing of value is transmitted.) He thinks (bizarrely) that perhaps Red’s brother, Pete, resembled Red enough, or Gowan enough, to attract Temple. He wonders, more plausibly, if perhaps Gowan’s need for gratitude is what drove Temple away from him into the arms of Pete, “a man so single, so hard and ruthless, so impeccable in amorality, as to have a kind of integrity, purity, who would…never need nor intend to forgive anyone anything.” In a sense, all of the above suggestions have some validity. The harsher truth seems to be that human beings are frail, prey to wayward passions; they do things they should not do. Original sin is the conventional religious explanation for this: Eve wanted knowledge and was willing to sacrifice everything for it. Temple Drake Stevens is the daughter of this same Eve: desperate for the knowledge of good and evil, which she has purchased at the price of her soul, sacrificing the “peace that passeth understanding” for an anguished modern conscience. This is the cost of her modernity.

Requiem for a Nun makes a lot of sense in the context of Faulkner’s developing argument about the nature and fate of human beings in a world of uncertain morality. He wishes he could be like Dilsey or Nancy, accepting the conditions of his humanity and releasing himself into their arms, but he can’t. Thus Temple writhes in moral agony at the end of the novel, wondering why and how the whole train of events leading to several deaths (Goodwin’s, Popeye’s, Red’s, her daughter’s, Nancy’s) somehow began when she decided to go to a baseball game with Gowan Stevens eight years before. At last, she asks the ultimate questions of Nancy, the “nun” of the title (because of her willed, unworldly, almost uninterpretable solitude of moral fervor):

But why must it be suffering? He’s omnipotent, or so they tell us. Why couldn’t He have invented something else? Or, if it’s got to be suffering, why cant it be just your own? Why cant you buy back your own sins with your own agony? Why do you and my little baby both have to suffer just because I decided to go to a baseball game eight years ago? Do you have to suffer everybody else’s anguish just to believe in God? What kind of God is it that has to blackmail His customers with the whole world’s grief and ruin?

Neither play nor novel, fish nor fowl, Requiem for a Nun is nevertheless a book one cannot easily discard. It represents a stage in Faulkner’s thought and attests to his continuing wish to raise important issues, to confront the basic questions about good and evil, to look for answers that probably can’t be found. It also shows his relentless interest in experimenting with narrative procedures.