One Matchless Time: A Life of William Faulkner - Jay Parini (2005)
Chapter 2. Town Life
…the deep South dead since 1865 and people with garrulous outraged baffled ghosts…
—FAULKNER, Absalom, Absalom!
By the time Billy Falkner had become a teenager, the fortunes of his family had decidedly sagged. Even the fortunes of the Young Colonel, his grandfather, had begun to wane as the careers of Snopesian, white populist politicians like James Kimble Vardaman and his counterpart, Theodore Bilbo, waxed. The Young Colonel had allied himself, emotionally, with the planters and aristocrats, even though he found it useful at times to give public support to both Vardaman and Bilbo, whose racist streaks appealed to him. It seemed clear to all that the political climate had shifted toward the rising whites: rednecks, dirt farmers, and tradesmen. The election of 1911 was a watershed, as Vardaman was elected to a seat in the U.S. Senate by a huge majority; Bilbo, an evangelical Baptist preacher by profession, played Mutt to Vardaman’s Jeff, becoming lieutenant governor. The Young Colonel, meanwhile, lost his bid for reelection as county attorney.
J.W.T. was now a widower in his early sixties, a heavy drinker with a famously explosive temper. Disliking solitude, he fixed his gaze on young Mary Kennedy, a local widow and friend of his sister; Mary was described by one family member as “a talkative woman with big teeth and bad breath.”1 She was a large, ungainly presence, pushing herself forward in polite company, full of demands. The Young Colonel was lonely, however, and he proposed to her. She accepted at once, and the wedding was planned for January 10, 1912. As the fateful day approached, J.W.T. got cold feet and attempted to back out, asking his sister to speak with Mary. But Mary would have none of this, and threatened a suit for breach of promise. He acquiesced, finding himself alone and drunk in a hotel bar on his honeymoon, aware that he had sealed his fate.
His son, Murry, now in his mid-forties, had gradually realized that the livery had no future and decided to sell the business while it still retained some value, and did so—at a considerable loss. With his father’s help, he purchased a coal oil store, then a hardware store. The former, in the dawn of electric light, was a bad idea from the start, as Murry quickly saw, reselling the business—at a further loss—rather quickly. (His father would berate him in front of the children for his lack of business acumen.) The hardware store seemed stable enough, though it had none of the social interest of the livery. The loss of income meant that Murry and Maud would have to move to a smaller house on Second South Street: a further indication of declining status for the Falkner clan. Young Billy must have had a powerful sense of diminishing family fortunes, and this would fuel his later attempts to regain familial glory by purchasing a large home in Oxford and a farm on its outskirts that had once actually belonged to the Falkners. It also drove a late attempt to buy Red Acres, a two-hundred-acre horse farm in Albermarle County in Virginia. (Faulkner died before the sale could be completed.)
The atmosphere in Billy’s family home was, at best, glum. Miss Maud, as she was often called, lavished attention on her youngest child, Dean, who continued to have health problems. Murry (who sometimes disappeared from Oxford for days at a time without explanation) avoided contact with his children to the extent that he could, although—much like Jason Compson—he presided over the dinner table like a tyrant, insisting on silence while he ate. He would then rise, wave a regal hand, and withdraw from the room, often leaving the house to “visit with friends,” returning late at night in a drunken state. His alcoholism only grew worse as he aged.
In school, Billy showed little interest in advancing himself academically or socially. His lack of academic progress frustrated his teachers, and one of them, Miss Ella Wright, called him “lazy” and urged Maud to bring him into “focus.” He apparently liked to sit at his desk and sketch—images of guns and flying machines. His mind was also turning passionately toward Estelle, his neighbor, whom Jack called “as pretty as a little partridge.” Billy would try “to attract her attention [in school] by being the loudest one, the daringest. But the more he tried the more mussed he got, and sweaty, and dirtier, and Estelle simply wasn’t interested.”2 Soon enough he realized that she preferred a young man who was neat, clean, and nicely dressed, so he shifted his tactics, getting Miss Maud—who always had a passionate interest in her son’s success in the world—to iron his shirts before school and to press the wrinkles from his trousers. He took to shining his shoes rather excessively, so that they shone when he stepped into the classroom. This seemed to work, and Estelle began to pay increasing attention to her old friend, Billy Falkner, whom she always thought she would marry. She also found his interest in books and art appealing, and soon Billy “spent more and more time down at her house,” as his brother recalled. “He was there after school, and often stayed for dinner.” He really believed that he and Estelle had formed a permanent bond and that eventually they would marry and raise children. On weekends, they often met in a back room of Davidson’s and Wardlaw’s, a tiny bookstore that also sold bracelets, earrings, and necklaces. It became a favorite meetingplace for the teenaged couple, who read Swinburne aloud to each other, much to the amusement of the storeowners.
One gets a first glimpse of Faulkner the writer about now. He would bring poems—his own—to read aloud; they were largely composed in a late romantic vein, in the mode of Tennyson and Faulkner’s beloved Swinburne. He also brought stories that he had illustrated himself with charcoal and pencil sketches. He would show his work to the avuncular Watson Wardlaw, who co-owned the store, and Wardlaw became an avuncular supporter, insisting that a few of the university students who dropped by the store take a look at the young boy’s prose. This writing was done, to his mother’s consternation, at the expense of any schoolwork, which he neglected with an insouciance that amused no one but himself.
The social life of teens in Oxford centered on a drugstore, Chilton’s, where one could get ice cream sundaes. The owners of the store, brothers called Uncle Bob and Uncle Top, became surrogate parents for a motley group of eighth and ninth graders that included Billy. Socializing also occurred in homes, but the Oldham family was a particular draw, as Mrs. Oldham (“Miss Lida,” as she was called) was a cheerful, forgiving host who didn’t mind loud music being played on the family Gramophone. At some of the larger houses, elegant dances were held, often with Memphis bands hired by the wealthier parents. Estelle loved to dance, and she often danced with Billy, though his dancing was never remarkable. In adolescence, Billy had become shy and quiet, though he attracted attention to himself by the manner of his dress: high starched collars and colorful silk ties beneath cream-colored linen suits. He combed his hair up to a plateau and kept the back and sides short. His leather brogans were always polished to a high sheen.
A shift in Billy’s emotional fortunes came when, as expected, Estelle’s parents sent her away to Mary Baldwin College, a private school in Virginia. This sudden vacancy in Billy’s life left him alone with his writing and sketching, his reading and dreaming. According to Blotner, it was about this time that his fellow students referred to him as “quair,” in part because of his dandyish dress and in part because he shunned the company of athletes and those students who led more active social lives. Often, after school, Billy would stop by the Oldhams’ for a cup of tea with Miss Lida, who would read to him from her daughter’s letters (although he had his own cache at home in his bedroom) and talk about whatever he was reading. His favorite authors at the time were Shakespeare, Henry Fielding, Joseph Conrad, and Honoré Balzac. He also continued to read Swinburne’s poetry with a special devotion.
It was during his high school years that Faulkner was introduced to Phil Stone, four years his senior, a graduate of Ole Miss and Yale. Phil was the son of James Stone, an influential townsman and bank president, and Rosamond Alston Stone, known as Miss Rosie. The Stones were descendants of a local planter who had been a major on the staff of Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest during the Civil War. Miss Rosie was a friend of Sallie Murry Falkner, and they decided that Phil, who loved poetry, should call on young Billy to have a look at his verse. During one of his visits home from Yale, he stopped by the South Street house to see what the young man had written. His response was immediate and encouraging. “Anybody could have seen that he had a real talent,” Stone later recalled. “It was perfectly obvious.”3 From this moment on, Stone became Faulkner’s literary advisor, mentor, close friend, and—eventually—agent. He wrote down the names of the leading contemporary poets—including William Butler Yeats, T. S. Eliot, and Ezra Pound—and encouraged Faulkner to study them as models for his work. He also recommended that Billy read The Symbolist Movement in Literature by Arthur Symons, a book that profoundly influenced Eliot and Yeats, among others.
Stone was a tall, angular, talkative man, with a cosmopolitan air to accompany his Yale pedigree and elite family associations. Like his father, “General” Stone (the rank was not earned by an actual commission but a commanding air), Phil drank heavily and gambled when he could, losing considerable sums of money at poker. “I owe my education,” he said, with typical bravado, “to Greek and to playing poker.”4 At Ole Miss, he had earned a degree in Latin and Greek, though he also enjoyed Russian and French novels. Though aiming for a career in law, he had strong literary inclinations (and opinions) and read widely and judiciously. He found in Billy an eager apprentice, someone who would listen to his stories and inhale advice with gratitude, although not uncritically.
Stone’s literary mentor was Stark Young, an Oxford-born poet, playwright, novelist, and critic who graduated from Ole Miss in 1901. Young had already begun to make his way on the national scene when Phil Stone introduced him to Faulkner in 1914—a meeting that impressed them both. Young was then on the faculty of the University of Texas, though he later taught at Amherst College, in Massachusetts, from which he was fired in 1921, having been pursued by a rabid gang of conservative faculty that included Robert Frost, who was outraged by Young’s “exaggerated manners” and his well-known attempts to seduce young Amherst men over candlelit dinners at his apartment.5 When in town to visit his family in Oxford, Young invariably called on Billy, whom he considered a protégé. The older man’s urbane manner—he was as openly homosexual as one could be in those days—attracted Faulkner, who found the bluff, swaggering models for male behavior on display around him rather stifling. Young, like Stone, represented an alternative way of being in the world that included literate conversation and a love of books.
It is not outlandish to suppose that Faulkner himself had homosexual feelings at this time. His feline manner was observed by his classmates, and biographers have noted his attraction to “boyish” women with slender hips and small breasts. Certainly by the time he reached mature adulthood, his homoerotic feelings were safely repressed. My own sense is that Faulkner entertained a wide range of selves, allowing himself to experience the homoerotic feelings that are commonplace in adolescent boys long after they would normally have subsided.
For two intense years, between 1914 and 1916, Phil Stone and Faulkner saw a good deal of each other. Stone was in Oxford, between stints at Yale, and they would meet at Stone’s family home on College Hill Road, a massive structure with six white columns and a wide verandah, where Phil and Billy would sit in wicker chairs and drink iced tea brought to them by a black servant. The house contained a large library with many rare volumes, including a first edition of Swinburne’s “Laus Veneris” that had been a gift from Jefferson Davis to a previous occupant of the house, L. Q. C. Lamar. Stone set himself up as a teacher, quizzing the younger man on the rules of grammar and punctuation, declaiming passages from the great authors, and raising various aesthetic issues for discussion. “There was no one but me with whom [he] could discuss his literary plans and hopes and his technical trials and aspirations,” Stone said, rather pretentiously. “Day after day for years—and his most formative years at that—he had drilled into him the obvious truths that the world owed no man anything; that true greatness was in creating great things and not in pretending them; that the only road to literary success was by sure, patient, hard intelligent work.”6
One must take Stone’s later characterizations of their “tutorials” with a grain of salt, as Stone was heavily invested in controlling the story about his early acquaintance with Faulkner. He was, in fact, creating a myth that served his interests. Nevertheless, many of Billy’s friends and family later noted the intensity of the young man’s friendship with Stone, whose early influence Faulkner openly acknowledged in later life. Stone introduced the adolescent Faulkner to a world of books beyond the limited number that happened to fall into his lap at home or school. He paid attention to Faulkner as a writer: the best thing he could have done to encourage him.
Faulkner and Stone shared a passionate interest in the Civil War and southern history and traded books on the subject (Billy had a small shelf of them inherited from his grandmother). They also liked talking about contemporary politics, now heating up with the gubernatorial race of 1915, which featured a collision between the old school, represented by current governor Earl Brewer, from the Delta region, a man of whom General Sartoris would approve, and the Snopesian Theodore Bilbo, already the lieutenant governor. Unlike Stone and Faulkner, the people of Lafayette County seemed to be behind Bilbo, “a slick little bastard,” as one opponent described him.7 The Eagle printed a poem by “Dave Lowbrow” on February 25, 1915, that seems more typical of Lafayette County opinion. One stanza went as follows:
We are coming from the workshop
From the factory and mill.
We’re a band of loyal Rednecks
With a mission to fulfill,
To secure relief eternal
From the secret caucus wrong.
We are coming, General Bilbo,
One hundred thousand strong.
One of Phil Stone’s obsessions—an unlikely one, given his attempts to become a sophisticate in the Eastern collegiate mold—was hunting. He had been taken as a boy by his father to the family hunting camp thirty miles from Oxford, in the valley of the Tallahatchie River. He learned to hunt deer and bear and had been “blooded” by his father; that is, he had his face smeared with the blood of the first bear he killed, much as in Go Down, Moses, where Sam Fathers smears blood on the fresh face of young Ike McCaslin. Billy Falkner had not hunted since boyhood, when he relished sitting around camps with his father, listening to stories and legends of previous hunts, including one about an infamous bear, Old Reel Foot, who had lost two toes on his left foot from having caught it in a trap. This was, perhaps, “the big old bear with one trap-ruined foot” who would eventually take center stage in “The Bear.”8 Admiring Stone, Billy’s interest in hunting was rekindled, and the rituals of the hunt once again became a part of his life. From now on, whenever he could, he went hunting in November.
Billy’s participation in formal education dwindled in the eleventh grade. He attended classes sporadically and seems only to have gone to school in September of 1915 to play football. He had managed to get himself onto the team as quarterback, and there were exciting (if awkward) moments, such as the time he tackled one of his own men, who was running with the ball in the wrong direction, heading toward Oxford’s own goal line. This bold act yielded an amusing story and a broken nose, which forever amplified his already distinctive profile. When the season ended, it seemed that Billy Falkner was finished with the public school system for good, though what he might do with himself remained a mystery.
Ah, women, with their hungry snatching little souls!
—FAULKNER, Early Poetry and Prose
The problem of vocation was temporarily solved, in January 1916, by his grandfather, the Young Colonel, who found his unemployed grandson a job as bookkeeper in his bank. Billy hated the job, as might be expected, though he liked making neat rows of figures. He apparently spent a lot of time raiding the liquor cabinet in his grandfather’s office. “Quit school and went to work in Grandfather’s bank,” he later recalled. “Learned the medicinal value of his liquor. Grandfather thought it was the janitor. Hard on the janitor.”9 Unfortunately, this taste for whiskey became a major factor in his life. On hunting trips, he drank the corn liquor bottled in the pine barrens at covert stills. He also began to hang around with Charlie Crouch, the town drunk, whose reputation for pissing on lampposts had attracted the attention of the law.10 Miss Maud eyed her son suspiciously when he appeared for breakfast, rumpled and foul-smelling, having spent the night on the town.
Billy’s love of elegant clothes only increased now that he had a salary, however small. He opened a charge account at a gentlemen’s store in Memphis and bought expensive shoes in Oxford. He bought one expensive dress suit from a university tailor, Ed Beanland (Ole Miss students would usually rent such suits for important occasions), and he went to work at the bank dressed to the nines, his back straight and his chin jutting forward as he walked to the town square under the cool shade of elm and live oak trees. His nickname, “The Count,” dates from this time—a sobriquet that amused his neighbors but seems not to have diminished the dandyish streak in Billy Falkner, who remained fascinated with clothes. “I remember him telling me,” said Robert Penn Warren, “that he could never live where there weren’t good tailors. He had to have the best clothes. That’s why he stayed in Oxford, he said. Good tailors were available for less money in a small town than in New York.”11 (One should probably take Faulkner’s comment with grain of salt: he was never that hooked on tailors. Indeed, he often dressed very shabbily.)
This was a world far from the western front, where millions of young British and German soldiers were dying in the trenches. But news of the Great War lapped up on the gentle shores of Oxford, an island out of time. The pages of the Eagle often referred to major battles, and Billy and his brothers would get together in their bedrooms at night, spreading out maps of Europe, tracking battle lines. They looked especially to the Memphis newspapers for detailed coverage of the war. With their interest in aviation, stimulated by a sense of heroics and a love of speed, the Falkner boys trained the eye of their imaginations on the blue skies over France and Belgium, reciting the names of legendary aces: Ball, Immelman, Boelcke, Guynemer, Lambert, Luke, Rickenbacker, and Bishop. “I was waiting, biding, until I would be old enough or free enough or anyway could get to France and become glorious and beribboned too,” Faulkner later remembered.12
Billy worked away at the bank, focusing not on the business of the bank but on his own poetry and fiction. He courted Estelle (who left Mary Baldwin College in 1915 and returned to Oxford as a “special student” at Ole Miss) with a rather blithe confidence in their shared destiny, taking her to the town square for ice cream sodas and to dances and parties at the university. He also befriended a number of college students, including Ben Wasson, a sixteen-year-old freshman from Greenville, Mississippi, whose feminine beauty (silky blond hair, ice-blue eyes, and fragile build) caught Billy’s attention. Just before Faulkner’s death in 1962, Wasson recalled Faulkner as a “small, slight fellow” who wore “a pair of baggy, gray flannel trousers, a rather shabby tweed jacket and heavy brown brogans.” His eyes were “very brown and somewhat almond-shaped and very penetrating. His nose was quite aquiline.” Billy had A Shropshire Lad by A. E. Housman in his pocket, and he recited some verse to the younger man, who was duly impressed. “I had never known anyone who loved poetry enough to be so bold as to quote it.”13 Billy absorbed Wasson into his small circle, introducing him to Phil Stone and Estelle. He savored playing the role of literary mentor to Wasson in the way Phil Stone played this role for him, and spent long evenings in Wasson’s second-floor room in the Lyceum, a dormitory built in the Greek-revival style popular on college campuses throughout the country. These young literary men shared their dreams as well as their poems, written in the manner of Keats, Swinburne, and Housman.
While Billy Falkner’s life proceeded without obvious hardship, he was nevertheless aware of the violence abroad—the ghastly, almost unimaginable toll of the Great War, in which Britain alone racked up on average seven thousand dead or wounded each day—and the racial tensions that had risen in the South to frenzied heights in the second decade of the twentieth century, with lynchings now a commonplace activity. One local crime caught Faulkner’s attention: a teenage girl was found in the woods outside of Memphis near the Wolf River. Her supposed killer, a black man called Eell C. Persons, was dragged to that very spot by an angry mob of five thousand only two weeks later. Without benefit of trial, he was burned at the stake as the mother of the victim begged the crowd to make Persons suffer ten times more than her daughter had suffered. The crowd, which included women and children, cheered as Persons writhed in anguish; when his body fell limp, a man rushed forward and cut out Persons’s heart. Then his ears were hacked off, followed by the whole head. (A full account of this mob execution appears in the Eagle, May 24, 1917.) There is, of course, no way of knowing if indeed Persons was guilty, though the evidence in these cases was rarely based on more than hearsay. (The Persons case would prompt “Dry September,” a story Faulkner sold to Scribner’s in 1932.)
In later life, Faulkner—an important but controversial spokesman for the South—would find himself embroiled in the “Negro question,” as it was called. He generally sided with those who favored integration and justice for black people, and often seemed like a raging liberal to his fellow Southerners. “Faulkner stood out dramatically at the time,” recalled Robert Penn Warren. “He was on his own, quite often, but never looked sideways or behind him. His was a courageous model. At the beginning of the Civil Rights movement, in the 1950’s, he held his opinions firmly and could not be swayed by those around him.”14 Even in 1917, Billy Falkner was a maverick, ready to give blacks the benefit of the doubt when many of those around him remained frankly racist.
What came as perhaps the first major blow to Billy Falkner occurred when Estelle, at nineteen, accepted a proposal of marriage from an Ole Miss law graduate named Cornell Franklin, who was seven years her senior. The marriage had been, in effect, arranged by Estelle’s and Cornell’s mothers, who were old friends. Billy was, according to Johncy, “devasted,” having always assumed that Estelle would marry him. Why else had she consented to wear a ring that he had given her with an F carved in gold? He could not understand her disloyalty, her independence, in choosing another person for her mate. The Oldhams, of course, had pressed the case for Franklin, a compact, dark-eyed, handsome young man. At twenty-seven, he had recently been commissioned as a major in the Hawaiian Territorial Forces in Honolulu, Hawaii.15 He was a young man rising in the world, a man with prospects.
Estelle was highly confused about all of this. Having already accepted a ring from Franklin, she suggested that she and Billy could still elope. His strong sense of decorum, however, played against this option. He always insisted that Estelle’s father, Lemuel, offer his consent to their marriage; he wanted a very public marriage, since the Oldhams were a distinguished local family and the wedding would signal a coup for the Falkners, who had been slipping in status for some years. It would also represent a coup for Billy himself, who had been largely ignored in Oxford, considered a shy, strange, almost unsocial young man. As it turned out, Lemuel found young Billy wholly inappropriate for his daughter. The boy had dropped out of school and drifted from inconsequential job to inconsequential job (the position at the bank had proved intolerable, both for Billy and his grandfather); he was also known to drink heavily, write verse, and waste large amounts of time on the local golf courses. Even worse, his opinions about a whole range of matters were out of line. Cornell Franklin, on the other hand, seemed a perfect match.
The sudden dissolution of Billy’s dreams of marital bliss hit him hard; he was devastated and demoralized, as his brother John noted in his memoir. He did not attend Estelle’s wedding, as was falsely reported in the Eagle. It was, by every account, a lavish affair, as befit the daughter of a well-known local family. (By all the accounts, the Oldhams were snobbish and stiffly formal. Their house on South Street was known for its two grand pianos—an unusual feature.) The bridesmaids wore pink georgette crepe and carried roses; the groom himself was decked out splendidly in his uniform: full dress whites, with gold braids on his shoulders. A ceremonial sword swung from his black leather belt. Faulkner’s brother, Johncy, was only sixteen but he chauffeured the couple to the Oldhams’ large house, which was bedecked in ribbons of pink, white, and green.
The pain of this marriage was so deep that it would reverberate throughout Faulkner’s life, coloring his future relationship with Estelle, whom he eventually did marry—but not for a long while, after she divorced Franklin (with whom she had two children, Melvina and Malcolm) in 1929. Whatever fragile craft of self Billy Falkner had constructed was now in dangerous water, ready to be swamped. He withdrew into himself even further, taking long walks in the woods and drinking heavily in the evenings, alone in his room; his deep silences attracted the anxious attention of friends and family, who saw that something had gone very wrong.
He occupied himself with writing poetry (unrequited love was a fine theme for a young writer) and drawing, contributing rather sophisticated sketches in the manner of Aubrey Beardsley to Ole Miss, the university yearbook. He knew that, given the situation with Estelle, he must leave town as soon as possible. His first notion was to gain a commission in the U.S. military, as the nation had now entered the war on the side of Britain, but his small size and age—he was not yet twenty-one—worked against him. An alternative was to visit Phil Stone in New Haven, Connecticut, where he might see Yale and learn something about the North. He was driven to the train station by his mother and two brothers in Murry’s Model T in early April of 1918.
Rumors of War
Who sprang to be his land’s defense
And has been sorry ever since?
—FAULKNER, Soldiers’ Pay
“He’s a fine, intelligent little fellow, and I am sure he will amount to something,” wrote Phil Stone to his parents on the arrival of Billy Falkner in New Haven, Connecticut, a congested industrial town of 160,000.16 Stone had a suite of rooms on the top floor of a canary yellow, three-story clapboard rooming house at 120 York Street, near Yale, run by two unmarried sisters, who provided breakfast and occasional dinners for the college boys under their surveillance. While Stone attended classes at the law school, his friend surveyed the city by foot, often stopping in coffee shops to write or read. William Butler Yeats was all the rage among Yale students, and Falkner shared their enthusiasm, attracted by Yeats’s sonorous lines and nostalgic visions of lost love: all very fin de siècle. To earn a little money, he got a job as a filing clerk in the office at the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, which had suddenly come to life with America’s entry into the war. On his job application he spelled his name with a u for the first time. From now on he was William Faulkner—a slight modification that initiates a period of explosive self-fashioning.
The flavor of Faulkner’s jaunty mood permeates his correspondence with Maud, as on April 5, when he wrote: “I am to start work the tenth and I think I shall like it here if it were not for wanting to come home and bother you to death and have you make tea for me and then decide not to drink it. New Haven is about the size of Memphis, but has only two play houses and very few movie places. I went to the Taft, the leading hotel, to have a look at it, this morning. It is not far from my room and from the window I can see three or four Yale men going down the street, with a tin bucket, to get beer at the Taft or the Bishop. And its funny, they all drink, even the faculty members drink with them, but no body ever gets drunk. Every once in a while three or four pass with a tin bucket, then back they come with the pail under an arm, smoking their pipes.”17 Already one begins, faintly, to hear the familiar cadence of his prose, the stream-of-conscious construction, with jerry-rigged sentences notable for their skewed syntax and grammar. One also senses that Faulkner views the English language as his personal property, which he is free to alter as he pleases.
A naive excitement runs through his letters. “Phil and I took a walk this afternoon, out to East Haven,” he wrote to his parents on April 7, “and saw the harbor and the ships on the Sound. It was just clear enough to see Long Island, like a pale blue strip of paint on a sheet of glass. We could see the ships going down to New York and the tiny power-and sail-boats darting about like water bugs. The sea is the most wonderful thing I’ve seen yet.”18 He also spent a good deal of time among Yale students, watching them play lacrosse and row. (He attended the Yale-Harvard boat race in May, riding in the observation deck of a train that followed the boats along the Housatonic.) Some evenings, he would sit alone in the university library, simply observing the students at work, seeing what books they carried, sometimes making sketches in his notebook or writing fragments of poetry.
He made friends among Stone’s wide circle, which often gathered in a loft at the Brick Row Print and Book Shop on High Street. This group included a young poet, Stephen Vincent Benét, not even nineteen at the time, and Robert Hillyer, a slightly older poet who had already been to the war. Both would soon become important figures in contemporary poetry. He also met other veterans, such as Nicholas Llewellyn, who “was in the boche army eight months, at Rheimes, and was wounded in the Channel fighting at the first battle of Ypres.”19 Tales of heroism abroad told by these ex-soldiers inspired Stone and Faulkner with fantasies of covering themselves in glory.
In late May, Faulkner’s brother Jack enlisted in the Marine Corps, stirring the sense of rivalry always latent between these two. One Canadian officer whom Faulkner and Stone met at a party suggested that they should attempt to join the newly organized Royal Air Force (formerly the Royal Flying Corps), which had begun recruiting pilots for one of twenty air squadrons being formed in Canada. Of course, American citizens were not eligible, but Faulkner saw no reason he and Stone could not pass themselves off as Englishmen; they began to practice speaking with an English accent under the tutelage of a British friend. Elaborate and amusing deceptions were perpetrated, including the creation of a fake portfolio of letters from an invented English clergyman, the Reverend Mr. Edward Twimberly-Thorndyke, who wrote that Stone and Faulkner were “god-fearing young Christian gentlemen.” It was all good fun.
Faulkner was far more serious about enlisting than Stone, whose law studies preoccupied him. By early June, he had made contact with the British consulate in New York, wangling an invitation to come for an interview. He made it sound like a done deal when he wrote to his parents on June 7: “It’s the chance I’ve been waiting for now. Every thing will come my way, I can almost have my pick of anything. I’ll be in at the wind up of the show. The chances of advancement in the English Army are very good; I’ll perhaps be a major at the end of a year’s serve. I’ve thought about it constantly. This chance will not last.”20 He went to New York City on June 14, visiting the offices of Lord Wellesley, presenting himself as an Englishman abroad who only wished to serve his country. Faulkner’s resumé must have raised eyebrows, but by this time in the war, the British were asking few hard questions of potential recruits. If you looked reasonably fit for duty, you were acceptable, and Faulkner was told to report to a training base in Toronto in just over three weeks. Elated, he returned to New Haven to collect his few belongings and resign from the job at the rifle company. He had just enough time to return to Oxford to say good-bye to his family and friends—a little piece of drama he played to the hilt. The Eagle proudly reported that Billy Falkner had “joined the English Royal Flying Corps and leaves on the 8th of July for Toronto, Canada, where he will train.”
His mother drove him to Memphis this time, just the two of them, and their parting was emotional, with the usually stoic Miss Maud full of tears, shaky, betraying her deep emotional attachment to her son. Everyone knew that a fighter pilot’s lifespan might well be brief in the flimsy biwinged planes of that era. The Curtiss Jenny in which Billy would train was made of thin fabric stretched over light wood. Other planes, such as the famous Sopwith Camel or the highly respected Nieuport, were no less fragile in a combat situation, where the stresses (on the pilot as well as the aircraft) were considerable. Maud Falkner must have thought she might never see her firstborn son again.
Arriving in Toronto, Billy made his way at once to the Jesse Ketchum School, which the RAF had taken over as their training post. His fiction-making gathered steam now. Within seconds of arrival, his English accent deepened, and he claimed to all that he’d been born in the town of Finchley, in Middlesex, England. A student by profession, he said that his mother (whose name also now contained a u) currently lived in Oxford, Mississippi. This would explain the address on his trunk. His father seems to have disappeared altogether from his life narrative, much as Murry had in fact (emotionally) evaporated. William Faulkner was, as he declared and anyone could see, a healthy young man of five and a half feet, 125 pounds. He had hazel eyes and dark brown hair. A faint adolescent mustache darkened the area above his lips, a hint of manhood in potentia.
The RAF accepted him at face value, bestowing upon this raw recruit the rank of Private II, Cadet for Pilot. Like the other recruits, he was issued a plain woolen uniform, a gray wool greatcoat, and a white-banded overseas cap that identified him as a pilot in training. The young cadet walked on a cloud now, delighting in the uniform, which proclaimed his elevated status to the world. This was just the first of many important occasions when he took pleasure in a particular uniform or mask, disguise, role, or persona. Each of these masks allowed him the chance to let his voice sound through the mask, giving it shape and substance, an angle of vision. (Note the root meaning of the word persona, or mask: a voice sounding through the mask. Faulkner became a master of this technique, putting on the masks of his characters, speaking through their faces, in their voices.)
Faulkner (having permanently deep-sixed Falkner) would spend a few weeks at the Ketchum School, learning the fundamentals of drill, before moving on to a training camp at Long Branch, west of Toronto, where he would be put through a few months of rigorous training, though he never got much time in any aircraft. It was mostly drilling, marching, learning military regulations and traditions, navigation, memorizing the parts of an airplane and the elements of aerodynamics. These raw recruits could not begin flying lessons until they had finished their course at the School of Military Aeronautics, situated at Wycliffe College, part of the University of Toronto.
Billy wrote home to his mother and his brothers a lot. He amplified and exaggerated his activities, making up stories designed to entertain his readers and enhance his profile within the family. On July 9, he wrote to Maud, with his tongue hesitantly in his cheek, as follows:
Yesterday, when I got my passport and transportation from Lieut. Col. Lord Wellesley, he said—There are two kinds of pilots—officer-pilots and sergeant-pilots, and if you faint in the revolving chair test, you will be made a gunner-observer instead of pilot. Do you agree to go under these conditions? I said—Yes—taking off one who is really keen, you know—so he put me in Class “A.”
I didn’t know what this meant, so I asked the sergeant. He tells me that it means that I am recommended by the Royal Air Force, for a commission as lieutenant-pilot. So all I must do is to keep from fainting in the chair test. I have no intention of fainting, however.21
His gift for fantasy—and humor—is evident, as when he writes that the Canadian flag “has a maple leaf in it—a live leaf, and when it begins to turn crimson it is very pretty.”22 Some of his letters home make him seem a lot tougher than he was. In one, for example, he told Jack that he had tossed a fat, unpleasant sergeant (whom his comrades despised) into Lake Ontario, having first wrapped the man in a blanket. Faulkner’s size and natural passivity (he tended to look on, not participate in, such scenes) make such an act of violence seem unlikely.
Among his comrades, he spread stories about his grand life among the English gentility, claiming to have spent a lot of time fox hunting with various lords and ladies. (Interestingly, he would spend a great deal of time hunting foxes during his last years in Virginia, when he became fairly obsessed by the sport.) He boasted of having been educated at a fine boarding school, as well as at Yale, and he regaled his mates with tales of the Harvard-Yale boat race and eccentric school traditions. It was all a brilliant performance, and Faulkner for the first time came to understand that most of the people can be fooled most of the time, if one presents a plausible fiction. Indeed, his education in fiction-making deepened in Toronto as he fashioned a self that might confront the world with honor and dignity. Of course he was bragging, inventing, distorting. But he was also carving masks for himself, taking the act of self-creation quite a few steps further than is usual for young men.
Always a lover of exotic dress, he leaped at this opportunity to equip himself thoroughly as a cadet. “They require us to buy a pair of nice shoes for walking out—when we are given our uniform—the new ones—and a cane with a silver handle. Very foolish and very British, however,” he explained, unconvincingly, to his mother on July 16.23 It’s quite amazing to see how preoccupied he could be with what he wore, as on July 31, when he wrote home: “They make us wear our summer kits with frost every morning, and I’ve been wearing my issue sweater under my shirt—we are not allowed to wear it on top, or our tunic either—because it doesn’t scratch as much as the underclothes they issue us. But you can imagine how a sweater would feel next to your skin, so you know how good the soft one feels.”24
With his interest in fine detail, Faulkner kept explicit notes in class and made elaborate sketches of aircraft. Always an avid student of the world’s surfaces, his fiction would later reflect this passion for detail. His knowledge of the flora and fauna of Lafayette County was immense, as a glance at his fiction shows; he also studied human shapes and forms, and the range of characters he created is perhaps equaled only by Charles Dickens and Balzac, both of whom served him as models in different ways: Dickens as the caricaturist of human personalities, Balzac as the great anthologist of social types. So, in Toronto, he studied the young men around him, sketching friends and officers. He wrote a good deal of poetry, too, such as “The Ace” (1918), a fragment in which he idealizes (almost to the point of parody) an ace airman, visualized in heroic terms: “The sun light / Paints him as he stalks, huge through the morning / In his fleece and leather, gilds his bright / Hair and his cigarette.”
By mid-September, he was deeply into his training. “The longer I am here, the better I like it,” he wrote to his mother.25 “No more rifle drills and fatigue parties now. We are at lectures all day, wireless classes and theory of flight and airplane construction and it is very interesting.” A few days later he was learning to “crank an aero motor by swinging the propeller.” He found it a little terrifying, how the engine would suddenly start with a roar, the propeller whirling only a few feet away from his face. The letters reveal his growing fascination with flight and his anxiety about whether or not he would get picked to go overseas. Meanwhile, the entire School of Aeronautics was, like Toronto itself, under quarantine because of the Spanish flu epidemic, which had ravaged North America throughout the summer and fall.
He poured out letters to his mother every day, filling her in on the domestic details of his life. They were so detailed that, at one point, Faulkner seemed embarrassed by his novelistic approach: “Already sounds like an Elynor Glyn [sic] story where the heroine sits in her boudoir, gazing at her reflection in the mirror and pulls off 5,734 words of introspection—you know. One of these subdued mahogany and ivory stories with his grace kissing the upper parlor maid in the butler’s pantry.”26 What this reveals is Faulkner’s attitude toward popular fiction, his disdain for (and, oddly enough, his fascination with) writers like Elinor Glyn (1861—1943), a widely read English novelist of the day, whose mildly disreputable novels, such as The Vicissitudes of Evangeline (1905) and Three Weeks (1907), sold in large numbers throughout the English-speaking world. Faulkner’s own fiction would, in due course, flirt with melodrama and romance, but always with an eye to refreshing the conventions, even to turning them on their head.
Like any young man away from home, Faulkner had bouts of severe nostalgia for his hometown and family. By late October, still quarantined, he wrote to his mother that he never dreamed “the time would come to see Jack in France and me flying in Canada—both of us bent on attending a party that the host himself doesn’t even want any more. Still, when it’s all over and Jack and I are back again and we are sitting around the table at night, we’ll go back about ten years and start living there, for even though we are both objective kids now, I can—and Jackie too—realize that home is greater than war, or lightning or marriage or any other unavoidable thing.”27 One shivers, slightly, seeing the word marriage plopped into this context, although Faulkner’s eventual marriage to Estelle would, indeed, have much in common with war and lightning.
Faulkner often suggested in letters home that he was “flying” in Canada. He was not flying, certainly not as a pilot. He may well have learned to start an airplane engine with his bare hands—not a big deal—and flown with other pilots. But when Armistice was declared on November 11, 1918, the military show ended abruptly, with “the British army actively dismantling all military units in Canada.”28 Certainly there would be no money to waste on airplane fuel. But Faulkner insisted that he had continued to fly, that he had soloed, and could now “get a pilot’s license.”29 There was no reality to this assertion. What is real, however, is Faulkner’s profound desire to fly, to get to the front, to participate in life as a man of action. He wanted, like so many other young men of his generation, a sense of achievement in battle, a feeling of pride in heroic action.
While Faulkner was sitting in Canada, fantasizing about battle heroics, his brother Jack waded through the trenches along the western front, taking shots at German soldiers through a haze of smoke. In the Argonne, his platoon came under a hail of German mortar fire, and Jack was severely wounded, his kneecap having been split open and shrapnel lodged in the back of his skull. There was general panic in the Falkner clan as letters home from Jack ceased to arrive. Murry Falkner, who feared that his favorite son had been lost in battle, nearly collapsed of anxiety. He sat drunk for days in the living room of the house on South Street, the shades drawn.
It isn’t difficult to imagine the complex feelings that would have coursed through Faulkner, who loved his brother and feared the worst, but who also felt jealous that all the glory had gone to a younger sibling. Nothing of this resentment found its way into his letters, but his chief reaction was to create a fiction for himself, one that would enhance his own profile within the family. He wrote to his parents on November 24:
They are saying now that we will be out this week, so I am wiring tomorrow for railroad fare home. You dont know how good it makes me feel to know that I’ll be on my way home soon, perhaps this coming week. I am rather disappointed in the Royal Flying Corps, that is, in the way they have treated us, however. I have got my four hours solo to show for it, but they wont give us pilot’s certificates even. Nothing but discharges as second airmen. It’s a shame. Even the chaps who have their commissions and are almost through flying are being discharged the same way. I am too glad to be on my way at last, to let things like that worry me. They might at least have let me have another hour solo flying, so I could have joined the Royal Aero Club and gotten a pilot’s certificate. As it is, I have nothing to show for my six months except my 18 pounds I’ve gained.30
A few months later, he built upon the fiction that, by now, had seized him with the vividness of actual events: “The war quit on us before we could do anything about it. The same day, they lined up the whole class, thanked us warmly for whatever it was they figured we had done to deserve it, and announced that we would be discharged the next day, which meant that we had the afternoon to celebrate the Armistice and some planes to use in doing it. I took up a rotary-motored Spad with a crock of bourbon in the cockpit, gave diligent attention to both, and executed some reasonably adroit chandelles, an Immelman or two, and part of what could easily have turned out to be a nearly perfect loop.” A hangar intervened, breaking the loop, and Faulkner had to climb down from the rafter in which he’d been left hanging.31
This testosterone-drenched tale sounds improbable, but apparently the story found believers among the Falkner family, and it was one of those tales that Faulkner refused, in later years, to abandon. Indeed, he would retell it to younger members of his family by way of explaining the crook in his nose, and a version would appear in a story, “Landing in Luck.” He also managed to acquire, in the wake of this magnificent non-incident, a pronounced limp, which would stay with him for years to come. Fiction—at least in Faulkner’s possession—had a way of becoming reality.
Donald Mahon’s homecoming, poor fellow, was hardly a nine days’ wonder.
—FAULKNER, Soldiers’ Pay
The train arrived in Memphis bearing William Faulkner “in his British officer’s uniform—slacks, a Sam Browne belt, and wings on his tunic,” Johncy Falkner recalled. “He had on what we called an overseas cap, a monkey cap that was only issued to our men if they had served overseas. A part of the British uniform was a swagger stick and Bill had one, and across his arm a trench coat.”32 (Meanwhile, in Chicago’s elegant suburb Oak Park, Ernest Hemingway arrived home from the war in Europe with a self-manufactured uniform with a flowing cape, wearing leather boots and a dashing cap. His stories about his military adventures in Italy, with a faction of the Italian army, were splendidly manufactured to win admirers. At least he had a genuine wound, acquired during his brief stint as an ambulance driver in France.) Faulkner’s brother also noticed a slight limp, which only grew more pronounced as the months elapsed. It was very good to have a wound, even if one had to manufacture one.
The mind boggles in contemplation of the young Faulkner, newly demobbed, having to compete with a brother who really was wounded and recuperating in a hospital on the French Riviera. (He would not arrive back in the United States until March 11, 1919, at which point he would spend more time in recovery at the U.S. Naval Hospital in Norfolk, Virginia.) Poor Bill was left having to create an anthology of nonwar stories to justify his extravagant, rather pompous, dress and manner. He had a high sense of himself as someone of importance, someone who had sacrificed a great deal, someone who mattered. That he was twenty-two and unemployed, still living like a schoolboy with his parents, still arriving at the dinner table each evening to sit with the whole family, didn’t bother him. (In a similar situation, Hemingway bolted, never to return to Oak Park as a resident.) Faulkner knew already that he, one day, would be a “great man” and that his view of himself was justified. He would not accept less than respect from those around him, and his parents were in no position to argue the matter.
His father’s fortunes had continued to slip while Bill was away—he had moved from “Billy” to “Bill” among friends, in deference to his status as a veteran of sorts—and Murry was soon thrown once again upon the largesse of his father, who in December arranged to have his son appointed as secretary of Ole Miss, a relatively high administrative position, for which he was obviously unqualified. He performed various office duties, working at the behest of the president of the university. In 1919, he was given a house on campus, to which he moved the entire family, including Bill. This position was, if nothing else, secure; it meant that Murry would no longer have to depend on the local free market economy for a living. It also meant that any lingering dreams of a cow-punching life on the Western plains were decisively dashed.
Bill himself refused to take an ordinary job, or any job. Instead, he worked on his poetry, read books, and visited Phil Stone and the Stone family in the evenings. He also cultivated a new group of friends in the nearby town of Clarksdale, in the Delta, where he met (though Phil Stone) Eula Dorothy Wilcox, a beautician, and her disreputable friend, Reno DeVaux. The latter was a southern “character” in the grand style: a thick-necked man with jet black wavy hair and black-brown eyes, who often wore brocaded jackets and ran a bar called Reno’s Place. Not surprisingly, he was a heavy drinker and avid gambler who attracted a motley gang of bottom-feeders, con men, and boozy women out for a “good time.” The contrast with Oxford society of the sort that Faulkner had fallen into by birth was extreme, and Faulkner loved it.
Faulkner was taken to New Orleans by Reno, who introduced him to a life he had only heard about before. Even more in 1919 than now, New Orleans was a dazzling place, full of bars and flophouses, whores, bums, and gangsters. Faulkner loved everything he saw and drank heavily—especially when he could put the drinks on his friend’s tab. Reno DeVaux apparently liked Faulkner’s company and was willing, even eager, to introduce his young sidekick to the wild side. Faulkner got into some scrape with the police at the Roosevelt Hotel, where he and Reno stayed; this scrape moved quickly into the imagination’s hopper, transmogrified by alcohol into one more example of Faulkner’s derring-do. For the rest of his life, New Orleans would remain an alluring place for Faulkner. In due course, he would meet Sherwood Anderson, the novelist and short story writer, in that steamy, gilded city, forging a friendship that would massively influence the shape of his early career.
In the year following his return from Toronto, Faulkner wrote very little, though a few poems survive from this period, including an adaptation of Stéphane Mallarmé’s “L’Après-Midi d’un Faune,” which appeared in the New Republic on August 6, 1919—the young writer’s first real publication. He spent weeks at a time away from home, in Clarksdale or New Orleans or Memphis. But mostly he sat at home in Oxford, reading and dreaming, socializing with his family and friends, playing golf at the university, and generally making himself a nuisance. He called on the Oldhams whenever he could, eager to have news of Estelle, who now lived like a princess-bride in Hawaii, with four servants tending to her needs. She also had a nanny to help with her newborn child, Melvina Victoria, called Cho-Cho or, more formally, Victoria. That Faulkner pined for Estelle is both puzzling and touching. She had treated him very badly, and there had never been much between them, sexually or intellectually. But she represented something for him: an ideal of womanhood, as well as a rung on the social ladder that he could not quite reach. He could hardly bear to talk about her.
Murry had by now given up on Bill, whose interests were so deeply at odds with his own. Their conversations were kept to a polite minimum, though Murry would occasionally get drunk and suggest that his son might begin to think about employment possibilities. Maud, however, defended Bill against all aspersions. She lavished attention on him, making sure that his clothes were always pressed and ready, that he was well-fed and equipped with spending money. Yet she also wished he would attempt to make some reentry into the system. When it was announced that Ole Miss would accept returning veterans as “special students,” even though they might not have the usual school qualifications for entry, she encouraged him to give it a whirl.
Faulkner resisted at first, then changed his mind as the fall semester approached. He may well have been a little bored, too, and felt a lack of traction in his life. In any case, after a summer of exceptional laziness, which included a lot of drinking at Reno’s Place in Clarksdale and rowdy games of poker in Memphis, he enrolled at the university on September 19, 1919. As a special student, Faulkner could—if he chose—take courses toward a degree, but he seems never to have had such a thing in mind. Only literature and languages held his interest, so he signed up for courses in English, French, and Spanish. (French, in particular, would come in handy in later years, when he spent a certain amount of time in Paris.) At first, he made a decent show of real studiousness.
Everyone noticed Faulkner’s powers of concentration. At home, he would stand at the fireplace, reading, while his brothers argued loudly about some domestic matter; he had a book on the table at breakfast and could ignore the clatter of dishes and the casual talk around him. He seemed, as Maud often suggested, lost in thought, and the citizens of Oxford remarked that he would pass them on the street and seem not even to see them. This was taken for rudeness and arrogance, which may have been partially the case, although it seems more likely that Faulkner was simply shy—a predominant trait of his adult personality, which he often compensated for by acting brusque or dismissive. He was aloof by nature, as his fellow students at Oxford noticed. “We thought him queer,” said one classmate. “He spoke to no one unless directly addressed. He mingled not at all with his classmates.” Another student remembered a class on Othello in which the professor read a famous passage and asked, “Mr. Faulkner, what did Shakespeare have in mind when he put those words in the mouth of Othello?” Faulkner responded: “How should I know? That was nearly four hundred years ago, and I wasn’t there?”33
It was noticed by other students that Faulkner never took quizzes in French and Spanish class, and he never appeared for examinations of any kind. Nevertheless, the professors passed him, perhaps out of deference to his father, an administrative officer at the university, or because his grandfather and great-grandfather had been prominent Mississippians. Adding insult to injury, Faulkner turned his nose up at some of his classmates, who mockingly called him “the Count.” He was often now referred to as “Count No ’Count” by people in Oxford, who imagined he would never amount to anything, despite his airs. How Faulkner felt about these assaults on his character remains unknown, though he certainly brushed aside any efforts to change his behavior. “I think that stubbornness was his main trait,” Johncy later said. “You couldn’t sway him, once he had an idea.”
Faulkner wrote poems sporadically; he also continued to make stylized drawings for the yearbook. He was little known, even among his classmates, but could cling to one genuine success—that adaptation of Mallarmé, which had appeared in a national magazine. He considered the cache of unpublished gems in his notebooks a kind of secret hoard that would, eventually, secure his reputation. He would show poems to a few friends, but his chief mentor was still Phil Stone, who assured him that his talent was large. “Bill had remarkable confidence in himself, in his work,” Stone later remarked. One short poem, “Cathay,” composed in the manner of Shelley’s “Ozymandias,” was taken by the Mississippian and published in November. A meditation on power, it was addressed to an ancient king:
…Where once thy splendors rose,
And cast their banners bright against the sky,
Now go the empty years infinitely
Rich with thy ghosts. So is it: who sows
The seed of Fame, makes the grain for Death to reap.
Though hardly original or impressive as poetry, there was an undeniable linguistic talent here, a sense of rhythm and language, with that adroit enjambment in the fourth line, where the cadence falls heavily on “Rich with thy ghosts.” As with his later prose, the attention to rhetoric and sound stands out.
On November 26, the Mississippian printed a Faulkner story, “Landing in Luck.” It was his first prose publication, focused on a cadet pilot’s solo flight. The young man in the story, Cadet Thompson, is generic, without real depth. A blimpish instructor, Mr. Bessing, sends the rookie pilot away to make his first solo without sufficient instruction; when the cadet manages a lucky landing, the instructor credits him with more skill than he possesses, thus congratulating himself more than the cadet. This is, obviously, a story about a young man’s false sense of accomplishment, his feeling that the world sees more in him than he actually possesses. One must assume that Faulkner himself, in getting published and attending a university, living off a counterfeit reputation for bravery and heroism, felt lucky in his own safe “landing” in life. What is most interesting, perhaps, is that Faulkner’s inner doubt, his fear of failure, becomes writable.
That same issue of the Mississippian contained a Faulkner poem, “Sapphics,” which is more or less plagiarized from Swinburne. Once again, the young man was presenting himself in ways he could not really own. In effect, he was flying in someone else’s airplane, looking desperately for a place to land. Two weeks later, another poem followed in the same magazine: “After Fifty Years.” William Faulkner was obviously serious about the work of writing, and he was going to push forward, despite self-doubt and the clear indifference, even scorn, of the world of fraternities and parties, social climbing, and college sports.
Fraternities were, in fact, outlawed at the university at this time, but several operated secretly. The secretness was part of their allure, and there was almost no way William Faulkner could not join the Gamma Chapter of Sigma Alpha Epsilon. It was a family tradition, and Faulkner’s grandfather often hosted secret meetings of the fraternity at the Big Place. Faulkner was, in due course, initiated, along with Jack. For Bill, “it wasn’t a breathtaking experience,” Jack suggested. It seems that Bill rarely attended SAE meetings and had little interest in their activities. He was, as ever, focused on his writing. Even the academic work failed to engage his attention, and he rarely appeared in class. He took his French classes more seriously, however, and read a good deal in Baudelaire, Arthur Rimbaud, Paul Valéry, and François Villon. The latter had been a favorite of Swinburne, whom Faulkner adored, and it seems likely that Faulkner’s interest in Villon started there.
The one big disaster from this period concerned the college literary society, which rejected Faulkner’s bid for membership. According to the student who put Faulkner up for membership, it was his own fault that he was rejected because he “put on airs.” “Count No ’Count” snubbed nearly everyone, considered himself a prodigy, and dressed in fine clothes beyond his means, sporting elegantly tailored jackets, often with leather patches at the elbow, colorful silk ties, and twill trousers of the kind typically found in England. Indeed, Faulkner had run up huge bills at Halle’s, the local store where gentlemen bought their clothing. (Maud Falkner had been forced, secretly, to sell some of her best jewelry to pay off her son’s exorbitant bills—a situation that created huge tensions in the family when it was discovered.)
The three courses in which Faulkner had enrolled—English, French, and Spanish—were meant to last a whole academic year, assuming that at the end of the first semester the student had made satisfactory progress. Even without taking exams, Faulkner had managed, somehow, to persuade his teachers that he was doing excellent work in both French and Spanish. The English course was, however, a disaster from the start, and Faulkner eventually dropped it. In the meantime, he had become the object of considerable ridicule in the student paper, where parodies of his work, and attacks on his pretensions, appeared in the spring semester. A popular athlete and debater on campus, Louis Jiggitts, took it upon himself to wage a campaign of ridicule in student publications against the Count, “whom only the Lord Almighty can address without fear,” as Jiggitts wrote in one column. Faulkner’s pretensions in dress, his arrogance of manner, and his European affectations in his poems combined to infuriate Jiggitts and others. Soon there were retaliatory letters to the editor from Faulkner supporters and, at last, from Faulkner himself, who wrote: “An anonymous squib in the last issue of your paper was brought to my notice as having a personal bearing. I could, with your forbearance, fill some space in endeavoring to bite the author with his own dog; but I shall content myself by asking him, through the columns of your paper, where did he learn English construction?”34
Murry now decided that the family house in town should be sold, since everyone was comfortable on campus; this windfall would augment his income as an administrator, but it must have been a small blow to Bill, who saw the fortunes of his family dwindling year by year. Making matters worse, his grandfather, the Young Colonel, once a figure of considerable power, had been squeezed out of his job as bank president by the board of directors. He had gracefully withdrawn to the Big Place to lick his wounds, but there was concern among his children and grandchildren. The great Falkner name hardly resonated in Mississippi as it once had.
Faulkner spent the hot summer of 1920 in his room at his parents’ new home on campus, reading and writing (F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise was the rage across America that summer, but Faulkner does not mention having read it). This was the summer that Woodrow Wilson lay dying in the White House as Warren G. Harding won the Republican nomination on the tenth ballot—events that meant little or nothing to Faulkner, whose mind was elsewhere. He spent long, hot afternoons on the golf course, where his game leaped forward. On weekends, he often went to visit friends in Memphis and elsewhere, but he seemed in a period of withdrawal and retreat. He had passed his courses in French and Spanish, winning a small prize for verse composition. But his academic career had obviously not progressed with any momentum. Looking for support and inspiration, Faulkner consulted various friends and family members about his studies, and there was general agreement that he should attempt to stick it out. He duly registered for the fall term of 1920, enrolling in a class in math on the assumption that it would help clarify his mind, which he believed had become foggy.
Over the summer, he had become friendly with a neighbor, Calvin Brown, an English professor. Brown had, in fact, been responsible for the small prize (with a monetary award of ten dollars) that Faulkner received at the end of the spring semester. He discerned talent in young Bill, and he agreed to sit with him and discuss his poems and stories. They spent long evenings on the professor’s porch, talking about literature, and Faulkner found these conversations encouraging and stimulating. He also enjoyed the company of the Brown children, Calvin and Robert. Calvin, who was only thirteen in 1920, later recalled what Faulkner was like at that time: “I have never known a man less capable of sham. Billy never pretended to be ‘one of us’—the difference in ages was too great to be overlooked. He accepted the leadership and authority that naturally fell to him, but he exercised them with a wisdom which was deeper than mere tact.”35 This suggests that Count No ’Count was, at last, finding his own center of gravity and that he had considerable reserves of sympathy.
When school began in September, the barrage of insults coming from Louis Jiggitts continued. In one note to the Mississippian, writing under the name of Hiram Hayseed, Jiggitts wrote: “Me and Blind Jim [a black man who hung about the campus and was regarded as a kind of mascot by the students], T. J. Tubb and Hannibal, Bill Falkner and Paul Rogers is all here now so school can comminct [sic] whenever it wants to.”36 Bill Faulkner was not, however, much engaged with academic matters or university life. “Billy seemed to be faltering, groping his way,” Professor Brown’s wife, Maud, remembered.37 He would sit on her porch and stare ahead, not even seeing those who walked by on the sidewalks and waved to him. He was given to taking long walks in the nearby countryside, and his attendance at classes grew sporadic.
His mind, in fact, was suddenly on the theater. “He was planning to write a play,” one student recalled. He began to read a lot of current plays and spoke with immense enthusiasm about George Bernard Shaw’s Candida. With a group of friends, including Ben Wasson and Lucy Sommerville, Faulkner helped organize a drama group, which dubbed itself the Marionettes. They immediately began rehearsing The Arrival of Kitty, a popular farce by Norman Lee Swartout. But this activity seems to have held Faulkner’s attention only briefly.
Frustrated by the world of the university, which felt to him small and pointless, Faulkner withdrew permanently in mid-November, hardly bothering to tell anyone. He had, for some weeks, been staying away from class and skipping meetings of the Marionettes. For several months now he had been working on some stories, and these seemed infinitely more real, more compelling, than academic life. The demands of his professors, his friends and family, seemed unreal. “He wasn’t much of a student,” Robert Penn Warren later said, “not a student of other people’s ideas. He had his own, and anything or anybody who got in their way was doomed to failure.”38