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

Chapter 6. The Circle Widens

Bestseller

You have seen a country wagon come into town, with a hound dog under the wagon. It stops on the Square and the folks get out, but that hound never gets very far from that wagon. He might be cajoled or scared out for a short distance, but first thing you know he has scuttled back under the wagon; maybe he growls at you a little. Well, that’s me.

—Faulkner to J. S. Wilson,
September 24, 1931

The new year was off to a promising start with the birth of Faulkner’s first child, Alabama, named after the youngest child of the Old Colonel, Aunt ’Bama, who had provided a model for Aunt Jenny Sartoris Du Pre, the strong-willed sister of Col. John Sartoris in Sartoris, The Unvanquished, Sanctuary, and other books. Alabama’s birth on January 11, 1931, was harrowing, however, the delivery taking fourteen hours, with the baby two months premature. At first it looked as though the infant would survive. The trouble started about week later, when her breathing began to falter. There is some confusion about whether or not the baby even left the hospital. (Faulkner said he brought her home and should not have.) Her death, on January 20, may have been related to her mother’s heavy drinking during the pregnancy, although this cannot be known. Certainly the child’s immature lungs played a part in her death.

The Faulkners buried the infant in St. Peter’s Cemetery on the edge of Oxford, in a plot beside the sons of Aunt Sue and Uncle John, Murry’s younger brother. The death deeply unsettled Faulkner, who though he rarely wept, did now. In fact, he went half-mad, telling people that he had shot the physician, Dr. John Culley, in the shoulder when he tardily responded to urgent calls from Rowan Oak. He once said that Dr. Culley had been hiding in the garden and that he’d gone looking for him with his rifle. Over the years, Faulkner told different versions of this peculiar story, occasionally claiming to have gone to the doctor’s office and shot him there, sometimes saying that when the doctor came to the house after the baby’s death, he unloaded his shotgun at him but missed. These tales are not unlike his old war stories, in which, with his masculinity on the line, he often emerged the victor in a battle. Not incidentally, Faulkner bought an incubator and donated it to the local hospital, a sane and moving gesture in the face of the infant’s death.

A letter from Phil Stone to a journalist in 1952 sheds some light on the incident with Dr. Culley: “This is another typical Faulkner myth,” he wrote. “It sounds like some tale that Bill may have told to a bunch of credulous Yankees when he, Bill, was drunk. I am sure that there is not a word of fact in it except that the little girl was premature and that they did try to save her by putting her in an incubator. Bill never took her home against the doctor’s advice, he never got a gun and looked for the doctor and the doctor never hid out. This is just a tall tale. As far as I know, Bill never got a gun and went looking for anybody at any time. The doctor was John Culley at the Oxford Hospital and he was there every day both before and after the death of the little girl.”1

In any case, Faulkner could not have been in a worse mood when, on February 19, Sanctuary appeared. It immediately began to sell copies at a pace unlike the earlier books (fifteen hundred copies per week by the first week in March); on top of this, the reviews were surprisingly good—even though critics were frequently horrified by the elements of sadism that ran through the story. Clifton Fadiman celebrated Faulkner as an original in the Nation, while Granville Hicks, another well-known critic, devoted thousands of words to the young author in Bookman, saying: “The world of William Faulkner echoes with the hideous trampling march of lust and disease, brutality and death.”2 He praised Faulkner’s “technical ingenuity” and compared him to John Webster, Baudelaire, Emily Brontë, Herman Melville, and Hardy. Other reviewers likened Faulkner to Fyodor Dostoyevski. In a lengthy but hopelessly wrong-headed essay in the Saturday Review of Literature, Henry Seidel Canby wrote: “In the powerful and distressing Sanctuary of William Faulkner, anti-romance reaches its limit.”3 In a chilling sentence, he suggests that the author “is cruel with a cool and interested cruelty, he hates his Mississippi and his Memphis and all their works, with a hatred that is neither passionate nor the result of thwarting, but calm, reasoned, and complete.” More appreciatively, Philip Wheelwright wrote in Symposium, a literary journal, that the novel, in the hands of Faulkner and his contemporaries, had become “the white hope of American literature.”4 There could be no doubt that Faulkner had become a permanent feature of contemporary literature in America, and one of the handful of promising young novelists who commanded the attention of critics.

That Faulkner had reservations about the South, and would write bluntly about its failures, upset those closest to him, his family and neighbors. One fairly typical reviewer (in Memphis) called Sanctuary a “devastating, inhuman monstrosity of a book that leaves one with the impression of having been vomited bodily from the sensual cruelty of its pages.” It was called the work of “a depraved writer with few artistic graces.”5 Without doubt, the book contains passages of terrible brutality and ugliness. Popeye is horrific, devoid of redeeming qualities. One can hardly say more for Temple Drake, the primary female character. Memphis and rural Mississippi appear in a harsh light, although there are comic moments scattered throughout the narrative as well as comic characters, such as Lee and Ruby, who seem motivated by more than greed or lust. There is nothing traditionally uplifting about this novel, yet the brilliance of the writing holds the reader’s attention.

Faulkner refused to obey the usual proprieties, deconstructing the South in its Mississippian incarnation with a vengeance, suggesting (for example) that a state senator (a Snopes, of course) might be as corrupt as any bootlegger and that a judge and a judge’s daughter could sink as low as the Drakes. There is no siding with one side of the social spectrum against another here: the whole of southern society appears, at times, riddled by venality. The South seems mired in hypocritical notions about what is proper and what is not, unable to make competent moral judgments. The fact that Temple gets raped by a corncob seems the least of it.

However good the reviews of Sanctuary, Faulkner’s family and friends found it embarrassing, and he was subjected to ridicule and hostility. “Now why would anybody write a book like that?” wondered Professor Calvin Brown, Faulkner’s old teacher. While his mother defended him within the family circle, Murry was overtly hostile to his son, even though he had not read the novel. “That was just my granddaddy,” says Faulkner’s daughter, Jill. “He was a gloomy man, who never got along well with Pappy or understood what he was trying to do.”6 It would take the Nobel Prize to make Faulkner truly acceptable to most of Oxford, and that was still nearly two decades away. In the meantime, Faulkner developed a hard exterior, feigning disinterest in the opinion of his family or neighbors. He often just turned up his nose at those who scorned or belittled him.7

Becoming an outcast at home, Faulkner’s reputation nevertheless spread through the world. National magazines that had been assiduously resisting his stories for so many years suddenly changed their tune, and Faulkner was welcomed by several of them, including Harper’s, which took a special interest in his work. Soon after the reviews of Sanctuary appeared, they accepted two stories, “Doctor Martino,” as well as an earlier story called “Beyond the Gate.” “Artist at Home” was taken by Story. Later in the spring, “Spotted Horses” (originally called “Aria Con Amore”)—one of Faulkner’s finest performances in the genre—was taken by Scribner’s. A fair number of stories, however, continued to bounce back in the mail, and with good reason: Faulkner could write brilliant stories, but he churned them out at a fast pace, and they were shockingly uneven.

In any case, Faulkner believed in his stories and enjoyed writing them. In May, he signed a contract for his first collection with Cape and Smith. It would be called These 13, and while most of the stories in the book remain minor Faulkner, some of these stories, including “A Rose for Emily,” rise to a very high level of accomplishment. “There is always something astonishing in these stories,” said Robert Penn Warren, “a turn of language, an image, a snatch of dialogue. Like his novels, they demand a reader’s complete attention.”8

Needing money for medical bills, for his mortgage payment, and for general supplies, Faulkner applied himself throughout the spring and summer to the stories, even though only a small percentage would be accepted by magazines. A couple of these tales, “Evangeline” and “Dark House,” remained unfinished but would eventually turn into Light in August.

Most days Faulkner worked in his study all morning after breakfast, having eaten little but a slice of toast with coffee. He would stay at his desk until one, then—after taking lunch with Estelle—go for a long walk, work around the house, or go riding. There were still a lot of repairs and improvements to be made at Rowan Oak, so there was rarely a lack of necessary activity. At five, he and Estelle would pull up wicker chairs on the east gallery, a side porch, to relax with a bottle of whiskey. On one such occasion, Estelle remarked casually that “the light in August is different from any other time of year.” The comment struck her husband forcibly, and he rushed to his study, where he drew a line through “Dark House” and wrote “Light in August” above it.9 Faulkner himself often told people that in the South a pregnant woman said she would be “light in August” if she were to deliver her baby in that month. Both meanings seem relevant to the novel and probably mingled in his head.

Faulkner was quite exhausted by late summer, when he began the novel in earnest; but his work ethic was such that he would not or could not relax. Habit took him to his desk each morning, and he found that before long the pages began to accumulate in the wire basket on his desk, which had once belonged to the Old Colonel. As one sees from the early drafts of the novel, the third chapter (about the Reverend Hightower) was originally the opening, which grew out of “Dark House.”10 Sometime later he would recall: “I began Light in August knowing no more about it than a young woman, pregnant, walking along a strange country road.” The novel didn’t come easily, as had The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying. Nevertheless, he finished it within eleven months—not bad for a long and complex novel, one of his undeniable masterpieces. He accomplished this task while enduring countless interruptions, as when in October he attended a major conference of southern writers held at the University of Virginia.

He had been recommended for this conference by Ellen Glasgow, one of the most respected of the older southern writers. Among those invited were Stark Young, James Branch Cabell, Thomas Wolfe, Donald Davidson, Sherwood Anderson, and Allen Tate: a distinguished group. The invitation itself suggested that William Faulkner was now a southern writer of some importance.

Man of Letters

I have learned with astonishment that I am now the most important figure in American letters.

—FAULKNER, letter to Estelle, 1931

The fall of 1931 was a vivid time for Faulkner for many reasons. Among these was the publication of These 13, on September 21. (These stories were later included in the Collected Stories.) The book was dedicated “To Estelle and Alabama.” The first section contains four stories related to the Great War, and one of these, “Ad Astra,” had been published in a magazine. Perhaps the best of these is “All the Dead Pilots,” which has thematic and tonal affinities with Eliot’s The Waste Land, in that it conjures a landscape of broken figures and isolated spirits. The survivors of this brutal war walk the land like ghosts, unable to find their bearings. “Crevasse” brings the section to an end, and it’s a haunting story about a patrol that tumbles into a crevasse where the skeletons of dead soldiers (victims of a gas attack) confront them, literal embodiments of the horrors of trench warfare.

The middle section contains one of Faulkner’s finest early stories, “A Rose for Emily,” a gothic tale about a woman who pushes isolation to an extreme. The story begins with Miss Emily’s funeral, which attracts the whole town, many of whom simply want to see the inside of this recluse’s house. There are clues throughout the story that something very peculiar has happened within this house, but the final revelation—the skeleton of Homer Barron, a Yankee construction worker, discovered in a room “no one has seen in forty years”—stands up as one of the great surprises in American literature. Macabre (one can never forget the gray hair on the pillow) and touching, the story is told in Faulkner’s own idiosyncratic, sonorous prose. Most of the stories in this section refer explicitly to Jefferson or Yoknapatawpha County; as always in Faulkner, the use of recurrent settings and characters gives the work an aura of unity and richness.

The final section brings into print three stories that countless publishers had rejected: “Mistral,” “Divorce in Naples,” and “Carcassonne.” Each of these concerns an American away from home. The characters all struggle to come to terms with their heritage, attempting to make peace with their surroundings in an alien world. Involved in various infidelities, they deceive themselves as they try to deceive others. Interestingly, Faulkner would preserve this sequence of three tales in his Collected Stories, concluding with them. The final story, a prose poem of sorts, pulls into play dreams and fantasies, and concerns the flights of imagination that an artist must undertake in order to realize a vision. These wild dreams are set against the physical existence of the unnamed protagonist, who has withdrawn to the rat-infested attic of a cantina in the port of Rincón. The attic is owned by the wife of a Standard Oil executive, Mrs. Widdrington, who “owned the rats too.” As the narrator says, with a wry smile: “But wealthy people have to own so many things.”11 The tale ends in a lyrical burst that feels overwritten and clichéd, with the winged horse of imagination thundering “up the long blue hill of heaven, its tossing mane in golden swirls like fire.”

The volume of stories rapidly sold out and went into another two printings by late October, bringing the concept of Faulkner as a writer of short stories before the public rather forcefully, and prompting editors who had rejected his work to take a fresh look. Suddenly acceptances came in from various editors, including from H. L. Mencken at the American Mercury, who took “Centaur in Brass” for his pages. This meant that Faulkner could meet his mortgage obligations for the fall without much trouble.

At the end of October, he attended the conference of southern writers in Charlottesville, Virginia, beginning a relationship with this institution that would, in his last years, become significant. He was, much to his surprise, the focus of everyone’s attention. Not atypically, he responded by drinking heavily. Never one to like adulation or literary chitchat, he shrank from general discussions of topics like “The Southern Writer and His Public.” Bumming drinks from anyone who could possibly provide one, he generally made himself unavailable. One clever reporter did manage to corner him at his hotel, the Monticello, and Faulkner treated him to a story about his exploits in France during the Great War: a sure sign that he felt intimidated by his surroundings.12 Another reporter, from the student newspaper, also discovered the author in his room, and he was told that Faulkner’s favorite authors were Conrad, Melville, and Alexandre Dumas. Indeed, there was an old Dumas novel in paperback on the side table by the bed. Faulkner also told the young man that southern literature was doomed, that nothing good was likely to come along for twenty-five years or more. He believed that too many novels were being written and most were dreadful. With tongue in cheek, he suggested that “the most outstanding feature of modern America is its idle women, supported by our way of life. Ordinarily they would have to take in washing or do scrub work, but not in this land of opportunity.”13

On Thursday, October 22, Faulkner wrote to Estelle on hotel stationery: “The fall coloring is splendid here—yellow hickory and red gum and sumac and laurel, with the blue-green pines. It’s just grand.”14 As ever, his eye for specific natural details was remarkable. Like other writers connected firmly to the land, such as Frost and John Steinbeck, Faulkner had a consuming interest in the particulars of nature. The sense of being well-grounded in a given place is crucial to the success of his fiction, and it owes much to this focus.

The Virginia conference, with its pretensions and public nature, unnerved Faulkner. He hated the milieu, felt intimidated, and drank himself into numbness as often as possible. A reception for the southern writers was held at the Farmington Country Club—the sort of event that terrified Faulkner, who guzzled half a bottle of whiskey in his hotel room before setting out for the event. Once there, standing beside Hal Smith, who had come down from New York to visit with him, he began to vomit as a crowd of admirers gathered around him. Frantic, he hung on to Smith’s arm, apologizing. Smith found himself in the uncomfortable position of taking care of a man who drank in an apparently suicidal fashion. It was a role that editors would, over the years, assume as part of their task. “His editors became his minders,” recalls publisher George Braziller. “Faulkner was their assignment, and when he came to New York, or wherever they would meet, it was their job to look after him, and he could be horribly difficult. He often got screaming drunk.”15

Relieved that the conference was over, Faulkner headed north to New York City with Smith for a month and a half of cocktail parties, dinners, and lunches. This was Faulkner’s coming-out party as a major American writer, and he was wined and dined by the Algonquin crowd, who mostly wrote for the New Yorker, and by numerous influential editors, such as Bennett Cerf, who was determined to win the young author over to his Random House list. As might be expected, Faulkner reconnected with old friends from the South: Stark Young, Ben Wasson, Lyle Saxon, and Bill Spratling. For the first time, he began to attract the attention of Hollywood producers. “I have created quite a sensation,” he wrote back to Estelle. “I have had luncheons in my honor by magazine editors every day for a week now, beside evening parties, or people who want to see what I look like. In fact, I have learned with astonishment that I am now the most important figure in American letters.”16

Among the writers who sought him out during this stay were Sinclair Lewis, Theodore Dreiser, and H. L. Mencken—so he wrote to Estelle. He had lunch at the Sutton Hotel with Nathanael West and spent an afternoon over cocktails with Dashiell Hammett and Lillian Hellman. (Hammett had published one of his most popular novels, The Maltese Falcon, the year before; The Glass Key had just come out.) At one party, he was given a rose by Pauline Lord, the well-known actress, who said to him coyly: “I’m famous, too.” He bragged to Estelle about an impending offer to go to Hollywood to write a script. “I am writing a movie for Tallulah Bankhead,” he wrote. “The contract is to be signed today, for about $10,000.00.”17 This contract never existed, but Faulkner would indeed go to Hollywood soon, as a scriptwriter, and he would make a good deal of money by selling rights to his work to studios. “Pretty much everything he wrote eventually made its way to Hollywood,” his daughter, Jill, recalls. “Almost everything was at least optioned.”18

Faulkner was certainly launched as a writer by 1931. Both Harold Guinzburg of Viking and Cerf of Random House were competing for Faulkner’s attention. Acting forcefully, Cerf made an offer, which Faulkner quickly accepted, to put Sanctuary in the Modern Library series with an introduction by the author. This pleased him, but Faulkner was a loyal man and would not abandon Hal Smith, even though his firm was sinking. As it happened, Smith’s arrangement with Cape disintegrated; before long, he teamed with another partner, Robert Haas, and they signed Faulkner for his next work, Light in August. Faulkner called Smith his “one true friend in the North” and wanted, if at all possible, to remain in his stable.

As he had in Virginia, Faulkner found the social pressures of New York intolerable, and took to drinking. This time Smith wired Estelle for help, asking her to come and fetch her husband. She had been very worried about him, in fact; the tone of his letters suggested that he was frantic, perhaps out of touch with reality. He appeared to be working on a dozen projects at once. She departed almost at once by train, joining her husband at the Hotel Algonquin. It was apparent to her that he was deeply strained by his encounter with the literary high life in New York, and she took it upon herself to settle him down.

The presence of Estelle eased Faulkner’s anxieties to a degree, and he managed to get through a number of dinner parties, drinking moderately, with her beside him. He was relieved finally to head back to Oxford for Christmas. Christmas, for him, always meant staying home, amid familiar surroundings, participating in rituals of family and community that gave him comfort. He seems to have understood that literary life in New York posed a temptation for him to stray from the important task at hand, the completion of Light in August.

Golden Land

…the golden days unmarred by rain or weather, the changeless monotonous beautiful days without end countless out of the halcyon past and endless into the halcyon future.

—FAULKNER, “Golden Land”

It was not long after Faulkner’s return to Oxford that Sam Marx of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in Hollywood contacted him about coming to the West Coast to work on a script. As today, the film industry paid vast sums of money to talented writers and even the Great Depression had no effect on this. Faulkner was elated, but he had to finish the novel first; he was also particular about how much he would get paid. He told Ben Wasson to temporize while he finished the novel. “Maybe I can try the movies later on.”19

Faulkner finished the book on February 19, 1932. The final typescript was sent to Wasson in New York a month later. This would be his seventh novel, and he felt it was a real novel, “not an anecdote; that’s why it seems top-heavy, perhaps.”20 By “top-heavy,” he meant that the narrative was complex, with lots of incident, hosting a range of characters. The writing, as ever, was lush and particular.

Although Faulkner continued to send out stories, and to receive rejections on a regular basis, he was now in a groove, so it was easy to persuade himself that he was making headway as a writer of fiction. One literary journal, Contempo, devoted an entire issue to his work in February, including nine of his previously unpublished poems and a story, “Once Aboard the Lugger,” which had been rejected many times by New York magazines. The volume also included a laudatory review of These 13, which had pretty much been ignored by the press—although the New York Times Book Review had run a short, complimentary review. A journal from New Orleans, Salmagundi, also ran a selection of Faulkner’s unpublished pieces. (Hal Smith seems to have thought Faulkner was just giving away material to these literary journals, and should have held on to the work for more visible publication.)

Faulkner obviously liked to juggle many balls at once. He was still revising old stories and writing new ones. In particular, he worked hard on “Turn About,” destined for the Saturday Evening Post, and, in 1933, a Howard Hawks film. He was also working on pulling together a collection of poems (most of which had been written a decade earlier) that would be published by Smith and Haas in April 1933 as A Green Bough. As spring approached, he put the finishing touches on Light in August, reworking passages and tying loose ends. By April, when flowers in the gardens around Rowan Oak started blooming, Faulkner began to reconsider his options.

He had never been good with money, and Estelle was worse. She liked to buy clothes, and she had few compunctions about opening charge accounts at department stores in Memphis and elsewhere. Faulkner had fairly heavy expenses at the house, too, which still needed lots of repairs. And there was the matter of his staff: he still had several black servants living under his patronage, and while they required no salaries, Faulkner took seriously his duty to pay their medical and dental bills and to provide spending money. He was also struggling to meet the mortgage payments on Rowan Oak itself—no mean feat in the poorest state in the union at the beginning of the worst depression in U.S. history. His financial burdens should, in theory, have been eased by the brisk sales of Sanctuary, but Smith and Cape had gone bankrupt, and any royalties that would normally have gone to Faulkner evaporated. The amazing thing is that he nevertheless remained staunchly loyal to Hal Smith, feeling grateful to him for his early faith in his work.

The idea of “whoring” after New York magazines to publish his stories seemed like a bad idea. Faulkner was simply tired of that route, although he tried to get Ben Wasson to find a magazine that would serialize Light in August, hoping to realize at least five thousand dollars from this venture. When no takers came forward, he changed his mind about the offer from Sam Marx, telling Wasson that if he could come up with a reasonable fee for his services, he would report to Hollywood. An offer was quickly forthcoming: five hundred dollars a week for six weeks of work at MGM. Faulkner was so pleased, he didn’t care what kind of work he would be expected to do for such a sum.

The man at MGM responsible for bringing writers of real talent to Hollywood was the great producer Irving Thalberg, who believed that good movies required good scripts. Among the major writers pulled into the film orbit by Thalberg were F. Scott Fitzgerald, P. G. Wodehouse, Ben Hecht, Lillian Hellman, and Anita Loos. He tried for, but didn’t succeed in landing, Thomas Wolfe and Eugene O’Neill. Faulkner was therefore not alone in Hollywood at the time, nor at MGM. In the end, he would discover that he had a reasonable gift for scriptwriting, and the studio’s investment would pay off, although his first encounters with Hollywood were hardly promising.

He left Oxford at the beginning of May, arriving at the MGM studios on May 7, where he called on Sam Marx for his instructions and rented a cottage on Jackson Street, a short walk from the studio. He was terrified of the motion picture business. He had never even read a script, much less written one. With feigned seriousness, he told Marx that he had some bright ideas for Mickey Mouse cartoons. Failing to get the joke, Marx explained to him matter-of-factly that the great mouse worked for Walt Disney, not MGM. Faulkner was quickly assigned to Harry Rapf, a pugnacious, five-foot-five, potbellied man with a bulbous nose covered with red blotches. Rapf usually wore pin-striped three-piece suits with wide lapels, and he talked so quickly that Faulkner never really understood what he was saying. Rapf was producing a film called Flesh, and Faulkner was meant to assist with the script by providing bits of dialogue and ideas for scenes.

After disappearing for nearly a full week (he jokingly claimed that he had wandered off into Death Valley), Faulkner settled in, learning the trade from other contract writers at the studio, such as the novelist James Boyd, author of Drums, and—more particularly—Laurence Stallings, author of the harsh but popular Broadway play, What Price Glory? He was a tough, gambling, self-confident man who had lost a leg in the Belleau Wood in France: just the kind of person Faulkner deeply admired and, to an extent, envied. Stallings took Faulkner on as a protégé of sorts, and Faulkner quickly familiarized himself with cinematic terminology, taking a stack of scripts back to his cottage to study in the evenings, with a glass of whiskey beside him for comfort. He and Rapf didn’t really get along, so Faulkner was soon reassigned to work under Marx directly on a project called Manservant, a reworking of “Love,” a Faulkner story that had never been published. The extra five hundred dollars for the rights to the story was, of course, welcome. The idea was for him to write a treatment, which he managed to accomplish in short order, creating fifty-eight separate scenes in a treatment of twenty-one pages. He was also given other treatment work, including one called The College Widow.

Most days he worked on his own, rarely taking lunch with the other writers in the studio commissary. For the most part, he didn’t like his colleagues and was openly contemptuous of the intellectual level of much that he saw being developed by the studio. He had very little interest in the stars for whom he was supposedly writing, such as Wallace Beery and Robert Montgomery, although he dropped their names in letters home, aware that Estelle liked to hear this kind of gossip. What really excited him was the money. With his agent’s fee subtracted, he cleared about $450 a week, which was an immense sum in those days for a young man from Mississippi who had never held a “real” job for long.

Stallings took Faulkner under his wing socially as well as professionally, driving him around Los Angeles, taking him to horse shows, introducing him to friends. Suddenly, Faulkner’s circle in Hollywood widened, and he felt more at ease. Within weeks of his arrival, he came to the attention of other producers and directors, especially Howard Hawks. In his mid-thirties, a graduate of Exeter, he had been a race car driver before turning to films. In 1930 Hawks scored a hit with Dawn Patrol, an action film about aerial combat during the Great War that featured Errol Flynn in the role of a doomed, high-living flyer. Hawks had been shown Faulkner’s story “Turn About” by his brother, William (it had recently appeared in the Saturday Evening Post), and the brothers were in agreement that it would make a wonderful film.

“Turn About” (later republished as “Turnabout”) is a sharply delineated story involving air combat: a subject dear to the hearts of Faulkner and Hawks. Set in an unnamed port in France, the plot turns on an encounter between Captain Bogard, an American flyer, and a drunken British seaman, Claude Hope. Revealing Faulkner’s endless fascination with military clothing, Bogard’s uniform is described as follows in the opening paragraph:

His breeches were of plain whipcord, like the tunic. And the tunic had no long London-cut skirts, so that below the Sam Browne the tail of it stuck straight out like the tunic of a military policeman beneath his holster belt. And he wore simple puttees and the easy shoes of a man of middle age, instead of Savile Row boots, and the shoes and the puttees did not match in shade, and the ordnance belt did not match either of them, and the pilot’s wings on his breast were just wings. But the ribbon beneath them was a good ribbon, and the ensigns on his shoulders were the twin bars of a captain.21

Hope, by contrast, is effete, supercilious, and way too British—at least that is the judgment of Bogard’s American comrades back at the base. Bogard takes Hope along for the ride on a dangerous bombing raid, where the British sailor is impressed by the efficient cool of American airmen.

In reciprocation, Hope takes Bogard on a naval adventure, where he experiences a nerve-racking situation when a torpedo fails to discharge and the boat must keep circling its prey, an Argentine freighter in a harbor full of German gunboats. At the last second, the British blow up the freighter, barely surviving this mechanical near-failure. When the torpedo boat (and Hope) are reported missing a month later, Bogard recalls their attack on the freighter in a courageous daylight raid on an enemy munitions depot. He and his airmen mimic the British tactic of circling close before striking, and they are later cited for valor. This tale became Today We Live, a rather mechanical but efficient small-budget film that Faulkner would write in collaboration with others.

Although Faulkner’s initial run at MGM had come to an end, he was given an extension by Hawks, who had taken the idea for the film of “Turn About” to Thalberg, who loved it. Faulkner had managed, in five days, to write a treatment (on speculation), and his gambit had worked. Beginning in the third week in July, he was hired to continue work on the project, at a fee of $250 per week—less than his original deal, but still a lot of money. He was suddenly energized by the notion of writing scripts and just beginning to feel confident about his abilities in this newfangled genre, although his heavy drinking had come to the notice of studio officials, who began to worry about hiring him.

By August, it certainly looked like things were going his way on the literary front. Light in August, which he believed was a masterpiece, was scheduled for publication in October, and Hal Smith assured him it would do extremely well. His new book of poems, A Green Bough, would come out soon thereafter, reminding readers that he had devoted considerable energies to the art of poetry before turning to fiction. The beginnings of a novel that would eventually become The Hamlet had begun to take shape in his head, and he looked forward to seeing many of his stories in print in major national publications. Hawks had optioned “Turn About,” and Sanctuary had been sold to Paramount for $750 against $7,000 (if they exercised their option). His letters suggest that he was very much in the business of ranking himself among his contemporaries, and he could see his own stock rising against his peers’: Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe, Dreiser, Lewis, John Dos Passos, Willa Cather. He watched their careers closely, and he measured his own beside theirs.

His immediate high was dashed, however, by the unexpected death of his father on August 6, 1932. Faulkner had been away, hunting on Catalina Island; when he returned to his cottage, a telegram from Estelle awaited him. A man of sixty-two, Murry had been fading in recent years, chained to his bottle, without work, glum, and probably depressed. His life had not been anything like a success, especially compared to that of his father and grandfather—or son. “He was not a happy man,” says his granddaughter, Jill. “He had never made much of his life, and was not able to communicate easily with anyone else.” He and Faulkner had “never gotten along.”22 Yet Faulkner had felt his father’s failures deeply, and resisted them. As anyone could see, Murry had been overtaken by his eldest son; indeed, the obituary notice in the Eagle spelled Murry’s surname with the u added: M. C. Faulkner. This was, perhaps, the final insult to a man who could not control his own destiny, even the spelling of his own name.

Faulkner rushed home for the funeral, and Hawks was understanding, agreeing to let Faulkner work on the script in Oxford. He stayed for a month and a half, helping his mother to settle the estate. To his dismay, he discovered that his mother would have enough money for about a year; after that, he would himself be responsible for her finances. He also felt concern for his youngest brother, Dean, who had gone to Ole Miss but never really discovered a subject that interested him. A graduate in engineering, he liked to fly airplanes, but neither of these interests panned out. He had tried law school but dropped out, and now tried his hand at painting and writing, although he lacked the skills to accomplish much in either field. Like his father and oldest brother, he had taken to drink in a big way. This drinking unsettled his mother, “who never approved of alcohol and never herself took a drink,” as her granddaughter recalls.23

By the end of October, Faulkner had to return to Hollywood, though his mother seemed very needy, and Dean had clearly been shaken by his father’s death. As Jack Falkner recalled: “When our father died, Bill considered himself as head of our clan, and so did we. It was a natural role for him, and he assumed it at once, without fanfare but with dignity and purpose.”24 Furthermore, Estelle was pregnant again. After the sad death of Alabama, both were eager to have another child. Yet given the previous experience, this new pregnancy brought with it considerable anxiety. Estelle urged him to remain at home, and he agreed to make the upcoming stint in Hollywood a brief one.

He stayed in Hollywood barely a month, bringing Dean and his mother along with him. This was clearly a bad idea: he could hardly concentrate and felt torn between the studio and his family, who felt wildly out of place in Los Angeles. Somehow he managed to work on the script of Today We Live, showing a talent for coming up with solutions to dramatic problems. Howard Hawks said that Faulkner revealed “inventiveness, taste, and great ability to characterize the visual imagination, to translate those qualities into the medium of the screen.” One evening he introduced Faulkner to Clark Gable, who asked the young man which writers he should be reading. Faulkner replied: “Hemingway, Cather, Mann, Dos Passos, and William Faulkner.” Surprised by the last name on the list, Gable asked: “Oh, do you write?” Faulkner replied, “Yes, Mr. Gable. What do you do?”25

He was back in Oxford by the end of the month, still working on Today We Live. He had made enough money to float him for a while and eagerly sank back into his routine at Rowan Oak. For a while, he picked away at a chronicle that he called “The Golden Book of Jefferson and Yoknapatawpha County,” then worked on new stories about the Sartorises and the Snopeses. Not much came of these efforts, and Faulkner found himself spending more and more time as a farmer, mending fences, working with the horses, continuing the restoration of Rowan Oak. Estelle was unwell much of the time, her feet swelling by noon each day, and Faulkner attended her patiently, awaiting the birth of his child. The script of Today We Live had gone rapidly into production. Indeed, it would have its national premiere in Oxford on April 12, drawing the rapt attention of Faulkner’s neighbors, who began to realize that someone important (and not only notorious) lived among them.

A Green Bough came out at the end of April, without much fanfare. It was published as a favor to Faulkner by Hal Smith, with illustrations by Lynd Ward. The volume contained forty-four poems, most of which were written very early in Faulkner’s career and reflect his close reading of Eliot, Housman, Swinburne, and Keats. One can hardly imagine that the author of these intensely literary poems is the same man who wrote Sanctuary or Light in August. This was Faulkner’s farewell to poetry, and, as such, it warrants a glance. Poetry was the schoolhouse of Faulkner’s fiction, as Judith L. Sensibar has demonstrated in her book on his early poetry. A Green Bough remains a fairly accomplished collection that demonstrates a firm grasp on the craft of poetry, although there was not much originality in the work. Faulkner’s voice came out more distinctly in prose form.

More importantly, Light in August was published in October, to fine reviews in places such as the Saturday Review, Time, and the New York Herald Tribune. Faulkner “writes with force and drive,” wrote James T. Farrell, the well-known novelist, in the New York Sun.26 Richard Aldington, an important reviewer in England, noted that “there cannot be the slightest doubt of his meaning and sympathies. He is engaged in the not very popular task of criticizing the fundamental assumptions of his own people.”27 F. R. Leavis, a fierce and influential critic, Cambridge don, and editor of Scrutiny, was not wholly convinced of Faulkner’s permanence, yet he praised the manner in which he rendered “the simple-shrewd vegetative mentality of his rustics and small-town citizens,” and added, “The Old South is the strength of this book.”28 Writing in the Cambridge Review, Jean Stewart adoped a view of his work that became rather common: “Faulkner’s work may be destined to dismissal as the tortured vision of a neurotic in an age of decadence and despair, and have nevertheless a vital meaning for us, his contemporaries. I only know that his art provides so potent a stimulus to my own mind as to make all soberer and saner literature pale into banality, by contrast, while the mood lasts.”29

Faulkner himself showed little enthusiasm for the novel once it appeared. When an advance copy of the finished book arrived at Rowan Oak, Faulkner looked it over briefly, admired the art on its cover, then put it on the shelf. He seemed indifferent to the reviews. The Oxford Eagle, under new ownership and eager to boost its sales, was more excited than the author about its appearance. The paper ran excerpts from the latest reviews, proclaiming that Faulkner was now “enjoying international fame for his early publications.” The article nevertheless described Faulkner in wryly deprecatory terms: “Faulkner, with an excellent mechanical turn, makes airplane models complete in every detail; he is an excellent artist. If ever his writing ability should fail him, he could make a living as a sign-painter.”30 So much for literary greatness.

Light in August

In the lambent suspension of August into which night is about to fully come, it seems to engender and surround itself with a faint glow like a halo. The halo is full of faces. The faces are not shaped with suffering, nor shaped with anything: not horror, pain, not even reproach. They are peaceful, as though they have escaped into an apotheosis; his own is among them. In fact, they all look a little alike, composite of all the faces which he has ever seen. But he can distinguish them one from another: his wife’s; the townspeople, members of that congregation which denied him, which had met him at the station that day with eagerness and hunger; Byron Bunch’s; the woman with the child; and that of the man called Christmas.

—FAULKNER, Light in August

Light in August is a searing novel that meditates on racial hatred in the South and the moral depravity caused by Calvinist obsessions. The elusive time-shifting of The Sound and the Fury gives way here to a simpler version of the same technique, with the author flagging all shifts. The plot moves steadily forward, although several long flashbacks put the action into context. The prose is poetic but clear, though Faulkner depends on symbolism to embed the narrative in the reader’s unconscious and generate a sense of coherence. In essence, the novel presents the parallel stories of Lena Grove, Byron Bunch, Joe Christmas, Joanna Burden, and Gail Hightower, interweaving them in original ways.

The last chapter apart, the main body of the novel occupies eleven days in August. Lena Grove is pregnant as the story opens, but she will be “light in August,” free of the child she carries inside her. The baby was fathered by Lucas Burch, a vile creature who disappeared on her; she is trying to meet up with him, having set off on her own, moving with turtlelike certainty and slowness through the dusty heat toward Jefferson. She has all the majestic and irrational poise of a pregnant fertility goddess, bursting with “calm unreason,” looking for her lost lover with bland, uncomplicated self-confidence. She arrives in Jefferson just as the smoke rises from the house of Joanna Burden, a descendant of New England abolitionists who has been murdered that day, her house set aflame. The two stories originally link with that smoke.

In a wonderfully comic twist, Lena gets the wrong man. She goes straight to Byron Bunch, having been misled by the similarity of the names Burch and Bunch. Bunch (a wonderfully Dickensian name for a clenched fellow) is one of Faulkner’s familiar isolated figures, a driven man who has lived ferociously within himself, committed only to his choir on Sunday and his pitiless Calvinism. For him, isolation is a badge of authenticity. He lives chastely at a boardinghouse and works even on Saturdays, convinced that idle hands turn easily to sin. He is linked to this world through Gail Hightower, another driven Calvinist, a fundamentalist preacher who has lost his pulpit, a mad minister of the Gospel who lives on the edge of the social world of Jefferson. That Bunch falls immediately in love with Lena Grove is amusing and bizarre. Bunch serves, however, as a human link between the primitive goodness of the world that Lena Grove represents and the dark arena of Joe Christmas, one of Faulkner’s most isolated and frightening characters.

For the first time in his writing, Faulkner directly confronts racial prejudice in the South. Joe Christmas, so he believes, has mixed blood, and the fact that he has killed Joanna Burden, a white woman, only pours gas on the flames of white prejudice. Faulkner portrays the visceral racism that engulfs the people of the town as they pursue Christmas, led by the appropriately named Percy Grimm, who finally corners and kills Christmas, castrating him with a kitchen knife as he dies. This climactic scene is rendered in an unflinching style:

When the others reached the kitchen they saw the table flung aside now and Grimm stooping over the body. When they approached to see what he was about, they saw that the man was not dead yet, and when they saw what Grimm was doing one of the men gave a choked cry and stumbled back into the wall and began to vomit. Then Grimm too sprang back, flinging behind him the bloody butcher knife. “Now you’ll let white women alone, even in hell,” he said. But the man on the floor had not moved. He just lay there, with his eyes open and empty of everything save consciousness, and with something, a shadow, about his mouth. For a long moment he looked up at them with peaceful and unfathomable and unbearable eyes. Then his face, body, all, seemed to collapse, to fall in upon itself, and from out the slashed garments about his hips and loins the pent black blood seemed to rush like a released breath.31

The methodical cadences of each sentence, the muted diction, and the slowly building rhetoric all work to control the wild violence of the material, to hold it firmly in check and to make it real, as painful and as horrific as it must be made. In this scene, Faulkner also reveals his sympathy for Christmas, the killer, the bootlegger who is possibly of mixed race, the outcast who remains, after all, a human being, and whose miserable death goes beyond the bounds of punishment.

Faulkner has already, of course, built immense sympathy for Christmas by giving us his background. (One is reminded of W. H. Auden’s famous observation in “September 1, 1939” that “Those to whom evil is done / Do evil in return.”) Left a foundling on the steps of an orphanage in Memphis on Christmas—hence the name—he is the victim of his narrow-minded grandfather, Doc Hines, who believes Joe’s father is black. Joe is later put into the repressive hands of a farmer, Simon McEachern, another of the mad Calvinists who dominate this book. McEachern beats the boy regularly, hoping to instill religion. Mrs. McEachern, on the other hand, shows considerable pity for her foster son, but to no avail. Even Joe Christmas seems to have swallowed his dose of Calvinist doctrine, seeing the world in terms of crime and punishment, with evil confronting good on a bleak moral battlefield. He despises Mrs. McEachern for her weakness in pitying him, and he rejects her as he rejects her husband.

Joe seems to accept, at least temporarily, the view that he is a sinner and acts out this belief, hooking up with a prostitute called Bobbie Allen, who rejects him when he tells her of his mixed blood. But there is no certainty about this heritage, as Joe confesses to Joanna Burden. He has no idea whether or not he has a black father, but seems almost to delight in telling whites that he is black and telling blacks that he is white. In this, Faulkner offers a subtle critique of the deeply arbitrary quality of racial prejudice in the South. “The surface view of Faulkner’s world is that you are who you are by virtue of inherited blood,” notes Weinstein, “but the deeper view is that you are who you are by virtue of how you have been called: what calls upon you you have internalized as you.”32 Thus race is a social construct, a complex call-and-response that becomes a “fatal becoming,” as Weinstein says, and turns Joe Christmas, regardless of any basis in fact, into a “little nigger bastard” in the eyes of his family and those who gather around him.

Joe cannot comprehend this complex dialectic, and he is ultimately destroyed by his lack of understanding, which mirrors the lack of understanding around him. His progress through the world after he leaves McEachern’s home is marked by violent acts. His lovemaking with the spinster Joanna Burden is anything but gentle. Like Temple Drake in Sanctuary, she appears to turn abruptly into a nymphomaniac, then gets the Calvinist virus herself, which is simply the other side of the same depraved coin. Believing that Joe is partly black, Joanna regards her lovemaking with him as deeply sinful, an outrage against God. She begs Joe to kneel with her, to pray for forgiveness. He cannot go along with this, and she—in a wickedly symbolic gesture—threatens him with a revolver from the Civil War. This triggers his most violent instincts, and he slashes her throat with a razor, then sets the house afire.

Joe flees, but is caught a week later, in Mottstown, only twenty miles away. He in fact surrenders himself to the society, “walking up and down the main street until somebody recognized him.” At one point, he actually appears in a black church, where he offers a sharp condemnation of the South’s racial ethics and religious fanaticism. He is caught and, rather quickly, denounced by his racist grandfather, Doc Hines. The mob circles around Christmas, enraged, having been whipped into a frenzy by Hines. What seems most to upset the white population is that Christmas “never acted like either a nigger or a white man. That was it. It was what made the folks so mad.” Similarly, when Joe was a child, he studied the black gardener, asking him: “How come you are a nigger?” The gardener replies: “Who told you I am a nigger, you little white trash bastard…. You dont know what you are. And more than that, you wont never know. You’ll live and you’ll die and you wont never know.”

The enmity and blind fanaticism of southern society crush Joe Christmas, who believes (in his heart of hearts) that he deserves this treatment. He has, indeed, offered himself up for self-sacrifice in a crudely Christlike manner. The authorities duly haul Christmas back to Jefferson for trial, but he breaks free of his captors, briefly, with his life coming to an ignominious close on the kitchen floor in Gail Hightower’s house.

Critics have chewed over the unity, or lack thereof, in the novel ever since its publication. F. R. Leavis, Conrad Aiken, and Cleanth Brooks all worried about the lack of connection between the somewhat comic story of Lena Grove and the ugly tale of Joe Christmas. The novel ends with Lena still searching for her child’s father and trailed by her compliant, besotted guardian, Byron Bunch. Brooks says that the final scene serves “to maintain sanity and human perspective” in a novel that is essentially marked by “brutality and horror.” But this interpretation appears to strain for unity in ways that do no justice to a novel that is beautifully integrated in symbolic terms.

The framing story of Lena Grove and her pathetic search for the father of her child is, in truth, hardly comic. That seems a common mistake of critics, who find something amusing about Lena’s placid confidence and optimism in the face of brutal rejection. There is doubtless irony here, but the irony is bitter. Burch is in Jefferson, but as the sleazy sidekick of Joe Christmas. He is wholly dreadful and predictably turns on Joe in the end, telling the sheriff that his partner is a black, which is enough to convict him. That Lena and Joe Christmas have both been betrayed by Burch would seem enough of a linking device; yet their stories run in eerie parallel, with both characters being outcasts from the social world of the novel. Each has a tragic story that accounts for his or her unfortunate situation. The smoke that rises from the burning house of Joanna Burden is visible to Lena Grove as she enters Jefferson. That signal is one of many similar linking devices. The Christmas story seems quietly to knit the two characters as well; Lena is a hapless Madonna figure, and Joe a benighted Christ figure. Their yoked tales form an almost perverse version of the Gospel story.

Light in August is perhaps best read as Faulkner’s ironic Gospel. The apparently self-sacrificial death of J.C. leads nowhere, certainly not to salvation. Percy Grimm is worse than King Herod, a man utterly controlled by racial hatred. The society of Jefferson is corrupted by their religiosity: abstract notions about morality and race, dignified by perverse readings of the Gospel, have twisted the psyche of the South, turning innocent creatures into victims. The novel ends with the Holy Family wandering off into the dusty distance, an unwed mother, a bastard child, and a besotted Joseph. J.C. is dead, but his self-sacrifice will go unrecognized, and it will save no one’s soul.

Flying Machines

After the First World War, aviation was new. People were willing to pay up to $100 to go up in a plane. You didn’t need any license to practice this activity. As flying got more regimented and as there got to be more planes, it got less interesting and you earned less money at it, so I left it.

—FAULKNER, Lion in the Garden

Today We Live, the film about flying, apparently revived an old interest, and Faulkner—who had never actually piloted a plane before, despite tales to the contrary—began taking flying lessons in February. He pretended he was just a veteran of the Great War who wanted to learn how to fly the newer aircraft. In any case, he showed an aptitude for flying, soon acquiring a license and his own plane, a 210 horsepower Waco C cabin cruiser, bought with the Hollywood proceeds. This hobby provided a huge diversion, and it came in handy during a fallow period, when nothing much came to him when he went to his desk at Rowan Oak.

The major event of 1933 was the birth of his daughter, Jill, in June. Hal Smith came all the way from New York for the christening, and he found the Faulkners to be extremely doting parents. For a brief while, the marriage actually seemed happy. Faulkner himself eagerly took to the little details of child care, such as warming bottles in the middle of the night and changing diapers. He often noted to interviewers that he was never “firm” with children, that they could easily have their way with him. His daughter recalls his palpable fondness for children and their attraction to him. “He loved children, and he felt more at ease with them than with adults,” she recalls. “My friends all liked to hear his stories, and he was clearly having a good time in telling them.”33

The desire to write still consumed Faulkner, and he was acutely conscious of the fact that he had been lying low, occupying his time with a few pieces of make-work, including an introduction to a limited edition of The Sound and the Fury that Bennett Cerf had agreed to publish. He played around with the idea for a novel to be called Requiem for a Nun, but this went nowhere, although he did make notes on the project that would later prove useful. He tried to quarry material from his old “Elmer” manuscript, but this was a blind alley. Almost forcing himself to his desk, he wrote “A Bear Hunt,” a story accepted by the Saturday Evening Post, which had been sent to them by Faulkner’s new agent, Morton Goldman, who took over from Ben Wasson, who wasn’t really a literary agent and agreed happily to this change. Most importantly, he began work on a novel about “a man who wanted a son through pride, and got too many of them and they destroyed him,” as he described Absalom, Absalom! to Hal Smith.34

Faulkner regarded it as a good omen that the Saturday Evening Post showed a strong interest in his stories, writing to ask for more, but he was not impressed by what they could pay. This mattered just now. Aviation had soaked up a lot of his extra cash, and he and Estelle had added two new bedrooms at Rowan Oak as well as central heating. They had also put up fresh wallpaper throughout the house and replaced many rotting floorboards on the side porch. The whole house was repainted as well. Once again, the author found himself desperately short of cash as the year came to an end, and he was prepared to do whatever it took to resolve this crisis.

He attended a major air show in New Orleans in mid-February, where all the latest airplanes were on display and where some of the most famous pilots of the day were gathered. His interest in aviation became almost an obsession during the winter of 1934, when Faulkner spent a lot of time sitting around airfields with other pilots, enjoying the camaraderie and soaking up the stories. He became acquainted with some of the leading barnstormers of his day, such as Vernon Omlie, Bob Carpenter, Charlie Fast, and Jimmy Wedell. He even participated in air shows himself, often taking passengers on rides for a little extra cash. All of this material would, soon enough, find its way into his fiction, especially Pylon (1935). Faulkner was, to borrow a phrase from Henry James, someone on whom nothing was ever lost.

When he got home from New Orleans, he explained to Goldman that he must somehow make enough money to “put things right.” He set to work frantically trying to write stories and finished in quick succession “Ambuscade,” “Retreat,” and “Raid,” drawing on minor and major characters from previous fiction. The Sartoris clan resurrected itself in the characters of Old Bayard, Ringo, and John. The Snopes clan stepped forward again in “Mule in the Yard,” one of his most amusing tales of this period, focusing on I. O. Snopes, who ties his mules and other livestock to some tracks so they will get run over and he can sue the railway for damages. He gets a taste of his own medicine, however, in the character of Mrs. Mannie Hait, who manages to acquire a mule worth $150 for $10 because she has him over a barrel when his mule burns down her house. In short, the machinery of Faulkner’s fiction had begun to hum impressively as he reached into the storehouse of memory for anecdotes and characters. But still, the money in Hollywood was just so much better that he could not resist any call from that particular wild.

Howard Hawks called in June, offering one thousand dollars per week for an undetermined period. Faulkner agreed readily, flying to Los Angeles from Memphis, then checking into a classic Hollywood hotel, the Roosevelt, on Hollywood Boulevard. He set to work almost immediately on an adaptation of Sutter’s Gold, a popular novel about gold mining by Blaise Cendrars. He felt like an old hand now, with several good friends for company, such as Laurence Stallings and an old Mississippi pal, Hubert Starr. He wrote home to Estelle: “I made a synopsis of the play, and yesterday Howard and I talked, and we decided that I shall spend another week here in order to get as much of the script on paper as possible, have a talk for final corrections, then come home and make what we hope will be the final draft. So unless something unforeseen comes up, I now plan to start home about next Monday.”35The “desert weather,” as Faulkner called it, was perfect (hot in the day, cool at night), and he felt almost reluctant to leave, but Faulkner had too many responsibilities back in Oxford, and so could not stay for long. He was back home by early August, finishing the script for Hawks at Rowan Oak.

He worked in the mornings, as usual, even though it was “hot as hell” in Oxford, as he told Goldman; he explained that he wrote with a fan blowing straight into his face, a pen in one hand, and holding the paper he wrote on in the other so the wind didn’t blow it away. In the humid afternoons he took naps, played with Jill, and did chores around the house. He sometimes went flying with Vernon Omlie or his brother, Dean, who had become a professional pilot now and was beginning to make a living by taking people for rides. When he got bored with the script, he turned to stories, and wrote (among others) “The Unvanquished,” a story that would eventually become part of a novel by the same name, and “Vendée,” another story about the Sartoris clan, which continued to sieze his imagination. By now he merely assumed that his fiction would involve many characters from previous novels and stories, centering on Yoknapatawpha County. Within these geographical and emotional borders, he was indeed the master of his kingdom.

With the script finished, he turned aggressively to Absalom, Absalom!, accomplishing a good deal of good writing before he abandoned the project as “not quite ripe yet.” He considered going to Requiem for a Nun, which still was barely more than a notion, a few scraps of writing. The stories that would become The Unvanquished were largely finished during the spring and summer, but he would not tie these together and publish them until 1938. In these tales, he expands on the history of the Sartoris clan, reaching back to their participation in the Civil War. These stories soon appeared in the Saturday Evening Post, adding to Faulkner’s bank balance and, of course, his reputation as a writer of short fiction. As Cleanth Brooks has said, “These stories are the best place to begin reading Faulkner. They are simple, yet beautifully crafted, and show off the author’s narrative skills in a very clear light. They have been unfairly dismissed as minor Faulkner, as a kind of romantic tale-spinning. They are much finer than that.”36

Faulkner did some barnstorming himself in the fall of 1934, sponsoring an air show at the Markette Field, just six miles south of Oxford. It was held at the weekend of September 15-16. There were passenger rides, stunts, and—on the final afternoon—a parachute jump. Faulkner often moved around the county on weekends, attending various air shows, sometimes getting to fly larger and more complex aircraft, including a trimotor Ford with a corrugated metal fuselage that flew in to the Markette Field in early October. It was natural that this absorption in flying should find its way directly into a novel, and it did with Pylon, an uneven novel written at awesome, inhuman speed. The haste of its composition shows, but it nevertheless retains a fascinating place in Faulkner’s body of work.

Pylon

[The barnstormers] were as ephemeral as the butterfly that’s born this morning with no stomach and will be gone tomorrow.

—FAULKNER, Faulkner in the University

Pylon was written between mid-October and mid-December. Not since As I Lay Dying had Faulkner worked with such intensity and focus. In a move quite uncharacteristic of him as a novelist, he sent each chapter to Hal Smith after it was completed, as though he were turning out the pages of a potboiler with the printer at the door. Faulkner believed (quite rightly) that the novel would become a film, for obvious reasons: the plot moves along at a swift pace, and its main characters are recklessly courageous, blustery, heavy-grained figures—nomadic barnstormers who live for the thrill of flight. Many of the scenes reflect his recent immersion in scriptwriting, with lots of good dialogue and dramatic focus. That his main characters flirt with the sexual conventions of the day may also have led him to believe that Pylon might sell as well as Sanctuary.

The action revolves around Roger Shumann, a barnstorming pilot, and his wife, Laverne. A parachute-jumper called Jack Holmes also sleeps with Laverne and figures centrally in the story. Jiggs is a rough-hewn mechanic, and Jack is the young son of Roger and Laverne, though his father might be Jack Holmes. In any case, the adults have all turned away from the mundane lives they were formerly living and adopted the life of barnstorming, with all its manic excitement and danger. Young Jack, of course, has had no say in his upbringing; born in a hangar in California, to him the barnstorming life seems perfectly normal. The adult triangle represents the modern nomadic life in the extreme. They wander the earth without much connection to a given place or tradition; they refuse to buckle to expectations. In some ways, Pylon is Faulkner’s quintessential anti-Yoknapatawpha book: a swing in the other direction, toward rootlessly modern figures who want to lift off, to get away from the terra firma that held most of Faulkner’s major fictional characters strongly in place.

Years later, Faulkner spoke about the barnstormers and their appeal: “To me they were a fantastic and bizarre phenomenon on the face of a contemporary scene,” he said. “That is, there was really no place for them in the culture, in the economy, yet they were there, at that time, and everyone knew that they wouldn’t last very long, which they didn’t.” He saw them as “outside the range of God, not only of respectability, of love, but of God too.” They had somehow “escaped the compulsion of accepting a past and a future.”37

Faulkner creates a number of riveting scenes in this book, as when Laverne is about to make her first jump with a parachute. She hops into the pilot’s cockpit to demand that Roger, the pilot, make love to her before she jumps. The scene is dramatic to the point of being ridiculous: “He sat in the back cockpit with the aeroplane in position, holding the wing up under her weight, gesturing her on out toward the wingtip, almost angrily, when he saw her leave the strut and with that blind and completely irrational expression of protest and wild denial on her face and the hem of the skirt whipping out of the parachute harness about her loins climb, not back into the front seat…but on toward the one in which he sat holding the aeroplane level.”38 Roger responds with a mixture of terror, anger, and excited pleasure in a scene that defines these characters as representatives of modern man and modern woman: people enthralled by the machine and by speed, dedicated to sexual fulfillment, willing to risk everything for a moment of existential self-realization. Unlike most of Faulkner’s fictional characters, they have no past and no future but live, perilously, in the moment. The pylon, a brilliant symbol of speed and sexual arousal, is their icon. They move “steadily toward some yet unrevealed crescendo of ultimate triumph whose only witnesses were waifs.”39

The trouble with the novel is that much of the excitement is told by an unnamed character called the reporter. He is without a home, a name, a real function except to relay stories. In many ways, he resembles the unnamed narrator of The Waste Land. (Faulkner makes numerous, highly explicit allusions to Eliot’s poetry in the course of the novel: a pretentious way of adding literary significance to the text.) He watches but does not judge the action as it unfolds, always standing on the edge of the drama, not involved himself, a shadowy figure remarkable only for his extreme thinness. That thinness extends to the presentation of his character. It is not for nothing that Jiggs refers to him as Lazarus, a walking cadaver, one of those about whom the narrator in The Waste Land says: “I had not thought death had undone so many.”

Set in a version of New Orleans renamed New Valois, the novel is all action without real purpose. The barnstormers rush about like distracted children, frantic and egotistical, making love and flying their “trim vicious fragile aeroplanes” in races for money and, mostly, excitement. They move about the world in their filthy overalls and leather jackets, odd men out in a society that fails even to notice them except when they want entertainment or, as in the case of Colonel Feinman, when they wish to profit from them. (The reporter refers to Feinman contemptuously as “the Jew.” Chairman of the Sewage Board, he is described in stereotypical terms, giving the book an anti-Semitic subtext that seems, rather sadly, typical of the period.)

Mardi Gras proceeds, with its wild pagan fecundity, in the background of the action. It is another Waste Land symbol, empty of any religious meaning; now it merely provides a backdrop, an excuse for the excitement and mindless revelry that modern men and women seek without even knowing why. The lack of substance in this world is embodied by the newspapers of the city, which offer only a “cryptic staccato crossection [sic] of an instant crystallized and now dead two hours, though only the moment, the instant: the substance itself not only dead, not complete, but in its very insoluble enigma of human folly and blundering possessing a futile and tragic immortality.”40

The novel appears modernist in technique, with lots of made-up words created by slapping together two or three common words, and the narrative proceeds with some indirection, with confusing but evocative juxtapositions, yet Faulkner depends heavily on the thrills of more conventional fiction. The narrative ends with what in The Waste Land Eliot calls “death by water” as Shumann crashes into a lake and disappears, his plane disintegrating. He chooses to die in the lake rather than crash in a field full of spectators: a noble choice. But what follows from the crash is hardly what one might expect from this instance of self-sacrifice. Jiggs gives his precious boots to Laverne in a warm gesture, but he avoids going back to his wife and two children. Laverne leaves her child, Jack, with Dr. Shumann, Roger’s midwestern father. She and Jack Holmes will continue their nomadic, loveless, sensation-seeking life. The reporter attempts to write an article that makes sense of the death of Shumann. “On Thursday Roger Shumann flew a race against four competitors, and won. On Saturday he flew against but one competitor. But that competitor was Death, and Roger Shumann lost.”41

The reporter’s attempt to make sense of this tragedy in writing falls short of poetic comprehension, so he tears up his draft and goes off to get drunk in the red light district: yet another sign of his failure to find meaning in life, to connect the dots that might (or might not) be out there. Here, as throughout the novel, alcohol is part of the plot. There is hardly a major character that does not resort to drinking as a means of escaping responsibility. (One has to wonder if Pylon was, in part, a form of self-interrogation, as Faulkner moved deeper into his own involvement with alcohol, often disastrously.) In the end, it was Jiggs’s consistent, uncontrolled drinking that led to his failure to do a valve job on Roger’s engine, which might have saved him.

One can hardly judge Pylon as anything less than a failure, though an interesting failure. The characters are flimsy, unreal; their motivations seem not to interest Faulkner or the reporter. While there are several exciting scenes in the novel and, as usual in Faulkner, the writing itself can be evocative, the whole seems thinly imagined, ill-considered. The language descends, too often, into Faulknerese, an almost private use of the language, contorted and odd, wordy beyond easy toleration. Faulkner had not taken the time to think about these people and what their lives may have meant. Are Jack, Roger, and Laverne representatives of a new age, and if so, does the author admire them for this? Faulkner would seem to suggest as much at times, celebrating their daring and refusal to conform to old ways and mundane values. But they are severely cut off from their own pasts and, ultimately, from themselves. They behave in silly and savage ways, monsters of self-absorption. They are “spiritual and moral waifs,” as Faulkner himself suggests. As such, how are we to take them? Is there a lesson here? Who is this reporter, and why doesn’t he reveal something of himself? Why does Faulkner let him skim over the surface of these lives he reports on?

No answers will be found to these questions. The novel had come rushing up from Faulkner’s unconscious rather obliquely, embracing his current obsession with flying machines, as well as his ambivalent feelings about the barnstormers, whom he admired for their recklessness and courage but whose way of life—rootless, self-regarding, thrill-seeking—he could not ultimately condone. The subject matter closely reflected his own experience, so much so that he warned his publisher about the possibility of a lawsuit.42 Yet there is more here. His fascination with the financial world that supports the barnstormers’ lives may well, at a far metaphorical distance, have reflected his recent experiences (and disenchantments) in Hollywood, where men like Colonel Feinman exacted their price and controlled the lives of their “high flyers,” the writers and actors who made the films that satisfied their greed.

Faulkner seems, as Karl F. Zender suggests, to have come rather suddenly to understand himself “as an economic being.” During the twenties, he had been easygoing about finances, taking odd jobs to support his wish to create art. By the time of Pylon, his circumstances in life had changed radically. He was a husband, a father, a stepfather. He had a mortgage of considerable size. “I am not young enough anymore to hell around and earn money at other things as I could once. I have got to make it by writing or quit writing,” he said in a letter of 1932.43 “Yet as he soon learned, he could neither ‘make it’ by writing—at least not by writing serious fiction alone—not quite,” comments Zender. “Hence his earlier insouciance disappeared, to be replaced by periodic trips to Hollywood (the second of which occurred the summer before he wrote Pylon) and by an anxiety about money that was to dog him intermittently for the next fifteen years.”44

Pylon seems in many ways the odd man out among Faulkner’s books, but it nevertheless suggests a good deal about where he was, emotionally, at this juncture in his life. His anxieties about his place in the world—as an artist and reporter on life, as a man subjected to the wiles of larger economic forces, as a frustrated novelist unable to focus entirely on his major vision—seem reflected in the figure of the reporter, who tellingly has no name. He is, in a sense, Faulkner’s shadow, who would follow him down the labyrinthine ways for years to come as the author reeled between the obligation to fulfill his duties as a worker for hire (in Hollywood and in his minor “entertainments,” the stories written for magazines) and his desire to meet the demands of an artist whose only obligation was, or should have been, to his own fiery, unwieldy, uncommercial, complicated, unremitting vision.