One Matchless Time: A Life of William Faulkner - Jay Parini (2005)
Chapter 5. In Yoknapatawpha County
The Season of Rain and Death
Snopes began to speak in his harsh, assertive voice. There emerged gradually a picture of stupid chicanery and petty corruption for stupid and petty ends, conducted principally in hotel rooms into which bellboys whisked with bulging jackets upon discreet flicks of skirts in swift closed doors.
An agreement with Hal Smith at Harcourt to publish Flags in the Dust came through on September 20, 1928, although Smith insisted on the large cuts (twenty-five thousand words) that whittled Sartoris from the larger manuscript, making it a more straightforward, conventional narrative. The irony here, of course, is that just as Smith was suggesting that his work move in a less experimental direction, Faulkner, in a blaze of inspiration, had composed his earliest masterpiece, The Sound and the Fury, which broke with conventions and challenged readers in ways rarely experienced before in American fiction.
Wasson invited Faulkner to New York to meet Smith and discuss the shape of the cuts in his large manuscript, which had to be accomplished within less than three weeks. Faulkner harbored some hope that Smith would have an interest in his new novel, which he had just finished, although the manuscript needed revision. Having little money, he moved into Wasson’s tiny Greenwich Village apartment, on MacDougal Street, and quickly established himself with old friends in the city who had recently migrated from New Orleans, including Bill Spratling and Lyle Saxon. Stark Young was the intellectual center of this (largely gay) group, while Saxon, in his late thirties and from a wealthy plantation family, played frequent host to this southern circle at his spacious apartment above a bookstore on Christopher Street, where bourbon and good talk flowed freely. He was at the time basking in the success of his most recent book Father Mississippi, a nonfiction account of a major flood that mixed a history of the river and its region into the story, and he was currently writing a book about New Orleans. (The flood story made a strong impression on Faulkner, and it would provide a stimulus for “Old Man,” which is part of If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem, a later novel.)
Faulkner worked every morning on further revisions of The Sound and the Fury. These revisions included several additions of more than a page and efforts to link events and phrases in the first, third, and fourth sections. Everywhere he tried to clarify ambiguities and make it clear when an event took place, reworking passages in the second section to enhance Quentin’s obsessions with water and increase his self-destructiveness, making his suicide more plausible in the end. The notion of “death by water,” so prevalent in The Waste Land, was deepened by the inclusion of subtle images. A two-hundred-word passage where Quentin brushes his teeth before going off to kill himself was inserted, partly to suggest that Quentin was not simply agitated, he had moved into a zone entirely to himself, fallen into a hole of solipsistic despair and self-recrimination. His suicide was not an impulsive act. It was deliberate and coolly planned. When Faulkner finished with the revisions, he bought a bottle of whiskey and drank most of it over a period of two days, during which time he ate and drank almost nothing else. This binge was typical of Faulkner, who would often celebrate milestones in his career with massive drunks. In a strange way, his drinking had a suicidal edge, and one understands how the young author identified with Quentin, not only in his self-destructiveness but in his general aura of dislocation, in his longing for a more complete past, in his alienation from the modern world.
Wasson, in the meantime, worked hard on the revision of Flags. Given his mandate, which was to make the novel look more like a realistic novel of the period, he did a reasonably intelligent job, trimming the Horace Benbow plotline, focusing more acutely on the Sartoris clan and their tribulations. The generational struggles came to the fore as the fatal relationship between Horace and Belle dwindled. As a biographer, one sees in this unhappy alliance (as fully developed in Flags) something of Faulkner’s own sense of his relationship with Estelle, who resembles Belle. He must have seen that he was stepping into a doomed relationship, one based on a fantasy of home and hearth, but he could not stop himself. “They were just terribly unsuited for each other,” their daughter, Jill, reflected. “Nothing about the marriage was right.”1 The connections between the couple were strong, if ambiguous and unhealthy. That they should one day be married seemed, to Faulkner, as much a matter of fate as a deliberate choice.
Ben Wasson could not tolerate the drinking and made this clear to Faulkner, who shifted to other apartments, including one that he temporarily sublet from an acquaintance. He spent a few days with Lyle Saxon and a few days with Jim Devine, on 111th Street, near Columbia University. But he preferred the Village, moving back to MacDougal Street with Owen Crump, an artist whom he met at Saxon’s place. There he set about trying to get stories accepted by the lucrative slick magazines of the period, which paid as much as four thousand dollars per story to their prized writers. This tack proved unsuccessful, however. At the moment, Faulkner’s work just didn’t fit into any editor’s notion of how a story should look or feel.
Faulkner hung on in New York through the fall, writing stories, socializing with friends, seeing plays, and waiting for word from Smith about The Sound and the Fury. He had the publication of Sartoris to look forward to, making him feel as though he were not stalled as a writer. He had about two hundred dollars in hand, an advance from Smith, and felt he would soon strike paydirt at one of the national magazines. He needed to make money quickly, however, because Estelle’s divorce would soon be finalized. They had no doubt discussed their future life together, and Faulkner understood that he would be expected to support the family in a reasonable style. With such thoughts heavily on his mind, he took the train from New York to Memphis in early December, heading back to Oxford; he could never stand to be anywhere but Oxford during the Christmas holidays.
There was a lot to catch his attention in his hometown. A new dorm at Ole Miss had just been named Falkner Hall, in honor of the Young Colonel. His brother Johncy was running for district attorney, regarded by most politicians as a “Bilbo man,” since he had supported Bilbo in the last election rather forcefully. The Bilbo connection didn’t help in Oxford, but his friends got behind his campaign, taking out an ad in the local paper that was singed by Phil Stone and his father, by Lem Oldham, and by other influential citizens. Faulkner himself went into action for his brother, driving people to the polls on election day. The family reached in every direction to get support for Johncy. Even so, he lost the election, although Faulkner himself learned something about the details of political life in Jefferson County—material he would use in later novels.
Back in New York, The Sound and the Fury was read by several editors at Harcourt and turned down, although a strange turn of events soon worked in Faulkner’s favor. Hal Smith resigned to start his own company, in association with the English publisher Jonathan Cape. The new firm offered Faulkner a contract for the novel on February 18, 1929. This included two hundred dollars in advance of royalties. Smith and Cape would be his fourth publisher in four years, yet he felt lucky to have one at all, especially one that (on the Cape side) boasted a remarkable list of authors that included H. G. Wells, T.E. Lawrence, Eugene O’Neill, Sinclair Lewis, Rebecca West, and H. L. Mencken.
It was during the holidays that a new novel began taking shape in his head. It would become Sanctuary, a book sharply different in texture and intent from The Sound and the Fury. Indeed, Faulkner aimed the novel at a wide audience, hoping to make some quick cash. Accoring to Joseph Blotner, Faulkner was returning to an old story he’d heard in a nightclub in Memphis about an impotent gangster who raped a girl with a peculiar object. This bizarre image lay at the back of his mind as he began to write, rapidly, this sensational novel of depravity and malice. Needless to say, Faulkner could not stray far from his deepest concerns as an artist and human being, and in Sanctuary one finds simply an exaggerated version of the material that had begun to preoccupy him. It concerns “a season of rain and death,” as he put it in the novel’s final, poignant sentence.
Interviewers always asked him about his original conception of the novel, and his answers varied only slightly. The book, as he told a group of students at the University of Virginia, was “basely conceived.” He had been writing for a few years and not made much money. He claimed to have done odd jobs, such as “run a bootlegging boat.” “I was a commercial airplane pilot,” he also told them. As for the novel, he “thought of the most horrific idea” he could imagine and wrote that down in a matter of “three weeks.”2 This utterly false account of the novel was typical and destructive, suggesting that Sanctuary should be considered a potboiler and not a serious part of Faulkner’s body of work. In fact, the novel would take four months to complete—still a rather short stretch of time for a novel—and there would be further revisions in the months before it finally appeared.
Faulkner certainly found all forms of corruption fascinating and had a keen ear for tales of sordidness and deceit. Memphis was, at the time, a city with an underworld of some luster. Bootlegging, prostitution, and various extortion rackets plagued the metropolis, with famous criminals such as John “One-thumb” Revinsky on the prowl. Popeye Pumphrey was not exactly “One-thumb” Revinsky, but he had a decent record in bank robbery, gambling, and bootlegging. Faulkner loved to visit his seedy friend Reno DeVaux at his club, the New Crystal Gardens, where he drank and gambled and listened to stories about renegades, and it’s probably there that he gobbled up tales of Popeye’s exploits.
Meanwhile, Sartoris was published in late January, with mixed reviews. An anonymous reviewer in the New York Times Book Review called it “a work of uneven texture, confused sentiment and loose articulation.”3Henry Nash Smith, who had been consistently reviewing Faulkner’s novels, took a more positive view in the Dallas Morning News, saying of the young novelist that he “learns his trade and broadens his thought almost visibly from chapter to chapter.” He singled out the beauty and exactness of the prose: “He is, for better or worse, eloquent. He likes processions of carefully accurate epithets; he likes jeweled, sensuous words shedding color and sound, words marshaled in swelling rhythms suggestive of blank verse. This is naturally heresy to the age of Dreiser; but the peculiar thing is he gets away with it.”4 These were typical of the responses to the novel, and they did not help to sell the book.
Faulkner had, of course, his pet project to console him: Sanctuary. One evening in April he read aloud from it to Phil Stone, who commented: “Bill, this won’t sell. The day of the shocker is past.” Yet Faulkner was undeterred, as usual. He wrote to Ben Wasson about the novel, and Wasson relayed the information to Hal Smith, hoping to whet his appetite. Faulkner himself wrote to Wasson bluntly: “I am now writing a book about a girl who gets raped with a corn cob.” He doubtless enjoyed the shock value of such a remark, and he would perpetually shy away from regarding the novel as anything more serious than a potboiler, perhaps recalling the fury the novel aroused in Oxford (and within his own family) when it hit the stands.
During breaks on the novel, he spent long hours with Estelle, eating dinner at the Oldhams’ many nights and playing with young Malcolm and Cho-Cho in the garden afterward in the early evening. He often put the children to bed with ghost stories or retold his experiences in the RAF, spicing them up, as ever, and making himself appear as heroic as possible. He and Estelle waited impatiently for the divorce from Franklin to come through, and it finally did, on April 29. The path toward marriage now opened up, though Faulkner seemed unable actually to pop the question, frightened off by his own doubts as well as the skepticism of his parents, who still had enormous sway over him. A decision, one way or the other, would have to be made soon.
American Gothic: Sanctuary
When you marry your own wife, you start from scratch…scratching. When you marry somebody else’s wife, you start off maybe ten years behind, from somebody else’s scratch and scratching.
Sanctuary, which Leslie Fiedler would describe as “a brutal protest to the quality of American life written in the pit of the Great Depression,” progressed in spasms, a draft typed with two fingers in Faulkner’s bedroom.5 He reached back to Flags in the Dust for material, bringing Horace Benbow and his wife, Belle Mitchell, and his sister, Narcissa, back into play—rather sordidly, as Horace flees his wife, who has been previously married and has a daughter, Little Belle, by her former husband, a situation that inevitably reminds one of Estelle and Victoria.6 Yet it is the underworld of rough types like Popeye and his lowlife friends that occupies the center of the novel. The plot, which Faulkner rearranged at several points, is quite linear in its final version and opens with Horace being nearly apprehended by Popeye, who suspects him of being a revenue agent. Popeye leads Horace (the genteel, “civilized,” liberal man) back to a ruined mansion called the Old Frenchman place. The author’s astonishing description of the crumbling manor transforms the place into a symbol of the decline of the Old South, pulling a vast quantity of history into its rhetorical sweep:
It was a landmark, known as the Old Frenchman place, built before the Civil War; a plantation house set in the middle of a tract of land; of cotton fields and gardens and lawns long since gone back to jungle, which the people of the neighborhood had been pulling down piecemeal for firewood for fifty years or digging with secret and sporadic optimism for the gold which the builder was reputed to have buried somewhere about the place when Grant came through the county on his Vicksburg campaign.7
Popeye and his associates, Lee Goodwin and his faithful common-law wife, Ruby Lamar, occupy the Old Frenchman place, as does Goodwin’s father, Pap, a blind and deaf man, “his white beard stained about the mouth.” Other bootleggers drift in and out, all of them creatures from an underclass. Such types were “not so unusual in the South in the early decades of this century,” Robert Penn Warren has suggested. “There were great characters everywhere, all worthy of a novel by Dickens.”
Horace is rather horrified by what he sees at the Old Frenchman place. He returns to his sister’s house in Jefferson the next day, taken there by Popeye on a truck loaded with moonshine and bound for Memphis. A second line of characters emerges now: Gowan Stevens, a student at the University of Virginia, and his girlfriend, Temple Drake, an impulsive, “loose” college girl known for her “long blonde legs.” She is a student at the state university in Oxford, although one can find nothing of the student about her. Faulkner portrays her as shallow, seductive, and essentially corrupt, especially in the early parts of the novel, before she is forced to confront her own depravity and misery. His portrayal of this hapless young woman is hardly less than a form of misogyny, as Albert Guerard has noted.8 Lifelessly crude in her animal drives, she represents a bitter vision of the female sex with “her mouth boldly scarlet, her eyes watchful and cold beneath her brimless hat, a curled spill of red hair.”9 That she is ultimately brutalized by Popeye, who rapes her with a corncob, merely adds injury to insult.
The drunken Stevens, who represents spoiled, impetuous youth, has wrecked his car with Temple beside him by driving into a tree near the Old Frenchman place, where he hoped to buy cheap liquor from Goodwin. Once at Goodwin’s house, all hell breaks loose, as the presence of a beautiful young woman inflames the men, leading to Temple Drake’s fateful rape and the murder of the mentally impaired but kindhearted Tommy (an associate) by Popeye. The scene of the corncob rape is actually done with subtlety and indirection, as is the murder of Tommy. The sound of a pistol firing, for example, is “no louder than the striking of a match” and seems to Temple “a short, minor sound shutting down upon the scene, the instant, with a profound finality,” so that she barely understands what has happened.10
In a scarcely believable twist, Popeye drives Temple Drake to Memphis and installs her in a brothel, where he introduces her to a grim fellow called Red, who seems to captivate her. The voyeuristic, impotent Popeye eventually kills Red as well. While Temple occupies herself at the brothel, hiding out from her father, Judge Drake, and pursuing Red, Goodwin finds himself falsely charged with the murder of Tommy. The noble-minded Horace Benbow agrees to represent him. (In the earliest draft, there was an opening scene, in the jailhouse in Jefferson, with Benbow interviewing Goodwin.)11 In conversation with Sen. Clarence Snopes, Horace discovers the whereabouts of Temple Drake and eventually gets her to testify at Goodwin’s trial, but when she does she perjures herself (with her father and four brothers present in court) and condemns the hapless Goodwin to a hideous death by a mob determined to burn him to death, not so much because he murdered someone as because of the corncob rape he did not commit.
Everyone, except the woefully conflicted and ineffectual Benbow, seems corrupt in Sanctuary, including the district attorney in Jefferson, Eustace Graham, who wants a conviction to bolster his record and aid his future run for Congress. Narcissa wants the trial to end as quickly as possible, mainly because of the scandal that attends such a case; that her brother would represent Goodwin at all upsets her. (She finds the idea that Goodwin has a common-law wife, Ruby Lamar, almost worse than the fact that he may have raped Temple Drake and killed Tommy.) Another seedy figure is Sen. Clarence Snopes, who gives Horace the information about Temple’s whereabouts for a price, revealing his deep corruption.
In the tradition of detective fiction, Horace is part attorney, part investigator, and he has many shrewd moments in the narrative, but ultimately he cannot overcome the phalanx of corrupt and selfish people who block his every move. Evil inheres in virtually everyone he must confront, and there is simply no justice to be had in Yoknapatawpha County. Indeed, the trial of Lee Goodwin is perfunctory: the jury is out only eight minutes. Vigilante justice soon takes over, with the condemned man burned to death by an angry mob, while Horace walks away in despair and horror: “He couldn’t hear them. He couldn’t hear the man who had got burned screaming. He couldn’t hear the fire, though it still swirled upward unabated, as though it were living upon itself, and soundless: a voice of fury like in a dream, roaring silently out of a peaceful void.”12
In a further turn of irony at the conclusion of the story, Popeye is arrested “on his way to Pensacola to visit his mother,” charged with a murder of a cop in a small Alabama town that he did not commit. They hang him, of course. But for the wrong killing, revealing once again that life is a cruel and senseless progress of fools and knaves. In a terrifying world, there is no sanctuary for the honest man (sanctus in Latin means “inviolable” as well as holy or sanctified). A fair number of the characters in this novel seem driven by sadistic impulses. As one critic would comment, in Sanctuary sadism itself had climbed to “its American peak.”13 Yet Faulkner had written much more than a depraved tale of rape and murder. French readers, such as Jean-Paul Sartre, considered it a masterpiece, and modern critics generally agree.
When Estelle read the book, she said to her husband, “It’s horrible.” He replied, “It’s meant to be.” As Larry Levinger writes: “[Faulkner] was convinced that the novel mirrored society—a society under ‘the power of darkness,’ as one critic put it.” Levinger points to Faulkner’s own later introduction to The Sound and the Fury, where he called on southern writers not “to draw a savage indictment of the contemporary scene or to escape from it into a make-believe region of swords and magnolias and mockingbirds,” but to address the horrors of the modern world with “that cold intellect which can write with calm and complete detachment.”14 In many ways, Faulkner in Sanctuary taught modern and contemporary writers exactly how to embody this dark world of violence and corruption, of moral failure and intellectual waste. The novel anticipates much of what was to come in the latter half of the twentieth century.
Like Flags in the Dust, Sanctuary would evolve, the narrative becoming more linear in the final draft, less an excursion into the psyche of Horace Benbow, the intellectual son of the southern bourgeoisie, and more the dark and melodramatic tale of Popeye. It’s a well-known story, of course, about an innocent girl overwhelmed by a corrupt man with evil intentions in circumstances that are both gloomy and horrifying: one thinks of Horace Walpole, Mather Lewis, and so many other writers in the gothic tradition. Appropriating the conventions of the gothic tale and transcending generic boundaries, Faulkner turned a decidedly lurid story into a piece of art, creating a work of “popular” fiction that neverless “evinces a sense of outrage and derision seldom found in popular fiction,” as Bleikasten writes.15
When Hal Smith received the novel in late May, he passed the manuscript around to three colleagues, none of whom considered it publishable. He read it himself, writing (with mock horror) to Faulkner: “Good God, I can’t publish this. We’d both be in jail.”16 On the other hand, he quickly set five galleys in type before getting cold feet and shelving the project for nearly a year and a half. He kept the partially set galleys and put the manuscript aside with a sense that, before very long, he would find a way to publish it.
Remember, all Tolstoy said about Anna Karenina was that she was beautiful and could see in the dark like a cat. That’s all he ever said to describe her. And it’s best to take the gesture, the shadow of the branch, and let the mind create the tree.
—FAULKNER, Lion in the Garden
Having expended so much energy, so quickly, in writing this novel, Faulkner was exhausted, physically and emotionally. It was at this point, in May, that Estelle’s sister Dorothy (called Dot) called to suggest that the time had come for him to propose marriage to her sister. He had been hanging around the Oldham house for months, if not years, eating dinner with the family, babysitting, taking Estelle for long walks across the campus of Ole Miss. Her father, Lem, was no happier about this union than he had been eleven years before, when he insisted that Billy Faulkner was unsuitable. The fact that by now Faulkner had written a few novels did not make him a brighter prospect for his daughter.
There was not much enthusiasm from the Faulkner clan either: Estelle was known to drink heavily, and she was a divorced woman with children. She was also, of course, an Oldham, which had connations of snobbishness that were not unjustified. To the end, she thought of herself an aristocrat; as late as 1974, she told an interviewer that Richard Nixon should not have gone to Red China. “I can’t understand why the President would take a long trip to China to talk to a peasant like Mao,” she said. “I wouldn’t have let him into my house.”17
Miss Maud was downright hostile to Estelle and would remain so throughout her life, barely acknowledging her presence at times. Even Murry took against the notion of marriage for his son. He thought Bill should settle down and get a job before he even began to contemplate such a thing. He volunteered to help him get an administrative post at the university, though one can only imagine what the reaction on campus would have been to hiring a young man who had failed so miserably as the university postmaster. The debate raged until mid-June.
Faulkner and Estelle were, however, entangled in deep ways. Indeed, Estelle told Joseph Blotner that she had an abortion at about this time, assisted by Faulkner, who may have been the father.18 In any case, Faulkner proposed to Estelle on June 19, 1929, even though he felt deeply uncertain about what he was doing. Indeed, he wrote to his publisher only days before he was married:
I am going to be married. Both want to and have to. THIS PART IS CONFIDENTIAL, UTTERLY. For my honour and the sanity—I believe life—of a woman. This is not bunk; neither am I being sucked in. We grew up together and I don’t think she could fool me in this way; that is, make me believe that her mental condition, her nerves are this far gone. And no question of pregnancy: that would hardly move me: no one can face his own bastard with more equanimity than I…Neither is it a matter of a promise on my promises. It’s a situation which I engendered and permitted to ripen which has become unbearable, and I am tired of running from the devilment I bring about. This sounds a little insane….19
Indeed, it does.
Without real enthusiasm, Estelle accepted the proposal, believing that her marriage to Faulkner was in some way inevitable, a belief shared by Faulkner himself. A marriage license was obtained at the courthouse in Oxford on June 20. They drove to a church under halcyon skies in Maud’s blue Chevrolet, with Dot in the car to serve as a witness. But Faulkner’s sense of honor was such that he insisted on stopping by Lem’s office to obtain formal permission. He announced, bluntly, that he wished to marry Estelle that day and that she wished for the same. Major Oldham very reluctantly gave his permission, saying that they were mature people and he should not, at this point, attempt to stop them. On a pleasant note, he reassured Faulkner that he liked him on a personal level and wished him and his daughter good luck.
This duty out of the way, Faulkner drove around dazedly with Estelle and Dot, looking for a minister who would marry them. The Episcopal rector, a friend of both families, turned them down swiftly on the grounds that Estelle had been divorced; he wished it were otherwise, but had no choice. They proceeded to the College Hill Presbyterian Church, where the minister, the Rev. Dr. Winn David Hedleston, agreed to perform an unplanned ceremony on the spot. The church, with its white columns lending a note of majesty to a building constructed in 1837, was empty, but it made a dignified backdrop to the brief ceremony. Afterward, Bill took his mother’s car back to her and borrowed his father’s, which he would use to transport himself, his bride, five-year-old Malcolm (often called Mac) and a servant to Pascagoula, where they rented a beachfront cottage with money that Faulkner had borrowed from various friends, intending to pay them back with the advance from Sanctuary, if one should ever come. That Pascagoula was, in Faulkner’s mind, closely associated with Helen Baird seems not to have deterred him from choosing this place to begin his marriage. He also apparently did not take into account Estelle’s dislike of beaches.
Especially since her marriage to Franklin, Estelle had become used to luxury, and she was not exactly getting that by marrying Bill Faulkner. At this point in his life, he liked to hang about in casual clothes, barefoot and unshaven. Nor did he bathe or shave as regularly as he might. His sense of time was not based on an allegiance to getting places quickly or getting things done, except when it came to his writing, where he was a monster of efficiency. Estelle, on the other hand, had grown used to a way of life that included fine clothing and elegant dinners. She brought a large wardrobe to Pascagoula that included silk and satin gowns bought in Hawaii and Shanghai, where Franklin served as a minor official of the State Department. It struck her at once that opportunities to wear her finer things would be few and far between with William Faulkner as her husband, and she began to doubt the choice she had just made.
Soon after their arrival at the coast, the revised proofs of The Sound and the Fury came, with many changes made by Ben Wasson. The changes—such as doing away with italics to suggest shifts in time—upset Faulkner, who had a strong attachment to the book in the form it had been written. He was forced to rework the proofs considerably before sending them back, much to his annoyance. This return to serious work only increased his moodiness, isolating him further from Estelle. It seems obvious that her expectations for the marriage were not well met, and she looked glumly ahead to years of loneliness exacerbated by her new husband’s poverty. Her anxiety was scarcely alleviated by his willingness to dress in the evening for dinner or by his polite manner.
A friend brought Cho-Cho (who had been staying with the Oldhams) down to Pascagoula, with a maid to look after the child, and for a while the situation improved, at least superficially. By late July, Faulkner had managed to whisk his bride away to New Orleans for some parties, brightening her spirits. They stayed in a fine hotel and were wined and dined by old friends in the Vieux Carré, and there was plenty of music and even dancing in the clubs, where Faulkner was a familiar presence. But when they returned to Pascagoula, the realities of life with Faulkner overwhelmed Estelle, and she took to drinking heavily. One night, having had far too much whiskey, she wandered in a green silk gown into the moonlit ocean, wading out to a place where she knew the shelf dropped off. Faulkner saw her from the house and began screaming. A neighbor, Martin Sheperd, heard the cries and beat Faulkner through the water to reach Estelle just before she managed to lose herself in the depths. There was a feeble struggle, which Sheperd won, and Estelle was brought back into the house and put to bed by her dismayed husband. A doctor came to administer a sedative and shook his head sadly at the newlyweds. He must have wondered how things could have gone so wrong so quickly.
Estelle had, of course, been uncertain about the marriage from the outset and had nearly run away the day of the wedding. But this would have been embarrassing for her and her family, and she was swept along by circumstances. It probably seemed to her, as to Faulkner, that their union was preordained. Needless to say, the trip to Pascagoula had been a bad idea from the start, amplifying her uncertainties. Both bride and groom found themselves in a very deadly contract, and the prospect of a life together didn’t warm either of their hearts.
They returned to Oxford soon after Estelle recovered from this suicidal episode, taking up residence in a street-level apartment in a house on University Avenue. There were two bedrooms in the apartment, one for the children, one for the newlyweds, and there was an alcove in the living room that could serve as a study for Faulkner. There he set up a rickety oak table given to him by his mother, and it was at this table that Faulkner wrote “A Rose for Emily,” his most famous story. The apartment itself was filled with recently arrived furniture from Estelle’s house in Honolulu, much of it rather expensive. There was also a broad verandah that Faulkner found agreeable as a place to set himself up with his typewriter at a wicker-and-glass table that belonged to his elderly landlady, Miss Alma Meek.
Murry Falkner pressured his son to find real work, and Faulkner agreed that he must do something. He took a night job in the university power plant, as a supervisor. Sleeping in the morning for a few hours and taking catnaps throughout the night at the plant, where his responsibilities were minimal, he found that he had the whole afternoon to write. That was all he needed. At least having a job provided a certain amount of cover, and he could devote himself to the stories he was writing and to the beginnings of new novel that had started to take shape in his head. Faulkner quite self-consciously decided to write a book that would make his career a significant one, even if he never wrote another word.
He did not lose touch with his own family. They were only a short walk from his apartment, and he made a point of visiting his mother each day for coffee on his way to work: a habit that would continue for decades, until her death in 1960. Their relationship remained close, although the marriage upset Miss Maud. Her basic objection to Estelle was that she didn’t put a check on Bill’s drinking because she drank so much herself. She was probably right about this. (According to Johncy, Estelle actually preferred her husband when he was drunk and more dependent on her.) Occasionally Estelle would come with her new husband to visit her mother-in-law, bringing small presents, such as a packet of candles or a tub of freshly churned butter; she found Miss Maud icy and unresponsive much of the time.
The Sound and the Fury appeared in October, the same month that the stock market crashed and the Great Depression unofficially began, sinking the presidency of Herbert Hoover. The downturn in the economy guaranteed that readers would not flock to a highly experimental novel by an unknown writer, and Faulkner entertained few hopes for financial gain. The reviews, however, were reasonably good, beginning with a lavish piece in the New York Herald Tribune written by Faulkner’s friend, Lyle Saxon. “I believe simply and sincerely that this is a great book,” he said. In the Nashville Tennessean, Abbott Martin wrote: “Flaubert would be amazed, but would be won over, I think, by the splendidly impersonal style; Baudelaire alone might be frankly envious. For in The Sound and the Fury Mr. Faulkner excels Baudelaire in his treatment of sin and insanity; the book is ever beautiful and never unhealthy. It is, therefore, more truly artistic.”20 The always sympathetic Henry Nash Smith wrote in the Southwest Review: “William Faulkner’s novel calls for a re-examination of our premises” and found in the novel “unguessed possibilities in the treatment of provinical life without loss of universality.”21 Edward Crickmay wrote in the Sunday Referee: “For myself, I hold that The Sound and the Fury will outlive most of the works that at present loom so large, for its influence will be educative and thus create a wider circle of appreciators for its own authentic creative viewpoint.”22 An anonymous reviewer in the Boston Evening Transcript actually regarded the book as a Greek tragedy on native ground and suggested that it was “worthy of the attention of a Euripides.” “This is a man to watch” wrote Basil Davenport in the Saturday Review of Literature. In short, the reviews were better than anyone could have expected, and they accurately predicted a major career in the making.
This applause, however loud, still left William Faulkner in the boiler room at the university, shakily married, and broke. But he had the encouragement he needed now to pursue a new novel, which he called As I Lay Dying. He wrote with a maniacal intensity, focusing on a family he called the Bundrens. Faulkner actually began writing the new novel on October 25, 1929, the day after the collapse of Wall Street. He wrote quickly in black ink on the paper he often used, Fidelity Onion Skin, legal-size. He inscribed the title on the upper right-hand corner and underlined it twice: As I Lay Dying. The title comes from the eleventh book of Homer’s Odyssey, where Agamemnon speaks to Odysseus about his wife, Clytemnestra, whom he despises, even though the tragedy that befalls his family and country is his own fault: “As I lay dying the woman with the dog’s eyes would not close my eyelids for me as I descended into Hades.” The novel would be a deliberate effort by Faulkner to write something that would lodge itself in the canon, beyond dispute, a masterpiece.
As I Lay Dying
I took this family and subjected them to the greatest catastrophes which man can suffer—flood and fire, that’s all.
—FAULKNER, Lion in the Garden
The great mythic journey is the journey home, from the Trojan wars to Ithaca or, in Joyce’s version, through the night streets of Dublin to Molly Bloom. For modernist authors, the journey from one place to another is a form of dislocation, even though the goal might be home. It might be argued that modern life, with its serial uprootings and the demand for mobility, created an existential crisis that literature simply reflected. These instabilities also meant that class status became fluid, and one could no longer depend on being able to cling to a particular station in life. This volatility works to unhinge the characters in The Sound and the Fury, especially Jason and Quentin, who cannot depend on an inheritance or their inherited status as Compsons to give them a perch in life. In Sanctuary, the “modern girl” is Temple Drake, a perpetually destablizing force who thrusts herself in the face of paternalism of various kinds. The journey itself becomes the focal symbol in As I Lay Dying, a bleak and black comedy about a family coming unhinged as it moves homeward.
The journey “home” belongs to Addie Bundren, who is dying as the novel opens, with her son Cash working on her wooden coffin with care and calculation, measuring each board and holding it up for his mother to see before he nails it into place. Addie is a stoic, noting (as her father once suggested) that the main reason for living was to get “ready to be dead a long time.” She certainly gets little sympathy in dying from her husband, Anse, who takes a second wife on the same day he buries Addie. A lazy hypochondriac who thinks that if he sweats he will expire, Anse has managed to get others to do his bidding through much of his life; he is deformed (hunchbacked) and hapless. Though driven by his promise to his wife to get her in the earth beside her folks in Jefferson, he is also propelled by a wish to acquire some “storebought teeth.” Indeed, as soon as his wife dies, he says: “Now I can get them teeth.” Yet he is not, as Cleanth Brooks argues rather narrowly, “one of Faulkner’s most accomplished villains.”23 He is just a slaggard who wants to keep a promise to a dying wife: “villainous” is not the word for him. Indeed, there is something remarkable about a man who can talk about himself in these terms: “I have heard men cuss their luck, and right, for they were sinful men. But I do not say it’s a curse on me, because I have done no wrong to be cussed by. I am not religious, I reckon. But peace is my heart: I know it is. I have done things but neither better nor worse than them that pretend otherlike, and I know that Old Marster will care for me ere a sparrow that falls.”24
Jefferson was perhaps fifteen miles away (no specifics are given), but given the intense heat, the flood, and the blazing incompetence of this clan, it takes ten full days on the road to achieve their destination. With the Bundrens, Faulkner looks closely at the poor white country folks of Yoknapatawpha County (called by this name for the first time in his fiction here). Faulkner’s imagination was more powerfully drawn to other families—Sartoris, Compson, McCaslin, Snopes. But the Bundrens opened fresh possibilities for the novelist to examine the value system of these country people. As Kevin Railey observes, the Bundrens (excepting Darl and Addie) “reveal their acceptance of middle-class values throughout the book. What this acceptance means for them as Mississippi dirt farmers is an identification with the values of the Protestant middle class—independence, individuality, and reward based on merit—which were buttressed by religious beliefs.”25
The novel is wonderfully centered, following a single action over a limited number of days. It opens at twilight as Addie dies and concludes just after her burial. Addie was for most of the Bundren family a stabilizing force, and her death pulls the existential rug out from under her children and husband, who must tumble in the sharp air of absurdity as they search to reconnect to the ground, moving through time and space with an eerie compulsion. But the story here isn’t everything; indeed, the genius of Faulkner’s narrative inheres in the monologues: fifty-nine in all, each of varying length and consistency. Seven of the fifteen speakers are Bundrens, and they take up most of the narrative space, though monologues by eight “outsiders” add to the layering of voices. In addition to Addie and Anse, the speakers include the Bundren children: Cash, Darl, Jewel, Dewey Dell (the only daughter in the family), and Vardaman.
Like the Compsons, the Bundrens seem bound to the family circle by invisible but relentless ties. Cash and Darl have no life beyond their parents. Cash is cool-headed and practical, not terribly unlike Jason Compson in his attention to the world’s surfaces. He hopes to obtain a “graphophone” in Jefferson. As the novel progresses, he seems to become more rooted in an independent sense of self. Dewey Dell is no Caddy Compson, but she is just as willful and becomes pregnant by a man called Lafe. What she wants in Jefferson is a medicine that will induce an abortion. Darl, the second son of Anse and Addie, is unnaturally close to his mother (like Faulkner and Miss Maud?), despite Addie’s rejection of him on some deep level, which nearly drives him insane. With his fragile ego, Darl recalls Quentin Compson, though he is not educated like Quentin, and so his meditations grope uncertainly for abstractions. His painful debates with himself recall Hamlet as well: “I must be, or I could not empty myself for sleep in a strange room. And so if I am not emptied yet, I am is.” He is also fiercely jealous of Jewel, the child of an adulterous affair his mother had with a preacher named Whitfield. Addie loves Jewel above the others, in part because he has none of Anse’s genes in his body. He is the son of a man from a higher caste. For his part, Jewel is selfish and cruel. He believes that the others have driven his mother to her grave, and he cannot forgive them. Vardaman, the youngest, plays a role vaguely similar to that of Benjy in The Sound and the Fury, that is, he sees more than he can say or understand. He is both young and delusional. Afraid that his mother will suffocate in her coffin, he drills holes into the lid, which tear into her face. What he wishes for at the end of the journey into Jefferson is nothing more than a toy train.
Disasters in the form of flood and fire befall the Bundrens as they slog their way through frantic heat and rain with their mother’s corpse in her handmade coffin loaded on a mule-drawn wagon. Flooding of the Yoknapatawpha River has swept away two bridges, so the family opts to ford the river. This attempt goes badly, however, and the wagon overturns; in the upset, Cash rebreaks a leg that was previously broken in a fall from a church steeple. The mules drown, forcing the family to trade Jewel’s much prized horse for another span of mules. Meanwhile, the coffin reeks of decay, and buzzards swarm. Another night, the beleaguered family stores the wagon and the coffin in a barn at a farm owned by Gillespie, who takes pity on the Bundrens and allows them to stay overnight. Mysteriously, the barn erupts into flames, a fire described in haunting terms by Vardaman: “The barn was still red, but it wasn’t a barn now. It was sunk down, and the red went swirling up. The barn went swirling up in little red pieces, against the sky and the stars so that the stars moved backward.”26 The rotting corpse of Addie Bundren is barely saved from this conflagration, which Darl in fact set in the vain hope of cutting short this ridiculous journey.
Dewey Dell has learned from Vardaman that Darl set the barn on fire, and she conspires with Jewel to bring their wayward, difficult brother to justice. Cash himself is convinced that Darl must be sent away, although his reasoning is convoluted: “It was either send him to Jackson, or have Gillespie sue us, because he knowed some way that Darl set fire to it. I dont know how he knowed, but he did. Vardaman seen him do it, but he swore he never told nobody but Dewey Dell and she told him not to tell nobody. But Gillespie knowed it. But he would a suspicioned it sooner or later. He could have done it that night just watching the way Darl acted.”27 So Darl is arrested and taken away.
In a mad monologue at the end, Darl stands aside from himself, observing his own demise as they take him away to Jackson to an institution for the criminally insane: “Darl has gone to Jackson. They put him on the train, laughing, down the long car laughing, the heads turning like the heads of owls when he passed.” And at the end of this monologue: “Darl is our brother, our brother Darl. Our brother Darl in a cage in Jackson where, his grimed hand lying light in the quiet interstices, looking out he foams.” In the meantime, Dewey Dell’s frantic search for an abortion drug only gets her swindled and seduced by Skeets MacGowan, a slimy soda jerk who pretends that he is a druggist (Skeets is a minor character who makes several later appearances in Faulkner’s work, including Intruder in the Dust and The Mansion).
As I Lay Dying is among Faulkner’s most unified and satisfying novels; it hovers among the several peaks of his achievement, less self-consciously modernist than, say, The Sound and the Fury or Absalom, Absalom! and less concerned than many of his books with values that Cleanth Brooks and others would identify as residually Christian. Faulkner—like Robert Frost, with whom he has something in common as a universal writer who worked a small geographical patch—preferred the Old Testament to the New. The morality in his fiction is starkly perceived, unrelenting, cutting to the quick of human nature, propelled by raw but natural drives. In Frost’s poetry, people occupy their ground for habitual reasons, going mad like the hill wife in his eponymous poem, their communities dwindling into cellar holes. In Faulkner’s fiction, communities and the families within them survive through habit as well. But families and community become a prison, exacting duties and pieties that they do not earn by giving sympathy and support. The madness of Quentin Compson and Darl Bundren follows naturally from these broken circles, from the countless invisible ties of love and thought that have been severed.
The strength of this novel also has much to do with its unique language, with metaphors creating a web of correspondences, weaving a “systematic world, a world wherein journeys—like metaphorical language—lead toward certain ultimacies of desire, purpose, and expression,” as Patrick O’Donnell argues in a seminal essay.28 The most obvious example is the metaphor of the road. The Jefferson road carries the coffin along, a vehicle in itself, that which carries meaning or fails to do so. O’Donnell comments: “From the perspective that the novel’s metaphor network is revelatory of a structured world of significances tending toward some final end, the road would represent a sign of linkage and connection, a metaphor for the act of metaphor as it joins and binds.”
For Anse, the road is a tangle of possibilities, a metaphor that confounds him as he searches for clues to the nature of his own life: “I told Addie it want [sic] any luck living on a road when it come by here, and she said, for the world like a woman, ‘get up and move, then.’ But I told her it want no luck in it, because the Lord puts roads for travelling: why He laid them down flat on the earth. When He aims for something to be always a-moving, He makes it longways, like a road or a horse or a wagon, but when He aims for something to stay put, He makes it up-and-down ways, like a tree or a man. And so he never aimed for folks to live on a road, because which gets there first, I says, the road or the house?”29
The chief monologist in the novel, Darl, has a mind whose roadways are marked by blockages and evasions, floods and fires. Darl notes that the road runs parallel to telephone lines, which carry messages as the filaments of the brain carry signals and create significations. Contradictory images for the road occur in his distorting mind, as when he describes it as being “like a spoke of which Addie Bundren is the rim.” This tortuous road ends in the public square, “where the square opens and the monument stands before the courthouse.” This image represents law and order, which are just the forces that Darl rubs against with rough consequences. Yet he evinces the road, a literal and figurative image, repeatedly in his sixteen monologues. In one famous passage, he suggests (by implication) that knowledge is only obtainable by friction and motion, as when he describes the disastrous fording of the river, where men and animals only touch bottom occasionally: “I felt the current take us and I knew we were on the ford by that reason, since it was only by means of that slipping contact that we were in motion at all.” Thus meaning itself seems to occur only in slips and scrapes, in chance contacts between signifiers and those objects in the world to which they attach themselves.
The journey of the narrative underscores the increasing madness of Darl and the disintegration of the Bundren family itself, which “never aimed to bother nobody,” as Anse puts it in his pathetic way. This is a darkly comic journey, however. The absurdities and cruelties that befall the Bundrens make one wince. Even the apparent gesture of restitution in the end, where a new Mrs. Bundren replaces the dead one, is absurd, filled with the dark laughter of a distant, even cruel, God who finds human beings utterly foolish. The family situation dramatized here, so representative of family dynamics in Faulkner, is nothing short of frightening. As Harold Bloom notes: “The Bundrens manifestly constitute one of the most terrifying visions of the family romance in the history of literature.”30
The layered subjectivities of this novel, already used to good effect in The Sound and the Fury, are another aspect of its greatness. Faulkner vividly distinguished the voices and visions of his speakers, with Darl as the central and disintegrating consciousness. Nevertheless, it is the madman who sees truly. He understands that Addie has preferred Jewel to the others; he sees into Dewey Dell’s deepest thoughts; he seems to have a finger on everyone, intuiting their motives. He alone realizes that the entire project of conducting the coffin to Jefferson by wagon is absurd, and he tries to stop it. His supposedly warped vision of reality is, in the inverse logic of the novel, “sane.” And he must pay for his sanity by being sent to a mental asylum.
Everyone, of course, has access to the same reality, but the mode of language and perception alters this reality, splinters it, subjects it to refreshments, revisions, moral complexities, and whims. Anse is evasive, self-justifying, eager to displace blame, ineffectual. Jewel is high-strung, impulsive, overbearing, heedless. Vardaman, as the naive and simpleminded child, responds intuitively to life, nearly free of interpretive lenses. “My mother is a fish,” he famously says, even before Addie has begun to smell. His perception reflects his agony, a jumble of sounds and sights, tastes and smells, redolent of its own fierce logic. Cora Tull, a friend who visits Addie at her deathbed, is mired in her own religiosity, blinkered by dogma. Cash (whose name symbolizes cool transaction) sees the world as a carpenter, hammering chaos into order, with the requisite sacrifices of openness and flexibility. A basic decency shimmers through his monologues. Dewey Dell sinks helplessly into her own sensuousness, her own reproductive nature, the world of repetition that William Blake calls Generation: “I feel like a wet seed wild in the hot blind earth,” Dewey Dell says.31 And so Faulkner’s characters speak in their own metaphors and within a tonal and linguistic range unique to each sensibility, which governs their worldviews and limits their range of moral options.
Faulkner was not the first author to use the technique of layering subjectivities. As precursors, one thinks of Robert Browning in The Ring and the Book as well as more modern authors, such as Joyce, Woolf, and Conrad, who turned to similar strategies of narration. But Faulkner’s mastery of so many distinct points of view—with each being a version of the same story and each filtering the data at hand in ways that become vivid distortions or misreadings—conveys an overwhelming sense of epistemological slip and slide. In the end, his novel is all performance, a play with different voices, a blistering and darkly comic summoning of decay.
As I Lay Dying also stands out for the complex variety of tones that, quite ingeniously, mingle and cohere. The grotesque arises in many instances, from Anse’s wish for “storebought teeth” to Cash’s broken leg, which his family decides to set in cement. The rotting corpse of Addie Bundren is, of course, the most grotesque image of all, a primary form of sacrilege: the body of one’s mother should, of all things, remain sacrosanct. But Faulkner adds a wry touch to these grotesqueries, making one smile as well as cringe. The absurdity of the essential situation mingles with a heroic aspect that verges on the mock-heroic; nevertheless, one inevitably admires the animal persistence of the Bundren clan in their preposterous journey to Jefferson. Faulkner at once underscores and deconstructs the male drive to adhere to a code of honor, to fulfill the need to bury the mother even though the journey itself puts the family at risk of life and limb. The Bundrens certainly risk ridicule, as when a passerby shrieks: “Great God, what they got in that wagon?” The response from Jewel is telling. “Son of a bitches,” he spits, then takes a swing at the man, who draws a knife in response.
This strange, hilarious, terrifying novel presents the drama of a damaged family, with each character searching for a wholeness that cannot be restored, and that probably never was.
It is a kind of imaginatively balanced life lived out in a definite social tradition.
—Introduction, I’ll Take My Stand
Perhaps the larger questions, for a biographer, are these: Why did Faulkner write this particular novel when he did, and what were its sources in his experience? If one stands back and squints, the general outline of the Bundren clan seems not unlike that of his own family, where a dominant mother refuses to give in to her weak and pathetic husband. (Addie quite literally denies Anse access to her body after the final child is born.) The basic situation was not dissimilar: a family of sons (except for Dewey Dell) who in their different ways are obsessed by their mother, desperate for her approval and love, perpetually dissatisfied. One has to suspect Faulkner of harboring deep ambivalence about his own mother’s role in his life and that of the family, since he chooses, however unconsciously, to create a venomous portrait of motherhood here and elsewhere. Instead of saintliness and purity, one gets Addie: a woman who has betrayed her husband in marriage and yet controls the lives of the people around her. Faulkner subjects his fictional mother to the worst sorts of punishment: her stinking corpse is dragged in the hot sun and teeming rain through fire and flood. Her body is punctured by tools. Her corpse is, in the most obvious ways, defiled: the sort of desecrations that would have driven an ancient Greek mourner wild!
Was the novel also a honeymoon poem of sorts to Estelle? If so, what can this mean? Anse’s second marriage in the novel is disgraceful, a supplanting of one wife for another. Does Estelle supplant Miss Maud in Faulkner’s mind? Is marriage (for him) just a transfer of authority from one dominating and difficult woman to another? Such questions are beyond answers, but it’s the province of biography to ask them, to allow them to play over the text and trouble it. Certainly one can assume that Faulkner understood brotherly rivalry, and he associated at least part of himself with Darl, the dominant voice in the novel, a figure with an uncertain place in the family hierarchy. He is the sensitive, rather feminine child driven mad by the world as he finds it. Cora Tull reminds one of the Oxford neighbors who sniggered at Count No ’Count when she refers to Darl as “one that folks say is queer, lazy, pottering about.” This view of Faulkner clung to him well into middle age, with his neighbors in Oxford regarding him as someone who didn’t have a real job.
Perhaps what most strikes a reader looking for clues to Faulkner’s own state of mind as he wrote As I Lay Dying is the ultimate sense of life as struggle. The Bundrens pull together through fire and flood. Except for Darl, they succeed in arriving at their various goals, however specious. Nothing binds these wayward figures but need, a communal drive to push a rotting corpse along the road, across the river, toward some imaginary goal. A sense of blunt determination hovers above the text, a feeling of adherence to some universal movement. The Bundrens will move forward, come hell or high water. They will re-create themselves, as Dewey Dell does inadvertently with her pregnancy, as Anse does with his remarriage. Those parts of the family that do not cohere will be lopped off, taken away in chains, institutionalized. This novel assumes a powerful instinct for survival. It also assumes that if one makes a promise to oneself, one keeps it. For his part, Faulkner had promised himself that he would write, would summon a vision. He would also associate himself with larger movements, such as modernism and the rise of a new southern literature. This novel represents a declaration of sorts, as Faulkner lays a claim to his own world and work.
It seems ironic that, just as the Great Depression began, so much was happening in the arts in the South, a renaissance was underway. There was, for example, the Fugitive movement (which had its heyday in the mid-1920s but persisted), a literary phalanx that included such figures as John Crowe Ransom, Donald Davidson, and Robert Penn Warren. “We put out I’ll Take My Stand,” Robert Penn Warren recalled, “and it signaled a new direction, a coherence, a lively and coherent body of writing and argument and thinking.”32 I’ll Take My Stand is an anthology that he and eleven other southern writers assembled in 1930, creating a manifesto against industrialism and the loss of individuality that accompanies it. “There was a strong awareness that the changes underway in Southern life were destructive,” Warren added. In the introduction to the volume, there was a statement of principles that argued that consumption had made living pointlessly frenetic and empty of value, and that religion had been defiled. “Religion can hardly expect to flourish in an industrial society,” the authors of the manifesto suggest. “Religion is our submission to the general intention of a nature that is fairly inscrutable; it is the sense of our role as creatures within it. But nature industrialized, transformed into cities and artificial habitations, manufactured into commodities, is no longer nature but a highly simplified picture of nature. We receive the illusion of having power over nature, and lose the sense of nature as something mysterious and contingent.”33 Indeed, this seems to be exactly how Faulkner viewed nature, as something one cannot quite comprehend, something impenetrable, frightening, exhilarating, challenging, mystifying, and somehow intermediary between mind and spirit.
One of the most trenchant essays in I’ll Take My Stand is by Faulkner’s mentor and friend, Stark Young, who writes that he and his colleagues were not aiming for “a literal restoration of the old Southern life,” with its prejudices and divisions. He instead suggests that there were aspects of that life that should be cherished and preserved. “It would be childish and dangerous for the south to be stampeded and betrayed out of its own character by the noise, force, and glittering narrowness of the industrialism and progress spreading everywhere, with varying degrees, from one region to another.”34 Young and the others call for a literature of the South that would take a stand against the pressures of industrialism and art as a mercenary activity. This literature, as Donald Davidson says, would become “a last stand against the industrial devourer.”35
Warren noted that “Faulkner’s work was very much what we looked for, a kind of writing that defended the individual, that was a celebration of the mysterious, that had its foot on the soil, grew from the soil.”36 Other writers, too, stepped forward in 1929, which became a miraculous year for southern letters, seeing into print Look Homeward, Angel by Thomas Wolfe and other significant texts by such writers as James Branch Cabell, Ellen Glasgow, Allen Tate, Hamilton Basso, Merrill Moore, and others. This would soon be followed by T. S. Stribling’s trilogy: The Forge, The Store, and The Unfinished Cathedral. “The South was coming into its own,” Warren said, “and there was so much work to show for it, so many novels and poems, a sense of collective achievement.” Notably, this achievement occurred in a region which had been horrendously downtrodden in the wake of the Civil War.
One must never forget the quality of anger that was felt by many at the time in the South, and it bristles through in the essays in I’ll Take My Stand. The tone and substance of these essays is not always pretty, as in Frank Lawrence Owsley’s essay, “The Irrepressible Conflict,” which opens: “From 1830 to 1861 the North and South quarreled with a savage fury that was unknown in the history of any country whose sections had been bound together by voluntary agreement.” He goes on to note that “after the military surrender at Appomattox there insued a peace unique in history. There was no generosity. For ten years the South, already ruined by the loss of nearly $2,000,000,000 invested in slaves, with its lands worthless, its cattle and stock gone, its houses burned, was turned over to the three millions of former slaves, some of whom could still remember the taste of human flesh and the bulk of them hardly three generations removed from cannibalism.”37 Racial hatred permeates this essay, reminding us that we are dealing with considerable furies here, and that Faulkner is, in retrospect, remarkably levelheaded in the ways he dealt with race.
Faulkner created a texture of southern history and life that is deeply nuanced, at times tragic, and often comic. He understood the notion of an Edenic path for what it was worth, and he didn’t idealize those who wished to create a new empire on the rubble of the Old South. He had an intimate feel for class and racial divisions, and he was sensitive to injustices. Nor did he idealize the land itself and the agrarian way of life; the hardships that families like the Bundrens experience moved him considerably, and he didn’t believe that modern life could easily be put to one side in favor of an agrarian world that had long ago disintegrated. Warren noted that “Faulkner resisted the temptation to become an agrarian novelist, a novelist of one region only or one argument. He could never settle for an easy response, a black-and-white response. His novels are the antithesis of simplification.”38
As I Lay Dying was completed with astonishing speed, in just forty-seven days. He typed it quickly, making small changes—emphasizing the present tense and changing the spellings where possible to make the dialect more comprehensible. On the last page of the retyped manuscript, he wrote the date: January 12, 1930. He took the carbon copy and bound it himself. The main copy he sent to Hal Smith, to whom the novel was dedicated.
While keeping the job in the boiler room, Faulkner continued to write without a break, finishing story after story in the coming year, including “The Big Shot,” “Drouth,” “Selvage,” “Smoke,” “A Fox Hunt,” “Per Ardua,” “A Dangerous Man,” and “Honor.” For a couple of years now he had sent stories to all the major and many of the minor magazines without much luck, although certain editors encouraged him to continue trying. Ben Wasson, too, continued to submit stories on Faukner’s behalf. Soon enough, acceptances began to trickle in. “A Rose for Emily” was accepted by Forum and published in April 1930. Other stories were soon taken by Scribner’s, American Mercury, and the Saturday Evening Post. As Faulkner expected, these periodicals paid real money. A single story, “Thrift,” in the Post, brought $750, which was more than any of his novels had earned. What seems most evident about Faulkner during this period was his persistence: like Anse Bundren, he had made a commitment that he would honor his talent, that he would not give up on himself. This could not have been easy in the face of regular (often weekly) rejections by magazines.
In the meanwhile, slowly but certainly, Faulkner’s reputation began to take hold. In England, he was championed by Arnold Bennett and Osbert Sitwell, among others. A professor at Princeton, Maurice Coindreu, began to translate Faulkner’s stories into French, and he would soon translate Sanctuary as well. This would precipitate a genuine enthusiasm for Faulkner among the French, who would grant this author canonical status well before critics in the United States ever came close to such a valuation. Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Simone de Beauvoir, and André Malraux seized on Faulkner in the thirties and forties, championing him throughout Europe as a major innovator. The interest in Faulkner abroad would, in due course, affect American critics. It should also be noticed that Sinclair Lewis, when he received his Nobel Prize for Literature in Stockholm on December 12, 1930, made a point of singling out William Faulkner as an important younger writer, one who “has freed the South from hoop skirts.”
As the spring approached, Faulkner had reasons to feel confident that his career was finally underway. He and Estelle, feeling a bit more secure, now longed to get out of their apartment, however spacious it was. Houses meant a great deal to them both, but Faulkner in particular always yearned to replicate the Big Place that his grandfather had lorded over. His characters are always in awe of fine houses, always yearning for land and property. He knew these feelings intimately, and he wanted something grand and glorious, an imposing house that would reify his internal sense of self, and he just happened to have his eye on such a place.
It was known locally as the Shegog Place, after Col. Robert B. Shegog, an Irishman from County Down, who had made his money in Tennessee and moved to Mississippi in the mid—nineteenth century, where he built his imposing house, an L-shaped structure, that stood at the end of a shaded, cedar-lined drive. It looked symmetrical from the front view, with balancing parlor-wings on either side of a fine portico that boasted four white columns. Above the Georgian front doors a balcony opened out. It was all very classical and impressive, except for the fact that by 1930 the house had fallen upon hard times. The roof leaked, mice and squirrels nested in empty rooms, and the stained wallpaper bubbled out. The plaster in the ceilings bulged and split. The windows could hardly be opened or shut.
The place was owned by a family called the Bryants, who lived on a pleasant estate near Coffeeville. Will Bryant was a friend of Lem Oldham’s, and he decided to help his friend’s daughter and son-in-law. His wife, furthermore, admired the fact that Faulkner was a writer. They turned down offers for the house from other quarters, agreeing to let Faulkner buy the place with four acres for six thousand dollars without a down payment, offering him and Estelle a long-term mortage. Faulkner, as they understood it, would restore the place to its original status. They gave him the option to buy more land around the house—the so-called Bailey’s Woods—if that should become a possibility for him.
The Faulkners moved in at the beginning of June, taking possession with immense pride and excitement. Faulkner had quit his job at the university, and he devoted himself to restoring the house all summer. He began by jacking up those parts of the house that sagged and replacing rotten beams with new ones. He scraped off the old wallpaper and replaced it. He painted woodwork and walls, fences and doors. He restored broken floorboards, especially on the verandah, where the weeds had begun to poke through. He replaced many broken windows and began the laborious work of putting the grounds in order. The Faulkners had no electricity or running water, but this was not unusual for a house in Mississippi in 1930. They lit the rooms at night with oil lamps, and they used an outhouse. They drew water from a well in a vine-covered shed. In July, Faulkner installed screens in the windows, which he had repaired so that they opened and closed. In August, he focused on getting plumbing into the bathroom and kitchen.
A staff began to gather around them, almost inadvertently. A black man called Uncle Ned Barnett became omnipresent. A man with a fine sense of style, he wore a tie every day, even when he would help Faulkner take care of the three horses he’d acquired, a necessary part of a gentleman’s estate in those days. Uncle Ned doubled as waiter, serving the Faulkners at dinner. Another retainer was Josie May, who had been a cook for Estelle’s parents. Mammy Callie, who had partly raised Bill, turned up to assist with the children, Cho-Cho and Malcolm. She helped Estelle with her baking, loading logs into the black, wood-burning stove that anchored the kitchen. The servants rarely got any money from Faulkner, but he was responsible for their food and clothing, their shelter, as well as all medical or dental bills.
In the evenings, Faulkner would read on the verandah, sipping whiskey. He was making his way systematically through Sir James Frazer’s learned anthropological study, The Golden Bough, which had meant so much to Eliot as a background to The Waste Land. One night he came upon a passage about a rowan oak, indigenous to Scotland: not oak at all but a fruit tree with white flowers and red pomes. It symbolized peace and safety, and this struck him pleasantly; he now christened the new house as Rowanoak (or, fairly soon after, Rowan Oak).
By coincidence, Faulkner’s parents were also in transition from one house to another, although not by choice. Murry had been driven from his job at the university by the political maneuverings of Governor Bilbo, who insisted that all state employees of any stature should contribute to his campaign war chest. Murry was assessed five hundred dollars, which was more than his annual salary of three thousand dollars could bear; in fury he resigned, and thus had to move from the comfortable house on the campus of Ole Miss that had been the family home for some years. He built a small brick home for himself and Miss Maud on the very site where the Big Place had once stood—a final ignominy.
Through August, in sweltering humidity, Faulkner continued working on stories and sending them around to national publications. (He also spent several hours a day on the house.) A new urgency to earn money pushed him forward when he learned from Estelle that she was pregnant. The baby would be due in March. A man who loved children, Faulkner delighted in this news and worried over Estelle, who weighed only a hundred pounds and who had not had easy childbirths with Cho-Cho or Malcolm. Her physician, Dr. John Culley, warned her that she must not overdo it, and he gave her iron and calcium powders.
Faulkner’s energy was immense now, and he distracted himself through the dog days of summer by taking a leading role in a charity production of Corporal Eagen, “that wonderful, side-splitting, three-act comedy drama that has taken the northern and eastern states like wild fire,” as the local paper described it. It’s a play about an Irish doughboy, Red Eagen, and his “screamingly funny Jewish buddy, Izzy Goldstein.” Faulkner played Izzy, with good reviews in the Oxford Eagle. This same paper also noted, in a separate editorial, that Bill Faulkner had been mentioned by Sherwood Anderson in an article in the American Mercury entitled “They Come Bearing Gifts.” He had called Hemingway and Faulkner “the two most notable young writers who have come on in America since the war” and said that both had been “terribly injured in the war.”39 He also claimed that Faulkner had once made a scurrilous remark to him about miscegenation, suggesting that blacks and whites could not reproduce after having done it once, like mules. Faulkner had come to expect northerners to distort southern ideas on race in a way that caricatured them, but he must have cringed to read about his supposed war injuries. He did not expect to see his old fabrications paraded before the eyes of his family and friends in Oxford, who knew very well he had not been “terribly injured” in the war. This same editorial in the Eagle also boasted that he would soon publish another novel, “which critics believe will be his most successful.” This novel was As I Lay Dying, which Hal Smith had rushed into galleys and would publish in October, hardly a year after Faulkner had begun to write it.
The book appeared in the stores, and reviews came swiftly. As usual, they were mixed, with many critics baffled by his indirections and obscurities. The opening sentence of the notice in the New York Times Book Reviewwas typical: “One comes away from As I Lay Dying with a commingled sense of respect for the author and an intense annoyance—emotional rather than intellectual—with him for spending his rich inventive faculty on such a witch’s brew of a family as Anse, Vardaman, Jewel, Cash, Darl, and the dying mother, Addie Bundren, constitute.”40 Faulkner could simply not be forgiven for his choice of subject or the murky depths he chose to plumb. Despite their misgivings, reviewers often ended their reports with a salute to the author’s talent, as did Julia K. Wetherill Baker in the New Orleans Times-Picayune on October 26: “As I Lay Dying is a distinguished novel. With The Sound and the Fury it entitles William Faulkner to rank with any living writer of fiction in America. All but a scant half dozen—Dreiser, Anderson, Hemingway among them—he surpasses.”41 For his part, Faulkner seems to have kept a certain emotional distance from critics, then and later, an awareness that the critic could not compete with the artist. “The artist doesn’t have time to listen to the critics,” he explained. “The critic too is trying to say ‘Kilroy was here.’ His function is not directed toward the artist himself. The artist is a cut above the critic, for the artist is writing something which will move the critic.”42
Faulkner was fairly nonchalant about the publication of his books. When the box of first copies arrived, he would sign a few copies for friends and family, then put the remaining volumes in a glass bookcase, rarely glancing at them again. There was little time to reflect on his recently published work, as he was busily writing stories, convinced that he would never make any money at novel writing and enticed by the huge fees that magazines could pay. Like Fitzgerald and Hemingway, he saw paydirt in those pages as well as fame, even though his real talent lay in the longer form and only a few of his stories, such as “A Rose for Emily” and “Barn Burning,” come near the level of achievement found in the novels.
Sanctuary, his one attempt at writing a bestseller, had been rejected out of hand as excessively lurid, and Faulkner had more or less given up on it. So it was with considerable shock that he opened his box at the Oxford post office in mid-November 1930 to discover inside galleys of the novel. Hal Smith, without even mentioning it, had decided to take a chance on the book after all, digging the already set galleys from a box and resetting what remained of the typescript. With the Depression, his company had fallen on difficult times, and Smith and Cape needed a bestseller desperately.
Faulkner took the package home with misgivings, reading it through without pleasure. It was “so badly written,” he said, “it was cheaply approached. The very impulse that caused me to write the book was so apparent, every word; and then I said I cannot let this go.”43 Faulkner wrote to Smith to say he didn’t want it published, but Smith rejected this idea, allowing that the nervous author could make whatever revisions he felt were necessary. Smith agreed to share the cost of resetting the galleys (about $270) with Faulkner, who ten “tore the galleys down and rewrote the book.” His revisions moved in the direction of streamlining the story, keeping the focus on Temple Drake, as Linton Massey notes in his careful study of the revisions.44 Horace Benbow’s incestuous feelings toward his sister, Narcissa, were muted, especially in places where it struck the author as being too much of a Freudian study about “a man who is so much the victim of his half-hidden incestuous fantasies that he has no will of his own.”45
In the revised version, Benbow’s story is less a separate strand than an integral part of the unfolding tale, with its focus sharply on Temple’s fall into degradation and her restitution as an apparently respectable young woman under her father’s fierce control. Noel Polk observes that Faulkner worked hard in the revision to cut or alter passages “that dealt most explicitly with Horace Benbow’s childhood, his parents, his nightmare visions, and the looming presence of Popeye in his waking imagination.”46 Popeye, indeed, comes fully into being now, his life story being one of horror, involving an “invalid” mother, a missing father, and a pyromaniac grandmother “who burns down Popeye’s dark house.”47 Oddly enough, Popeye’s background now concides with that of Horace Benbow’s erased background, making them eerily kindred. Recent critics have studied the connections between Benbow and Popeye, finding a “radical intimacy” between the two: a connection that suggests, at least to me, that Faulkner had a powerful sense of his own delicate moral balance, that he understood that good and evil are closely related, and that dark impulses often mingle with better ones, often devolving from them.48
In most instances of revision, Faulkner altered the story to clarify his moral vision. If there is a lesson to be learned here, it is that unrestricted libido corrupts while civilization imposes restraints, which are denied only at the peril of society. In its final form, Sanctuary became a novel in which repression trumps reckless behavior. As elsewhere in Faulkner, the women represent either destruction and lawlessness (Temple) or repression (Narcissa); even the horrific Popeye is brought down, however indirectly, by his mother—yet another example of Faulkner’s negative feelings toward maternal figures.
Faulkner worked frantically on the revisions through October and November, making changes that, in his mind, redeemed the story. It was, in the end, almost good enough to sit on the same shelf as The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying. He mailed the heavily revised galleys back to Hal Smith in December, bringing the year to a close on a moderately hopeful note. In spite of countless rejections, he had a number of stories about to appear in national magazines, fetching seventeen hundred dollars. And he would soon have yet another novel in print, one with real financial promise. Furthermore, a child was on the way. On the down side, Faulkner could see that his financial responsibilities would mount with the addition of another dependent. He had recently run up considerable debt at several stores in town, buying supplies for the restoration of Rowan Oak. The gloom of the Great Depression, begun on Wall Street, had spread its dark wing over the South as well, including Oxford, with many local bankruptcies. Even the Bank of Oxford had failed.
Yet Faulkner had established himself in Oxford as an independent man of letters, the head of a family, the proprietor of a landmark house. He had a wife as well as a retinue of servants, albeit unpaid. He had three horses and a number of chickens. He now regularly attended the local Episcopal church, where the Rev. William McCready presided. On Christmas Day, Murry and Miss Maud came for dinner at Rowan Oak with Estelle’s parents, celebrating a moment of consolidation and achievement. To anyone peeking into Rowan Oak that day, it looked very like a difficult, wayward, bohemian decade had drawn finally to a close, with Faulkner eagerly assuming the role of paterfamilias and member of the Oxford establishment.