One Matchless Time: A Life of William Faulkner - Jay Parini (2005)
Chapter 12. Significant Soil
A Middle Road
As long as there’s a middle road, all right, I’ll be on it. But if it came to fighting I’d fight for Mississippi against the United States even if it meant going out into the street and shooting Negroes.
—FAULKNER in the Reporter,
March 22, 1956
The hemorrhage inside the skull of Miss Maud was relieved by surgery, and she was doing well within a few days, clearly on the mend, though doctors warned that she would need quite a few weeks, if not months, for a full convalescence. There was always the threat of another stroke, too, which might well be fatal or lead to paralysis.
Meanwhile, Faulkner’s complex (often ambiguous) position on segregation continued to generate discomfort among white Southerners. He gave a speech in Memphis that was considered inflammatory by traditionalists, since he advocated “restraint and moderation” when thinking about the racial conflict; Mississippians in general viewed him as a radical liberal of some kind, a traitor in league with their northern tormentors. The political static seemed to block his ability to write, and he found it tough going on the new novel. “Doing a little work on the next Snopes book,” he told Saxe Commins toward the end of 1955. “Have not taken fire in the old way yet, so it goes slow, but unless I am burned out, I will heat up soon and go right on with it.”1
The first signs of the new novel had come in a note to Jean Stein in December: “I have just started on another novel, the second Snopes volume.”2 It had been almost two decades since the whole outline of the Snopes trilogy had come to him, but he had gone back to this material determinedly. Flem Snopes had set off for Jefferson at the end of The Hamlet. Now Faulkner would revisit episodes from various short stories and rework them, fashioning a novel-length manuscript from bits and pieces: his usual working method, in fact. Once again, he relies on Chick Mallison and Gavin Stevens as important voices. Chick recalls at the outset how Flem had turned a blind eye toward an affair between his wife and Mayor Manfred de Spain, and that he had been paid off by the mayor with control of the town’s power plant: a wonderfully symbolic thing to own.
Soon the narrative picked up speed, as Faulkner worked with renewed determination most mornings at Rowan Oak. By mid-January of 1956, he had sent off some of the manuscript to Jean for perusal, and she had written back with enthusiasm. Faulkner had put himself into a position of dependency with young Jean, a role he seemed to relish. He wrote to her frankly: “I still feel, as I did last year, that perhaps I have written myself out and all that remains now is the empty craftsmanship—no fire, force, passion anymore in the words and sentences. But as long as it pleases you, I will have to go on.”3 In essence, Jean had become the new muse, giving him a reason to write, taking the responsibility for creation off his own shoulders and putting it elsewhere.
By this time, Estelle had, with great reluctance, come to accept the fact that her husband had a strong need for the companionship of younger women. Jean Stein adored him, and he adored her; she regarded him as a father, and later said that the foundations of her moral standards were established in conversations with Faulkner, who played the role of mentor more than that of lover. Faulkner did not hide this relationship from Estelle, who wrote to Saxe Commins at this time and confessed: “I have changed.” She had herself given up alcohol, and now she was capable of looking on her husband’s dalliance with a younger woman with sympathy, even generosity: “I know, as you must, that Bill feels some sort of compulsion to be attached to some young woman at all times—it’s Bill—at long last I am sensible enough to concede him the right to do as he pleases, and without recrimination.”4
It helped, of course, that the finances of the Faulkner family were now well-established. In fact, money flowed into the coffers, with options taken on numerous old projects, including a fifty-thousand-dollar sale of the rights to Sanctuary to Universal. (The film was eventually released in 1961, starring Lee Remick and Yves Montand.) Faulkner could see difficulties with taxes looming and worried about his future, fearing he might live well beyond the point where his books brought in a substantial income. He decided to go to New York to talk over his financial situation with his agent. In early February, he checked in at the Algonquin, relieved (as usual) to get away from the ailing Miss Maud and his wife, who had remained on the wagon for some time now, looking askance when her husband poured himself another glass of whiskey.
While Faulkner was in the city, a storm broke out at the University of Alabama over the admission of Autherine Lucy, a young black woman, to the upcoming class. In “Letter to the North,” Faulkner urged moderation, saying that just as he opposed forced segregation, he opposed forced integration. He urged the north to give the southerner “a space in which to get his breath.” Faulkner believed that dissatisfaction and anger would spread through the state quickly and that no good would come of confrontational politics. The students and faculty at Alabama were adamantly opposed to the admission of “Miss Lucy,” as she was called in the press. But the Federal Court insisted that she be accepted by March 5. Faulkner was convinced that the girl would not survive if she stepped onto the campus, and he deeply feared the outbreak of violence throughout the South as a result of forced integration. He had noticed that, in Oxford, you could not even get ammunition for a deer rifle and that people who had never bought a gun in their lives were stocking up. The South was arming for a replay of the Civil War, which had become a kind of default position in Faulkner’s imagination, a place where he could go—in memory, in his work, in the realm of possible future directions—if indeed he had to. There was, among the many selves he presented to the world, and discovered in his own mind, a cavalier officer, a shade of the Old Colonel, willing to risk his troops, and himself, in battle, for the cause of independence—southern independence.
Faulkner emphasized his loyalty to the region: “I will go on saying that the Southerners are wrong and that their position is untenable, but if I have to make the same choice Robert E. Lee made, then I’ll make it.”5Invitations to speak on this subject came thick and fast, including the possibility of an appearance on national television; wisely, Faulkner’s friends in New York urged him away from this controversy, and he returned with some anxiousness to his novel. He circulated among friends, sometimes visiting Hal Smith in the country or Anthony West in Connecticut, sometimes holing up at the Algonquin, where he entertained in the bar. Jean Stein accompanied him here and there, and their friendship deepened. It was during this period that she conducted her well-known interview with him for the Paris Review—perhaps the most complete and interesting interview he ever gave. At her apartment at 2 Sutton Place, which overlooked the East River, he met a lively group of young literary types, including George Plimpton, who had cofounded the Paris Review with Peter Matthiessen. “Faulkner was utterly respectful of everyone in the room, especially Jean; their relationship was one of great courtesy and mutual consideration,” noted Plimpton.6 One night Adlai Stevenson, the presidential contender, was present at one of these gatherings, and Faulkner proclaimed himself an enthusiastic supporter.
Back in Mississippi in March, Faulkner found himself unable to break free of the controversy over Autherine Lucy. Threatening notes arrived frequently at his post office box in Oxford, and he became very angry at times. As often happened in stressful situations, his drinking increased dramatically, and he would lose control of himself; he collapsed on March 18 and was taken to the Baptist Hospital in Memphis, where he was fed intravenously and put in an oxygen tent. When Jack came to visit, he was shocked to see his brother in such poor condition, barely conscious, with tubes coming out of his nostrils. The doctor urged him to persuade his brother to give up drinking or risk death. Jack himself had given up alcohol, but he knew the chances of convincing his brother to abandon his habit were slight. With Faulkner’s usual talent for recovery, he was sitting up in bed and writing letters four days after being admitted. He had a good reason for wanting out of the hospital this time: Jill was expecting a baby in early April, and he and Estelle planned to visit her in Charlottesville at that time.
Luckily, he was well enough by mid-April to visit Jill and his new grandson, Paul D. Summers III. While in Virginia, he began a conversation with Fred Gwynn, an English professor at the University of Virginia, about becoming writer in residence for a short period; the writer-in-residence program had been financed by a legacy from Emily Clark Balch. Faulkner responded warmly to the invitation, in part because he wanted to be near his grandson. He maintained that he didn’t need or want a stipend to accept the position, agreeing to come in 1957 for a period of eight to ten weeks during the spring semester.
His health remained precarious. “I still feel rotten,” he wrote to Jean in late May of 1956.7 Throughout the spring he felt unwell, having never quite recovered after his collapse; in spite of this, he worked consistently at his desk in Oxford, and by June had some of the new novel ready to send to Commins. He was experimenting with narrators, moving among the familiar voices of V. K. Ratliff, Gavin Stevens, and Chick Mallison. His working title for the book was Snopes: Volume Two, and he hoped to complete it by Christmas. What got in the way of this plan was the endlessly shifting political terrain. Though he might write about the South in 1920, he could not avoid the South of the mid-fifties, a place where racial turmoil threatened at every moment. Among the various political projects that hijacked Faulkner’s attention at this time was a request from the magazine Ebony to respond to criticisms of an inflammatory interview he had given to the Reporter, a weekly magazine. Faulkner had been badly served by that interview and appeared far less liberal than he was. In a brief piece for Ebony called “If I Were a Negro,” he appealed for moderation on the part of blacks and whites alike. He pointed with admiration to Gandhi’s nonviolent approach to social change, urging such tactics upon the black population. He suggested that they keep four concepts in mind as they proceeded toward self-liberation: decency, quietness, courtesy, and dignity.8
By late spring and early summer, Faulkner felt much better. He had been moderate in his drinking, sleeping more than usual, and spending more time at Greenfield Farm and on the Ring Dove. These were always health-promoting activities for him. Staying close to his desk in the morning, he began to write with greater ease and fluency. By the end of the summer, he had much of the novel in rough draft. “Just finishing the book,” he wrote to Jean on August 22. “It breaks my heart. I wrote one scene and almost cried. I thought it was just a funny book but I was wrong.”9
Faulkner would have preferred to keep his focus on the novel, which required a good deal of revision, but he had agreed to attend a conference in Washington, D.C., sponsored by the Eisenhower administration, which had proposed a program for enhancing contacts between the United States and Communist countries. The People-to-People program—a fairly blatant propaganda device—involved some 150 well-known Americans from various walks of life. The idea was to send these people behind the iron curtain, where they could promote Western ideas and generate good feelings toward the United States.
Faulkner returned to work after a brief visit to the capital and finished the novel by the middle of October—a final typescript of 436 pages that he delivered to Commins only a few days after finishing it. Commins enlisted the editorial help of a recent Princeton Ph.D., James B. Meriwether, who was at this time assembling an exhibition of Faulkneriana at Princeton. Meriwether’s job was to assist in reconciling facts of the second novel in the trilogy with the first one; after all, it had been nearly two decades since Faulkner wrote The Hamlet, and there were obvious discrepancies that he must address.
The novel was barely finished before Faulkner hurled himself into the People-to-People program, trying to enlist other writers in the project. Among those who responded positively to Faulkner’s efforts were Robert Lowell, John Steinbeck, and Robert Hillyer. But many others, including Shelby Foote, Edmund Wilson, Lionel Trilling, and William Carlos Williams, lacked enthusiasm for the idea and some actually wondered why Faulkner bothered to spend time on such matters. In late November, at Harvey Breit’s place in Manhattan, Faulkner chaired a meeting of fourteen writers who had agreed to participate at some level. Among those present were Edna Ferber, John Steinbeck, and Saul Bellow. The idea, of course, was for the writers to think of ways to combat Communism abroad—a public relations scheme that didn’t necessarily sit well with all of the writers assembled. Donald Hall was there, and he recalled that the discussion was rambling, centered for a while on the subject of Hungarian refugees, but that it “degenerated into a free-for-all…. Faulkner suggested we should bring ordinary folks over here [from behind the iron curtain], give them a used car and a job, and show them how America really worked.”10 Saul Bellow got so angry he stormed out of the meeting, and after he left the discussion swung to Ezra Pound, then incarcerated at St. Elizabeth’s, a mental hospital in Washington, D.C., having been charged with treason for making radio broadcasts during the war from a fascist station in Rome.
Pound was a controversial topic, but his release had been urged on the Department of Justice by several important writers, including T. S. Eliot, Hemingway, and Robert Frost—each of whom had a debt to Pound. Now Faulkner weighed in, favoring the release of Pound, with much support all around from the literary community, although Bellow, Delmore Schwartz, and Irving Howe were among those who opposed the notion. Steinbeck didn’t actually object to freeing Pound, but he feared this act would inflame the public. “John brought Faulkner back to our townhouse,” Elaine Steinbeck recalled, “and they talked for a long time about hunting and fishing, and sailing. John loved the sea, and Faulkner had a boat that he loved to talk about. They kept away from literary subjects. Neither man, I think, liked to talk about books.”11
Never one to press his point of view, Faulkner had been a fairly meek chair of the People-to-People committee, going along with whatever the majority decided. Hall remembered him as “a small, tidy, delicate, aloof, stern, rigid, stony figure—delicate and stony at the same time.”12 He also noted that Faulkner kept a glass of bourbon beside his chair, and that he took frequent sips. The committee experience left Faulkner even less eager than before to associate with other writers, although he would have to endure a further meeting in New York in February in connection with the program—his last meeting for People-to-People. “I don’t go along with that stuff,” Faulkner said when pressed by reporters about the committee’s efforts to promote cultural exchanges. “We don’t need any foreign writers here, and our writers don’t have to go anywhere. Writers all over the world understand each other. What we need is an exchange of plumbers and carpenters and businessmen.”13
He was glad to get back to Rowan Oak for the holidays, proofreading galleys of The Town just before Christmas and reporting to Saxe Commins a few days later that they had been sent back. He also reported that he had not felt well recently and planned to go back on “last spring’s baby pap diet again” before long.14 He was determined to get himself into better shape, if possible, for his upcoming stint at the University of Virginia, which would be broken by various commitments to be elsewhere for short periods. Much to his own surprise, he had become a very public figure, hugely in demand. That he would soon stand before classes at the University of Virginia amazed him; he had, after all, only glancing contacts with the academy, and these had rarely been pleasant experiences. Indeed, he shied away from anything that smacked of intellectualism, as when a reporter approached him at a cocktail party in 1957, asking him whether he had read a particular book that she happened to be reading. “No, ma’am,” he replied, disingenuously. “I don’t read much of anything. I’m just a country boy from down Mississippi.”15
There can be nothing quite so awing as complete lack of small talk. I had only encountered it once before, in a notably saintly clergyman beside whom I was placed at a dinner. In the case of the minister I had supposed his attention to be taken up by pressing considerations of Deity; in the case of Faulkner, I could only assume he was thinking about his work.
—NANCY HALE, Conversations with Faulkner
The photographs of Faulkner at the University of Virginia portray a distinguished older gentleman, his hair whitish silver, his mustache full and equally silver. He wears a thick tweed jacket, English-style, and a silk tie with a handkerchief in the pocket. The face is remarkably angular, the large nose possessing a noble air. Wrinkles have finally set in, but Faulkner seems handsome, his eyes alert, though the lids seem to droop. His jaw is relaxed, his expression serene. Novelist Nancy Hale recalled: “I had seen him out walking alone in the suburban-type streets of Charlottesville, a dapper little figure with a neat mustache, dressed like an actor in a trench coat and fur-felt hat with an Alpine brush, swinging a stick and looking about him with a sightseer’s air.”16
Virginia was “Mr. Jefferson’s University,” as people said. Faulkner began his formal work there before a tiny class of English graduate students, who were taught by Fred Gwynn, Faulkner’s primary host. He followed this initial meeting with a press conference, where he smoked his pipe and offered sharply ironic responses to questions, saying for example that he liked Virginians because they were snobs, and that snobs had to spend “so much time being a snob” that they did not have time to interfere with others. He noted that he was there in Virginia to visit with his new grandson, whom he hoped his parents would raise in such a manner that he didn’t become a bigot. “He can have a Confederate battleflag if he wants it, but he shouldn’t take it too seriously.”17
Faulkner liked being at the university and took pleasure in the company of Fred Gwynn and other members of the faculty, who clearly admired him. He met classes on an irregular basis and held office hours in Room 505 of Cabell Hall on Mondays and Thursdays. At receptions, he was often accompanied by Estelle. As might be expected, the couple were invited to a fair number of dinner parties at faculty houses. On one such occasion, a visitor remembered how little Faulkner said, but that he relished the glass of whiskey offered on a silver tray. “Why, down home, when I come in of an evening,” he said, “and walk in by the fire, and sit down there with a drink of whiskey in my hand, I tell you there’s nothing in the world like that first sip running down my throat.”18
Among his favorite activities in Virginia was fox hunting, a specialty of Albermarle County, where the “county people,” as they were called, lived on impressive farms with rolling acres and names like Hunting Ridge or Eden Farm. Hunt clubs had been established in this part of the world long ago, and there was a rich tradition in place—obviously descended from English fox hunting, famously defined by Oscar Wilde as “the pursuit of the uneatable by the unspeakable.” Faulkner still had a good deal of trouble with his back, but he could not resist the opportunity to join in the hunt. (Faulkner’s daughter, Jill, is currently master of the hunt in her part of Albermarle County.) The old Dixie Flying Field, which he had used during his visit to the university in 1931, had become a horse farm and riding school in the intervening years, run by a large, cheery man called Grover Vandevender, and Faulkner often went to his farm. He could be seen walking a horse around in a ring, his tweed jacket with leather patches on the elbow. After a short while, he convinced Vandevender to allow him to take jumping lessons: not the usual thing for a man of nearly sixty, even though he had considerable experience with horses and riding. Faulkner made swift progress, although later X-rays suggest that he probably broke a rib or two at some point. If he did, he never mentioned it to anyone.
Jill found her parents a furnished house at 917 Rugby Road in Charlottesville, not far from Faulkner’s office. He savored the twenty-minute stroll to the campus, past the magnificent rotunda and down the famous lawn to New Cabell Hall. Throughout the spring semester, he made occasional visits to classes and addressed interested groups, such as the English Club, where he gave a reading of “Spotted Horses” one afternoon and took questions from students. In front of classes, he was candid and unpredictable, as seen in Faulkner in the University, a collection of transcripts from thirty-six recorded sessions with student audiences edited by Fred Gwynn and Joseph Blotner and published by the University Press of Virginia in 1959. (These lively interviews present a range of the author’s views on literary as well as social and political topics.)
An official visit by Faulkner to Greece had been contemplated for some time. A Greek actor and producer, Dimitri Myrat, was staging Requiem for a Nun in Athens in late March, and the U.S. embassy there summoned Faulkner, who had by now established a reputation for doing well in these circumstances (despite the alcoholic collapses that had blemished some of his earlier trips abroad). In Greece, he would receive the Silver Medal of the Athens Society and go through the usual round of press conferences and public dinners. The trip occupied the last two weeks in March—a lovely time to be in Greece, with the spring flowers in full bloom.
Warnings about the potential for disaster with Faulkner had been sent to all the officials of the embassy in Athens by the State Department, but in fact he behaved well. His time in Virginia had been restorative, and he seemed in excellent shape to everyone as he was escorted from the Hotel Grand Bretagne to the various events on his schedule. By now an old hand at cultural missions, he handled himself confidently, flattering the local press with compliments about the Greeks, answering the usual barrage of questions about his work, about the South and segregation. The high point of this trip was an excursion aboard the Jeanetta, a luxury yacht owned by a Greek industrialist. It had been stocked with food and drink, delighting Faulkner and his minders from the embassy as they sailed around the Aegean islands for several days, often stopping to eat at an outdoor café in some remote marina. Although his main host, Duncan Emrich, tried to get him to work on his acceptance speech for the Silver Medal, Faulkner preferred to lounge on deck, his shirt off, barefoot, drinking ouzo.
Emrich kept pushing him to work on the speech, but Faulkner refused. “This is your show,” he told him. “You know better than I what I should say. What do you want me to say?” Faulkner remained on deck most of the time, even through a storm that prevented the yacht from returning home. Ultimately, the yacht was forced to dock in Siros; Faulkner and his company took a filthy, cramped steamer back to Piraeus in order to make the ceremony at the Athens Academy. The steamer swayed violently from side to side in heavy weather, while most passengers kept to their bunks. Faulkner, however, stayed up all night in the aft bar, drinking ouzo. He seemed perfectly fresh the next morning, much to the astonishment of his hosts, who surfaced pale and shaky from belowdecks. Over the next couple of days, Faulkner managed to get through a packed round of meetings with local academics, writers, students, journalists, and cultural officers from various countries. Everywhere, he autographed pictures and books, always bowing politely to those who came up to him. He seemed genial and well-disposed toward the Greeks, who toasted him at several large banquets and receptions, flashing his picture on the front page of most newspapers.
He returned to Charlottesville in less than perfect condition, however, suffering from the accumulated drinks of the Greek excursion as well as nervous exhaustion. He collapsed at home in early April 1957 and was briefly hospitalized. His stepson Malcolm had come for a visit at this time, and he became ill as well, so Estelle had her hands very full. Fortunately, Faulkner rallied toward the end of the semester, giving several popular presentations to adoring crowds, who asked detailed questions about his novels and stories. He was unfailingly polite, but refused to interpret his work. When asked, for example, about the symbolism in “The Bear,” he responded candidly but without elaboration. The bear itself “represented the vanishing wilderness. He was an obvious symbol.”19 There was no petulance in his voice now, as there often had been in the past. He had mellowed into a professorial role and seemed to delight in being the center of attraction, though he still refused to make small talk at parties or receptions.
On May 1, 1957, The Town was published, to lukewarm reviews. While there was general support for a man of Faulkner’s stature, a wish to see the novel succeed, some of the best reviewers, such as Alfred Kazin, pulled no punches. “Tired, drummed-up, boring, often merely frivolous” were the words used to describe this novel in the New York Times Book Review.20 While many southern periodicals gave Faulkner a gentler treatment, the major reviews were anything but positive. Even Malcolm Cowley, Faulkner’s staunch supporter, demurred in the New Republic: “With the best will in the world, one finds it impossible to take a serious interest in the characters of The Town.”21 This cannot have pleased the author, who valued loyalty above all other virtues.
On one occasion, a student asked Faulkner if he was getting tired of writing about Yoknapatawpha County, and he replied after a thoughtful pause: “I don’t think I am.” He explained that this was not a novel but a chronicle, and the whole of the project needed to be seen in that light. He insisted that the subject—the county and its people—compelled his attention, although he wondered if he had waited too long to write down the incidents of The Town. Perhaps, he suggested, there was indeed a certain staleness there. But he refused to abandon his precious county and its people.22
By the end of spring, Faulkner had wearied of his role as public man and grown tired of answering the same questions. He was itching to return to Oxford, where he had some repairs to make on the barn at Greenfield Farm; he also had in mind the third volume of the Snopes trilogy, which he felt eager to write. Estelle, too, missed her own house, and she intended to plant a number of rose bushes around Rowan Oak, having been inspired by similar plantings in Charlottesville.
The obligations of his status continued to haunt Faulkner, however, and he reluctantly boarded a train to New York City in late May to present a medal for fiction to John Dos Passos on behalf of the National Institute of Arts and Letters. He had always liked Dos Passos and his work, and had been urged to come by Malcolm Cowley, to whom Faulkner continued to feel grateful for the work he had done in resuscitating his career. But he came to New York with gritted teeth, attending the various ceremonies and cocktail parties that came with the occasion. After only a few days, he returned eagerly to Charlottesville, where he began the elaborate process of winding up his residence there. This meant attending parties in his honor, giving a final public reading, packing his office, and saying good-bye to friends. There was much talk of Faulkner returning the next year, but he refused to be led into this discussion just yet. He stated firmly that he did not, above all, wish to become a permanent writer in residence at the university. As ever, he insisted that he was a farmer, and it was time to get back to work.
He left in late June, stopping over in New York to see off his niece, Dean (the daughter of his brother Dean), who was going to Europe for a year abroad. Dean had been under his financial wing for many years now, and he continued to take an avid interest in her education and emotional well-being. Arriving in Oxford with Estelle, Faulkner discovered the house in good shape; it had been carefully tended by Estelle’s sister Dot Oldham, who had spent many hours in the garden, which displayed her handiwork. But Greenfield Farm was run down, and Faulkner worried about the time and energy—not to say the money—that would be involved to set things right there. He began to contemplate the final installment of the Snopes trilogy, the novel that would become The Mansion. But this seemed a far, impossible shore. He needed first to reestablish himself in Oxford and accomplish certain tasks at the farm, such as erecting a new fence around one pasture and fixing the roof on a barn that had deteriorated badly over the winter. When Floyd Stovall, an English professor at the University of Virginia, wrote to urge Faulkner to return to the campus in the following spring, he readily agreed, but noted that his stay would be shorter and broken in the middle by yet another State Department trip. Of course the university was delighted to have Faulkner under any circumstances, and the scheduling issues were quickly resolved, pleasing Faulkner. He had found his time in the university surprisingly congenial or he would never have agreed to another stint as Professor Faulkner.
What must I do now, Papa? Papa, what can I do now?
—GAVIN STEVENS in The Town
Few critics regarded The Town as major Faulkner, although a persistent line of readers (following Cleanth Brooks) has sought to judge the novel on its own terms, not in relation to The Hamlet, published a full seventeen years before and certainly one of Faulkner’s best books. The characters have changed noticeably, and this can feel disconcerting. It is hard, for example, to keep Gavin Stevens in mind as the same figure who appeared in Light in August, Knight’s Gambit, or The Hamlet. Then again, we see him from different perspectives now, at different phases of his life. The central figure of Flem Snopes, the wily and leather-skinned weasel of The Hamlet, seems ineffectual and hapless in this sequel, even though he rises to become bank president and Baptist deacon, embedding himself in the respectable middle class of Jefferson. Then again, he has been put in an entirely different context, that of a small town, where his aggressive tactics and greedy nature do not necessarily work to his benefit.
The book is, like most of Faulkner’s novels, loosely episodic. Flem Snopes and his wife, Eula, wash into town, where they encounter some opposition from the likes of Gavin Stevens, who objects to Snopesism in general as a crudely aggressive and self-serving phenomenon embodied by Flem. Ratliff gets it right when he says: “When its jest money and power a man wants, there is usually some place where he will stop; there’s always one thing at least that ever—every man wont do for jest money. But when its respectability he finds out he wants and has got to have, there aint nothing he wont do to get it and then keep it.”23
Flem’s search for power and respectability is coupled with Gavin’s search for love in ways that bind the two main strands of the novel. Gavin desperately wants Eula, Flem’s wife, although not so much physically as emotionally; his rival in romance, Major de Spain, only wants her body. Utterly ruthless, Flem doesn’t mind exploiting this romance between his wife and the mayor, de Spain, to advance his own career. The idealistic (and unrealistic) young Stevens—a member of the old aristocracy—wishes to defend Eula’s virtue, and a confrontation between him and de Spain occupies a good deal of the novel. A related plotline involves Stevens’s efforts to educate Eula’s daughter, Linda: an effort not everyone in the town believes is aboveboard. Is he really just interested in “forming her mind,” as he claims?
Like its predecessor The Hamlet, The Town meanders, with lots of narrative eddies, many of them swirling with good humor. All of the business of the brass safety valves stolen by Flem from the town’s power plant while he was superintendent (a job arranged for him by de Spain) is comical, if not ludicrous. The meeting between Mrs. Hait and the mule in her backyard or the cartoonish portrait of Montgomery Ward Snopes (who shows dirty pictures at his boutique in Jefferson) seem deftly planted to entertain the reader; the latter also furthers the plot, as Faulkner had to get M. W. Snopes in prison at Parchman to foil Mink’s release. These characters and episodes were, for the most part, imported from earlier stories, some reaching back to the early thirties (“Mule in the Yard,” for example, appeared in 1932, and was rewritten for inclusion in The Town).
As with so many of Faulkner’s novels, several narrators—three in this case—step forward with their versions of the story, thus layering viewpoints. Chick Mallison carries much of the narrative, which begins with the arrival of Flem, Eula, and Linda Snopes in Jefferson in 1909; the story extends to about 1927—a year or so after Eula has shot herself. Chick has gotten much of the information he relates from his cousin, Gowan Stevens. The loquacious Gavin Stevens does a little less of the talking here—he narrates eight chapters, as opposed to Chick’s ten. Six chapters belong to the wise, ironic Ratliff, who played a more central role in The Hamlet. There is some repetition, of course, as the three narrators overlap with versions of what did or didn’t happen—one of Faulkner’s tried and true methods. Brooks points out that the speakers often twist the material to fit their own sensibilities and needs. As Ratliff, the traveling sewing machine salesman, says in The Mansion: “I dont think I prefer it to happened that way.”24
Both Stevens and his nephew regard the events of the novel through a romantic lens, which in itself is funny, as Eula Snopes cannot be considered anybody’s dream girl. She is gritty, opportunistic, and sexually aggressive. Gavin Stevens wants to “protect” her. He learns, in the course of the novel, that his own illusions are foolish. When she kills herself, the final fog-tinted lens drops away. Like Horace Benbow in Sartoris and Sanctuary, he has been forced to come to terms with “the nature of women and reality and evil.”25 Needless to say, we are staring here at Faulkner’s own, rather old-fashioned (which is to say sexist) attitudes—his reflexive stance toward women and the male/female relationship. Yoknapatawpha County would never have welcomed Gloria Steinem in its midst.
Faulkner had never been very comfortable with women, although he needed them desperately. His early idealization of Estelle led only to disenchantment upon disenchantment, beginning with her initial rejection of him for another man, then her attempted suicide on the honeymoon in Pascagoula. Eventually, the couple settled into a pattern of mutual dependency and shared neglect. In their last decade together, although there were times of harsh opposition and resentment, often made worse by drinking (or, even, not-drinking), there was a general truce at work, a stance of resignation, even—at times—mutual acceptance.
Faulkner always, of course, preferred to idealize women, to keep them on a pedestal where he did not have to deal with the realities of the human condition, which affects women and men in similar ways. He could only keep his illusions in place by befriending much younger women; hence, the line of younger, adoring lovers, from Meta through Joan to Jean, none of whom posed a real threat. He would never have to live with these women in marriage, raise children with them, meet them (consistently) in the bathroom in the morning. To his credit, he seems to have understood this in some ways and presents Gavin Stevens as an ironic version of himself, a rich figure of satire as he attempts to “educate” Linda. He seems to understand and, in a sense, admire Eula’s earthiness and expediency.
As a work of art, The Town leaves much to be desired. The writing is never as concrete or arresting as in either The Hamlet or The Mansion, which are better books, less prone to the cartoonish exaggeration that seems especially to plague Ratliff in the second novel. The bits and pieces of The Town fall together chaotically, and one does not come away with a unified or definite impression, although Faulkner still manages to pull off amusing or shocking scenes. The suicide of Eula is, finally, wrenching, and one understands why the author told Jean Stein that he had been reduced to tears while writing it. He was saying good-bye to his fantasies.
So much of this novel, like the trilogy as a whole, concerns Faulkner’s own disillusion. He may well have believed that he belonged to a natural aristocracy and that he had won fame and money because of his rightful position in some imagined hierarchy. But here, as elsewhere, he portrays his hero, Stevens, ironically. There is, indeed, no natural aristocrat in The Town, nobody able to withstand the onslaught of Flem Snopes. Major de Spain, whose class origins are similar to those of Gavin Stevens, has capitulated. As Kevin Railey remarks: “The absence of any character possessing these values of natural aristocracy thus leads to Eula’s death.”26 That is, there was nobody present in the novel, or in the town, who could settle complicated matters that arise according to some eternal principles of justice and decency. People are out for themselves here—an indictment of the South that becomes an indictment of American society as a whole. At the end of The Town, Flem begins the work of redecorating his large house, making it look like an antebellum mansion. The sharply ironic nature of this act is a fitting close to a novel about the usurpation of the old world, with its admirable (in Faulkner’s mind) values, by the callow, acquisitive, opportunistic Snopeses.
Man on Horseback
People are capable of infinite change. That’s what makes anyone want to be a journalist or writer, to write about people, because of the infinite variety.
—Faulkner at Albermarle High School,
One of the more amusing moments in the summer arrived with a letter from Lyle Stuart, the publisher of the Independent, a weekly paper. Norman Mailer had just written a piece in which he argued that white people were afraid of the black man’s sexual potency and therefore resisted integration; that they preferred the old arrangement of slavery in which where they got to cuckold black men because they were in a superior position. Faulkner was being baited, but he refused to enter into a real dialogue with Mailer, whom he found ridiculous. “I have heard this idea expressed several times during the last twenty years,” he wrote back sometime during the summer of 1957, “though not before by a man. The others were ladies, northern or middle western ladies, usually around 40 or 45 years of age. I don’t know what a psychiatrist would find in this.”27 Mailer, of course, was outraged by the response, but he deserved what he got. His provocative and narrow-minded notions were, at best, laughable.
Summer and fall were a quiet time for Faulkner, with ideas for the new novel gathering in his head. He answered letters dutifully and politely refused most public appearances. Much of his attention was devoted to getting Greenfield Farm in order. He also monitored progress on a film of The Hamlet that Jerry Wald was making. It would be called The Long Hot Summer, starring Orson Welles, Anthony Franciosa, Paul Newman, and Joanne Woodward. Faulkner showed only a slight interest, however, in other movie projects, especially when the producers suggested that he write a script for them. He knew he had no real talent for scripts, and he told his agent, Harold Ober, exactly this when a lucrative proposal came for him to write a script of The Unvanquished for MGM. His days of grubbing for money and putting himself out on this particular limb were over.
Estelle had gone to Charlottesville in November, and Faulkner joined her in the middle of the month. They moved into a cottage on their daughter’s property, where they enjoyed the contact with Jill’s family. Faulkner himself looked forward to the fox hunting season, although his own ability to participate was curtailed by a sore throat, which he treated with large doses of whiskey, landing himself once again in the hospital. By the time he made it back to Oxford, he was clearly in a weakened position. He began, however, to work on The Mansion, eking out scenes, writing more slowly than ever, without the old bursts of energy and vision.
After Christmas at Rowan Oak, he returned to Charlottesville eager to see his grandson again and to reconnect with friends (such as Linton Massey, a wealthy member of the county set who had been collecting Faulkner material for some time) as well as colleagues at the university, such as Fred Gwynn, John Coleman, and Joseph Blotner, his future biographer. Faulkner had warmed to the idea of making some permanent arrangement with the University of Virginia, and his advocates in the English Department went to see university president Colgate W. Darden about this matter. Darden resisted, however. The Balch program had not been designed to lure writers to the faculty in any permanent way. In reality, Darden was not happy about Faulkner’s liberal views on the “Negro question.” The governor of Virginia had recently put forward the notion of “massive resistance” to integration. The state legislature was full of men who disliked the idea that the federal government could have any sway over a state in this matter; indeed, the Civil War was still raging in some quarters. President Darden may well have worried that attaching Faulkner to the university would not have helped him in his relations with the state legislature, which were important, because the university was heavily dependent on state funding.
President Darden’s fears may have been justified, as on February 18, 1958, Faulkner delivered a talk to a large audience called “A Word to Virginians” in which he said that a nation could not survive with ten percent of its population “arbitrarily unassimilated.” His lecture would not have pleased northern liberals, however, as it was full of talk—fairly typical in the South at this time—about the competence of “the Negro” to assume responsibilities. To a northern ear, Faulkner could sound downright racist, as when he said: “Perhaps the Negro is not yet capable of more than second-class citizenship.” Interestingly, the audience—composed mostly of students—posed hard questions. Faulkner remained coolheaded, taking criticism well, wondering aloud about his own viewpoints and the language he used to formulate those opinions. He revealed himself as a thoughtful, honest, considerate man, and he was indeed these things, although an underlying racism persists. Faulkner could not, and did not, fully transcend his time, his class and racial origins, or his place.
He had warned his Virginia colleagues about his other commitments in the spring, so it came as no surprise when he spent the first two weeks in March at Princeton University, where he performed in much the same capacity as as he did in Charlottesville. He came under the auspices of the Council on Humanities and met with students individually and gave eight public readings—a ridiculously heavy schedule, in fact. He stayed with Saxe and Dorothy Commins and was visited by Harold Ober and Don Klopfer. Among his hosts on the Princeton faculty was Lawrance Thompson, who became the official biographer of Robert Frost. Once, in Thompson’s house, a student asked Faulkner if there was a single character in his work who was “saved by grace.” He responded: “I have always thought of God as being in the wholesale rather than the retail business.” Thompson also recalled that Faulkner had a “wry, easy way with students” that made them feel appreciated. He supposed that the time Faulkner had spent at the University of Virginia had made him feel “comfortable with students and their questions.”28
Speaking to one student who sought advice about becoming a writer, Faulkner urged the young man to “keep it amateur.” He added: “Remember, you’re writing about people. Not about Princeton University or the clubs, but about people. About man as he faces the eternal truths of love, compassion, cowardice, protection of the weak. Not facts, but truths. You’re going to write about truth: man as he comes into conflict with his heart.” He told the student to get another job besides writing. “It doesn’t matter what you do as long as you don’t count on money and a deadline for your writing.” He said he’d never met anyone who could not find the time to write if he really wanted to write. “Don’t be ‘a writer,’” he said. “Be writing.” He also recommend wide reading as the best way to educate yourself as a writer.29
Faulkner simply repeated things he had been saying consistently for some years. Like anyone who must appear frequently in public, he developed a way of talking, a line of argument, some ready-made opinions that sounded a little provocative and could be brought out quickly, without forethought. Faulkner had not himself taken his own advice, of course. He had depended heavily for an income on his writing and had worked against deadlines throughout his career. Perhaps he was saying, Do as I say, not as I do. Much in the vein of romantic aesthetics, he preferred to believe in writing as a spontaneous overflow of strong feeling, not something carefully revised, calculated, or done for money. To an extent, he wrote spontaneously, with shocking speed at times. But he had thought long and hard about his stories and novels, and often put considerable effort into revisions, although he preferred not to have to retype his handwritten manuscripts. “I hate to retype,” he said, “so I figure out exactly what I want to say as far ahead as I can remember it, then sit down and type it out.”30
Back in Virginia in March 1958, he continued his work at the university, saying many of the same things he had said before there and, most recently, at Princeton. His final sessions in May “were often repetitive,” Blotner noticed, “but almost always they revealed something new about that keen and unpredictable mind and sensibility.”31 Faulkner managed to spend several hours a day at home, working on The Mansion, the final volume of his trilogy about Flem Snopes, but progress was slow. His public commitments were just large enough to keep him away from his desk in uncomfortable ways, and he was quite happy that the continuing efforts to lure him to Virginia on a permanent basis failed to work. On May 27, without much fanfare, Faulkner and his wife slipped away from the house on Rugby Road, heading to Mississippi.
Awaiting him in Oxford was a request from the State Department to visit the Soviet Union with a group of distinguished American writers. He rejected this idea immediately, saying he could make a greater impact by not going, thus not lending himself to a project that in some way validated the Communist government. Also, after so much travel, such a long journey seemed distasteful. In addition, Faulkner had the little matter of his novel, The Mansion, which he hoped to finish as soon as possible. Indeed, he found himself remarkably engaged as he returned to his desk, and the pages began to pile up quickly. He was eager to deliver the manuscript to Commins, who was always so welcoming and responsive to his early drafts, no matter what condition they were in. In a dreadful turn of events, however, Saxe Commins died unexpectedly of a heart attack on July 17, 1958. He was only sixty-six.
Faulkner had lost one of his best friends and supporters in the literary world. He had stayed with Saxe and Dorothy in Princeton, at their home on Elm Road, on so many occasions, and had sat beside Commins in his office at Random House, writing. He trusted Commins to see that his best interests were served, and this loss could only have felt grave, although Faulkner still had Harold Ober and others looking out for his publishing interests. He had, in fact, been careful to surround himself with a supportive group, especially given the precarious nature of his marriage. Certainly he could not rely on Estelle for advice about his novels or stories, although “he often read to us aloud from a work in progress, and always welcomed our opinion,” his daughter recalls.
In his recreational hours, Faulkner still spent a lot of time on horseback, even though he continued to suffer from backache. It was “hot as hell” that summer, as he wrote to Ober in early August. “I have been trying to get my green hunter ready for a night horse show,” he said, “but she would not face the lights and crowd, tore a ligament loose in my groin so that my leg is rainbow-colored, red, purple, green, yellow, down to the knee, beside breaking the bridle and flinging the groom into a ditch before we got her into a stall immobilized.”32 Photographs from this summer show him proudly leaping over a fence on Tempy, his favorite horse, wearing a jacket and tie, despite the intense heat and aching back.
In Oxford, Faulkner began to fantasize about buying a farm in Virginia, somewhere with a decent amount of land and a place for horses. He was plagued at Rowan Oak by tourists, who craned their necks over the hedges to gawk at the great man, and he found it impossible to go anywhere without someone playing a jukebox loudly. He told Ober that he didn’t need lectures for one thousand dollars. “That is, what I need is not $1000.00 but $100,000.00.”33
He escaped briefly to Virginia in the fall, where his daughter and her family were staying temporarily in a guest cottage on the grand estate of Linton and Mary Massey. Faulkner enjoyed the Massey hospitality, with the fine cuisine at their table and the seclusion of their property. Jill was expecting her second child now, and Estelle wanted to stay and help her, so Faulkner returned by himself to Rowan Oak, where he planned to finish The Mansionas quickly as he could.
That quiet time ended in November, when the Faulkners hosted another wedding at Rowan Oak, this time for Dean, who was marrying Jon Mallard, an army man. This was a considerable expense for Faulkner, who took his responsibility as Dean’s surrogate father seriously. But his finances were in good shape, especially with an infusion of cash from Twentieth Century-Fox in connection with the rights to Requiem for a Nun, which Ruth Ford and her husband, Zachary Scott, would soon bring to Broadway. The play had already had a successful trial in England, and it had been going for a year and a half in Paris, in the production by Albert Camus; that version of the play had begun to tour Europe as well, making it an unexpected, if somewhat belated, success.
Throughout the fall of 1958, Faulkner continued his casual relationship with the University of Virginia, but he also visited Princeton again, spending another week there in residence. Before returning to Charlottesville, he stopped for a few days in New York, where he sat in the Algonquin with a borrowed typewriter, working away on the novel with a fresh intensity. He and Estelle were soon at their newly rented house in Farmington, outside of Charlottesville; this was horse country, dotted with antebellum mansions and well-groomed farms. The Farmington Country Club was nearby. Soon Faulkner became friends with people who hunted, not only at Farmington but also at Keswick—a rival hunt.
Life in Albermarle County was gracious, and it appealed to Faulkner’s aristocratic instincts. Beautiful farms, gracious homes, and convivial parties opened to him. Mainly, Faulkner adored the hunts, with their strong traditions, which included elaborate breakfasts before the hunt and elegant parties afterward, when stirrup cups full of whiskey made the rounds. Few of those who hunted were passionately interested in killing the fox. They were along for the ride, taking pleasure in the countryside, the good company and good cheer, the sense of belonging to a tradition. It was nevertheless important to have one’s riding skills honed, and Faulkner duly spent hours at the riding school run by his friend Grover Vandevender, who noted that he was “all nerve” and would go anywhere on horseback, jumping over high fences or stone walls, plunging into rough country. Faulkner’s old-world manners played well in Albermarle County, as when he would doff his hat to the master of the hunt or bow gallantly to women. Not surprisingly, he became a very popular addition to whatever hunt he joined.
The hunting continued right through Christmas, which Faulkner celebrated with his new grandson, William Cuthbert Faulkner Summers, born on December 2, 1958. In all, this was a uniquely happy period in Faulkner’s life, with congenial surroundings, no worries about money, his daughter happily married and close by, with two grandsons and a fine husband. Nevertheless, he needed to be closer to home to finish the novel and returned by himself to Rowan Oak in early January. Within a week, he moved into the final stretch of the narrative, writing for as many as six or seven hours each morning and visiting Greenfield Farm in the afternoon. By mid-January he boasted of his progress to Don Klopfer: “Am finishing first draft of mss. this week, will do about a month’s cleaning up, and will ring or send it in, maybe I will send first section as soon as it’s done. You should have it all by March.”34
Estelle came down with a severe case of bronchitis toward the end of January, and was taken by her daughter to the Martha Jefferson Hospital in Charlottesville. Faulkner wrote her a telegram on January 23, 1959: FINISHED FIRST DRAFT. AM HOMESICK FOR EVERYBODY. REPORT ON PLAY WHEN I ARRIVE. VALENTINE’S LOVE. PAPPY. A certain narcissism permeates this message: it was all about him, even when Estelle was ill. But he overflowed with good feeling and genuinely missed the family circle. Before long, he was back in Albermarle County, looking for property. He and Estelle wanted desperately to buy a farm near their daughter, and they had several good possibilities now, although he would need anywhere from seventy to ninety thousand dollars for a suitable house with sufficient land around it.
On January 30, Requiem for a Nun opened in New York, fulfilling a long-standing dream of Ruth Ford’s. Faulkner did not attend, perhaps thinking he would jinx the production, although he sent various members of his family in his place. Although decent reviews appeared the next day, there was not enough real enthusiasm in the general press to sustain a major run, and the play was deemed undramatic by many who saw it. Word of mouth finally killed it, and the play closed in February after forty-three performances: not quite respectable and certainly unprofitable.
Although unhappy about the short run of the play, Faulkner had his mind firmly on the new novel. Albert Erskine had combed through the trilogy, finding discrepancies, and he asked Faulkner about engaging James B. Meriwether once again to help in reconciling these. (Meriwether had provided similar assistance in ironing out differences between The Hamlet and The Town.) For whatever reason, Faulkner seemed not to want Meriwether’s help, preferring to deal by himself with Erskine’s suggestions. This was hard work for Faulkner, which he completed in March at a new office set up for him at the Alderman Library at the University of Virginia, where he had been given an honorary position as consultant on contemporary literature. The position carried no salary, but Faulkner liked the idea and was glad to have an office at his disposal.
The novel was thoroughly revised in mid-March, when Faulkner once again plunged into the social world of Albermarle County. He attended, for example, a grand reception for Sir John Wedgwood at Gallison Hall, a mansion owned by Evalyn Galban, whom he had recently befriended. He also plunged into the hunting scene, breaking his collarbone at the Farmington hunter trials. He explained the accident to Albert Erskine like this: “What happened was, I was going too fast in wet ground and turned the horse too quick to face a fence and threw him down myself. I broke my collarbone twisting out from under him when he fell. I wont turn one that fast in treacherous ground anymore.”35
In fact, Faulkner had not simply snapped but shattered his clavicle, and this worried his doctors, who were keen that he should stay off horses until a thorough healing had occurred. He wrote to Joan Williams in late April that he was still having trouble with his arm, and that he had mysterious pains. “Something is pressing, against a nerve or something,” he told her. He was “quite worried” about the direction of his health and planned to go to Memphis to see a specialist.36 He mentioned future travel plans: trips to New York City and Virginia in June, and in September a trip to Denver for a conference sponsored by UNESCO.
In the meantime, there was constant attention from Hollywood, and Faulkner accumulated substantial sums from options and payments for films, such as The Sound and the Fury, which Jerry Wald had produced (and which premiered in Jackson, Mississippi, on March 4). He showed little or no interest in anything beyond cashing the checks that came in, however; he would not attend premieres and could not be persuaded to do interviews in connection with the films. Even when Bennett Cerf wrote to see if he would appear on national television to promote publication of The Mansion, he refused, saying he was no good at these things. He had apparently come to a point where he had all the attention he needed, and then some. Now he wanted to savor the satisfactions of daily life and the pleasure of writing when and how he chose. “I still have one more book I want to write,” he told Joan. This was the novel that became The Reivers, which would indeed be his last novel.
Unbelievably, Faulkner was back on horseback by May 1959, rising early and going to the paddock, saddling a horse, then riding off in the nearby countryside. One morning he was once again thrown into the mud when a bit of paper blew across the road and spooked his horse. He fell flat on his back and was lucky that a neighbor saw the accident and rushed to his aid. Back at Rowan Oak, he lay in bed for days, in considerable pain, refusing treatment. When he finally got up, he had so much pain in his left leg that he could barely cross the room. It would be some months before he allowed Dr. Douglas Nicoll, his friend and physician, to take an X-ray, which revealed a compression fracture of the sixth dorsal vertebra. Faulkner had broken his back again.
In increasing discomfort, using a cane, Faulkner managed to get himself to New York in June to consult with Albert Erskine and Bennett Cerf about the final adjustments to The Mansion. He would authorize changes in his earlier work in the trilogy so that details would conform with the final installment, looking forward to his publisher reprinting the three books “as a simultaneous trilogy” with uniform typeface and bindings. The old versions, he said, could be sold off “as antiques.”37 The Mansion, like the previous two novels in the series, would be dedicated to Phil Stone. This was a meaningful and deliberate choice on Faulkner’s part, since Stone had not been much of a friend for many years. Indeed, Stone’s madness had increased, and he had become increasingly paranoid and confused. Faulkner’s dedication was an act of loyalty, the virtue he most prized. Phil Stone had been his first real supporter in the literary world, and Faulkner would not forget that.
After making the necessary changes on the novel, Faulkner returned to Charlottesville, where he and Estelle had decided to buy the house on Rugby Road, even though Faulkner himself still wanted a farm in the country. But they already had a farm in Mississippi, so it made no sense to acquire another one. A rumor had surfaced in the press that Rowan Oak was for sale, but this was nonsense. Faulkner’s loyalty even extended to houses, and—in any case—he still had Miss Maud living down the road. Indeed, after a few weeks in Charlottesville in the newly purchased house, Faulkner was eager to return to Oxford, where he spent a quiet summer at home, recuperating from his back injury and working sporadically on The Reivers. He was not well enough to spend much time on the Ring Dove or accomplish any real work at Greenfield Farm, although he would still drive to the farm several days a week. He fell back upon old routines for sustenance: each morning, he walked into town—very slowly. He would visit with friends at the post office, the barber shop, and other establishments. He often dropped in on Miss Maud for a cup of coffee on the way home. Before lunch, he worked on his novel.
The routine itself sustained him, and by mid-July he felt well enough to ride again. Most days he would spend an hour in the paddock with the horses. Gingerly at first, he took Tempy and other horses out onto the familiar trails around Oxford. He was determined to resist the process of aging, even to tempt fate. In July, he was also occupied with the galleys of The Mansion, scheduled for publication in the fall of 1959. There was early interest in the novel from Hollywood producers, and soon enough—in September—a proposal came from David Selznick, who wanted to adapt the story for a Broadway production and then make a film version of the play. Much to Faulkner’s surprise, Ober didn’t leap at this offer, preferring to wait to see if the novel sold well: you could get a lot more option money from a bestseller.
Back in their house in Charlottesville in September, Faulkner got the sad news that Harold Ober had died of a heart attack. Yet another of his close associates was gone. Not long after this news came, the reviews of The Mansion began to appear. As usual, Faulkner tried to ignore the reviews, although many of his new friends in Charlottesville watched the press keenly for notices and would tell Faulkner about them. In general, the reviews were tepid. Irving Howe in the New Republic made some fairly complimentary remarks about the “energy” of the prose but complained about the soft, ill-defined nature of Flem Snopes in this final book. He missed the feisty, incomparable Flem of The Hamlet. Many critics, such as Granville Hicks in the Saturday Review, liked the episodes that focused on Mink Snopes, a vivid character, and there was general admiration for the overall design of the three novels, though Hicks believed that inspiration had departed and that Faulkner succeeded here through “strength of will and mastery of technique.” Time had quibbles, but their anonymous reviewer marveled at the “smoldering, personal poetry” of the book, which remained “unassailable.” These were not reviews that move copies of the book from the shelves of bookstores, but Faulkner’s reputation did not really suffer. He was a literary monument of sorts, and could rely on old friends, such as Malcolm Cowley, to say complimentary things (as Cowley did in the New York Times Book Review), but even Cowley pointed out the “limitations of Faulkner as an epic poet in prose” while acknowledging at length his “marvelous qualities.”38
Until he stepped out of the store this morning with the pistol actually in his pocket, it had all seemed simple; he had only one problem: to get the weapon; after that, only geography stood between him and the moment when he would walk up to the man who had seen him sent to the penitentiary without raising a finger, who had not even had the decency and courage to say No to his blood cry for help from kin to kin, and say, “Look at me, Flem,” and kill him.
—FAULKNER, The Mansion
While The Mansion lacks the driving energy or manic inventiveness that marks Faulkner’s work from the late twenties through The Hamlet, the novel does pull together many threads of the Snopes trilogy and, in certain passages, it catches fire and glows. The main story concerns the urge felt by Mink Snopes to kill his disloyal relative, the ignominious Flem, who failed to intervene when he was being sent to prison—although it is never clear what Flem could have done to aid his relative. Mink had, after all, killed Jack Houston over a minor injustice having to do with feeding a cow through winter and what this should have cost. Mink somehow manages to keep his desire for revenge alive and burning through thirty-eight years in Parchman, the state prison. In the end, he kills Flem, having been let out of prison with the assistance of Linda Snopes, who has her own reasons for wishing Flem gone.
The first part of the novel focuses on Mink, telling the story of his clash with Jack Houston and his imprisonment in 1907 and 1908 through his eventual release in the fall of 1946. Some of the chapters (one, two, and five) are told in a fluent, omniscient third person, while the third chapter belongs to V. K. Ratliff and the fourth to Montgomery Ward Snopes, both familiar figures from the previous work. In the second part, we pick up the story of Linda, who ran away to Spain, where her husband was killed fighting with the Loyalists against Franco. She worked there as an ambulance driver, having her eardrums punctured by a mortar explosion. She returns to Jefferson as a widow, deaf, and resumes her troubled life. Her relationships with Flem and with Gavin Stevens again become a subject, with Faulkner taking up where he left off. His three narrators here are Ratliff, Chick Mallison, and Stevens—being a reprise of The Town, but taking the story line further. The last seven chapters, which make up the third section, bring the novel to a close, tracing Mink’s release from prison, his purchase of a pistol in Memphis, and his return to Jefferson for the murder and its aftermath.
As usual, the simple plotline is the least of it. The meat of the novel is its manner: the switching points of view, the leaps forward and backward in time, and the intense moral ambiguities of the drama. Indeed, Faulkner succeeds in making a killer, Mink Snopes, appear admirable. Mink knows what he wants, and it’s not justice: “jes fairness, that’s all.” He has killed Jack Houston out of a sense of fairness, having had his virtue questioned and having been levied an extra fee for the work Houston had done. After he shoots Houston, he says to the victim: “I aint shooting you because of them thirty-seven and a half four-bit days. That’s all right; I done long ago forgot and forgive that…. I killed you because of that-ere extry one-dollar pound fee.”39 Now he wants to kill Flem for a similar reason. (Nobody could blame him for wishing to kill Flem.) In Faulkner’s view, Mink Snopes is a stubborn man, perhaps a fool, but a man who endures and will not be squashed. Fate has not been good to him, but he insists on overcoming this disadvantage by sheer persistence.
One should not say, crudely, that Faulkner “identified” with Mink Snopes, although many of the same virtues play out in the author’s life: his persistence, his refusal to let his critics squash him, his endurance through health problems, drinking problems, and a series of financial crises. Although some in Yoknapatawpha County, including his own lawyer, dislike Mink, Faulkner obviously admires him, as do others. (For Linda Snopes, he is more a means to an end than someone to value for himself.) As one begins to comprehend the nature of his character, his homicides somehow become understandable, as even the moralistic Gavin Stevens finally understands. “He possesses only two things of value,” said Cleanth Brooks of Mink, “his identity and the savage pride with which he defends that identity. He is mean, cruel, and callous to human claims of any sort; he is selfish and self-centered, as witness his treatment of his wife and daughters. But because he owns nothing but himself, he must protect the honor of that self with passionate ardor.”40
In a sense, the return of Mink Snopes after his sleep of thirty-eight years to Yoknapatawpha County mirrors Faulkner’s return to this material, a final attempt to revisit, recapitulate, circle, and signify. “So this is what it all come down to,” says Ratliff, seeing that Flem Snopes has been killed and the house he got from Manfred de Spain has been given back to Manfred’s heirs. Faulkner wanted a last stab at his old characters, the old places, the old tales. He wanted to see what life was like there, and to put things right, as much for honor as anything—much like Mink. He had been increasingly dissatisfied with life in Oxford and missed the old ways and old conditions. The Mansionallows him to revisit his imaginative county, his dream territory, for what would be almost the last time.
The novel moves on all fronts toward resolution, toward a calm that seems almost preternatural. The three main figures in the evolving tale—Flem, Mink, and Gavin Stevens—all fade away without fuss. Richard Gray has noticed the oddness of this motion, the movement toward the defusion of tensions accumulated in the course of the narratives. He sees the general tendency toward relaxation, if not deflation, of narrative tensions in chapter thirteen, where Faulkner tells the story of Sen. Clarence Egglestone Snopes, “pronounced ‘Cla’-nce’ by every free white Yoknapatawpha American whose right and duty it was to go to the polls and mark his X each time old man Will Varner told him to.”41 In the tradition of Huey Long and other southern white populists, many of whom swept through Mississippi during Faulkner’s lifetime, Senator Snopes has cloaked his racism in the rhetoric of law and order. He represents Snopesism in its most frightening aspect: its ability to catch fire among the poor whites of the South and transmogrify into monstrous forms. Faulkner is able to cast a political tendency in personal form, to put malevolent spirit into matter, and he does so brilliantly with Clarence Snopes, although he refuses in the end to push through with it. In a scene transposed from Rabelais, Snopes is foiled by Ratliff in a ludicrous way as a pack of dogs is set upon him; the dogs urinate on his leg. He is humiliated and withdrawn from the race by Will Varner. “Well I’ll be damned. It’s too simple. I don’t believe it,” says Gavin Stevens, speaking for the reader as well. Gray points to Faulkner’s “evident need to resolve narrative tensions whenever they arise—to translate potential crisis into calm.”42
This was happening in his life as well, as he moved into his last years. “There was a noticeable calmness toward the end,” his daughter observed, and one sees him reaching for resolution everywhere. He didn’t care about making money anymore, and didn’t have to care. His reputation was secure, and he knew it, and there was no wish to try to manipulate his critics or do anything (such as appear on television) to promote himself. He wanted to ride horses, to relax with friends in Virginia. He seemed to want out of Yoknapatawpha County, out of Oxford. The marriage to Estelle had come to a kind of stalemate, wherein each lived their separate lives, but now they shared these grandchildren, whom they both adored, and the marriage seemed oddly reinvented. There was also a resolution on Faulkner’s part to drink less, without the suicidal rage that had so marked his drinking over the past four decades. He was, perhaps, banishing demons right and left, much as Ratliff had banished Clarence Snopes: “Not that Ratliff shot him or anything like that: he just simply eliminated Clarence as a factor in what Charles’ Uncle Gavin also called their constant Snopes-fear and -dread, or you might say, Snopes-dodging.”43
The Mansion moves, inexorably, toward reconciliation and resignation, if not restitution. Like The Town, it had been gathering in the author’s mind, dimly, over many years, and when he wrote it, he wrote quickly; it poured out, shaped by the material and psychological circumstances of the author’s late years. The frenetic, brilliantly inventive, sparking quality of the major fiction yielded to a less intense, more carefully measured quality. Although not quite Faulkner’s swan song, the third novel in the trilogy gestures repeatedly in the direction of relinquishment (not unlike Ike McCaslin in “The Bear”). Flem is resigned to his own death, having stuffed himself full of everything in life that seemed worth grabbing. Gavin Stevens has lost that fiercely romantic, naive, idealistic edge. Ratliff is calmer, rueful, valedictory. Even Mink, it seems, has accomplished the little he set out to do: to kill a man who did him wrong. He can now, quite literally, ease himself onto the ground, into sleep, knowing that he is “equal to any, good as any, brave as any, being inextricable from, anonymous with all of them: the beautiful, the splendid, the proud and the brave.”44
A Foreigner from a Small Town
Because I, a foreigner from a small town, who followed in a place far from here that dedication, that aspiration, striving to capture and thus fix for a moment on some pages the truth of man’s hope amidst the complexities of his heart, have received here in Venezuela the accolade which says in essence: “What he sought and found and tried to capture was truth.”
—Faulkner in Venezuela, April 1961
In the fall of 1959, Faulkner divided his time between Charlottesville and Albermarle County, where he continued to hunt with friends, and Oxford, where he had a renewed interest in shooting quail, often going into the woods of an afternoon with his favorite nephew, Jimmy. He always dressed for the occasion, taking great care over his riding clothes, his hunting jackets, his equipment. In Oxford, he looked much as if he had stepped from an L.L. Bean catalog, Jimmy once said. He always carried a customized twelve-gauge shotgun into the woods, one that had been engraved with his initials.
Illness continued to plague him, however, and he often combined medications, trying to knock out whatever infection he had contracted with various antibiotics and whiskey. In January, he returned to Mississippi by himself, hoping to work on a new novel and to spend some time in the woods with Jimmy, but the illness that had troubled him in the fall became worse, and he wound up on his back, barely conscious, in the sanitarium in Byhalia. He wrote to Estelle a jocular letter about what happened: “With the house empty and me perfectly all right in bed with my fever and penicillin and whiskey and (evidently) delirium,” he woke up to find himself riding in the back of an ambulance, en route to Byhalia.45
When he returned to Rowan Oak, driven home by Jimmy, he was still quite unwell, though better than he had been the week before. He went immediately to see his mother, who was herself extremely unwell. It struck him forcibly that Miss Maud could not live much longer, and this made him gloomy. He was also shocked to learn about the death of Albert Camus—one of his great supporters in France—in a car wreck. In a brief but emotionally charged tribute to the French author, Faulkner wrote that Camus had been devoted to “searching himself and demanding of himself answers which only God could know.”46 Perhaps Faulkner was writing as much about himself here as Camus.
By Valentine’s Day of 1960, he was back at the house in Charlottesville, tending to Estelle, who had recently been overwhelmed by flu. The whole month was spent in taking care of her and trying to get himself back into reasonable shape. He had clearly taken a step backward in Oxford, allowing his drinking to get out of control. Friends at the university now consciously drew him back into the life of the campus, and he visited several classes in early March, but the course of things changed suddenly when word came from Jimmy that Miss Maud had fallen several times and was rapidly failing. Faulkner and Estelle returned to Oxford by the middle of the month, expecting the worst.
Miss Maud, however, had no intention of dying, and she recovered so quickly and so well that, by May, the Faulkners felt free to return to Charlottesville. Joseph Blotner had scheduled a public reading at the end of term for the English Club, and Faulkner seemed to relish this particular occasion, reading with great energy from a short story, “The Old People,” to a crowded room in the Alderman Library. In the question-and-answer session afterward, he was asked about the fact that throughout the South librarians were shutting their doors rather than allowing black visitors to enter the building. “I, too, feel the old inherited prejudices,” Faulkner said, with grave deliberation, “but when the white man is driven by the old inherited prejudices to do the things he does, I think the whole black race is laughing at him.”47
The Faulkners shifted between Charlottesville and Oxford several times over the course of next few months, with Faulkner accepting a formal position as Balch lecturer for the fall term of 1960. He had been urged to accept this role by friends on the faculty, although he resisted now, saying he would be happy to make appearances in classes, give public talks, and meet with students whenever anyone wished without a formal arrangement. He didn’t need a paycheck or the prestige of the title. But the university proceeded to appoint him, and he agreed to their terms without further resistance. He apparently liked the notion of having a formal connection to the university, however much he protested.
The departure for Virginia was abruptly stalled by the death of Miss Maud on October 11, 1960. A cerebral hemorrhage had left her in a coma, and the family gathered around her bed for a week. She had been reading D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover before the coma set in, and it still lay on her bed table: a sign of her endless vitality and independence, traits that she had passed to her eldest son. At the wake, as Jack recalled, Bill and Johncy and he, one after the other, knelt above her and kissed her “dear forehead in death as each had done so often in life.” She was buried in a simple wooden casket, as she had requested. “I want to get back to earth as fast as I can,” she had said to Jimmy.
In a state of deep shock, Faulkner drove back to Charlottesville in late October. He was full of memories of Miss Maud, a cold and difficult woman, but someone who had managed to lay hold of his affections for so many years. The mother-son bond between them had been unbreakable, and this was a crucial severance. It was a sense of duty to his mother that had drawn him repeatedly back to Rowan Oak over many decades. With her gone, he had few reasons to return to Oxford, and it seemed likely that he would spend more and more time in Virginia, near his daughter and her family, near the university that had welcomed him so graciously, near the fox hunting that still piqued his interest.
Faulkner plunged into the rituals of hunting now with a renewed intensity. He and his friends spent a great deal of time in the field, working the dogs and preparing the horses for the Keswick hunt’s blessing of the hounds and the full hunting season. He had a new set of friends, most of them high in ranks of county society—a very different scene from Oxford, where he had often been spurned by the upper classes, who considered his work threatening. Ironically, there was a Hollywood remake of Sanctuary—the very novel that had made Faulkner the bane of decent society—in the works. But the author had left that self in Oxford. He was an aristocrat now, having adopted yet another persona. This mask could be hung in the crowded closet of his personality beside the estranged teenager, the wounded war veteran, the scruffy artist who hung around the bohemian quarters of New Orleans or Greenwich Village, the Hollywood hack, the raging drunk, the Nobel Prize-winning man-of-letters, and the cultural ambassador, the professorial writer in residence, the benevolent grandfather—just to name a few.
The Balch fellowship didn’t translate into many appearances at the university this time around. Faulkner seemed to withdraw from anything like public duties, and it was only with the greatest reluctance that he agreed to a two-week visit to Venezuela in April 1960, at the behest of the State Department. This was a trip much in the vein of his earlier excursions, and Faulkner treated it very much like a job of work. He managed to hold his drinking in check and performed tasks with a certain aplomb. He was welcomed warmly by President Rómulo Betancourt, and met a number of writers, including Rómulo Gallegos, Juan Bosch, and Arturo Croce. At press conferences, he was pummeled with questions about racial tension in the United States, and he fielded these with care and a certain detachment. He had been through all of this so many times before, there was nothing much that could surprise him.
His sense of ease, however, was disturbed by a telephone conversation with Jimmy, his nephew, when he learned that Estelle, who had been ill when he left her in Oxford, had been taken to the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson, where she would have an infected kidney removed. Many husbands, upon hearing such news, would have canceled everything and returned home. But Faulkner, having been assured by a doctor that Estelle was in good hands, pushed on with his official schedule, attending cocktail receptions and press conferences. Photographs show that he suffered through these occasions. His face was deeply lined and seemed to sag, even when he received the Order of Andrés Bello, the highest civilian award given by the Venezuelan government. (In a rather deft move, Faulkner read his acceptance speech entirely in Spanish, making a deep impression on everyone in attendance.)
With the official appearances mostly behind him, Faulkner toured the country, traveling by car and plane, getting a sense of the immensely varied scenery, which ranged from high mountains to Caribbean coastline. There were occasional stops at schools and universities, where he greeted cheering crowds. His progress through the country was followed closely by the leading paper, Panorama, which carried his photograph for several days on the front page, with admiring stories about his life and critiques of his work. After he left, one official reported that Faulkner had been lionized wherever he went, and that everyone “was enchanted by him and youngsters and oldsters vied with each other in trying to touch the hem of his garment.”48
Apparently impressed by Venezuela, and to encourage translation, Faulkner made plans with his newly established Faulkner Foundation (funded by himself) to give an award to Latin American novels written since the end of the war that had not yet been translated into English. The foundation would also give an award to the best first novel by an American each year, with the first award going to John Knowles for A Separate Peace. Faulkner was apparently bent on turning himself into an institution now.
Upon his return to Oxford, he tended to Estelle as she recovered at home after the operation, spending each morning at his desk, where a new novel was beginning to take shape. Estelle was well enough to travel with him to Charlottesville in early May; they wanted to be in Virginia for the birth of a new grandchild and to comfort their grandson Tad, who was about to have his tonsils and adenoids removed. Faulkner was there beside his grandson before and after the operation, which went well. He was also at the hospital for the birth of his third grandson, A. Burks Summers III (Bok). (His namesake, Will, was at home.) There was every reason to remain in Virginia, and Faulkner settled quickly into a routine, riding for an hour or so in the early morning, coming back to Rugby Road for a shower and breakfast before retiring to his study, where he worked on his novel with considerable ease. He often took a nap in the afternoon or went out with Estelle to visit their daughter and grandchildren.
The news of Hemingway’s death on July 2, 1961, came as a shock to Faulkner. He guessed immediately that it was a suicide, and he was right. Hemingway had shot himself in the head with a twelve-gauge shotgun at his house in Idaho. His late career had not gone well, and he seemed unable to write. He suffered from terrible back pains, and his drinking was out of control. Faulkner had heard all of this from Malcolm Cowley, and he sympathized. By comparison, he had done very well. When asked at a public forum if he thought Hemingway’s death was accidental, he replied: “No, I don’t. I think that Hemingway was too good a man to be victim of accidents; only the weak are victims of accidents unless a house falls on them. I think that was a deliberate pattern which he followed just as all his work was a deliberate pattern. I think that every man wants to be at least as good as what he writes. And I’m inclined to think that Ernest felt that at this time, this was the right thing, in grace and dignity, to do.”49
As summer drew to a close, he worked with a renewed intensity on The Reivers, which many would regard as a sentimental work, a story about a boy in the tradition of Huckleberry Finn or Treasure Island. It was certainly meant as a novel in a lower key than the work of his major phase, a relaxed and happy book. Faulkner warmed to the prospect of engaging certain of his favorite characters again: Boon Hogganbeck, Ned McCaslin, and others. The novel opens in 1960 with the words: “GRANDFATHER SAID.” Having stated this, Lucius (Loosh) Priest, now sixty-five, looks back fondly to his childhood in Jefferson in 1905. This is a novel of youthful antics, featuring rough-edged sidekicks and some vaguely risqué material, including a brothel in Memphis and the fact that Boon and Ned “borrow” a Winton Flyer to drive to the big city. It is also a novel in which Loosh comes of age, learning what it means to adhere to the code of a gentleman. Incidentally, at the end, Boon marries (happily) a whore from Miss Reba’s brothel, and Ned behaves better than anybody might have expected.
Faulkner was clearly entering into the role of grandfather, revisiting his past for what feels distinctly like a valedictory journey. All the harshness, the violence, the darkness, was banished. The author was willing himself toward closure, recasting his own past in a rosy glow. He had himself reversed the journey of his own clan, the Falkners, who moved from the Tidewater area of Virginia, from North Carolina and Missouri, to Mississippi. “I live up to my arse in delightful family,” he remarked.50 He didn’t require anything of the outside world now, not even recognition. Indeed, when President John F. Kennedy invited him (and other Nobel laureates) to the White House, he said offhandedly: “I’m too old at my age to travel that far to eat with strangers.”
In midsummer, the Faulkners returned to Rowan Oak, perhaps driven by the author’s need to refresh himself in Yoknapatawpha surroundings as the new novel hurtled forward. On August 28, 1961, Faulkner wrote to Albert Erksine from Oxford: “I suddenly got hot and finished the first draft of this work last week. I should have a clean copy to you in a month. It tells how Boon Hogganbeck got married in 1905. He and an eleven-year-old McCaslin and a Negro (McCaslin) groom stole an automobile and swapped it for a race horse.”51 Less than three weeks later, Faulkner wrote again to say he had a completely revised manuscript. Once again, there was no stopping William Faulkner when the spirit began to speak.
By October, there was news from Bennett Cerf that the Book-of-the-Month Club had chosen The Reivers for their main selection: a huge honor, and one that guaranteed massive sales. In replying to Cerf, Faulkner said: “I am not working on anything at all now, busy with horses, fox hunting. I wont work until I get hot on something; too many writing blokes think they have got to show something on book stalls. I will wait until the stuff is ready, until I can follow instead of trying to drive it.”52 Of course, this was only a month or so after he’d turned in the manuscript of The Reivers. He could be allowed a little time off, on horseback.
The house on Rugby Road had been robbed in their absence, making it feel less than safe and welcoming. In any case, the Faulkners had planned to move into a cottage at their daughter’s farm outside of Charlottesville: a way of having immediate access to the children. As always, he adored being around children, relishing their immediate access to the imagination, their innocent acceptance of life as it crossed their path. He often regarded his own creative gift as a childlike thing: a willingness to let himself be taken and tossed, as children are, in play, in dreams.
Once settled at his daughter’s place, Faulkner returned to the old notion of buying a farm in Albermarle County. Quite recently, he had bought a couple of new horses and wanted to work them into shape for hunting, and he was eager to get himself into hunting shape again. Although Estelle suffered a bout of pneumonia and was briefly hospitalized, life moved in a pleasing direction for the author. He was welcomed heartily into the company of fox hunters and seemed less and less interested in writing, although he had to go to New York for a few days of work on The Reivers in late November.
Christmas of 1961 would be spent at Knole Farm, as the Summers’ estate was called. It was a lovely old farm on many rolling acres, with nearby woods and fields, barns, and the cottage where the Faulkners stayed. Unfortunately, Estelle suffered a relapse and was hospitalized again; soon after this, Faulkner himself contracted a throat infection that spread quickly to his chest. Even worse, his old problems with his back returned with a vengeance, perhaps exacerbated by his riding. On December 18, he was admitted to the University of Virginia Hospital. Recovering quickly, he insisted on going home for Christmas, but this was premature. Just before Christmas Eve, he was taken to the Tucker Neurological and Psychiatric Hospital in Richmond. The doctors believed that he had badly reinjured his back on a recent fall from a horse—an old story with Faulkner. By the end of the month he had returned to Knole Farm, feeling somewhat better, walking stiffly with a cane.
Bizarrely, he got back on horseback almost immediately and fell again only two days into the new year. This time, he hit his head on the ground, suffering a loss of memory as well as a bruise on his forehead. Chest pains followed a couple of days later. On top of which, he was taking Demerol for back pains and drinking whiskey in significant quantities. Not surprisingly, he landed back in the Tucker Hospital on January 8, 1962. Examinations of the heart yielded negative results, and the doctors put him on a regimen of antibiotics, warning him about his drinking and riding. Before he left the hospital on January 15, his doctor told him that he had better start acting like a man of sixty-five—if he wanted to live to be a man of eighty-five.
The Faulkners returned to Oxford for the rest of winter, and for six weeks they did everything they could to restore themselves. Faulkner had cracked a tooth in the fall from his horse in Virginia, and he had to suffer through a series of uncomfortable dental appointments in February. He wrote to Joseph Blotner from Rowan Oak: “When the horse stepped in that groundhog hole, I broke a tooth carrying a bridge, and had to have three more drawn and a new bridge made; I feel now like I’ve got a mouse trap in my mouth. It dont hurt Jack Daniels though, thank God.”53 He was looking forward to getting back to Virginia, and Blotner had set up a series of public appearances at the university in April and May at his request. He also agreed to visit the U.S. Military Academy at West Point for a few days in April, as a favor to his son-in-law, a graduate of the academy.
Much of the winter was spent in the woods with Jimmy, hunting quail. But Faulkner also corrected the galleys of The Reivers, which was scheduled for publication in June 1962. For almost the first time in his life, he had no pressing work at his desk: no new novel, no stories to revise. In February, he learned that he had been awarded the Gold Medal for Fiction by the National Institute of Arts and Letters. Eudora Welty—a fellow Mississippian—had agreed to present the medal to the author, whom she admired greatly. There seemed no end to the honors (or horses) falling on Faulkner, although he remained fairly indifferent to them, preferring to stay within the bosom of family and friends. He told Jimmy that all he wanted now “was to shoot birds and ride horses.”
In early April, the Faulkners left Oxford for Virginia in their red Rambler, thinking they might well buy a farm there at last. They had looked at a property called Red Acres, and it still held their interest. Faulkner himself was especially keen on this farm, which boasted over two hundred acres of woodland, open pasture, and streams. It commanded a breathtaking view of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and the brick house itself was distinguished (though hardly a mansion). The fact that such a property would run over two hundred thousand dollars posed something of a hurdle, especially if Faulkner wished to hang on to his other properties, which he did. He was not a man to let go of anything.
After only two weeks in Virginia, the Faulkners and the Summerses flew to West Point on a DC-3 that the army had sent to fetch them. Faulkner was only at the military academy for two days, but he made a huge impression on the institution, as recorded in Faulkner at West Point, a short book that includes transcripts of his question-and-answer sessions with the cadets.54 On April 19, in the evening, he read to a full house excerpts from The Reivers, due for publication in June. He answered questions affably and sincerely for over half an hour afterward. The next morning he met with two classes, where he talked about his work as a writer and about the changes in American life he had witnessed over many decades. He seemed much like an old military gent, dressed in a thick tweed jacket, a white shirt, a striped tie, with polished brown shoes. His hair was a neatly trimmed, silver helmet as he stood ramrod straight, conducting himself with huge dignity. But he never pulled his punches, as when asked by one cadet if a country’s leaders were responsible for wars. “Well, I wouldn’t say that, but the leaders are responsible for the clumsiness and the ineptitude with which wars are conducted. War is a shabby, really impractical thing anyway, and it takes a genius to conduct it with any sort of economy and efficiency.”55 When asked if the current situation in the world might infuse a new spirit of nationalism into American literature, Faulkner responded sternly: “If a spirit of nationalism gets into literature, it stops being literature.”56
Faulkner revisited many of the themes of his Nobel Prize address at West Point, saying that “the drives of the heart are the same” now as they had been since the beginning of human time. “It’s the verities,” he said, “for the verities have been the same ever since Socrates, which are courage and pride and honor—compassion.” About his own writing, he was frank and clear: “I’m very disorderly. I never did make notes nor set myself a stint of work. I write when the idea is hot, and the only rule I have is to stop while it’s still hot—never to write myself out—to leave something to be anxious to get at tomorrow. Since I have no order, I know nothing about plots. The stories with me begin with an anecdote or a sentence or an expression, and I’ll start from there and sometimes I write the thing backwards—I myself don’t know exactly where any story is going.”57 By now, Faulkner was thoroughly at ease with himself, and disported himself with an “innate humility, grace, and dignity,” as Col. Russell K. Alspach, who was head of the English Department at West Point, recalled.58 The Faulkner party flew home on a military plane from Stewart Air Force Base. Before the party left the academy, Maj. Joseph L. Fant asked if there was anything else Faulkner would like to see, and he said, “No, sir. I think I’ve seen enough. I’ll just let it gestate a while.”
Back in Virginia, Faulkner went casually about his duties as Balch lecturer, attending a few classes, giving a public reading from The Reivers before a large crowd in Old Cabell Hall. On May 23, 1962, he traveled to New York with Estelle for the presentation of the Gold Medal Award the next day, staying at the Algonquin, as usual. At a dinner the next evening, he sat with Conrad Aiken, reciting one of Aiken’s poems to him from memory. Malcolm Cowley sat nearby as well, noticing how well Faulkner looked: tanned, with his silver-white hair rich and full, his posture erect. He seemed livelier than he had seen him in many years. He also sat for a while, over coffee, with Lillian Hellman, reflecting on earlier times with her late companion, Dashiel Hammett. The next day, he had lunch with Jean Stein at Lutèce, the famous French restaurant. She had recently married William vanden Heuvel and was very happy in her life. Faulkner was as proud of her as if she had been his daughter. But all he could really think about at present was home, and he seemed to everyone in a great rush to get back to Oxford, the only place where he really felt comfortable, and where he knew who he was because he knew where he’d been. Much like Lucius Priest in The Reivers, he was “anguished with homesickness.”
What I wanted was to be back home.
—LUCIUS PRIEST, The Reivers
From first to last, Faulkner wrote with a special intensity of feeling, in a language quickened by the speech of his time and place. He had one of the best ears of any American novelist since Mark Twain and a sly sense of humor that infused virtually every novel or story with an unexpected quality, even his most serious narratives. Like Balzac before him, he was able to maintain a whole universe in his head, a world invented but deeply connected to the world he’d known as a resident and close observer for more than six decades. Not incidentally, The Reivers was subtitled A Reminiscence, and it was just that: a return to the land of his childhood, to the imaginative territory he had conquered all by himself.
The speaker, the grandfatherly Lucius Priest (who stands in for the artist in his priestly role, as vates), recalls his childhood antics fondly and, sometimes, with a note of self-censorship. He conjures two splendid characters, his older friends Boon Hogganbeck and Ned McCaslin. Boon is poor and white, a handyman in his mid-twenties, a “big, warmhearted, honest” fellow who is also “utterly unreliable.” Ned is a black man of similar age, a coachman for the Priest family, but they get along beautifully when they are not flailing at each other. But the story belongs to Lucius, or Loosh, a member of the natural aristocracy who, though a decade or more younger than Boon, realizes that he is the boss: “I was smarter than Boon,” he says frankly.59 The novel also pays homage, one last time, to versions of Faulkner’s ancestors, the Old Colonel and the Young Colonel, but also to his father, Murry, who becomes Maury Priest in this narrative: not the dominant figure in the town or family, but a figure of considerable dignity—although still a man in the shadow of his father.
The Reivers is, in a sense, a memorial volume, one that pays tribute to a wide range of familiar figures, such as Mammy Callie (who becomes Aunt Callie here), to a virtual anthology of Faulknerian characters, many of whom put in brief appearances. The narrative begins with a portrait of the town itself, Jefferson, in 1905, an idyllic time when the livery stable was the center of local gossip and storytelling, as in Faulkner’s own boyhood. He writes about the time before the wilderness at the town’s edges began to vanish, and before the general chaos of modern life—“progress, industry, commerce”—entangled and burdened everyday existence. Of course this is sentimental, an idealization, but Faulkner was allowing himself room to luxuriate in memories, to believe in a time before the fall, in the prelapsarian world. As he surveyed the ruined wilderness around Oxford, which had been eroded and built over, he wanted to recall the “virgin wilderness” that before the Great War “stretched westward from the hills to the towns and plantations along the Mississippi.” He recalled a time when “our father could leave Jefferson at midnight in buggies and wagons (a man on a horse did it even quicker) on the fifteenth of November and be on a deer- or bear-stand by daybreak.”60
Ironically, it was the invention of the gas engine that changed everything, and it’s the gas engine that corrupts the speaker, Lucius, as it has corrupted Boon and Ned. Faulkner puts a car at the center of this novel, “a small mass-produced cubicle containing four wheels and an engine.”61 The specific car is a beauty, a Winton Flyer. In this grand machine, Boon “found his soul’s lily maid, the virgin’s love of his rough and innocent heart.” (One cannot help but recall Ike Snopes and his beloved cow—as precursor.) There is no doubt that Faulkner was speaking for himself here, too: he always adored automobiles and was an early and proud owner of one.
The plot, such as it is, turns on the fact that the parents of Lucius Priest must go to a funeral in Bay St. Louis, on the Mississippi’s Gulf Coast, leaving the eleven-year-old Loosh behind, with plenty of warnings about good behavior. It so happens that Boon likes a particular whore in Memphis, one of Miss Reba’s girls, called Miss Corrie. He takes the willing Loosh with him in the “borrowed” Winton Flyer, which belongs to “Boss” Priest, the imposing and potent grandfather of Loosh (modeled quite obviously on the Young Colonel, with a dash of the Old Colonel thrown in). The three “plunderers” or “stealers” (which is what the title means, appropriating an old Scottish dialect word) head into Memphis, a journey of some eighty-five miles along dirt roads meant for horse-and-buggy. The irrepressible Ned hides himself in the trunk, although he is quickly discovered, and the merry trio ventures into the city.
The journey is not nearly so tragicomic as that which befalls the Bundren clan in As I Lay Dying, but there are some inconvenient obstacles along the way, such as Hurricane Creek and Hell Creek Bottom. The trio nevertheless reaches the Tenderloin District intact, where Loosh is introduced to the decadence of Catalpa Street and Miss Reba’s house. But sex is never really the subject here. Even in this, Boon remains a fairly innocent fellow, although he allows Ned to put up the Winton Flyer for collateral in exchange for a racehorse named Coppermine—then renamed (humorously) Lightning—which Boon and Ned hope to race in a Tennessee town called Parsham. It isn’t greed that drives Boon, however; he wants to win enough money to free Ned’s cousin, Bobo Beauchamp, who has fallen into debt. So Loosh, Ned, and some of the girls from Miss Reba’s house (who seem more like sassy Girl Scouts than prostitutes) help get Lightning on a train to Parsham for the race. If the horse wins, Boon will pay off Bobo’s debts and recover the Winton Flyer. Of course, he doesn’t want to think about what will happen if Lightning should lose.
The horse does lose its first race, but more than the money is gone. Loosh has lost his innocence as well by the time of the race, although he has converted Miss Corrie to a better way of life. She wants to reform, and changes her name back to her given name: Everbe Corinthia. But her purity is challenged once again, when Boon and Ned are imprisoned, and she has to give her body to a police deputy in order to win their freedom—an act that disconcerts the not-so-innocent Loosh. Two further races follow, one of them won by Lightning (Boon has used sardines to trick the horse into winning) and the other won by Lightning’s rival, which Ned happens to have bet on, thus making it possible for Boon to bail out his cousin and for the Winton Flyer to be recovered.
Faulkner ties up the ends nicely here. Loosh—as he must—gets a whipping from his father, although his grandfather intervenes on his behalf, muting the punishment. The lovable Boon Hogganbeck comes home with Everbe, his bride, to live happily ever after. They move into a little place bought from Grandfather Priest, the patriarch who makes sure that the status quo is restored after the disruptions caused by his grandson, Boon, and Ned. The Hogganbecks, capitulating to social norms, produce a son, whom they called Lucius Priest Hogganbeck. In other words, all’s well that ends well.
For a biographer, this is a fascinating novel, letting us into Faulkner’s psyche at the end as he tries to reconcile various forces in his imagination. It remains, however, a minor work, infinitely less pressured, psychologically and artistically, than the fiction of his major period, as Cleanth Brooks notes when he compares it to, say, Light in August. It has neither “the amplitude nor the intensity” of that early masterpiece.62 It plumbs no depths of spirit, and does not even try to make much of a point about the nature of human love or degradation. Nevertheless, Faulkner entertains us as he traces familiar patterns. One might compare Byron Bunch’s love for Lena with that of Boon for Everbe Corinthia. But in the later novel, there is less strangeness. Everbe actually seems to be in love with Boon, whereas Lena seems driven by winds from another planet. One cannot find anywhere in The Reivers characters with the feral intensity of Hightower or Percy Grimm or, certainly, of Joe Christmas.
On the other hand, Faulkner illuminates the whole spectrum of society in The Reivers. Lucius belongs to the upper classes, planter stock; he is a natural gentleman, who cannot help but treat women reverently. His morals seem God-given, part of his class heritage. This is, perhaps, part of Faulkner’s own fantasy about the nature of aristocrats, especially now that he had resettled (emotionally if not quite physically) among the upper echelons of Albermarle County. In Faulkner’s dreamworld, there is an easy alliance between blacks and upper-class planters—a fantasy often enacted in narratives of the Old South. It is unruly lower-class whites, like Boon Hogganbeck or Mink Snopes, who cause trouble in the world, although in this case Faulkner shines a gentle light on Boon as well, letting him off easy. He is no Ab or Mink or Flem Snopes.
One can see the many contradictions in Faulkner’s attitudes toward society at work here. He looked around him anxiously and saw the destruction of the Big Woods, the erosion of values in Oxford, the general cowardice and degradations of society that had led to continual warfare between blacks and whites, between rich and poor. As Kevin Railey put it very well: “Faulkner objected to the impulse of capitalism that leads to the constant destruction of social relationships, the uprooting of communities and the atomization of social life.”63 Nevertheless, he had aspired toward gentlemanly status his entire life. He wanted to be noble, true, and brave—like the Old Colonel, the “soldier, statesman, politician, duellist” commemorated here, collapsed into the figure of Boss Priest, the genial paternalist who rules the town and teaches his grandson the ultimate lesson that a “gentleman accepts the responsibility of his actions and bears the burden of their consequences, even when he did not himself instigate them but only acquiesced in them, didn’t say No though he knew he should.”64 Regarding himself as a natural aristocrat, Faulkner associated happily with the upper classes of Mississippi and Virginia, taking up what he must have considered his rightful place in the world’s hierarchy. But he was, as they say, “conflicted,” and in The Reivers he attempts to reconcile those conflicts, creating a myth, a dream, a fairy tale about an old world that never really was but that comments on and comforts those trapped in the present world. Faulkner spreads out the great map of Yoknapatawpha one last time, revising history with a rueful fondness, making it something he could live with or, more realistically, that would see him into the grave.
Cadet: Sir, in your address upon receiving the Nobel Prize you said it was the writer’s “privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart….” How do you believe that you have fulfilled this task in your work?
Faulkner: It’s possible that I haven’t. I think that is the writer’s dedication. It’s his privilege, his dedication too, to uplift man’s heart by showing man the record of the experiences of the human heart, the travail of man within his environment, with his fellows, with himself, in such moving terms that the lessons of honesty and courage are evident and obvious.
—Faulkner at West Point
In June 1962, the Faulkners returned to Oxford, taking up life at Rowan Oak as they had left it. Soon after their arrival, Vicki (Cho-Cho’s daughter) graduated from Ole Miss, and there was considerable merriment around this event. To stabilize himself after so much commotion, Faulkner dug himself into his usual routine, going for a walk or ride on horseback in the morning, walking into town for the mail, visiting old friends. He would sit for a while at his desk each day, poring over letters, trying to sort through the apparently endless demand for his presence at this or that public occasion. He also decided that he must not give up riding.
One morning he went for a ride on Stonewall, an unruly horse that he admired for its quickness and independence; not ten minutes into his ride, he was thrown harshly to the ground less than a mile from home. He landed on his back against a rocky embankment, spraining a muscle in his groin and bruising his lower spine. His wife came to look for him when the horse came back to Rowan Oak riderless, and she found him limping toward her, pale and obviously in pain. As usual, Faulkner played down the injury, saying he was fine. Yet the back continued to worsen throughout the month, and he began to take pain tablets each night in order to sleep. He drank his usual quantities of whiskey, too. His doctor urged him to seek treatment for the back in Memphis, worried that perhaps more was wrong than met the eye, but Faulkner dismissed the suggestion. The familiar cycle began again.
When the early reviews of The Reivers appeared, Faulkner seemed oblivious to their content, barely glancing at them. George Plimpton praised the novel in the New York Herald Tribune, and Irving Howe, in the New York Times Book Review, suggested that The Reivers stood in relation to “The Bear” as Tom Sawyer stood in relation to Huckleberry Finn. Not a bad comparison, although Howe called the latest novel “a deliberately minor work.” In the daily New York Times, Brooks Atkinson called Faulkner “a mellowed Prospero” and the novel “a work of love.” There were, nonetheless, some fierce pans of the novel from Leslie Fiedler and others, with the word sentimentalcropping up again and again.65 Negative reviews would, in fact, grow in number, as reviewers compared this novel unfavorably with past productions.
Faulkner’s mind was elsewhere as June tipped into July, and the Mississippi heat rose, with a chorus of cicadas. The notion of buying a farm in Albermarle County began to absorb him, and he decided firmly upon Red Acres, which he had looked at covetously several times. Now he wanted to make an offer on it. But gazing nakedly at his finances, the prospect of putting up fifty thousand dollars at this point terrified him. He called Albert Erskine and his agents to inquire about royalties and option money that might be forthcoming; they were sympathetic but not encouraging. He might have to take on a considerable load of work to raise enough cash to buy the estate without mortgaging himself rather severely. Somewhat frantically, he wrote to Linton and Mary Massey, who were extremely wealthy, asking if he might borrow the fifty thousand dollars for the farm. This was unlike Faulkner, who prided himself on his hard-won financial independence. But he felt rather desperate, and his sense of himself was somewhat scrambled by the excessive amount of painkillers and alcohol he now swallowed every day to assuage his back pain.
Linton Massey agreed to the request, though he wondered if they might work through his publisher. In the end, Massey proposed a gentleman’s agreement, with no interest on the loan and no schedule for payback. He would require no security. This gave Faulkner peace of mind, and he made plans to purchase the farm that had stayed in his mind for some time: a substantial brick house nearly a century old, with half a dozen outbuildings, including a farm manager’s house and a tenant house. The barn itself could house nine horses—just the thing for a serious fox hunter.
On the morning of July 3, Faulkner took his usual walk into town with his cane, heading to the post office. He carried with him a finished copy of The Reivers, which he planned to ship overseas, to Else Jonnson. He called on Mac Reed at the local drugstore, as he often did, then picked up his daily copy of the Memphis Commercial Appeal. He also bought some pipe tobacco. After lunch at Rowan Oak, he sat alone in the garden for longer than usual, apparently absorbed in thought.
In the evening, he and Estelle went to a local restaurant for dinner. His routine was, in fact, normal, but everyone could see that Faulkner was unwell, that he occasionally winced from the pain in his back, that he didn’t respond to questions directly or clearly. He went to bed that night with more than the usual dose of alcohol and painkillers to assist his sleep.
It was clear by July 4 that Faulkner was slipping toward the bottom of his cycle. His talk was confused, disconnected: a very new development. Before, even when drunk, he never lost track of details or failed to respond coherently to questions. The following day, Jimmy and Estelle drove him to Wright’s Sanitarium, in Byhalia—a familiar destination in these circumstances. He planned to check in for a few days, the normal period of drying out and recuperation under medical supervision. Doctors would examine him thoroughly, of course. After lots of sleep and a regimen of vitamins and healthy food (without alcohol), he would emerge refreshed, ready to enter his life again, biding his time until the next collapse.
Faulkner was admitted to the hospital at 6:00 P.M. on July 5, 1962. He saw a doctor briefly and took some painkillers, administered by a nurse, and went to sleep. Estelle and Jimmy were home in bed by this time, expecting to return for him in a few days. But Faulkner sat up on the edge of the bed abruptly at 1:30 A.M. on July 6. He gave a short cry of discomfort, then tumbled to the floor, landing on his side. The doctor on duty rushed to his assistance, but he was already gone. Even forty-five minutes of heart massage could not save him.
Condolences came in from all over the world and from fellow writers, such as Robert Frost and John Dos Passos. Family and old friends flocked from far and wide, including the Masseys, Ben Wasson, Shelby Foote, Bennett Cerf, Don Klopfer, William Styron, and Joseph Blotner. Phil Stone and Mac Reed were there, as one might expect, and dozens of Oxford neighbors, some of whom had wandered in the Big Woods with him in better days. Faulkner’s anthology of friends and family passed before his casket at Rowan Oak in grief and disbelief. Faulkner had seemed so incredibly alive, and himself believed he had inherited his mother’s long-lived Butler genes. But this was not the case, and now he was gone. As W. H. Auden said of Yeats, “He became his admirers.”
The funeral procession moved slowly through the town square in Oxford, where most of the shops had closed in Faulkner’s honor. In obvious ways, the scene recalled that moment at the end of Go Down, Moses, where a hearse processes through Jefferson, moving “into the square, crossing it, circling the Confederate monument and the courthouse while the merchants and clerks and barbers and professional men…watched quietly from doors and upstairs windows.” Riding in the cortege was the young William Styron, who had become a friend; he later said that Faulkner’s “maddened, miraculous vision of life wrested…out of nothingness” had come rushing into his head.66
The slow train of cars following the hearse ended at St. Peter’s Cemetery, and Faulkner soon took his place among the Falkner clan and beside his long-deceased infant, ’Bama. This was, for him, significant soil, given meaning by the vast gallery of characters who had played out their lives, large and small, in Yoknapatawpha County. Faulkner had changed and amplified the nature of this place forever, as he had changed and amplified the nature of American literature by the persistent application of his unruly, incomparable imagination. At last, he was home for good.