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

Chapter 1. Origins

A Sense of Place

The past is never dead. It’s not even past.

—FAULKNER, Requiem for a Nun

A sense of place was everything to William Faulkner, and more than any other American novelist in the twentieth century, he understood how to mine the details of place, including its human history, for literary effects. His novels, from the outset, are obsessed with what T. S. Eliot once referred to as “significant soil,” but the outward details of place quickly become inner details as Faulkner examines the soul of his characters through the prism of their observations, their rootings and branchings, their familial and social as well as geographical contexts. Place, for Faulkner, becomes a spiritual location from which he examines a truth deeper than anything like mere locality. Faulkner saw himself as taking part in a great process, moving through history and, in an intriguing way, creating a counterhistory of his own.

He would focus in his fiction on a parallel universe based on the “real” universe of Lafayette County, Mississippi. Faulkner’s invented region, Yoknapatawpha County, was named after an actual stream that ran through Lafayette County, the name itself meaning, according to Faulkner, “the water runs slow through flat land.” Lafayette was among several counties created by various acts of violence in northern Mississippi in the 1830s, when the native Chickasaw tribe was driven westward, displaced by a procession of planters, slaves, and small farmers, all of whom worked together to fashion an economy based on cotton. At least for a while—before repeated plantings of cotton depleted the topsoil—this economy worked well for the white population of Lafayette, especially those living at its middle and higher end. Not surprisingly, this prosperous class regarded the abolition of slavery as a threat to their way of life and joined forces with those who believed in secession.

Their allegiance to the Old South was, for the most part, unwavering. In Faulkner’s fiction, the Sartoris clan would stand in for this class, the planter class, and their failure over generations is one of his most compelling themes, counterpointed by the implacable emergence of the Snopes clan, representing the greedy, unscrupulous white folks who come from the outlying country and who form a kind of counterpoint to the Sartoris clan, although it is somewhat misleading to regard this dialectic in a simplistic fashion, since there are admirable Snopeses and selfish, inconsiderate members of the Sartoris family.

The Civil War came as a tidal wave, sweeping over northern Mississippi with a vengeance. Oxford itself—Faulkner’s hometown, and the focal point of his imagination—was ransacked by Union troops (which included many liberated slaves in their ranks) in August of 1864. The aftershocks of this horrific war reverberated through the decades, and Faulkner’s characters might be considered survivors of an original trauma, often unspoken, absorbed and transmogrified in their own lives and relived as other kinds of trauma. Even World War I, which obsessed Faulkner, was in a sense an extension, for him, of the original war, which destroyed families by pitting brother against brother, father against son. (Faulkner plays out some of these conflicts in A Fable, a late novel set mostly on the western front, and in many stories.)

It is in the nature of things for violent acts to repeat themselves, even though the original source of the violence is lost to view. In many ways, Faulkner’s writing is about uncovering these hidden sources of disruption, about following their echoes and unconscious reenactments down the decades. Even the form of his narratives—obsessed with revision as much as vision—often reproduces the content, with the novels and stories (“a few old mouth-to-mouth tales,” as Faulkner says in Absalom, Absalom!) doubling back on themselves.

Lafayette County was indeed a representative county, even without Faulkner. As Don H. Doyle notes, “Quite apart from Faulkner’s unique contribution to the history of this county and region, Lafayette County, Mississippi, stands on its own as a southern community whose history can reveal much about the larger past of which it is part.”1 One tends, when thinking of the Old South, to concentrate on the more settled parts of that region, from Virginia southward through the Carolinas and Georgia and Alabama. Mississippi, at the western border of the Old South, occupied a liminal territory on the wilder edge of frontier society. It was, as a result of its position, more dynamic, less predictable, and therefore appealing to a writer’s imagination, a place where he could explore the “human heart in conflict with itself,” as he said in his Nobel address in Stockholm in December 1950.

Faulkner examined a wide range of social classes, each struggling for survival in a county that fell between piney hills and richly fertile river valley. Two rivers dominated the region: the Tallahatchie and the Yoknapatawpha—the names themselves like poems in the ears of a young boy sensitive to language. During Faulkner’s childhood, the lower ranks of society were dominated by sharecroppers and “poor white trash,” who course vividly through his fiction. Of course, before the Civil War, there were the slaves—the rock bottom of society, who later become “free” Negroes and who worked the fields after the war in much the same way they worked the land before the war. Faulkner would write about them frequently, and with sympathy, although not with the same passion or inwardness that he reserves for white characters.

Forty percent of the white families in Lafayette County owned slaves before the war, as Doyle notes, with half of these families owning five slaves or fewer. (A few families owned more than a hundred slaves, but this was exceptional.) The slaves themselves made up roughly half of the county’s population. Nearly a century later, the balance between the black and white population remained roughly the same. Needless to say, blacks in post-Civil War Mississippi lived close to the poverty line, sinking into a period of deep subjugation from which they would find little relief until the civil rights movement of the 1960s began to lift their burden, however slightly.

The handful of wealthy cotton planters—as in the Sartoris clan—lived in considerable style, and their ways and means always absorbed Faulkner, who wrote about them with a certain rueful admiration, often peeling back the layers of their gentility to reveal greed and ruthlessness. Between the slaves and poor whites and the planters could be found a large group of yeomen farmers, many of whom had no slaves at all. Clustered in towns and, especially, in the county seat of Oxford (home of the University of Mississippi) were middle-class families that included merchants, entrepreneurs, lawyers, teachers, government officials, storekeepers, and so forth. The Falkner family (William added the u when he became a writer) essentially belonged to this broad middle class.

The sense of history as a form of exhaustion that runs through Faulkner’s novels and stories issued from his own reading of the political and natural economy of the region. Once a pristine area populated by Chickasaws, its woodlands teeming with wildlife and its fields extremely fertile, by the mid-nineteenth century it had been ruthlessly depleted by the white invaders, and everywhere one could see the results of irresponsible agriculture and ruthless deforestation. For nearly a century after the Civil War both blacks and whites in Lafayette County lived in fairly miserable conditions, their educational system in tatters, their health care never quite adequate to their needs, an aura of defeat hanging over them.

There is always a danger in making too explicit the connections between a writer’s raw material and his imaginative re-creations of that material. Faulkner did not simply reproduce Lafayette County—which was heavily black—in a documentary fashion. For instance, Faulkner tends to focus on the stories of white people, although he confronts the racial question quite boldly at times—especially in the later novels. The idea of presenting a cross section of southern society at different times in history absorbed him, but he can hardly be said to have presented a straightforward history of his beloved county, since his novels often circle back to earlier times or flash forward. His imaginary county becomes a place related to the real world, but not in reliable ways.

As might be expected, early critics spent a good deal of energy linking the real Lafayette County with the imaginary one, and this research was often quite productive. In 1952, Ward Miner published The World of William Faulkner, making the most obvious connections.2 Joseph Blotner’s astonishingly detailed biography of Faulkner,3 published in 1974, combed the actual past for signs of correspondence with the fictional past, locating many of the key people and events behind Faulkner’s fiction. Since Blotner, there has been a consistent probing of reality by scholars, all in search of the origins of Faulkner’s art. Doyle, for example, spent a good deal of time sifting through the historical records of Lafayette County. He reports that “names and people continually provoked connections to Faulkner’s characters,” noting that a slave named Dilsey (a major figure in The Sound and the Fury) became a member of the local white Baptist church, and later ran away with the Yankees and was excommunicated. He also points out that the graveyards near Oxford are full of people called Snipes (not Snopes) and that other names familiar to readers of Faulkner can be found on tombstones and in the pages of local newspapers, including Varner, Littlejohn, Ratliff, Hightower, Carothers, Bundren, Houston, and McEachern. Needless to say, there comes a point where this probing of reality ceases to yield results; Faulkner certainly had a wonderful memory, and he based his work firmly on what Wallace Stevens called “the necessary angel of reality.” But he was an artful reviser of that reality. Yoknapatawpha was, foremost, a region of the imagination, a revision of reality in the interest of truth, which often suffers in excessively literal hands.

Faulkner’s life narrative, too, was a place where imaginative revisions seemed (at least to him) necessary. He understood that we must all construct a story of our lives: the quiet tale we repeat in our heads, after dark, while falling asleep. Without compunction, he changed his story at will, inventing details, shaping and reshaping his persona to suit himself and the needs of his career and personal life. But he didn’t like it when journalists or critics dwelled on the details of his biography. “You seem to be spending too much time thinking about Bill Faulkner,” he scolded one interviewer.4 At the same time, his work demands a reading of the life in tandem with the work. The characters in his fiction, and the nature of his own character, enthralled him, and he worked busily at inventing and deepening both, looking for reality through the lens of art in both instances.

Lives are lived in circles, not linearly, with past and present looping each other. This seems especially true of William Faulkner, who took his own family history as synecdochal, standing in for the history of the South, with the South standing in for the history of the nation as a whole. His sense of the present was profoundly shaped by his sense of the past, and the past brought a peculiar pressure to bear on the present in his life and work. “He was besotted with history, his own and those of people around him,” said Robert Penn Warren.5 “He lived within this history, and the history became him.”

But where did he learn this history? “As far as I know I have never done one page of historical research,” he told a group of students who posed this question. “Also, I doubt if I’ve ever forgotten anything I ever read.”6For the most part, he heard the stories that compelled his attention at home or at his father’s livery or in hunting camps: places where the oral tradition was alive and well. His family often told and retold stories about “the old Colonel,” his great-grandfather, Col. William C. Falkner, who had been an officer in the Civil War, a railroad entrepreneur, and a novelist of some reputation in the Old South. He also got an earful of stories from an old family retainer, Caroline (“Mammy Callie”) Barr, who had once been a Faulkner family slave herself.

The Civil War preoccupied the citizens of Mississippi as it did white Southerners generally during Faulkner’s boyhood. Robert Penn Warren remembered sitting with his grandfather on his farm in Tennessee and drawing Civil War battles in the dirt. “A boy in the South in the early years of this century knew every hero of the Confederate, every battle, by heart,” he said.7 “It was part of the story of your own life.” Faulkner also recalled listening to aging war veterans, for whom those battles remained as fresh as if they had happened yesterday and to members of his own family and their friends, who found Civil War history absorbing and alive. As Malcolm Cowley pointed out, Faulkner—a boy with a keen interest in the past and an instinct for narrative—would have fed greedily on “scraps of family tradition…on kitchen dialogues between the black cook and her amiable husband; on Saturday-afternoon gossip in Courthouse Square; on stories told by men in overalls squatting on their heels while they passed stories around a fruit jar full of white corn liquor; on all the sources familiar to a small-town Mississippi boy.”8

In Absalom, Absalom!, Quentin Compson finds himself under interrogation by his Canadian roommate, Shreve, who represents the general reader curious about the South, its character and history. “Tell about the South,” he says to Quentin. “What’s it like there. What do they do there. Why do they live there. Why do they live at all.”9 In some ways, one may regard the whole of Faulkner’s enterprise as an attempt to answer these questions. He explored his specific point of origin, in Mississippi, with a ferocious and loving attention over many decades, this focus rarely wavering. He came at the subject from countless angles, with no summary judgment about the South or Mississippi or Lafayette County or Oxford. The stories he found, or invented, or retold, or reimagined are as much American stories and human stories as southern stories. In a real sense, Faulkner is asking the reader to consider these large questions: What’s it like here? What do we do here? Why do we live here? Why do we live at all?

That he found compelling answers to these questions is the miracle of his work.

A Personal History

It is himself the Southerner is writing about, not about his environment.

—FAULKNER, Lion in the Garden

Few writers have put so much store by their patrimony. Indeed, Faulkner spent a lifetime meditating on his origins, dwelling on his great-grandfather and grandfather, as well as his father. They were alive in his skin, inhabiting his dreams, permeating his fiction. Relations between fathers and sons lie at the core of his work from first to last.

The transformation of the name is interesting: Falconer to Falkner to Faulkner, with the writer adding the distinguishing u. As he explained to Malcolm Cowley:

The name is “Faulkner.” My great-grandfather, whose name I bear, was a considerable figure in his time and provincial milieu. He was [the] prototype of John Sartoris: raised, organized, paid the expenses of and commanded the Mississippi Infantry, 1861—2, etc…. He built the first railroad in our county, wrote a few books, made [the] grand European tour of his time, died in a duel and the county raised a marble effigy which still stands in Tippah County. The place of our origin shows on larger maps: a hamlet named Falkner just below the Tennessee line on his railroad.

     My first recollection of the name was, no outsider seemed able to pronounce it from reading it, and when he did pronounce it, he always wrote the “u” into it. So it seemed to me that the whole outside world was trying to change it, and usually did. Maybe when I began to write, even though I thought then I was writing for fun, I secretly was ambitious and did not want to ride on grandfather’s coat-tails, and so accepted the “u,” was glad of such an easy way to strike out for myself. I accept either spelling. In Oxford it has usually no “u” except on a book. The above was always my mother’s and father’s version of why I put back into it the “u” my great-grandfather, himself always a little impatient of grammar and spelling both, was said to have removed.10

Faulkner doubtless had his own reasons, too, for adding the u to his name, but these followed him to the grave. It seems obvious enough, however, that he wished to set himself apart from a clan that had been prominent in Mississippi for many decades. He was lighting out for his own, inward territory.

The Falkner family originally came from Scotland—a fact that interested Faulkner, who traced the Compson family’s heritage in The Sound and the Fury to Scotland (Quentin’s middle name is MacLachan). Names like McAlpine, Cameron, and Murry figured in the Falkner background, the last having been the writer’s father’s first name. Genealogists have found English and Welsh branches in the family tree, too, but—like most Americans—Faulkner had a complex history that he chose to regard in his own way.

His earliest known relatives settled in the Carolinas, some migrating to Mississippi in the early half of the nineteenth century. The first notable Falkner in the United States was the so-called Old Colonel, William Clark Falkner, the writer-railroad entrepreneur-lawyer-Civil War hero. Born on July 6, 1825, in Tennessee, he lived a tumultuous life, cutting a romantic figure in his time. Having almost killed his brother in a fight, he headed south at the age of fifteen. Near the Mississippi state line, he visited an uncle who was in prison for a murder charge. Without a penny to his name, wandering from town to town, he met a young girl of seven, Lizzie Vance, who attracted his attention. He would renew the acquaintance with Lizzie in adulthood and marry her after the death of his first wife. He had, in all, eight children by Lizzie, and one of these was William Faulkner’s great-aunt ’Bama, as she was called—her name was Alabama Leroy. Aunt ’Bama, a pillar of the family, remained close to Faulkner throughout his life and outlived her great-nephew by five years.

It is difficult to separate fact from fiction when it comes to the Old Colonel. Much of the information that came down to Faulkner himself arrived in the form of legend, suitably embellished. W. C. Falkner’s life—so full of drama and grand gestures at every turn—had an obvious romantic appeal. He pursued his legal studies on his own, having been tutored by a local teacher called James Kernan. Without formal education, he managed to become a lawyer, dabbling in various legal and business activities throughout his long life, eventually owning two-thirds of the Ship Island, Ripley and Kentucky Railroad Company. One of his business partners (and rivals) was R. J. Thurmond, who eventually shot him in the town square of Ripley on November 5, 1889. That he should die in this way is not surprising.

By disposition attracted to violence, W.C. often found himself in the middle of a brawl, and once—in 1846, at the age of twenty-one—lost three fingers in a fight over a woman. He was then a soldier in the First Mississippi Volunteer Regiment, and the injury resulted in his discharge. The next year he married Holland Pearce, a slim, sophisticated woman whose first son was John Wesley Thompson, the Young Colonel, who would become William Faulkner’s paternal grandfather. Holland came from a well-off, slave-owning family, and her money allowed W.C. to envision a life for himself as a member of the plantation-owning class. Her social graces compensated for his own lack in this regard, especially when, as a young man, he tended to embarrass those in his company with loud talking and extravagant self-regard. Falkner quickly involved himself in various organizations in Ripley, and one of these—the amusingly titled Knights of Temperance—led to a crucial incident in his life. In 1849, a man called Robert Hindman believed that W.C. had opposed his membership in the Knights, and he confronted Falkner with a pistol, firing at him twice at point-blank range. The gun didn’t go off, so W.C. pulled out a knife and killed Hindman, plunging the blade into his chest. He was subsequently let off by a jury, who believed his tale of self-defense. But a feud with Hindman’s family continued for many years, with further violent incidents along the way.

Holland, at the same time, was dying of tuberculosis, an illness that had plagued her for several years, turning her into an invalid. She died only three weeks after the trial, which had been a great strain on her health. In despair, Falkner turned his infant son over to relatives until, two years later, he married Elizabeth Vance, surmounting the strong protests of her family, who considered W.C. a violent lout and troublemaker. This was indeed the young Lizzie who, as a mere child, had supposedly helped him out many years before. In contrast to Holland, Lizzie was a peppery young woman who had her own rough edges; she was, in fact, a good match for the exuberant W.C., who needed someone of considerable vitality who could keep up with his expansive ways.

A strong secessionist, and himself a minor slave owner, W.C. appears to have fathered a mulatto. As Joel Williamson writes: “In 1880 the census listed only one servant living in Colonel Falkner’s household on Main Street, but she was a Falkner too. Her name was Lena Falkner. She was thirteen years old and mulatto.” He suggests that it is certainly possible that “Colonel Falkner was her father.”11 In the Old South, it was not uncommon for the master to father children by his slaves and servants; if anything, this was considered normal. (That William Faulkner might have had African-American blood in his lineage was never addressed by him directly, but it becomes a major subtext in his fiction, with Joe Christmas being obsessed by his possibly mixed blood. The theme runs fiercely through Absalom, Absalom! and Go Down, Moses, and through many of the stories.)

The Old Colonel quite naturally supported the withdrawal of Mississippi from the Union and raised a ragtag company of volunteers called the Magnolia Rifles, appointing himself captain. This was a freelance operation, however, and W.C. wisely joined his company to the official state unit of the Confederacy. He was duly elected a colonel, under the command of Brig. Joseph E. Johnston. Their first real battle was the infamous Battle of Bull Run, also called First Manassas (after a local landmark, Manassas Junction). Though his own unit was brutally defeated, W.C. came out a decorated hero. The famous General Beauregard from Louisiana was reported to have shouted during the battle: “Go ahead, you hero with the black plume: history shall never forget you!”12 W.C. was referred to in the local paper as “the pride of Ripley.”

However, it struck his superiors that W.C. had actually endangered the regiment by his reckless leadership, and there were recriminations. He was voted out of the regiment less than a year later, although he kept his rank of colonel. He protested forcefully and was backed up by his immediate superior, but the facts were plain. W.C. had proven himself unreliable as a field officer through his willingness to take extravagant risks at the expense of his men. For W.C., a war that began with much promise ended in disappointment, opening a wound in his psyche that would never quite heal.

Never one to rest on his failures, W.C. returned to Ripley, where his business interests, and his fortunes, rose steeply. As Williamson notes, W.C. Falkner has been “miscast” by oral historians and biographers. “He was not a slaveholding planter as usually imagined, but rather, essentially, a town-dwelling businessman, and his real reputation was made only after the war.”13 The Old Colonel continued during the Reconstruction era to practice law; he also invested in raw land, bought and sold buildings, and was always on the lookout for promising investments. With such industry, he prospered; indeed, by 1879 he was worth fifty thousand dollars—a considerable sum in those days. Aware that politics and business in the United States were closely linked, he involved himself in local elections by supporting his favorite candidates with cash and verbal endorsements. Cutting a large figure in the world, W.C. traveled widely in Europe with his family, wrote novels that attracted a considerable audience in the South, and built an antebellum-style mansion with huge porticoes and pillars to house his burgeoning family. Its shaded, well-manicured garden was the envy of the town. His was a classic frontier success story, complete with a violent ending that would have delighted Hollywood. No wonder he loomed so huge in his great-grandson’s mind.

W.C.’s one genuine success as a writer was The White Rose of Memphis, a novel that ran serially in a local paper in 1880 and was published to considerable fanfare, attracting a fairly wide audience. Structured along the lines of The Canterbury Tales, the book concerns a motley group of pilgrims. A distinctly secular bunch, they are all heading South to New Orleans on a party boat. The central event of the novel is a costume ball, in which each character in turn tells his or her story. The setting is not so different from William Faulkner’s Mosquitoes, his second published novel, which takes place on a riverboat in the same region. Indeed, the narrative strategy adopted by the Old Colonel, with its multiple perspectives, anticipates a technique raised to a higher level by his great-grandson in The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, Go Down, Moses, The Unvanquished, and many other volumes, with voices layering on voices, exploring the radical subjectivity of each speaker.

W.C. had tried his hand before at literary work, having had a play called The Lost Diamond produced in 1867 and garnering decent local reviews. (The Ripley Advertiser called it “sprightly and well spoken.”) This modest success did not lead to further work in the theater, but The White Rose of Memphis led to a second novel, The Little Brick Church, set both in the present (the 1880s) and an earlier time, the Revolutionary War period, as well. The technique of contrasting periods in time was also developed on a higher level by his great-grandson, who made the intermingling of past and present another trademark of his style. In fact, readers can find it difficult to locate a character’s mind in time or space in some of Faulkner’s work, since the past is always breaking in upon the present, giving the work a multidimensional perspective. W.C. also collected a volume of travel sketches under the unpropitious title Rapid Ramblings in Europe.

The killing of the Old Colonel was not as bizarre as it sounds. Mississippi in mid-century was still a frontier society, and guns were readily available and often used to settle disputes. (Thurmond, the Old Colonel’s murderer, was released on ten thousand dollars’ bail and charged only with aggravated manslaughter. For him, there were no further repercussions or consequences. W.C.’s son, the Young Colonel, decided against pursuing the matter, as he always put his business interests first, and Thurmond had many allies.) A statue of the Old Colonel was erected in Ripley, where his stone figure in a frock coat stood eight feet high. “His head,” wrote Faulkner, speaking of a similar statue of John Sartoris, “was lifted a little in that gesture of haughty pride which repeated itself generation after generation with a fateful fidelity, his back to the world and his carven eyes gazing out across the valley where his railroad ran, and the blue changeless hills beyond, and beyond that, the ramparts of infinity itself.”14

The unruly life of W.C. Falkner unfolded against the background of a society in turmoil. In postwar Mississippi, the enforced rapprochement between the races put in place by the successful Northern victory did not take very well. There had been trouble from the moment Lincoln issued the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation in September 1862, just as the Union army’s invasion of Mississippi was underway. That December, Maj. Gen. W. W. Loring sent a telegram to Gen. John C. Pemberton urging the formation of a local militia designed to protect against a “servile insurrection which is threatened.”15 In another telegram, Loring noted that “negroes have driven overseers from plantations in Lafayette Co. and taken possession of everything.”

The fear of a slave rebellion, always present, was very real during the war and was barely held in check for some years afterward. Thousands of slaves fled the South altogether: an exodus that overwhelmed the Union army, which suddenly had to create so-called contraband camps to house the slaves. In The Unvanquished, Faulkner would describe this exodus in biblical terms: a mass of slaves glimpsed in the distance in billowing dust, the huge crowd aiming toward some imaginary Jordan River. Bayard Sartoris regards their flight with amazement, contemplating “the motion, the impulse to move which had already seethed to a head among his [Ringo, a family slave’s] people, darker than themselves, reasonless, following and seeking a delusion, a dream, a bright shape which they could not know since there was nothing in their heritage, nothing in the memory even of the old men to tell the others.”16 Such a passage reveals Faulkner’s own complex, and not necessarily “liberal,” view of racial divisions in the Old South.

In the decades following the war, antagonism between the races became a way of life, as Eric Foner explains in Reconstruction, 1863-1877. Although blacks formed a majority of the population by the 1870s, whites were firmly in control of state politics. Waves of severe violence swept Mississippi in 1874 and 1875, with white “rifle clubs” marauding in the countryside and assaulting anyone who stood for nonracist, democratic values. “Unlike crimes by the Ku Klux Klan’s hooded riders,” writes Foner, “those of 1875 were committed in broad daylight by undisguised men.”17 Racist groups known as “white-liners” formed to combat federal policies, such as the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments, which banned slavery and granted citizenship and voting rights to (male) former slaves. The rights granted to black citizens were, in essence, reversed by these groups, who eventually found leaders in men like James Kimble Vardaman and Theodore Bilbo, populist politicians and overt racists who both eventually rose to the office of governor. (It’s amusing to note that Faulkner, in The Town, named two minor characters after these well-known local politicians. Bilbo and Vardaman Snopes are the twin sons of I. O. Snopes.)

Vardaman, as a spokesman for the white underclass, appealed to J. W. T. Falkner, the Young Colonel, who could never quite live up to the legend of his father, although he tried. Indeed, he served as president of the local Vardaman Club when Vardaman stood for the U.S. Senate against Leroy Percy. By this time, J.W.T. and his wife (Sally Murry, Faulkner’s grandmother) had moved from Ripley to Oxford, some forty miles southwest. There was simply more going on in Oxford, a thriving town that was also the county seat, and he (rightly) wanted to move out of his father’s long shadow. This change of residence would, of course, have a great impact on his grandson, who would put Oxford at the center of his imaginative universe.

The Young Colonel (who had never earned this title but simply inherited it) would cringe whenever the subject of his father arose. He wanted a more dignified, less rough-and-tumble life, although many of his friends were drinking buddies from the backwoods. He built a home in Oxford—the Big Place—and was often seen at the courthouse in his white linen suits and Panama hat, smoking a fat cigar. He was not, however, a gregarious man by nature, except when drunk. In spite of certain personality limitations, he eventually served as a Deputy U.S. Attorney for northern Mississippi and was later elected to the state legislature as a senator; later still, he became a trustee of the University of Mississippi. He clearly had a knack for attracting public attention and for gaining the respect of those around him, despite his notorious drinking and solitary nature.

Always investing in new businesses and never quite succeeding, he was chronically short of money, a trait that seems fairly common among William Faulkner’s ancestors, who typically lived well above their means. Though a prominent man in the community, J. W. T. Falkner was, as one of his grandsons said, “the loneliest man I’ve ever known” and was prone to explosive, irrational behavior—especially toward his son, Murry, whom he often ridiculed in public. A famous example of the Young Colonel’s erratic nature occurred when, while driving in a drunken rage around town, he stopped outside of the bank where he had recently been elected president and threw a brick through the front window. When asked to explain, he said: “It was my Buick, my brick, and my bank.”18 His drinking became, at times, embarrassing for the family, which found it difficult to maintain an aura of respectability in the face of his alcoholic bouts.

J.W.T.’s wife, Sally Murry, was (as might be expected) an officer in the local temperance league and a pillar of the community. It was often said that her connections furthered and sustained her husband’s career more than his own connections did. She was also a highly religious woman, given to evangelical Christianity. In this, she contrasted quite visibly with her husband, who rarely attended church, smoked and drank, and preferred the company of what his wife regarded as the local rabble. She was also quite diminutive, in contrast to the Young Colonel, who was tall and, after the age of forty, rather portly.

Murry Falkner, the novelist’s father, was an even paler version of the Old Colonel than the Young Colonel was. Called “a dull man” by Faulkner, he could hardly begin to live up to the legends before him. His son Johncy said that “the only things Dad ever loved were [the] railroad and horses and dogs and the Ole Miss football and baseball teams.”19 He had a large nose, much like his grandfather and father, and was physically imposing, with a thick paunch and large red hands, but he was emotionally weak. Although he attended the University of Mississippi (he was a student there when his grandfather was shot), his time there was unhappy, and he frequently wandered off on far-flung hunting expeditions. After leaving the university, he took a job with his father’s railroad, the Gulf and Chicago, where he tried his hand at everything from shoveling coal into the boiler to driving the trains. He actually loved life on the rails, sitting high in the engineer’s seat as the train whistled through the dense Mississippi forests. But he often got drunk when not working, and his temper frequently involved him in fights. Once, this led to a shooting incident in which Murry, in eerie replication of his grandfather, took a bullet in the face (as well as the back). He was, however, more fortunate than the Old Colonel: the bullet in the face lodged in Murry’s throat in such a way that it blocked a potential hemorrhage.

Murry’s father had never gone after R.J. Thurmond, the man who shot the Old Colonel; this time, however, revenge would occur. In a fit of guilt combined with rage, J.W.T. sought out the man who had shot his son and thrust a revolver into his side, firing several times. He shot blanks, however; the man, in response, turned on the Young Colonel and, before making a quick exit, shot him, taking away the small finger on his left hand. The Young Colonel considered this a draw and returned to his son’s bedside in Oxford, where Murry lay for several weeks recuperating under the care of his mother, who somehow contrived to get her son eventually to vomit up the bullet without causing further bleeding. The shot in the back left a gaping hole.

In 1895, Murry, aged twenty-five, met Maud Butler, a young woman also of twenty-five, who had graduated from Mississippi Women’s College. An avid reader, she belonged to the local Browning Society, dedicated to the poetry of Robert Browning, and would hold book discussions at her house in later years. She was always said to be “good with her hands,” and this included an interest in drawing that she would pass along to her firstborn son, William. The slight smell of scandal hung around her, however: Charles Butler, her father, had been the town marshal in Oxford for a dozen years, and in 1882 was found to have embezzled a large amount of money from the town itself; he repaid the money, but the next year, he shot and killed the editor of the Oxford Eagle for reasons that remain mysterious, although the Eagle reported “that the officer clothed in a little ‘brief authorty,’ killed [Sam] Thompson, not because he resisted, nor because it was necessary; but did so on account of malice, arising from previous grudge, and that in doing so he was encouraged by persons of vastly more respectable standing in society than himself.”20 Somehow, Charlie Butler managed to stay in office until another scandal occurred in 1887, when he was accused of “absconding” with a further three thousand dollars of the town’s money. He bolted, leaving behind a shamed and impoverished family.21

Murry Falkner did not care about any of this, and he wed Maud Butler on October 29, 1896. The couple was married without fuss in a Methodist parsonage, with few people in attendance. There was no reception and no honeymoon. Indeed, the young couple hardly knew each other, it seems; there had been no protracted courtship. In any case, they were ill-matched, and their relations were often strained. A tiny woman with a strong will, Maud seemed not unlike Murry’s mother, who had been stern, unyielding. As a young housekeeper and mother, Miss Maud (as she was always called) hung a motto over the stove in her kitchen that read: “Don’t Complain, Don’t Explain.” She apparently did little of either.

At his wife’s insistence, Murry quickly abandoned his youthful dream of going West, that fantasy in which he imagined himself as a cowboy, galloping across the plains. But he never got over this dream and blamed his lackluster life on his wife, although his failures were clearly his own fault. Much like his father, he was prone to whiskey-fueled outbursts, and this instability did not inspire confidence in his employers. For the time being, however, he enjoyed a happy period as a passenger agent with his father’s railway company in New Albany, thirty miles from Oxford, where Maud soon became pregnant with the child who became William Faulkner.


He came at a period in history which, in this country, people thought of and think of now as a peaceful one.

—FAULKNER, Faulkner in the University

William Cuthbert Falkner, the future novelist, was born in New Albany on September 25, 1897. His beaked nose (inherited from his paternal line) would remain his most distinctive feature throughout his life, a kind of trademark. From his mother he acquired deep brown eyes and a prominent brow as well as her extremely pale complexion and rather small, pinched mouth. The firstborn child, he was an anxious and colicky baby: possibly a response to the anxiety of his parents, who had never dealt with an infant before. Night after night his mother would walk the floor of their rented house in New Albany trying to soothe him. A fiercely emotional but awkward attachment developed between them that would only be broken by Maud’s death in 1960, only two years before her beloved son, whom she consistently defended from all criticism.

Other children followed swiftly. Murry Charles Falkner (called Jack) was born a year later, by which time his parents had relocated to Ripley, some twenty miles north of New Albany. In 1901, John (“Johncy”) Wesley Thompson Falkner III appeared, the third son to be born in four years. This abundance of children mirrored a sense of waxing fortunes for the whole family. The Young Colonel was now a state senator, and he lived conspicuously in the Big Place, as it was always called. His investments widened to include apartment and office buildings, even raw land. He owned parts of various farming enterprises and shares in a local telephone company. Soon his interest in the railroad company dwindled.

This loss of interest did not help Murry, who had a love for the railways and had advanced steadily in his father’s company over several years. Imitating his father, he invested in various projects, including a timber farm and a small drug company, although none of these ever panned out. His heart, as ever, was focused on horses, hunting, and bird dogs. His name appeared frequently in the Oxford Eagle as a prominent citizen, largely in connection with the railways.22 Unfortunately for him, his father decided to sell the railroad company in 1902, and he advised his son to move back to Oxford and look for another job. One has to wonder about this bizarre act: pulling the rug from under your obviously weak son, who had so recently become the father of three small boys. Perhaps the Young Colonel was simply narcissistic and, therefore, oblivious to all needs but his own; more likely, he felt a certain aggression toward Murry, perhaps not unlike the aggression that the Old Colonel had apparently felt toward him. This may explain why the Young Colonel didn’t pursue his father’s killer or even seem to object to what had happened.

The theme of patriarchal hauntings runs obsessively through Faulkner’s fiction, as in Flags in the Dust (reduced dramatically and published as Sartoris), his first real attempt to get his fictive version of Lafayette County on paper. In that novel he dwells on the conflict between father and son with considerable anxiety and force. The era of his great-grandfather finds embodiment in the figures of Col. John Sartoris and Col. Bayard Sartoris, both Civil War heroes. His grandfather’s generation acquires a voice, however faint, in Colonel Bayard II. There is a good deal of attention paid to Bayard II’s grandson, Bayard Sartoris III, and to his twin brother, John. The father of the twins seems less substantial in the novel than the other Sartorises. To a degree, Faulkner regarded his own father as a phantom, a weak man who depended heavily on the Young Colonel for his very existence and thus resented (as well as pitied) him. Faulkner would not make peace, in his fiction, with Murry until his last novel, The Reivers.

Murry took his wife and three sons to Oxford, as his father commanded, even though he still nursed a wish to saddle up and ride into the sunset, a pistol in his holster and a cowboy hat pulled over his brow. The idea of buying a ranch out West was, as Maud pointed out, ludicrous. They had no real capital, and it would be foolish to relinquish the family influence in Lafayette County. So they moved to Oxford, only a few streets away from Murry’s father, who put up a stake for him in O. O. Grady’s Livery Stable on University Street. It was a smart move, playing to Murry’s passion for horses. Railway travel was, of course, a highly current and booming enterprise; the horse-and-buggy business represented a retreat to the past, though it was still, at the turn of the twentieth century, the chief means of transportation for many Americans.

The situation appealed to him, and to his growing sons, who would come to relish the atmosphere of the stables, a place where a lot of men sat around and told stories at their leisure. Murry presided over the stable, which was a major thoroughfare in Oxford. A fairly cheerful gang of black employees—some of them little more than unpaid servants—groomed the horses and cleaned the stables, sometimes kicking in with stories of their own. Half a dozen white men worked as drivers. Until the advent of the motorcar, this was a thriving business and, because it was an ancient one, an aura of tradition overhung the stable.

A fourth and final brother, Dean Swift Falkner (named after his recently deceased paternal grandmother) appeared in 1907, completing the family circle. Apparently Maud, who had thus far favored her firstborn, William, now turned her affections by necessity (as least for the duration of his infancy) to Dean, who suffered various ailments as a baby that required her concentrated care. Young Bill must have felt a sense of abandonment, although he had a strong attachment to his nanny, the nanny being a fixture of many middle-class families in the South at this time. “Mammy Callie was probably the most important person in his life as a child,” says Faulkner’s daughter.23 His attachment to her is evident from his dedication to her of Go Down, Moses:





Who was born in slavery and who

gave to my family a fidelity without

stint or calculation or recompense

and to my childhood an immeasurable

devotion and love

Faulkner drew Caroline Barr’s portrait in fiction from many different angles, most vividly as Dilsey Gibson in The Sound and the Fury. But she can also be found somewhere in the figures of Mammie Cal’line Nelson in Soldier’s Pay and Molly Beauchamp in Go Down, Moses. She appears virtually as herself in The Reivers. When she died in 1940, Faulkner delivered a moving elegy at her funeral, calling her “a fount not only of authority and information, but of affection, respect and security.” She had been “born in bondage…a dark and tragic time for the land of her birth,” and “went through vicissitudes which she had not caused.” Through all of this she “assumed cares and griefs which were not even her cares and griefs,” accepting whatever trials and travails befell her “without cavil or calculation or complaint.”24

Mammy Callie was, like Maud, a tiny woman: barely a hundred pounds, recessive, always standing at the side in her apron and head rag, with a lump of snuff in her cheek. Her dresses were always starched, as was her white apron. She wore soft-toed black shoes, and her large dark eyes gazed lovingly on the children at all times, although she could administer a dose of reprimand when the occasion required it.25 One must wonder about the psychological effect of having, in essence, two mothers, white and black, both of them supportive and both idealized by Faulkner, who (or whose characters often) had the tendency to see women as either mother/virgin figures, nurturing and passive, or as whores and bitches, with nothing on their minds but ruining a man’s life. One sees a parade of these types in his fiction, and there is not much subtlety in their presentations.

As a boy and young adolescent, Faulkner’s world was neatly circumscribed, with mythic elements that included woods and swamplands as well as the town itself; beyond the immediate family circle there was the Big Place, where his grandfather towered over the family, the genial patriarch on whom his father also depended for emotional (as well as financial) security. The house had many bedrooms and a full attic on the third floor, where the Young Colonel’s grandchildren would often play by themselves. There was a good library in the house, too—many of the books having been acquired by the Old Colonel—and his mother encouraged Faulkner to read. Like so many writers of his generation (including Steinbeck and D. H. Lawrence), Faulkner was, in fact, the product of an intellectually ambitious mother and a weak, recessive father who really preferred “manly” activities, such as drinking. In each case, the boy identified with the mother’s aspirations—the high value she placed on the world of books, of art, of refined things—though still longing for connection to the manly world of the father.

Faulkner certainly had strong emotional ties with the world of his father. From the age of seven, he visited the hunting and fishing camps that were part of the ritual of southern manhood and that he wrote about with astonishing power in “The Bear,” one of his greatest stories. His father and grandfather often visited a particular camp on the Tippah River, not far outside of Oxford but surrounded by wilderness. A hunting camp was largely a male preserve, and it was a place known for storytelling in the great southern tradition. “There is a special affection for the story in the South,” Robert Penn Warren recalled, “a tradition of men gathering around a campfire, drinking and smoking, remembering old times, what happened on the night, and so forth.”26 This atmosphere of recollection, of re-creating and reshaping the past, is the stuff of Faulkner’s fiction, and its appeal often lies in the sense of a deep unfolding, a seeking out and lifting of barely conscious images and inchoate experience into full-blown, embodied life. As John T. Matthews says: “Storytelling for Faulkner is serious play, and its significance arises not in the capture of truth but in the rituals of pursuit, exchange, collaboration, and invention.”27

Faulkner attended the local elementary school, where his most influential teacher, Miss Annie Chandler, recognized his special gifts very early, giving him books as presents. One of these was a Ku Klux Klan romance by Thomas Dixon, Jr., called The Clansman, a book that swept the South at the time and painted the Klan hero in a rosy light. He was also encouraged by his grandmother, Sallie McAlpine Murry Falkner, an avid reader with an almost fanatical interest in the Civil War; indeed, a good deal of her time was spent in various group meetings where memorials to the Confederate cause were planned. Her passion rubbed off on her grandson, Bill, whose fascination with the war never abated. The death of his grandmother (when he was nine) struck him so forcefully that memories of this event precipitated The Sound and the Fury, his first great novel. Late in life he explained to an interviewer that it was the image of children “being sent away from the house during the grandmother’s funeral” that triggered the narrative.28 (Damuddy, the grandmother to the Compson children in that novel, has something of Faulkner’s grandmother in her bearing and relationship with the children; indeed, the family referred to Sallie Murry as Damuddy.)

Faulkner, as a boy, played in the fields and woodlands just beyond the town, often fishing with friends at Davidson’s Creek, a short ride by pony from his house. He sat around in the livery, listening to old men reminisce about the Civil War. He went to the Methodist church on Sunday with his mother (his father rarely attended), and in summers attended the outdoor camp meetings, where he listened to the excitable preaching of traveling evangelists. (Faulkner could never be called a religious man in any conventional sense, although he attended church now and then, and felt a deep sympathy for the notion of belief itself, as in Requiem for a Nun, where Nancy Mannigoe declares: “All you need, all you have to do, is just believe.”) In summer and fall, he went on hunting expeditions, where he experienced the rites of passage typical of his era, and where he once again had access to southern storytelling. A somewhat idealized version of his boyhood appears in The Reivers, his last novel. Perhaps against the harsher backdrop of his adult life, the past seemed bathed in a golden light.

A New World

Then the country itself was gone. There were no longer intervals between the houses and shops and stores; suddenly before us was a wide tree-bordered and ordered boulevard with car tracks in the middle; and sure enough, there was the streetcar itself, the conductor and motorman just lowering the back trolley and raising the front one to turn it around and go back to Main Street.

—FAULKNER, The Reivers

By the time Dean was born, on August 15, 1907, Faulkner—known in the family as Billy or Bill—was nearly ten. Jack was eight, and Johncy six. Three neighbors who came into daily contact with the family were Victoria (“Tochie”), Dorothy (“Dot”), and Estelle Oldham, who came from a prominent local family. The father of the girls, Major Lemuel Earl Oldham, was a prominent lawyer who eventually became clerk of the U.S. Circuit Court. Their mother, Lida, was a descendent of Sam Houston “who never let anyone forget that,” as her daughter later said. It was a cultivated family, and Estelle excelled in school, where her profile as a voracious reader set her apart. She and Billy Falkner gravitated naturally toward each other, sharing a love of books and a feeling of shared inheritance: they were both members of the tiny, elite class whose families had power and influence in Lafayette County. Billy, it should be said, liked reading but had no real interest in actual schoolwork. (He always said that whenever a book was assigned in class, it killed his passion for that particular book.) Soon after she met Billy, Estelle told her nanny that she would one day marry him: a remarkable moment of clairvoyance.29

It’s worth noting that Faulkner never quite fit into the local society of boys. He usually would not play with them, preferring to ride his Shetland pony (one of the perquisites of being the son of a man who ran a livery) around the countryside. In school, he seemed an isolated, dreamy boy who didn’t like rough play and whose preoccupation with dressing up in fine clothes set him apart from the usual run of boys in small-town Mississippi. One classmate found him “strange and conceited, without the usual interests of a boy.”30 Another observed that Billy had no close friends, and that he seemed to prefer writing and illustrating stories to the more routine school subjects. He was lazy, too, and did not participate in class projects with any enthusiasm, at least that is what some of his classmates reported to Joseph Blotner. A survey of his report cards from the Oxford Graded Schools, however, suggests otherwise. His report card from Miss Bogard in 1911, for example, reports “admirable” work in writing, drawing, and arithmetic. He did, however, show a “lack of progress in grammar and language.” Remembering his boyhood, Faulkner said, “I never did like school and stopped going to school as soon as I got big enough to play hooky and not get caught at it.” This attitude toward school is expressed quite vividly in his last novel, The Reivers, where Loosh Priest (who quite vividly stands in for Faulkner) recalls how April, in particular, “was the very best time not to have to go to school.”31

The usual sports that attract boys did not interest Billy, in part because—at the insistence of his devoted mother—he wore a canvas back brace designed to improve his posture. Indeed, for two years Miss Maud would lace her son into his brace each morning before school, lecturing him on the importance of posture: a lesson he remembered in later years, when those who met Faulkner often commented on his fiercely upright, ramrod stance. Young Billy—embarrassed by the brace, naturally shy—often stayed away from the playground except when he felt like eaves-dropping. He was never popular, although most students considered him friendly and courteous. Certainly no one thought he was academically gifted. He did his homework in a halfhearted way, though his writing ability was such that he could manage without much effort. One of his teachers, Miss May McGuire, actually assumed that his mother was doing his homework for him.32

From early childhood, he took a liking to costumes, especially those with a military flair, and he could occasionally be seen wandering in streets with an old Confederate cap on his head. At recess, he would stand apart from the other children, watching, seeming to study their movements, to listen to their voices, without reacting himself or wishing to participate. His daydreaming in class made him a subject of ridicule among his schoolmates and did not endear him to his teachers. What he was dreaming about one can only guess, but it seems likely that he thought about heroism and glory, about crime, about human desire in its various manifestations. We get a retrospective glimpse of Faulkner’s thinking about what a boy might think in The Reivers. “There is no crime which a boy of eleven had not envisaged long ago,” he writes. “His only innocence is, he may not yet be old enough to desire the fruits of it, which is not innocence but appetite; his ignorance is, he does not know how to commit it, which is not ignorance but size.”33 Here, as elsewhere, Faulkner attributes many levels of consciousness to a child, and he doubtless felt that he, as a boy, contained all of the contradictory possibilities of the human spirit within his heart.

Though Faulkner late in life portrayed Oxford as an idyllic town, it possessed the usual supply of greed and vice, adultery, alcoholism, insanity, petty crime, and so forth. “Our Town” (as in Thorton Wilder’s sweet but unrealistic play) did not have an address on this planet. At his best, of course, as in Light in August, Faulkner dramatizes the petty (and not so petty) crimes of the heart that make up life in a small town, such as the Oxford of his boyhood, where he would sit in the livery or at the hunting cabin and learn about the vicious (as well as heroic or just plain dumb) things that people had done, in the present as well as the past. What later upset the citizens of Oxford, in addition to the corncob rape in Sanctuary and the general difficulty of his style, was that an apparently loyal son of the South had reported, without idealization, on the world as he found it. People can forgive anything but the truth about themselves.

This is not to deny that many aspects of Oxford at the turn of the twentieth century (before the avalanche of modern life, with all its distractions and disruptions) were congenial, especially if one happened to be white and relatively well-off: a situation that describes Faulkner. The community was fairly stable, rooted in an agricultural landscape and economy. Travel was still pursued at a leisurely pace, by horse and buggy. There were few telephones, and one communicated by letter or, more commonly, by actual face-to-face conversation. Billy Faulkner knew his neighbors well, and they knew him. He memorized the landscape around the town, with its lush fields and “big woods,” its river and streams. The town reassembled in his imagination with astonishing accuracy, although he felt free to add and subtract from the picture in his fiction at will.

From his perch in the livery stable—the hub of daily life in Oxford—young Billy observed the shifting patterns of life with keen interest. The threat of modernity, as represented by the automobile, loomed eerily; but Faulkner’s attachment to horses—he rode with the hounds into the last year of his life—speaks to his innate convervatism, his wish to cling to a fading vision and way of life that could not withstand the onslaught of highways and suburbs, gas stations, and everything brought into being by the invention of the internal combustion engine. Even though he loved the sensation of speed provided by cars and airplanes, he would probably have preferred to live in a world of liveries, blacksmiths, saddlers, feed shops, and hitching posts. But that was not to be.

“I grew up in the same sort of town, in Kentucky,” Robert Penn Warren recalled.34 “And there was something sad about it. You knew it couldn’t last. You could see the future, and it wasn’t pretty. It was full of noise, full of large rivalries and competing realities. The center just couldn’t hold.” Warren found that “anxiety, that sense of the world breaking apart, at the core of Faulkner’s fiction. There is nothing safe in that world. No place to stand for long. The social classes aren’t secure. The bank might fold. There is no guarantee of anything.”

Murry Falkner was certainly a conservative romantic who preferred the horse to the car. He stuck by his profession even as the need for livery services faded and as Oxford ceased to be an island to itself with the coming of highways and expanded railway service; eventually the age of air travel dawned—a means of transport that would fascinate his sons. (Billy convinced his brothers to help him attempt to construct an airplane from a pattern they discovered in American Boy magazine. He eventually got his pilot’s license, as did his brother Dean, and would devote a whole novel to barnstorming pilots, whom he obviously admired.) The Young Colonel, meanwhile, never missed an opportunity to increase his wealth and influence. He opened a new bank, the First National Bank of Oxford, with great fanfare, relishing the chance to compete with the well-established Bank of Oxford, whose president was James Stone—father of Phil Stone, Faulkner’s first great literary advocate, and whose vice president was Lem Oldham, father of Estelle.

By the time Billy Falkner entered his teenage years, in 1910, the world had changed in subtle but significant ways. “Oxford today is not what it was twenty, even ten, years ago,” an editorial in the Eagle bragged as the new decade approached. “We have an up-to-date electric light system, sewer system, well-equipped water plant, and besides this we are now laying down paved walks and streets.”35 Faulkner himself was deeply aware of the changes, which were not all beneficent. “The very land itself seemed to have changed,” he later wrote.36 “The farms were bigger, more prosperous, with tighter fences and painted houses and even barns; the very air was urban.” He could see the highway to Memphis “running string-straight into the distance and heavily marked with wheel prints.” From there, he could stare into the future: “the antlike to and fro, the incurable down-payment itch-foot; the mechanised, the mobilised, the inescapable destiny of America.” This was, in Faulkner’s fiction as well, a pivotal year: the year that Quentin Compson kills himself in The Sound and the Fury; the year (at least in the later, revised version of The Hamlet) when Flem Snopes—avatar of a fallen modern world—arrives in Jefferson on his creaky wagon, sniffs the air hopefully, and sees “a world he could remake.”