One Matchless Time: A Life of William Faulkner - Jay Parini (2005)
Chapter 3. Excursions and Extensions
Out in the World
Because this is my land. I can feel it, tremendous, still primeval, looming.
—FAULKNER, The Big Woods
One could often tell where Faulkner was, emotionally, by the state of his dress. Once he dropped out of college, he abandoned the elegant clothing that had cost his parents so much money (and embarrassment over unpaid bills); he suddenly favored old trousers with rips in them, baggy motheaten sweaters, and mismatched socks. He didn’t work so hard at trimming his mustache and shaved sporadically. He let his hair grow a little longer. He began to hit the whiskey bottle hard and would stagger home to the house on campus at hours that horrified Murry and Maud, who began to fear the worst for their son. His brother Jack said he was now “a disgrace to the family.”
Apart from his writing, Faulkner had nothing better to do than tag along behind Jack Stone, Phil’s brother, and Lem Oldham, as they attempted to collect on fees due to the Lamb-Fish Lumber Company, in which Oldham was a primary investor. Significant amounts of lumbering took place outside of Charleston, Mississippi, southwest of Oxford, in a wilderness area that had been suffering in the past decade from gradual deforestation at the hands of Lamb-Fish. Game had been driven from the formerly wild region, where General Stone still owned a hunting cabin. This was, perhaps, the first time Faulkner witnessed the destruction of the wilderness on a large scale and properly came to understand the effects of this activity. His reaction to these dwindling resources was profound, according to his brother, and this sentiment would inform his fiction in the coming years. His great subject would become the loss of fidelity to the land and the subsequent decline of coherence in society. Creeping materialism and industrialism undermined the old agrarian world, where the classes worked in unison and harmony (a theoretical realm that probably never really existed), and Faulkner would trace the effects of this decline and dissolution in the lives of his characters.
The peculiarly intense and sometimes awkward relationship with Phil Stone continued through the winter of 1921. The two young men made regular visits to Memphis, plunging into the underworld of seedy bars and brothels, especially those along the infamous Mulberry and Gayoso Streets, the latter named after a Spanish governor. The details of these exploits remain shadowy, though Faulkner would sometimes brag about his visits to brothels. What he tended to tell everyone was “that he sat downstairs and drank while the others went upstairs with the girls,” says Noel Polk.1 Yet his self-image as a southern gentleman included a rakish side, and it was good for his reputation among his male friends to be seen as someone familiar with the brothels of Memphis, and there seems no reason to doubt that his familiarity with prostitution deepened at this time.
Few outward signs of ambition cropped up, though Faulkner was still writing. Improbably, he considered writing his main occupation, even without the prospect of remuneration. Poems, stories, and sketches accumulated in his journal, though he made few attempts at publication. For income, the young man looked to his parents, who randomly offered handouts. Phil Stone slipped him pocket money, and the flamboyant gambler, Reno DeVaux, who lived over in Clarksdale, continued to help, taking Faulkner once again on trips to New Orleans and Memphis. Faulkner seemed to have acquired a gift for attracting supporters willing to empty their pockets on his behalf—a trait that continued to the very end, when he asked a Virginia friend for money to buy a farm in the horse country outside Charlottesville.
Among his genuine accomplishments of 1921 was Vision in Spring, a volume of poems that he gathered and typed and bound himself for Estelle, who was coming to visit her parents from Hawaii with her little daughter, Victoria, or Cho-Cho. Faulkner’s interests in art and book production were evident in the elegant manuscript, typed in blue ink on sumptuous paper, with the title hand-lettered in India ink on a sheet of linen paper. The spine had been vellum bound, and the whole contained eighty-eight pages of verse. The theme of the poems was largely that of lost love, so it was appropriately fashioned as a gift for Estelle. “Was my heart, my ancient heart that broke,” he wrote plaintively in “L’Après-Midi d’un Faune,” a poem that seems an extension of the six-page title poem.
A poem called “Interlude” follows, with echoes of Eliot and Paul Verlaine. Eliot in particular seems vividly present, although in 1921 Eliot’s work was hardly known in the United States. Phil Stone’s influence can be seen here, as Stone had returned from New Haven carrying a satchel filled with books of poetry: Eliot’s first collection, some work by Conrad Aiken, Trumbull Stickney, Amy Lowell, Housman, Yeats, Rudyard Kipling, and others. Echoes of Eliot abound in the long poem called “The World of Pierrot: A Nocturne,” which lives at the center of this collection. In fact, the opening lines of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” are scarcely digested by Faulkner in his opening lines:
Now that the city grows black and chill and empty,—
Who am I, thinks Pierrot, who am I
To stretch my soul out rigid across the sky?
Who am I to chip the silence with footsteps,
Then see the silence fill my steps again?
The character of Pierrot, the clown, is fascinating. In using Pierrot as a speaker, Faulkner pulls away from his own center, in part because “the poet’s voice, Pierrot, resists his author’s novelistic vision, creating a strange, uneasy tension as Pierrot, the would-be poet, vies with his inventor’s nascent novelistic intentions,” as Judith L. Sensibar writes in The Origins of Faulkner’s Art, an important book that demonstrates quite vividly how Faulkner’s early work as a poet set the stage for his later fiction, how “the impostor of the poetry becomes the artist of the fiction.”2
The 131-line poem “Love Song” seems, in a similar vein, to reproduce the tone and verbal mannerisms of Eliot’s poem, as in:
Shall I walk, then, through a corridor of profundities
Carefully erect (I am taller than I look)
To a certain door—and shall I dare
To open it? I smooth my mental hair
With an oft changed phrase that I revise again
Until I have forgotten what it was at first;
Settle my tie with: I have brought a book,
Then seat myself with: We have passed the worst.
The interesting point here is not that Faulkner, who had written a good deal of bad poetry by now, should imitate a powerful contemporary; the point is that Faulkner had an obvious verbal gift, and this included a gift for mimicry. This talent would serve him well in the years of writing that lay before him. There is also evidence in Vision in Spring of his close reading of the French symbolistes. His poems, like theirs, occupy a doom-laden interior world. There is much superficial movement: figures in a haze of running, walking, dancing. The speaker often pauses on the brink of some revelation, in anticipation of a breakthrough, a miraculous change for the better. The work, like that of many young poets, is suffused with unrequited longing for a dreamlike, unspecified object of affection. Estelle herself was, in fact, the literal reality behind this figuration.
In addition to Phil Stone, Faulkner was encouraged in his writing of poetry by Stark Young. Although they had met earlier, Young now took special interest in the young man’s poems, praising them unreservedly for the way “they strove for great intensity of feeling.”3 He considered Faulkner someone “who would bear watching” and lavished a quiet but flattering attention on the beginning poet. His interest was also, perhaps, a sign of sexual attraction: he relished the company of younger males, especially those with an artistic bent, like Faulkner, who either had no explicit knowledge of Young’s sexual inclinations or didn’t much care. In Faulkner’s case, it was likely the latter. Young offered to help Faulkner establish himself in New York, where he had an apartment, and Faulkner—after the briefest deliberation—decided to take him up. He set out from Memphis once again, aiming for Greenwich Village, which his character Gavin Stevens later described as “a place with a few unimportant boundaries but no limitations where young people of any age go to seek dreams.”4 Young actually had a job in mind for his young friend.
On Faulkner’s behalf, Young contacted Elizabeth Prall, a gifted woman in her late thirties who would later marry Sherwood Anderson (becoming his second wife); she ran the well-known Doubleday Bookstore located in the Lord & Taylor department store and eagerly hired this young writer as a clerk. It was now late in the fall of 1921, and the Christmas rush was on, so Faulkner was needed. “Such a charming young man,” Prall gushed, recalling that the well-to-do customers (mostly women) bought “armfuls of books” from the slight youth with a pale mustache and elegant southern accent. He had about him the “aura of a wounded veteran with artistic leanings.” His courtly manners were immensely attractive. As Prall recalled, Faulkner soon left Young, renting a room from her near Central Park, where he drank himself to sleep most nights. Indeed, his excessive drinking was among the most obvious things about the young man from Oxford.5
Faulkner wrote to his mother from New York on November 12, 1921: “I am settled at last—that is, temporarily—in a garret, hall bedroom, 4 flights (I wonder why they ever called ’em flights?) up. It will do until I find a place I like better, though. I dont care for this especially because it is way up town, close to Central Park and those big insolent apartment houses where all the wealthy people from Texas and St Louis live.”6 He called the building “a snug decayed aristocrat of a brick house,” demonstrating his gift for linguistic flourish, stringing adjectives in his usual exuberant fashion.
Faulkner never lost sight of his ultimate goal: to write something worthwhile. He worked on stories and poems and read voraciously, trying make up for his lack of formal education. His reading included books “on loan” from the Doubleday bookstore, and these included Tolstoy and Twain, Hawthorne and Kipling. He dabbled in the popular books of the day, which included Floyd Dell’s Moon Calf and James Branch Cabell’s popular Jurgen(mentioned in his first novel, Soldiers’ Pay) as well as Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio and Poor White. He read historical works, such as G. A. Henty’s With Lee in Virginia: A Story of the American Civil War. He also marked up his copy of The Creative Will by Willard Huntington Wright, a book about aesthetics and philosophy that was making its way among intellectuals in Greenwich Village. Wright sets up an opposition between Balzac—always a favorite of Faulkner’s—and Émile Zola, suggesting that the latter went astray in his attempts to portray reality by going too far into the realistic mode. It was a lesson Faulkner took to heart. “The great mistake in reading Faulkner,” said Cleanth Brooks, “is to assume he’s a realistic writer. If you take him as a fantasist, he makes more sense. He was remaking reality in the way Picasso remade reality. It was fanciful, but deadly serious at the same time.”7
Faulkner absorbed the bohemian atmosphere of the Village with pleasure, making frequent trips downtown to visit Stark Young in that setting. He loved going by bus, riding down Fifth Avenue to Washington Square, sitting on top in the open air “with the poets and country people.” The return trip would cost him twenty cents, which he considered steep. But the Village was worth it, the plant-filled tearooms crowded with artists and writers, musicians and dancers. Bearded young men in baggy corduroys and flannel shirts and young women smoking cigarettes and wearing pants argued politics and aesthetics. Faulkner was terribly shy—especially when outside his family or close friends—and made no effort to widen his circle, but he liked sitting in a café with his notebook, making sketches and writing poems, such as “On Seeing the Winged Victory for the First Time,” an impressionistic free verse poem about the statue of the goddess on the prow of a ship that had been commissioned by Demetrios, king of Macedonia. He had seen this statue at the Metropolitan Museum, which he often visited. The poem began: “O Atthis / for a moment an aeon I pause plunging / Above the narrow precipice of thy breast.” The theme and manner suggest that Faulkner had been reading Ezra Pound, whom Stone had strongly recommended.
Faulkner also wrote a sixteen-page story at this time called “Moonlight.” It concerns two young men, Robert and George, who pursue girls (called “flusies”) on a hot August night. They badger the clerk at the local drugstore who serves up Cokes. George has a date with Cecily, his girlfriend, but he is going to dump her and return to pick up a girl at the drugstore with Robert. The setting is a small town in the South, and the characters speak in hard-edged, self-consciously cool, clipped language while drinking corn whiskey and smoking cigarettes. The tale seems to turn, inefficiently, on the notion of a love triangle, a theme worked out in greater detail in “Love,” another story of this period, which concerns two young men swirling around a pretty girl named Beth Gorham. One of her lovers is Hugh, an army major. Another is Bob Jeyfus, Beth’s former fiancé, whom everyone suspects has been lying about his war service.
Faulkner’s own lying about his war service preoccupied him now. He had put on the military dog in Oxford, making everyone at Ole Miss believe he had been a hero of some kind. His friends and acquaintances in Oxford more or less believed he had been wounded. Now, in New York, he occasionally delivered himself of war stories, especially when drunk. But he must have felt guilty about his lies, given that he circled back to the theme of lying in his writing. He would often write about figures who pretend to be something they are not, who busily create fictions they must attempt to live by. They would soon be haunted by their own creations, trusting neither themselves nor those around them, jeopardizing their sense of reality.
Faulkner’s mother worried about him, as did Phil Stone and other friends, detecting a thin note of depression in his letters, a dissatisfaction with urban life. Stone in particular worried that Faulkner, being removed from the South, would lose contact with the soil that mattered to him. He believed that, like Antaeus, Faulkner derived his strength from contact with the earth, and in this case with a particular patch of earth in Mississippi. On his own, Stone persuaded Lemuel Oldham, now district attorney with considerable influence in the state government, to get Faulkner a job as postmaster at Ole Miss, a sinecure of sorts that would guarantee writing time and bring Billy home. Offered the job, Faulkner wired his curt reply: NO THANKS.
But the job at the bookstore unexpectedly went sour. Faulkner recalled that he had gotten fired because he was “a little careless about change or something.”8 He was, perhaps, bored with the job, and uncomfortable in the room he occupied. After another two letters from Stone, more or less insisting that he come home and take the postmaster’s job, Faulkner relented. As Stone would tell an interviewer, “I forced Bill to take the job over his own inclination and refusal. He made the damnedest postmaster the world has ever seen.”9
Home Is the Hunter
A man with real ability finds sufficient what he has to hand.
—FAULKNER, “American Drama”
The post office at the University of Mississippi was small potatoes, fourth-class by official reckoning. It was housed at the back of a small brick building where the university stored packages and where students picked up their letters from home. A small bookstore at the back sold textbooks and stationery. In the front, there was a tiny soda fountain, where you could get a cherry soda, a chocolate sundae, or a hot dog. There was also a barber on duty and a small lounge stuffed with old wicker furniture where students read their mail or gathered for conversation. Faulkner liked the fact that, as postmaster, he had a tiny room that he could close off from the rest of the world. This would become his writing office and reading room (where he often read the journals and magazines subscribed to by faculty members and the library).
As Thomas L. McHaney points out, the period in Faulkner’s life when he worked at the post office in Ole Miss is usually treated “as a diversion on his way to a writing career.” In the end, Faulkner spent nearly three years, off and on, in the tiny post office, during a formative period in his education. “It was Faulkner’s good fortune,” McHaney writes, “to have this position in the period when he had the greatest need, and probably the greatest receptivity, to explore and absorb the information, the language, and the recommendations for further reading that came in so many American magazines of his day.”10 He leafed his way through the Dial, the American Mercury, the Nation, the New Republic, North American Review, the Little Review, the Atlantic Monthly, and other periodicals: a vast hoard of material, where he would have found much of the best in contemporary writing and thinking. He also had the time to absorb these materials, as his work was undemanding.
With a population of 2,250 in 1921, Oxford offered little to Faulkner in the way of excitement after the cornucopia of New York City, but he found adventure elsewhere, as he had in previous years, in Memphis and New Orleans, where he often traveled with Phil Stone. He lived, of course, with his parents on campus and began to refocus on prose, writing sketches, book reviews, and literary essays, such as “American Drama: Inhibitions,” a long and rambling essay that appeared in two installments in the Mississippian. He pondered the contradictions of American writing, with its “wealth of language” in contrast to its “inarticulateness.” He noted that “Writing people are all so pathetically torn between a desire to make a figure in the world and a morbid interest in their personal egos—the deadline fruit of the grafting of Sigmund Freud upon the dynamic chaos of a hodge-podge of nationalities. And, with characteristic national restlessness, those with imagination and some talent find it unbearable.” He mentioned Eugene O’Neill, Alfred Kreymborg, and Ezra Pound, among others. He also observed that America had “an inexhaustible fund of dramatic material,” citing two such sources: the Mississippi River and the railroads. In a bizarre lapse of judgment, he called Twain “a hack writer who would not have been considered fourth rate in Europe.” He said that the spoken language in America was “the single rainbow we have on our dramatic horizon.”11 It was a rainbow William Faulkner would follow assiduously until he found his pot of gold.
His reviewing activity suggests that he was reading widely, in American drama and fiction as well as poetry. In April 1923 he published a lengthy and deliberative review of recent work by one of the most popular American novelists of the past decade, Joseph Hergesheimer, whose Java Head (1919) had become a national bestseller and was much admired in literary circles as well. That novel, set in New England, treats the delicate subject of miscegenation—another topic that would preoccupy Faulkner in the coming years (in part because of his great-grandfather’s having perhaps fathered a child with a black servant). Hergesheimer’s prose was heavy and ornate, periphrastic, even wordy; indeed, it often reads like bad Faulkner. So Faulkner’s dismissal of Hergesheimer as a literary charlatan had some personal resonance. In his review, Faulkner passed over Java Head to focus on Linda Condon, which had come out in 1922. Faulkner found this story of a withdrawn but alluring woman nicely written but static, less a narrative than “a lovely Byzantine frieze.”12
As might be expected, Faulkner was more a nuisance than a help at the post office, hardly worth the salary of fifteen hundred dollars per annum. Jack put it this way: “Here was a man so little attracted to mail that he never read his own being solemnly appointed as, one might say, the custodian of that belonging to others. It was also amazing that under his trusteeship any mail ever actually got delivered.”13 Students often complained about the “slowpoke postmaster,” who had difficulty finding their letters. Sometimes a whole ham would spoil in a box, undelivered to a student, stinking up the lounge. The customers, of course, protested. Once some pebbles and debris were thrown at Faulkner through the grate above the mailboxes, and his name was scrawled in chalk on the wall outside the building. But he ignored these taunts and was usually to be found at the yellow oak desk in the corner, working with a pencil and notebook, or reading a book or magazine. Though sometimes students would attempt to get his attention, he perversely refused to make contact with anyone he didn’t already know. Those he did know, however, received cordial welcomes and were invited into his office for a cup of tea and cookies. There was always plenty to read, as students often subscribed to magazines such as Scribner’s, the Saturday Evening Post, or the Atlantic Monthly. Faulkner would borrow these for a few days at a time; eventually, they found their way into the appropriate student mailbox.
The Faulkner clan was now fairly intact, with Jack a small-town lawyer in Oxford and Johncy and Dean still around. Bill and his brothers played baseball in the summer of 1922 for the Methodists in the Church League. (Bill pitched and Jack caught. Johncy played shortstop and Dean, the best athlete of the bunch, played left or center field.) This was all a boon for Murry, who liked to see his boys compete and would stand at the sidelines with a big straw hat to protect his eyes from the sun. Bill also volunteered to help the local Boy Scout troop, taking the boys on hikes in the Big Woods (as the nearby woodlands were called) or campouts along the Tallahatchie River, where he would tell long stories at night over a campfire. Bill wasted a fair amount of time driving around the countryside in his recently purchased car, a Model T Ford that had been modified for speed and painted yellow—a poor man’s version of the yellow Winton Flyer featured in The Reivers. On weekends, he often drove to Charleston, some forty miles from Oxford, to play golf with Jack and Myrtle Stone or simply sit and drink whiskey with Phil Stone, basking in the older man’s admiration and taking seriously his criticisms of his writing, which he continued to produce at a steady pace.
These were relatively quiet years for Faulkner, who lived at home and worked (more or less) at the post office, writing poems and stories at work and, in the evenings, at home. He still associated with students on a peer basis, even though he turned twenty-six in September 1923. He must have felt slightly out of place, a fully grown adult male with no prospects for a family or a “real” career, a veteran of no war, a writer without publications, with no prospects of a wife or family of his own. The situation was exacerbated when Johncy and his wife, Dolly, had a child, James Murry Falkner, only a couple of months before Bill’s birthday.
Faulkner desperately needed some boost, and it came, at least partially, when Four Seas, a small publishing company, agreed to publish his collection, The Marble Faun (the title drawn from a novel by Hawthorne). A vanity press, Four Seas accepted the manuscript on the condition that the author put up much of the capital to publish the book himself. As he had no money, Faulkner turned to Phil Stone, who agreed to contribute the two hundred dollars required on signing the contract and another two hundred dollars when the proofs were sent. This arrangement put Stone in the role of business manager and Faulkner in the role of hapless artist; it was a situation bound to create tensions between the two friends in later years.
Stone’s own ambivalence about his relationship with Faulkner was apparent in the introduction he wrote. “One has to be a certain age to write poems like these,” he said, loftily. “They belong inevitably to that period of uncertainty and illusion.” Of course, Stone was not much older than Faulkner, though he wrote from a presumed height of maturity. He also said that the poems “have the defects of youth—youth’s impatience, unsophistication and immaturity.” Talk about undermining his investment.
The poems do seem jejune, self-consciously “poetic,” with a distinctly period flavor. They often open with a striking line or two: “All day I run before a wind” or “The world stands without move or sound / In this white silence gathered round / It like a hood.” These are fetching, Yeatsian lines, but the poems rarely deliver on the promise of those beginnings. Faulkner did not know how to move a poem forward, to work a metaphor in a deep way through the poem, stanza by stanza, developing and adding to a symbolic image. There is no sense of a distinct speaking voice, however much Faulkner appreciated this idea. The poems are generic poetry, full of longing but in a fairly clichéd and mannered fashion. The poet nevertheless declares his allegiance to the natural world, a bond that would remain firm: the seasons come and go, timelessly, and the human heart can learn from their flow that although life is arbitrary and abrupt and hopeless, the eternal cycles remain in place. One can find many themes in these early poems that Faulkner would revisit and complicate in his later fiction.
Among the many interesting oddments that Faulkner wrote at this time was a brief sketch of himself for the publisher, intended for use in connection with the publication of The Marble Faun.14 In it, Faulkner calls attention to his military service, his own writing, and his residence (which he describes as “temporary”) in Oxford, Mississippi. He also draws attention to the Old Colonel as his main family connection (there is no mention of his parents or even his grandparents). He calls himself the “great-grandson of Col. W.C. Faulkner, C.S.A., author of The White Rose of Memphis and Rapid Ramblings in Europe, etc.” It was at this time that he also began making plans to travel, in the vein of his grandfather, in Europe. The most obvious clue to his identification here is with the altered spelling of Faulkner: his great-grandfather is being subtly remade in Bill’s image. A lot of subtle negotiations take place here, as the young author looks for a model, for points of correspondence between past and present, and continues the complex work of self-fashioning.
In the meanwhile, Faulkner neglected his duties at the post office so ostentatiously that formal complaints were filed against him. (Indeed, Faulkner seems to have worked aggressively to get himself fired, as if the artist in him were protesting this form of employment and stepping forward to force the issue.) On September 2, 1924, the postal inspector from Corinth, Mississippi, Mark Webster, wrote to him with official charges: “Neglects official duties; indifferent to interests of patrons; mistreatment of mail,” and so forth. The letter continued with these complaints: “That you are neglectful of your duties, in that you are a habitual reader of books and magazines, and seem reluctant to cease reading long enough to wait on the patrons; that you have a book being printed at the present time, the greater part of which was written while on duty at the post-office; that some of the patrons will not trust you to forward their mail, because of your past carelessness and these patrons have their neighbors forward same for them while away on their vacations.” The letter included names of specific patrons abused by Faulkner’s negligence. “You will please advise me in writing, within five days from this date, stating whether the charges are true, in part or wholly so, and show cause, if any, why you should not be removed.”15
According to Blotner and other biographers, Webster appeared on the spot to investigate the situation in Oxford for himself, discovering heaps of unsent and unsorted mail scattered about the office. One package dated six months earlier lay on the postmaster’s desk, with rings from a coffee mug and doodling on its brown paper wrapping. Webster then fired the young man on the spot. The actual story is more complicated, as Joan St. C. Crane suggests in a detailed article about Faulkner and his dismissal from the post office that appeared in Mississippi Quarterly.16 Faulkner seems actually to have engineered his own downfall, perhaps eager for more time to write or fearing that he might get stuck in this menial position for longer than was healthy for a young man of his intellect and ambition. He and Phil Stone also worked together, it seems, to perpetuate the myth that Faulkner was fired at the post office. Indeed, the letter from Mark Webster may well be a forgery, concocted by Phil Stone, as Crane argues convincingly, pointing out anomalies in the letter and the circumstances of its production that suggest it was indeed a hoax. Whatever the truth behind the firing of William Faulkner, he clearly wanted no more of the post office and famously put this episode in his life behind him with a memorable remark: “I reckon I’ll be at the beck and call of folks with money all my life, but thank God I won’t ever again have to be at the beck and call of every son-of-a-bitch who’s got two cents to buy a stamp.”17
The whole period in the post office, an interlude that stretched from December 1921 through October 1924, has been rehashed and refashioned many times, often by Faulkner himself, whose penchant for making up tall tales, love of secrecy, and perverse delight in putting those who dared to pry into his life on the wrong trail inevitably add to the complexity of the post office period. The long and short of it remains that Faulkner was an incompetent postmaster and that he used his time in the post office to read books (such as James Joyce’s Ulysses) and magazines, to socialize with friends, who often gathered there to play cards and mah jongg and sip whiskey, and to write his own stories and poems. He often failed to appear on time and just as often took off the afternoon for golf. He was rude to customers and misplaced or misfiled their letters and packages. It was time he moved on!
He had, for several years now, contemplated a journey to Europe. Having failed to get to the western front during the war, he felt he had missed something of importance. He knew that Robert Frost had gone abroad to make his reputation, and he had heard of the exploits of Pound, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald abroad. He also had the model of the Old Colonel, who had made so much of his travels in Europe in 1883. Phil Stone was firmly behind the idea, too. That Faulkner was talking up his departure well in advance of the reality is suggested by an anonymous article from the columnist called “Hayseed” in the Mississippian (December 24, 1924), who noted with tongue in cheek that Faulkner had “done give up the post office…. It is rumored that Bill will retire to some tropical island, lay in the sweet smelling locust leaves and gourd vines and indite sonnets to the pore helpless world, which no one can diagnose.” More soberly, the Oxford Eagle reported that “Mr. Falkner will go abroad in the near future.”18 With such advance publicity, he could not stay home.
Among the friends who consoled Faulkner in the wake of the post office debacle was Ben Wasson. Now a lawyer in Greenville, he welcomed his friend into the large and sumptuous Wasson family home, where Ben lived with his parents and two sisters, Lady Ree and Ruth, both of whom Faulkner adored. It was Ben, on a visit in 1925, who suggested that Faulkner really ought to go to New Orleans to meet the writer he most admired: Sherwood Anderson. There was now, indeed, a wonderful point of contact between Faulkner and Anderson: the older writer had just married Elizabeth Prall, Faulkner’s old employer and landlady in New York City. “Might do,” Faulkner replied. And soon he did, on his slow way to Europe—a period of roughly six months, during which time he would begin work on his first novel, Soldiers’ Pay, and write some of the early sketches of New Orleans that beautifully foreshadow, in tone and technique, his later fiction.
A dream and a fire which I cannot control, driving me without those comfortable smooth paths of solidity and sleep which nature has decreed for man. A fire which I inherited willy-nilly.
—FAULKNER, New Orleans Sketches
Sherwood Anderson was perhaps the most visible and important writer living (temporarily) in the South. Born in Ohio in 1876, he was two decades older than Faulkner, a worldly man who had been on the road, in a sense, since the age of fourteen. He had served in the Spanish-American War, settled briefly in Ohio and married, gotten divorced, and set off on a long adventure that had finally brought him, a successful author at last, to New Orleans with his second wife, Elizabeth. But the Ohio roots were deep and defined him as a man and writer. As Faulkner wrote of Anderson in a profile he published on April 26, 1925, not so long after they became friends: “Men grow from the soil, like corn and trees: I prefer to think of Mr. Anderson as a lusty cornfield in his native Ohio. As he tells his own story, his father not only seeded him physically, but planted also in him that belief, necessary to a writer, that his own emotions are important, and also planted in him the desire to tell them to someone.”19
Anderson had worked at various jobs, in Ohio and Chicago (where he met Carl Sandburg, Ernest Hemingway, Vachel Lindsay, and Floyd Dell), and his first novel, Windy McPherson’s Son (1916), had been about a young boy’s life in a dull town in Iowa. The novel, in the tradition of Horatio Alger, followed the boy’s rise to prominence in business and his renunciation of commercial values to discover himself. Only a year later he published a second novel, Marching Men (1916), about workers in the coal mines of Pennsylvania and their failure to liberate themselves from their oppressive lives. A book of poems appeared in 1918, celebrating “the mystery of the grass.” Like Walt Whitman, he teemed with spiritual generosity and once argued for “trusting absolutely the knowledge that flows into us.”20 In 1919 he published Winesburg, Ohio, an immensely popular book of linked stories in which he examined the lives of characters living dull and frustrated lives in a small town much like the one where he grew up. The stories explored the power of instinctual drives to overcome the routines of life in the mechanical age, where routine oppressed those caught in its deadening rituals. Astonishingly prolific at this time, Anderson brought a new novel or book of stories before the public nearly every year. In fact, he published a new volume of stories as well as another novel in 1923 and was working on Dark Laughter, his finest novel, at the time Faulkner met him.
Anderson was a large-spirited (though competitive and easily affronted) man who welcomed young writers to his home. Ernest Hemingway, famously, became an early disciple. Anderson would take young visitors on long walks in the early evenings through the backstreets of New Orleans, down the levees where old ships, now in mothballs, gathered in the sultry gloom of a backwater port. Sailors from all over the world turned up in this infamous port city to drink, carouse with whores, and relieve the boredom of their lives at sea. The scene was already familiar to Faulkner, of course; he had spent a fair amount of time among the crowds of Bourbon Street and visited the brothels and drunk a lot of whiskey in its noisy dives, where the black musicians attracted devotees.
The Andersons lived at the center of the Old City, the Vieux Carré, on the south side of Jackson Square. Here Faulkner, on one of many visits to the city, summoned his courage to call on the Andersons. He found Anderson himself at home and was welcomed into their apartment. “We talked and we liked one another from the start,” Faulkner said.21 The exact date of this meeting seems in doubt, as Faulkner made several trips to New Orleans in the autumn of 1924. In any case, the friendship blossomed, and Faulkner became a regular visitor, joining other young writers, including Hamilton Basso, a student at Tulane University who would himself become a deft chronicler of southern society in a series of popular novels in the thirties and forties. Basso would later recall meeting Faulkner at one of the Andersons’ regular Saturday night dinner parties. “We talked about the South—Faulkner’s South: the world of Oxford, Mississippi,” he said, “but what I best recollect are his beautiful manners, his soft speech, his controlled intensity, and his astonishing capacity for hard drink.”22 What strikes a biographer is how worldly-wise Faulkner was, using his contact with Elizabeth Prall to promote his interests as a writer. He knew that Anderson could be of use, providing sophisticated mentorship beyond that of Phil Stone.
Faulkner stayed briefly with the Andersons at 540B St. Peter Street in early January. He spent his days trying to book a passage to Europe on a liner, without success. “About getting a boat,” he wrote to his mother, “it is simply a question of being on hand. I don’t know when it will be—I am to call at the British Consulate every day until one is available. So it might just be anytime.”23 (He would not actually sail for another six months.)
Faulkner explained his routine to his mother in these terms: “Bob [the Anderson child] and I get up at 7, cook our own breakfast, I spend the forenoons writing, and the afternoons plowing about, meeting strange people. I am writing a series of short sketches (stories) which I am trying to sell to a newspaper. Took one to the editor of the Times-Picayune yesterday. He said he didn’t have time to read it, and told me to leave it and call in a day or two; then he glanced at the title, read the first sentence, then the first page, then the whole thing with a half finished letter in his typewriter and three reporters waiting to speak to him. He was tickled to death with it, and has put it before his board.”24 The sketch was, indeed, soon accepted. Faulkner’s letters are full of enthusiastic portraits of local figures and hints of the writing he was doing and intended to do. It seems apparent that he was not neglecting his golf, either, playing at a local course called City Park, where the greens fee was fifty cents per day.
By late January, Faulkner was making what seemed to him like a lot of money from newspaper work and was delighted by his accomplishment. He wrote home: “I have turned in 5 of my stories and collected $20 for them. I write one in about 3 hours. At that rate I can make $25 a week in my spare time. Grand, isn’t it?”25 In early February, he wrote to say that the Double Dealer, a prestigious regional journal, had accepted something and paid him for it: “I got the check. And have committed something unique in the annals of American literature—I sold a thing to The Double Dealer for cash money, money you can buy things with, you know. There is only one other person in history to whom The Double Dealer has paid real actual money, and that man is Sherwood Anderson. Fame, stan’ by me. Its him and me f’um now on.”26
The obsession with Anderson was growing. They spent long nights together, drinking and telling stories. Anderson assumed the role of mentor, a familiar role for him, and Faulkner played the dutiful son, for a time. It so happened that Anderson, despite his marriage, was not averse to brothels, and New Orleans teemed with old-fashioned whorehouses, such as Aunt Rose’s, which offered some of the best “girls” in town. One could go to the famous Blue Book—a small booklet—to get the names of the best prostitutes in town, such as Gipsy Shaffer or “Countess” Piazza. Once, a fairly drunken Faulkner accompanied an even drunker Anderson into the red light district, and Faulkner was in a loquacious mood. As usual, he walked with a pronounced limp—his imaginary residue of the war. He told Anderson a number of whopping tales about his own adventures. Apparently Anderson swallowed the stories whole. In any case, he soon wrote a story based on his friendship with Faulkner called “A Meeting South,” where he described “a little Southern man” who is called David and who became friendly with a retired brothel madam called Aunt Sally, modeled on Aunt Rose Arnold. Faulkner had certainly made an impression on the older writer; Anderson (and his wife) made it clear to Faulkner that he had an open invitation to stay with them whenever he came to the city.
It was, indeed, a big deal that the pages of the Double Dealer, which was soon accepting his poems, reviews, and sketches of New Orleans, lay open to Faulkner. (He had, in 1922, while still working in the post office, managed to get a poem into this journal, and so had a point of entry.) This was not the Mississippian, a student publication with an extremely limited audience. The Double Dealer hosted a range of well-known authors, including Ezra Pound, Hart Crane, Hemingway, and Anderson himself. “It was an important place to publish,” Robert Penn Warren recalled, “and you went to its pages with a sense of expectation.”27 One of the editors of the Double Dealerwas John McClure, a poet and reviewer who quickly became a friend and sponsor. Faulkner also got some assignments from the New Orleans Times-Picayune, and for the first time realized a bit of cash from his writing. His world was expanding ferociously.
Some of Faulkner’s best early writing occurs in the sketches of New Orleans that he wrote for these periodicals. One sees in them a giddy attempt to reach beyond the boundaries of the traditional sketch. Many of the same techniques that he would exploit in his novels and stories occur in these excursions into prose, as in the impressionistic style, where rhetoric is flung at the writer’s canvas like gobs of colorful paint. In “The Cobbler,” for instance, he writes from the Italian cobbler’s viewpoint: “She and this rose and I were young together, she and I, who were promised, and a flung rose in the dust, under the evening star. But now that rose is old in a pot, and I am old and walled about with the smell of leather, and she—and she…I have known joy and sorrows, but now I do not remember. I am old; I have forgotten much.”28 His ability to enter a subjective consciousness is evident here, and in other sketches, where he displays an abundance of what Keats called negative capability, a selflessness that allows the imagination freedom to range outside of its own boundaries.
In these pieces, Faulkner plays with time and subjectivity in ways that anticipate the later novels and stories, combining high rhetoric with dialect and localisms, as in “The Longshoreman,” where he writes: “Quittin’ time, whistles boomin’ and moanin’ like front row sinners at meetin’ time. Ah God, the singing blood, the sultry blood, singing to the fierce fire in the veins of girls, singing the ancient embers into flame!”29 So many of the “sketches” are really short stories, and some of them, such as “The Kingdom of God,” are extremely fine. In this piece, focused on “an idiot” (with shades of Faulkner’s later idiots, such as Benjy in The Sound and the Fury), the speech of his characters contrasts sharply with the narrator’s own elegant, impressionist descriptions. The explosive combination of race and violence, as in “Sunset,” seems to foreshadow later obsessions, as do his compulsive meditations on “the mutability of mankind” in “Damon and Pythias Unlimited.”30 In that sketch, he ponders how “imaginative atrophy seems to follow, not the luxuries and vices of an age…but rather the efficiencies and conveniences such as automatic food and bathtubs per capita, which should bring about the golden age” but somehow do not.
People who lived outside the law fascinated Faulkner, who was himself fairly conventional and uneasy with behavior that transgressed too far. Not surprisingly, the gangsters and con men of New Orleans caught and held his eye. One typical sketch centers on Col. Charles Glenn Collins, a Scot whose colorful monologues entertained Faulkner and his friends on the beaches of Lake Pontchartrain. The Colonel had spent time in a New Orleans jail for refusing to pay for fifty thousand dollars’ worth of jewelry on a visit to India. He had fought extradition successfully, and—from jail!—managed to charter a yacht to take his friends (and jailers) on cruises. Only vaguely disguised, Colonel Collins would appear in Mosquitoes, as would the bootlegger Slim in Faulkner’s “Country Mice,” one of the liveliest of the New Orleans sketches. (Slim became the character called Pete in Mosquitoes.) Faulkner begins “Country Mice” on a note of high mirth that in no way reads like apprentice writing:
My friend the bootlegger’s motor car is as long as a steamboat and the color of a chocolate ice cream soda. It is trimmed with silver from stem to stern like an expensive lavatory. It is upholstered in maroon leather and attached to it, for emergencies and convenience, is every object which the ingenuity of its maker could imagine my friend ever having any possible desire for or need of. Except a coffin. It is my firm belief that on the first opportunity his motor car is going to retaliate by quite viciously obliterating him.31
So often in Faulkner the reader senses a ferocious comic energy in the barely realistic descriptions. Here is a storyteller in the great southern tradition, poised on the brink of exaggeration at every moment, and often giving in to that impulse. There is vividness of metaphor and a controlled irony, often allied with a laconic hesitance to say too much, lest the balloon explode prematurely. The technique of withholding information until a crucial moment runs through “Country Mice” and other sketches, as does the habit of entering into a subjective consciousness. In many of the sketches, Faulkner concentrates on the act of seeing or hearing, or the art of detection, and often the sense data are filtered through a highly suspect or unreliable narrator. Horrible or preposterous ideas are integrated with a calm, detached observer in other pieces. Melodramatic events occur, though the author often remains detached from them, almost bemused. Levels of rhetoric clash, as characters speak in highly idiosyncratic dialects and the narrator soars on more traditional wings of rhetoric, with Faulkner himself delighting in what Wallace Stevens would call “the gaiety of language.” These techniques are, of course, brought to full flower a few years later.
Faulkner bounced back and forth between Oxford and New Orleans throughout the winter, though in March he returned home to say good-bye to his parents and see Estelle, who was also visiting her parents with her children. He returned to New Orleans with the intention of leaving immediately for Europe, staying temporarily with the rowdy young (and openly homosexual) painter William Spratling, who appears in several of his sketches as “Spratling.” But something held him back. For a start, he was making good progress on a novel—he first mentions this novel in a letter to his mother of February 16, 1925. Furthermore, he was enjoying his late-night drinking sessions with Anderson, who had clearly taken him under his wing. He was also, for the first time, making a bit of money from his writing and reveling in the fact: “I am like John Rockefeller,” he wrote to his mother, “whenever I need money I sit down and dash off ten dollars worth for them.”32
Faulkner was also basking in the decent local reception afforded his slim, self-published volume of poems, The Marble Faun. It seemed a shame to leave all of this behind precipitously. So instead of hopping a freighter to Europe, he rented a cramped, seedy apartment at 624 Orleans Alley, now called Pirate’s Alley. Neighbors would soon get accustomed to the clack of typewriter keys as Faulkner began work in earnest on his novel, feeling “a great swell of possibility” in his chest. Bill Spratling was startled by how hard his friend was working. “By the time I would be up, say at seven,” he recalled, “Bill would already be out on the little balcony over the garden tapping away on his portable, an invariable glass of alcohol-and-water in hand.” Occasionally Spratling would attempt to interrupt Faulkner, but without success: “His concentration was a formidable engine, and one could not get in its way. Bill would not even see you or hear you if you tried to get his attention.” He was “utterly, madly absorbed” in his work.33
One of Faulkner’s good friends in New Orleans was Harold Dempsey, the young editor of the Vieux Carré News, who lived a bohemian life in the French Quarter. Dempsey was interviewed by Carvel Collins in the late fifties and early sixties, when he spoke with awe about Faulkner’s ability to drink alcohol “in massive quantities.” He recalled seeing Faulkner “clamber up the iron balconies” to his apartment instead of using the usual stairs. It would have been difficult to get a hold on the “sloping, curving stanchions” of the wrought iron, but Faulkner could manage, considering it “gauche, in a way, to use the door.” He said “it was a little bit of flamboyance when arriving” that Faulkner enjoyed; he told his friend “not to invite Faulkner to your house or he’ll climb up and enter through the window.” He said that Faulkner seemed to enjoy scaling his own balcony.34
Faulkner and his friends, including Spratling, Dempsey, Caroline Durieux, and others, often gathered at an old warehouse in the Lower Pontalba Building. It was guarded by a corrupt night watchman, who for a price would turn over the lower floor to Faulkner’s gang, who partied there with an illegal keg of corn whiskey, procured in Mississippi, probably by Faulkner, who was friendly with a number of bootleggers. On one of these occasions, Faulkner dressed up in his RAF uniform, having been urged on by Spratling, who often teased his roommate about his wartime heroics, which he must have suspected were untrue. Faulkner was seen parading through the French Quarter in his uniform, singing at the top of his lungs. He and Dempsey stopped, as usual, for more drinks at the Cadillac Bar and Tom Anderson’s Bar. The latter was known for its Roquefort cheese sandwiches, which Faulkner adored, and its prostitutes, which may or may not have interested Faulkner. These bars also featured opium dens, which in the United States at this time were extremely rare.
In general, life seemed good to Faulkner, as his letters home indicate. He was working on a series of fictional letters between himself and Anderson about a mythical character called Al Jackson. (These may have been intended as a book, but the project faded into oblivion.) He was working on the New Orleans sketches and his novel. And he continued to meet interesting people, such as Anita Loos, the author of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1925). “She is rather nice,” Faulkner wrote to his mother, “quite small—I doubt if she is five feet tall. Looks like a flapper. But she and Emerson [her husband] get $50,000 for photoplays.”35 This is the first sign of Faulkner’s interest in screenplays, which he regarded as a source of easy cash. In the thirties, he would aggressively expand his own writing interests to include writing for Hollywood.
When spring came, the attractive weather opened new possibilities for entertainment, and Faulkner seized the moment, as seen in one incident described in a letter home:
Saturday Sherwood chartered a gasoline yacht and about 12 of us went across Lake Pontchartrain and up a river. The lake is big—26 miles, and from the middle of it you cant see any land. The crew was the captain, the pilot, and an English steward, and me to plot the course on a chart and navigate. We left at ten, stopped off [at] Mandeville and went swimming, then ate lunch and danced on deck and played cards until tea. Then we tied up and walked about till dinner. Danced some more and bed. The men folks slept on deck, on mattresses. It turned cold over night, but was fair the next day as we went up the river. I turned out about six o’clock. The shores were all swamp, dusk and geese all around, and owls hooting from the moss-covered cypress trees, and alligators bellowing way back in the lagoons. The water is not muddy, like ours, but black as ink. Anything could be in it. About eight we stopped again. The captain runs the engine, the pilot steers and I handled the anchor and lines. We got a bucket of live bait here, and picked up a river pilot, went on further to an old wharf and tied up to fish. The swamps are full of big yellow wild honeysuckle blooms, and some red things, I dont know what trees they bloom on. We caught a few fish, and I spent most of the day rowing in a skiff. After lunch another fellow and I took the skiff and pulled back down the river and the boat came along and picked us up.36
The story continues for some time, with remarkable specificity. Obviously Faulkner had an intense interest in the flora and fauna of the region—an interest that would inform his fiction, giving it a solidity, a gravity, a sense of detailed reality against which the often bizarre activities of his characters could play out.
Bill Spratling lived upstairs in the same building, and he and Faulkner got along famously. One sees that Faulkner was clearly at ease with homosexual men. As critics have pointed out, there is considerable homoerotic feeling in his work, especially in “Elmer,” his early unfinished novel, but it would be difficult to pinpoint any “activity” in his life that would qualify as homosexual. I suspect that he identified with homosexuals as outsiders and considered himself—as an artist—an outsider as well. He was also willing, as I suggested earlier, to let his homosexual feelings, which are normally supressed after adolescence, live and breathe. He seems to have felt no compulsion to act on these feelings, but he let them survive well into maturity.
Spratling was a gifted person, high-spirited and intelligent. In “Out of Nazareth,” one of the New Orleans sketches, Faulkner refers to him as one whose hand was “shaped to a brush,” while his own life was in writing: “Words are my meat and bread and drink.” He and Spratling would collaborate on a short book (to be published in the fall of 1926 by the Pelican Bookshop Press) called Sherwood Anderson & Other Famous Creoles, a work in prose and drawings that caricatured forty-one members of the New Orleans circle, such as John McClure, W. C. Odiorne, Carolyn Durieux, Hamilton Basso, Lyle Saxon, and Anderson himself. The little book ended with self-caricatures of Spratling and Faulkner—a clever way of deflecting criticism.
Anderson, who was highly sensitive to caricature (and would suffer merciless parody by the ungrateful pen of Ernest Hemingway in The Torrents of Spring), would find Faulkner’s parody objectionable, further dampening a relationship that had been cooling already. After this caricature appeared, Faulkner and Anderson rarely saw each other again, though Faulkner regretted what he later called “the unhappy caricature affair.” Years later, he referred to Anderson as “a giant in an earth populated to a great—too great—extent by pygmies.”37 Just before he died, Anderson himself wrote a brief account of his friendship with Faulkner in We Moderns, a booklet published by the Gotham Book Mart. In it, he said that Faulkner was “a story teller but he was something else too. The man is what they mean in the South when they use the word ‘gentle.’ He is always that. Life may be at times infinitely vulgar. Bill never is.”
While Faulkner still entertained a hope of eventually winning the hand of Estelle (it was by now obvious that her marriage to Franklin had not prospered, as she spent inordinate amounts of time away from him, with her parents in Oxford), he was free to flirt, and did so clumsily. One young woman who attracted his attention was Helen Baird, who lived in New Orleans. He pursued her vigorously, playing up his limp and British accent, walking with a cane, and making a fool of himself rather obviously and comically. Helen’s bourgeois parents disapproved of Faulkner, finding him far too bohemian for their tastes. He dressed and behaved in ways in keeping with life in the French Quarter, but being a respectable family, the Bairds were not interested in having their daughter hooked by a bohemian with no prospects. That summer, Helen’s parents whisked her away to Europe, determined to scotch the relationship with Faulkner, though Helen herself was only mildly interested in her unlikely suitor.
Faulkner had not yet abandoned his career in poetry and wrote a number of poems in the winter of 1925, many of them reminiscent of Thomas Hardy, whose reputation as a poet was extremely high in the mid-twenties. One of these was an untitled poem completed in February in New Orleans, adhering to an end-stopped, conventional stanza pattern. One sees Faulkner struggling (without success) to move beyond cliche as the poem concludes:
Where I am dead the aimless wind that strays
The greening corridors where spent spring dwell:
“How are you? are you faint? or sad?” it says.
and where I’m dead I answer: “Oh, I’m well.”
Other poems of this period show his continuing interest in Eliot, who proved a baleful influence on Faulkner as he did on many young poets, who could not escape the Eliotic mode.
Faulkner must have sensed the weakness in his poetry as his interest shifted to the burgeoning manuscript that would eventually become Soldiers’ Pay. He was so absorbed in the composition of this work in the winter and spring of 1925 that he neglected his correspondence with family and friends to the point where Phil Stone wired in frustration: WHAT’S THE MATTER? DO YOU HAVE A MISTRESS? Faulkner replied by wire: YES. AND SHES 30,000 WORDS LONG. Mayday was his working title for the book, and it was gathering heft by the week.
Mayday, like most of Faulkner’s novels, began as a sketchy idea, a general situation upon which he could elaborate. He scribbled four paragraphs on a sheet of legal-sized paper—his encapsulated notion of the plot—and would stick fairly closely to this outline as he worked. He wrote, for example: “Cecily with her luck in dramatizing herself, engaged to an aviator reported as dead.” Faulkner evokes major characters as well as plot developments in broad strokes in the outline, as in: “Death of Mahon. Rector’s Story. Rector and Gilligan.” There are even a few poetic phrases in these notes that would be absorbed by the narrative in due course: “Wind wafting Feed thy sheep, O Jesus into the moonless world of space, beyond despair.”38
Faulkner almost always wrote first drafts by hand, and this was certainly the case with Soldiers’ Pay, though he quickly typed up what he had, shaping and reshaping as he went, then making corrections, then retyping. He drove himself forward, scratching in pencil on one of the margins of the typescript a note to himself: “Work!” And work he did. “My novel is going splendidly,” he wrote to his mother in early April. “I put in almost 8 hours a day on it—I work so much that the end of my ‘typewriting’ finger is like a boil all the time. Sherwood read a chapter, says its good stuff, and is helping me try to sell it to Mr. Liveright, of Boni & Liveright.” (This admission goes against his later, well-known claim that Anderson never read the book but merely endorsed it.)
The closeness between Faulkner and his mother can hardly be exaggerated. He writes, on April 7, 1925: “Moms, dear hear, I just opened the parcel tonight. Sheets soap and tooth paste—enough for anyone.”39 At twenty-seven, he was a grown man, and then some, but he remained amazingly childlike and dependent. Most men of twenty-seven get their own toothpaste, but not William Faulkner. He depended on Miss Maud to send clothes in keeping with the season, to ship endless cakes and boxes of cookies, and to make sure that he was well supplied with underwear and socks. Bill was clearly attached to his family—especially to his mother, to whom most of his letters were addressed—in ways that go beyond easy calculation. That he would return, in due course, to live in Oxford near his mother (more than his father) among familiar surroundings seems a foregone conclusion. Home meant a great deal to him.
By early May, he had finished 50,000 words of the novel, with (by his reckoning) another 30,000 to go. He would brag to friends in letters about his capacity for work, and claimed that once in a while he would write 7,000 words in one day. He spent the mornings working, beginning at seven. He passed a lot of time in the afternoons walking the streets of New Orleans, in part to keep his weight down (he was growing self-conscious about his figure, though he remained slim throughout his life without excessive effort).
In the evenings, he visited with friends, often drinking heavily at their house or going to one of the local bars, with someone or by himself. As one friend of Faulkner’s from these early days recalled in later years: “Almost all [of the stories about Faulkner’s life] will be exaggerations and make-believe, with one sole exception—his addiction to alcohol, which remained with him until his final sunset. His drinking, not even for conviviality, was a sad business. There was nothing heroic or majestic when he embarked on his lonesome binges, which often led to hospital treatment.”40 On the other hand, Harold Dempsey told Carvel Collins that Faulkner “seemed to drink no more than anyone else and handled it very well.” He never “saw him sodden or in alcoholic trouble in any way whatever.”41 Dempsey, of course, did not see the later drinking, and so remembered the early drinking without a full context for interpretation.
Despite the drinking and carousing, Faulkner managed to work. He would always manage this. On May 12, he wrote to his mother: “I finished my novel last night. I think I wrote almost 10,000 words yesterday between 10:00 am and midnight—a record, if I did. 3000 is a fair days work. I am kind of sorry. I never have enjoyed anything so much. I know I’ll never have as much fun with the next one—which by the way I am all ready to work on—when I have had a short holiday. All necessary now is to correct it then have it neatly typed and send it to the publisher.”42
As I grow older, Mr. Jones, I become more firmly convinced that we learn scarcely anything as we go through this world, and that we learn nothing whatever which can ever help us or be of any particular benefit to us, even.
—FAULKNER, Soldiers’ Pay
It took another month or so to get the manuscript into decent shape: good enough to give to Sherwood Anderson, who had over the past few months seen parts of the novel and reacted favorably. The book had zigzagged away from its initial direction after 131 pages mainly about Cadet Julian Lowe, a nineteen-year-old soldier who missed out on the war, having had his flight training (like Faulkner’s) cut short when the Armistice was declared. It had never been Faulkner’s intention to spend so much time on Lowe’s story, and he abandoned that plot line abruptly in favor of the sad tale of Donald Mahon, a wounded veteran whose face is horribly disfigured.
In the vivid opening scene on a train, rich in dialect conversation and drama, Lowe and Joe Gilligan, another veteran on his way home, meet the wounded Mahon, and Gilligan realizes that Mahon will not live long. In pity, he takes Mahon under his wing. Lowe, as a stand-in for Faulkner, is envious of Mahon’s wounds and the heroic status they afford. Another figure on the train is Mrs. Margaret Powers, a widow who has worked for the Red Cross. Intuitively, Faulkner uses Powers to critique his own youthful romance with battle. (She never really loved her husband, who was killed at the front; soon before his death, she had written him a letter saying as much, thus complicating the meaning of his death for her.) The naive and romantic Lowe falls for Margaret, but their story—such as it is—continues only sporadically, in Lowe’s love letters to Margaret. But Margaret Powers cannot abandon Mahon until he dies. She is, indeed, the only character in Soldiers’ Pay who seems to intuit the brutal, unromantic nature of war. Gilligan and Powers assume responsibility for Mahon, whose faculties have become tattered; letters in his pocket reveal his destination, however: Charleston, Georgia—a town much like Oxford, “built around a circle of tethered horses and mules.”43
In the next section of the novel, Faulkner enters the mind of Januarius Jones, a heavyset sybarite who was “lately a fellow of Latin in a small college.”44 His eyes are described as being “clear and yellow, obscene and old in sin as a goat’s.” Through these ugly eyes we encounter Donald Mahon’s father, Dr. Joseph Mahon, an Episcopalian rector who, in an awkward, bulky way, resembles Murry Falkner. Donald’s fiancée, Cecily Saunders, is also introduced: a tall, skinny girl who is often compared to a poplar tree. (It may be worth recalling that Cecily was the name of the attractive girl in his early story “Moonlight.”) Cecily’s affections have already shifted to another man, George Farr, by the time we meet her. Another character introduced at this point is the rector’s servant, Emmy, who will grow in importance as the novel unfolds.
Not having heard news of Donald, everyone in town assumes that he is dead, although nobody is willing to say as much quite yet, wishing to spare the rector’s feelings. Jones is himself attracted to Cecily, just to complicate matters. As he flirts with her at the end of a luncheon at the rectory, Mrs. Powers arrives and delivers the information that Donald has come home. Faulkner dramatizes this scene with a deftness that anticipates the immense subtlety of his later work, where new information often stirs the community and forces realignments of feeling. Not surprisingly, the return of Donald complicates the scene in Charleston in delicious, malevolent ways.
Of course the rector is delighted that his son is home, and he cannot believe the young man will not recover from his wounds, although he grants that Donald will never recover his sight. A local doctor oils the plot nicely when he tells Margaret that Donald “should have been dead these three months were it not for the fact that he seems to be waiting for something.”45 Cecily is, inwardly, appalled by Donald’s looks and the fact of his survival, but she attempts to put on a good face; she is dismayed, however, that the rector wants the wedding to take place as soon as possible. Cecily’s parents, wisely, attempt to stop the wedding. Cecily herself puts a stop to the marriage by eloping with George Farr.
The typical romance novel ends in marriage, but this is a perverted romance novel, and the marriage that concludes the life of Donald Mahon is unexpected and peculiar. Emmy has always loved Donald Mahon, but she cannot overcome feelings of rejection that followed his betrothal to Cecily. She is ultimately seduced by the porcine Januarius Jones, a character who can stand shoulder to shoulder with Faulkner’s more grotesque figures (which is saying something). Soon after the marriage, Donald Mahon dies, having completed his journey. In a fine touch, Faulkner has Mahon relive his wartime experience as he dies—flashing back to the time when he was shot down in France.
One can tease autobiographical elements from this novel, remembering that the novelist puts himself into all of his characters; they are him and not-him as well. In Faulkner, the relationship between fact and fiction is especially troubled, with the author self-consciously exploiting the reality of his life while working vigorously, as do his characters, to repress and distort what happened. As much as anything, Faulkner’s fiction is about the process of revision that occurs when the imagination confronts reality. Soldiers’ Pay is only a beginning, with characters and situations drawn from life but changed as the author conducts a highly personal seminar in autobiographical transmutation.
On an obvious level, Faulkner identifies Julian Lowe as someone like himself, a somewhat naive romantic who has never actually experienced war, having been shut out by the Armistice from that brutal initiation. That the facts of Lowe’s life parallel those of Faulkner’s can tempt the critic to make assumptions that will not hold up under scrutiny. Faulkner also seems to have identified, at least semiconsciously, with Donald Mahon, the wounded and dying veteran, who is frequently compared to a falcon, and, as mentioned earlier, the name Faulkner was derived from the Scottish name Falconer. The descriptions of Mahon, with his slight build and small hands and features, read like a self-portrait of the author. Mahon is first seen in the novel in a state of shock, holding a copy of Housman’s A Shropshire Lad in his hands: the soldier-athlete in the process of dying young. Daniel J. Singal regards Mahon as a “projection of Faulkner’s idealized post-Victorian self—a self that could fulfill the nineteenth-century dream of detaching itself from the flesh, allowing it to soar like an eagle or falcon above common humanity embedded in the mortal ‘dust’ below.”46 In another way, Mahon might be regarded (like Quentin Compson in The Sound and the Fury) as a self that Faulkner was willing to let die. By contrast to Mahon, Lowe seems innocent and slightly ridiculous. Jones—with his lechery and strangeness—represents a creature Faulkner both feared and probably hoped he would not himself become: a dirty old man, slightly deranged by his lustful and epicene qualities.
Soldiers’ Pay represents a young writer’s attempt to deal with his own chaotic experience, projecting versions of himself, attempting (perhaps) to reconcile his own sexual impulses. The various possible turns his life might have taken or might yet take are figured in Mahon, Lowe, and Jones. The aviator Mahon “soars” while the base Jones, that “fat satyr,” is often described as a “worm.” Lowe, with his fantasies of self-immolation, represents the self-destructive side of young Faulkner. Doctor Mahon, the priest who spends most of his time in his garden, represents an old world that Faulkner both dislikes for its ignorance of modern realities and finds attractive for various reasons, including its courtliness and gentleness.
The women in Soldiers’ Pay divide into the familiar whore/madonna split. Cecily, who resembles Estelle Oldham in certain ways, is full of promise that is never delivered, a tease, attractive in her boyish looks. She is also vain, skittish, and self-centered. In a mild way she anticipates lustier female figures in Faulkner’s fiction, such as Temple Drake or Charlotte Rittenmeyer. She most vividly foreshadows Patricia in Mosquitoes, Faulkner’s second novel. Estelle read the novel soon after its publication and was horrified by Cecily, whom she assumed was a stand-in for herself, even though Estelle was petite, not tall (like Cecily); in a later interview, she remembered that she felt deeply hurt by Faulkner’s portrait.
Given his complex but charged relationship with Miss Maud, it should come as no surprise that one finds plenty of mother figures in Faulkner’s fiction, and some of them—Dilsey in The Sound and the Fury is the best example—remain among the most evocative of his creations. In this first novel, Margaret Powers gathers all maternal instincts into one bundle. She is a calm (rather frozen) figure, and Faulkner invests her with “powers” that seem quite attractive. She reads people well and has sympathy for them. Her devotion to Donald Mahon is exemplary and seems “motherly” beyond question. But she has considerable sexual energy, however unused or arrested; this energy makes her vaguely dangerous and also, of course, alluring. She remains an unrealized character in some ways, an oedipal fantasy.
An awkward, rather brilliant harbinger of things to come, Soldiers’ Pay follows lines familiar to readers of “lost generation” stories, wherein returning veterans confront a world that doesn’t understand them and doesn’t even want to hear about their travails and triumphs abroad. (Among the finest examples of the genre is “Soldier’s Home,” a story in Hemingway’s first collection, In Our Time.) The general atmosphere of Faulkner’s novel recalls that of The Waste Land, a dry land where the familiar religious symbols have lost their power to communicate feeling or interpret the world. Everyone in Eliot’s poem discovers fear “in a handful of dust” and seems incapable of piecing together a fragmented world. Even the rector in Faulkner’s novel despairs of making sense of things, telling Januarius Jones: “As I grow older, Mr. Jones, I become more firmly convinced that we learn scarcely anything as we go through this world, and that we learn nothing whatever which can ever help us or be of any particular benefit to us, even.”47 As Doctor Mahon and Joe Gilligan walk together in the dusky air at the end of the novel, they pass a crumbling black church that swells with music, and they feel a “beautiful and mellow longing” for this primitive world they cannot, in their pseudosophistication, connect to in any important way. The white men of the South, here as elsewhere in Faulkner, seem cut off from their roots, from the natural world around them, from any source of genuine inspiration or authentic feeling. In this final scene, Faulkner anticipates a theme that will preoccupy him to the end.
I’ve seen strange people and different things, I’ve walked a lot in some fine country in France and England, but after all its not like mounting that northeast hill and seeing Woodson’s ridge, or the pine hills on the Pontotoc road, or slogging along through those bare fields back of the campus in a drizzling rain.
—Faulkner to his father,
October 17, 1925
According to Faulkner, Sherwood Anderson promised to recommend Soldiers’ Pay to his editor on the condition he did not have to read it. This is probably “more of a joke at his own expense,” says Noel Polk, “than a true story.”48If Anderson did say such a thing, it must have hurt the young author’s feelings, but he still needed the recommendation. His neatly self-typed manuscript (weighing in at 473 pages) was shipped in brown wrappers to Boni & Liveright in New York, freeing Faulkner to roam the world at last. With his usual hesitation, he made another quick trip to Memphis, stopped at home in Oxford for a final set of farewells (and fresh handouts of cash from his family), then set off for New Orleans for at least the third time with the intention of leaving for Europe.
Phil Stone (in a mad stroke of self-delusion) had written letters of introduction for Faulkner to the major modern authors, including Eliot, Pound, and Joyce. That Stone knew none of these writers personally worried neither Stone nor Faulkner; the latter probably assumed he would never need them, setting sail aboard the West Ivis bound for Genoa with Bill Spratling as a travel companion on Tuesday, July 7, 1925. He had in his wallet money from home that included fifty dollars from the Young Colonel, money saved during his months of writing sketches for various papers, and a final infusion of thirty dollars from the Times-Picayne for four further sketches. He planned to write others en route to Genoa.
The journey took four weeks, a fine summer crossing in the high-spirited company of Bill Spratling. “There was really very little time to be lonely at sea,” Faulkner wrote (in “Elmer,” an unfinished story, written in Paris a few weeks later), “twenty days on a freighter pushing one empty horizon before and drawing another one behind, empty too save for a green carpet of wake unrolling across that blue monotone.”49 They arrived on August 2, disembarking in Genoa, and going by foot and (sometimes) rail through parts of Italy and Switzerland. Faulkner’s letters home are full of enthusiasms, as when he sent a postcard from the Piazza del Duomo in Milan on August 7: “This Cathedral!” he exclaimed. “Can you imagine stone lace? or frozen music? All covered with gargoyles like dogs, and mitred cardinals and mailed knights and saints pierced with arrows and beautiful naked Greek figures that have no religious significance whatever.”50 He traveled to a village in the Alps called Stresa, which he found “full of American tourists,” and so packed his typewriter and bags and “lit out for the mountains.”51 It seems worth noting that he would lug a typewriter on this journey, much of it on foot. This was before the days of light portables, so Faulkner’s commitment to keeping his writing career going apace seems rather startling. He was also carrying with him five hundred pages of blank typing paper.
He and Spratling went over the Simplon Pass by rail, all “tunnels and rushing rivers,” with “chalets hanging on the mountains someway.” There were “bells everywhere,” a fairy-tale version of Switzerland, which Faulkner regarded cynically as “a big country club with a membership principally American.”52 They saw Mont Blanc, made famous by Shelley in English poetry, in the distance from Montreux, and walked on country roads with “rows of poplars, straight as soldiers, and villages with red tile roofs among rolling fields of grain, and hills covered with vineyards.”53 They often stopped for a pitcher of local wine at small restaurants and bars.
As planned, they separated at the French border, and Faulkner made his way alone to Paris, the center of literary and artistic modernism. Paris was, of course, where Pound and Joyce, Hemingway and Fitzgerald, and Pablo Picasso had gravitated, joining Gertrude Stein, who had been there for many years already. Some of these had moved on, but Joyce was still present, and Faulkner caught a glimpse of the tall, awkward, myopic master in a café, but lost his nerve and did not approach him. There is a sense in which Faulkner, partly through shyness and partly through ornery self-regard, refused to mingle with other writers. He had probably had enough of that in New Orleans and was reeling from the breach with Anderson over the satirical sketch. There is another level on which he refused to play the game of making contacts. He would find an audience on his own terms, in his own way, or the world be damned. He may also have been quietly rebelling against the determined way in which Phil Stone had tried to introduce him to the great modern writers by writing those letters of introduction. Faulkner kept them in his suitcase, but they remained unopened.
From Paris, in mid-August, Faulkner wrote to his mother about his travels.
I’ve had a grand time today. Took a pacque-boat, a sort of marine trolley, that runs up and down the river all day, and went down the river, past the barrier gate, on past Auteuil and Meudon, to Suresnes. The country there is hilly, with spires sticking out of the trees, and I crossed the river and walked through the Bois de Boulogne, up the avenue to the Place de l’Etoile, where the Arc de Triomphe is. I sat there a while watching the expensive foreign cars full of American movie actresses whizzing past, then I walked down the Champs-Elysées to the Place de la Concorde, and had lunch, an omelette, lettuce, cream cheese and coffee and a bottle of wine, at a restaurant where cabmen and janitors eat.54
He was spending very little money, less than two dollars per day, and determined to associate with working people, not the fancy tourists or grand artists from abroad. Seeking out “cabmen and janitors,” he rented some rooms on the Left Bank among the working class. Instead of seeking out literary salons or spending much time in museums, he preferred to watch children and their grandparents in the Luxembourg Gardens, sailing little boats on the pools: a scene that would etch itself in his memory, resurfacing at the end of Sanctuary.
He had begun his novel under the working title Mosquito en route to Paris, adding a little to the manuscript in Paris, although he soon put that project aside to work on another novel, “a grand one.”55 It was a closely autobiographical work about an artistic southern gentleman not unlike Faulkner, though tall and genuinely suffering from a war wound (incurred when he mishandles a grenade, and so self-inflicted). The young man is called Elmer Hodge, and he heads to Paris in search of culture. About Faulkner’s age, he wants to paint. The French capital looms brightly in his mind as that “merry childish sophisticated cold-blooded dying city” of his dreams. It was a place where “Matisse and Picasso still painted” and Cézanne as well: “That man dipped his brush in light.”
Faulkner applied himself with a strange intensity to “Elmer,” often sitting up late at night in his tiny rooms, but the novel was never finished. It may have seemed too close to home, a piece of naked autobiography, unmediated. Critics have repeatedly drawn attention to its Freudian aspects, as if Faulkner sat with the work of the great Viennese doctor on his lap while he scribbled. The tale certainly tracks a young man’s psychosexual development with uncanny honesty, including the commonplace adolescent phase when a young man attaches his affections to another young man. Faulkner presses far beyond the sexual norm, willing to risk truth in his fiction, refusing to play along with the convention in which sexuality is decided at birth, an essentialist notion that his work consistently but very quietly challenges by simply assuming that eros cannot be contained and by asserting that it infuses life in many forms and disrupts easy assumptions.
As for Elmer Hodge, Faulkner suggests: “A boy up to and through adolescence runs the gamut of civilization, getting in brief fierce episodes the whole spiritual history of man.” And so the sexual combines with the spiritual, as it often does in Faulkner’s later work. The problem with “Elmer” is the stilted manner of the writing as the hero moves through various (rather extreme) phases of sexual maturity in a very brief space, dealing with phallic obsessions, homoerotic passion, incest, and the like, in swift order. But Faulkner was writing about himself, and he could only see himself as an innocent, a gentleman, a refined creature incapable of darkness. Thus he describes Elmer in a flat style that seems peculiarly at odds with the material; he remains, like Faulkner in Paris, an outsider, an observer, someone not quite engaged in life, living in a fantasy of human action and interaction. Faulkner seems incapable of processing sexuality, which he sees as “sinister, dirty.” For Elmer, the world remains oddly uninflected, monotonously “admirable,” a succession of “happy astonishments.” The more lines that Faulkner added to his self-portrait, the less visible the face became. Ultimately, the image blurs.
Yet there is much to catch a biographer’s attention in this aborted work. One of the female characters is Elmer’s sister, called Jo-Addie, who seems to prefigure one of his great characters, Caddy Compson of The Sound and the Fury. (Her name also seems to echo that of Addie Bundren, the dead mother of As I Lay Dying.) Jo-Addie recalls the mythical goddess Diana, a nymph, slim and dark and alluring. Abandoning his mother in favor of his sister, Elmer sidesteps a directly oedipal attraction, although there is still a latently incestuous quality in this closeness to Jo-Addie, who becomes his muse. She is flat-chested, virginal, and a tomboy, hermaphroditic. Elmer loved to sleep with her, the two of them cuddling “like an island in a dark ocean.” Their relationship is safely presexual, of course; Elmer is remembering this relationship. But the connection to “Jo” empowers him as an artist, quite literally, when she sends him a box of crayons. Elmer prefers to keep them to one side as he paints in oil, preserving their “pointed symmetrical purity.” The language swerves out of control as Faulkner describes Elmer’s love of fondling the tubes of oil with an embarrassingly florid sexual explicitness: “To finger lasciviously smooth dull silver tubes virgin yet at the same time pregnant, comfortably heavy to the palm.”
By September 6, 1925, he had written twenty-thousand words of this imperfect novel, as he bragged to his mother. He admitted having acquired “a new vice,” which was touring the city by bus. He was also cultivating an artistic look with a full beard, walking the streets of Paris in a newly purchased beret and baggy trousers. Everywhere he saw the human results of the war: “And so many many young men on the streets, bitter and gray-faced, on crutches or with empty sleeves and scarred faces. And now they must still fight, with a million young men already dead between Dunkirk and the Vosges mountains, in Morocco. Poor France, so beautiful and unhappy and so damn cheerful. We dont know how lucky we are, in America.”56
Faulkner shelved the Elmer story in mid-September and returned to the book that would become Mosquitoes. “This one is going to be the book of my youth,” he told his mother. “I am going to take 2 years on it, finish it by my 30th birthday.”57 The idea of remaining in Paris, an expatriate artist like Joyce or Hemingway, didn’t really appeal to him, even though he loved France. In truth, he longed for home, as his letters suggest.
He continued to reflect seriously on the war, which had ended only seven years before: “Walking through war-zone,” he wrote home. “Trenches are gone, but still rolls of wire and shell cases and ‘duds’ piled along the hedge-rows, and an occasional tank rusting in a farm yard. Trees all with tops blown out of them, and cemeteries everywhere. British, mostly.”58 The war had rooted in his imagination, and it continued to grow until Faulkner finally addressed this conflict on a grand scale in A Fable, a late novel of huge ambition but uneven quality.
In early October, he headed for England, having grown “sort of restless” in France. He crossed the Channel on an English ferry, delighting in the food (joints of beef, ham, and mutton, loaves of coarse-grained bread, Stilton cheese, and English tea). He made his way by train to London, where he marveled at the thick fog: “not only greasy, but it is full of coal smoke: worse than Pittsburgh about spoiling clothes.”59 After seeing the usual tourist sites, he opted for the countryside once again, walking through southeast England and staying at cheap bed-and-breakfast hotels. He found the country “beautiful…with the greenest grass in the meadows full of sheep, and quiet lanes bordered by red and yellow trees and full of fallen leaves.”60 The peacefulness of the place reassured him, and he exclaimed: “No wonder Joseph Conrad could write fine books here.” He was himself writing again, usually in the mornings after breakfast and before he set off for the day on foot, completing a short story, “The Leg,” which would appear in Doctor Martino and Other Stories (1934). He also returned to the novel, Mosquitoes, adding as many as ten handwritten pages each day to the rumpled manuscript, which he carried in his rucksack.
On October 16, he returned to Paris, where letters from home had begun to pile up. He wrote to his father at once: “I have just been thinking myself that I have been away from our blue hills and sage fields and things long enough. So I am making arrangements to come home.”61 While awaiting a contract from Boni & Liveright, who had accepted the book after some hesitation, he worked on his novel and another story, making remarkable progress in a couple of weeks. When the letter from his publisher arrived, containing a check for two hundred dollars for an advance on Soldiers’ Pay (still called May Day), he decided his time in Europe had come to a fitting conclusion. He made plans to sail home via New York, where he would visit his publisher in person in that city, then proceed to Oxford.
As his time abroad drew to a close at the end of the first week in December, he surveyed his accomplishments over the past few months. He had in his possession six short stories, a messy draft of the Elmer story, and a complete first chapter of Mosquitoes, which he was still busy typing. He had in hand a contract for his first novel and an option on the next two. For a young man on the hoof, this was a considerable haul, and the optimism of his letters home suggest that he understood his bounty. The writing engines were fully revved now. What Flannery O’Connor later called “the Dixie Express” had definitely left the station.